Tuesday, October 11, 2016

We need to talk about our obsession with stable marriages

We Indians love weddings. We love marriage. We love big fat weddings and marriages that last the lifetime of the two people involved. If you can boast of both, sone pe suhaaga. Also, we hate complaints about dissatisfaction in marriage, and we absolutely abhor divorce (and divorcees- only the women though). We have no patience with the present generation that treats marriage as something they can get out of and has newfangled concepts like 'romance' and 'autonomy' being important in marriage. They are misguided, we say, and can only be saved by going through the arranged marriage route and learning the value of adjustment- if you don't like where you are, you work at feeling better and not at planning how to get out.

As a culture, we take a lot of pride in our stable marriages- people sticking it out (most often for the sake of their children) no matter how miserable they are with each other; the number of years for which relationships last meaning far more than the quality of relationships. We are highly disapproving of the apparent ease with which the present generation can and does get out of marriages, and lament it as bad influence of the West. What we don't seem to recognize is the fact that there can be bad marriages too! There's a limit to how much you can achieve through best intentions and trying to adjust- not everyone can be healed/changed and not every relationship can be salvaged.  In fact, toxic relationships can be extremely damaging for people's mental health- all the more true for children! So having options other than staying put in an abusive marriage is actually a lifesaver and needs to be given due credit. No denying that there are marriages that break up in a matter of days and weeks for the most frivolous of reasons and people are right when they say that such cases are more of a recent phenomenon. During my internship in a family court in Mumbai, I came across several cases in which I sadly noticed that people don't take marriage as seriously as it deserves to be taken, cases that made me lament the fact that marriages are not considered sacrosanct anymore. Yet I also came across cases- marriages fraught with impossible levels of all sorts of abuse- that made me glad that the sanctity of marriage is not absolute. They made me think 'Thank God for Divorce.'

It is said that the best legacy parents can leave their children is their happiness. Whether you fight or choose to keep it all brushed under the carpet, children are perceptive and the impact of marital discord on children's healthy development is huge! Often children pick up similar behavior patterns, have more adjustment problems and may show a variety of internalizing and externalizing problems that may last well into adulthood*. If not anything else, the child in question is going to have no role models for a healthy relationship and may grow up believing that what happens in his family is the way relationships play out everywhere. Contrary to what we may like to believe, it's better to get out of an abusive relationship- better for the children- that staying put and roughing it out.

So you see, you don't deserve a medal simply for staying in a relationship for life! We need to talk about the quality of that relationship first. Yes, all relationships have their ups and downs- every marriage entails hard work. But there's a difference between putting effort in one's relationship to keep it healthy, and tolerating abuse simply for survival of the relationship.

This morning I woke up to this harrowing yet inspirational story from Humans of Amsterdam, which made me want to write this post in the first place.  Its the story of an Indian woman working in Amsterdam who had had a history of emotional abuse in her marriage and was looking for divorce:
"When my father found out I wanted to divorce my husband he was really upset. He suggested I would travel to India so we could talk things through. I wasn’t planning on changing my mind but in order to get my divorce settled I would have to go to India. My manager at Nike gave me two weeks off and I flew back home. When I arrived, my family was mostly emotional and angry with me for making the decision to get a divorce. Later that week we traveled to the other side of the country to my husband’s house to discuss the situation. I remember sitting in a circle in his living room and everyone was looking at me. For hours my family and his family were trying to convince me to not go through with the divorce. This went on for hours and hours and at some point I was so exhausted I had to go to sleep. That night I slept in his house. Just being there reminded me of all those terrible months. I woke up the next day and I noticed that my bag with my passport, phone and credit cards was missing. I panicked and confronted my in-laws. They said that they had nothing to do with my missing bag and that someone must have broken in and stole it. Slowly I started to realize how serious the situation was. My two weeks off were almost finished and I had to get to my job in Amsterdam. To get a new passport in India it takes at least 3 months and a signature of your father or husband."

You can read the rest of the story here

I had goosebumps while I read this woman's story, and couldn't help but think about the plight of women who are not as educated or have the financial means to actually get away from a rotten marriage. Why lay so much emphasis on staying together when the life of the relationship has been sucked out already? Why are we so tolerant of abuse; why do we think that a relationship can get back to normal after there being episodes of abuse and no measures being taken by the couple to process it and by the perpetrator to get help for it? Why make it so difficult to get out of a dead relationship? Is 'not incurring society's wrath' such a worthy goal that we as parents are ready to sacrifice our children's happiness for it? Also, why are such archaic laws still in place that require the signature of husband/father on documents? Doesn't it help keep domestic violence alive? Are we so obsessed with marriage and maintaining patriarchy that we don't care about our women's safety, let alone their well-being? Of course, we are- we still don't recognize marital rape as rape! We truly have a long, long way to go before we can claim to treat our women fairly. Happy Dusehra folks! And more power to women like Haritha who are an inspiration to women everywhere, and the true manifestation of Maa Durga.

* Jenkins, J.M., & Smith, M.A. (1991). Marital disharmony and children’s behavior problems: Aspects of a poor marriage that affect children.

This article was originally published here.


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