Some observations on emotional abuse rooted in Indian social norms

: :

Author: Identity withheld. A phenomenological anthropologist, currently engaged in independent research and writing.

Fieldsite: Britain: British people of Indian ancestry.

Introduction

It has not gone unnoticed or undiscussed that, for many people, quarantine means being forced to live with their abuser. Not all kinds of abusive relationship, however, have received equal attention. In this article I draw attention to a type of abusive relationship that seems, for years, to have gone largely under the radar, and yet which, it is probable, affects a great many people. This is the emotional abuse that well-intentioned Indian parents often inflict on their children: a specific form of emotional abuse that is rooted in the social norms of the parents, and that often continues throughout the adult lives of the children. Under current conditions of lockdown and quarantine, it is likely that a fairly sizeable number of people are trapped without respite from this form of abuse.

My knowledge and understanding of this form of abuse come from having talked intensively with a small number of people over the last few years; from having spent substantial time in India; and, being a British person of Indian ancestry, from personal experience. Because of this, anonymity is paramount; I cannot put my name to this article without risking the exacerbation of my circumstances, or, in combination with having identified India, without compromising the anonymity of my interlocutors and hence risking the exacerbation of their circumstances.

One other point that we need to acknowledge at the outset is that India is made up of a large number of linguistically (and historically) distinct societies and that the worldviews of these societies, when set against each other, exhibit both similarities and differences. For the sake of brevity, however, I shall, in this article, be speaking simply of ‘India’ or of ‘Indian society’; I ask the reader to assume in such instances that I am speaking only of a majority of Indian societies, the worldviews of which have certain relevant details in common. With these two caveats in place, let us begin by swiftly adumbrating the current state of the discussion.

The current state of discussion on being forced to live with one’s abuser

The form of abuse that seems to be receiving most discussion in the present situation is the physical abuse of women by their partners; the Independent, for example, has recently carried an article on this7. The Guardian, too, has recently run an article on the worldwide rise in domestic abuse; this talks almost exclusively about the physical abuse of women but introduces a new dimension by mentioning the abuse of children2. The abuse of children who are implied to be very young has been expanded on by journalist Jemma Crew: “Reports from adults concerned about child abuse have increased by almost a fifth[… The NSPCC helpline have] received 2,216 calls about children facing neglect, physical and emotional abuse in the first four weeks of the lockdown”1. Moving further in this direction, there has been one mention, on the BBC news website, of the physical abuse of young adults by their parents6.

As we can see, it appears that practically all discussion – at least in the general public sphere – has been about physical abuse between adult partners, with some limited discussion of children/ young adults and their parents. Emotional abuse is talked about far less. Psychology Today redresses this balance with an article that still only discusses abuse between adult partners, but gives equal space to the discussion of physical and emotional abuse8. Taking this further, but in a very specific direction, is an article that has appeared on the BBC news, on the topic of gay adults who are being forced to live with their homophobic parents, and are suffering the repercussions4. Finally, in Mel Magazine, we see an article that puts the spotlight on the non-specific emotional abuse of adults by their parents3.

The nature of emotional abuse

The American Psychological Association defines emotional abuse as: “A pattern of behaviour in which one person deliberately and repeatedly subjects another to nonphysical acts that are detrimental to behavioural and affective functioning and overall mental well-being.”5 I am bothering to quote this rather unevocative definition precisely because it is unevocative; there seems to be a private inclination, in society at large, to assume that emotional abuse, being, as it is, ‘just words’, surely cannot constitute a problem as serious as physical or sexual abuse. As psychotherapist Farah Maneckshaw writes, the official definition of emotional abuse is “clinical; it evokes no horror or discomfort in the minds of people who have never experienced it”5. But, left implicit in the official definition, emotional abuse can include coercive control, degradation, harassment, humiliation, intimidation, and spying.

Research on early childhood trauma shows that the long term repercussions of emotional abuse are at least as bad as, and may be even worse than, those of physical and sexual abuse; the former is likely to lead to higher levels of anxiety, stress and depression than the latter. When emotional abuse is from a primary caregiver, it can result in Complex Trauma, a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This paves the way for a variety of mental health struggles and seems to cause later difficulty in forming healthy relationships with others5. And yet there is no real taboo against treating one’s children without respect.

