Canada: Counselling Couples, South Asian Style

By V. Radhika, Womens Feature Service

For South Asian couples who live abroad but continue to be governed by the traditional values of their community, accessing professional counselling to tide over a rough patch in a marriage is often out of the question. Most couples would rather live through a bad marriage than seek professional intervention or a divorce.

The reasons for shying away from the western concept of speaking to a counsellor or therapist could be many. For first-generation immigrant couples it could be the language barrier. For some it could be the fear of being criticised by a counsellor for adhering to traditions – apprehensions usually harboured by young South Asians who have grown up in the west.

Take the case of the Toronto-based couple Naveen and Ria Mathur, who are in their late 20s. Born and raised in Canada, the two usually have tiffs over their extended family. But unsure whether they would be understood by a society resting on the bedrock of individualism, they avoided approaching a therapist.

Responding to this rather general conclusion – that the western model will not work for cultures where family is built into every aspect of an individual’s life – is a project currently underway at York University. The project caters to the need of the South Asian community for an ethno-specific couple counselling.

The South Asian Couple Counseling Project is, in fact, a free service with a research component. It is the initiative of Saunia Ahmad, a PhD student at the university’s clinical psychology programme. Daughter of Indian immigrants, Ahmad opted to do research with South Asians because “there is not a lot out there in terms of counselling with people of my community and there is also not much research of what is most effective.” What is known, she says, is that most are not using the services; and that there are culturally-specific value differences in how they experience marriages, making it difficult for professionals trained in western models to help them.

York University professor and Ahmad’s supervisor, specialist Dr David Reid, who is a partner on this project explains, “Models developed in North America largely in the 1950s and 1960s do not have anything to say about traditional marriages, particularly those from other cultures. Times have changed and there are a lot of South Asians in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), but we do not have models developed, tested or investigated with that particular group in mind.”

At issue here is an understanding of the institution of marriage. While the western model focuses just on the couple’s relationship, in traditional cultures marriage involves the extended family as well. According to Ahmad, who is in her mid-20s, second-generation South Asian Canadians, like Naveen and Ria, are keen on maintaining their culture and want the family to be involved in the marriage but struggle to do it in a way that does not affect their independence as a couple. “A lot of conflicts are not about family interference per se, but how they communicate with each other and how they present their relationship to their families. South Asians are particularly sensitive about how their partner treats their family. They get very defensive around each other’s extended family and this interferes with their ability to understand each other,” she says.

In the case of the first-generation immigrants, a couple’s tensions are linked to the impact of the transition. Says Ahmad, “One thing we help them understand is us starting to find how to work together – rather than individually – to move through transitions.”

Anagha Gupta (name changed on request), an IT professional, has been having problems in her marriage for some time now. She says that for the last two years her husband was refusing to seek professional help, arguing that “people here (Canada) do not understand what our values and traditions are.” Now, she says, the counselling programme offers a ray of hope for women like her as their partners may be less ambivalent about seeking help from counsellors who understand South Asians. In fact, ever since the project began, on an average there have been at least six to seven couples signing up for sessions.

While many of the challenges South Asian immigrants face may be no different from the experiences of other immigrants, the fact that they can speak with Ahmad in their own language (she speaks Hindi, Urdu and English) and actually share a common cultural heritage, makes a huge difference. “The language you are raised in is the one where you can label your emotions, experiences and thought. And secondly, people want to work with people who understand them. When we asked clients what they found different here, they said ‘knowing we didn’t have to explain ourselves and [would not be] judged for spending so much time with the extended family or having traditional outlook,” she elaborates.

Dr Yvonne Bohr, an Assistant professor at York University, has worked extensively with the Chinese community, particularly, young parents. She says, “The available research shows that needs may be different when you come from a collectivist community – versus an individualist community as we are here – that influences your family system, parenting system, and so on. But most of the models we use are largely based on western research and they may not always be appropriate as over 90 per cent of infants today are born in non-western countries.”

Appended to this is the issue of how to reach out to clients who are not part of the mainstream and how language and culture may come in the way of drawing people into counselling. It is borne out by research that services are not accessed by those who need them, informs Dr Bohr.

And the way immigration is changing the face of countries like the U.S., Canada and of Europe, “we have to be more sensitive to the needs of clients of different backgrounds,” says Dr Bohr.

And that is where Ahmad and Dr Reid position their initiative. Dr Reid says, “There is no doubt in my mind that what we may learn from working with South Asians may well benefit other cultures. We overemphasise personality, which is a very individualistic perspective, and we need to look at other factors, like culture. The idea is not to compartmentalise between ethnic and mainstream but to come up with an approach that is indigenous and built from people we work with.”

The project has been running for two years now and according to Dr Reid it is likely to be a part of York University’s Psychology clinic (a research and training institution), expected to open this year.

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