DISCLAIMER: These reflections are of insights from monogamous, cis-het relationships who usually come from urban/educated and upper class backgrounds. These couples are able-bodied. In this article we are not addressing marriages where there is physical violence or marital rape involved. However, microaggression and gas-lighting may be common in these relationships.
We have all grown up listening to stories about love. Heer-Ranjha, Romeo-Juliet, and of course, Raj and Simran. These stories have shaped the idea of love for us. Love, as we’ve been conditioned to believe all our lives, is supposed to be all-consuming and perfect. The perfect love has no problems. You find someone and you spend the rest of your lives together (Or die, trying). It was supposed to be easy.
It’s supposed to be perfect because what could go wrong with the person you know?
As we grow up, we notice things around us and learn how wrong we are about the idea of love. It’s not perfect. It’s tough and tiring and exhilarating all at once. We realize that as long as two people are together, there will be issues. And at the end of the day, what matters is how we choose to solve them. It’s not easy for anyone to acknowledge the problems they have and to work on them. Those who do, sometimes go for couples therapy to have someone smoothen their rough patches. And it’s incredible to see a lot of couples in this generation actually turning to therapy for help. To be willing to allow someone else to help them shows how much they’re willing to work on their problems.
Couples Therapy has come a bit of a distance in India. Couples choose a professional counselor over a ‘panchayat’ of elders who managed to get them married. While this is a great change, therapists often see the dark side of a love story. We ask therapists at Pause for Perspective what are somethings that couples struggle with.
This quarantine has gotten couples closer but also a lot of issues seem to come out as well. Some annoying habits and other issues that were buried deep into the corners of their minds. And as they spend more time together, couples realize that maybe their love is not as perfect as they made it seem. As this dawned on us, we decided to ask the professionals for a deep insight into couples therapy. Is there a pattern? What are the problems they all seem to face? Our therapists had answers to every question we threw at them.
Question: Mental health is culture specific. Keeping this in mind, what is different about how couples therapy is approached in India?
We have discussed in our previous articles that the influence of culture seeps into family dynamics and even interpersonal relations. Indians show different symptoms for distress compared to the developed word and with us being a collective culture, the situation is not quite the same. In India, marriage is more about two families rather than two individuals coming together for a better life. And the problems, at the core, stem from the families rather than the individuals. And if mental health is culture specific, does this mean couples therapy is different for Indians? How, so?
Lalita Pooja, our therapist, answered, “Couple therapy in India for cishet partners, is not just about the two individuals but also includes the families and all other people too, depending on the family type. Often I’ve seen in laws being discussed in the sessions and the couple taking sides about it. It starts off as a blame game and mostly the man wanting the therapist to reiterate the role of a woman to the wife. It becomes more of familial value clarification in the sessions than about what would they want for each themselves and as a couple in the relationship.. so in India constantly bringing the couple into conversations about themselves becomes more important.”
Varsha Vemula chimed in and added: “Based on my experience, mostly couples come into therapy in India when things have gone totally down the hill and are at the verge of separation. Given the stigma around mental health already prevailing in the country, couples therapy is even looked down. They merely look at a therapist as a means to make either of the spouses understand the other’s point of view, but not to understand each other and explore the relationship.”
Dr. Mahima Sukhwal added an interesting perspective on what is expected out of couple’s therapy in India, ” Based on my experience only with cis-het couples, they generally come for couples therapy as the last resort, usually when wife is finally threatening separation.” She then went on and said:
“Wives are expecting big changes as a result, whereas husbands are just looking for ways to keep enough peace at home to bring things back to what they thought was normal. Even when family or friends have encouraged therapy to a couple, it is usually expecting the therapist to reiterate a woman’s role to the wife, put some sense into her head.“
This was really an eye-opening statement. It was also saddening to know the reality of couples therapy like this. Women are still expected to change, to be more submissive rather, for their marriages to work. While this statement (“Put some sense into her head”) has been casually used in conversations between friends and family, to know that this is the real exception and goal of therapy was…disturbing, to say the least.
Which brings us to our next question.
Question: Would you say there’s a power imbalance in a cis-het couple?
This question was asked because, if one is expecting the wife only to change, then there must be a power imbalance in the relationship. And given the society we live in, it’s safe to assume that the scale on one end weighs heavier than the other. But do our therapists agree?
Dr. Sukhwal continued, “Yes. In most cases it’s because the wife is not financially independent, or not brought up by parents to expect having to be independent, or not even educated enough to try. This makes them believe there’s no alternative other than to put up with things. But the sadder part is the way Indian society looks at a woman who couldn’t make a marriage work, because of which even independent women face debilitating lack of support from their own families or loved ones when considering separation. So the most capable and independent of women put up with highly unsatisfactory marriages.”
