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Saturday, March 21, 2009

A future for marriage?

The Statesman recently published the following article on the current status of the age-old institution called marriage
It is based on the situation in the UK, and might come as a shocker to a lot of conservative-minded (which is usually another way of saying dull-) people in India still, but those who know a bit about the world will agree, even if sadly, that things are going the same way in this country too.

As far as I am concerned, I am still on the whole happily married, but both my wife and I agree that we have been very lucky, and keep praying that our luck holds. I often quote the old wisecrack in my classes that marriage is a curse for many, a blessing for a few, and a washout for most (one much-suffering father recently told me, pointing at his wife and daughter, ‘I am just their ATM!’, and those two only grinned foolishly. I’m sure a lot of unhappily-married women feel the same way about their families). And I never forget the lines I read in a poem called The Enchanted Shirt in middle school, where two men were lamenting, ‘one wept that he had buried his wife/ the other, that he had not’!

So I have always been wide-enough eyed to know that things often do go very badly wrong with marriage for a lot of people, and having seen so many bad marriages among the young and the old alike, I strongly believe that such marriages are better dissolved than persevered with permanent cold-war or cat-and-dog style, so that people can make a fresh start, however late in the day it might be. And now that the world has grown much more permissive – one sees very late marriages, live-in relationships, increasing numbers of bachelors and spinsters who seem to be happy enough living by themselves (and frequently changing girlfriends and boyfriends … not just college-goers but people my age and older), increasingly frequent divorces and common second or third marriages (even for women), same-sex relationships and what have you, perhaps the halo around this most hoary of social institutions has really lost its sheen (provided the fundamentalists don’t get the upper hand again: then God help us!) I think only two things are really keeping marriage going still (apart from social pressure, wherever it is still strong) – a lot of women still do not make a living for themselves, and a lot of people cannot imagine who else but family will look after them in extreme old age. As solutions for these problems become more commonly available, marriage is sure to fall into disuse. Far too many people have always felt, after the first excitement evaporates (which might take a few days or a few months, but certainly never lasts a lifetime for anybody!) that it’s just not worth it: it takes too much out of you and gives back too little.

I think Indians have always known this instinctively. That is why they have put so much emphasis on being ‘chaste’ before marriage, and on the occasion of getting married (all the noise, lights, raucous music, gorgeous clothes and jewellery, lavish feasting and swarms of guests…): since you are being let into (presumably) a lifetime of boredom and drudgery and making-do, at least have some pleasant memories of one day in your life when you were special in a fairytale way to help you cope with the gloomiest hours that are coming, because they are sure to be many. That is why, also, unlike in the more liberal ‘developed’ countries, people are so reluctant here to admit that their marriages have been failures, and to look for solutions. I think it’s the same mentality that sends people in droves to sadhus for counsel, but avoid shrinks like the plague – the former is considered ‘safe’, the latter is likely to brand you as insane! The obsession with children (and corresponding indifference to spouses) is one thing that lets the cat out of the bag – what can you say about women who go to the extent of leaving home to stay with their college-going children rather than continuing as they have done for two decades to live with their husbands (who probably need them more – or do they?) All you can conclude is that they don’t just ‘care’ for their children, but are relieved that they are at last rid of the ‘burden’ of housekeeping for their husbands, and found a way of doing it which does not meet with strong social disapproval. I have seen elderly women looking much happier and healthier after their husbands passed away. And the growing phenomenon of married women coming back to live with their parents once they have got a child is further confirmation that many women have never liked living with husbands for long (though it is the men alone who have traditionally been blamed for sowing wild oats!) I have always said that women who are really interested in their husbands as human beings cannot devote so much of their time to brooding over children’s marks and dolling themselves up for kitty parties. Of course, the same goes for men too: it makes me sick to see how many men grow cold toward their wives – the same women whom they had courted with celluloid gusto only a few years ago – to the extent of cutting them out of their ‘personal’ lives almost completely. (I don’t know, though, whether the other type isn’t even more horrible – the ‘devoted’ spouse who treats his/her partner as absolutely personal physical property, and snoops on him/her night and day for a whiff of ‘infidelity’. Such folks often make their spouses want to cop out of marriage at any cost, even through madness, violence or suicide).

