Perspective: Indian Culture, Marriage and Divorce
I come from a generation of women who were told to “suck it up.”
The pursuit of happiness is an American concept.
I was born in South India, grew up in the Middle East, and now living as an Indian American in my corner of Austin, Texas. I feel within me the weight of all the cultures that became a part of my identity clashing.
Because you couldn’t, and I can.
I’m an educated woman living in the US, and I spent the last three years trying to convince my therapist why I do not have the courage to pursue a divorce.
I’d tell her, “I can’t. I just can’t.”
She’d ask me, “Why can’t you?”
And I’d say, “I’ll just suck it up. Maybe until my kid finishes school.” He is 8, by the way.
After which, my therapist and I went on a journey to find out why I think I’m only worthy of a ‘suck it up’ kind of life.
When I told my mom and dad, I was getting a divorce, here’s what I said: “I’m doing this because you couldn’t, and I can.”
My mom’s face lit up. My dad went quiet. They may never come out and say publicly that they support me. And that’s okay. Because at that moment, they couldn’t deny me the truth and I’m grateful that at that moment, they understood me.
The dutiful wife dogma
I’m a product of unhappy people being stuck together. I did not want that for my kid. Ideally, a happy marriage, where both partners show love, kindness, and respect toward each other, is the best environment to raise a child.
If you can’t give your children such an environment, what they deserve is individual parents who have respect, kindness, and love toward themselves. They are happy within themselves. And if you can’t provide such an environment in one household, but only in two separate households, then so be it.
I think it’s a myth divorce is harmful to children. Unconscious parenting is harmful for children. Conscious parenting is hard, and it doesn’t matter if you are married or not. Conscious parenting is hard.
The value of a stay-at-home mom
Many people in Indian culture don’t recognize or value all the work a stay-at-home mom does. During my marriage, I was a stay-at-home mom to a special needs child. I chose the school district he went to, I chose all the therapies, and I chose all his doctors. I educated myself on autism by reading books, blog posts, articles, and networking with parents who have children with special needs.
We moved to Austin, TX from Chicago in the summer of 2021. I didn’t have any friends in this new city. So, I took a part-time job as a care companion to an older, differently-abled gentleman on the weekends to make extra money. I was paid $20 an hour.
My therapist spent years telling me being a stay-at-home mom has value. I never felt it. My loved ones thought I was crazy to stay home with my kid when I had multiple master's degrees.
Seeing that paycheck from my part-time job made me realize I have value. It also made me realize that if I had to hire someone to care for my kid I’d have to pay them a minimum of $20 an hour.
I don’t think this evaluation of stay-at-home parenting is only common in Indian culture. I’ve heard many of my friends from various cultures tell me how undervalued they feel about their contributions as primary caregivers.
My decision to divorce: hire a lawyer or not?
After I decided to get a divorce, at first I didn’t hire a lawyer. It took me three months to find the courage to hire legal help. I hired a lawyer because I realized my ex didn’t have any plans to pay me alimony or any kind of financial support.
I was told if I hire a lawyer, the divorce will become messy, and my kid will suffer. A divorce is only messy for children if the parents are not mindful of the way they parent and do not communicate with each other respectfully, just like how a marriage can be messy, too.
Another reason I didn’t want to hire a lawyer was, I wanted to be a good little Indian wife even through the divorce. My paralegal called it like it is, ‘the dutiful wife dogma.’
Good little Indian wives don’t ask for divorces, and they don’t take up space or ask for more. A good little Indian wife sucks it up. But I realized I needed to protect myself.
Sacrifices Indian women often make in marriage
Another Indian friend of mine is going through a separation from her physically abusive ex. During a recent conversation, she said, “They would’ve wanted me to stay until I ended up in the hospital.”
And I said, “They wanted me to stay because he didn’t hit me.”
Why are these the thoughts of educated women living in a modern society in the year 2023? Where does it end? Why do we women constantly settle for breadcrumbs?
