In the last decade or so, Indian marriages have undergone a dramatic shift. Evidenced by the sharp rise in divorce rates, marriage within the Indian community has become an increasingly challenging endeavor. If more couples pursued marriage counseling before it was too late, it’s possible that many of these divorces could be averted. For many, the main obstacle seems to be the stigma associated with psychological counseling and mental health issues.
As an Indian-American couples counselor, I’ve had the privilege to work with numerous couples and, over the years, I’ve witnessed the same themes come up. Outlined here are some common issues that Indian couples face, and how they can be successfully dealt with:
1. Getting Married for the Wrong Reasons
In part due to cultural and family pressures, some people get married out of a sense of obligation or desperation. Fear drives a lot of people to ignore red flags or warning signs about their selected mate. In time, these red flags cause conflicts in the marriage. Bharat, a previously-divorced doctor, at 40 years, felt the urgency to start a family. He met Ashwini on a popular dating site and married her six months later. Very quickly, both realized that they had major personality differences—Bharat was egotistic and Ashwini had a tendency towards being controlling and suspicious. Their problems were only made worse by Bharat’s long hours at the hospital, lack of honest communication, and the immediate arrival of a new baby.
Counseling Advice: Avoid getting married due to family pressure or the fear of remaining single. Take time to get to know the person you’ve selected to marry, including their family. Spend time together and have a frank discussion about key issues: where you will live, sharing of domestic tasks, finances, common interests, raising children, and how you plan on resolving differences.
2. Differences in Family Backgrounds and Upbringing
Having radically different family backgrounds can sometimes cause friction for the couple. Observing and becoming aware of family and cultural differences and discussing expectations prior to marriage as much as possible is important. Leena was raised in a family where her parents shared in the household tasks. Her husband, Thomas, on the other hand, grew up in a home where his mother fulfilled all the domestic duties, and he expected Leena to do the same despite her demanding job. These differences caused friction in their marriage for a while, until they worked things out by discussing a strategy for the division of labor in couples counseling.
Counseling Advice: Before marriage, people are typically on their best behavior; therefore, it’s important to closely observe not only your future mate, but also the relationships between his/her family members. This might tell you a lot about your future partner’s mindset. If you observe that family members are disrespectful to each other, you might be forewarned. Changing behavior and patterns of interaction after marriage is possible, but maybe much harder to do. Seeking the help of a good counselor in this regard and being willing to work on creating a new family culture as a new married couple is important. Even in counseling, change is only possible when both partners are willing to examine their own behaviors and work hard to reset them.
3. Poor Boundaries with In-Laws
The over-involvement of in-laws, from either the husband’s or wife’s family, can drive a wedge between a couple and create a sense of conflicting loyalties for them. Intrusions from a mother-in-law or sister-in-law can be damaging and leaves little space for the couple to develop their own bond. Subhash often felt caught in the middle between his mother and wife, Priya. His mother—a widow—had been overly attached to her son and often tried to assert her authority over Subhash and Priya at every opportunity. For example, she picked fault at Priya and tried to get Subhash to correct her perceived faults. Subhash tended to avoid conflict and had no idea how to tell his mother that he wasn’t about to listen to her on how to interact with his wife. His silence on his mother’s behavior meant that his mother took it upon herself to insult and taunt her daughter-in-law directly. This made Priya very insecure about her husband’s loyalties and affections, and caused her to complain about this. As the conflict between his mother and wife escalated, Subhash felt increasingly helpless.
Counseling Advice: Learning where and how to set boundaries so that everyone feels safe and respected can immediately change the dynamic of the marriage for the better. The stronger the unity of the husband and wife, the happier everyone will be in the long-run, including children and even the in-laws! It is in the best interest of the entire family to respect the couple’s boundaries.
