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Let’s Not Talk About DIVORCE!

By Reetika Khanna Email By Reetika Khanna
August 2021
Let’s Not Talk About DIVORCE!

In the South Asian community, where marriage is the biggest event of one’s life, divorce is laced with stigma which makes it a taboo topic that is often promptly swept under the rug. This cultural tendency of thinking of divorce as a failure to be avoided at all costs ends up wrecking many lives—of feuding spouses and their children.

We spoke with several individuals who offered to share their experience of having gone through divorce, and also some of the experts on the issue. The insights gleaned from these conversations are revealing and even surprising.

“I sometimes think it would be better for my children to mourn my death than hate me for leaving their father,” says Seema. She plays out a grave scene in her mind’s eye. “There are big cement dividers on I-75, near my exit. All I need to do is drive there late at night when there is no traffic, unbuckle my seatbelt, and just ram into the dividers really fast.”

Seema is a forty-five-year-old mother of three. Fortunately, she did not follow through with her macabre plan. “I am afraid I will mess it up,” she says, wiping the tears trickling down her face. “I could end up paralyzed, and that will make things worse for everyone. And if I succeed, it will be a burden my children will be stuck with for the rest of their lives: ‘Mom committed suicide.’”

CoverStory_08_21_1.jpg“I was never a depressed person. I didn’t have any anxiety issues until a few years into my marriage.
My mother tells me to get over it. Sudeep (husband) is very successful. We live in a five-bedroom mansion with a tennis court and a swimming pool. There is a Tesla and a Jaguar in the garage. My children go to a well-known private school.” And as Seema’s mother reminds her, Sudeep doesn’t hit her.

Anjali Guntur is an Advocacy Services Manager at Raksha, a Georgia-based nonprofit that supports survivors of violence. “One of the first questions we ask a caller is about violence. Has someone hit you? Typically, the answer is: my husband never hit me, so no there is no domestic violence.” Unfortunately, victims don’t realize that abuse is not just physical—it can also be verbal, sexual, financial and more. There are indeed myriad shades of abuse beyond a bloody nose and a black eye. Seema doesn’t have scars to bear as proof, but she hurts every day.

“Sudeep criticizes everything I do. Even the smallest thing, like where I leave the car keys, can invoke unimaginable anger. He screams at me all the time—in front of the children, in front of my in-laws. I am afraid to breathe around him.” She pauses to take a deep breath. “I am always walking on eggshells, waiting for the next thing to set him off. But he is so nice to others! Everyone thinks he is a perfect gentleman.”

 Anjali Guntur, an Advocacy Services Manager at Raksha, a Georgia-based nonprofit that supports survivors of violence, says it’s often hard to pinpoint abusers: “They are usually very nice with everyone else. They are well-respected in the community, very social and outgoing.”

Guntur has seen countless women in Seema’s situation. Drawing upon her experience and expertise, she says it’s often hard to pinpoint abusers. “They are usually very nice with everyone else. They are well respected in the community, very social and outgoing,” she says.

Seema urged her husband to go to couples counseling with her. “I am sure I am at fault too. I want someone to hold up the mirror for both of us,” she pleaded. Her husband’s vehement refusal came as no surprise. “I think Indian men are conditioned to control their wives, and the idea of going to therapy somehow makes them feel like a failure,” she says. ​

The stigma around divorce

No wonder divorce is a particularly taboo topic in the South Asian American community where remnants of patriarchy persist and unique immigration factors often make many, particularly women, dependent on their spouses—financially, socially and even in simple daily logistics such as getting around.

What makes it further challenging for us to come to the issue of marital discord with any degree of maturity, open-mindedness and constructive solutions are age-old stigmas that have been deeply embedded into our psyche. My grandmother once told my mother, “The only way you leave your husband’s home is as a corpse.” Just as her mother had told her, and generations
of mothers before that.

Here are a few choice judgments that were lobbed at me leading up to my divorce:

“The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving. I didn’t want to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing any fuss or consequences, and then not stop running until I reached Greenland.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Divorce invokes a vortex of emotions not just for the involved couple, but also for their extended families: Anxiety. Hope. Fear. Relief. Grief. Guilt. Shame. Joy. Dread.

