TO BE OR NOT TO BE…

When the long awaited marriage of their daughter was fixed, Rani’s parents were very excited. Their elation was doubled because the boy had a good job and was a God-fearing person. Like any parent, they dreamt of a good family life for their daughter. Rani was happy too with the proposal. More than anything, she was very happy that her fiancé was a God-fearing person and had a secure job. What else does a girl or a parent expect?

Though Rani had her own dreams about her marriage and family, she wanted, above all, to have a loving and caring husband. This is a natural desire of any girl.

After marriage, things did not go as expected by Rani. The attitude and behaviour of her husband was not as expected by her from a God-fearing person. Without yielding to disappointment, Rani tried to adjust herself according to the expectations of her husband in order to please him. Instead of changing positively, he became more demanding and critical. Her every word and every step were under his scrutiny. Her best efforts to change according to his demands did not reach his mark. “What exactly does he want? How exactly should I be to make him happy?” she wondered.

Since she taught in a college that was in another town, Rani commuted. Due to travel and teaching, she would return home in the evening exhausted and hungry. As they had dinner in her in-law’s home, the latter would serve food cooked for dinner to her son and daughter, and ask daughter-in-law to eat the leftover afternoon food. Even though her husband surely noticed this ill-treatment, he kept mum. Rani asked him several times that they cook their food separately and eat in their own house. But her husband would get into rash arguments defending that it would offend his mother and so she had to eat there only. Rani developed a craving for good sumptuous food. Whenever she saw raw vegetables she felt like eating them as she was always famished. Many times she slept not only with half filled stomach, but more than that with humiliation of being ill-treated and not getting the support of her husband. More than humiliation in the hands of her mother-in-law, she could not stomach her husband’s indifference. This started affecting her physically and psychologically. At times it led to tensions at home.

Rani decided not to inform her situation to her parents, as she was scared that they might get upset and as a result it would affect their health. She carried this heavy load of humiliation, pain and suffering for over ten years. This affected her health. Without any warning the nerves on her hands and legs would start bulging and a few minutes later would subside leaving her with nerve racking pain. Rani’s parents took her to a specialist but all the reports said that everything was normal. So why the pain? The doctor started questioning her calmly as what was her problem. Was everything at her home alright? After slight prodding Rani burst into tears and narrated all that was going on at her home. The doctor consoled Rani and advised her parents that Rani’s case was psychosomatic as she has been bottling up all her feelings for which her body was reacting in this manner. He advised them to talk to their son-in-law and settle the issues.

Rani’s parents visited Rani’s house and tried to resolve some issues, but Rani’s husband was very rude. Though he was cajoled, he refused to oblige and stuck to his self-righteous, adamant behaviour. His attitude towards his wife changed all the more now that his parents and sister openly ill-treated his wife. He became a silent supporter to this harassment.

Rani was totally devastated. Again and again the questions crossed her mind, “What is the cause for my husband’s treatment? Is something wrong with my attitude and behaviour?” As Rani tried to find the cause for her husband’s ill treatment in herself, she began to feel guilty, even though she did not find any exact reason in herself for her husband’s ill-treatment. This guilt burden had depressed her even more.

Generally when the suffering of a person continues for long, the sympathy of family members, relatives, friends and others, that was there at the beginning, slowly dwindles. They start to find the cause for his/her suffering in him/her. This will have a devastating effect on the victim. The suffering person will internalise their accusations and begin to question himself/herself. This guilt feeling will have a damaging effect on the physical, mental and spiritual health of the person.

In the case of Rani, the continuous harassment and humiliation had an effect not only on her physical, mental and spiritual health, but also on her very person. She began to lose her self worth and self image. She no longer had the same self confidence as she had before her marriage. In a way the constant harassment and humiliation not only made her to lose her self image, but also began to reshape her into the image demanded by her husband. In other words, she began to lose the essence of her very self that gave her the unique identity or who she was. Does it construe to torture? Is there any difference between torture and Rani’s husband’s harassment and humiliation? The presupposition of both is same: “You are worthless. You have no rights. You are merely a THING. I have power, authority and right to reshape you.” And the end result of both is also same: the victim loses her/his self image and allows herself/himself to be reshaped into the image expected or demanded by the victimiser. The pity is, the victim cooperates with the victimiser to be reshaped according to his whims and fancies, once the threshold to bear the pain and suffering is crossed. The victim starts to think and behave according to the expectations or demands of the victimiser.

