This article was sent by an Indian mother who chooses to remain anonymous.
Watching a daughter’s marriage unravel is a unique experience. There is no handbook to tell you what to do when. As you watch your daughter struggle, you have endless regrets about the lessons you should have taught, the times you should have protected and the times you should have let her fight to stay afloat.
Quite often we hear what young Indian women should do, be it in choosing their partner or in how they deal with all the others who end up having a say in their relationship. But is it really that simple?
We parents lay the seed for their children’s independent thought and action. My husband and I found that we had given our daughter some life lessons which prepared her for the upheaval in her life but in others we had fallen short. Here are some thoughts that may help other parents who find themselves in our shoes.
Just like other Indian parents we focused a lot on our children’s academic education. If I could go back, I would work equally hard on teaching both my daughters about handling people.
Education and more
Educate your child in her field of interest. Simultaneously show her how to market her skills. It is great if she is inclined towards a technical field because she will find it easy to get a job. But not everyone wants to study to be an engineer or a doctor. In that case, it is not enough to say I’m going to let her follow her dreams. Dreams don’t just fall into place without planning and setting goals. Teach your daughter how to set goals and plan in all areas, not just in her academic field.
What if she chooses a field which pays less or where the job market is very particular? Then your job is to make sure she has another marketable skill to fall back on in an emergency. Perhaps she could learn to invest in stocks or develop a hobby that can be marketed.
Just because you’re are good at managing your household finances and budgeting don’t expect those skills to seep through the air into your child. Teach her from childhood to manage money. Your child has to know how to manage with a small sum when in tight situations and also to save when there is a windfall.
At the same time, teach your child not to be a slave to money. Many of my Non-Indian friends remark on how wonderful it is that our philosophy and culture shun materialism. The truth is Indian society is as materialistic as any other society irrespective of our religious backgrounds. More Indian marriages fall apart because of spousal greed than we will ever acknowledge.
If you are able to, do pay for higher studies. The more your daughter studies, the greater her chances of financial independence. You aren’t making her dependent on you by offering to pay for it. Many non-Indian parents help their children out as well. The difference is we go beyond our capabilities. Instead, encourage her to get a job for living expenses. This is what real life will be—work, responsibilities, paying bills on time, jobs which she hates but may have to stay on until she finds another one. There is no better way to learn all this while you are around to offer some emotional support. Let her pay her own bills from early on. Whether she can pay a part or all her bills will be up to both your financial situation.
Remember your boundaries. You can’t fulfill your child’s every dream. You can help, but it is your child who has to fulfill her own dreams. That means allowing her to fail and learn from those experiences.
Understanding people and situations
Romantic ads, stories and movies make sarees, mangalsutra, the saat pheras, dresses, and honeymoon brochures symbols of our Indian marriages. These romantic visions delude us into ignoring the very obvious flaws that should make us turn away at the very beginning of a relationship.
Have you taught your daughter to understand people? More than any other relationship, marriage requires that young people learn to look beyond the trappings of love or attraction.
When the first glimmer of doubt arises, young Indian women are counseled to overlook the flaws by others who have a vested interest. In my daughter’s case, the warning signs were there. She did question it but was convinced by others that ‘he is a nice person’ ‘he is hurt by events in his childhood’ and ‘it is all in the woman’s hands’ myth. When you are feeling fragile, it is easy to be your own cheerleader and say, “I’m going to make him need me. Then he will be nice to me.” When I saw the notebook with those very words, a dark rock settled in my stomach. I realized I had failed as a parent. My independent, talented and intelligent child had got into the cycle of making him need her until the next big episode of abuse happened.
It is hard to accept that we have misjudged people. This is not a lesson to be learned at the last minute.
Open your daughter’s mind to how people are even when she is little. Don’t give her your judgment—instead ask her what she thinks of what someone did or said. Build on this so she learns to recognize others’ motives on her own.
When she hits her, teens talk to her about what she wants in a relationship. What values are important in the other person? What does she think of equality? How does she think equality will manifest in her relationship? Many young people say they want equality but don’t know what to do when their marriage is threatened. They end up compromising on things they shouldn’t.
Have conversations on how people should interact within a marriage. Dissect your own marriage if possible and talk about the things that work for you and things you would do differently.
Don’t make the mistake of teaching her to be blind to others’ faults. Instead, encourage her to see them for what they are. This will help her understand what she can put up with in the other person.
From a young age encourage your daughter to understand herself and what she wants in life. Does she know her strengths and weaknesses? With this awareness in place, chances are someone will find it harder to drag her down into self-doubt. Or if she does end up doubting herself, recovery is faster.
