“Every relationship has problems, beta,” said Aina’s aunt, a few months after her separation. Aina knew better than to react to that. She’d walked out of a very difficult marriage, leaving her belongings and valuables at her absconding husband’s house who wasn’t responding to her requests for a mutual consent divorce. Eventually, she was forced to send him a legal notice for divorce. “But I want to be seen and respected!” she told her family. Her mom’s unwavering support is what finally saw her through the divorce, despite her relatives constantly reminding her of the stigma associated with a divorce.
I genuinely didn’t know the extent of the stigma that exists until I was done with my divorce and started opening up about it on social media. Even with the small population that I was able to reach out to, the stories I heard shook me to my core. The number of stories that are hidden behind closed doors, in silent tears and loud prayers, is an astounding number. If I could talk to just a thousand people, imagine the actual number of people suffering! It baffles me that we’ve allowed the fear of a divorce and the stigma around it to prevail over our needs of safety and happiness.
Mahathi told me how her divorce made her realise she’s breaking generational trauma. Her family might not have been supportive, but she’s seen other relatives who stay in highly toxic marriages because they didn’t have another option. But she has made the choice for herself. She didn’t need to hide scars like her aunt did, or cry in bathrooms like her other aunt, or stick to a marriage for the children’s sake, like her uncle. Hailing from a big family gave her different perspectives, and she’s completely at peace with the idea that she’s breaking the chain and setting an example for others in her family, affirming that it’s all right to get a divorce and be happy.
There are also contrasting stories of support, particularly from parents, that make a world of difference. Reshma’s parents not only rescued her from another country from a husband who couldn’t control his anger, they brought her back to safety, nursed her back to health and helped her regain control over her life. They, along with her sister, even went to court with her every single time to ensure she never felt alone. “I realised the stigma was mostly in my head,” she said. “I postponed my divorce because I thought I’ll have to wait for my sister to get married and that his behaviour will actually change by that time, and we could avoid a divorce,” she added. But that’s hardly ever the case, and Reshma is sure that she should have focused on herself and gotten out much faster. Her family has bounced back from this incident as a cohesive unit, and she’s currently healing extremely well.
“Because I’m a woman and brought up the idea of divorce, I was extremely judged, shamed and scolded.” Supriya married the guy her parents picked and agreed to the wedding when she barely knew him. Now, when she looks back, she sarcastically mocks her decision. She and her husband had no intimacy and barely any communication from day one of their marriage. “It was an arranged marriage and I thought it’d take time to get comfortable,” was her initial reasoning. But two years later, she found they were in the same sad boat, with no effort or progress from either side. She waited for him to initiate a conversation about divorce, and he did the same. Neither wanted to be the bad person, but how long would they wait for someone to take the initiative? Supriya felt she’d had enough and wouldn’t mind being the bad person. Somebody had to step up, after all. Supriya’s conservative family were shocked by her decision. While her husband kept quiet, all the blame was put on Supriya for not trying hard enough. This put a lot of undue pressure on her to get out of the relationship while also dealing with the guilt trip others were putting her through. Both families hadn’t experienced a divorce before, and this was a big taboo they weren’t able to accept. When counselling failed to reconcile the couple’s differences, the families agreed to a divorce but very reluctantly.
On the other hand, Tisha’s family was incredibly supportive of her amicable divorce. In fact, she and her ex-husband exchanged brownies before the final hearing and continue to keep in touch. But she faced stigma in a very unusual place, and that’s when the gravity of it truly hit home. She engaged frequently on a WhatsApp group consisting of feminist-identifying folks, who shared opinions on a variety of topics. One fine day, the topic brought up was whether divorced people need to disclose their status on a dating app bio. Tisha happened to think they don’t need to, because it isn’t necessary. She will choose to disclose this to people she feels comfortable with, at her own pace.
This opinion was met with a shocking “but it is misleading to not know about this before swiping on someone”. The opinion itself, and more so coming from a so-called feminist group, caught her off guard, and she realised that sometimes we don’t even realise how profound the stigma is.
Excerpted with permission from Divorce Is Normal, Shasvathi Siva, Penguin India.