Shackles of patriarchy

The father playing an authoritarian—even tyrannical— role at the helm of the family is not too uncommon in our traditional mores. The mother, on the other hand, is lauded for suffering in stoic silence. Isn’t subservience paraded as a favorable character trait in Indian women of “marriageable age”?

Across all echelons of caste and wealth, most Indian families hanker after a male child—to perpetuate the family name and so forth. Traditionally, males are duty-bound to care for their parents and stand to inherit the family wealth. Girls, on the other hand, must be “married off.” These mindsets manifest in how girls and boys are brought up, the opportunities and freedoms afforded to them, or lack thereof.

In keeping with nature’s blueprint, women are cast as natural caregivers. From an early age, South Asian girls are schooled in the ways of efficient housekeeping. As adults, they become homemakers under the watchful eye and protection of their father, and later their husband.

While the average Indian family in the United States may not shackle women in the name of tradition; when it comes to marriage, be it arranged or otherwise, the onus is on wives and mothers to make compromises.
To adjust. For the sake of the family.

“I have been married for thirty-five years,” Seema’s mother, Krishna, declares with a pronounced sense of pride. She recently retired as the principal of a high school in Mumbai. We spoke on the phone, and she reiterated the advice she offers Seema regularly. “Seema’s father and I had our ups and downs, we had our arguments, but we worked through them. Marriage is all about compromise, and women have to adjust.” Holding fast to that point of view, Krishna does not support her daughter’s plea for separation. “All men get angry. It is in their nature. Sudeep is a good man,” she insists. Seema concurs in part. “Sudeep works very hard, and we live this fancy lifestyle. But he and I just don’t get along. We bring out the worst in each other.”

Reexamining “Till Death Do Us Part.”CoverStory_08_21_2.jpg

“At the heart of mankind’s existence is the desire to be intimate and to be loved by another. Marriage is designed to meet that need for intimacy and love.” 

Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages

Raman is a software developer based in Atlanta. He rates his parents’ longstanding marriage as “The best of the best.” He shares, “They had an arranged marriage. After a rough start, they fell in love and spent twenty-five happy years together. They had their share of issues, of course, but they were always respectful and loving to one another, even when times were hard. They were their best selves together.”

Despite the growing acceptance of divorces, marriage remains a meaningful institution. However, we often fail to consider that when marriage was crafted as a social construct, life expectancy was half of what it is today. People often lived and died where they were born. Lives revolved around survival. Today, we live in a global village with societies and cultures vastly different from the times of “till death do us part.”

[Left]  Ranjani Rao, author of Rewriting My Happily Ever After—A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery, with her daughter.

 As Bren Neale, a University of Leeds sociologist, says in his talk with BBC.com News Magazine, “The emphasis on marriage shifted from a long-term commitment at all costs to a personal relationship where individual fulfillment is important.”

Ranjani Rao, a Singapore-based writer, has penned a memoir about divorce, Rewriting My Happily Ever After - A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery. “My book is not about what caused the divorce. It is about how I survived. It is a story of hope. I felt these things would help readers who may hesitate to divorce or those who live in unhappy marriages,” explains Ranjani. Her first marriage was arranged. “We are both good people independently, but not good together. You can’t explain in one sentence why you don’t get along,” she says.

Ranjani questions the “stick with it” attitude in marriage. “If you have a job with a great company like Google, but you leave it because it is not a good fit—people accept that. So why not accept that about marriage—that sometimes it is not a good fit?”

“Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.”  Hermann Hesse

Jyoti, a mother of teenaged twins, a boy and a girl, filed for divorce recently. “I do not want my teenage daughter to grow up thinking that she has to stay bound in a miserable marriage just because she is a girl. And I certainly do not want my son to think he is in any way superior to women. Or that he has the birthright to be bossy just because he was born a boy,” she avows.

Jyoti wishes Indians would accept “it happens” as acceptable grounds for divorce in social court. Instead, South Asians default to “probing and preaching.”

Shaped by unyielding traditions, elders in the family dismiss the notion of compatibility as a frivolous affliction. “Nowadays, young people treat marriage like a disposable thing. That is the wrong attitude. You have to get along in marriage and stick to it. It is not about romance all the time,” Krishna schools in a commanding voice.