Does she know how to assess risks? What does she want in a relationship and what is the breaking point? My daughter said she tried to leave her husband not once but thrice! She even had doubts before the marriage but decided it was too late to break it off. I wish I had known. Paying the bills after a broken engagement is any day preferable to watching her endure the abuse.
That reminds me—Let your child know that you will always be ready to break off the engagement (and mean what you say) if she has any doubts about the groom.
We may have different standards for particular behaviours to be red flags but do open your daughter’s eyes to how the ‘groom’
Interacts with non-family members
How does he behave with peers, your family and your daughter?
How does he talk to others in their presence and behind their backs?
Is he respectful of who they are as human beings or is it because of their financial position or professional achievements?
Interacts with his family
Does he care for his family?
Does he encourage their emotional independence or does he need them to cling to him? Does he cling to them?
Can he make decisions independent of his family?
How often does he seek their approval and for what kind of decisions does he seek their support?
How does your daughter get involved in this decision making?
Does she have a say in decisions involving her and sometimes just him?
Teach your child to recognize what she can or can’t put up with. The easiest advice is to say don’t let anyone interfere. The reality is that if the people your daughter has to deal with understand boundaries they won’t need a second reminder. As long as we are social beings we will always need suggestions or help from others. Teach your child to manage this. When does she want help and from whom? Has she considered the restrictions they may place on her choices in life? Is she willing to accept these restrictions? If not, it is better to say ‘no thank you’ and find other means of help for that situation.
Handles his finances
How does he handle money?
How much does he make and how much does he save?
Does he have family responsibilities and if so, how much of it is his share?
Is he the only one supporting the family?
Is your daughter comfortable with it?
How much of his income is controlled by his parents and siblings?
What is his opinion about your daughter’s income?
Will they have a joint account?
Will they pay their individual bills or will she have to give up all her money?
Is he honest about his financial dealings?
Is he upfront about how he much financial help his family needs and is he agreeable to building finances together as a family?
Is he looking for help from you and for what?
Are these reasonable expectations or does he feel entitled to your money because it is for your daughter?
Dealing with conflicts
Nothing could be further than the standard advice doled out to young women that ‘it’s all in their hands’! Marriage is about two people and our daughters must know when to assert themselves and when to negotiate.
That means they have to learn to handle conflicts without emotional blackmail, accusations and manipulations. How many of us teach them to express themselves and say, “I don’t like being talked to like that,” even amongst friends? What is our first response? “Oh, you mustn’t think like that!” Why not? If they can’t express their hurt to you, their parent, who else will they go to for support? Instead of brushing aside her concerns teach your daughter to assert, counter, negotiate, and disagree in a constructive manner.
During the marriage
Find out what your daughter wants for the wedding. Some want it to be exactly how they plan and others don’t care. If you know what your daughter wants then, you make it one less stressful thing for her.
If the groom’s family comes with various demands, say you will consider them but that you will go by what your daughter wants because it is her day. This will remind everyone that it is about the bride and the groom and their relationship.
If they make last minute demands about money or jewellery, don’t be afraid to say NO! A relationship built on blackmail is not worth it. Your daughter’s welfare will always be tied to their need for money. Many of us rationalize this by saying “Oh, they want it for my daughter. What I have is for her anyway. Why not give it to them now when they ask for it?” Don’t! You lay the pattern that many other young women are forced to endure. When other women say no, they are vilified for not ‘respecting’ the boy’s family.
No matter how well you think you’ve prepared your child to make the best decisions, you never know what the other person and his family are like. In the event, your daughter’s marriage falls apart because of abuse prepare yourself first. Conserve your energy, manage your finances, and take care of your health and mental well-being. Overcoming the abuse is a long process and you are going to have to sustain her.
Most young Indian brides find themselves told that every disagreement is because of the adjustment phase. Some truly are, but others should never be adjusted to.
Always keep the door open for your daughter. She should be able to tell you that things are not right in her marriage without having to worry about your reaction to her. And then listen, listen, listen! Finally, validate her concerns.
Culturally we Indian parents respond with solutions on how our daughter should behave. By this, we dismiss her concerns and put the burden on her to fix the problem. We forget that the problem is because of two and possibly more people.
If the groom’s family comes to you with complaints about your daughter—never, ever take their side in their presence. Even if you agree with them in any small matter, stand up for your daughter. Whatever you have to advise, do so privately. It is very easy for others to twist your words and make your child believe that it is all her fault because ‘even your parents say it is your fault’. She is then plagued by self-doubt and believes there is no support.
