September 16, 2008

On Marriage

Unmana DattaHELLO UV READERS! I’m excited to be writing my first post here. And going by the old feminist slogan, “the personal is political”, my first post is about something that is intensely personal: marriage. My views on marriage have always been ambivalent. Even as a child, I recognized that most marriages I saw around me were unsatisfactory and, almost always, unfair on the woman. But it seemed like the default option. Once you grew up, you got married. Usually by the time you were 25 if you were female. You had a few more years if you were male.

Early on, possibly influenced by books I read, I rejected arranged marriage as an option. I was taken with the idea of marriage as an outcome of romantic love -– you love someone so much you want to spend the rest of your life with him –- but an arranged marriage was something I couldn’t understand (and still can’t but that’s not the subject of this post). Conforming with my own belief, I got married when I was 25. But the fitting into a stereotype ended there. I married a man from a different community who had grown up in the opposite end of the country (his Gujarat to my Assam) and who was as opposed to tradition and rituals as I was. We got married in the quietest way possible: in the registrar’s office, in the presence of only indispensable friends and family.

Before marriage, I had been living on my own in a rented flat while he lived with roommates. We had decided it would be practical for him to move in with me. So after the vows, we all went to my home -– now our home –- for lunch. My mother-in-law insisted on a few rituals and we indulged her. We also had a party in the evening where we dressed up in Indian clothes. I wore sindoor and a mangalsutra. But that was the extent of our bow to tradition.

Marriage didn’t change things much for either of us. The biggest difference was that we were more comfortable with each other in public and with each other’s families. But otherwise, we behaved much like we always had: enjoying each other’s company, talking for hours, watching movies, shopping, cooking and eating together. In terms of household chores, we shared things pretty equitably, each of us choosing the tasks we wanted to do. He ran errands more often than I did –- primarily because I don’t drive –- but he participated enthusiastically in household chores as well. I never knew what to say when people asked, “How’s married life?” “Not much different” was usually met with incredulity.

To me, husband merely means ‘male spouse’ and wife means ‘female spouse’. But that doesn’t seem to be in sync with other people’s perceptions of these terms. Women may have become more independent and men more considerate, but a ‘wife’ is still supposed to cook and clean while the ‘husband’ -– what? Pays bills? Watches TV? People greet with surprise even the declaration that he cooks (and enjoys it). It surprises and saddens me that it is such a big deal for the man to share (let alone share equally) the housework though it is now common for the wife to work outside and earn equally. The terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are loaded with gender stereotyping. I am considering dropping these terms entirely and referring to him merely as my partner.

In fact, over time, I have come to believe that marriage itself is an outdated institution. When I first read this post long ago, I disagreed vehemently but I realised later that she was right. Even if one puts aside (for the moment), societal perceptions of gender roles within a marriage, a ‘marriage’ is supposed to be a lifelong bond between a man and a woman. But that isn’t what I want, or what I would call my relationship. Life is too long for me to be able to predict what I want for the rest of my life. I like and admire the person I married more than any other person I know but then, I’ve known him for only five years. How can I predict that we’ll still be in love after ten, twenty, fifty years? Today, we live with each other because we prefer it. If some day, either of us derives more discomfort than pleasure from the relationship, we’ll know it’s time to separate. A relationship shouldn’t be a bond that shackles people to unhappiness.

We got ‘legally’ married because that was the only aspect of getting ‘married’ that made sense to us. Rituals didn’t mean anything. Our family already knew and approved. Friends and acquaintances knew we were a couple. But we knew our parents would not understand us living together without getting married (and without any intention of doing so) and we recognised that the legal status of marriage would make things easier (to rent a house together, for example, or to travel together).

But I don’t see why the state should interfere in people’s personal lives at all. Why should it matter to the government who I live with, have sex with, procreate with?

I can think of three objections people may raise to the idea of doing away with marriage altogether. One, the spouse’s rights are protected by law. Secondly, there is the question of the care and custody of children. Finally, marriage might be said to enable stable families.

But property rights can be protected through shared ownership and wills. We should perhaps have some mechanism through which you can register one person as your “next of kin” with their consent. That takes care of who to inform in a medical emergency or whose permission is to be taken if the individual is incapacitated and a medical decision needs to be made. The question of children arises even in cases where marriage fails. Divorced couples do manage. Why should it be any different or more difficult if the couple have never been married to each other? As for the last objection — a relationship in which one or both partners are unhappy but are bound together isn’t stability; it’s confinement.

So I do advocate the end of marriage as an institution. Not that I see it happening anytime soon. But I feel we should treat ourselves as adults, free to navigate our own lives and relationships without religion or the state defining and adjudicating them for us.

42 comments to On Marriage

  • Nice.

    There is, of course, also the signaling argument for marriage. Given that relationships are fundamentally prone to moral hazard, agreeing to a contract that imposes high exit costs is a way of credibly signaling commitment (not the only way, obviously, but one way). It’s not so much that one wants to keep people locked into these relationships, as that by raising the cost of exit one wants to make sure that they think carefully (and importantly, equally carefully) before they enter the relationship.

    Obviously, you don’t need all the superstructure of marriage to make that happen. All you need is some form of legal contract that will impose penalties for exit. Your notion of shared ownership / wills would work just as well, though I’d argue that having a catch-all legal package like marriage may be more efficient than contracting each element out separately.

  • D

    I’m hundred per cent with you. After 5 years of marriage – love marriage, as they call it – I’m still trying to figure out what purpose wedlock is supposed to serve. At best, it may give you a false sense of social security that won’t last too long either.

  • Falstaff:

    Thank you. I understand what you mean, but I don’t like the idea of society, or law, imposing the commitment. If the couple care for and trust each other enough to want to enter into a lifelong relationship, shouldn’t the word, the will, be enough? Why should I depend on the state to enforce my relationship with my partner?

    Besides, do most people really think that carefully before entering into marriage? It’s easy enough to get married: but the law makes getting a divorce much more difficult (at least from what I know of it, which is not much). Do you think it should be this way?

  • My grandmother’s advocacy of arranged marriage has been wisely reitrated by those erudite musical messiahs Black Eyed Peas- “Cuz fools in lust could never get enough of love”. Or some such. Ahem.