A lot of people in my one-horse little town condemn me roundly for talking about these facts of life before my young pupils: the common accusation is that I am making them grow up too fast (knowledge of physics or math or chemistry, on the other hand, never poses the danger of making them 'grow up')! But I thought it fit to write this essay because so many of my ex-students (still in their 20s or early 30s) are at least once-divorced already, even while the current crop of teenagers are mooning over their ‘heartthrobs’ as silly teenagers have always done, utterly confusing raging hormones with love and devotion and eternal fidelity and all that sort of rot. No one who warns them of what lies ahead, and advises them to keep their feet firmly on the ground, can be doing them a bad turn.


Supra said...

The institution of marriage in Western society is both a result of human nature and at odds with it.Some of the modern, liberal thinkers of our day have said that marriage will one day become extinct. They've predicted marriage will slowly but surely be thought of as old-fashioned and unnecessary despite its current popularity and existence throughout human history.We all marry to live happily ever after, why do then so many marriages break down or people try searching for pleasure outside their partners?

It's no longer about producing together, but consuming together.

That's the argument in a brilliantly presented essay by Betsey Stevenson and her partner Justin Wolfers -- both of Wharton.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

The adage is actually "A blind wife and a deaf husband make a happy couple."

Sorry for the mistake.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I do think you could have commented valuably on several other points in my blogpost, Santanuda! You have touched upon only a few...

Sudipto Basu said...

A rather succinct post, and likely to be helpful for the target audience - teenagers - if they are willing to let reason preside over hormonal instinct.

Er, I have a question here. Is social sanction the only purpose that marriage serves? I have my doubts regarding that: an uni-dimensional purpose does not justify the creation of the institution in the first place (or does it?). But if that is indeed the case, live-in a much more practical solution: there's no social fetters binding a couple in case of a fall-out. That should facilitate easy rebuilding of relationships.

On a lighter note, Socrates had a somewhat amusing take on this matter. He married at a ripe age, and presumably not because he felt the need for company, but because he needed some practice in dealing with other people (he had the nasty reputation of a prick who used to irritate a lot of people with questions they never sought to ask: in fact, his whole philosophy was founded on the basis of the dialectic method). Xanthippe, his wife, was known for her short temper and Socrates believed that if he could deal with her, he could jolly well face the very worst of short-tempered quirks. "My advice to you is to get married. If you find a good wife, you'll be happy; if not, you'll become a philosopher." Haha to that!

Sayan Datta said...

This topic has been a subject of debate and experimentation for long. On the one side we have Aristotle's eugenics and our very own caste system and on the other the Pandavas stand as an example (remember Draupadi had five husbands, and all at the same time. She did not need to divorce one to be able to be with another!). Now with these live in relationships perhaps we have entered another phase of experimentation and God knows what we will end up with .Perhaps the debate won't end and it will always depend upon what the individual chooses from within the limited framework of choices provided to him by the age he lives in.
My main point here is that there can't be one rule. There can't be one shirt which fits Tom, Dick and Harry. For instance if someone says -I have been happily married for so many years, I might say - well, you are lucky, my friend wasn't all that lucky; he made a mistake and wants to start all over again. So, my social system must provide my friend some provision, a chance to start again, failing which I would term my system unjust. We can't make one rule and taboo anything slightly contrary. The sphere of choices has to be larger.
My one penny worth of advice - Make your choice cleverly and live with it. The eternal riddle of whether two people can live happily ever after is too great to be solved once and for all (despite all evidences to the contrary why does the mind refuse to believe it?)
Sayan Datta

Tanmoy said...

I have been thinking about this post for some time now and I am in a quandary about what to comment. I do agree with more alternatives to marriage, the system would undergo modifications in times to come and it would be up to an individual’s choice really. Already we have seen pre-nuptial contracts being signed by couples (like the ones signed by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones). Cost of divorce in Western countries is very high and that is why people think hard to get married in the first place for the fear of not only getting hurt at a later date but also its monetary consequences. In my current (albeit brief) stint in a Westernized environment I have met people who are in live-in relationships. Interestingly, none of the couples I have met so far think of the relationship as an alternative to marriage though. People tend to view it as a preparedness phase. It cannot be universally true, I am sure but the way human beings view relationships varies anyway from person to person. I don’t think the Western world has started to shun marriages, in fact in a country like New Zealand a large family event is given extreme importance over anything. Generally people tend to have more than one kid and along with the wife they form an important part in one’s family life.

