Everywhere I turn, I see a relationship break. A divorce or two happen. People moving on. New chapters written. Old ones becoming a bookmark for years to come. Yes, many of my friends and peers are either undergoing separation or divorces or are in unfulfilled marriages. That definitely isn’t the world I grew up in. My childhood included working dads and stay-at-home moms clad in saris or salwaar kameez. The men brought in the money and the women managed homes and relationships. Couples stayed together until death took one of them away. We were as homogenous as a grain inside a sack of basmati rice. But homogenous wasn’t synonymous with happiness. The dirty laundry was kept hidden inside homes across neighborhoods and cities.
Often times, across different societies, being liberal is misconstrued for every adjective with a negative connotation. When I tried discussing my thoughts with the older generation back in India and in NYC, some of them in abusive and failed relationships blamed my thinking on two factors: the western influence and women’s independence. According to them, the west “gives us” ideas. And the “working women complaint syndrome” means financial independence, means lower tolerance, means lesser putting up with personal problems… means divorce. Wow! Not to ridicule anyone, but the pseudo expertise coming out of mouths of people, who respect no form of individuality and want humans to exist in a herd, didn’t convince me much.
I was amazed at how most looked at break-ups with accusatory eyes, almost always hinting toward the women. A working woman isn’t a symbol for a slut. Yes, being out of the house and spending the day with like-minded people who appreciate you for more than the curry recipes and diaper expertise might create a feel-good factor. It might lead to questions. But if you are in a solid relationship and have a supportive partner, none of those things matter. And if a fling happens, it’s a reflection on what was lacking at home to begin with. It perhaps is a sign that the couple’s relationship needs work or in some extreme cases, they were not meant to be together.
Relationships, to quite a degree, define us. All the more, I can’t comprehend the need to be in one when miserable. For whom? The society? Which and what society are we referring to? The one that doesn’t show up when a person is in need but waits for us to fall on our faces, so we can be the topic of their conversation at the next cocktail party? The one that whispers our failures behind our backs?
As a writer, philosopher, cultural enthusiast, and humanitarian, I set out to find answers. I knew that it would be ignorant to pin all marital successes and failures under one category. I conceded that attributing blame to lifestyle choices or societies was an easy tactic to deflect from the root cause of a problem. So what would be my starting point?
I began chatting with people across ethnicities and nationalities—women and men in their thirties who were open to the idea of universe, spirituality, effect of time, and emotional growth. Or in a nutshell, people who didn’t presume to know about others by extrapolating from themselves. People who prefer the “live and let live” approach; folks who didn’t criticize others for not living the life they consider appropriate.
I am going through a phase of soul-searching. As a woman, and that too of Indian origin, I have rarely thought about myself—the individual. We are trained to serve emotionally and physically. We are brainwashed to belong to a relationship. I have never existed without a label—always been someone’s daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law etc. But, me, the individual, has always aspired for an identity aside from what my society thinks I should wear on my soul. And I am detrimentally honest, so can’t hide my discomfort with ONLY the relationship-definition of “Sweta.” The writer inside of me feels conflicted as she sees a bigger purpose in life.
I over-analyze everything, so my next question was: why am I traversing through these identity-related emotions in my thirties? A friend, who is also going through soul-searching said, “I think the 30’s may be when self-awareness finally overturns the guilt of society and you start changing who you are to better suit your desires and not ‘theirs.’” And he’s right; my other friends going through separation are figuring out how they want to spend the next 25-30 years of their lives. A fellow poet and also a close friend who recently got divorced realized that she met her husband when she was in college. While she had learnt to become his wife along with being a friend and a professional, he saw their marriage from the eyes of a twenty-year-old.
My other very good friend, Dona Pal, who is a therapist, agrees that one should not start a relationship with the idea of breaking it up. You give it your 500% and utmost love and care. But if somewhere along the way you feel that you and your partner aren’t compatible any longer, things could be given a rethink. Isn’t that what growing up and evolution is all about? You are no longer set in stone and see grey areas in life too. We all have one life to live and neither party should feel stifled, ever. Sometimes there is no anger or resentment; people just grow apart. It sucks, but it’s that way. Sometimes two people don’t evolve emotionally at the same pace—it’s no one’s fault—we all mature at different times. People change and that’s a fact of life. All break-ups don’t stem from hatred or infidelity or sexual abuse. Sometimes a relationship wilts because no one has worked at pulling it out of the rut. I feel if such a situation arises, however difficult it maybe, people should seek help or look at choices. As human beings, don’t two people owe happiness and respect to each other and themselves? By pretending to be this “happy couple” for the society, we do disservice to everyone. Imagine walking around your own house on eggshells. Imagine coming back to an unhappy spouse. Imagine drinking tears along with your morning cup of tea or coffee.
I started to discuss my emotional voyage with my husband. He is one of my best friends in the world, so I do not have to have a filter while discussing what’s on my mind. I wondered why I didn’t see too many Indian women ask these questions. Was it fear of being called a pariah or was it that most had made peace with their situation—on the face of it? Or was it because as a writer, an artist, I am trained to be self-aware and in touch with what nourishes my soul? I need that cognizance, curiosity, reflection, and introspection to be able to create. And sometimes the voice is so loud that I can’t turn it down.
He sat me down, “You aren’t like 99.9% of the Indian women. You are different, but you should never change. I love you for who you are and always have. You have spent your entire life doing things for others while ignoring your needs. And somewhere, understandably, that’s making you unhappy. Sometime it was going to catch up with you.” That was the day I conceded that I hadn’t married a guy who was like 99.9% of men either. To him, my happiness and our mutual honesty was more important than anything else or any fallout from where my soul-searching took me.
He further said, “You fulfill all of my emotional needs. But I understand that you are an artist and your emotional evolution is at a pace, even if I tried, I couldn’t always understand. I feel happy that you have writer friends and support—people who understand the depth of what you deal with.”
Yes, I feel blessed that I have been with the same man for over a decade and we still get each other as a couple and as friends. More importantly, we choose to be with each other. Even though I am a temperamental artist who uses her heart more than anything else to make all life decisions, he makes the effort to understand my passion. Similarly, his pragmatism and level-headedness are qualities I admire even if I don’t comprehend fully. Together, we make it work. There is so much mutual respect apart from the affection. But more importantly, we have never tried to manipulate the other person into becoming who we are. We respect our differences and allow each other the room to flourish. But despite all of it, I never wake up thinking I will take my husband for granted because he will be around forever. NO. Never.
Marriage is work. Marriage requires as much attention as a full-time job. Equal, if not more, amount of nurturing. We both cherish each other’s presence and feel grateful for it every day. But neither of us gets complacent or takes our lives or togetherness as a given. Being complacent can lead to a slippery slope.
We are humans, right? Aren’t we allowed to introspect? Shouldn’t our reflections teach us something? I have learnt that relationships break. Marriages end. It’s never easy. And from what I hear from my friends, it hits your gut. But the point is that no one person or culture needs to be called wrong or held accountable every time that happens. Every couple has their own reasons, and unless you have walked in their shoes, it’s not okay to pass judgment. Frankly, how any of us feel about our choices today might not really hold true five months from now—because time & place & personal situations alter how we think. Or at least affect our decision.
About the Author
Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com) is an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, columnist, blogger, and educator whose musings have translated into four chapbooks and two collaborative collections of poetry; a novel, and an upcoming nonfiction book & a full-length collection of poems. Her scribbles have also appeared in several anthologies, literary journals, and online publications. A graduate of Columbia University, Sweta lives in NYC and teaches creative writing workshops across the globe.