Constant arguing, different priorities, interfering in-laws — newlyweds often wonder what they’ve got themselves into when traditional expectations threaten their modern marriage. Counsellor Saunia S. Ahmad teaches couples how to negotiate a ceasefire
Published: July 10, 2008 in the Desilife section of the Toronto Star
Shalini and Rahul* were married in a traditional Indian wedding less than a year ago. (*Shalini and Rahul are a composite of the South Asians I work with as a couples therapist.) The week-long festivities were full of the stress of families clashing and the couple are still blowing off steam. To make matters worse, they are struggling to deal with their differences, which they secretly wish they had known about before getting married. As they maintain the happy newlywed façade for their community, attending customary post-wedding dinner invites, they silently question what they got themselves into.
Unresolved arguments get recycled in their conversations. At some point they stop listening and caring about what their spouse is trying to say. The frustration of not being understood seeps into idle chit-chat, so a seemingly harmless comment over dinner, such as “The chicken is too bland,” sparks an explosive conflict.
The first year of marriage is the most testing period for the newlywed couple. It is a time when marriages in the South Asian community have in recent years become more prone to separation — even if it’s only an emotional one.
Desi couples fight about the same things as most couples — time, sex and money — but about 70 per cent of South Asian couples I have worked with say a major, if not primary, reason for conflict involves each other’s extended family.
Extended families expect the new couple to continue being part of the family, and some even expect them to live under one roof. Decisions such as whose family the couple spends their first Eid, Diwali or Christmas with become contentious issues because they symbolically represent whose family comes first.
When I ask couples if their relationship with each other would improve if their families ceased to exist, they realize that a lot of their conflicts are not about family interference per se, but how they communicate with each other and how they present their relationship to their families. South Asians are particularly sensitive about how their partner treats their family. They get very defensive around each other’s extended family and this interferes with their ability to understand each other.
Returning to our composite couple, Rahul thinks Shalini is self-absorbed and Shalini feels Rahul does not think for himself. As I guide them through a more constructive dialogue, Rahul begins to realize that Shalini very much likes his family and wants to feel a part of it, not as a daughter-in-law but as a daughter. Instead, she feels marginalized in his family and thinks Rahul gives his family priority over her. Shalini starts to see that for Rahul, his family is an integral part of his identity and he wants her to be a part of his family but in no way subjugated.
Things improve for couples when they start working together as a team. They speak up on behalf of their relationship if someone offends their partner. Families also struggle with this as they learn to adjust to their children being married, but gradually they treat the newlyweds as a team and respect them more for it in the end.
Effective communication is key to preventing blow-ups. I surveyed 114 South Asian couples in the GTA, ranging in age from 19 to 67, married for six months to 35 years. The results showed even if couples disagreed on such contentious issues as how to handle in-laws, money and household chores, strong communication skills would alleviate those problems.
The previous generation thinks today’s South Asian marriages are breaking down because they have lost the time-honoured cultural ideals of commitment in a marriage, while today’s generation refuses to silently suffer and sacrifice as the previous generation did in their very dutyoriented marriages. As a result, South Asian couples are redefining their expectations of marriage, trying to keep one foot rooted in family tradition and the other stepping out into Western context. Indeed, a Statistics Canada study of ethnic diversity in 2002 found that no other visible minority felt as strongly about belonging to both their ethnic heritage and to Canada as South Asians.
Many couples inherit their ambition from their achievement-driven families who immigrated to Canada with next to nothing and made their way up. They have busy careers and plan to be at the top of their respective fields. They also feel they must buy their first house soon. At the same time, they are close to their families and spend a lot of time with both. Stretched thin between ambition and family obligations, they struggle to make quality time for each other.
Problems regarding sexual intimacy are not often raised in my therapy sessions, which comes as no surprise to Dr. Faizal Sahukhan (multiculturalromance. org), a Vancouver-based sex therapist with a 30 per cent South Asian clientele.
Indian himself, he says we desis grew up in very “sex-negative environments,” where talking openly about sex was bad, and sex was portrayed as a dutiful rather than pleasurable act reserved primarily for the purposes of procreation.
He finds that today’s South Asian couples are more ready than the previous generation to call it quits in the first year if they do not click sexually, but subconsciously they carry guilt and shame about confiding their sexual needs to each other, much less a therapist. “They don’t talk about it because talking about sex is shameful,” he says. “If you don’t talk about it . . . you don’t really know what page you’re on, and that leads to a lot of resentment for each other, and potentially divorce.”
South Asian partners come to the marriage with different definitions of sexual intimacy and experiences. Without communication they misinterpret each other’s sexual expectations and feel rejected or even subjugated: for instance, a husband who feels performing oral sex on his wife represents a loss of dominance, or a husband who interprets his traditional wife’s passivity as lack of desire.
Sahukhan focuses on enhancing South Asian partners’ sexual confidence and talking openly about their sexual needs. He helps them learn about each other’s sexual response cycle because “when you recognize what makes you feel good, then educate your partner, your partner helps you physically and you feel good sexually. It’s a cycle that builds each other’s sexual ego. Doing that, and wanting to do that, creates more trust, empathy and love for each other.”
Jay and Priya (not their real names) have been married for 31/2 years and every fight always goes back to their wedding day, “even if you don’t want it to,” says Priya. “It should be the best day of your life, but it’s made so stressful. . . . In an Indian wedding you’re not getting married to each other, you’re getting married to the family so you want to keep the mother-in-law happy and the father-in-law happy and the sister- in-law happy and the brother-in-law happy and the nephews happy, and it’s really hard.”
The first year of their marriage was “horrible,” says Jay. “Divorce came into every other conversation because it always ended with, ‘individually we are great people, but together it’s just not working.’ ” As is typical of most South Asian couples, their arguments would draw in the extended family: “Your family’s like this and my family’s like this,” says Jay. Priya adds: “Then I feel resentment because I am angry at his mom for something she said earlier. Then they hear us because we are in the house with them and they try to come and fix it . . . it’s like your arguments are not your own arguments either.”
“There was no growth in our relationship,” says Jay, “because we stopped getting to know each other. We were on guard all the time. You’re ready to fight regardless of what is being said because you have adapted to that style.”
Jay and Priya got over these hurdles after they started to spend more quality time with each other away from the family. As a result they got to know and trust each other. They shifted their attention away from trying to win every argument, and instead focused on working together on common goals they had for the future, such as buying their first house.
All couples face challenges in this very busy and dynamic world. And learning to work as a unit starts with quality communication. It works wonders if a young marriage develops this sense of unity early. However, it is never too late; I have seen couples learn how to do this to their own shared satisfaction many years later — and find fulfilment in their relationships.
STARTING OFF RIGHT
• Most partners are only half listening to what their spouse is saying because they are busy mentally preparing their response. Instead, put yourself in your partner’s shoes and understand the significance of what they are trying to tell you, and communicate that understanding back to them so they feel understood.
• Take time out when you notice your emotions are rising around a discussion. You are more likely to say things you regret and lead to more conflict. Address it when you’re both calmer.
• Be positive. Rather than saying “You shouldn’t be out all the time,” say, “I would like it if you were around more.” The former feels like an attack and does not help your spouse understand what it is you want.
• Make doing things together a priority, just like you make your careers and family a priority.