As far as India is concerned, I have seen some ugly divorces amongst my friends. To my mind the divorces that I have seen were caused by two factors essentially – (a) lack of patience as far as couples are concerned in putting an effort to understand each other beyond mere preferences; and (b) too much advising by extended families. While in India family values are hailed etc but I do believe very strongly over time extended families in India are causing too much problems in people’s life. This is a tricky (and controversial) topic and nobody likes to talk about it. While we don’t like being completely out of touch with people (whom we are used to from childhood but mistake that habit by calling it love)but we tend to give too much of importance to each and every relative of ours for the sake of formality. I for one do believe extended families cause many problems (most times unintentionally) to marriages. This is all the more true because in India we tend to learn (or have a feeling of learning), by emulating. Rather than concentrating on their own relationship, couples tend to concentrate on how their relatives want the relationships to be or how the friends (and neighbours) want it to be. It is much more of an immaturity and stupidity from those who take (try to implement) those advise rather than those who provide it. Thing with advise is – one needs to know from whom to take and from where to get it. Despite appreciating a “big fat” family, young Indians can do with a little bit of independence in thought. One needs to learn that times have changed and the advises which were correct in 50 years back may not be true now because human psyche have undergone massive changes. However, if we don’t believe in ourselves then none can save us. It would not matter then whether we are in a live or in a marriage. Personally, I believe marriage is a beautiful experience only when you put effort every moment to make it beautiful. I don’t think all marriages that have seen the length of time have been boring and dull. My comments are solely based on cases that I have come across because generalisation to my mind is difficult.

Shilpi said...

I've been wondering whether to send a comment for this post or whether to wait some two decades before doing so. Suvro da, do you really think that marriage is likely to fall into disuse? I wonder about this myself, and I haven't found a good answer. I'll send a longer comment after musing some more.
Take care.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Maybe not, Shilpi, but lifelong pairings are going to become rarities, that's almost certain, I think. Unless the wheel of history starts turning backwards, which it sometimes does (and think of what I said regarding fundamentalists!)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

It is most interesting that apart from Shilpi - who is a very special case - not a single girl/woman has cared to comment on this blogpost yet!

Subhasis said...

Subhasis Chakraborty

Dear Suvro Sir,

Firstly,I want to offer my felicitations on another excellently written and well structured blogpost.

I do agree with the major tenets of your exposition.
However..the matter is not one of What's wrong with marriages so much as the fact of marriage itself: Its antiquated and completely unreasonable legal and social imperatives, and unrealistic expectations that the "Knight in shining armour" will bend to her wishes and that the "Fairy Princess" will never change.

"When a couple marry, the man hopes that she will never change, but does, and the woman insists that he will, but cannot." (I have no idea where I read that ;))

I see a major problem in the whole show; that monogamous, formalised marriage is the ideal and only socially acceptable way of raising children.

In a society less judgemental, less hidebound by religions and traditions and more inclusive, more caring and more accommodating, there would be fewer problems; adults and their offspring could develop and grow knowing that life, love and security were freely available for everyone.

Utopian idealism?
Absolutely: Simply because there are too many mean minded and spiteful people in this world, and that the confusion and unhappiness that forced monogamy and marriage creates is an essential instrument in the control of society by political, commercial and religious interests.

An unhappy population is easy to control with confidence tricks like 'Heaven' and "Happily ever after", especially when folk have been convinced that they are the causes of their own misery.

Marriage was not instituted for the benefit of the hoi poloi and their communities, but for those in privileged positions to maintain their standing

As a culture we seem to believe that marriage is a kind of end point and a solution to all ills, rather than the start of a complex process that, depending on who we are and how we deal with it, could go any way at all.

Kind Regards,