If “pursuit of happiness” is an American concept, the Indian version of it would be, “sacrifice is our dharma.”
As an Indian woman, what I saw around me were women sacrificing their careers, their passions, all for family. I’ve heard many older Indian women brag about their sacrifices as though it was a noble endeavor. I’ve empathy for them, they were conditioned to believe this.
At a recent social gathering, an older Indian woman asked me, “Why are you getting a divorce?”
Older Indian women either have wonderful marriages, tolerable marriages, or miserable ones.
Women of wonderful long marriages think my generation of women gives up too fast on relationships. Instead of being happy that we are pursuing our individual happiness, they think we should’ve worked harder on it.
Women of tolerable or miserable marriages think: “We sucked it up, why can’t you?”
My ex and I were in couples therapy for six years. I don’t think the women of my generation shy away from hard work. What we want is support when we show the courage to quit a relationship that was sucking the life out of us.
Falling in love with myself
People want someone to blame for the divorce. It’s either her fault or his fault. I can tell you who I blame for mine. I blame my therapist. She helped me fall in love with myself.
The more I fell in love with myself, the more I fell out of love with him. This didn’t just happen with my ex. It happened with my family, too.
I realized I did not have to stay in spaces where I felt disrespected. When the people I thought were my loved ones turned against me during this divorce, I was heartbroken. I literally begged them to love me, pick me, choose me.
But they didn’t.
Now, I’m relieved they didn’t. Having distance from these relationships has made me realize I don’t know what emotional abuse is. I don’t think many Indians know what it is.
Recognizing and dealing with emotional abuse
Many people in my culture grow up hearing people who claim to be loved ones talk badly about our skin color, body shape, hair, our attitudes, our beliefs, our education, in front of us. They claim they use abusive words out of love for us. They are saying such words “for our own good.”
The first time my therapist brought up the word “abuse” to help me understand the emotional abuse I went through as a child, I was confused. Getting called names, consistently invalidating your feelings, getting spanked – all these scenarios are pretty common in many Indian households.
But I understood where my therapist was coming from. She grew up watching Mr. Rogers. You must understand that being called fat, stupid, slow … that’s a regular experience for many Indians.
So how do you even see emotional abuse when it happens to you? Psychology Today describes emotional abuse as, “a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them.”
From my experience, this is how I see emotional abuse: whenever I spend time with a person, afterward I feel like who I am is wrong. Their actions and words show me there’s something inherently wrong with how I’m built.
For instance, when I went gluten and dairy-free, the people around me had a problem with it. It’s okay that they had opinions about it. You are allowed to have opinions, you can even express those opinions.
You can say, “I think that diet is too restrictive, you may not be able to sustain it.”
But when you say, “Oh my god, you keep trying these weird fad things, why do you even bother? People have been eating wheat for centuries with no problem. You think you know better?”
One is stating an opinion, and the other is attacking someone’s character.
Protecting yourself when your family or community does not approve of divorce
When I hear harsh words from my family about my divorce, my first thought is, “It’s okay, I can bear this. At least they are not stoning me to death.”
I want to live in a world where a woman is allowed to experience the full spectrum of joy and not settle for a fate that’s a preferable option compared to death.
In order to protect my peace, I don’t talk to most of my family members anymore. They are all blocked on my social media and WhatsApp. I do not need those energy suckers in my life. I’ve finally found the courage to live the life I want, and I’m not wasting it on drama.
As Indians, we are taught family is the MOST important thing in the world. It’s embedded in our culture. Sacrificing your individuality to appease your family, that’s our culture, too. Family doesn’t have to necessarily mean the one you are born into. Real family is chosen and supports you unconditionally.
There’s an awakening happening to women everywhere. We Indian women are part of it, and I want us to lead it by talking about our experiences. Your value is not tied to what you do in the kitchens and bedrooms. You are worthy, no matter what.