It took my mother 30 years to walk out of an abusive marriage and an 'honest' infidelity

Published March 16, 2016
“Why don’t you leave?” is a question my mother would face often. — White Star/File
“Why don’t you leave?” is a question my mother would face often. — White Star/File

My father was physically and sexually violent towards my mother for most of their married life. None of this violence was seen, and very little of it was heard.

It was always the bruises that talked: The split lips. The swollen cheeks. The torn clothes. The missing teeth. The broken jaw.

My mother would present the most reserved cry for help the morning after: a face in shambles.

"Your mother is the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on," he would say. He always went for her face.

Also read: Abused women face lonely struggle in Pakistan

I had stopped believing him by my 10th birthday. The last time he hit her, she screamed for her life.

There was something about that scream. It was exasperation. Desperation. It sounded like she was sure she would never scream again.

I kicked the bedroom door open, and rescued my half-naked mother from a man who didn't seem to care that he had torn apart my mother's beautiful face.

She didn't speak for days. She refused to be taken to a hospital. She started sleeping in my sister's room. She turned into this machine that would just clean, cook and sleep. I had to be a mother to her, and I had to be a mother to my brother and sister.

My father's violence did not stop there. It just assumed a different nature.

Also read: Hit him back legally — Domestic Violence Bill

A year after that episode, as things were beginning to return to 'normalcy', my father sat the family down. A family discussion, he called it, but we had learned that all family discussions had to be about him.

This one, it turned out, was about open relationships. He wished to "open up" the relationship he had with my mother.

"I want to marry again," he said. "No, I don't have anyone in mind, but I want another wife."

Pre-emptive, honest infidelity

That broke our hearts. I'm the eldest child, and I hadn't begun working at that time. I had only just finished college.

I was still dependent on my father, struggling to find meaningful well-paying work, and trying not to get sucked into the family business. I swore to myself that I would get out there, and make something of myself. I needed to.

My siblings felt abandoned and lost. They were both in their final year of high school, and had already lost all hope.

It hit my mother the hardest. She saw it all, years upon years of investing the very best of herself, down to every last drop of blood and sweat, down to every last tear.

She saw that it meant nothing. It was just dust under the carpet. She questioned all of it.

It was an existential crisis of the kind of depth I still cannot begin to fathom.

And then, she tried to justify it. "Islam allows a man four wives," she said.

Religion was a gun she brought to his fight, and insisted it was right of him to use it. I sat her down and explained it to her the way I saw it.

Also read: Of smartphones and infidelity in late-night Pakistan

"Ma, this can never be how God wants it for you. If you give your consent, you are enabling infidelity."

"But it isn't infidelity, he's not doing it in secrecy."

"But Ma, if he loved you, he wouldn't seek your consent to have another partner as if he's asking you to sign papers for a car loan. Do you really want this? Is your heart in it?"

"No, but it is his right."

"I'm not questioning whether it is his right. I'm questioning whether he even loves you enough to care for your informed and enthusiastic consent. Has he ever talked to you about marrying again? Has he ever inquired about your feelings on the matter? Can he not see how unhappy you are with it?"

"But, he has asked my permission."

"Because it is a legal matter, Ma. If you say yes, he will accept that as your consent, knowing how much this hurts you. He just doesn't care for your happiness. He cares more about his happiness than your well-being."

He is asking you for asking's sake. He is telling you for telling's sake. That cannot be love. Can you not see that?

That was the beginning of the undoing of my parents' marriage, and it took another five years and two affairs before my mother would finally stand up and walk out on him.

Take a look: Pakistani women turn to once-taboo divorce to escape abuse

I believe my father cheated on my mother the moment he mentioned marrying another woman. He wasn't looking for a shift in the relationship dynamic, he was asserting power.

A shift in the relationship dynamic could only be consensual if it was something both of them really actually wanted.

My father was taking advantage of my mother's belief in a religion he never believed in but I'm not here to talk about how my father used religion to abuse my mother.

I'm here to talk about how I believe my father cheated on my mother because cheating has nothing to do with truth or honesty or any of those things a good healthy relationship is about.

See: Saving second wives

It has everything to do with power.

As long as there is a gratification differential in your relationship dynamic, chances are someone is being taken advantage of. As long as there is a happiness imbalance, whether contractually enforced or secured through emotional bargaining, someone is being taken advantage of.

Because who would enthusiastically say yes to something unfair to them?

It is said that love is unconditional, and we should love without expecting anything in return. I've found that love is a kind of catch-all word-phrase.

I think it stands for any affection you feel towards others that is emotionally complex, multifaceted and difficult to understand.

The dictionary tells me love is a strong feeling of affection, but I feel that towards my camera, which no one really gets. I think it is kindness, and not love that is unconditional. Because if it is conditional, it is not kindness.

I will be kind to you out of the goodness of my heart, but if I expect you to do something for me in return, I am not being kind. I am being manipulative.

Yes, love is comprised of kindness, and people in love do not usually count favors. But even if you're not competing with your partner to do better for them every step of the way, you can still have a relationship. It is just low on kindness.

But to insist that your partner carry through with something they are unhappy with, but which fulfills your needs and wants? That is an absence of kindness.

And to do it in a situation where the law, an insecurity, or anything for that matter prevents your partner from asserting what they actually want? That is taking advantage.

That is use of illegitimate power, it is some kind of soft violation of consent, and it is the emotional equivalent of rape.

My mother was helpless, she could not say no.

She was married to a narcissist and co-dependent. She would blame herself, and attempt to justify my father’s behaviour. She would try to change her entire way of looking at things to something that would validate him. She was his victim, and he was her God.

Examine: Is cheating more natural for humans than staying monogamous

It is quite something, to live with a narcissist. To be co-dependent with a narcissist. A narcissist believes they can do no wrong, and their co-dependents internalise that.

They also internalise co-dependency in itself. All the world can do no wrong, if you have co-dependent tendencies, and must be negotiated with and never confronted.

Happiness becomes a bargaining chip and whoever holds it is Master.

The Master holds your kindness hostage. The Master must be pleased at all costs. Your internal reward mechanism is wired all wrong. You surrender agency and autonomy as if they are tokens to be given away at the slightest sign of a smile, or a half meant kind word.

My father’s narcissism does not excuse my mother’s broken jaw. My mother was not the one at fault for submitting to him.

“Why don’t you leave?” is a question she would face often.

Sometimes, leaving isn’t an option. He had real power over her, and he would use it to arrest her autonomy in the subtlest of ways imaginable.

It took her 30 years to finally see that.

— The name of the author has been changed to maintain privacy.

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