Prince Charming reminded me of the early days of my marriage and how real post-marital depression is

A psychotherapist explains that there are typically two types of people who experience this depression and that it's very valid.
30 Aug, 2021

Marriage. Entertainment industries are dedicated to packaging and selling love stories that end in a grand marriage. Social media is saturated with lavish weddings hashtagged as #couplegoals. From a young age, we’re taught that marriage is the ultimate goal. Our impressionable minds are told that getting married is not only the expectation but that it’s the ultimate achievement.

What no one ever says out loud though is how after that fancy wedding some of us are going to wake up feeling horribly depressed. This phenomenon, known as post-marital depression, is what Sheharyar Munawar’s new short film, Prince Charming, starring Mahira Khan and Zahid Ahmed explores.

Prince Charming is the story of Sherezade, a housewife who is shown starting her day before her husband and daughter wake up. We see Sherazade, played by Mahira Khan, move through the motions of what most of us will recognise as the average morning in the average household. She brushes her teeth, throws her hair in a bun, wakes her daughter for school, reminds her husband where his missing shoes are and makes everyone’s breakfast.

Throughout we are privy to Sherezade’s inner monologue, which plays out like a fantasy sequence and is at direct odds with her real life. In this inner monologue, we see Sherezade’s husband Akbar (Zahid Ahmed) flirtatiously pull her into a darkened room and whisper sweet nothings to her as she goes about her busy morning. The Akbar of Sherazade’s fantasies is not the Akbar we can see messily sprawled in bed. The Akbar who quotes poetry and asks her to leave her responsibilities behind and go to the movies with him is not the Akbar of Sherazade’s reality who barely glances at his wife as he wolfs down his breakfast while working on his laptop, apologises for not being able to take her to the movies later that day and then quickly bolts out the door leaving Sherazade alone in an empty house imagining an Akbar who is emotionally and physically present. An Akbar who sneaks up on his wife and engulfs her in a warm embrace.

It’s clear to the audience that Akbar’s adoration, devotion and his attention is all in Sherezade’s head and, in reality, Sherezade’s daughter’s classmates call her crazy and the real-life Akbar is a man of few words. It seems then that imaginary Akbar, with his attentive romanticism, is a coping mechanism to occupy Sherezade when, ultimately, her daughter and husband leave her alone for the day and the silent, empty house threatens to close in on her.

Prince Charming ends with a reminder that post-marital depression is real. According to Toronto-based psychotherapist Arooba Syed, post-marital depression is not a formal diagnosis under the DSM-5. However, clients who seek treatment for it are usually diagnosed with either a Major Depressive Disorder or an Adjustment Disorder mixed with Depression (with the latter diagnosis being more common, according to Syed).

Nonetheless, in our interview, Syed emphasised that post-marital depression is real and valid.

According to the online publication Feminism in India, symptoms of post-marital depression can range from persistent anxiety to not wanting to engage in pleasure-related activities like sex, restlessness, irritability, crying excessively, sleeping too much or too little. For most women, post-marital depression will peak in the first three years of marriage. But, for some, if left untreated or unaddressed, it will become a way of life.

According to Syed, who has worked with many women who experience post-marital depression, there are typically two types of clients.

The first category is someone who initially goes into a marriage feeling the emotional high and excitement of the marriage proposal followed by the thrill of wedding planning. This person pours all of herself not into the marriage but into the wedding. From finding the perfect dress to picking the right venue and menu, for this person to so suddenly and unceremoniously be yanked out of constant celebrations can be very triggering and lead to the onset of post-marital depression. According to Syed, these people typically report that they miss being surrounded by loved ones and the excitement of their wedding festivities.

The second type is someone who sounds and looks a lot more like the lonely housewife Sherezade we see in Prince Charming. According to Syed, for someone like Sherezade, post-marital depression is usually brought on as a result of abuse or neglect in the marriage.

Syed tells me the formal label for Sherezade’s imaginary inner monologue with her husband/lover Akbar is 'dissociation'.

Dissociation can best be described as an out-of-body experience or a mental escape. Essentially, dissociation is the body’s way of emotionally disconnecting from reality in instances when the person is not physically able to escape her situation. This is what Sherezade does in Prince Charming. By imagining an attentive and physically present spouse as she goes about the day’s chores, Sherazade is essentially employing a coping mechanism to combat her oppressive loneliness.

Watching Prince Charming felt oddly personal to me. A disclaimer is warranted at this point: I’m happily married to a most amazing and emotionally available man. But marriage itself did not come easy or naturally for me. When I got married five years ago, my career had just begun picking up steam, I had an incredible social life and I was living in the comfort of my parents’ home in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Marriage turned my world upside down and not all of it was in a good way. Within hours of my baraat, I said goodbye to my family, friends, career and country and moved with a man I’d known less than a year to a small town in northern Florida mostly full of Trump-loving, gun-toting, racists. My husband, although well-meaning, was in the busiest phase of his medical training. We couldn’t afford two cars and the car we did have I couldn’t drive because it was a stick shift. In those early days, I took to talking to myself, doing an unnecessary amount of cleaning, and a lot of late night crying. Thinking back to the loneliness, isolation and boredom I felt in those early months of marriage still leaves me breathless.

Yet, even in retelling this, I realise that I am one of the luckier women who’ll experience post-marital depression. My husband and family recognised that I wasn’t doing so great mentally and encouraged me to give therapy and mood stabilising medicine a try. Today, I have no doubt in my mind that those two things saved both me and my marriage.

Now, I work with an organisation that supports families going through different types of crises. Everyday I see firsthand the personal and generational impact of untreated trauma and depression. This is why I think storytelling like Prince Charming is so important.

When Sherazade’s daughter asks her mother why her classmates’ mothers refer to her as crazy, that is the precise moment when intervention is needed. Because no daughter should grow up thinking it’s normal or acceptable for women to suffer silently in a marriage.

Modern society has got it all backwards: weddings are not the endgame. Sustainable, long-lasting, healthy and happy marriages are the endgame. If only we poured as much time and investment into our marriages as we do our weddings, we could save a lot of people from a lot of quiet heartbreak.

So, if you or someone you know is suffering from what you think may be post-marital depression, know that you are not alone. Seek help. While treatment will vary person-to-person, therapists like Syed work with clients to help them with goal-setting strategies or come up with ways to overcome cognitive distortions (such as irrational or exaggerated thought patterns) in order to help them look forward to this new chapter in life.