    I don’t know if its marriage itself or the complacency that overtakes a person after getting married.
    The social strong arming is perhaps to ensure that emotion is accompanied by reason. It’s easy to slip up, take for granted someone you’ve been with for a significant amount of time(parental equations for instance not that this is ground for comparison). Then again, I have witnessed a sudden surge in that sense of entitlement post marriage more than when you are dating someone. Personally, I am approaching the so called “marriageable”(?) age at mach speed and somehow given my professional choices and general discomfort for sharing my space(actual physical space more than anything else), marriage seems scarier and scarier by the day.
    Also its bloody difficult to explain to people that a one way ticket to Chiang Mai is slightly more enticing than “eternal matrimonial bliss”! : )
    My own parents failed completey as spouses but did great as friends. So, that does make me thing about this whole marriage spiel. It’s difficult to predict. For those who manage to make it work – it’s perhaps a wonderful thing.
    For others like me – its best to maintain a sweet and steady distance.
    What I do advocate, strongly, is a definite need to decrease the social pressue to marry in order to feel *complete*. Whatever that’s supposed to be. And the attitude that single women over 30 have scales and morph into Medusa come nightfall.
    As if!

    Excellent post btw.

  • unmana: The theory is that the high costs of exit should make people think carefully before they get married, so how ‘easy’ it is to get married is irrelevant. Or rather, marriage is only ‘easy’ to get into if you’re myopic enough not to think about the fall-out. The problem, I think, is that people are socially conditioned to get all sentimental about marriage, with the result that they don’t take the probability of it not working out seriously enough. So the sentimentality about marriage actually has two negative effects – a) it makes people see divorce as unnatural and leads to a lot of the social difficulties associated with it and b) it makes people get into marriages without adequate consideration, so that the number of unhappy marriages increases.

    you say: If the couple care for and trust each other enough to want to enter into a lifelong relationship, shouldn’t the word, the will, be enough?

    It’s a pretty sentiment, but it’s also naive, because it ignores the basic information problem underlying relationships. The operative term is ‘if’. How does one know that both people truly care for and trust each other, and are willing to enter into a lifelong relationship? By itself, that’s a fairly easy claim to make. The point of entering into a contract that imposes penalties for exit is that it signals that both people’s commitment is genuine. Would you enter into any kind of business transaction – leasing a house, taking a job, even just buying a TV -on the word of the other person alone? Without wanting some sort of contract that ensured that if the other party was misrepresenting themselves you could impose costs on them? Why, aside from the need for Hallmark to sell Valentine cards, is marriage any different?

    None of this, of course, is to advocate that divorce should be ‘difficult’ in the sense that if two people want one they should not be able to get it. I’m not for a moment suggesting that society should get to impose its own morality on individuals. I am suggesting that the existence of marriage provides a mechanism useful to the individual to test the seriousness of the other person’s intentions, and thus protects the individual from misdealing. Divorce should only be ‘difficult’ in the sense that the costs involved should be high enough so that coming to that decision should require serious consideration – consideration that should extend to the decision to enter into marriage as well.

  • D:
    Thank you! It’s encouraging to meet with agreement.

    Thank you. I completely agree with you on the need to decrease social pressure on unmarried people. (Obviously, since I advocate doing away with marriage altogether.)

    “For those who manage to make it work – it’s perhaps a wonderful thing.” To speak for myself, I think my marriage is wonderful. But that doesn’t mean it would be any less wonderful if it were just a “relationship” instead of a marriage. As D said above, what purpose is wedlock supposed to serve?


    “The theory is that the high costs of exit should make people think carefully before they get married.” If that is the purpose, don’t you think the means are inefficient? To make people think carefully about being married, shouldn’t you impose high costs on entering into marriage?

    “The problem, I think, is that people are socially conditioned to get all sentimental about marriage.” I totally agree. But if we removed the sentiment from marriage, what’s left? A legal bond, a relationship between two people. So why doesn’t society get out of the way and leave it to individuals to define that relationship?

    “How does one know that both people truly care for and trust each other, and are willing to enter into a lifelong relationship?” In that case they shouldn’t be getting married at all. If I don’t trust a person to grant me my share of property if we later separate without legal interference (for instance), how can I trust him enough to live with him, sleep with him?

    “Why, aside from the need for Hallmark to sell Valentine cards, is marriage any different?” Because my employer and a storekeeper are virtual strangers. A prospective spouse is someone I want to live with, someone with whom I’m planning to enter into the most intimate relationship possible. We don’t have laws laying down the relationship with parents, for instance (besides forbidding abuse and protecting property – but there are laws protecting against that anyway, irrespective of the relationship). We don’t have laws regulating the relationship between friends. Do you trust a spouse less than you would a friend? Do you depend merely on the law to protect yourself from a spouse, or do you depend on their word, their behaviour?

    To go off on a slight tangent, imagine a heterosexual relationship in which one partner – let’s say the woman – is being physically abused. Would it make her situation any easier if she was married to her abuser? Don’t you think it would make it more difficult?

    “I am suggesting that the existence of marriage provides a mechanism useful to the individual to test the seriousness of the other person’s intentions, and thus protects the individual from misdealing.” Falstaff, “seriousness” is subjective, and I am not even sure it’s an aim to strive for. I suppose by “seriousness” you mean intent of a lifelong commitment. But that’s a difficult idea. What if I feel I’m completely devoted to my boyfriend and want to spend the rest of all my lives (!) with him… and then I change my mind. I was extremely serious before I made the commitment, and went ahead and got married. But to know how likely I am to keep my commitment, you (or my boyfriend) have to know me, be able to judge me – and still take a chance. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t. By making it difficult for people to get out of the relationship, how is it making anyone’s life easier?

    Also, if the only intent of marriage is to signal seriousness, aren’t there other ways of doing so? Buying property together, for instance (or even buying expensive jewellery for each other)…

    Whew! (May I add I’m thrilled you were my first commenter on my very first post here?)

  • Interesting discussion and a topic that’s close to my heart. Much like you, Unmana, I got married because we wanted to live together and didn’t see parents allowing it without marriage. Being young and foolish, I thought the gender conditioning would not affect me until one day I found myself trying to put five types of food on the table after a long day at work because my mother had always done so.

