Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
Marriage in crisis
Thirty odd years ago, marriage was still considered an institution, though the fraying at the ends had already begun. The young trusted their parents and watched, with peripheral interest, the matching of horoscopes, the meeting of the families, and lastly the meeting of the two important players in the future union. A large percentage of these marriages seemed to work, and if they didn't, very few knew about them. In conventional families, the wife's subservient attitude curbed her individuality and she was prepared to take the backseat while the husband devoted his time to his career. Whatever may have been the path which led to a marriage, arranged or otherwise, there were societal pressures and onus on the couple to keep the marriage stable.
Marriage has always been such a highly gendered institution, the differences apparent in the division of labour, parenting styles, different responsibilities, expressions of sexual intimacies and psychological orientation. Automatically, irrespective of whether the woman works outside the home or not, they are largely responsible for housework, child care. They play pivotal roles in family and marriage while the men are involved in their provider roles, and generally the "outside-of-homework" though more and more women are taking on this extra baggage, in lieu of the fact that there is increasing pressure on the man in his work.
"There has been a significant change in the views and attitudes towards marriage in the last decade," says Dr. Thara Srinivasan, marriage counsellor and Director, Schizophrenia Research Foundation, Chennai (SCARF). "Marriage is no longer held to be a "divine match" or a "sacred union". Personally, I too, think marriage should not be sanctified as it was in the past, and must be viewed only as a bonding and nurturing life-long relationship and friendship. The rather flippant and superficial reasons given by many women and men to break a marriage do not portend well for the future." Dr. S. Rajkumar, who has been a marriage counsellor in India for over 20 years, and is now based in Australia as Professor and Clinical Director of the Newcastle Mental Health Services, says that Indian marriages are more resilient and lasting, whereas in Australia they seem to break up due to seemingly trivial issues, which of course is seen from an Indian perspective! "There is a strong lobby for women out here," says Dr. Rajkumar. "Marriage is very fragile, and I understand that one in every four or five marriages breaks up despite more space and freedom in the West."
Today, the institution of marriage is in transition. There has been so much emphasis on gender equality without other supporting factors . . . that of acceptance of each other's strengths and weaknesses, no high expectations and division of labour, so much so, the incidence of divorce even in a country like India, with different norms of sustenance and forbearance, has gone up alarmingly. "Till 1988 only one civil court was earmarked for divorcees under the Hindu Marriage Act," remarks Sheila Jayaprakash, a Chennai based advocate, dealing with family law. "Today, three Family Courts work overtime to deal with petitions from all religious groups. So you can imagine how the divorce rate has shot up."
What is disturbing is the high divorce rate among older people, couples who have been married for 15-20 years, where the women want to call it quits owing to infidelity on the part of the husband, mental cruelty, and other factors which no longer need prolonged suffering, with the woman's economic independence. "Even women from the lower strata file for divorce these days," she says. "Women were accepting the concept of chinna veedu (the husband havinga mistress) two decades ago . . . ."
Where gender roles were defined, it was easier to conform to a pattern, but with the inevitable emancipation of woman, her economic independence, western influences and new value systems, imbibed from peer groups or passed on by her parents, marriage has assumed a new face. It should be remembered that couples do not exist in a social vacuum, but within a larger social context that forms and shapes the values, expectations and beliefs of the partners and constraints their patterns of interaction and transaction as a couple system. "It is a sad tale, that parents from middle class homes, very often the mothers, in their desire to hold on to the reins of power, and their difficulty in letting go, play havoc in their children's lives," says Dr. Thara.
With longer life spans and an active life prolonged, one can anticipate more years with a life partner, which is why sandbaggers are required on the shores of marriage building up defences against the downturn in the support for the institution. Marriage counsellors, formerly pooh-poohed at, have today assumed a role of importance in guiding couples through stormy seas and averting the iminent pain of divorce. Can one develop a system where established married couples with successful marriages, properly trained, can bring their skills forward in fostering love and understanding between couples?
Today in India there is a disenchantment with the system of arranged marriages, and a reluctance to "take the matrimonial plunge." Even for dating couples, the world over, saying "yes" to a legal bond of matrimony does not come easy. More and more couples are wanting to test-drive holy matrimony before they say "I do." American psychologist and author Dr. Ronn Elmore quips: "Living together before marriage is like a Nutri sweet; it doesn't provide the context to really find out the worth, the values, nor the character and commitment of the other person." Dr. Julia Hare, another U.S. based psychologist, states emphatically that living together leads both partners to heartbreak. It may sound old-fashioned, but Dr. Elmore believes that cohabiting is "a substitute for permanent commitment and intimacy." It may be fun, it may save money but it is not the same as a till-death-do-us-apart commitment.
