Why South Asian Cultures Need to Embrace Public Displays of Affection

Did the title intrigue you enough to read further? Let’s talk about one of the scenarios which might be familiar if you come from a South Asian background. 

It is very common in departure lounges of airports while families are seeing their loved ones off that there’s an emotional exchange of hugs and goodbyes that there’s always one person standing awkwardly to the side (who is probably more emotional than anyone else at the time), and that’s the spouse!

Isn’t it weird that everyone else gets to exchange final hugs, but not the spouse, who will be the most affected by the distance? Yes, it is, but it is considered weirder — taboo, even! — for a spouse to express their love and feelings openly.

What does that suggest about this very sacred relationship? That spouses are only supposed to be together or be in love sneakingly, or only to reproduce?

What does that suggest about this very sacred relationship? That spouses are only supposed to be together or be in love sneakingly, or only to reproduce?

Now this might sound very foreign to some of my readers, but let me tell you that frowning upon affectionate practices, like a couple who eats from the same plate, exchanges flowers, or “I love yous” is very common in South Asian families.

Before we go further as to the details of why it is so and its impacts, let’s first throw some light on the definition of what constitutes Public Displays of Affection (PDA). 

PDA means any physical interaction (holding hands, kissing, hugging etc.) in a public setting. 

But PDA in a South Asian culture goes beyond these practices and extends to things such as putting a hand on the shoulder, going out for movie or dinner dates, the exchanging of affectionate comments…basically all are considered PDA and thus generally frowned upon as taboo. 

Why, you may ask? …because people misinterpret religion and confuse it with culture. 

Why, you may ask? Because it is considered that the love between a husband and a wife should be confined to their bedrooms, and because people misinterpret religion and confuse it with culture. 

My question is: why is it okay for people (specifically spouses) to express feelings of hostility or anger publicly, in front of kids and other family members, while it is completely unacceptable for the same people to express affection and love openly? What does this teach children who are watching?

And I’ll tell you why this whole concept is wrong on so many levels. 

Firstly, we are teaching our generations that marriage is all about responsibility, compromise and tons of arguments, which in turn is repelling our youth from the idea of holy matrimony.

Secondly, we are also shaping our kids into thinking that expression of feelings should be selective. We show that it’s okay to express anger and resentment, but expressing love is not acceptable, and should only be done in a discreet manner. 

Moreover, frowning upon PDA reflects the association of love with only lust and sexual intimacy. 

Here are some of the measures that we need to take in order to normalize practices of PDA.

Set boundaries

It’s very important to set boundaries according to your family values as to which actions are appropriate in public, like the ones that you would also feel comfortable doing with your kids and parents or siblings present, like holding hands, side hugs, kissing on the forehead etc., and which actions should be refrained from that can be confused with sexual intimacy (like kissing inappropriately etc.)

Understand that intimacy means more than sex

Understand that sexual intimacy is just one of the aspects of a relationship between spouses. Their relationship is comprised of so many other beautiful platonic things like companionship, trust, and respect, and it’s completely fine to express gratitude or affection for your partner openly. 

Have an open discussion with family and friends

Open room for discussion within family, friends, and others in your social circle to discuss why repressing your feelings can prove to be lethal for the relationship, and how we all are playing our parts individually to bring a change in the society. 

It’s a fact that the first role models for children are their parents, so, it’s very important we set a healthy example of relationships and balanced households.

Having said that, I understand that everyone has their own comfort level, and speaking on such subject matters can be difficult. So, to end with, I would just like to say do you own thing, while making sure that you are respecting others’ boundaries and they are respecting yours; live & let live!