For 35 years of her married life, Laxmi served every whim and fancy of her demanding husband. At the age of 56, she developed high blood pressure and diabetes. She started yoga and meditation classes at the advice of her doctor. And that is when she began to realise the suppression she had subjected herself to. She had been sacrificing her feelings, opinions, needs and dreams at the altar of her husband’s demands for so many years.
For her, this realisation was a turning point. She decided to start valuing her inner and outer life from then on. She took up reading self-help books, regularly attended meditation classes and started taking time out just for herself: to nurture her needs and her dreams. Obviously her husband could not digest the change. He put every obstacle in her path. The more freely she expressed her opinions, however politely, the more it enraged him. The more time she took to nurture her body and mind, the more his demands increased. It came to a point where he used the ultimate weapon demanding a divorce. Laxmi was shattered. Neither could she regress to her previous submissive state, nor could she deal with this unexpected threat at her age.
Change in anyone has certain important implications. While changing the old passiveness to assertiveness, there is no guarantee of a favourable outcome. When a person starts to change, the family members may either be happy to see the change or become distressed about it. They may find it threatening, and even attempt to sabotage the process of change.
Ripple effects of change
There are always ripple effects of change in the family, and more so in the spouse of the individual who is trying to change. It is humorously said, when depressed married women go into therapy and get better, their husbands [or their marriages] may get worse. For instance if a previously unassertive woman learns assertiveness skills, her husband is likely to be disturbed by her new attitude and behaviour towards him. He will verbally or non-verbally demonstrate his discomfort and is even likely to get angry.
There are many ways in which your partner may resist and obstruct change in you.
- By yelling and trying to ‘reason’.
- By weeping, pleading and trying to make you feel guilty.
- By threatening total rejection.
- By discrediting the counsellor/therapist who is helping you to change and grow in your best interest.
- By threatening suicide.
Giving is not always good
It is taught to us that we must give in to our partners if we want our marriage to succeed. Be as giving as you can and your partner will love you forever…is the thinking. But this is not usually true. We have nothing against being a decent, loving and charitable person— mature people care for others, and a world without people who care, is not worth living in. But there is also something like unhealthy giving. You do not build a good marriage by chronically sacrificing yourself out of a distorted and warped sense of ‘deep love’. You only spoil the one you indulge and make yourself miserable. No relationship can stay healthy for long under these conditions.
Change and growth are inevitable. And if you are becoming increasingly aware of your self-defeating ‘sacrificial spirit’, then there will be ‘labour pains’ when giving birth to a new assertive and self-interested you. The greatest pain stems from resistance from your spouse.
Geeta was a battered wife who was a sucker for her husband’s tear-filled, ‘sincere’ apologies. “I am so sorry. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Give me this last chance. I promise this will never happen again. I need you. I love you,” he used to say after a round of battering. This was an oft-repeated scene. Neither did her husband stop battering her, nor did she stop falling for his lines. Then one day, Geeta saw a talk show on battered wives on TV. Watching the stories of many other women who suffered like her and who had finally stood up and said ‘No more’, was an enlightening moment for her. She felt empowered for the first time in the knowledge that she had the right to live her life on her own terms. Statements like, ‘I have the right to have feelings and express them. I have the right to act in my self-interest. I have the right to say ‘no’ continuously played in her head until she acted on them. She walked out on her husband and refused to come back till he entered therapy and the therapist certified that he had made genuine progress. She held her ground even when he threatened suicide.
He realised she meant business and entered therapy unconditionally. Geeta got herself an interesting job and found a new world outside her violent home. Today, he is still in therapy and she is doing self-exploration to find out where she wants to go from here.
Living for your self
Living an assertive and appropriately self-interested life means that individuals have a right to decide how they will live their lives, and not infringe on equal rights of others. If this happens, it is perfectly okay for one to live life in the way one wants.
Of course this does not mean that you leave absolutely everything behind you including the people you are close to. The biggest fear your spouse faces is when he sees you change.
The fear results in a knee-jerk reaction. But if you reassure him, he will understands that you are only leaving behind attitudes and behaviours which are truly unhealthy and detrimental to your growth. If he genuinely cares for your growth, and for the health of your relationship, he will be supportive after the initial resistance. He might even be inspired by your changes to make a few of his own. Like in the case of Vinita and Rajesh. Vinita was brought up in a dysfunctional family. She married Rajesh to get away from it. She was a child-woman with low self-worth, who got into bouts of deep depression and spent hours crying on Rajesh’s shoulder. Rajesh would take care of her like a child and their relationship was more a parent-child one than a man-woman one. Vinita entered therapy for her depressive spells and healed herself, changing the dynamics between her and Rajesh. Rajesh was left confused and felt abandoned, betrayed as he viewed her emotional independence as leaving him behind and that ‘he was no longer needed.’ They entered couple therapy and through a step-by-step process developed a new, healthier relationship. Vinita communicated the gratitude she felt for his support through her painful process of personal growth and how she valued the relationship and wanted to now give to it instead of only taking from it as an emotional child. Rajesh was now relaxed and inspired to deal with his own demons of the past and to live a more fulfilling life as well as give the best of himself to the relationship.
Change generally brings some degree of suffering. This suffering can lead to discovering a new phase where both feel that their valid needs are being met or can even end a relationship, because of the unwillingness to accept transformation.
Change is the only constant and personal growth means being in a state of flux. Evolving constantly in order to self-actualise, one should allow no one or nothing to stand in the way of this dynamic process of change. Changing is actually discovering yourself, an essential part of being yourself.
This was first published in the April 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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