A close friend, rather scholarly, a man of letters, once gave me a bit of ‘literary’ advice which I have since mulled over and only now decided to act upon. With more than a little trepidation, though. He said if I wanted to gain traction, resonance or begin to establish myself as a serious writer on contemporary social matters, I should write on issues deemed controversial . “Your blogs so far”, he added as consolation, “have too much ‘feel good’ and/or canned humour. They therefore go thus far and no more”. Much as this hurt my intellectual pride, I decided to take his counsel and try my hand on something that I feel is polemical, or contentious in the least.
Having discussed with my house-editor, my wife, I homed on, after some discussion, hold your breath – to Marriage. (We surprisingly agreed!). What about Marriage, that to all social, moral and historical beliefs is as non controversial as it gets – so, after some thought, I developed a hypothesis : Marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution. That is surely controversial. I can see the red flag going up already. Let me put myself to test and see how I can carry forward and ‘treat’ this so called hypothesis of mine.
Well, where does one start – to begin where it all begins would be a good bet. I must however posit two disclaimers here : a) I am no sociologist, social scientist, marriage counselor or expert. My views are based purely on my observations and readings. b) I have had the best marriage for 30 years now…. going strong and good, if only thanks to the wife, an extremely amiable and nice person. It has thrived in spite of me!
So, to begin…boy meets girl, or in the context of most Indian households, parents of the boy and girl meet…will skip a number of intermediate steps… marriage happens. There is bliss, mostly, for the first one to two years…the couple discover each other, dislike a few things, but the novelty of marriage and the idea of marriage, with which they are possibly more in love than with each other, are potent forces – you don’t want to shatter the euphoric dreamworld you had built. So initially the kinks are overlooked. And of course the carnal pleasures of marriage, which you are only just discovering, are the proverbial glue that binds the couple.
As must come to pass with time, the novelty begins to wear off. The sex starts getting stale…the hidden, suppressed demons start rearing their ugly heads. Small irritants, say, the loud blowing of the nose or a peculiar sound you make while chewing, which were always there but not spoken of, start getting big on you. You don’t know yet, but the journey south has just begun. Again, from the Indian standpoint, families and extended families get in the equation, try to ‘help’, but only make things worse. Welcome on board the downhill ride.
Children enter the scene, priorities change, professions start demanding more, parents get old, responsibilities increase…and so on. Marriage takes another hit. This happens because in the first place itself the foundation of marriage was possibly never strong enough to support the edifice, or sustain the rigors and vicissitudes of life. Marriage was more a rite of passage which had to be gone through, its success and sustenance guaranteed in a social system which attaches the greatest importance to the value of marriage, but little to its outcome….too much is taken for granted.
Sooner than one would like to accept or believe, marriage turns into a chore, a routine with little spice… something that merely has to be gone or lived through. Marriage starts appearing as such a lot of work, and is sadly allowed to drift, not unlike flotsam. Aimless and occasioned by necessity and pressure to maintain a facade, rather than more enduring emotions like love. Couples drift apart emotionally, but stick together physically.
My wife gave the analogy of icecream to explain how most of us treat marriage post the aforesaid period of nuptial bliss.To make good ice cream, you need milk and sugar with several ingredients which have to be mixed and treated in the right proportion, blended, whipped and frozen carefully till set. What most couples and their parents do, my wife added, is to just put the milk and sugar, aka boy and girl, together and expect perfect ice cream to be made. No other ingredients. No process. In other words, I infer, no real effort is made to make the marriage work…it’s just supposed to work. Compromises are made at each step, and I dare add that bulk of these are on the part of the wife. Men seldom even notice this, and if they do, tend to ignore it.
Without debating the merits of the ice cream metaphor, I would say that if despite this the odd marriage does work, it is a tribute and testimony to the endearing human resilience and spirit. The thought of getting out of the marriage is an anathema. Things often drag on, year after sordid year. The breaking point is often reached…well meaning and concerned parents and elders step in with their counsel and ask the couple to go on enduring the misery…form is important after all, substance less so. And then of course there are the children and their ‘fate’ to think of…an argument which is often clinching and conclusive, and at the altar of which countless marriages have ‘perished’ .
