• The Star

A Fighting Chance for Married Couples

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 
explosive conflict.

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 
of desire.

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  desilife@thestar.ca