Mirroring this situation, the sole discussion – lay or scholarly – of the emotional abuse of adults or young adults by their Indian parents, that appears readily in response to the general public’s default investigative tactic, the internet search, is an article by Maneckshaw on The Quint, an English- and Hindi-language Indian news website. Indian families, writes Maneckshaw, “often silence[… the] voices of younger members of the family, which make seeking help from the abuse all the more difficult. When help is sought, discourses around ‘family being the most important’ or ‘parents always wanting the best for you’ or ‘parents having done so much for you’ can be weaponised and used to minimise and trivialise trauma[…] by people[…] peddling these discourses with the best of intentions”5. This article stands as the only written public discussion that I am aware of on the emotional abuse that many Indian parents inflict on their children, in the earnest conviction, born of their social norms, that they are being exemplary parents. For the sake of convenience, we might call this form of abuse something like heterosocionormative emotional abuse. It is a cumbersome term, but less cumbersome than ‘emotional abuse deriving from other-than-Western social norms’.

The nature of heterosocionormative emotional abuse

Typically, parents (at least of a certain generation[I]) who grew up in India are emotionally needy and demanding to a degree that is hard for most Westerners to imagine. In many cases, their desire is to spend their whole lives by their children’s side. Either their children must continue indefinitely to live in their home, or, if their children do move out into homes of their own, they must follow their children into them. Desiring even to continue to sleep adjacent to their adult children is widespread[II]. The development of personal interests in their children may be encouraged, but the pursuit of those interests as a basis for the direction or nature of their children’s lives is not countenanced. Their children’s lives must remain woven with their lives, such that the central thrust of that single woven life is the interests of the single woven parents-and-children unit. Such parents constantly put pressure on their children to make this a reality, to shape their lives around this ideal.

This ongoing process of pressuring their children includes: accusing their children of selfishness whilst exhibiting extremely upset behaviour; suppressing all attempts at emotionally honest self-expression, whilst exhibiting extremely upset behaviour; treating their children as if they know nothing and understand nothing, perhaps also accusing them of this (even if their children are adult or highly educated), and exhibiting extremely upset behaviour if this is questioned. All of these are consistent, predictable responses to any attempt, on the part of their children, to assert or imply any intention of making their own lives, built on the pursuit of their own interests.

Apart from being inherently hard for their children to deal with, this can be doubly hard to deal with in the commonplace scenario that their children do have feelings for them; it is often extremely hard to shake off or to modify the feelings of love or attachment that growing children naturally develop for their parents. Hence recipients of this form of abuse cannot simply speak their minds because that would hurt their parents’ feelings. It needs stressing again that the degree of emotional neediness on the part of the parents is extreme; the parents would not simply feel a little hurt and then get on with their day; they would be absolutely devastated. Some, certainly, would contemplate suicide. Their children, naturally, do not want any such escalation. So they do their best to steer a course between living their lives as they would like, and making space in their lives for their parents. It is both emotionally draining and disruptive of their lives, but arguably better than the alternative.

A common outcome of being constantly pressured in this way is that people feel unable to live their lives as they desire, and also feel unable to be themselves in their parents’ presence. If they are living with their parents, they have to deal constantly with being belittled, having their privacy invaded, being shut down whenever attempting to express thoughts or feelings, and generally being emotionally manipulated. Even if they are living apart from their parents, they still have to deal with all this; they are unable ever to go more than a few days without contacting their parents, lest their parents exhibit extreme upset. Either way, they constantly have to deal with their parents’ desires and demands; for all actions and choices they have to think about how their parents are going to react; and, much of the time, they feel compelled to adapt their actions and choices accordingly. The impulse to personal growth chronically frustrated, with a lifetime of emotions perpetually amassing and being bottled up to intolerable pressures, and with no way of articulating their thoughts, they are stifled to the point of explosion.

My own experience, and that of my interlocutors, centres on middle-class Bengali Brahmoist[III] society. My analysis below identifies four aspects of the Bengali worldview that are conducive to emotional abuse. It is important to note, however, that, given that the worldviews of many Indian societies exhibit these aspects too, it is likely that this issue is not limited to Bengali parents, but rather is common to parents from many Indian societies.