CoverStory_08_21_3.jpgThat’s a far cry from the contemporary attitudes of the newer generations. Anu Chugh is a young lawyer whose father, Sunil Chugh, remarried after her mother passed away. Sunil got divorced a few years later. Anu believes her generation does not put stock into the romanticized ideas of marriage. “We don’t talk about marrying prince charming, but we wonder how many of our parents who are married are actually happy.”

[Right] While Sunil Chugh has experienced being judged, his daughters and their peers do not regard divorce as a stigma.

The chains of dependence

In the 70s and 80s, we heard horror stories about Indian women who moved to the U.S. and the U.K. with their NRI husbands only to be enslaved as maids. While those incidents do not occur as often today, countless women are mistreated and forced to remain dependent on their spouses.

An arranged marriage in Ranchi brought Sunita to Atlanta ten years ago. “I wanted to learn to drive, but my husband never allowed it. I wanted to work as a teacher, but my in-laws did not permit it.” Sunita’s story resonates with countless other women who have their wings clipped when they migrate.

“I thought I was well-prepared for a life in America,” says Parinita. She has a master’s degree and was working in New Delhi for a multinational corporation when she fell in love. “We dated for six months before getting married. Then we moved to Atlanta, and everything changed. I realized I only knew one side of my husband—the side he portrayed while we were dating. I think he has a psychological disorder, but there is nothing I can do about it now. I have a son, and I must do right by him. I will get a divorce when my son is older.”

Like Parinita, Kajal arrived in the U.S. confident and self-assured. “But all my education and work experience did not prepare me for this marriage. He would hit me, and then cry and beg for forgiveness. And every time I thought he meant it. I was caught in a vicious cycle.” Kajal’s husband prevented her from communicating with friends and family. “When a girl gets married, her only job is to take care of her husband,” he instructed. Kajal’s health deteriorated. She developed thyroid issues, but her husband kept her from seeing the doctor. “I had brain fog. Sometimes I had to touch my toothbrush to see if it was wet. I couldn’t even remember if I had brushed my teeth!”

Somedays, Seema too forgets to comb her hair. She has lost several pounds in recent months. “I worry about money. Sudeep controls all the finances. He never tells me anything. I don’t know how I will manage if I leave him.” She is plagued by incessant drowsiness and unexplained lethargy. “As soon as the children leave for school, I cook dinner, clean the house, do laundry, and fall into deep asleep on the couch until it’s time for the kids to come home.” She can barely keep her eyes open in the evenings. “My kids ask me why I am sad, tired and absentminded.”

Controlling spouses deter partners from being financially independent. Parinita learned lessons about money the hard way. “Trust is a given in a marriage but women should know everything about joint finances and have their own money,” she says.

Judging and ostracizing

Raman and his wife, Amira, came to the U.S. in the early 90s. They had been together since high school in Ahmedabad. “I am Hindu, she is Muslim. My parents had no issues, but hers did not accept me. We got married with my parent’s blessings and moved to Atlanta,” he explains. A few years down the line, Amira landed a high-paying job with Coca-Cola. Together the couple agreed that it would be best for their little children if Raman worked from home while Amira drew the hefty paycheck. “We were a team. I didn’t even think about my career. I loved to cook for the family and be a fun dad to my kids,” Raman reflects.

“When Amira filed for divorce out of the blue, I was completely blindsided,” he adds sadly. A few short months after their divorce, she married a co-worker, took custody of both the children, and moved to London with her new husband. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. We had been together forever.
We were best friends and partners, and she just picked up and left.” Friends fell away, and Raman found himself utterly isolated.

“When it comes to divorce, people instinctively sympathize with the women. Oh, her husband must be cheating on her, or beating her, or drinking, or not giving her money. That is not fair,” Raman says with measured defiance. “Not all men are villains. Men suffer too.”

As a single man, Sunil Chugh struggled with getting a babysitter for his little girls. “I got an au pair; she was from England. A girl who I viewed as my own daughter, but people talked about there being a young girl in my house. People assume a lot of things.”

Raman does not hold any grudges against anyone. “I just wish society would not judge people going through a divorce and shut them out,” he says with genuine benevolence.

