Dear Breakup, How do you know whether it’s to break up with someone or you should just settle?

In my debut novel, Sari, Not Sari, each chapter begins with a “Dear Breakup” letter to the protagonist’s breakup agency, which clients approach for a solution to a problem they have with their significant other. During a recent interview to promote the book, I was asked about the Dear Breakup letter that refers to “settling” in a relationship. The question surprised me because I couldn’t remember even writing those words. Then, suddenly, an uneasy feeling took over as I realized that I had written those words and I had almost settled in a relationship.

It’s interesting to dig into this now because I have never settled when it comes to friends, family or my career; I have always striven to be a loyal friend and a kind sister, and I quickly climbed my way to the top spot in my professional life. So why would I stay in an intimate relationship that I knew wasn’t right for me or that didn’t bring out the best in me?

My parents’ marriage was beautiful and loving—but it was arranged. We didn’t have conversations about dating in my house. In all honesty, it wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I even felt I could share my relationships with my parents. I think that’s common in South Asian families. Although I was never expected to have an arranged marriage, I also wasn’t expected to date. I knew part of the cycle of life was getting married and eventually having my own family, but how would I get there if I wasn’t allowed to date or ask questions about dating? And trust me—I had lots of questions!

Over time, I found answers through other sources—TV shows, books, movies—but those sources also produced some incredibly unrealistic expectations. How many books have you picked up where the female main character ends up with the bad boy next door after she helps him course-correct in his personal life? That’s precisely who I became: that character looking for a wounded partner.

Except this was real life—my life.

Dating men who had horrible relationships with their families or who hated travelling and going on fun adventures or who only knew how to work 24 hours a day…these were no longer just plot lines from my favourite TV shows; they were IRL situations that resulted in Oscar-worthy dramatic scenes. I recoil when I think back to my reactions in some of these situations, and I wish there had been a breakup agency I could have used. At one particularly low point, I found myself putting together a PowerPoint presentation to show one man why we should stay together. The pros list had cringe-worthy bullet points like “We look cute together,” “We both have dimples” and “Our babies would be so attractive.” That’s how much I was “settling”—I was grasping at the positive physical aspects because the relationship only looked good on paper.

It took many years, a lot of personal work and meeting people who didn’t make me feel like I was settling to free myself of those ideas of what constituted a “good” relationship. A romantic relationship isn’t a check mark on your list of personal successes. Shifting your focus to the relationship you have with yourself before you get into a relationship with someone else is vital. As a South Asian woman, I have always struggled with that. And so, like my book’s main character, Manny, I have spent a great deal of time on my journey of self-discovery and only now understand what I want and need in a relationship. And let me tell you, it’s far more than a cute dimple!

Sari, Not Sari’s breakup agency is a place where people can both ask questions about dating and relationships and seek closure. That Dear Breakup letter about settling and the many others that appear in my novel showcase the growth of Manny’s agency, but in many ways, they also reflect my growth in dating and relationships. The only thing I’ll “settle” for these days is my partner accidentally forgetting that I hate pineapple on pizza.