But what was the main cause for Rani’s husband’s behaviour towards her? Her husband’s self righteous mentality, his priorities and his understanding of responsibilities as a husband and father, and the overpowering influence of his mother, father and sister. His parents, the widowed sister and her two children lived next door. Parents expected their son to take care of them and their daughter and her children. Rani did not have any problem to look after her in-laws. She liked to help those in need. So she would rather encourage and cooperate with her husband to look after her in-laws. But the problem lied in the attitude and behaviour of her husband and her in-laws. For him, providing material things to his wife was his only responsibility as a husband. Catering to her emotional, spiritual and other physical needs was not in his list of responsibilities. There was no loving care whenever she was sick. She had to ask him to take her to a doctor.

But his care and concern towards his parents and sister and her children were totally different. He would take personal care. He would inquire about their health and whether they would like to see a doctor. He was looking after the complete welfare of his sister and her two children. By catering to their needs he neglected Rani and her needs. When she questioned him on this, she was threatened with dire consequences and to mind her own business. She was given an ultimatum not to interfere in his family’s matters. “But which one is his family now?” Rani wondered.

Moreover, Rani was expected, or even demanded, to serve them in her sickness. If her service was not up to their expectations, again harassment and humiliation would recur. Above all the most painful and humiliating thing was: both her husband and in-laws started telling bad things about Rani to her son, to her relatives and friends in order to turn any sympathy that may arise towards her, forestalling any support she might gain to thwart them in their way of life. She could not withstand this. She confronted her husband and her in-laws, but with little or no success.

Rani’s parents did not do anything other than encouraging their daughter to adjust. Their attitude and behaviour emboldened Rani’s in-laws and husband to continue with their torture. In a way, her husband and in-laws created a situation for Rani where she had to choose either to be their servant or to leave her husband on her own. Her in-laws even told Rani that they had as much right, or even more, over their son/brother as she did as wife. The indifferent attitude of her husband in such situations confirmed not only their statement, but also her inferior status in her home. In all this the other victim was Rani’s son!

Rani is only one among hundreds of thousands of victims in their own homes!

A couple becoming a new family does not sever ties with their respective families, and it should not. However, the entrance of a new person (daughter-in-law or son-in-law) into the family disturbs the already established family relationships. It becomes very difficult, particularly for the parents, to accept the new relationship between their son and daughter-in-law or daughter and son-in-law, and to let go off their parental control and intrusive affection over their child. Judith L. Silverstein says, “In-laws become rivals or competitors for the spouse’s attention…In-laws may also be used to avoid intimacy within the couple.” There are couples that are living separately or living under the same roof without any communication and intimacy due to the intrusive and manipulative influence of in-laws on their child.

On the other hand, daughter-in-law or son-in-law should also be considerate and understanding about her/his spouse’s relationship with his/her family and vice-versa. One cannot expect parents and siblings to immediately alter their relationship with their family member after her/his marriage. That too in Indian context, children live with their parents till they get married. So the bond between parents and children and between siblings is quite strong. In this situation what is needed is proper understanding and sacrifice on the part of both family members and in-laws.

However, the main person is the husband/son. He is the main link between his wife, who comes with so many dreams and expectations and gives herself completely to him, and parents, who gave him birth and brought him up to the position where he is. The pressure from both his wife and his parents is on him for his attention, love, care and support. Therefore, his role to establish and maintain a healthy understanding between his wife and his family members and a healthy relationship between them is very critical. This requires maturity, wisdom, sensitivity and courage. Most of the time man yields to the pressures of either wife or parents and take sides, thus contributing not only to widening the gap between wife and his family members, but also to the abuse of his wife or parents. In the case of Rani’s husband, he sided with his parents and sister and took part, along with his family members, in the ill-treatment of his wife. Some men side their parents for the sake of their share in the family property. Even parents use this to compel their sons to listen to their dictates and to follow their demands, just like animals that can be drawn by dangling food in front of their nose. Therefore, one should develop a staunch motivation and character that enables him to resist physical, psychological and social pressures to achieve a balanced, comfortable and happy family life.

