From resounding silence to unsolicited advice, the reactions of friends and families often add to the trauma of a divorce.

You didnt try enough What many Indian divorcees face in societyImage for representation
Features Relationships Saturday, June 23, 2018 - 19:12

Going through a divorce is hard – mentally, emotionally, and financially. And when the ones closest to you invalidate your decision and make you feel guilty, it adds to the trauma. But for many Indian women, and men to some extent, this is a reality.

Tithi* was always wary of being in a relationship. Her younger sister, Sudha* has Down Syndrome, and it was important for Tithi that her partner accept and love Sudha the way she does.

The 33-year-old she married Vyas*, a Malayalam film producer, after six months of long distance dating. She learnt quickly, however, that Vyas was not keen on working on their relationship. As months went by, Tithi also realised that Vyas was unfaithful and possibly had a child with another woman.

To make matters worse, she did not even know that Vyas was planning to divorce her. 

“It was a long distance marriage, so I was still in Bengaluru. I had gone to live with him for some time and had just returned, when one day, he came and dropped my stuff off at my home. I told him I could have taken it myself later, but he brushed it off,” Tithi shares. Vyas also took videos of her crying and having breakdowns due to mistreatment from his family to make a case that she was mentally ill. She was able to connect these dots only later. 

Tithi did not receive support from her immediate family initially.

“I think my mother felt bad that I waited till 30 to get married and that too was ending up in divorce,” Tithi notes.

One of her friends, a Malayalam woman actor, told her that she should have “taken care” of her husband better and that “no one can achieve anything alone”. The couple's mutual friends remained silent despite knowing about the abuse she was put through by Vyas and his family.

Her conservative extended family was no better. 

“My cousin brothers actually asked me if our physical relationship was good, and wondered if he was divorcing me out of sexual dissatisfaction,” Tithi seethes. “Then one aunt told me that I should learn my lesson from this… that I should stop being outspoken and should have been a meek, submissive wife.”

‘You did not try hard enough’

Tithi’s is by no means an isolated case. 

Originally from Kerala, 32-year-old Shruthi* is a doctor who got divorced from her husband, Ajith* in May 2018. The two had been having issues and were living apart for over a year prior to see if they could sort things out. However, when Ajith refused to share responsibility for the two dogs they'd adopted together, and began to gaslight Shruthi, she decided that she had had enough.

“Between the two of us, the dynamic was always such that I was the loud, outspoken woman and he, the passive and quiet guy. Our mutual friends believed his version of events, and questioned me. That made me feel suffocated, like I was being unreasonable,” she shares.

Shruthi’s own father, who is otherwise not a part of her life and is estranged from her mother, sent her messages slut shaming her, and accusing her of destroying families. 

“He said that I must have been learning from my mother… that I was ruining my ex’s life and the family’s reputation. He even said that Ajith was like his son, and would continue to be. He did not ask me what I was going through,” Shruthi says.

She adds that now, she has learnt to laugh off a lot of the insensitive statements that people make. 

“But what bothers me the most is when people say I was fickle and did not try hard enough. I am a feminist – so people naturally assume that I was the one who caused the problems and initiated the divorce," she says.

If they don’t acknowledge it, it did not happen

While Shruthi and Tithi found the questioning difficult to deal with, for Chennai-based independent filmmaker Vaishnavi, it was a resounding silence around her divorce.

Her five-year-long marriage to Ashish* came to an end in 2015. The first time Vaishnavi told her mother about the divorce, she looked crestfallen and simply stared at her. And then, she made a concerted effort to hide it from the extended family. 

“If someone called and asked about Ashish, she would just respond by saying ‘everyone is fine’,” Vaishnavi narrates.

But the 32-year-old reached a breaking point when her mother did not correct her relatives who gave a wedding invitation in Ashish’s name. “I came home from work, and my mother even told me to take the invitation which was in the hall. I had a meltdown and confronted her about this. She just said that she didn’t want to face others and that she was feeling pity for me,” she tells TNM.

Vaishnavi understands why she is doing this. Her mother is in an abusive marriage with her alcoholic father.  His relationship with his wife and kids is such that he does not even know about the divorce, Vaishnavi says.

“The family knows about this and they anyway treat her weirdly for it. If they come to know that her daughter has had a failed marriage, it would reflect on her upbringing of me, and she’d lose whatever little respect she has,” Vaishnavi states.