Reiterate to yourself that your child doesn’t deserve to be cursed at or demeaned. Many times the abuser lays the blame for his behavior on your child. “If she had been…,” or “If she hadn’t been…” As typical Indian parents, we have a desire to make our daughter’s marriage work and there is no harm in that. The blame game gives us a tool to fix her marriage. Turn it down! The abuser is abusive because that is who he is! Your daughter may not respond to his abuse or counter his vituperation in a calm and collected manner as in a debate, but then she isn’t engaged in a debate! Once you realize that she is not to blame your belief in her is honest and more useful in helping her.
Understand that in many Indian marriages men yell and abuse because it got them what they wanted in the first place. Money! We were completely taken by surprise when we realized that the yelling and abuse were aimed to get money from us! Once the shock wore off we were repulsed. Like most Indian parents, we had wanted to help the newly married couple buy a house and maybe even invest for them. As our concerns surfaced, we waited. The abuse only increased and that made it definite for us. He and his family were placing a price on our daughter’s life with him, but we weren’t bidding! Remember that people who value what they have to offer only regarding money will never appreciate your child’s dignity. They have none! The demands will never stop.
Stop analyzing if it could have gone differently if not for the love or arranged marriage. Parents and children make mistakes in judgement. If the groom was your daughter’s choice, she is probably berating herself for the way things went wrong. You don’t have to add to her sense of worthlessness. If it was your choice that went wrong, you don’t have the time for this. Stay focused on what needs to be done.
There is no set timetable for when a woman leaves an abusive marriage. It takes courage to leave. Some women leave at the first sign of abuse and others take time to gather their courage. Your daughter doesn’t need to hear that she is a loser because she stayed with him for so long. She dealt with the pain, remember!
Guide her carefully as she is getting ready to leave. The abusive husband and his family will bring a lot of pressure when they realize that they are losing control. Family members, ‘friends’ and ‘well-wishers’ will all gather to explain his point of view and help her adapt to his needs. They will want to meet with you too. Before you fall for their platitudes ask yourself these questions:
Where were they when she was being abused?
Were they participants, his cheerleaders or silent observers?
Did they say anything in support of your daughter?
Did they say anything to hold the abuser accountable?
How do they benefit from your daughter staying in the abusive marriage?
Remember that the abuser’s family has a lot at stake. They will appear respectable and reasonable. Now begins a discourse on Indian culture, the value of the mangalsutra, and the many roles your daughter has to play—the delicate woman who needs to be cherished, the strong woman who should know how to control her husband and the pragmatic woman who should dismiss his behaviour as childish all because he has a heart of gold. People, in general, have different definitions of what constitutes abuse. The things they won’t put up with will seem insignificant when they are enabling it. You’ll be made to feel unreasonable and obstinate for not negotiating or controlling your daughter.
Instead of their counsel, have your daughter see a domestic violence counsellor. Even you have a vested interest in her decision. Others can play mind games with her and say you are trying to separate her ‘happy family.’ A third party, a professional who works with many domestic violence victims knows how to help your daughter see things with clarity. You see, just because she makes the decision to leave doesn’t mean she is able to separate from him completely. She will still be plagued by doubts about the ‘what if’s, ‘there is a part of him that is so sweet and if…,’ ‘when we met…’ When a marriage ends, it is also a loss of dreams that she’s nurtured for most of your young life. She needs time to let go of those. Besides all this, when your daughter makes the decision to leave she gains control of her life. Making a personal choice to be free is liberating for someone who has been controlled so much.
Find a network of supportive friends and family members who can boost her confidence when her confidence flags. Keep all documents securely in an easily accessible place. Make sure she has an emergency money set aside.
Be aware that your daughter’s physical and emotional safety is at stake. She will be handed several honourable titles. You will hear refrains of “She is mentally unstable and that’s why she is exaggerating common misunderstandings.” There are two aspects to this:
i) Acknowledge that your daughter is under tremendous stress and all her decisions or arguments may not be very clear. But that is not mental instability!
ii) This is probably the first time the abuser is being held accountable for his actions. He knows there will be social repercussions if she walks out. What better way to appear the innocent victim?
The other title of honour is ‘characterless’. Don’t work yourself trying to prove anything to them. Be unflinching in support of your daughter and save your energy for bigger battles.
Once the divorce is over, please stop making plans for the second marriage. Being in an abusive marriage is traumatic. Your daughter needs time to like and respect herself. Another relationship is not the answer to her troubles.
Is there happiness at the end of it? Never doubt it! Your daughter will have ups and downs, but she will cherish the freedom to live with dignity.
I’m fortunate to end this on a hopeful note and wish the same for you.