Ask Sahaj: My parents disapprove of how my partner practices our religion

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Dear Sahaj: For my parents and grandparents, not cutting one’s hair as a part of Sikh practice is central to how they connect to their faith – and expect me to connect as well. My partner is a Sikh man who has cut his hair since becoming an adult, and my parents have struggled with this, as they always pictured me with a practicing Sardaar. I haven’t even told my grandparents about him yet. My dad has consistently expressed his disappointment, and both my parents keep urging me to urge my partner to keep his hair. They haven’t met him yet, because of the distance.

My partner knows how my parents feel, and has asked if it’s something I want him to do. He said his heart wouldn’t be in such a decision, but if I really wanted him to, he would. In this sense, I could solve everything just by telling him to start practicing the Sikh faith in the orthodox way my family does. But I’m against doing that because I want him to feel free to make his own choices. Also, he’s expressed sadness that he isn’t accepted by my family, and has talked about his past where feeling conditional love or restricted freedom affected him deeply.

Because I continue to harbor difficult emotions from knowing my own faith practice hasn’t been entirely my choice (how can something be a choice when you know the other option would cause you to lose people you love?) I don’t want to do the same to him.

Lately, my partner is sensing the pressure even more, and I can tell he feels conflicted, as if he is failing a test and is not good enough for my family. It’s important to me to remain close with my family and integrate my partner into it. I want to take our relationship to the level of marriage talks but I don’t want to lose my close relationship with my family. So far, living in this limbo has been fine, but at some point I need to take the next step. I don’t know what to do.

– Conflicted Daughter

Conflicted Daughter: You’re conflicted because you’re driven by the values of those around you. It’s important for you to truly reflect on what your values are and how they overlap or differ from your family’s. Be honest with yourself: How important is it to you that your partner cuts his hair? It may be uncomfortable to explore this but it could open a path that is founded in honesty – and even more, your happiness.

If you haven’t, talk to your partner to confirm you’re on the same page about your faith and its importance – now and in the future. This is more important than anyone else’s opinion.

You say you want to integrate your partner into your family, but it’s also important to be with your partner on this journey. Don’t expect him to deal with the pressure or sadness alone. Take responsibility for your role in bridging his relationship with your family. After all, if you are serious about marriage, then that means you are choosing your partner as your family, too. Ultimately, by committing to your partner, your primary identity will shift from daughter/granddaughter to wife/partner. Both are important, but one naturally will take precedence. Are you ready to make this shift?

You may want to be more explicit with your parents: “I know you disapprove of [partner] cutting his hair. I’m not comfortable asking him to keep it. Can we discuss how to move through this?” Or, you could be vulnerable about how their behavior affects you: “It’s hard for me to know that you disapprove of [partner], and you haven’t even met him. I am serious about our relationship, and it’s important to me that you meet him. Are you open to this?”

You may even want to talk about your happiness with your partner – especially since they haven’t met him: “I know you disapprove that [partner] cuts his hair, but I’d like to tell you more about him and focus on qualities that I really appreciate in him.”

It may be helpful to frame conversations around religion in different terms to focus on characteristics – like the kindness, justice and service that Sikhism posits – that make your partner a practicing Sikh and someone whom you (and your family) share values with. This may ease their worries about religious or cultural erasure. Though it can be hard when there are external declarations of faith within our religion, remember: Your relationship with God is personal. So is your partner’s.

Loyalty to family comes up often in my work with Sikh and South Asian women, and I urge you to explore what that means for you. I can feel the guilt in your question. How do this guilt and this loyalty serve your relationship with your family? What do they cost you?

Be honest with yourself about your parents’ disapproval. There’s a difference between disapproval because your partner is harmful or bad, and disapproval because your parents are simply disappointed. The former may require your willingness to listen and receive their feedback while the latter is not your responsibility.

You may believe you deserve your family’s love only when you are acting in ways they support, but real love should never be guised as fear or control. So remember: Disappointing loved ones can be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong.




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