She LOLs at his jokes and his smileys gape at her wide-eyed. They have found each other on Tinder or Truly Madly. After chatting a few times on WhatsApp and Snapchat, they decide to give it a shot. At this point, it’s ‘just fun’ -- a term used frequently and interchangeably with ‘just going out’ in our conversations with under-30s.
The terms ‘girlfriend’ and ‘boyfriend’ are used rarely and very sparingly. There is little to no talk of love at first sight. Ideas like saat janam ka rishta, that popular Bollywood trope where a couple feels so in love that they believe they must have been together in seven previous lives, are seen as laughable.
The focus instead is on keeping things neat and fuss-free, having both people on the same page, and preferably having the exit in sight through the early stages. Where family was once the deciding factor -- you generally looked for a woman / man you could take home to your mom -- now that role has been taken over by the friends circle.
Tag. Are you it?
“I will label a girl my girlfriend only when I am ready to introduce her to my friends,” says Ashwin Aggarwal, 21, an intern with a CA firm in Delhi. “The right time, I guess, is when I am sure that my feelings for her won’t fizzle out soon. Until then we are just hanging out. There is no name to the relationship at this stage.”
From the majority of relationships being marriage-oriented even a decade ago, today they are divided into multiple stages, which interestingly can be tagged online too, just so everyone’s on the same page.
There’s hanging out (read: interested but most likely not having sex yet), having fun (probably doing it, but most likely not exclusive), interested (for when it’s getting serious), exclusive (definitely serious) and finally, committed.
#MillennialLove Poll | How soon would you be ready for physical intimacy with your date?— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) September 5, 2016
In all but the last two stages, either or both parties may still be scouting around on Tinder or Truly Madly, Happn or Woo. As a result, each couple finds itself navigating a web of emotions and ‘situations’.
Some become obsessed with the blue ticks on WhatsApp that indicate a message has been read. Any delay in a response begins to cause anxiety and / or suspicion.
“You could go crazy wondering why a guy hasn’t replied,” says Manini Mishra*, 23, an IT consultant from Bangalore. “Is it something you said in the previous message? Is it something you did? These thoughts can consume you.”
#MillennialLove Poll | How did you meet your potential romantic partner?— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) September 4, 2016
Don’t ask, don’t tell
Each stage also holds within it lines that must not be crossed. If you don’t want to seem clingy or desperate or uncool, you must never ask why someone didn’t answer that message, or repeatedly ignored your calls.
“My boyfriend can’t ask me why was I not answering his calls. It’s none of his business. I need my personal space and my freedom,” says Malti*, a 25-year-old Mumbai-based journalist who has been in her current relationship for five months. “I have a life outside the relationship. I could be spending time with my family, reading a book or catching up with an old friend. I may just not want to be disturbed.”
The problem sets in when you like the rules, but don’t want them to work the other way -- or when you don’t like the rules but are afraid to say so.
#MillennialLove Poll | How do you prefer to do the asking out?— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) September 3, 2016
Malti, for instance, admits that she gets upset and sometimes frantic when her boyfriend doesn’t answer the phone. They are in the ‘interested’ stage, so he could very well be on a date with someone else. When the endless ringing is ignored, she admits she can’t help but wonder what he’s doing. “It frustrates me. But when you have made a rule you better stick by it. It’s uncool to not respect each other’s space,” she says.
The conflict between how you feel and how you should be feeling is immense in today’s youngsters, says Neha Patel, a clinical psychologist and family and relationship counsellor. “A lot of urban youngsters have manufactured this cool, no-strings-attached image on social media platforms, which they try to imbibe in real life as well. This creates problems because after all the emotions you feel -- happiness, excitement, sadness -- are all real and can’t always be denied for the sake of your image,” Patel adds.
Mishra admits she’s been there. “Gone are the days when you vented on Facebook,” she says. “Even if you have broken up, what you say is that you are single and free again and not that you are upset. Nobody does that. And you don’t want to come across as a loser on social media.”
Walking the talk
The online attitude affects how some discuss break-ups offline, even with relative strangers. Ashwin, for instance, ended a five-month-old romantic relationship in December. He describes it as his ‘first-ever romantically inclined gig’, but refuses to call the ending of it a breakup. “We were just hanging out. We met on Tinder. I took a jibe at her name and she did on my name. I figured she had a good sense of humour. We connected... went out had a couple of drinks, grabbed a bite, had a good time.”
On their second date, the girl told Ashwin she had deleted Tinder. He hadn’t. That became a bone of contention, suggesting to both that they were not on the same page. “I wasn’t active on it while we were dating. That would have felt wrong, but not so wrong that I would delete it altogether. After all, we weren’t in a committed or an exclusive relationship,” he says.
This approach is an extension of the problem of plenty we discussed last week, where the endless array of options makes it hard to decide how good is good enough. Here too, the fact that there are so many options out there means you don’t feel the need to compromise or work on a relationship in its early stages. If it isn’t exactly what you want, you just call time and move on to the next available candidate.
“It’s definitely more realistic to take it slow before committing to a relationship, but taking it slow doesn’t mean never committing. The reality is, nobody is perfect. Losing sight of that could be a problem,” says clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Shwetambara Sabharwal. “Weigh your options, but don’t make not committing a habit. You might end up breaking many hearts, including your own.”