Four aspects of the Bengali worldview that are conducive to emotional abuse

(1) One’s parents are to be venerated and to be treated in a manner which is essentially reverential. By implication, people are to serve their parents, doing everything for them. Having grown up with this norm, parents grow accustomed to demanding that everything is done for them. If they want a light switched on, their children must go and do it. If they want a magazine which is just out of reach, their children must get up and pass it to them. Such habitual indolence often means that, with each passing year, parents grow more physically unhealthy. This, in turn, means that, as old age approaches, parents increasingly feel the need to be taken care of by their children. Any attempt at questioning this situation is, naturally, returned with accusations of selfishness and extremely upset behaviour.

(2) Individual people are not seen as having much significance. Rather, the fundamental conceptual unit is the family. Parents do not acknowledge their children as people in their own right. They view their children as being just a part of them, much like one of their limbs. By extension, they cannot conceive of such a thing as their children having lives of their own. Any challenge to this again leads to accusations of selfishness and extremely upset behaviour.

(By further extension, there is no concept of personal privacy from one’s parents. Parents habitually invade their children’s privacy and may insist that their children do not need privacy. People may, for example, have their own bedroom, in the sense of a room in which they sleep and in which they keep their belongings, but such rooms are not their personal spaces any more than the kitchen or the living room. Parents will walk in and out, or sit in such rooms, as they please. Knocking or requesting permission to enter is an alien notion. Indeed it is common for parents to forbid their children to shut their bedroom doors under any circumstances. Even privacy in the bathroom is sometimes denied. One’s rubbish may well be gone through. One’s post may well be opened and read.)

(3) ‘Negative’ emotions are undesirable. One ought never to feel them. If one does feel them, one ought never to express them. For people to express anger towards their parents is inconceivable. The slightest expression of dissatisfaction, the smallest deviation from ‘normality’, and parents are likely to react as if they have been mortally wounded. No kind of emotionally honest self-expression is possible.

(4) Possibly the most crucial problem of all is that, in the Bengali worldview, adults know everything and children know nothing. ‘Children’ – which, in practice, in Bengali society, means anyone up to the age of about forty – are, by virtue of being under forty, necessarily ignorant and morally fallible. ‘Adults’ – people over the age of about forty – are, simply by virtue of being over forty, necessarily omniscient and morally infallible. Additionally, if one is an ‘adult’, then, for the duration of any interaction with one’s parents, one becomes ignorant. Parents will, of course, deny this if challenged, but their actions speak otherwise. They will not, under any circumstances, act as if they might have anything fundamental to learn. They cannot conceive that their understanding of things is limited.

There is another problem, which is not an aspect of the Bengali worldview, but which is fairly common and specifically affects British people with Indian parents. This is that Indian parents who immigrated to Britain within the last few decades often make the decision to make their mother tongue the language of the household. Their children thus grow up speaking Bengali (for example) inside the house, in the domestic sphere, and English in all other spheres of life. As such people typically only ever learn everyday conversational Bengali, they are unlikely to have the vocabulary (or even, to a degree, the grammar) to express their feelings or articulate their thoughts in Bengali; and it follows that they cannot – even if they decide that it is worth trying – express their feelings or articulate their thoughts to their parents. This inarticulacy can lead, over the years, to the partial development of an inarticulate persona which is inalienably tied to speaking Bengali: whenever they speak Bengali with their parents, they cease to be themselves, and instead automatically (so it feels) become this other half-developed person.

Two lessons learnt

As mentioned earlier, Maneckshaw’s article5, published a month ago, is the first thing that I have ever seen written on this topic. Indeed, up until about three years ago, I do not think that I had ever even heard it talked about in any in-depth way. To happen upon Maneckshaw’s article, then, was rather breathtaking: a catharsis. Maneckshaw closes her article by making clear that people undergoing this form of abuse are not passive recipients of it: “At all times, persons undergoing this trauma are resisting, even if they are children. Resistance is small, simple acts that indicate that they are not accepting of the manner in which they are being treated or fighting the injustice of it. Spending more time in the shower to avoid being attacked is an act of resistance. So is crying. And so, in fact, is writing”5.