That marriage is in crisis, is a universal happening. Britain quotes the rate of a sixfold rise in the divorce rate between 1961 and 1991, now the highest in Europe, the divorces costing the public purse oe4 billion a year. Marriage is strongly institutionalised, not just in India but also in the West and is a preferred context for intimate relations and is the cornerstone of family life. There is a compulsive need to stay married and have children within the marriage. Marriage involves a high degree of interdependence, a close emotional bond, sharing of residence, a commitment over time, a sharing of roles and functions and an active sexual relationship. Marriage offers stability, providing an atmosphere of love, acceptance, encouragement and trust in which partners exchange instrumental and expressive support.
In today's shifting values and changing times, there is less reliance on marriage as a definer of sex and living arrangements throughout life. There are more number of extra-marital relationships, including open gay and lesbian relationships, a delay in the age of getting married, higher rates of marital disruption and a more egalitarian gender-role attitudes among men and women, where norms and values have been totally restructured.
Priorities have shifted even in a country with hidebound traditions like India. Where the priority was the husband, it has shifted to careers as far as the woman is concerned and deep resentment surfaces when the husband is not willing to share duties in the home. Stay-at-home women who have given up careers to be good mothers and homemakers find this role daunting and frustrating as they tend to the demands of little children and the never-ending drudgeries of housework single-handed. The woman's fatigue and pent up frustration is heaped on her husband producing the inevitable lacuna in the marriage.
The husband is intimidated by the new-image woman, bewildered by the revolt, when he has been brought up all along to expect a conformist woman who regards her husband as the most important factor in her life. The answer to this lies in mothers bringing up their sons to accept the fact that gender roles are no longer defined and that men and women have to share the burden of work and child-rearing tempered with tolerance and understanding if the marriage has to work. With the present-day work-pressures, a feel for each other's needs and giving one another space is of paramount importance, with a healthy respect for each other. Couples who set apart time to do something together are those who have a successful marriage, prioritising this, even putting it above their children. When the children grow up and move away from the parental umbrella, the couple realise that they have only each other, and for ones who have not debated on this aspect, it is too late, and the rift is too wide, what with the chemistry on the wane and the predictability and sameness of a marriage jarring. It is imperative that each partner cultivates some interest which can be pursued well into retirement days and which will stave off the loneliness and pain when the children leave home.
Women tend to be more concerned about their marriage than men and head for counselling. Wives tend to see themselves as the major force for resolving conflicts and when they give up the effort the marriage is generally over. The men feel that the expectations of the women are immense, and they cannot please them however hard they try, despite a sizeable contribution to the family. They are under pressure to improve financial contribution, share in raising the children and provide emotional support to the wives. With tremendous pressure at work, the men suffer emotional exhaustion. The simpler role of husbands in the past decades has now been replaced with a more complex role. But the emotional needs of a woman are different: she wants a soul-mate, someone who can understand her needs, someone who is caring and one who will take care of her when she is unduly stressed.
The goal in a marriage is to become united in purpose and spirit, not to overpower and control each other. Couples that are already emotionally bonded have little or no trouble following this, because they have learnt how to behave in sensitive and caring ways in each of their life's roles. Couples emotionally distant have great difficulty accomplishing this goal, because they are accustomed to doing what they please, regardless of its effect on one another.
It is hoped that in the years to come, granted that children have inculcated the basic qualities of trust, sense of commitment and fulfillment of obligatory roles, marital relationships will stabilise and assume to some degree the importance that they held for the last generation. And as Dr. Thara says, "marriage is often not the happily-ever-after phenomena as portrayed in fairy tales or films, nor is it a permanent state of romance. It is a life-long process of cementing a relationship in the face of several adversities and an ongoing process of physical and emotional accommodation, sharing and loving. Young people should neither idealise it too much nor have their knives sharpened all the time.
"There is no perfect marriage and there never will be one - neither is it necessary to be so. All the fun will be lost if marriage is always sedate and predictable."
And in the words of Khalil Gibran, poet and philosopher on marriage:
. . . let there be spaces in your togetherness
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