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Healing Space | The domination of out of control parents

Parents who try to control everything from their children’s partners to assets, damage their autonomy. Here's how to protect your right to self-determination.

June 30, 2021 / 07:38 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

*Trigger warning: This article has mention of self-harm. For information on suicide prevention helplines, please scroll to the end of this article.

You don’t have to be the Sikh Kashmiri woman at the centre of the storm this week, to know that family involvement in Indian marriages, regardless of community, tends to rob individuals of agency.

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthAutonomy is the need of an individual to feel in control of their own actions and behaviours. This provides individuals self-determination. This may pertain to their bodies, finances, choice of partner, religion, living or work arrangements. It is often taken away by a dominating parent or spouse, even children who usurp elders’ assets. It is given the garb of being in one’s best interests. Since it is psychological—the individual may not be locked up—it plays out through emotional pressure. An individual who feels trapped or cornered, attacked and abandoned may modify behaviour as asked.

Hindi films have glorified emotional pressure. In Sholay it’s funny when Veeru climbs the water tower and threatens to jump if Basanti doesn’t marry him, but this emotional blackmail is a horrifying reality for children of parents who threaten self-harm if they don’t marry partners of their choice. For same-sex, inter-caste or inter-religious couples, such manipulation also brings threats of ostracization or social boycott, illegal in states like Maharashtra.


Such coercion may not always be apparent outwardly. Britney Spears has been moving court for years to regain control of her earnings, and decisions such as whom she could date, what she can wear, even her interior décor. Withholding of agency constitutes emotional abuse. Infliction of violence to achieve this constitutes physical abuse.

Psychologist Dr Wendy Grolnick, an expert in self-determination, says in The Psychology of Parental Control, every person has three needs: to feel autonomous, competent and related to others. Parental control interferes with the fulfilment of these needs and executes it through the environment of the child. Parents often confuse control with structure and releasing control with disengagement. This is why your parents might try to control everything, but when asked to back off, will stop talking to you completely. A middle path is possible.

Here are 5 things you should know about retaining your autonomy:

1. It goes both ways: If your parents have been cooking your food, ironing your clothes, if you have been involving them in all your major life decisions, from work choices to vacations, if your business interests are intertwined, you could be in a co-dependent relationship. You can’t be simultaneously co-dependent and independent. A sudden assertion in one area will be disruptive because you haven’t set the tone. Asserting yourself early on allows for flexibility when the big decisions come up.

2. Consider yourself an adult: Once you attain a legal age, typically 18, 21, or 25, depending on whether you would like to vote, marry or drink, you are empowered to make your own decisions. When you maintain courteous facades, say handing over your pay cheque, you are also handing over some part of your independence. Consider, instead, both showing gratitude and being self-deterministic. You might want to make a contribution to the household, but also to start your own savings.

3. Set boundaries: Yes, your parents or spouse may have done a lot for you, encouraged your studies, supported your business. That still doesn’t mean you owe them your autonomy. You may owe them gratitude or money without giving away agency. Get yourself and them accustomed to your physical and emotional boundaries. Ask for advice if you need to, but retain decision-making power, be firm without being aggressive, and have your point of view heard.

4. Have consequences for breaching boundaries: If you don’t respect your own boundaries, no one else will. Build in consequences like ceasing to give them information or cutting off. If you’ve decided with your partner that you don’t want to have children, make it clear ‘family pressure’ will have consequences. Outline what they are and stick to them. You can also create rewards for those who do respect your boundaries.

5. Watch your Secondary Gains: Secondary gains are underlying motivations to stay in non-beneficial situations. For instance, you might be giving away your independence to pool finances now, but will you feel differently when you have a wife and children? Consider the repercussions of compromises.

Dominating parents Healing Space - BOX on autonomy

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Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Sit Your Self Down, a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and the forthcoming Anitya, a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]
first published: Jun 30, 2021 01:59 pm
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