4. Lack of Coping Strategies:
Life is full of suffering and difficulties and many people lack coping strategies for their problems. It’s important that people have the appropriate coping skills to overcome obstacles and endure struggles. Pratik was deeply ashamed about not living up to his family’s expectation of being super successful. With a physician father and brother and a lawyer sister, he felt terribly inadequate about his job as an IT professional even though he liked what he did. In order to cope and hide his feelings of inferiority, Pratik began to pay for online escorts under a false identity and engage in what he thought was some “harmless fun.” This “harmless fun” provided him with a sense of control and superiority. However, the more he engaged in these illicit behaviors the more ashamed he became not only about his perceived inadequacies, but also due to his online activities. Pratik continued his habit even though he loved his wife, Mishti. Eventually, she stumbled upon his computer history and his secret was out.
Counseling Advice: Through counseling, Mishti began to understand how the websites gave Pratik a sense of validation that was lacking in his life. After a while, Pratik was also able to express his feelings of shame and inadequacy. He realized that he was really attached to his negative feelings about himself because they gave him a sense of control to push his family and wife away from him. As Pratik shared his shame and vulnerability, he was able to feel compassion for himself and his wife. As he began to get healthier, his urge for his online activities disappeared. He decided to work hard on getting a promotion at work and resumed playing tennis, something that he had always excelled at and gave him a sense of accomplishment.
5. Undiagnosed Mental Health Issues
In many marriages, undiagnosed mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Personality Disorders can cause significant problems. Many couples don’t have the awareness to identify mental health issues and how these can affect a relationship. Mental health issues are often misunderstood and stigmatized in our community, but it’s important to realize that many of these so-called conditions also have a positive side to them. Zoya, a successful computer engineer, struggled with anxiety. Her brain was gifted at writing innovative software. However, her perfectionistic mind made her highly anxious and caused friction in her marriage. Diagnosing the anxiety and learning ways to manage it, greatly helped her to improve her relationship.
Counseling Advice: Don’t be afraid to seek counseling for mental health issues. Numerous gifted people—artists, engineers, scientists, and even world leaders—have struggled with mental health issues. Neuroscience has helped us understand the causes of mental challenges. Speak to a psychotherapist, just like you would to a kidney specialist if you had trouble with your kidneys.
6. Neurological Differences
Not every brain is wired the same. Some people have highly logical brains, which can make them seem emotionally aloof and unexpressive. They can come across as insensitive, negative, obsessive over a special interest, and they may have sensory sensitivities. If your partner has these traits, he/she might have Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In a marriage, Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) can cause severe misunderstandings. Both partners can feel at their wit’s end and not understand how to address the problems between them.
Counseling Advice: Online articles and books on the subject of marriage with ASD, including my book, Marriage and Lasting Relationships with Asperger Syndrome: Successful Strategies for Couples and Counselors (2015) explains the dynamics of an ASD marriage. By learning about AS and working with an AS specialist, partners can built an awareness of AS traits and how these affect the marriage. Every person with AS is different, so finding tailored solutions that work for your particular marriage is important.
7. Power Struggles
Power struggles can ensue for a variety of reasons: bruised egos, long-standing hurts, lack of respect, and when partners don’t see themselves as a team. Partners try to one-up and get back at each other by devaluing and putting the other down. Recognizing one’s own role in this treacherous cycle is the first step toward disarming one’s self and subsequently influencing one’s partner to do the same.
Sundar had become increasingly insecure due to his wife, Payal’s sudden career success in the last couple of years. As Payal began spending more time in the office and even traveling for work, Sundar began to belittle and control her. He would openly tell her, “You’re so stupid!” Constantly being put down began to make Payal feel unsafe, and traumatized.
Counseling Advice: Sitting down in the safety of a counselor’s office, the husband can realize that such feelings of insecurity are normal. Rather than tormenting his wife by having a power trip, he can learn to experience his vulnerability around feeling left out or inadequate. Even just becoming self-aware and acknowledging these feelings can prevent him from acting out and choosing to have compassion for both himself and his wife regarding his feelings
Infidelity is often a symptom of deep pain or a lack of direction of the cheating partner who may not know how to face and address these problems. They try to feel better by engaging in a physical or emotional connection outside the marriage; however, in doing so, they cause more harm to everyone involved.
