My husband, in-laws, and parents all gathered that evening in my parents’ formal living room in Dallas for an intervention of sorts, in the hopes that they could talk me out of ending my marriage. Are.
“I just don’t understand it. He took you to five countries,” my mother-in-law said. “Isn’t that enough?”
“He takes care of you,” my mother said. “He gives you everything.”
I hung my head, staring at the clumps of flowers on the Persian rug beneath my feet.
My father-in-law suggested I was unhappy because my husband was not a doctor, as I am, while my own father wondered if I had met someone else.
Even though my husband and I had been separated for months, my decision to end our marriage felt awkward to our families. I anticipated the pushback; Divorce is uncommon among South Asians, even in the diaspora. The woman who started it is even more taboo. And ending the marriage on the very grounds that I was claiming—a lack of emotional intimacy—certainly seemed preposterous to my existentialist Pakistani immigrant parents and in-laws.
They came from families who had crossed the India-Pakistan border under the cover of night, leaving behind home and wealth, to establish themselves in a new country. Couldn’t I just learn to live with a somewhat monotonous marriage?
For them marriage served a utilitarian purpose as a unit of stability that created a larger society based on commonality of cultural group, religious sect and family background. Love was only a lucky byproduct.
My husband and I belonged to the same demographics, but love did not blossom in our three years of marriage. He tried to plan exotic vacations; At my suggestion, we tried counseling. We moved closer to family. Little has changed.
I desperately needed a deep connection that I tried to create in my marriage, but it just wasn’t there. It was a need that was focused into my conscious awareness as I began my residency in psychotherapy and discovered myself to a great depth, and one that I could no longer continue to live without.
Over the years, my parents noticed my discomfort within the marriage, but they encouraged me to be patient and grateful. My husband took me on trips, made a good living and nothing like physical abuse was happening, so I should be able to love him. My inability to do so speaks only of my own failure, not of an inherent incompatibility between us.
In our collectivist culture, the source of my discontent appeared foolish, and my pursuit of divorce self-indulgent. What mattered most was that I was reneging on a commitment, threatening my own and his standing in our Native community, and throwing my life away — all on the basis that I and My husband didn’t “connect”.
“You will return all the jewelry she gave you,” my mother told me as my in-laws walked out. No one had persuaded me to change my mind, and everyone was unhappy about it.
“You’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” my father said.
The last time I saw her, my husband looked right at me and said, “You don’t know how to be a wife.”
A year after my divorce, and despite the shame of marital disqualification, I decided to put myself out there again. Yet in my home circles, people did not see me as fit for marriage a second time.
When I asked a friend if she knew anyone who might be right for me, she said, “Even my friends who aren’t married can’t find anyone.”
My mother, perhaps wanting to save me from disappointment, tried to manage my expectations. “I worry that once he learns you’re divorced, he won’t like you,” she would say of a potential match. Her advice was to let men know about this scarlet letter in advance, but talk about it as little as possible, a closed chapter that need not be reopened.
On my first dinner date after my divorce, the man asked me after our appetizers for more details about the end of my marriage. “That’s it?” he said, his puzzlement bordering on frustration at the lack of drama. He then continued to share that he too was divorced, and told me in detail about how he found his wife cheating on him at a five-star resort in Mexico on their honeymoon. We didn’t meet again.
Then there was an old acquaintance with whom I reconnected, who said, “I don’t mind,” granting me acceptance I hadn’t sought. “Unless you write a memoir or something about it.”
There was this guy I hadn’t talked to before meeting, so he didn’t know I was divorced. He was enjoying steak frites when I told him, and he put down his fork, french fries hanging from a tine, and said, “It would have been nice if you had told me earlier.” He asked for the check shortly after, and I didn’t see him again.
I tried to resist my culture’s insistence that I be ashamed of my divorce, but it got the better of me. In my eyes, I had made a necessary, authentic choice. That choice hurt my ex-husband, his family, and my family, but the lack of love in my marriage hurt me. Me. Yet time after time, I was reminded that perhaps it was impractical for me to think that I could grow anything new where something had once died.
Until I met Mahmud. The first time he and I talked about my marriage, we didn’t say much. In response to the short one I shared, he simply said, “It must have been tough.”
We met on Minder (Muslim Tinder – now called Salam) but I remembered his name from when he consulted me about a patient six months ago, whereas he remembered me from two years ago When we shared an elevator ride to the hospital. First day of our stay. That day, she grabbed my name from my ID badge and asked one of her co-residents if she knew me; He did, and he told her that I was married.
He was surprised to see my profile on a dating app years later, but that didn’t stop him from swiping right. Mehmood and I met the next few times, I never tried to rehash the story of three years of my life to the best of my comfort because the fact that I was married never bothered him. Conversation with him was easy.
Still there was no thought of marrying her. Our connection – the lack of which seemed to others a trivial reason to end the marriage – was there. It was life giving. But I was treated as a person who did not know how to keep a marriage alive.
“If you go for it, don’t mess up again,” my mom said after telling her about it. The shame of being divorced—having once declared my marriage a failure—had taken root deep within me in a way I didn’t fully recognize. And so when Mahmoud proposed, I declined. I thought divorce would free me from a dysfunctional marriage, and it had, but it had also turned into an internalized stigma that was preventing me from letting a new relationship flourish.
When describing their decision to get married, people often say, “When you know, you know” or “go with your gut.” I was not one of those people; I didn’t know, and my gut was somehow uneasy. If I don’t remarry, I’ll never have to get divorced again; Yet if I do not remarry, I will lose the person I fell in love with.
Despite my refusal, Mahmood took advantage of the opportunity and remained stuck. And I took my chance and finally said yes. This summer, after three years of our marriage, both my daughter and I visited my old medical school campus. At one point, we were driving past my old condo, where I lived during my first marriage. Mehmood slowed down the car and asked if I wanted to have a look around. When I hesitated, he assured me that he would be fine for as long as I needed.
I stepped out and looked at the fifth-floor Juliet balcony of my old condo, remembering that it didn’t have enough depth for me to sit comfortably. When I chose my own apartment after the divorce, I made sure it had a beautiful balcony. After moving in, I set up a rocking chair and side table and would sit there almost every evening, embracing my difficult stillness.
When I got back in the car after a few minutes, Mahmoud said, “You don’t want to stay longer?”
“No,” I said. “I stayed long enough.”