Trigger Warning: Gaslighting
I lost my father suddenly in 2017. We are now a family of three women and one male college student. He was a merchant navy captain who was healthy, a non-smoker and a non-drinker. His passing away was unexpected and we were totally unprepared. My mother woke up one day with 40 missed calls from the ship to inform us that my father is no more.
What followed was a bizarre set of events, from getting his mortal remains from high seas to organising his cremation. No one helped, everyone was more interested to know the compensation amount and how his property was to be distributed. Despite having relatives in the same city where his cremation was undertaken, we were forced to find a home-stay to undertake the 13 days rituals. The men would come, have tea, talk about random stuff and leave. We were doing all the groundwork, from cooking to organising the rituals, to paying for them. Eventually, all on our own, three women and a 17-year-old boy successfully completed his rituals. With this, we thought our fight was over, little knowing that just now our battles had started.
A house without a man in today’s “modern” world is still considered “open” for other men to feel that it is now their moral responsibility to handle the house. Each day, we would get a call from “concerned relatives” chiding my mother to make sure to get my sister and me married with whoever is available.
Through all this chaos, I met someone – someone I’d like to think was perfect for me. I like to think that he loved me and understood me. The first day we met, we knew there was a big financial divide – I earn thrice the amount as a corporate lawyer than he does as a photographer. But I was clear that I would never ask him his salary and vice versa because I did not want money to come in between the love we apparently had. Lockdown cut dating short and brought with it challenges to the relationship. He was frustrated at living alone, but by pulling strings and making frantic calls, I managed to get him to his parent’s house for the remainder of the lockdown. Early on, I acted to make him happy without much consideration for myself. My family never liked him, but ignored everything for my happiness.
But after he reached home, his behaviour completely changed. Money, which was never an issue between us, became the sole point of conflict. My wants and needs became secondary. When I wanted to buy my first car, my dream car that I had saved up for, he insisted I buy a smaller car since financially it would be more viable for us. Everything I wanted was met with a “no”, a “do what I think is better”. Marriage talk became a battle to ensure his parent’s wishes were fulfilled, rather than his future wife. His mother mentioned, “I am going to wear a gown, so you also wear a gown”. When I disagreed, he would say that I am separating him from his parents.
Without any valid reasons, his father called my mother at 11:30 in the night to call off the wedding. But the very next day he came back from Chandigarh to Gurgaon to meet me and reconcile. I met his parents, and his father explained to me that a woman needs to put 70% in a relationship, whereas the man needs to put only 30%, and that is how a relationship would survive. The so-called compromise we reached was that his father would step back, and any discussions would be between our mothers. Despite this, he kept the threat of calling off the marriage hanging over my head like a dagger waiting to fall, if I didn’t finance the entire wedding, or if I didn’t conform to his parents’ wishes.
Backed into a corner
I realise now that there was a pattern emerging, which before I was blind to out of fear of being a burden on my widowed mother if I didn’t marry.
I convinced myself to believe that every marriage requires compromise, and this is the price of being a daughter in this culture. But this logic wasn’t conceived by my own agency, but instead was a product of emotional manipulation, or gaslighting.
This term is relatively new to the mainstream discourse on domestic abuse and is often misunderstood due to the lack of clarity and recognition that certain “normalised” behaviour is actually abusive. So, what is gaslighting? The official Oxford definition is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”. It’s making someone think that their valid reaction is an overreaction. It’s being told “you’re crazy”, or to accept things you’re not okay with constantly until you believe exactly that. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, and its danger comes from being so discreet, difficult to notice, and easy to get away with. As well as making someone doubt their own sanity, it is often used as a tactic to shift the blame from the gaslighter to the gaslight-ee. By questioning yourself and being made to feel like your reaction was invalid, you see the transference of guilt to the victim alongside the absolvement of the abuser’s responsibility.
It continued when I landed my dream job, which made me financially better. His family kept telling him how he is a “joru ka ghulam“, making me feel guilty for doing better than him. The manipulation spread, his mother completely changed the words of a conversation with my mother and relayed them to my fiance, causing him to be furious with me, Then his father continued to get involved, calling my mother in the night and asking her to “teach me the manner to talk”.