With this inspiration and spur to action, I present this article and add the following insight of my own. The keystone of heterosocionormative emotional abuse is emotional manipulation: parents reacting to any questioning of their demands by exhibiting extremely upset behaviour and relying on this to get their children to shape their actions and choices around them. Recently, however, I have come to the realization that, no matter how much people try to shield such parents from upset, given the trajectory that the parents insist on being on, the parents are going to experience upset sooner or later, no matter what they do. This has led to the further realization that such parents’ upset is not their responsibility, or at least not wholly their responsibility. They may, therefore, find some ease in the reminder that they may not need to make quite so much painful sacrifice as they may have been doing. It is not their responsibility.

A request for support

As I have repeatedly emphasised, there is practically no discussion of this problem that I am aware of. Therefore, one of the things that makes heterosocionormative emotional abuse so doubly difficult to deal with, beyond its inherent difficulty, is that no-one ever validates the experience as traumatic. Physical abuse or racist verbal abuse, for example, are universally agreed to be terrible experiences, and dependably elicit sympathy and support. Heterosocionormative emotional abuse is in no way less traumatic, yet the social response tends to be very different. The lack of any established corpus of discussion – even of the most informal sort – compounds the suffering of such abuse with the suffering of isolation.

As a society, we must develop resources and support systems for people undergoing heterosocionormative emotional abuse. Considering that, under conditions of quarantine, the trauma is intensified and inescapable, it would be a great help to be reassured that the people generously manning helplines are versed in at least the basic issues grounding this form of abuse. Furthermore, it would be tremendously appreciated if people, in general, were awake to the possibility that their friends are living with this kind of abuse, or have been living with this kind of abuse all their lives, and, due to the lack of any discourse about it, do not have any way of articulating it.

Bibliography

 

  1. Crew, J. 2020: ‘Child abuse calls to helpline up almost a fifth during lockdown’ (online article). Available at: <https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/child-abuse-calls-to-helpline-up-almost-a-fifth-during-lockdown/ar-BB13qdZb?li=BBoPRmx&ocid=mailsignout> (accessed 2020 April 26).
  2. Graham-Harrison, E., Giuffrida, A., Smith, H. & Ford, L. 2020: ‘Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence’ (online aticle). Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/28/lockdowns-world-rise-domestic-violence> (accessed 2020 May 2).
  3. Holden, M. 2020: ‘What it’s like to be on lockdown with your abuser’ (online article). Available at: <https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/what-its-like-to-be-on-lockdown-with-your-abuser> (accessed 2020 May 2).
  4. Hunte, B. 2020: ‘Coronavirus: ‘I’m stuck in isolation with my homophobic parents’’ (online article). Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52039832> (accessed 2020 April 26).
  5. Maneckshaw, F. 2020: ‘Silenced traumas: Emotional abuse during the quarantine’ (online article). Available at: <https://fit.thequint.com/coronavirus/emotional-abuse-during-the-covid-19-lockdown> (accessed 2020 May 2).
  6. Mohan, M. 2020: ‘Coronavirus: I’m in lockdown with my abuser’ (online article). Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52063755> (accessed 2020 May 2).
  7. Papworth, F.V. 2020: ‘Women are facing lockdown with their abusers – if I was still living with mine, I’m not sure I’d still be alive’ (online article). Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-lockdown-domestic-violence-women-sexual-assault-saunders-a9449011.html> (accessed 2020 May 2).
  8. Patrick, W.L. 2020: ‘Domestic abuse during quarantine: When the threat is inside’ (online article). Available at: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/why-bad-looks-good/202003/domestic-abuse-during-quarantine-when-the-threat-is-inside> (accessed 2020 May 2).

[I] This is an important qualifier, but to go into the details of it would be beyond the scope of this article.

[II] One exception to this in India is a consequence of virilocality: the custom of those considered female moving away to join their new husbands in the husband’s family home. In such cases the wife’s parents stay behind and do not expect to live side by side with their daughter.

[III] Brahmoism is a religion that was developed by a small number of Bengali individuals between the 1820s and the 1870s. It is, in effect, a form of intellectually conceived monotheism, that draws inspiration chiefly from protestantic Christianity and popular scientism, and to a much lesser degree from Hinduism (as a self-conscious entity, itself a post-colonial nationalistic development).