CoverStory_08_21_4.jpgAtlanta-based therapist Aisha Choudhry talks about the damage caused by social seclusion, “We ostracize divorced people from our communities. I see that with a lot with clients. The community talks behind your back and pulls away. Lifelong friends disappear.” Kith and kin exorcise “divorcees,” cut them off like surgeons would gangrene-stricken appendages.

Guntur shines the light on our dark dispositions, “Our clients tell us how they are asked not to attend cultural and community events, how people don’t want their kids to mingle, how they are stigmatized as a bad influence or bad omen. It is sad to see how they are treated by their own people.” Divorce is not a fall from grace. She urges everyone to sidestep dogma and step up. “Be a sounding board for those going through separation and offer any support they may need.”

Anu Chugh, the young lawyer, and her peers do not regard divorce as a stigma, “even though it is considered shameful in the Indian culture.” She hopes such negative attitudes will fade.

[Left] “We ostracize divorced people from our communities. I see that a lot with clients. The community talks behind your back and pulls away. Lifelong friends disappear,” says Atlanta-based therapist Aisha Choudhry.

The trauma (and triumph) of children with feuding parents

Nothing frightens children more than being yelled at and be abused by a parent—it has the same effect on young minds as physical assault. According to a Harvard Mental Health report, April 2007, “When verbal abuse is constant and severe, it creates a risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the same type of psychological collapse experienced by combat troops.” Children are also traumatized when parents mistreat each other. Even if parents shield them from overt altercations, children sense discord. Kajal’s son suffered from PTSD because of the events leading up to the divorce.

Sumeira has a degree in Psychology from Delhi University. She chose to stay home to raise her children when the family relocated to the U.S. Her semi-arranged marriage, as she calls it, though perfect on paper, never felt comfortable. “I stayed married for a long time because of my children, but they knew something was amiss. My husband and I would go down to the basement and thrash out our differences. We did not want our children to see us fighting, but they picked up on non-verbal cues. They saw how we tensed up in each other’s presence. Kids are more perceptive than we realize.”

Sumeira’s husband did not want a divorce, but she persevered. “While we shielded the kids from our vehement arguments, they were watching us grow distant and cold and sarcastic. I did not want these young adults to think that being married means being miserable. On the contrary, I want my children to know that love, respect and communication are the cornerstones of marriage. When the promise of love runs its course and cannot be resurrected, it is okay to change the nature of that relationship or to end it. Their father wants to teach them to ‘finish what you start.’ While that is an important life lesson, one should not have blinders on. When best-laid plans become untenable, you must adapt and chart a new course.”

“Divorce isn’t such a tragedy. A tragedy’s staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things about love.”

Jennifer Weiner, Fly Away Home

Working at Raksha, Guntur sees the effects of divorce on children. “How the parents handle it makes all the difference. Children need to be reassured that they are blameless and that they will always be loved. They shouldn’t see parents fighting. Never ask a child to be a judge or take sides.” Positive attitudes and respectful communication between warring parents mitigate the trauma caused by the rift.

Sumeira did not want her children to referee a mud-slinging match. “I exited the marriage as gracefully and as peacefully as I could. I think that helped my children,” she says. “They are also happy to see me breathe easy and their father more relaxed.”

From the perspective of a therapist, Aisha Choudhry poses a pertinent question. “Think about the best version you can show your kids—is it separate from your partner?” Sumeira’s daughter supported her mother’s decision to live in a different city and visit twice a month. “Dad is better when you are away,” her daughter said. “I know you miss me, and it is hard for you as my mother to be away, but it is best for everyone.” Sumeira is grateful for her daughter’s insightful perceptions but saddened by her in-laws’ demeanor. “They think I just abandoned my children and took off even though I had been a dutiful daughter-in-law and stay-at-home mother for two decades! I try not to put stock in what the world thinks. My children are doing well; they are loved by both parents who get along better living apart. Everything else is incidental.”

Ranjani’s daughter felt loved by both her parents even after the couple parted ways. She thrived in two homes and has grown into a confidant young woman. “People say you will have a messed-up child if you get divorced, but that is not strictly true. Children from intact marriages can also have challenges.” Ranjani observes. Her daughter is headed to the U.S. for graduate school this fall.