That being said, some people in Vaishnavi’s family do know about the divorce. 

“But none of them wants to speak about it. No one has asked me how I am, how I am dealing with it. At family gatherings, they don’t make eye contact with me. They think as long as they don’t acknowledge it, it didn’t happen.”

The questions, pity, and unsolicited advice

The lack of emotional support is not all that divorcees deal with. In a patriarchal society which still believes that a woman must always have a male guardian, divorced women come to be seen as damaged and used goods.

For instance, Tithi’s uncle asked her, “Who will accept you now, that too with a disabled sister?” 

“I was so pissed off. I was never going to leave my sister for some a****** and he should not dare say something like this again,” an angry Tithi says.

People also tend to give unsolicited advice and analysis of the situation – like Shruthi’s junior at work, who believed that the couple got divorced because they didn’t have kids. “Another one told me that it was because we adopted the dogs too early and we weren’t ready. People also like to call me ‘brave’ because I look happy, am holding a job, and am taking care of my dogs,” Shruthi chuckles.

Vaishnavi, meanwhile, finds the pity that comes her way particularly unwelcome. When her mother told her that she pitied her, it sent Vaishnavi to a downward spiral, making her feel suicidal for a while. 

And even now, it is the first reaction she gets. “We lived all our married life in Chennai. So when I run into someone and they ask about Ashish, I just state the divorce in a matter-of-fact manner. Immediately, their face falls. And then they tell me about this other divorced friend they have who is now married and happy,” she says, clearly rolling her eyes.

Both Shruthi and Vaishnavi feel that people expect them to perpetually want to be with someone else. “I think they are still not used to seeing women who are single by choice,” Shruthi observes. “And if you’re happy after a divorce, it’s another enigma for them. For example, people tell me things like ‘you’re doing so well now… pity that you’re divorced,’” Vaishnavi says.  

Stigma for men too, but privilege helps

TNM also spoke to two men; and while it is not as though they do not face the stigma of divorce, male privilege certainly helps.

Bengaluru-based businessman Joseph*  got divorced about 16 months ago. 

“My ex-wife and I found it hard to accept that our marriage was not working and we had problems. We didn’t talk to each other or the counselors about it, which we should have, in hindsight,” the 40-year-old says.

While he found acceptance among his friends, his paternal family did not take it very well. They did not question him, but they did not discuss it either – something he wishes they had done. His mother also does not speak about it much, but Joseph says that it could be because of his own silence around it.

One place where he has felt the awkwardness most is at work. “It’s like an elephant in the room that no one wants to confront. I am in a senior position, so they don’t ask me about it. But one day they just stopped asking about my ex-wife’s well-being and it was very apparent they knew and were uncomfortable with it,” Joseph says.

He does admit however that his male privilege as well as senior position in the family business allows him to not be questioned about it. “I think it is more difficult for women. For instance, my girlfriend is also a divorcee. Her mother told her something like she will not be happy or be able to have kids now when she separated from her then partner,” Joseph shares.

Vishal, another divorcee, also admits that things were harder for his wife Shwetha* when the couple decided to formally separate. “The concept of divorce is unfamiliar to both my parents and former in-laws. But she definitely had a harder time explaining it to her folks because she was the one who had a falling out from the relationship,” the 40-year-old says.

What can friends and family do?

Shruthi feels that at sensitive times such as this, validation from loved ones goes a long way. 

“It was upsetting that our friends weren’t seeing my perspective. They found it easy to believe that he was suffering and I was the mad feminist who did this to him,” she says.

Vaishnavi also makes a pertinent point when it comes to the support families need to give to women who are divorced or are going through one. She lives with her folks in Chennai now. However, she does not have a room, or a space of her own.

“Girl children are expected to be gone after a certain time here. But now I am divorced and staying with my parents – they don’t know what to do with me. It’s as if we don’t need privacy after we are divorced. It’s not even about having someone over, or having sex with someone else, but even sitting alone in my own space – I don’t have that. This needs to change,” she says.

“When women get married and go away, it’s not like they are done and dusted with. You can’t do away with our rooms, things, and the existence of another person in the family. It’s depressing when you come back and nothing is the same. Things like making your daughter comfortable at home can go a long way,” she adds.

*Names changed to protect privacy

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