Above everything else is the stigma that a broken marriage or divorce invites…for the couple and parents. It is because such hallowed sanctity and virtuousness has been attached to the institution of marriage, that it’s dissolution is deemed nothing short of sacrilege, a defilement as it were…social, cultural and religious. Little wonder that marriage counseling has become a small scale industry lately. Placebos like second honeymoon, romantic vacations thrive… they work to rekindle the fire sometimes, but more often, do not.
One substantive argument going in favour of marriage is mutual support and emotional sustenance for each other in the sunset years, when children have flown the coop. This makes you pause for thought. While you spend your sunshine years barely able to stand each other, you are basically investing for later years. Sounds unconvincing, trite, not to mention that it may turn out a dud investment. I would go as far as to say that 20 years or more together ‘habituate’ you to each other, inure you to the others’ multiple follies and essentially reduce you to emotional survival tools for each other. A resignation and surrender to inevitability. Can this symbiotic relationship be an argument in favour of marriage? I wonder.
The almost final argument put forth is stability, calm, peace and ‘filling a vacuum’, whatever that may mean. But given the bitterness, lack of adjustment, disquiet and even frustration that many, if not all marriages bring in their wake, these higher attributes are often neutralised. Marriage is reduced to a chore, a dull co-existence and discharging multiple responsibilities and obligations, in the din and cacophony of which the noble mores of marriage are subsumed, at times irrevocably.
The general waywardness of the male of the human species, a proclivity to be insensitive towards needs and sensibilities of the fairer sex and a ‘taking for granted’ attitude does not help matters. There is promiscuity too in a few cases…in thought, if not in deed, most men are promiscuous. These are indeed slow but sure recipes for further erosion of marriage. The dice, as I averred earlier, is loaded against women.
I am most likely to be labelled a cynic, and worse… not least, because attacking the sanctity of something as pristine as marriage appears socially incorrect, almost devilish. Most couples would not like to believe or accept that their marriage really hasn’t worked. The purist in us would tend to instinctively reject the hypothesis and the arguments put forth. Accusations of personal bias and possibly personal experience, are likely to fly at me thick and fast. But scratch the surface and each one will find varying degrees and element of truth in these arguments.
It is entirely understandable that each reader will view this reasoning in the backdrop of the course their own marriage has taken. I have no quarrel with that. But a more objective, neutral, impartial approach would perhaps give you food for thought, as it did me. The burden of expectation from marriage on the part of both spouses and families, in India particularly, is so high, that it can invariably never be met. A cloak of ‘normality’ is thus worn by couples who go on, as it were, for the sake of society, children, parents, reputation,… several things which sadly do not include themselves.
So if marriage is not a perfect institution, what are the alternatives? Would the naysayers recommend procreation without the legitimacy of marriage? Live-in relationships as a substitute? Contract marriages? Trial marriages? Perpetual bachelor/spinster hood? These are obviously not great or even acceptable solutions… socially, emotionally, culturally, economically. Their pros & cons, more cons actually, are not being debated. That would lengthen this piece inordinately and also alter it’s scope.
Do we therefore come to a pallid and rather stale inference that marriage survives as an institution only for want of better, stronger alternatives? This is not, by any reckoning the same as saying, marriage is a firm, good-as-it-gets, rock-solid edifice and warrants a thumbs up. On the other hand, cynics may argue that other alternatives have not been tested substantially enough to declare marriage as the numero uno arrangement. The universal acceptability and time ‘testedness’ of marriage would seem to make light of alternatives. That said, I would still tend to veer towards the view that marriage has too many imperfections and is excessively subject to human nature, emotions, sensibilities, character and characteristics to have a true success rate of more than 25 percent. While 25 are complete disasters, the balance 50 percent are the trudging-along, make-do marriages… not successful, but dragging along. The figures are ball point estimates – you may arrive at your own numbers.
I would finally conclude that the hypothesis with which I began stands true for most part… except it needs to be modified to read : marriage is a faulty institution, but is our best bet. As a concept it is noble and pristine…in practice and implementation, less so. So all ye newly married, long married, much married and even unmarried people…stick it out, make it work – if not till death do you part, at least till life keeps you together. Given the high rate of marriages going bust, would it be too long before the the holyman pronounces during the vows: “till life do us part?” Amen.
© Sharabh Pachory, 2019. All rights reserved.
The views expressed are the author’s own
Cartoons and pictures from sources as indicated against each.