Usually, our homes are considered as our safe space. For people who are in a marriage that makes them feel physically and/or emotionally unsafe with their spouse however, this statement might not hold true.
My 29-year-old client V has been married for a year. It was an arranged marriage. The match was found by her parents on a matrimony site. Even though they both lived in Mumbai, V met her now husband only three times before the wedding. When they got married the husband’s parents lived in another city.
The first six months were a bit tough as she realised her husband had a very stereotypical notion of how a wife should be. They both worked and had requisite staff for cleaning and cooking. However, she was expected to heat the food and lay the table. After dinner, he would not even pick his own plate and V was left to clear the table by herself. V was never consulted before making decisions like what household gadgets to buy, kind of furniture needed for a room or even where they would like to eat if they went out.
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V says as a “modern woman” this behaviour was unacceptable to her. She addressed this head on with her husband. He seemed a bit taken aback, even pointed out that this how all marriages work and how this relationship is supposed to be. Eventually, he agreed that times have changed and with great hesitation increased his participation in household chores and accepted V’s opinions in any decision making. They had barely settled into this pattern when V lost her father-in-law within six months of getting married. Her widowed mother-in-law then moved in with them.
Their troubles took a very serious turn then. V’s husband’s behaviour not only went back to how it was at the beginning of their marriage but became worse. V was asked to leave her job and manage the household instead. Any resistance from her side was met with physical intimidation not only by her husband but her mother-in-law as well. V describes how she used be scared standing in the kitchen with her back to the door – often worried that she might be attacked. She just did not feel safe. V’s family insisted that she adjust till things settled down, since it was an emotionally hard time for her husband and his mother since they suddenly lost his father. Not much changed for another four months, except the increase in V’s fear of being in the same house as her husband and mother-in-law.
One day, her husband actually tried to hit her. This is when V packed her bags and left. Thankfully her family supported her decision. V has now filed for a divorce and the proceedings for that are still on-going. She has been in therapy for depression since then. As a part of the therapy, she and I are doing sessions on what is an ideal relationship.
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In V’s case, identifying that she wasn’t safe was very clear due to the physical intimidation she faced. However, it is difficult to detect being emotionally unsafe, even for those who experience it. A male friend of mine, S, who was married for 18 years, was in an emotionally unsafe marriage. He had shared some traumatic childhood incidents about his parents with his wife in the early days of their marriage. One of them was that his father had an affair with their house help, and his parents had had a very troubled marriage since. For 18 years his wife brought this incident up every time they had a change in their domestic staff, warning him not to do what his father did.
Another example of this was when he tried to get alternative treatment for an ailment, instead of opting for a surgery. The treatment had not helped, and his ailment got so bad that he had to be taken for an emergency surgery. After that his wife hurled this episode at him as an example of how his judgement about anything cannot be trusted. S feared that sharing anything with his wife will lead to giving her more material to berate, or even use the information against, him. He felt he could never let his guard down with her. Which meant that he would never be able to be himself in his own home. S’s home was not his safe space. These are examples of not being emotionally safe in a marriage, and it took S almost 18 years to identify it.
While the feeling of ‘emotional unsafety’ can be addressed with therapy, it’s only possible if the partner is willing to address this issue and work with you on it. S’s wife refused to do so, and their marriage ended up in a divorce. In V’s case working through both physical and emotional unsafety is very hard and such relationships should most likely end.
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The most important thing is to identify and call out what you are experiencing for what it is. Then, to make sure you understand your situation clearly, distance yourself from your partner and even from your home for a bit. Get to a safe place (for example, to a parents’ home or a close friend’s home) where you can calm yourself and assess your feelings without any fear. The next step is to seek external help to evaluate the situation. These steps help you become sure footed about the decisions you need to make. The truth is, when you don’t feel safe in your relationship, you will concentrate on protecting yourself against the other — and that means it will be the end of the connection one needs and ideally should have with their partner.
This is a limited series by Simran Mangharam, a dating and relationship coach, who can be reached on email@example.com