Man should try to see that his wife becomes a member of his family. Although it is difficult, as it depends on the personality of both his wife and his family members, it is not impossible. It requires patience and tactfulness. As long as the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is treated as an outsider or an intruder into the family, it works as fuel for the conflict. Serving leftover afternoon food to Rani by her mother-in-law and food cooked for dinner to her son shows the place of Rani in the house. That’s why in May 2013 the Supreme Court of India, expressing its concern over instances of bride being burnt and tortured, said a daughter-in-law must be respected in her matrimonial home as it “reflects sensitivity of a civilised society.” “A daughter-in-law is to be treated as a member of the family with warmth and affection and not as a stranger with irrespectable and ignoble indifference. She should not be treated as a housemaid. No impression should be given that she can be thrown out of her matrimonial home at any time.” It further said, “Respect of a bride in her matrimonial home glorifies the solemnity and sanctity of marriage, reflects the sensitivity of a civilised society and eventually epitomises her aspirations dreamt of in nuptial bliss.” The apex court bemoaned, “But the manner in which sometimes the bride is treated in many a home by the husband, in-laws and the relatives creates a feeling of emotional numbness in society … It is a matter of grave concern and shame that brides are burned or otherwise their life-sparks are extinguished by torture, both physical and mental, because of demand of dowry and insatiable greed and sometimes, sans demand of dowry, because of cruelty and harassment meted out to the nascent brides, treating them with total insensitivity, destroying their desire to live and forcing them to commit suicide, a brutal self-humiliation of life.”

When he noticed the way his mother was treating Rani repeatedly, Rani’s husband should have talked to his mother in private and expressed his displeasure about her treatment. His indifference to his wife’s abuse reflects the entrenched patriarchal mindset and culture, where man and his family enjoy superior status in relationship with woman and her family. In this unequal power relationship the kind of treatment faced by Rani in the hands of her husband and in-laws is acceptable generally. Rani’s parents’ mute response to their daughter’s pathetic situation and their encouragement to their daughter to adjust in spite of her pain, agony and humiliation reinforce the unequal power relationships between husband and wife and between both the families. Healthy treatment and relationships can be expected only when man, wife and their families consciously seek for redemption from the entrenched patriarchal mindset and culture.

Only then, in-laws can play a role to enrich young family life, providing added support, friendship and guidance. In times of conflicts within the young family they can play as peacemakers between the conflicting couple with their thoughtful, timely and matured intervention and guidance. With their maturity, experience and wisdom, in-laws can help the couple to grow into maturity, so that the latter may face life challenges with strength, wisdom and understanding.

What parents-in-law should understand is that they have a lot to contribute to their son’s or daughter’s family. There may be grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These future generations need grandparents and their positive influence on their personality development. If there is relationship problem between in-laws and daughter-in-law, it hampers their positive contribution not only to the couple but also to the future generations.

However, marriages are more likely to be cohesive, if the married couple is autonomous. Suggesting autonomy of the married couple does not mean that the in-laws should not play a constructive role ….. but without intrusion. Loving service, instead of control and domination, contributes to healthy relationships. This requires humility and sacrifice. We become most truly human in the measure in which we give ourselves for the sake of others. We achieve human dignity and experience freedom when we free ourselves from all subservience to our feelings, desires and self-interest, and in free choice of doing well and serving others. Greed and self-centredness cause strain on relationships.

Most of the times we tend to ignore, consciously or unconsciously, the fact that money and material things do not satisfy basic human needs. One may have all the money, yet live with the nagging feeling of emptiness, restlessness and even boredom. The basic human needs – acceptance, affirmation, appreciation and recognition – are fulfilled in healthy relationships.

No wonder Rani’s husband missed the mark. He expected his wife to be happy and satisfied with the material things. He thought that providing her material things was his responsibility, without meeting her basic human needs. Through suppression of her freedom or free expression of her very self through constant criticism of her words and deeds and humiliation, he denied her basic human needs. Her growth as a unique person with intelligence, feelings and emotions is stunted. Not surprisingly, Rani was sad and lived with a void within her, in spite of having wealth and social status. Poverty of life in the midst of material prosperity!!!

Freedom of expression of self – intelligence, feelings and emotions – is a basic human right. When both husband and wife have this freedom in their family, it helps in mutual growth, love and understanding as persons. Even if one partner’s right of self expression is restrained, both partners will have stunted growth as husband and wife. That’s why restriction of Rani’s freedom of self expression kept her husband under the false illusion of being perfect and fulfilling his responsibilities faithfully as husband and father.

The fertile ground for mutual growth is characterised by humility, attitude of learning, understanding, love and communication. Affirmation, appreciation, acceptance and recognition of value and worth of spouse not only enhance self esteem and self image, but also helps husband/wife to become a better person.

Finally, but most importantly, the golden rule is: TREAT YOUR SPOUSE THE SAME WAY AS YOU WOULD TREAT YOURSELF.

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