    I broke out of that one, but I still find ‘wife’ a very constricting term and have come to believe that marriage is not necessary at all for certain people.

    I say ‘certain’ people because I am reluctant to prescribe this approach for everybody. I don’t think it’s time yet to do away with marriage, at least in India. For example, what about women who are not aware of rights or clever enough to make men sign property sharing agreements. Because marriage is a catch-all law, it does protect them to some extent. Again, about the bond thing — I fully agree that relationships should not be confining. But on the other hand, what happens if a man has babies with one woman and then skips off to the next when he feels the relationship is over? What if she is not educated enough to support herself or the child? What if she was not aware enough to realise that this could happen to her. Again, marriage does serve as a useful mechanism for ensuring that the woman and child don’t get left in the cold that easily because the larger constructs of family, society and law work as a back-up.

    Financially independent women may not be as vulnerable to certain types of desertion but there are still large numbers who are not. Marriage provides many of them with security. While you and I may not be vulnerable enough to need that kind of security, I can’t say that’s true for everyone.

    So I’ve been confused about this too–and here’s what i’ve come to believe. Some of us should stay away / opt out / make our own rules with regard to marriage. And we should be able to stand up to opposition or general conditioning and resist the need to justify or apologise for our differently conditioned marriages–or lives. Talking about it is, of course, a great thing. Thanks for the post. 🙂

  • falstaff: I find your comments surprisingly conservative. I totally agree that one needs to be very serious and sincere about relationships and marriage but you seem to ignore the fact that human beings grow and change, often drastically, over time depending on circumstances. What seemed a nice, caring handsome man may become a wife-beater later on, and the same on the other side too. You see it happening all the time. You can never find out about these when entering the “contract”. There should always be easy way out of relationships and your idea of high “exit costs” from the outside feels a little cynical to me because you don’t seem to trust the human faculties of judgment.

    I think we should take the argument presented here by Unmana even further. I believe we should be extremely sceptical of the idea of “love eternal” as well which is a cause of lot of unhappiness. We should rather worry about providing legal support systems to women (and men) to help them get out of unhappy relationships.

    I remember you had written a post on marriage on your blog and said you had problems with the notion of sexual exclusivity too. I might be misrepresenting you here (that was really long back but I somehow vaguely remember it) but your views seem to have changed.

    P.S. I loved your comments on the cooking post. bravo!!

  • Unmana: Sigh. You know, the problem is you’re still thinking of this from a post-marriage perspective. Look, the act of signing the contract renders the contract meaningless – it’s the other party’s willingness to sign the contract in the first place that serves as a signal.

    In your comment above, you keep talking about ‘prospective spouse’ – but don’t you see that in a world without marriage there is no such thing? If you have a prospective spouse that you’re sure of, you don’t need marriage; but how can you know that someone is a prospective spouse unless he / she has agreed to marry you? It’s in getting from total stranger to potential life-partner that marriage serves as a useful signal. Which is why it’s like buying an appliance. You trust a manufacturer who offers a lifetime guarantee more than someone who offers you a six month guarantee not because you think you’ll prosecute them afterwards but because you figure the only way someone would offer a lifetime guarantee is if they knew their product was good in the first place.

    Look, let me try this another way. You’ve read Sense and Sensibility, yes? My point is that marriage is one possible means of solving what I’m going to call the Willoughby problem. The problem, in other words, that you might think that you’re in love with someone and want to spend your life with him / her, and you think he / she feels the same way, but he / she doesn’t. In making the person commit to a contract with high exit costs you’re a) establishing that he / she has bona fide intent and hopefully b) ensuring that he / she actually gives the matter serious consideration. And those are useful things to establish, ex-ante. If Marianne had taken the ‘sensible’ route and been suspicious and distrusting of Willoughby because he never actually proposed marriage, she might not have got as badly hurt.

    Obviously, there are other ways of achieving this sort of signaling – I said as much in my first comment – I just think marriage is the most convenient. And obviously, things could go wrong afterwards – but that’s no reason not to ensure that at least at the time you got married incentives were aligned.

    Finally, just to be clear – I’m not saying I necessarily agree with any of this. I’m not a big believer in marriage myself, but that’s mostly because I’m not a big believer in this whole being with another person thing. But that’s me. Your point was that there are three arguments for marriage and none of them really hold water – I’m saying there is, theoretically, a fourth, and it does work. Oh, and I’m not sure the divorced people manage okay so why not single people argument makes sense either. There are obviously selection issues involved.

  • High Priestess

    I think the best thing is to find a medium between the two extremes. In the West, marriages are more of partnerships than I have found them to be in India. Men here cook or they don’t eat – simple as that! Ha. Ha. No, but seriously, if the wife cooks, the hubby does the dishes and vice versa, or some other type of arrangement is made. Cooking and household chores are more or less equally divided amongst most of the couples I know.

    The problem here is that people “fall in love” and fall out of it very fast and go through “seriel monogamy” for several years with varying partners (not all at the same time – in a series – seriel monogamy). Some people spend their entire lives doing this without ever really finding “true love” or at least a love that will last them til death.

    This can cause depression for some. Severe depression.

    On the other hand, in cultures where you do not have the oppurtunity to have so many relationships, such as India, there is more of a chance that you will be satisfied more simply, with less and you will work at making it “right” because your culture does not look kindly on divorce and multiple relationships.

    Yeah, that has it’s drawbacks too, but even the case of arranged or assisted marriages, the couples can and sometimes do grow to love each other.

    Whereas over here, I have so many friends that say, “I’m in love”, practically after just a few weeks of knowing a guy or girl, and then a few months down the line they are no more. And that’s a cycle that perpetuates itself for years for many people.

    Quite frankly, I think it’s better to have fewer options, pick the best out of the few, and commit to making it work. I guess there is no need to get formally married to do that, but a commitment made publicly kind of creates a psychic impression in the couple that “this is something special that we need to preserve” and other people are there as witness to that commitment. This works best in societies where family and “community” are major factors in couples lives.

    In the West, while we are “moderately” connected to family, our own individuality is valued more and therefore “living together” without marriage kind of goes along with that individualist strain, but like I said above, there can be drawbacks to that as well.