Counseling Advice: Realize that adultery is rooted in deeper problems. Life’s challenges are often difficult and there are no instant or easy solutions. Do consider that the instant gratification that comes from engaging in adultery has the potential to create significant trauma, both short and long-term for the lives of everyone involved. Escaping into an affair might seem like a relief at first, but long-term, the price to pay is very high. Many couples divorce over infidelity, and those who don’t, spend years rebuilding the lost trust. If there are children involved, the long-term impact on their psychological development and their ability to develop safe and loving relationships as adults cannot be underestimated. Not to mention the hurt and lack of distrust they can begin to feel towards their parent, once they learn the truth, even it may be years down the line, in adulthood.
Alcohol, drug, and other addictions are all too common these days. Once again, lacking coping skills, many partners fall prey to addictions of various forms in an effort to escape their pain, boredom, or inability to cope. Due to the shame and stigma associated with addictions, couples go to great lengths to conceal these issues, even from loved ones. When these addictions are aren’t identified as problems, or brushed under the rug, both partners end up suffering, and often in secret and for years on end.
Counseling Advice: Addictions carry a very high cost to the well-being not only of the couple, but also their children. It’s crucial to get treatment from a counselor and an addictions specialist, rather than living a compromised quality of life. There are some very effective programs, and rehab centers that specialize in treating various addictions. Also, groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Sex and Love Addiction Anonymous can not only help people manage their addiction, but also help them stay sober and clean for the rest of their lives if they wish it to be so.
10. Verbal/Emotional Abuse
Sometimes a partner may constantly put-down or mock his/her partner. Even when they are aware of how destructive this behavior is, they may not know how to change it. Or they may not even realize that they are being abusive. Especially, if they grew up in a family that has a pattern of verbal or emotional abuse, it’s possible that they don’t even realize that their behavior is abusive. A lack of emotional regulation and high anxiety may fuel this behavior. Emotional and verbal abuse shouldn’t be denied or ignored as it is just as harmful as physical abuse, and can even make the partner on the receiving end physically ill.
Counseling Advice: A counselor specializing in teaching social skills can help come up with alternate ways of saying the same thing. Meditation can also help the partner chose gentler and kinder language.
11. Domestic Violence
Often domestic violence isn’t chronic, but sporadic which can lead a partner and even their family to believe that things aren’t so bad. However, it only takes once for a spouse to get permanently injured or in some extreme cases even killed. Regardless, domestic violence should never be taken lightly. Ajay andNeha struggled with domestic violence. Ajay was an alcoholic, had a poor attitude towards women, and anger-management problems. Neha for her part, also retaliated towards him with violence. Finally, family members intervened and got them to divorce.
Counseling Advice: Seek immediate professional help when faced with domestic violence. If the violence is chronic, decide if it’s even worth saving the marriage. Such situations take years to improve and it is not only the health of the abused partner that is at stake, but his/her very life, not to mention the psychological and emotional well being of the children in the marriage when present.
12. Waiting Too Long to Seek Counseling
On average, the American couple take six years to seek counseling from the time they need it, according to E. Weil in the book Does Couples Therapy Work? In the case of Indian-American couples, I would say that the wait can be even longer. However, the longer the couple waits to get help, the more entrenched and out of control their marital problems become. Amidst the intense anger, and blame, it is hard to get the couple to communicate and try new solutions.
Counseling Advice: If you can’t discuss issues without getting into an argument or fight, and this has been going on for six months or longer, it may be time to seek counseling.
The universal guidelines for happy marriages are: honesty, open communication, respect and understanding. Happy couples protect each other. They have unconditional positive regard for each other. They share the same life goals and look out for the happiness of the other.
Cases mentioned in this article are inspired by real cases, but not based on anyone in real life. Any resemble is incidental.
Eva Mendes, LMHC is an Asperger/Autism specialist, couples counselor, author, and speaker originally from Mumbai, India. Eva facilitates groups, workshops, and trainings at universities, mental health and medical centers. Eva is the author of the book Marriage and Lasting Relationships with Asperger Syndrome. She has a private practice in Boston, MA. She may be reached atwww.evmendes.com