On your purpose in life, the logic of pleasure, and breaking cultural norms

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of the letters I receive come from immigrant folks. And by immigrant, I mean “someone whose parents did not come on the Mayflower and is not part of a Native American tribe.” More specifically, if you were raised with the social customs of another country, this whole American dating thing can be very hard to figure out. Especially if you think that everyone else has some secret rulebook that they’ve been hiding away from you (it’s not secret – you can get it here).

I mean, what are you supposed to do and when? Do you call a guy first? How long do you wait before texting back? Should you accept a date from a guy who lives out of town? When do you sleep with him? What are you allowed to do in the sack? Do you break up with a guy you like but don’t see a future with? When? How long do you date around before getting serious about perpetuating your genes and stuff (aka kids)? Should you freeze your eggs? Is a pint of Ben & Jerry’s an acceptable substitute for a Friday night date.

Sooo many questions. I did my best to help you create your own framework for answering these questions in my book-length rant called The Tao of Dating (even if you’re a guy), but questions still come up – especially those particular to a culture.

It’s worth noting that this letter below was preceded by a 300-word prelude email basically asking, “Is it okay for me to ask a question?” And the answer is that you’re already asking me a question, so apparently you don’t need permission to ask questions :) I belabor this point because this letter is ultimately about granting oneself permission – to feel, to love, to cross old boundaries, break cultural norms, shatter some idols and live a little:

“I have been with my current long-distance boyfriend for 3.5 years. But I am having doubts and concerns about him, especially now that the parents have gotten involved and are talking wedding. (I do not know if you have an idea of the Indian ways). This is not the right time to be having these doubts but I cannot overlook them like I’ve been doing all this time…

He was great when we started out but gradually receded into a shell and stopped communicating his feelings, complimenting me or showing any interest in the relationship… He also subtly communicates to me about my shortcomings which often left me hurt. I did tell him that these things are hurting me and that he should change the way he says things. He said he would try, called me emotionally needy and didn’t take things seriously. I overlooked everything hoping that things will fall in place when we live together.

Another downside: I love him very dearly but I’m not attracted to him physically. I have never been. It’s the person I’ve always liked, not his body. Now, I doubt if we even share that emotional connection.

Now I have another very nice guy friend whom I have known for 3 years now at grad school. I love the person that he is, how he makes me feel, and how he is a lot of things my boyfriend isn’t.

I am also strongly attracted to him sexually. I think I always liked him but chose to look only at his bad side in the fear of falling for him. But I did finally fall when he told me a few months ago that he had always liked me as more than a friend and we shared a kiss.

It didn’t feel wrong. But I thought it was just that physical intimacy that I felt with him which made me confuse it for love and didn’t give it much thought until he recently went on a couple of dates with a girl who really liked him. And that pricked every cell of my heart. I shivered when I imagined seeing him with another girl. He later explained that he was starting to meet people in order to get over me. But he now stopped seeing her because it hurt me. (I’m so mean and selfish!)

Now I’m a mess with decisions to make under tremendous family pressure. Here are my questions to you:

1. Besides lacking sexual attraction, are my other problems with my boyfriend too petty? Is it too much to expect that my lover should make me feel good?

  1. I told my BF recently that my feelings for him have weakened and he’s now in repair mode. I see that he’s trying but I’m not able to welcome it maybe because I’m being unfair. I am tilted towards my friend. Does it say or mean something?
  2. Is it possible that my feelings for my friend are arising out of jealousy (or attention-seeking) or maybe the sexual attraction that I never felt for anyone before or because my boyfriend didn’t give me those? Or are they real feelings that I suppressed?

Sorry for the long email. There’s so much more to my story than this. Thank you so much, Dr. Ali!

Regards, Deva

Well. As far as cans of worms are concerned, the one this letter opens up is jumbo-sized. Let’s take them one at a time:

“1. Besides lacking sexual attraction, are my other problems with my boyfriend too petty? Is it too much to expect that my lover should make me feel good?”

As far as I can tell, there are two points to having a relationship: to have fun and grow as a person. What, you think the world gave you 2 million nerve endings on your body, five senses, and body parts that get all engorged and tingly so you could NOT have fun?

Wrong. Your body is a big ol’ amusement park. And you must have fun because your life depends on it.

Your life depends on it? Really? Think about this: evolution has designed things in your body such that the things that are absolutely necessary for survival feel good. Eating, peeing, pooping, making babies – pleasure is built into each of these activities.

So it follows that if you’re doing something that feels really good, it’s something that evolution has deemed necessary for survival. Cuddling! Laughing your ass off with friends! Epic romps in the sack! Exercise! Eating flavorful food!* Dancing! 3 million years of evolution doesn’t mess around, yo. Dancing is very important.

So: if it feels good, do it because your life depends on it. (All in moderation, of course – I’ll save that rant for a different day).

The other important thing is to grow as a person – y’know, as a kinder, gentler, warmer, wiser, more expansive, more accepting, more empowered version of you. This you do by nurturing your partner and getting nurtured by him. As far as I can tell, he’s not big into nurturing you since he disrespects you and calls you emotionally needy. And he probably thinks he’s too damn smart to be nurtured by a weak person like you anyway.

But don’t take my word for it. Observe: does his presence in your life make you a kinder, gentler, stronger, wiser version of yourself? You yourself told me he makes you feel insecure and unloved. Is that what you want from a relationship?

