After years of trying to be the ‘perfect bahu’ by changing her habits, mannerisms and dressing style, Tanvi, a communications coach from Mumbai, realised nothing could please her husband or his family. “The harder I tried, the worse I felt. Yet I continued trying to prioritise them and their needs in order to avoid confrontation,” she says.
For Tanvi, freedom came in embracing herself, with all her imperfections, and letting go of her toxic marriage and the burden of being ‘perfect’.
While most Indians, irrespective of gender, are taught to place others before themselves, there’s added pressure for women when it comes to prioritising themselves and their choices. “And when women try to unlearn this, it can create a dilemma for some of them. How much priority should they place on themselves and how much on others?” says Suvrita, a psychologist from Bangalore.
We spoke to a few women and experts to understand how Indian women, who are conditioned to be ‘perfect partners’, can attempt to change the norm.
Let go of the idea of perfection
For Brinda, an account manager at a Bangalore-based ad agency, accepting ‘differences’ between her and her husband strengthened their bond. “We may not always be ideal partners as per society’s standards. Do we bicker? Yes, we do! But we also have mutual respect and can depend on each other,” she says.
Ruchi Ruuh, a relationship counsellor from Delhi, comments that disagreements are a part of every relationship and acceptance is key, provided the relation is not abusive. “There is no one way of being a ‘perfect’ spouse or partner and it is better to focus on what you can do for each other, instead of focussing on areas where you are lacking,” she suggests.
“A perfect relationship isn’t one where partners always get along or agree on everything,” adds Suvrita. She insists it is more about being committed to growth and being okay with messing up occasionally. “And, it is okay to experience guilt after messing up, as it reminds us to take responsibility for our actions,” she says. Her advice for women is to reflect on their behaviour and its source, instead of considering themselves less-than-perfect.
The idea is to accept differences and flaws and not force pre-conceived notions of ‘perfect partnership’ on each other. “It is equally important to learn the art of conflict resolution,” Ruchi says.
Start being true to yourself
When Jyoti, a corporate trainer from Hyderabad, got married, she was still nursing a broken heart. She had done it all, changed her food habits, her lifestyle, her preferences, basically her entire life to suit the needs of the man she was dating. And things were good in the beginning. “But the love didn’t last,” says Jyoti, adding that it wasn’t meant to, because she was not true to herself.
“I consciously tried to alter myself and be ‘perfect’ for him and this left me stressed and unhappy. When the relationship ended, I decided never to change myself for anyone again,” she says.
In most cases, self-imposed standards of perfection — in order to live up to a partner’s expectations — lead to anxiety that can have long-term psychological impact.
After her marriage, Jyoti faced another dilemma, that of trusting her partner and his intentions. “I was skeptical in the beginning. I wondered if he was being his true self, or if he was also trying to be ‘perfect’ to please me. I did everything in my power to test his authenticity,” she says.
Ruchi acknowledges that a stable relationship can never be built on pretense. It is built over time with candid communication, understanding, respect and reciprocity. “It’s never a good idea to assume what a partner wants and to make changes based on those assumptions. One must learn to ask questions and analyse the feedback,” she advices.
Don’t compare yourself with others
An otherwise confident woman, Mitali felt guilty of not being ‘perfect’ when she couldn’t conceive within a few years of her marriage. She claims it was self-imposed, as neither her husband nor his family made any impractical demands on her.
“As women, we are conditioned to believe that we are less than perfect if we cannot be mothers. Although I tried my best to be an ideal wife and daughter-in-law, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was flawed. I constantly compared myself to other women,” says Mitali, a faculty member at a Kolkata management school.
The problem of comparing ourselves with our peers is that we often miss the real picture. Although a couple may appear happier, healthier and wealthier, this projection may be far from the truth.
“Hence, before you compare your relationship to someone else’s, remember that it might not be what you imagine it to be. Maybe the other couple has differences that you have no clue about. It’s better to focus on yourself and work on building your bond,” Ruchi advices.
Learn to prioritise yourself
After her marriage, Vidula, a graphic designer from Delhi, tried to hide her likes and dislikes to avoid arguments with her husband. “In my attempt to be the ‘perfect wife’, I stopped listening to my choice of music or watching movies he didn’t enjoy. Looking back, I feel so foolish! I am now actively trying to break out of this ‘people pleasing’ habit,” she says.
Ruchi says every adult needs to be responsible for their own well-being and that the romanticised idea of women being responsible for their partner’s happiness is problematic. “This puts a lot of pressure on women and leaves them feeling dissatisfied and unloved. Women need to fill their own cup of happiness before they can tend to others,” she says.
After her separation, Tanvi did exactly that! She started focussing on herself and trying to embody qualities that she would have liked in her partner. “Although it is a long road to recovery, I have found peace in accepting and loving my true self. I am open to falling in love again, but right now I feel ‘perfectly’ okay being single,” she says.
Suvrita claims some women might experience anger and bitterness when they are forced to prioritise the needs of partners or families. “But we also need to understand that a woman can do so on her own accord, and that she may not consider it as a sacrifice. I believe Indian women should be free to choose and exercise their agency in any relationship,” she says.
Debarati Chakraborty is an independent journalist, who writes on mental health, relationships and sexuality.