Emotional manipulation sounds like a very threatening term – one that I would usually associate with someone out to get me, an enemy perhaps. Having grown up in a close-knit family, it is definitely not a term I would associate with family. After all, isn’t your family supposed to love you and want what’s best for you?
My parents have been encouraging and supportive of my educational and career aspirations. Growing up, I was encouraged to study hard to attain what I assumed was the ultimate goal – a well-paying, stable career. There was always immense importance given to marks and educational achievements.
I vividly remember how every summer when I met my cousins in Madurai, our conversations would centre around our marks and achievements at school. My cousins and I would gorge on mangoes, Lay’s chips and Cadbury Bytes – all a pivotal part of my childhood vacations.
Meanwhile, the adults – my parents, aunts, and uncles – would take turns to brag about how well we were doing at school. While parting at the end of summer, instead of telling us children to take care and stay safe, the parting greeting in my extended family was always: “Study well!”. Such was the importance my family gave to education.
All these small interactions, repeated over several years, reinforced my belief that education was what mattered to my parents. And that education was what would determine the course of my life.
As I entered my mid-twenties, I noticed a startling shift in attitudes. Conversations with relatives and friends now centred around marriage and family instead of academic and professional achievements. At every social gathering I attended, the questions I was now asked were about when I planned to get married, not about college or work. Suddenly, the only topic of conversation with my cousins was about who was getting married and when. When I mentioned that I wasn’t planning on getting married anytime soon, I was greeted with shocked silence. Suddenly, all my academic and professional achievements seemed to have lost their importance. All that seemed to matter to everyone was marriage!
Eventually, my parents brought up marriage too and I told them I wasn’t planning on getting married in the near future. The conversation ended there and I assumed they understood where I was coming from.
Within a couple of years, this changed too. I realised I had misjudged my parents’ silence for acceptance. At the peak of the lockdown in 2020, an aunt called me up for a casual chat. Midway, while talking about my job, she mentioned marriage and I told her it wasn’t something I was interested in at the time. She told me how my refusal to get married was upsetting my parents and how they were unhappy because I wasn’t agreeing to get married.
I asked her why my parents hadn’t told me this themselves. She replied, “They don’t want to upset you – they want you to be happy. Don’t you want them to be happy?”
The phone call left me feeling guilty. Were my parents truly unhappy? Was I causing them sleepless nights? Was I so caught up in my own life that I didn’t realise how much distress I was causing my parents, both of whom had sacrificed so much for me?
As time passed, one thing struck me – when did my parents decide to tie their entire happiness to whether or not I was married? Why did they decide to do this? Since this was about me, shouldn’t I have been consulted?
Why did they decide to tie their happiness to the one thing I was not currently interested in? Instead, couldn’t they tie their happiness to the fact that I was smart, happy, healthy, hard-working and a great daughter?
Clearly, the decision here was theirs. I was not asked when they made this decision. They had decided on their own that henceforth, their happiness would centre around whether or not I agreed to get married. If they could make this decision, couldn’t they also then decide to tie their happiness to any of my other attributes and achievements?
I love my parents, I really do. I want them to be happy. It took me several months to realise that the guilt I felt about my parents’ unhappiness was misplaced. My parents may have been unhappy but it wasn’t my fault, it was because of a decision they chose to make. I did not hold the keys to their happiness, they did. This realisation, despite being quite delayed, helped me immensely.
I wish that this was an experience that was limited to me. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in families across India. Families regularly emotionally manipulate and guilt their daughters about various life decisions such as marriage by using similar tactics.
Emotional manipulation involves fear, obligation and guilt. Parents and relatives act like victims when they tell their daughters how their refusal to get married is a great source of distress for them. This makes young women feel a misplaced sense of guilt towards their parents. Women feel like they need to help their parents by obeying them in order to reduce their suffering. Parents also mention the sacrifices they have undertaken for their daughters, which instills a misguided sense of duty in these young women. As women, we are made to believe that we must abide by our duty to our parents and fulfill our obligations towards them in order to repay them for these sacrifices.
In case you are dealing with something similar, you need to remember one thing – your first responsibility is towards yourself, not your parents and relatives. You owe it to yourself to be happy. The only reason you should be getting married is because you want to. Your parents will not be living with your spouse. You will.
Asma Mohamed is an aspiring feminist writer who hopes to contribute to the achievement of some semblance of gender equality through her writing. You can find her on Instagram @aliya.m1995
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty