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Why Don’t Indian Families Say “I Love You”?

A drawing of four people in a red background. Behind them are drawings of buildings and clouds. The four faces have different expressions on them- two can be seen smiling, the third person has a neutral expression and the fourth person has a sad expression. Three hearts are also drawn on the first, second and the fourth person.
This article was originally published here.

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

At home, my family never said “I love you” to each other. But growing up, I easily understood the sentiment outside. I realised I found it easy to say the three words to people whom I had a certain emotional distance with. But to those I truly, madly, deeply cared about, the words didn’t come easy.

For a long time, I didn’t make much of my family’s inability to express themselves until I attended a friend’s wedding a few weeks back. She has the quintessential Indian family — loud and affectionate uncles and aunts, a horde of cousins who clearly love each other, and old relatives who sang, danced, laughed, and remembered my friend’s younger days with a touching fondness. What I was witnessing in front of my eyes was a group of people who didn’t just love each other, but also expressed it in physical, verbal, and emotional gestures. I don’t know if it was the wedding air that was making me vulnerable, but I felt so overwhelmed that these moments of affection left me choked.

This feeling lasted for weeks after the wedding. It took me a while before I realised that what I was ruing was the absence of a family like hers, one that didn’t think twice before engaging in physical and verbal declarations of affection. This longing became so intense that I resented my own family. But the tougher part was admitting that my parents weren’t alone. It was exactly the kind of emotionally distant environment I’d also fostered my entire adult life.

For instance, I’ve been lucky to have grown up with friends I made back in school. It’s resulted in close-knit friendships where we’re closely involved in each other’s’ life… except mine. I’ve never truly let them in, despite having known them for years. Neither have I openly asked them for help, nor have I completely shared a personal tragedy with them down to the last detail. Even though, all of us live in different cities, I’m more bothered about this self-created emotional distance than the physical distance among us. I’ve also grown up witnessing a strained relationship between my mother and paternal grandmother, and had always consoled myself with the promise that I’d build a great equation with my partner’s mother. And yet, three years after being a part of their family, I still don’t feel the kind of emotional intimacy that I’ve always desired. And I haven’t even consciously tried to correct it because I see myself holding back.

Today, I realise that the hesitation in expressing my feelings is my family’s legacy. And I am not the only one.

You see, the little things that make relationships stronger don’t come to me easily, try as I might.

That changed only at the age of 28. In a vulnerable moment at 12 am, I sent my first ever “I love you, Baba” to my father. I wish I could tell you that it was a result of a life-changing epiphany, but it was only because I was crying my eyes out while watching the song “Baba” from the Marathi movie Ventilator. I’m not sure what came over me. To my surprise, my father instantly responded with “I love you too, beta.” It was uncharacteristic of him and a landmark moment for me, even though we were never a cold family. Like any daughter, I know I am my father’s weakness but I have seldom heard him say so.

Today, I realise that the hesitation in expressing my feelings is my family’s legacy. And I am not the only one. Indian families rarely say “I love you” to each other. Maybe it is an extension of the fact that parents are awkward while displaying any sign of affection to each other around their kids or elders. The children learn this limiting of words and gestures, and continue to repeat that cycle. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that Indian families don’t love each other – only that we are not taught the physical or verbal vocabulary to communicate that love.

So, like me, we build walls between ourselves and the world, where we should be building doors and windows. I find myself confiding less and listening more, shying away from putting myself out there. In a way, I have very little idea of how to “correctly” emotionally invest in relationships.

For as long as I remember, my friendships have always been shaky, driven by a little insecurity, clinginess, and too many expectations. I often wonder if these are a product of the environment I’ve grown up in: Do I seek an emotional intimacy with my friends which I did not share with my family? Is it why I crave verbal validation of their feelings at frequent intervals?

It’s baffling and complicated, like peeling the layers of an onion over a span of several years. Biology might decide who we are – but who we eventually become depends upon the bonds we share with our siblings, the emotions we feel towards our parents, and the gestures and actions we learn to exhibit from them.

Much of my adulthood has been defined by this legacy. But that night, when I revelled in having written proof of my father’s affection, I realised another thing: You don’t always need to accept what you inherit.

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