    Either way, I think real love is something that develops over time, when you help each other deal day in and day out with the complexities of life and see each other through some difficult times.

    “Falling in love” is often just a metaphor for “falling in lust”.

  • Alok: See above. I’m not disputing (or ignoring) that people change – I’m just saying that’s irrelevant. That risk holds whether or not the institution of marriage exists. What marriage can do is eliminate the secondary risk that the other person was insincere to start with, by serving as a test of sincerity ex ante.

    For the record, the point about sexual non-exclusivity was, if I remember right, more that I find the emphasis on sex as a form of infidelity fairly hilarious. Of all the ways you can be unfaithful to another person, sex is, to me, the least important. That said, I don’t see the point about marriage as a signaling device and the argument for non-exclusivity being contradictory. Look, I’m not saying that people should get married, or be in exclusive relationships. I’m saying that the value of an institution like marriage is that it provides a norm that we can use to communicate – both to signal our own preferences on commitment and to gauge the other persons. As long as the institution of marriage exists, people who feel they want to commit to a single person for the rest of their lives can do that by entering into the contract with other people who feel the same way, and those who don’t see that contract as being valuable can opt out of it. I’m making no judgments about either choice. The trouble with abolishing the institution is that you’re likely to end up with an infinite set of poorly defined options with the result that people with very different expectations will end up getting together and there’ll be a lot more failed relationships because the initial screening of getting into a relationship has been compromised.

    It seems to me that what unmana is really objecting to is not the institution per se but the sentiment around the institution. There’s no reason to get rid of marriage – all we need is a society where marriage is a choice and not a precept.

    You’re right about me being cynical (were you really surprised by that?) and not trusting human judgment, though. I live in a country where a majority of the population is apparently on its way to electing a senile and reckless ex-jock and a ditzy, clueless anti-choice bible-freak to the highest office in the land, where the economy is falling apart because practically everyone made bad investments, and where people seem to enjoy watching Ben Stiller films. Don’t talk to me about human judgment.

    P.S. And you actually described me as ‘conservative’! That has to be a first.

  • great stuff here!!! if I’d seent his post before, would have just put mine in the comments 🙂

    I think a lot like anandita, where I understood how gendered the institution of marriage was, only once I entered it! I still find myself slipping, when I subconsciuosly keep the bigger piece for the guy or bend over backwards and struggle to put 5 dishes on the table as in laws are visiting…

    I believe, its important to make ur own rules regarding marriage, and I still stand by the fact that the two people who tie the knot should be the ones most imp in that relationship. It should not be about all the other people who think they own the two!

  • […] Unmana advocates the end of marriage as an institution: But property rights can be protected through shared ownership and wills. We should perhaps have some mechanism through which you can register one person as your “next of kin” with their consent. That takes care of who to inform in a medical emergency or whose permission is to be taken if the individual is incapacitated and a medical decision needs to be made. The question of children arises even in cases where marriage fails. Divorced couples do manage. Why should it be any different or more difficult if the couple have never been married to each other? As for the last objection — a relationship in which one or both partners are unhappy but are bound together isn’t stability; it’s confinement. Linked by kuffir. Join Blogbharti facebook group. […]

  • Very honestly, marriage is just a social thing- other than that it has no meaning. And as a “happily” partnered- ok married if you will- person, I can very safely say so. Of course in the Indian context it sets out the signal that people who invite you over can , without any moral qualms hand over a single bedroom to the two of you- and knowing how greatly we value privacy in India, that cna be a blessing. Oh yes, the tax people give you more money back – and perhaps you can now claim each other’s property. But honestly as a person it makes no sense on a deeper level. One feels the same way, speaks much the same,does the same things- keeps one’s original name….
    Indeed, why did we get married, I wonder. Must ask the husband, why it had seemed such a good idea at the time- maybe he remembers.

  • Anindita:
    Thank you. As to your question, “What happens if a man has babies with one woman and then skips off to the next when he feels the relationship is over?” What happens if a man has babies with his wife and then skips off to another woman? The law would force him to pay for childcare. Why shouldn’t the same apply to unmarried people?

    High Priestess:
    “In cultures where you do not have the oppurtunity to have so many relationships, such as India, there is more of a chance that you will be satisfied more simply, with less and you will work at making it ‘right’ because your culture does not look kindly on divorce and multiple relationships.” I do not think at all that that’s a good thing! Compromising with your life because you don’t have better options isn’t a better situation.

    “This works best in societies where family and “community” are major factors in couples lives.” Don’t you think a commitment made to each other should carry more weight than commitment made in front of society?

    I agree with you on people changing, on being sceptical about “eternal love”, and yes, I am also surprised at Falstaff’s conservative stand!

    Consider a not very hypothetical situation. M is in a relationship with N, who has been abusive (emotionally, if not physically) with his previous partners. M is looking for a long term relationship. So is N, because he is looking for – an easy victim. They decide to get married. Yet M has much to lose from this marriage: it will keep her locked, at least for sometime, with an abuser who will use the intimacy of marriage to his advantage. Do you think the signalling effect of marriage is beneficial in this case?

    I’m sure you understand when I advocate doing away with marriage, I’m only talking hypothetically. I have no hope that it is going to happen anytime soon – if ever.

    I feel marriage is a cushion much in the way religion is. You slip into long-held beliefs and practices without questioning them (enough, at least, to my view). Women slip easily into the role of housewife and do not bother to be financially independent. So when the blow falls, it hits much harder. What if instead, a man and a woman are equal partners in a relationship, neither financially dependent on the other, deriving pleasure from their companionship but free to leave when they choose? Wouldn’t this be a more mature, adult relationship than one in which you are bound by customs and laws? On my part – if my partner ever felt unwilling to continue with me, I would much rather let him go than try to bind him.

    I agree that many women – especially in the Indian context – are financially or otherwise dependent on their husbands. But if they didn’t have that safety cushion to begin with, they would be forced to take charge of their own lives. I see nothing wrong with that.

  • I got what you are saying. I was just hoping that there was some way of enforcing seriousness and sincerity other than enforcing legal costs from outside and without treating human beings as utility maximizing automatons.

