In 2017, 10 days or so after I was separated, a friend nonchalantly asked me, “So, when will you apply for a divorce?”
Good lord, my stomach churned, and how! I’d decided to separate, yes. But how did I just erase the fact that this leads to a divorce? A divorce! The word loomed over my head like a nightmare. But I decided not to think about it and take it one day at a time. Slowly and calmly. With time, when I felt a little more ready, I felt the need to sit down with myself and understand why I was feeling this way. Why did the word scare me this much? Was it my parents? Was it extended family? Was it the uncertainty of the future? Was it because of how difficult this was going to be?
Gradually, I arrived at answers. They were a mix of it all. I come from a progressive family, one that has made me believe that I can chase what makes me happy, and failures don’t define me. But here I was, questioning everything in my life, deep in the burrows of self-doubt. In India, marriage is made to feel like a big success, that massive tick that is a collective blessing from society. It’s considered to be the ultimate sacred bond, one that is to be indissoluble in life and even continue after death. One you cannot go back on. And if you dare do that, you can be looked upon as a massive failure. Done for life.
But was I a failure? I definitely didn’t feel like one. By that time in my life, I could recognise the gaping holes in my relationship, I could understand why it was emotional abuse, what being on the receiving end of gaslighting felt like, and how far I needed to get away from it all. I was unhappy. Choosing to walk away from this would give me peace and happiness; how can that ever be construed as a failure?
Till date, it appalls me to my very core that we see unhappy marriages as a success, but a happy divorce as a failure.
At the time, no matter how much I’d try to make peace with my situation, something just didn’t feel comfortable about an impending divorce in my immediate future. Too much was uncertain, too much was up in the air. But they say that the universe finds ways to take care of us sometimes. Back then, I opened Twitter after months out of sheer boredom, and there was a tweet by a woman speaking about divorce in a very positive way. I was completely taken aback at the timing of this. I didn’t even blink before I DMed her, asking for help.
And meeting her changed my life in beautiful ways.
We met at a coffee shop. Me, a meek, nervous wreck, as opposed to her, a confident and happy human. She spoke to me about her marriage, and divorce, and how it was the best decision she’d made. To be honest, her attitude was infectious. I told her, “One day, I want to be you. I want to sit opposite someone so unsure of their life and tell them life after divorce is really not a bad thing.” She laughed, and assured me I would. I wasn’t sure of it then, but I decided to just go with the flow.
Time passed by, and in 2018, there I was, standing in court, waiting for my name to be called out. I was impatient, but also curious. Long hours went by. I often looked around at the people sitting around me, and wondered what their stories were. What brought them to this dreary, cold building? I thought of the people with them. Were the parents really supportive of this decision? Were they ashamed of their children? I also thought of the little children that were dragged to this waiting room, with books in their hands for company. Did they understand what was happening?
Clearly, I had a lot of time on my hands. And a lot of feelings too. My parents were very supportive of my decision from the day I’d told them. In fact, they were a little angry about me not having talked to them about the issues earlier on. But I received full support in every other way possible. My father sent an email to his friends announcing my decision to separate with the subject line of: “My daughter is back home, safe and sound.” My mother took on the deed of family WhatsApp groups.
We received a myriad of responses. “Oh.” “But did you even think of her future?” “Arre, marriage is difficult. You can’t just quit.” “Oh, divorce? How much money is she getting?” “Will she remarry?” “Men will be men, ya. Just adjust, that’s how life goes.” “You’re her mother. If she says she wants a divorce, you should teach her better.” “Good for her. Hope she’s happier now!” “Why don’t you ask her to take a nice vacation? Everything will be fixed.”
Okay, aunties and uncles, sit down. Thank you.
My friends built a strong wall around me. They protected me from rumours, and the gossip mills among extended friend groups. They took my calls at unreasonable hours, heard me wail and bawl, deleted photos from my social media accounts, sent me cake and ice cream, and kept telling me it’s going to be alright. So grateful to each of these wonderful humans.
As a thank you to my friends, I threw them an unforgettable divorce party in Feb 2019.
Despite it all, while walking in and out of court, I was living with a numbing pain of not knowing if it was actually going to be alright. It was alienating, a roller coaster of emotions and overthinking, and the stigma of divorce was getting to me. That’s just how it works, the magnanimity of it hits you like a truckload of bricks. The legal procedures were incredibly tough, it put me in unbelievable pain. I went through life day after day, without a sense of purpose.
I’d often realise that nothing gave me the strength to power through like the words of my new friend from Twitter. It was the power of familiarity. Her lived experience spoke more to me than anything else. I knew for a fact that there were so many women with varied experiences all around us, but why didn’t I know more of these? Why was everything related to divorce brushed under the carpet?
I looked around me and realised that more women were definitely and finally gathering the courage to walk out of unhappy marriages. And that’s when I realised that there needed to be a support group bringing different stories of hope, pain, loss and the complications of legalities together. As a community.
It took me months to announce the first group because I needed to embark on my own healing journey before listening/helping others.Towards the end of my divorce in 2019, I initially started off with just conversations online (#DivorceIsNormal on Instagram), and was surprised to see the number of people who chimed in with their stories, stories of someone they knew, or just stopped by to say they’d never heard of this being discussed in a public forum before.
The first group that met in September 2019, was an experience I’d never forget. I was extremely nervous, thinking this could go either way. We were 15 of us, and it so happened that all were women. We met at a quaint cafe in Bandra on a crisp Sunday morning. We walked in as strangers, greeted each other with a formal hello, and made introductions. Soon, we each started opening up with our stories, what we’d endured, how we got here, what we were feeling now. There were stories of abuse, neglect, violence, lovers falling out of love, infidelity, and so much more. There were tears, laughs, really bad jokes that made us laugh more, some more tears, and the session ended with warm, beautiful hugs all around.
By reaching out to many of these women, we came together to make something incredibly powerful. A video monologue of 14 of us women who’ve been through divorce, appealing to society to not label us, asking parents to be kinder to their daughters, squashing the infamous “damaged goods” label and talking about how it’s okay to remarry.
This video—written by Teesha Thomas—has reaffirmed my confidence in the fact that building a community together is important for many reasons. It’s about sisterhood and the fact that a roof (even if virtual) bringing together women can be beyond powerful. It is empowering, and leaves you with a kind of strength you can’t even explain.
It also helps shatter the stigma. The only way to continue breaking the walls of stigma is to continuously chip at it. The more you brush it under the carpet, the more you’re feeding into the stigma.
And the idea is for it to give hope to those who need it too. I get shocking messages from women who find themselves in situations that they believe don’t allow them to step out of their marriages. They fear society and their own spouses. Hopefully, this video will change things for someone in that situation.
Over the course of the last year, through the growing support group and online conversations, I’ve seen people grow more confident in their decision, learn to stand up against stigma, feel supported, heard and loved. It’s a growing community, even though it’s just a handful of us today.
Until divorce is entirely normalised and spoken about without shame and stigma in every household in this country, I choose to never give up.