Varsha Vemula also had similar thoughts, she said: “Totally. The male/husband is usually considered as the head of the family and takes most decisions. Though in some cases, when the wife is financially independent and is taking her own decisions, she is often questioned for it and also blamed sometimes if any rifts occur in the marriage. The idea that the husband is to be held in power in the relationship acts as a cause for it. The practice of not getting a woman married to a man who earns less than her stills prevails in the society.”
Adding to those thoughts, Lalitha Pooja gives a brief overview of how the imbalance starts. She says, “Power imbalance starts off in an India context when the woman is asked to leave her house, career, city and move into the husband’s world and expected to live in their world, to the extent that a woman’s surname also gets changed, which is so much of a change in one person’s identity in the relationship.”
That’s something to think about, isn’t it? It’s been so normalized to us that we think of it as something cute and cultural. But why? Why do women have to let go of their identities? In some extreme situations, some women have to adopt a new name at their in-laws’ persistence. Thus, completely molding her into a new role. It sounds bizarre but it actually exists. And if women are subjected to this, then one must know where this comes from. Patriarchy. The whole patriarchal system that dictates a woman’s life is enforced onto us. To be good wives, we’re expected to sacrifice everything. So the next question seemed obvious:
Question: Do you think that patriarchy plays a role in a couple’s dynamic?
Dr. Sukhwal responded, ” Yes. Again, it all starts with how girls are even brought up. They are taught more to dream of fairy tale marriages rather than to prepare to live on their own. So women enter marriages feeling financially, socially and emotionally dependent. Then there are further layers of patriarchy when they are told how they are expected to be forbearing, forgiving tolerant goddesses whose job is to ‘keep the family together’ at all costs.”
Lalita Pooja adds in, “The moral policing role played in a couple is by patriarchy. With gender roles and stereotypes being formed at a very young age, children are brought up in the same lens. Women are often brought up with labels like “good girl” meaning should be tolerating, adjusting, patient, kind and loving. Being a good wife and a good mother are essential to those labels and these labels carry the respect of the families they come from. However for a man, “manly” is the label attached where it’s about feeding your family, fearless, not emotional; clearly indicating how different the genders have different norms.. where one gender is taught to give and the other is taught to take/ask. However, there are exceptions wherein patriarchy could sneak in but not empowered and equality prevailed.. as the number is low, I had to refer to the majority of situations.”
This goes to show how gender roles affect marriages and how we, without question, can give into it at times. Marriage is a patriarchal institution where norms like dowry are normalized. This also affects the way a relationship is approached. From our therapists at Pause for Perspective, we learn that the cultural norms affect dynamics in interpersonal relationships.
One cannot deny that as a culture we have also known of generations of couples living in the same home yet living very separate lives, families knowing fully well that there exist between the couple’s a strained compromise to co-exist, erase and negate any trust or dream of a love that can allow feeling fully seen.
Is this love that allows one to dream and feel fully seen, a fairy tale? We wonder. Ain’t nothing dreamy about a co-existing, effacing, and negative kind of love, that is available for us to take any time we choose. And we choose that constantly. We allow the patriarchal mould to define our lives when we choose a relationship based on compromise. We conflate compromise and inequity and ask rhetorically “What is love if not compromise?” as if we will never get to a place of experiencing the former.
The danger of using a western model of couples work on our culture is the tendency to un-see the moulds of patriarchy, sexism and power in a relationship. We may choose to not see the compromises that are structurally dished out to cis gendered couples in a relationship, to cis women in a relationship. If you use western models of intervention with couples work without being aware of structural power we end up enforcing listening and dialogue of equanimity on a couple where there doesn’t exist structural equity. Then the emotional labour is enormous and solely rests on the shoulders of the cis woman in a heterosexual relationship, of listening to the complaints of a partner who holds structural power in a relationship, socialized to wield it through for instance, refusal to discuss matters of finances, sexuality, companionship and romance.
Couples therapy is good, important, hard work. A lot of time is spent in unlearning with the clients. In sessions, our therapists try to make the couple aware of the cultural norms and how those family and in-laws’ dynamics are affecting them. Equity is essential for our relationships to work. Couples who approach us for help find themselves getting happier in their relationships. This comes from the fact that both parties are willing to work on their relationship and change for the better.
Therapists at Pause believe that love is a choice. It means that if you want it to make it work, you choose to make changes. And these changes can take time. Unlearning a system that benefits men and puts women at their mercy takes time. Because a lot of us are conditioned to this structure of thought, we believe that this is how love is supposed to be. But we want to tell you that it doesn’t have to be like that. It can change for the better, only if you’re willing to work on it.
Pause for Perspective