Constant arguing, different priorities, interfering in-laws — newlyweds often wonder what they’ve got themselves into when traditional expectations threaten their modern marriage.
Counsellor Saunia S. Ahmad teaches couples how to negotiate a ceasefire
Published: July 10, 2008 in the Desi Life section of the Toronto Star
Shalini and Rahul* were married in a traditional Indian wedding less than a
year ago. (*Shalini and Rahul are a composite of the South Asians I work with as
a couples therapist.) The week-long festivities were full of the stress of
families clashing and the couple are still blowing off steam. To make matters
worse, they are struggling to deal with their differences, which they secretly
wish they had known about before getting married. As they maintain the happy
newlywed façade for their community, attending customary post-wedding dinner
invites, they silently question what they got themselves into.
Unresolved arguments get recycled in their conversations. At some point they
stop listening and caring about what their spouse is trying to say. The
frustration of not being understood seeps into idle chit-chat, so a seemingly
harmless comment over dinner, such as “The chicken is too bland,” sparks an
The first year of marriage is the most testing period for the newlywed
couple. It is a time when marriages in the South Asian community have in recent
years become more prone to separation — even if it’s only an emotional one.
Desi couples fight about the same things as most couples — time, sex and
money — but about 70 per cent of South Asian couples I have worked with say a
major, if not primary, reason for conflict involves each other’s extended
Extended families expect the new couple to continue being part of the family,
and some even expect them to live under one roof. Decisions such as whose family
the couple spends their first Eid, Diwali or Christmas with become contentious
issues because they symbolically represent whose family comes first.
When I ask couples if their relationship with each other would improve if
their families ceased to exist, they realize that a lot of their conflicts are
not about family interference per se, but how they communicate with each other
and how they present their relationship to their families. South Asians are
particularly sensitive about how their partner treats their family. They get
very defensive around each other’s extended family and this interferes with
their ability to understand each other.
Returning to our composite couple, Rahul thinks Shalini is self-absorbed and
Shalini feels Rahul does not think for himself. As I guide them through a more
constructive dialogue, Rahul begins to realize that Shalini very much likes his
family and wants to feel a part of it, not as a daughter-in-law but as a
daughter. Instead, she feels marginalized in his family and thinks Rahul gives
his family priority over her. Shalini starts to see that for Rahul, his family
is an integral part of his identity and he wants her to be a part of his family
but in no way subjugated.
Things improve for couples when they start working together as a team. They
speak up on behalf of their relationship if someone offends their partner.
Families also struggle with this as they learn to adjust to their children being
married, but gradually they treat the newlyweds as a team and respect them more
for it in the end.
Effective communication is key to preventing blow-ups. I surveyed 114 South
Asian couples in the GTA, ranging in age from 19 to 67, married for six months
to 35 years. The results showed even if couples disagreed on such contentious
issues as how to handle in-laws, money and household chores, strong
communication skills would alleviate those problems.
The previous generation thinks today’s South Asian marriages are breaking
down because they have lost the time-honoured cultural ideals of commitment in a
marriage, while today’s generation refuses to silently suffer and sacrifice as
the previous generation did in their very dutyoriented marriages. As a result,
South Asian couples are redefining their expectations of marriage, trying to
keep one foot rooted in family tradition and the other stepping out into Western
context. Indeed, a Statistics Canada study of ethnic diversity in 2002 found
that no other visible minority felt as strongly about belonging to both their
ethnic heritage and to Canada as South Asians.
Many couples inherit their ambition from their achievement-driven families
who immigrated to Canada with next to nothing and made their way up. They have
busy careers and plan to be at the top of their respective fields. They also
feel they must buy their first house soon. At the same time, they are close to
their families and spend a lot of time with both. Stretched thin between
ambition and family obligations, they struggle to make quality time for each
Problems regarding sexual intimacy are not often raised in my therapy
sessions, which comes as no surprise to Dr. Faizal Sahukhan
(multiculturalromance. org), a Vancouver-based sex therapist with a 30 per cent
South Asian clientele.
Indian himself, he says we desis grew up in very “sex-negative environments,”
where talking openly about sex was bad, and sex was portrayed as a dutiful
rather than pleasurable act reserved primarily for the purposes of
He finds that today’s South Asian couples are more ready than the previous
generation to call it quits in the first year if they do not click sexually, but
subconsciously they carry guilt and shame about confiding their sexual needs to
each other, much less a therapist. “They don’t talk about it because talking
about sex is shameful,” he says. “If you don’t talk about it . . . you don’t
really know what page you’re on, and that leads to a lot of resentment for each
other, and potentially divorce.”
South Asian partners come to the marriage with different definitions of
sexual intimacy and experiences. Without communication they misinterpret each
other’s sexual expectations and feel rejected or even subjugated: for instance,
a husband who feels performing oral sex on his wife represents a loss of
dominance, or a husband who interprets his traditional wife’s passivity as lack
Sahukhan focuses on enhancing South Asian partners’ sexual confidence and
talking openly about their sexual needs. He helps them learn about each other’s
sexual response cycle because “when you recognize what makes you feel good, then
educate your partner, your partner helps you physically and you feel good
sexually. It’s a cycle that builds each other’s sexual ego. Doing that, and
wanting to do that, creates more trust, empathy and love for each other.”
Jay and Priya (not their real names) have been married for 31/2 years and
every fight always goes back to their wedding day, “even if you don’t want it
to,” says Priya. “It should be the best day of your life, but it’s made so
stressful. . . . In an Indian wedding you’re not getting married to each other,
you’re getting married to the family so you want to keep the mother-in-law happy
and the father-in-law happy and the sister- in-law happy and the brother-in-law
happy and the nephews happy, and it’s really hard.”
The first year of their marriage was “horrible,” says Jay. “Divorce came into
every other conversation because it always ended with, ‘individually we are
great people, but together it’s just not working.’ ” As is typical of most South
Asian couples, their arguments would draw in the extended family: “Your family’s
like this and my family’s like this,” says Jay. Priya adds: “Then I feel
resentment because I am angry at his mom for something she said earlier. Then
they hear us because we are in the house with them and they try to come and fix
it . . . it’s like your arguments are not your own arguments either.”
“There was no growth in our relationship,” says Jay, “because we stopped
getting to know each other. We were on guard all the time. You’re ready to fight
regardless of what is being said because you have adapted to that style.”
Jay and Priya got over these hurdles after they started to spend more quality
time with each other away from the family. As a result they got to know and
trust each other. They shifted their attention away from trying to win every
argument, and instead focused on working together on common goals they had for
the future, such as buying their first house.
All couples face challenges in this very busy and dynamic world. And learning
to work as a unit starts with quality communication. It works wonders if a young
marriage develops this sense of unity early. However, it is never too late; I
have seen couples learn how to do this to their own shared satisfaction many
years later — and find fulfilment in their relationships.
Starting off Right
• Most partners are only half listening to what their spouse is saying
because they are busy mentally preparing their response. Instead, put yourself
in your partner’s shoes and understand the significance of what they are trying
to tell you, and communicate that understanding back to them so they feel
• Take time out when you notice your emotions are rising around a discussion.
You are more likely to say things you regret and lead to more conflict. Address
it when you’re both calmer.
• Be positive. Rather than saying “You shouldn’t be out all the time,” say,
“I would like it if you were around more.” The former feels like an attack and
does not help your spouse understand what it is you want.
• Make doing things together a priority, just like you make your careers and
family a priority.
Saunia S. Ahmad is doing her PhD in Clinical
Psychology at York University. She runs the South Asian couples counselling
program. Visit www.southasianfamilies.com for more information. Email firstname.lastname@example.org