    It is a cynical view but what you say might probably be true. The shallowness and casualness (and the resulting anomie and despair) that we see in most relationships in the more liberal societies might be linked to the decline in importance of marriage as a social institution.

  • unmana:
    “Do you think the signalling effect of marriage is beneficial in this case?”


    a) Notice that N now has to commit to potentially losing a substantial portion of his assets and paying alimony in order to be abusive to M; in a world without marriage (or some sort of equivalent penalty-imposing contract) he wouldn’t have that problem, he could just tell M that he loved her and wanted to be in a long-term relationship with her, wait till she got suckered into believing him, and then abuse her the way he wanted.

    b) If N has been married before and has been abusive to his earlier wives so that they’ve separated / divorced, there’s a clear paper trail there that M can use to avoid N to start with (not to mention that N now has the prospect of making multiple alimony payments – if that isn’t a deterrent I don’t know what is). By contrast, in a world without marriage, he can wait till M finally breaks and leaves him and then blithely move on to his next victim, incurring no penalty for his actions and with a substantially better chance of concealing his abuse of M from his next target.

    Overall, then the probability that M and N will ever decide to get married is substantially lower than the probability that M and N will decide to enter into a long-term relationship. You say “They decide to get married.” The point is that if the signaling mechanism works that is very unlikely to happen.

    And I don’t know why the marriage per se is locking M into anything. If she could leave if she were unmarried, she can leave now as well, can’t she? Marriage per se is not substantially reducing her ability to escape. There may, of course, be a number of reasons why leaving may be hard (financial dependence, children) but all of those would be true even if they were in a live-in relationship.

    It seems to me that you’re needlessly confuting dependence and marriage – people can be independent and married and non-marriage long term relationships can involve extreme dependence.

    You say “if they didn’t have that safety cushion to begin with, they would be forced to take charge of their own lives”. Are you seriously suggesting that the only reason women don’t have charge of their own lives is because they get complacent and don’t make the effort? I’d love to hear what everyone else reading this blog has to say about that. Personally, while I’m willing to believe that may be true in a small minority of cases, I suspect much of the causality runs the other way – the significance of marriage is a symptom of women not having charge of their own lives rather than a cause. Taking away that safeguard won’t magically make women independent, it’ll only make them easier to prey on.

    Finally, I’m not sure why you feel the need for a one-size-fits-all solution that involves abolishing the institution of marriage. No one is saying (well, at least I’m not) that everyone MUST get married. Should we have a society where people can choose alternate ways of being in long-term relationships? Yes, absolutely. But for many people, marriage may be the safest and most efficient way to enter into a long-term relationship, and for those people the institution of marriage is useful – which is why doing away with it is a bad idea.

    Alok: “I was just hoping that there was some way of enforcing seriousness and sincerity other than enforcing legal costs from outside”

    I agree. I just can’t think of any.

    The thing to remember, also, is that one is not saying that all humans are sly and opportunistic. Only that some might be. Think about it in terms of the security deposit you’re required to put up when you rent a house. Asking for a deposit doesn’t mean you think all people are evil land-grabbers. You may be perfectly willing to believe that the vast majority of people are sincere and well-meaning, and you don’t actually need a deposit from them. But because a small proportion of people may be out to take advantage of you, you ask for the deposit anyway – on the logic that for the people who are sincere it doesn’t matter, whereas those who aren’t will be dissuaded. So you don’t need a particularly cynical or dark view of humanity in general to think signaling is a good idea. You just need to acknowledge that there are likely to be a few bad apples and that you’re not capable of identifying them just by looking.

  • Chandni:
    I agree with you. But if we take it that marriage is primarily just between two people, and it is up to them to define the rules – there would be no need of a formal ‘marriage’ at all. Don’t you think?

    Exactly. Mine would say we got married because I wanted to – he was ready to take it my way. But then I wasn’t sure we had the courage to go on fighting against societal – and family – expectations.

    I take it you’re responding to Falstaff. I agree with you to an extent – but I just don’t feel the state or society should step in to “enforce seriousness and sincerity” in what is essentially a relationship between two people. Call me romantic, but I hate to think of a relationship as a contract.

  • Alok:
    To elaborate, not that the state shouldn’t step in at all, when there has been a violation of one person’s rights. I just don’t think there’s a need to treat marriage as something different or special. (It might also put an end to married women being raped by their husbands – something that we wouldn’t even know the extent of, seeing as Indian law doesn’t regard it as a crime.)

  • veena

    Unmana: I am a little confused here so let me try to understand this – you seem to have the relationship you want – you had a quick legal wedding, you have an equal relationship, both of you pull in money, cook at home etc. etc. So what is the problem here? Are you advocating the end of the institution of marriage because of a question of principle that is, you think that the State should not get involved in people’s lives? Or is there any other issue you are trying to solve here?

    If its the former I am afraid that unlike you, some of us aren’t that confident in people we choose to live with. I, for one, need a legal piece of paper (with divorce and child support and everything else taken care of) and marriage is the most convenient way of getting that piece of paper. I just don’t see people going through the hassle of drawing up such contracts themselves. So as Falsie says a catch-all package such as marriage works for me and I suspect, it does for a vast majority.

    If its the equality issue you are trying to solve, you can call it what you want – marriage or sabbathal or live-in – but I just don’t think that it is going to help. The way that gender works in marriage is not because its a marriage, its because that’s how society works. Calling it by a different name and taking government out of it doesn’t solve anything – in fact, it will probably only get worse.

    This is not to say of course that marriage is for everyone or some nonsense like that. It should be a choice which unfortunately in most parts of the world it is not a real choice and we can work to change that. But calling an end to it because it doesn’t work for you seems to be a little too drastic.

  • Falstaff:

    “Are you seriously suggesting that the only reason women don’t have charge of their own lives is because they get complacent and don’t make the effort? ” Not at all. Just that marriage seems a part of the whole patriarchal structure, and it would be interesting to remove it and see what happens. It’s about more than financial dependence, of course. You hear about women working as domestic help who have abusive and unemployed husbands whom they refuse to leave because it is “safer” to stay married.

