When Kolkata-based psychotherapist Mansi Poddar got a divorce in 2008, she sensed a sudden change in how people in her extended social circle interacted with her. For starters, many men, especially married men, assumed she was ‘available’ to have sex with them. And many women assumed she must have been at some kind of fault for her husband to have ‘left’ her. Which means she must be ready to ‘hit on’ their partners.
“When I went through a divorce, I had both men and women judge me. God, it was terrible,” Poddar told HuffPost India.
Poddar managed to tide over the hurdles, but following her divorce, she realised why so many Indian women choose to suffer bad marriages instead of looking for a way out. Social stigma, Poddar told HuffPost India, is so pervasive even among the educated and affluent that economically independent women too often stay in physically and mentally abusive marriages.
According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), nearly 38% women in India have experienced spousal violence. And that is just the number of cases that women reported, there’s always a vast number of cases which never reach the police. Equally staggering is the number of women who choose to stay in abusive marriages, despite laws that protect them from marital violence.
HuffPost India spoke to therapists to understand why Indian women, some of them economically independent, choose to stay in abusive marriages.
Failure to recognise abuse
Narendra Kinger, Clinical Psychologist and Marriage Counsellor from Mumbai, remembers a distraught client whose husband simply refused to interact with her. He would not tell her what was going on at work, he never revealed his financial details and investments to her, they never spoke about important issues at home and work and at times, he simply refused to talk to her. The woman tried her best, she requested him, she complained and tried to start conversations. “But she was always rebuffed. Their sex life was miserable too,” Kinger said. Occasionally, when the woman pushed her husband, he shouted at her and at other times, ignored her.
Initially their families supported her, but later, his family asked her to leave him alone citing ‘work pressure’. “The woman wanted to know her husband better, have a deeper connect with him, but he was not interested,” he said.
Often, Kinger explained, it is difficult for women and the people in her ecosystem to identify abuse, especially mental abuse. The fact that a man hasn’t manhandled his wife is cited as reason enough to stick around in a marriage.
And in cases of physical abuse, a large number of Indian women tend to end up blaming themselves for somehow having done something wrong to have deserved the violence inflicted on themselves. At other times, they normalise it as regular male behaviour that must be put up with. Though relentless abuse leads to anxiety and depression, they hold themselves responsible for feeling this way.
“This happens mostly because we are not trained from an early age to understand what an abusive relationship is. Children in our country are not taught about conditions and situations that qualify as ‘abuse’. As we grow up and marry, women continue to bear it, while men carry on with their abusive behaviour,” says Kinger.
Seeing their mothers suffer
People often tend to follow and copy what as children, they have seen adults do. And more often than not, they tend to replicate their parents’ behaviour.
“For example, if a son sees his father abusing his mother, there is a chance he sees that as acceptable behaviour and becomes an abuser himself. Similarly, if a daughter grows up seeing her mother mistreated and disrespected, she tends to normalise such behaviour,” says Kinger.
The occurrences of the mother being abused at home slowly become acceptable and normal. Therefore, when the daughter gets married and is subjected to similar toxic behaviour, she accepts the abuse and the abuser. In her world and as per her experiences, ill-treatment of the wife is not a valid reason for separation.
Lack of support from parents
Usually, a woman turns to her parents in times of crisis and it is no different when she realises she is in an abusive marriage. But when Indian parents refuse to support her emotionally or financially, it becomes almost impossible for the woman to come out of the marriage.
“I know of parents who refused to allow their daughters to stay with them despite knowing they are unhappy. ’Tumhari arthi sasuraal se uthegi (only your hearse will leave your husband’s house), they tell their daughters. This lack of empathy or support discourages Indian women to break free of abusive marriages,” says Poddar.
Limited chances of remarriage
Since the yardstick of how ‘successful’ a woman is in India is how ‘well’ she has married and has managed to conduct that relationship, women have to bear an unfair burden of suspicion following a divorce. Poddar remembers how on several occasions she was made to feel like she was ‘damaged goods’ after her divorce. “Remarriage seems like a fairytale. Sadly, even when they are in abusive relationships, Indian women continue to feel ‘something is better than nothing’,” says Poddar, who has remarried.
If a woman is in a second marriage that turns out to be abusive, the odds stacked against her are manifold in India. Kinger explains that at times, women develop a ‘phobic response’ to a second marriage after the first did not work out. “Families and friends insist it is difficult to find a partner after an unsuccessful marriage. This implies the woman has to spend the rest of her life alone,” he says.
Fear of social stigma
“If a marriage fails, we are quick to jump to conclusions and blame the woman for not having ‘adjusted to the situation’. Walking away from a marriage is viewed as a personal failure of the woman in our society,” says Kinger.
In the Indian context, society blames a woman for the failure of a marriage. The burden of making a marriage work also largely rests on her shoulders. The fear of being termed as a failure, or lacking in character or talents, stops women from coming out of abusive marriages. Not just that, the ‘failure’ of a woman to stay in a marriage is often traced to her upbringing and her family is dragged through the coals for a choice she has made. Women are conditioned to try for that to not happen, till it becomes unbearable.
At other times, women who want to be viewed as ‘successful’ avoid walking away from abusive marriages.
Women themselves consider divorcees inferior
“It is strange but true that even women with marital problems consider divorcees inferior. They don’t want to be like them! And so these women carry on with their lives and toxic marriages,” says Poddar.
Married women in India have an exalted status in society and are seen as ‘more beautiful, socially acceptable, appropriate, desirable’ while unmarried or separated women are not. The shame attached to divorce is so strong, that even women view divorcees lower in the social rank. The fear of becoming the single woman she once loathed, is often far greater than the fear of living in an abusive marriage. “I have firsthand experience. Women I knew became increasingly distrustful of me and my intentions after my divorce,” says Poddar.
Economic stability and children
Economic dependence plays an important part for women to stay in an abusive relationship. Even though more and more women are getting educated and working, many are either not employed, or do not have a desire to work and be self sufficient. In some cases, they have had to give up their careers to bring up children making it very difficult for them to find suitable and well-paying jobs.
“This could be an outcome of social conditioning, where they are brought up in traditional homes in which women are not encouraged or allowed to work, or from certain backgrounds where women are restricted to home. As a result their employability and economic independence is minimal and they have to depend on their male partner to survive,” says Kinger.
Often, Poddar says, women fear being a single parent, as after a divorce the day-to-day responsibilities of a child often rest with the woman. “It is due to several factors, like the lack of a strong support system, fear of criticism and inability to provide for the child. So, they continue to be in physically and emotionally abusive relationships for the sake of the child,” says Poddar.
Often, the burden of independence far outweighs the abuse Indian women suffer in their marriages. In their mind, they may magnify their abuse manifold if and when they leave the marriage, so they opt to stay in these toxic relationships.