So, short answer: you must expect your lover to make you feel good, because that’s what lovers are for. If you must have something in the house that makes you miserable, you can adopt a badger, kangaroo, or politician instead. Much less costly than a bad relationship.

“2. I told my BF recently that my feelings for him have weakened and he’s now in repair mode. I see that he’s trying but I’m not able to welcome it, maybe because I’m being unfair. I am tilted towards my friend. Does it say or mean something?”

Yes, Deva, you are being grossly, massively, ridiculously unfair. You just don’t realize that the person you’re being unfair to is YOU. What law says you should be miserable, and that’s somehow fair, as long as you don’t offend family members and deadbeat non-boyfriends?

It turns out that this kind of thinking is remarkably common, especially in collectivist cultures like China, India and Japan (vs individualist cultures like the US). In fact, as far as I can tell, in Indian culture you marry for your family, not for yourself. And a significant portion of marriages is still arranged by the parents. The whole relationship-for-love thing just isn’t a societal norm in certain parts of the world. And frankly, with the divorce rate still around 50% in this country, who knows if marrying for love is such a great idea anyway.

But I’m not a big fan of culture being a guide to anyone’s behavior, because cultures are local accidents institutionalized over time. Which means that they are weird by definition – and even weirder if you try to make them work outside of their original milieu (e.g. Indian customs in North American society). Is there some universal guide for what we should do, regardless of where we grew up and where we end up?

Since you are in the US now, Deva, and have the latitude to behave in novel and exciting ways that may be different from the way you were raised, here’s what I suggest. You’re here on this earth to do two things: practice being more loving, and give your gift to the world. The happier, healthier and more fulfilled you are, the better position you’re in to be more loving and give your gift.

By this measure, anything that hinders your health, happiness and fulfillment is keeping you from being more loving and giving your gift. So if you’re holding on to those hindrances (e.g. deadbeat boyfriend, unreasonable family demands), then you’re the one being unfair since you’re doing a disservice to the whole world.

So you can have your ex-boyfriend and family a little sad and angry for while – or the universe. Your pick, Deva :)

“3. Is it possible that my feelings for my friend are arising out of jealousy (or attention-seeking) or maybe the sexual attraction that I never felt for anyone before or because my boyfriend didn’t give me those? Or are they real feelings that I suppressed?”

So you’re saying there’s another guy, who’s local, and cute, and into you, eh.


Um, well, actually I can’t think of a reason why not. Go out with him already! What, you’re gonna live forever? You’ve already nursed a crush on this guy for three years! Time to gather some real-life, real-time experience with real men. Could this one go bad at some point? Of course! You’re 25 so you’ll probably screw it up royally. Especially since you’ve already made an earnest effort towards that by overthinking it and hurting the new guy’s feelings.

Here’s the thing: You need to go forth and feel. Have fun. Experience the joy, the intensity, the folly, and yes, the pain that is romantic love. Because before you can love fully, with the whole presence of your being, with all your innate and learned skills, before you do it right, you must practice being loving. And being loved.

Oh, and by the way, withdrawing from him and then telling him not to go out with other women? Not very nice. Either let him in, or let him go free. You may have the right to make yourself miserable, but not him.

Anyway, no one reading this article would dream of being a violin virtuoso without ever practicing. Same thing goes for being a virtuoso at love (and I’m not just talking about sexual skills, but hey, yes, that too). If this fella is offering a chance at some excellent practice and you happen to like him back, it sounds like a fine opportunity to me.

And I know you’re Indian so all this stuff has to be super-complicated, with a committee of parents and siblings and grandparents hovering over every decision. But does it really? You’re only 25, which means you can date guys for another decade while building your career — and still be well-positioned to marry and have offspring. Other places, I don’t know, but if you do live in North America, there is no hurry.

There is also no shortage of dudes – at least 500 million Indian ones at last count, if you’re picky like that, and another 3 billion of other varieties.

Incidentally, I don’t believe we owe our parents anything. Whatever they gave us, they gave out of love, which we will someday pay forward to our own children. The whole notion that we owe our parents an eternally unpayable debt is a burden too heavy for any child to bear, especially since most of our parents made a free choice to have children in the first place. Heck, some of them even enjoyed it and consider it the most fulfilling experience they’ve ever had. It’s an even trade at least.

So: stop overthinking this. Have fun! Now is a good time to be young and silly and enjoy the experience of being alive. The mistakes will come anyway, so err on the side of real love and real experience. As long as you remember that the end goals are to practice being more loving and to give your gift, you can’t go wrong.
Best, Dr Ali

*Is this a footnote? Why yes it is. Anyway, scientists now believe that good flavor is what evolution uses to signal high nutritional value. So if something has a lot of flavor, it must mean it’s good for you! Time to plunk down for those heirloom tomatoes even if they cost as much as a shot of bad tequila. For more insight into this and to learn more about the provenance of your food than you ever thought possible, I recommend Dan Barber’s phenomenal book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.

PS: If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably a real fan. So – please feel free to express yourself! The more of you express your fanhood in review form on Amazon, Audible, the Apple iTunes and GoodReads, the happier I will be. It only need take 2 minutes, %firstname%, and it directly affects my income which comes from book sales. Thousands of you have written to me telling me how much you liked the Tao of Dating, and if you were to be kind enough to put that in writing, I’ll be forever grateful. For me, that would be the perfect Christmastime gift :)