    About M – if the exit costs of marriage are higher (compared to a live-in relationship), won’t they be high for both parties? What if N is unemployed – or earning much less than M – and M is forced to pay alimony? What if M is reluctant to leave the marriage and admit to a “failure”?

    The problem in both these cases has, of course, much to do with societal perceptions rather than with marriage itself. Yet if you treat marriage as a lifelong bond, there will be some exit costs and some sentiment associated with it. And if marriage isn’t a lifelong bond (at least by intention, at the time of entering into it) – how is it different from a live-in relationship?

    Also, “marriage may be the safest and most efficient way to enter into a long-term relationship”. But what about those couples who are in a long-term relationship without marriage? Don’t you think the law should protect their rights, regardless of whether they are legally married? If so, what remains to distinguish marriage from such relationships?


    There’s no problem per se: just that I do not understand why marriage should exist. So it’s not at all that I’m advocating the end of it because it doesn’t work for me – as you have observed it has worked for me, personally, very well.

    And I don’t think it will ‘solve’ an equality issue.

    “I for one, need a legal piece of paper (with divorce and child support and everything else taken care of).” Well, if you were not married you wouldn’t need to get divorced. As for child support, don’t you think that should be mandatory for unmarried people as well?

  • Veena

    Unmana: Think I am not making myself clear. Yes, if I didn’t get married, I wouldn’t need to get divorced. We just walk out of the flat once we decide its over. Forget about the investment we made in the marriage. Forget that one of us put the other through school. Forget that one of us stayed at home for a few years to take care of the kid. We have no legal recourse to any kind of divorce settlement because we weren’t married in the first place!

    But wait, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that these legal thingies regarding separation, child support etc. should be set up for any committed couple as and when they desire. Agree. Just that the way it works now, as and when my partner and I desire, we walk into a registrar office and sign a piece of paper and its all taken care of. We call it marriage. Because I can’t be bothered to go through the hassle of setting these legal stuff up by myself, I prefer to use the existing system and not reinvent the wheel.

    Must say here there are very valid arguments for reforming marriage laws (rape in marriage is a good example) but I don’t see why you should start an entirely new system to replace it.

    Marriage as an outcome of romantic love is a relatively new idea all over the world – imo, marriage was and is a much more rational idea than romantic love can handle. This is to say that marriage means very different things to different people. Which is why if you don’t see the point of marriage and prefer to set up your own alternate legal package, you can fight for that choice. I am totally with you there. But calling for an end to it just doesn’t cut it. Mostly because some of us find it to be quite useful as a legal mechanism.

  • Well, this has been quite a discussion already. But I can’t resist adding a few of my own thoughts.
    1) Living outside India and interacting with people from many different nationalities, I find that in many countries this doesn’t seem to be much of an issue any more. I have many close friends who live together without marriage, including some who have kids. Many of them, though, have gotten married after years together. Sometimes when they decide to have kids. But more often when they feel sure of themselves and each other and feel – I think – that they want to affirm and celebrate their relationship and commitment to each other in some way. I’m not quite sure why a public affirmation is important, but I can empathize with the feeling (even though I can’t explain it rationally). Well, not a rational thought perhaps, but emotion and feelings are surely important in connection with relationship. In the end, to marry or not is – or should be — a personal decision.
    2) In the original post, Unmana said something about marriage being a lifelong bond. I don’t see why, if she had – like I did – a civil marriage. The Indian Marriages Act allows divorce on various grounds and therefore does not see marriage as a lifelong bond.
    3) As Indians, we all grumble endlessly about the pressures we face from family and that elusive thing called “society,” to conform to certain ideals of marriage, womanhood, a man’s role etc etc etc. Generally speaking, most of us participating in this and other, similar debates, are financially independent and well-educated adults. Why does it feel like we have to conform to these externally set standards? What is this pressure to put five dishes on the table, as someone mentioned in this debate? Why should it bother me that someone is not free enough to accept the fact that my husband enjoys cooking more than I do and that he is a better cook than me? (Fankly it doesn’t bother me in the least coz I figure it’s the other person who has a problem – the problem of being narrow-minded and shallow – not me.)
    4) Lastly. I really appreciate Anindita’s extending this debate beyond the somewhat narrow confines of our own world – the world of those who read and contribute to blogs. There is a whole world out there which is very different from ours. Let’s not ignore it. I’m not saying our reality is not important – of course it is – but the other reality is too.
    Unmana, thanks for starting this lively and important debate!

  • Since nobody’s brought it up directly, I would like to point out that in societies which support it, there exists Common Law Marriage for those who are not legally married but who are entitled to some legal rights regardless.

    Marriages have always been about much more than the two people involved in it; as Veena said, for most of its history, it has been a social contract and romantic love has less than nothing to do with it.

    I don’t think any discussion that centres around whether or not marriages are necessary is useful; simply because the evolution/falling into disuse of marriage is organic. If it is no longer needed in a society, it will gradually disappear, with other social institutions taking its place. Whether those institutions are equitable or not depend upon which aspects of ‘marriage’ as we know it now are retained or discarded.

    Which is why it might be more helpful to discuss issues such as alimony (what if an independent, financially stable woman refuse alimony? How will it affect, as legal precedent, those women who are not like her?), rape and or/abuse within the marriage, rights to commonly held-wealth and make those things more equitable. These are the things that we talk about, after all, when a marriage is ‘over’ – whether for reasons of incompatibility or something else.

  • High Priestess

    Unmana, the point I was getting at was…

    Well, let’s start here;

    I was watching a youtube video where some expert at something or other did a study on “happiness”. He found that it all came down to choice. In countries such as communist Russia (at the time), the general populace was unhappy because they had no choices – food supply was limited, you could only get on type of car, etc.

    He also found that people in USA were unhappy because they had too many choices and this resulted in confusion and self-doubt, they were always thinking something “better” was out there that they were missing.

    But in countries where people had not no choice, and not too many choices, but just a few choices, these people tended to be happier. They had a choice of maybe 2, 3, 4 things, they weighed their options and selected the best item and were confident that they had made the right decision.

    So, the conclusion was that humans are psychologically healthiest when they have a few options to choose from, but not too many to make them confused.

