After 25 years of marriage, Sitara Begum (alias) wanted a divorce. Her first love, who suddenly reappeared in her life, is desperate to get her back. She called her children to talk to them about it.
Homemaker Sitara, 47, said she had been suppressed throughout her marital life. In the last two decades, her busy husband had done nothing to fix the problem. "I did everything," complained Sitara, "I raised three children and managed my household while suffering depression."
At first, her husband was shocked. He tabled his arguments, and the result was a series of gruesome spats. Later, Sitara and her husband decided to see a psychotherapist on the insistence of their children.
In the case of Sitara the family was saved from further divorce proceedings. But many couples are not so lucky.
Najib Uddin (alias), an introvert, married his beloved at the university, but he no longer trusted his wife. A professional electrical engineer in his mid-30s, he often had to go out of town for work. He never informed his wife before he came home. Not to surprise her, but to catch her in a compromising position. Despite never finding her to be unfaithful, he still did not trust her. His suppressed bitterness led him to file for divorce.
In the last seven years, divorce applications across Bangladesh have increased 34 percent, according to studies by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Divorce occurs every hour in Dhaka.
For many married people, not just those dealing with divorce, family therapy can offer a solution during a time of marital anxiety.
Looking for neutral listeners
Md. Zahir Uddin, a trained family therapist who is an assistant professor at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains, "Very few people take the support of family therapy prior to divorce because of our social prejudice, and concern about what others will think."
However, awareness about psychotherapy has increased. Md. Zahir says, "Married couples, most of them young, are now coming to us to deal with divorce, domestic violence or abuse. They have issues with their in-laws, spouses, or in their private lives."
In marriage counselling, couples sit down and talk to a professionally trained third party. The psychotherapist initiates an amenable environment to overcome their trepidation. In an argument, people use slang out of anger – which distorts their intentions and causes bitterness. The therapist interprets those words or comments and tries to improve the conversation.
"They learn to resolve conflict in a fresh way, interact more effectively, defend themselves without being rude, and better understand their spouses and their own needs," added therapist Zahir.
Mohit Kamal, a well-known psychotherapist, and director of the NIMH, said an affair involves two individuals, but marriage involves two families in our culture. "In-laws sometimes instigate conflict between couples, directly or indirectly. We take this dimension into account."
Mohit believes that the family is a living system. Changing one person's behaviour will influence other parts of the family. "We take a closer look at the dynamics of the family. Divorce can be a solution for certain families. In all cases, we want to make sure that our clients are aware of the impact of their decisions," Mohit added.
About 20 out of 70 clinical psychologists are practising family therapy. The Bangladesh Association of Psychiatrists reported that approximately 10 psychiatrists conduct structured family therapy.
Nip conflict in the bud
Couples expect to resolve their crisis, but they come in for counselling when the problem deteriorates. "It's better to look for help early. Also, many clients expect a result overnight. It takes four to six months, and requires multiple regular sessions in critical cases," suggested therapist Zahir.
Two smiling faces, Sitara and her husband, sitting outside the therapist's chamber, talked about their second honeymoon to Cox's Bazar. "Marriage is a happy ending in movies, but it's just the beginning in real life. There is no happily ever after, we've realised that," laughed Sitara.
Love and hate, problems and solutions, misunderstandings and awareness go hand in hand in every marriage. There is no social shame in seeking professional help. It is preferable to a relationship becoming dysfunctional.