The thing about gaslighting is that it works like a poison. The effects of being made to feel small, manipulated, and invalid slowly seeps into your system, affecting your mental wellbeing until it reaches a breaking point. My mother had a panic attack that night and was hospitalised. It was a nightmare, after our father, it is only our mother left and because of such unwarranted things, she is now hospitalised. My brother who had hardly got the love and affection of his father was now being subjected to losing his mother too, only because a man could not respect his boundaries.
My fiance’s response to my begging to leave my mother alone was to shrug it off, telling me, “I do not understand what you are saying, but if my father does not talk to your mother, the wedding is called off”. I begged him, telling him that I will adjust in all ways to his family but do not expect my mother to adjust, to which he said that I am in fact forcing his father to adjust by not letting him talk to my mother. Which really meant: not letting him have control. That was the brink. Two months before the wedding, where I had paid for the venue, clothes and circulated “Save the Date” cards, the wedding was called off.
I am a woman, a lawyer, a teacher. I teach young girls to stand up for what they feel is right, I guide them to uplift other girls, and here I was, bearing chauvinism, bearing inferiority and ego of men, who do not know how to respect boundaries. Having my relationship and my future held over me as a burden, being made to feel like it’s my fault.
Why we speak
Here I am today, deeply wounded because I gave more than what I had to a man-baby who could not stand up for me, who could not understand me, for whom his ego was bigger than anything else. Who got manipulated by his parents, who manipulated me. This sort of manipulation, whilst sometimes discreet and hard to spot, is often part of wider patterns of emotionally abusive behaviour. That was confirmed for me when I recently got to know that my ex-fiance had a previous ex-fiance, a 12-year relationship that was called off because his parents demanded she leave her job. Girls have such a tendency to blame themselves in everything that goes wrong. His previous ex blamed herself, doubted herself, thinking that she should have shifted. And I blamed myself, kept doubting myself that I should have let his father and my mother talk.
And it’s really easy to feel that way, as not only is gaslighting common in emotionally abusive relationships but in South Asian culture when it comes to all things marriage and family-related. Trauma therapist and journalist Ruchia Chandrashekar writes that gaslighting is often an assertion of power in South Asian families, normalised to a dangerous degree and dresses up manipulation with concern.
“Often, age and years of experience are used to dismiss the lived experience or opinions of younger folk. Assertions of beliefs like ‘we know what’s best for you’ is also commonplace”, Ruchia says.
When it comes to marriage, this particularly affects young women and girls because of the inherently patriarchal nature of power and decision making in our traditions that we’re all too familiar with. Ruchia also points out that we’re often made to feel like we owe it to parents and partners to conform to their control, as to not be a burden. After losing a parent, it’s easy for that feeling to become all-consuming.
But in order to combat those little doubts that we’ve been almost coerced into creating, we need to ask questions to help us see the other side. Why did he lay down such a condition? Instead of getting intimidated by strong women, why couldn’t he accept that there are women who have the capacity to live on their own and do not need chauvinism? Why couldn’t his father understand and respect boundaries or his mother understand that a woman is not just a piece of convenience for her son but has living emotions?
Being gaslighted isn’t something that is the fault of your own, and the first step to reclaiming your own agency is to acknowledge that. When you’ve been stripped of your autonomy in decision making about your life, backed into a corner by other people, or made to doubt yourself by someone you thought loved you, starting with the recognition that these things are happening is one step closer to dealing with it.
Because the pinnacle of gaslighting is how hard it is to identify, how it sits in the room with us like an invisible house guest. So, once we know it’s there, we can start to weed it out.
I write this story, from being a woman who begged a guy to not call off the wedding, to being a woman who wants to affirm to each and every person who has had a similar experience out there, it hurts like crazy, but there are some battles out there that you need to fight and win. Today I am on a journey of valuing myself, loving myself and respecting myself. On a journey to find happiness with myself. It is tedious, scary, intimidating, painful, but surely an exhilarating one.
Niyati Ojha is a lawyer by the week and a passionate teacher by the weekend. She identifies herself as a feminist who is looking to make a change in her own small way by teaching children to make a better world by spreading education, kindness and empathy.
Featured image is an illustration by @andreadesantisillustrator.