    Apply this to relationships. In cases where people have alot of choices, I’m not seeing them happy. In cases where they have no choice (forced marriage to someone you don’t know), I’m not seeing them happy either. But in cases where they have a few options and choose the best partner out of the few and make it work? Happy.

    OK, this is simplistic but let me tell you this, there are people in the West who, after years and years and years of going around the merry-go-round of relationships, are starting to envy diasporic desis who have the option to have an arranged, or what they call “assisted” marriage.

    At some point our Sex And The City male and female characters all want to settle down and start a family, with few exceptions.

    I do agree with you that a legal or religious marriage is not neccessary to do so. And I also agree that marriage should not be seen as the most important thing a person can do with their life, and for those who don’t want to marry, no pressure should be given. But the fact remains that most people would like to settle down into a monagamous life long partnership at some point. Especially if you are going to have children, the settling down into monogamy is very important.

    Please take a walk through any American ghetto and see the result of the multiple “baby’s mama” and “baby’s daddy” culture.

    Your old fashioned Indian elders want to avoid all that.

    Why are American desis amongst the most intelligent, hardworking and successful of America’s citizens and residents? Because of their strong “family values”. Yeah, I know it can get overbearing and there is only so much time I can spent with desi aunties and uncles without feeling a throwback to medieval times, BUT, I have to admit that such a strong sense of family involvement does create a solid foundation for kids to be serious and successful in life later.

    You DO NOT see this amongst “loose families” and you certainly will not see it in American ghettos where everyone is sleeping around and fathers are unknown to their children.

  • unmana:

    “marriage seems a part of the whole patriarchal structure, and it would be interesting to remove it and see what happens”

    that makes no sense. If there’s a good chance, as several people in this thread have argued, that removing marriage will leave large numbers of women substantially worse off, then it’s not ‘interesting’ to remove it and see what happens, except perhaps in a Marquis de Sade sense.

    About M – let me get this straight. N’s financially dependent on her, but he still goes around abusing her and she lets him? Why?

    Look, obviously the usefulness of the marriage signal is disproportionately skewed towards those who are financially weaker / less independent and therefore less likely to have power in the relationship. It’s a way of redressing the power imbalance. If M is financially independent and N is not then it’s true the signal has little or no value for M. But given that she’s the one with all the power in this relationship, she doesn’t need one.

    “But what about those couples who are in a long-term relationship without marriage? Don’t you think the law should protect their rights, regardless of whether they are legally married?”

    That’s just silly. What rights? How can the law enforce a contract that doesn’t exist? What are the courts going to do – insist that you keep a promise you never made because they feel you should have made it? You claim that you don’t want law / society to interfere in relationships, but you’re really asking for much greater interference.

    Besides, let’s say the law did provide protection. How would this help with your ‘women would be motivated to be more independent if they didn’t have marriage to fall back on’ claim? If you provided protection that wouldn’t be true, because they’d still have the same comfort zone, wouldn’t they? In fact, providing that protection would mean that living together would, de facto, be marriage, so that you could no longer live together without being married, because the courts would treat you as though you were married irrespective of whether you signed the contract or not. So you’d have less, not more freedom.

    It seems to me that at this point your entire argument comes down to mere semantics. You say you want to abolish marriage. But you want to replace it with a long-term relationship based on romantic trust and supported by legal protection. I’m not sure what the difference is. As a number of commenters have already said, if you want a relationship that has all the contractual features of marriage, why not just get married? The only people likely to benefit from the abolition of marriage are lawyers – since every long-term relationship contract will now have to be individually written and negotiated. That’s a huge market.

  • sammisal

    unmana, That is an amazing post. Good points, well made. I totally agree, but have found surprisingly few other people who do.

  • This was fascinating. As one who has been happily married (mostly, barring some occasions when either murder or suicide figures in one’s thoughts) for decades now, it is interesting to read these different points of view.
    I suppose that the public affirmation of a relationship is just a way of underlying your commitment to each other and also satisfying parental and familial expectations. Though marrying just to satisfy those expectations would be foolish.
    Escaping patriarchal mindsets and stereotyped gender roles is certainly not easy, and marriage, unfortunately, does seem to reinforce them. But there are a vast number of people who still find it a satisfactory construct, and it is perhaps offering more emotional security than otherwise. It will be interesting to see the changes in this across the next few generations.

  • SB: I agree. And if we are talking about things to discuss, can we talk about the (to me) bewildering absence of pre-nups? Nobody I know seems to have even considered entering into a pre-nup to define property rights / divorce contingencies, while personally I can’t understand why any two financially independent adults would get married without one.

  • This has been a fascinating discussion. I had frankly expected to be disagreed with, but this level of interest and debate is gratifying. Thank you all. And excuse me if I hurry through my reactions.

    1) Yes, I wonder about people in countries where living together without marriage is not frowned upon, but they still decide to go ahead and get married. Does marriage in that situation hold any value apart from the sentiment and maybe, tax benefits?

    2) But if marriage isn’t a lifelong bond, how do you define it? As simply a relationship you can get out of it when you want? If so, how is it different – apart from being a legally recognised relationship – from a relationship outside of marriage?

    Space Bar:
    Actually, that is one of the reasons I wrote this – wondering whether marriage is likely to fall into disuse in a world where both genders are equal and there is little pressure to conform.

    About alimony – I don’t think it’s always the woman who benefits from it: I believe the higher-earning spouse is called upon to pay alimony to the other.

    High Priestess:
    You are likely right. I am not against monogamous relationships in general. I am just pointing out that a) it is up to each person to decide what they want, and b) what you want may change at various points in your life, so I think it should be easier for people to act on their choices.

    About M – I am sure situations like this happen often enough. I am not sure why. I suspect it has something to do with low expectations and self-esteem, and with the high emotional costs of exiting a marriage or a long-term relationship – perceived or actual censure being one of them.

    About the rights of an unmarried couple, I wasn’t referring to a contract per se but jointly held property, domestic abuse etc. – which are protected under current law for unmarried couples as well (I am not sure how well or how far). I was also referring to things like child support and child custody.