Priyanka, a fashion photographer in New York, supported her parents’ divorce wholeheartedly. Both her parents eventually found partners and live happier lives. “They said they did not separate sooner because they did not want to be selfish. But wanting to be happy is not being selfish! It’s better for everyone. No one wants to see their parents mopey and miserable,” she says.

While researching this story, and during the course of my own divorce, I heard declarations like “You will break up the family” and “The children will be ruined.” These negative prophecies are rooted in fear. If given credence through repetition, they crystalize into reality. A structural change in the family need not be construed as a “break” unless that is the intention. Talking with your partner, children, in-laws, family and friends leading up to and after the separation will preserve precious bonds through concerted understanding
and effort.

As parents, we teach our children to be honest with us, and in turn, they don’t want to be kept in the dark. “In my experience, older children don’t want to be lied to,” says Sumeira. “They want to be part of the conversation, part of the solution, part of the decision-making process for the new family dynamic and logistics. Involving them empowers them. Then they don’t feel like helpless pawns caught in a crossfire.” Sharing feelings, fears and expectations mends fractured relationships. It also encourages children to be honest about their lives and not to hide their troubles from their parents.

Trust the system. “It works”

Ranjani was fortunate to escape inquisition and intrusion for the most part. “I had a good group of friends who supported me. My work colleagues and boss did not pry. I remained confident and did not respond to gossip or personal questions. My parents had seen me struggle for years, and once I separated, they helped me out. They wanted me to be happy and were supportive of whatever decision I took.” Ranjani views divorce as “a difficult but legally sanctioned way to heal and restore yourself when marriage erases your authentic self.”

Kajal encourages women to trust the system. “It works,” she says. “I got a divorce within nine months. My son and I are taken care of. You will find the help you need if you look for it.”

Communication: A key challenge in breakdown of relationships

Healthy interpersonal relationships hinge on an effective and mindful exchange of perspectives, opinions and feelings. A breakdown in empathetic communication often factors into the deterioration of close relationships. There comes the point where we hear what we want to hear.

Counselors give couples tools to unclog channels of communication. There are many other ways one can work on communicating from one’s depths. Raman, a crime fiction fan, is not much for reading self-help books. He almost dismissed a friend’s recommendation of the bestselling book, The Five Love Languages. “I thought it was the kind of fluff women read in beauty salons. But I am so glad I read that book. I’ve learned that people communicate in different ways. Even if you’ve known someone for a long time, it is important to ask questions—without insinuation or accusation—instead of assuming what the other person is thinking,” he says reflectively. He and Amira are on cordial terms now, collaborating to nurture a sense of family for the wellbeing of their children.

Healing: Light after divorce

CoverStory_08_21_5.jpgDivorce is the death of a meaningful union. “There is no timeline of healing from the ending of a relationship. You have to allow yourself to grieve,” advises Choudhry. She emphasizes the importance of seeking “positive support” during tumultuous times. “Some people mean well but may not have a filter and give advice that is not beneficial.” Like the continued nudge to remarry when one is not ready. “Choose your inner circle wisely,” she advises.

Beasts from the past ensnare Jyoti without warning. A song, a smell, a sudden noise can trigger tears. Yet, she has no regrets about her divorce. “I want to tell all unhappy women and mothers caught in a web to trust their gut. Do what feels right to you because what is right for you will ultimately be good for everyone you love. And get the help you need,” she suggests. There are countless available resources: legal and psychological counseling, support groups for adults and children, online forums, books. One need only look.

I spent several months talking to people for this story. What struck me most was that everyone—including women who were sexually abused and married to men who assaulted their daughters and female friends—simply wanted to be free and find peace on their own terms. No one spoke of revenge or wished suffering upon a former spouse or their families. Each person is living a happier, more fulfilling life. They have a better understanding of themselves and how to communicate effectively in personal and professional interactions. Many have new partners better suited to them.

I hope we can find it in ourselves to dispense with scarlet letter labels, censure and contempt for “divorcees.” Seema, who we met at the beginning of the story, has finally sought the help she needs to move forward on a positive trajectory. Applaud her—and others like her—for choosing to survive and thrive.

(As per the request of the participants, most of the names have been changed in order to protect their privacy.)

Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta- based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, visit ReetikaKhanna.com.

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