ONE LIFE TO LOVE
In every family there are some taboo topics. Things we don't, can't, daren't talk about with the people we love most. And when unspoken, it tends to rattle and disturb the family's health.
So what are these “un-discussables”? Simran Bhargava asks Therapist Jasmeet Kaur...
Simran: What constitutes a healthy, functioning family?
Jasmeet: In a healthy family, people actually enjoy being in that family. There is a sense of trust and liking, there is a sense of fun which is very critical, there is open communication.
Simran: Out of every ten families that you see around you, not necessarily in your practice, how many would you say are healthy families?
Jasmeet: I would say probably two out of ten! Right now in India, very few families are truly healthy, where all members equally feel trust, liking, fun, growth.
Some members may feel it but some members won't. And as long as there is even one member who is in distress, the family is not a healthy family. That's the whole systemic framework.
Simran: Are certain issues hot buttons in most families?
Jasmeet: There are what I call the “un-discussables”. There are some topics that people don't talk about with family members with whom they spend the maximum amount of years with at any given point.
So this is the unit that you derive such a strong sense of identity from and yet there are some topics that are completely not discussed.
Generally in every family, in any culture, there are certain “un-discussables.” A critical one is strong feelings.
For instance if you are feeling hate or contempt for someone...to be able to sit together and talk about it. Not repress it.
Another is affection, wanting affection or wanting to give it...
Intense shame, things that you may have done which are mistakes that you are guilty about. You may not talk about them as your mistakes or embarrassment.
They are not talked about they are felt deeply.
Simran: Why is it so difficult to talk about these feelings? After all these are people who love you?
Jasmeet: Sometimes people don't even know it is okay to talk about it. So there's ignorance. The moment there's ignorance, we don't develop words and a vocabulary to talk about it.
We are scared. We feel, if I talk about it I will lose someone's affection, I will lose someone's respect. I will be rejected.
Or I'm very scared I will be given some moral preaching which will then not feel like I've been heard.
I want to be heard and reassured that it's okay for you to feel this and you will not be destroyed and the other person won't be destroyed.
Simran: So as a result of this, what is the kind of communication that does happen in families?
Jasmeet: Most families spend tremendous time talking about – things, other people because that's safe not about themselves. About 'Dos', planning activities together.
So planning activities of the family will take up so much time. Like when the holidays happen what are we going to do? So it's a very 'do...do' kind of conversation, if you hear families talk.
Or it will be based on other people or it will be happenings happening out there...
Simran: What about the taboo topic – sex?
Jasmeet: Sexuality is the third “un-discussable”. Couples find it very difficult to tell each other what they enjoy. It's like - can I express what I enjoy or what I'd like less of or what I'd like more of.
Or when do we become more sexual and less sexual? What's the frequency that works? And linked to that in the family unit, to even talk about our genitals, our private body parts.
They are treated as, “Keep them clean and keep them out of sight!” So because we don't talk about it, it goes into hiding and then it becomes an area of fascination and sometimes an obsession.
Children will ask the parent once they start becoming aware of these things, which now is rather early.
But if the parent's first response is an interrogation, “Who told you?” “How did you get to know?” More about the parent being interested on how the child thought of it in the first place, then the child will here after associate this topic as 'something wrong'.
So say an uncle touches a child in a sexual way or in the genitals...the child will not tell, as he or she is scared of the parent questioning them and somehow seeing them as bad because they asked a question...
Simran: Does this continue into adult life as well?
Jasmeet: Absolutely, like I said we don't develop a vocabulary.
A great deal of anxiety can build around the things we feel but don't talk about and then it can come out in an exaggerated form another time.
Sometimes, what comes up with a therapist or with a best friend, will be the real experiences you've had that have lain suppressed inside with the whole concept of your self linked in.
So as a therapist I typically hear, “This is the first time I'm talking about it...”
Simran: Are there any cultural taboos specific to India?
Jasmeet: Like I said, sexuality is one of them still. It's a very, very hot area. Another one is, parent's different feelings for different children. A child may feel the parent loved another child more.
So, 'how much I got loved' is very varied as parents don't discuss it openly. It's used only in anger and thrown in fights because we don't discuss it.
Simran: What about discussing the hottest button of all – money?
Jasmeet: People may share their income, what they are getting. But there's always a little part of what they have as money which is almost kept secret in the family.
Simran: Why is that?
Jasmeet: Money is very tied to our sense of security and our sense of self worth – success. Am I seen as successful or not? Especially today where the income salaries are zooming in this country for young people.
Therefore, it becomes a case of, if I'm not earning as much as a cousin or a friend, even my own parent may think that I'm not successful.
Simran: So earning too little, you don't talk about it. Earning too much, you don't talk about it...
Jasmeet: Another “un-discussable” is asking for help or assistance. Parents asking the child for money when the child has grown up as a full functioning adult when they run into little problem or difficulty.
Simran: It is never about money, it's about a whole lot of other things - pride, self respect...
Jasmeet: Yes. Another issue is openly stating and talking about what they will do with the wealth once the parents go.
The inheritance and Will is so secret in this country that adult families, siblings who may have been very close have just torn apart because they are unable to come to joint decisions.
And it's also because maybe it's the first time they are openly articulating what they expected.
Simran: Why doesn't the patriarch, the father or mother talk about this as the onus is on them?
Jasmeet: The feeling is of fear that if I tell and one child is unhappy with me, they will break ties or won't take care of me.
The other is an attitude. The attitude is that as long as I'm alive, it's my money, I want to use it the way I do. I shouldn't have to tell them, they shouldn't even be asking me.
So it's an attitude we have developed around talking about money.
Simran: What else are people silent about?
Jasmeet: The secret daydreams and the secret fantasies they have. Some member may have a secret wish to take a mobike and drive all over India...
And he's never shared it in the family because he's scared that his wife will turn around and say, “How selfish! You have us to take care of and you are dreaming of
Daydreams are such a rich source of energy and creativity for us. But our secret fantasies never get shared.
Simran: What are some of the things that families can begin doing differently to start airing some of these issues to health?
Jasmeet: If money was talked about, then at least the parent would know what might be the needs of a child they haven't even thought about on their own.
Or if sex was discussed in a very healthy, natural way, not exaggerated, not giggled, not laughed, not in anger, then children may know that I can come and tell my mother if say someone, a guy or boyfriend tried to molest me...
Simran: How do families break this wall of silence?
Jasmeet: Firstly, to begin giving oneself inner permission to even think about these topics, to feel that it's okay to talk about them.
At the same time, to give inner permission to self, to listen to someone else without feeling it's wrong. So to be able to say to myself that it's okay for me to hear my son ask me about a condom.
It's okay for my daughter to say, that right now she can't stand my husband.
Thirdly, to begin to really, genuinely re-examine one's attitudes and beliefs as to why we should not talk about it.
Lastly, for a family to start...maybe initially the parents may need to take the lead, to start having small, small chats on any of these topics at a time when everyone is feeling relaxed and everyone is free.
Have a small chat and leave it at that.
But parents should not get into lecturing and preaching mode or asking the kids questions which they may find intrusive. They can simply share their own experiences.