Q: I am a South Asian woman married for over 20 years. I was born in Zanzibar, Africa and moved to Canada at 16. Although it was not an arranged marriage, after dating my husband for just a few months, my parents told me I had to get engaged to him. I was never sexually attracted to him, but thought that wasn’t important. Our relationship felt like a friendship since we had some things in common—academics, religion, culture, and a simpler lifestyle. I was a compliant 20-year-old at that time, so I agreed. My husband is a good man and an excellent father to our two wonderful children. However, there is no passion between us and he doesn’t do much to work on our relationship to change anything. I feel angry, hurt, and sad about this. I feel like leaving, yet I feel guilty and all the family and cultural limitations stop me. I don’t think I even love my husband anymore, yet I remain loyal to him. I am afraid to be alone and feel no happiness in my marriage. How do I deal with this?
A: You have stayed in a stable, yet personally unfulfilling marriage for a long time. You have simply lived out some of your familial and cultural conditioning. Marriage in the South Asian culture was never intended for passion and romance. It has a more functional role—family support, having children, economics, and being cared for in old age. Love would grow out of fulfilling these needs and being devoted to your husband and family. The romantic ideals are more recent developments in Western culture. Thus, you now find yourself living in two worlds. The cultural issues and being married to an essentially good, not a cruel and abusive husband, generates conflict within you. This is understandable.
There is a lot here for you to look at. The big question is, what do you really want? Do you want to stay and work on your marriage? You married your husband due to family pressure and your own disconnection with your needs and desires. You have diligently fulfilled your family obligation. Your work at this stage is to make some space to get to know yourself more authentically. As you do this, it will give you the strength to expand beyond family and culture.
At what point did you stop feeling love for your husband? Did something happen that was very hurtful? This needs to be talked about with him. How does he feel about the marriage? He will try and divert the issue by talking about the family and children; this may be cultural bias or his own difficulty with intimacy. If he does, let him know how serious this is. Without his doing his own psychological work, the marriage will continue to deteriorate, leaving you both miserable, depressed, and angry. He would benefit by reading the book I Don’t Want to Talk About It by psychotherapist Terence Real.
First, you must each be courageous enough to be honest with your own self. Then you need to start discussing your true feelings and concerns with each other. Clarity will come for both of you as you start sharing. Look at your fear of being alone. Have you always felt that way or is it a recent reaction to children leaving home and middle age? Dependency does not usually engender passion. Two strong people who know themselves have more energy in their relationships. This can only happen by working on yourself and growing into a passionate person. Individual and or couples counseling can be a benefit in this process.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (415) 205-4666. www.wholenesstherapy.com