It’s not that marriage has gotten harder. It’s just gotten harder to hide its challenges.
That’s my theory on the soaring divorce rate in India. Talk to any friends in their 20s and 30s these days and you’ll find a few in the middle of splitting up or experiencing serious problems. While statistics are elusive, one marriage counsellor says the divorce rate was 3-5% in 1974 and grew to 13-15% in 1998. He observed it has only grown further, although he had no data to back up the claim.
But there’s a bigger group that’s cause for concern: the married and miserable.
“There is an alarming rise of not just divorce, but people who are emotionally divorced from each other,” says Rajan Bhonsle of the Heart to Heart Counselling Centre in Mumbai. “There is no relationship left. This is equally sad. On the contrary, even worse.”
Yet, much of India is still dwelling on where we’ve come from—joint family systems—to where we’re going—a nation of the divorced and depraved. The in-between state is something that needs to be addressed urgently, from the government to the private sector to individuals like you and me.
Once upon a time, everyone crammed under one roof and pretended to be happy about it. It’s not that mom and pop went out on clichéd date nights, while grandparents watched the baby—far from such a thing, actually—but the elders in the next room certainly prevented uncensored honesty (read: real fights, not angry whispers in the middle of the night). Who knew the nosy in-laws actually held our marriages together?
In this nuclear era where kids fend and fight for marital harmony on their own, work hours and commutes are longer. Salaries have gone up, but so have needs—for cars, holidays, gym memberships. And as everyone likes to point out when asked about divorce in India, women are asserting themselves as equal partners in the relationship. (How dare they?)
Obviously, thankfully, this aspect of new India isn’t going to suddenly rewind to the way things used to be. Yet, how to save the bedrock of the world-famous Indian Family Values?
Perhaps one institution in disrepair—the government—can come to the other’s rescue. For starters, sex education in schools needs to span relationships, families, decision-making, conflict resolution. How to balance a family budget, for example, would be a very useful thing for government to mandate on syllabi, of use to rich and poor alike. (Not to mention that a euphemistic “family curriculum” would get past a lot of prudish states easier.)
One researcher who has studied family therapy in India says the government also must reduce its stranglehold on education to allow existing universities to add mental health programmes or new institutes to open. Currently, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore has the only certified family therapy degree programme in the nation, according to Mudita Rastogi, a US-based clinical psychology professor. She also cites a dearth of research in the Indian context on how relationships work, even how globalization has changed family.
My cursory search for counsellors or degree programmes yielded more “sexologists” than experts on marriage. Ironically, the focus on sex instead of relationships perpetuates the repressed state of Indian youth. So, the first lovebird that flies their way—through arranged introduction, a website, the workplace—becomes mistaken for The One and a symbol of eventual freedom and release.
This is where others who are redefining courtship need to step up. I suggest the big players in the business of matrimony scrap any corporate social responsibility programmes involving unrelated gestures as vitamins or clean water—and focus entirely on saving the institution that represents their livelihood.
A year ago, BharatMatrimony.com rose to the challenge with a free counselling service: through email or online chats, matches could avail of pre- or post-marital counsel. The Chennai company has 10 million registered users, and an estimated one out of 10 finds love (or at least weds someone encountered on the site); 2,500 users have availed of counselling.
“We think marriage can be saved so we are sending people through this counselling process,” said BharatMatrimony founder and chief executive Murugavel Janakiraman. “Perhaps they will discover a difference of opinion on something. That is good.”
Another website for those seeking to remarry—SecondShaadi.com—turns 1 in June and also offers free counselling to users. Its message boards are jammed with recent divorcees swapping legal and social advice.
Yet, even founder and CEO Vivek Pahwa, who remains a bachelor, says there should be clearer focus and huge incentives to make marriage work the first time. “From some discussions and what we see on the site,” he says, “it is a lot tougher the second time around.”
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