    I am not advocating a contract that replaces marriage, just questioning a) why should anyone consider binding themselves to a lifelong monogamous union, or b) if it’s not considered life-long and you can move on when you want to, what makes it different from any other relationship? If it is not the intent to be life long partners, is it merely the intent to be monogamous, and/or of binding your partner so that it will be more difficult for them to exit the relationship? But I would not want to bind my partner to me against his will – and frankly, I do not see why anyone would. Is it about alimony (which, again, is something I don’t really agree with personally, though I hesitate to say it should be done away with completely. Child support of course is another matter – I feel that should be present even when the parents are not married)?
    Sammisal: Thank you.

    Dipali: You sound very wise and level-headed. “It will be interesting to see the changes in this across the next few generations.” Indeed.

    Anindita: thank you for giving me the chance to do this. This has been a very interesting discussion indeed.

  • underlining, not underlying!

  • swar

    High Priestess: I never fail to be surprised by judgements like yours, especially the last two paragraphs. They make me wish my passport could commit suicide.

  • Nandini

    Sorry, this comment is not really in response to the post. Looking at the response and the commitment of the feminists writers on this blog, I was wondering if anyone can help me or at least point me in the general direction. I am currently involved in research reproductive rights or lack of for women in india. I did not really read any entries directly related to my area of interest. Would any of you have any recommendations for good, solid and factual information concerning the reproductive issues plaguing women in India? Thank you.

  • I know this debate has more or less run its course at last, but I couldn’t resist adding this old anti-marriage Joan Baez song that my friend recently posted on her site. Hope the link works in this way!
    I figure it can’t be bad to end with a song, pro- or anti-.

  • Pamposh: Minor quibble, but It Ain’t Me Babe is a Dylan song; the Joan Baez cover is wonderful, as many of Baez’s covers of Dylan songs are, but it’s still a Dylan song.

  • Yes, of course, Falstaff, you’re quite right. As you say, many, many of her old songs were in fact written by Dylan. I was just so excited to come across an old favourite singer I guess I wasn’t minding my words too much!

  • […] Posted on October 10, 2008 by Sharanya Manivannan Unmana initiated a lively discussion on marriage a few weeks ago, and there is news now that the institution as we legally define it in India may be […]

  • Padmini

    What do you think of the mangalasutra? It is supposed to represent a woman’s marital status; I’ve also read that it is supposed to protect her husband from harm, etc. etc. It’s such a central part of the Hindu marriage. I am Hindu, but I’m not sure if I want a mangalasutra or thali for my own wedding.

    I’m also researching egalitarian Hindu wedding ceremonies. I’ve come across Arya Samaj weddings. While they are stripped down and simple, they’re still misogynistic. Any suggestions?

  • Padmini: I’ve always thought it was unfair to force married women to advertise their marital status by obvious signs like sindoor and the mangalsutra, when men aren’t expected to display the same. And I would treat any supposed connection between my mangalsutra and my husband’s health with the same derision I would treat other superstitions. I had no problem accepting it as a gift, as it seemed more like a sign of my in-laws’ acceptance of me into their family than like a symbol of my relationship with my husband. But it now lies safely in my bank locker.

    As for egalitarian ceremonies: I haven’t done any research, I am afraid. But I did not want a religious ceremony, and the civil one seemed perfectly egalitarian to me. The wedding vow was extremely simple: I stated that I accepted the Guy as my husband from this day forward. There was no interpretation of what a husband’s or a wife’s role should be.

  • Vijay

    I know, many men do household chores, especially those families who live away from in-laws.

    I also know, in many families men do housework but women never tell in front of guests or other society. On the surface, they always want to show that they are typical housewives while husband has no sense of housework.

    I have read many blogs, where women blame most of the men for not doing housework but they always write their ‘husband’ does housework.

    I was asking one woman her opinion about my question,— I am getting married by arrange method, whether I should tell that girl before marriage that I love to do all household chores? that mentor woman answered, “never tell this or that girl would run away, she may think either you are too desperate or something is wrong with you”.

    Before marriage, how many girls do confirm or ask, whether the boy is ready to do housework? Whether, he does housework is never a important criteria before marriage. Everyone wants a tall, handsome, dashing, masculine, well paid husband. After marriage same girl blames that he doesn’t do housework…

  • Vijay, you’ve raised an interesting question. My first reaction was, “Well, such women deserve what they get.” But it’s not as simple as that. They’ve been brought up to believe that women are responsible for housework and it is difficult to shake off all those years of conditioning.

    Good for you for asking the question – though I suspect you asked it to the wrong person.

    I believe honesty should be the foundation of a romantic relationship. If a girl thinks the worse of you because you’re good at housework, all the worse for her. I don’t think you should be with that person anyway.

    I do think you’re generalising in the last paragraph, though. All women don’t want to marry the same man, you know.

  • Amol Deherkar

    I do agree about the equility that needs to be maintained in a marriage but I fail to understand a need for separation.
    Separation out of marriage for me is an anomoly and a really sad one.When we say we are adults and demand to be treated like one ,isnt it childish to not know what you are getting into,specially something as important as a marriage (well if you consider it that way).
    But again when I say that I do agree that we all do make mistakes and in rare circumstances divorces do become essential.
    Look at it this way, I have my parents(and I did not even get a chance to choose them) they do get obnoxious at times but I dont want new ones or want to separate out from them.No matter what happens here on I will continue to respect that relationship.
    And if you arent sure if its going to last a life time then yes staying together and trying out that you can is definitely a good option.
    It is not about sex,or watching a movie together and enjoying it,or the long talks that you have that makes a relationship work, it is also the tough times that you go through and stay together to tell about them.It is about building something around that relationship,a home.
    I remember going for treks with my friends they are hard,they are tough at times when you are soaked up in sweat and your legs are really hurting you want to give up but then you find yourself in middle of nowhere and going forward is your only option.And when you return from the trip you are really satisfied with what you have achieved.You look back at it and say to yourself good that I didnot give up.That is what I like about the old institution.
    The article is demoralising and individualistic and is very shortsighted.It gives up on building something great without even starting it.By accepting separation as an institution we are doing exactly that.
    But it will be tried for the sake of evolution.Men do that,they try out different things,then they hold on to what works and then the one that does not work goes out of the window.
    I hope from the bottom of my heart that the idea be lying in a dumpster outside the window of a really happy home.

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