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  • Daring to Divorce

    A CLOSE PERSON has been toying with the idea of a divorce for over two years. She has left her husband several times. The most recent attempt seems the most likely to result in divorce—she talked to her husband seriously, met with a lawyer and got all the gory details of how the law stipulates that a one-year ‘reconciliation period’ is necessary before granting a divorce. The massive family disapproval, nay downright prohibition via obsessive calls, pleas and commands, does not seem to have dented her resolve.

    Being a child of divorced parents myself, I am still processing her experience and trying to fit it into a frame of reference. I am familiar with some of the repercussions that divorce can have on a family. The ‘traditional’ camp, actually, is not all that specific to Indian culture and exists in various dimensions among all cultures. Catholics don’t believe in divorce; nor do many Christian fundamentalists. My 93-year-old Jewish grandfather never quite understood my mom’s divorce. He would ask us kids how it’s possible for people who love each other to be apart, despite the hard times. We had a tough time explaining that maybe they don’t love each other and can’t be together. Anyway, he was never one to see other points of view contradictory to his own.

    In India though, the anti-divorce side has its own particularities. I am presenting the following reasons in the most generalised terms but would be pleased if readers could add their own variations. This is what I have gathered from the experience of my friend, who comes from a relatively traditional, middle class family. Marriage is held to be a sacred union and the bond should be unbreakable even despite infinite misery. This is premised on a lack of female autonomy especially financial independence. A woman’s identity is fully tied to the institution of marriage i.e. her wedding is the most important event in her life and defines her place in society. So, of course, the question of what she would do after a divorce — both financially and socially — is unthinkable. The possibility of dating or remarriage is out of bounds. Lastly, there is the issue of the children — the mother should suck it up and do ‘what’s best’ for the child, who needs the father around and would be ostracised if he/she came from a ‘broken’ home.

    I wish I could convince them that the pro-divorce (or anti-suffering) approach is more humane. That there is no point of pursuing avoidable hardship. Why force it if it isn’t working? Ultimately, this is in recognition of an individual’s right to be happy. Sometimes people just don’t/can’t change — so the relationship circumstances must change. Finally, I think that the child will be happiest if his/her parents are happy. An intact family isn’t necessarily a happy one. Plenty of troubled teens today have parents who are married. While I would never say that I had it easy dividing time between divorced parents (and the situation here might be even more difficult), I think divorce is the best possible solution when people simply can’t get along anymore.

    Now, with women’s increasing financial independence, divorce is on the rise for those able to afford its costs — for example, women working in the IT sector in Bangalore, and apparently 2 out of 5 couples in Mumbai. This rise is seen by many as shocking, worrisome and the death knell to Indian culture. While it is sad and disturbing in cases where couples no longer have time for each other and are too stressed to connect because of crazy working hours, I also see it as a positive sign. Maybe, arranged marriages aren’t working for some people anymore. Or people are less willing to stay in relationships that make them unhappy. One thing is clear though. Whether or not people agree with divorce, the institution of marriage is changing and people had better start accepting it.

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    12 Responses

    1. […] Ultra Violet on the increasing instances of divorce in India, what it means in terms of autonomy for women and perspectives on divorce. Share This […]

    2. Thank you for writing this. I married a foreigner and among the typical stereotypes that exist among Indians about western society, the thing that concerned my father most was that – “They are not like us. They won’t stick together no matter what.” And I wanted to scream back that sticking together no matter what was not an indication of a more civilized society.

      I am not an advocate of choosing divorce at the first sight of a marital problem but I have witnessed in my family itself, several instances of psychological and verbal abuse that harmed me during my growing years. In fact I was conditioned into thinking that extreme domestic strife is “normal” and it took me being married to a Westerner, no less, to learn that it need not be so.

      Divorce is scary enough as it is – families not supporting daughters during these tough times is even more heartbreaking.

    3. Completely agree with you that the taboo on divorce needs to change. Marriage and divorce need to be viewed as personal decisions that individuals make and divested of the huge amount of social and moral implications (bullshit, in other words) that are attached to them. And yes, thank you for saying that bit about children. Echo Nithya’s experiences re psychological and verbal abuse and thinking of domestic strife as ‘normal’. Wrote about something similar for the Open Democracy blog some time back by the way, which is here: http://www.opendemocracy.com/blog/5050/broken_homes_or_broken_people

    4. Thanks for all your insights everyone. Anu I had read your article a while ago but completely forgot! 🙂
      “They are not like us. They won’t stick together no matter
      Yes, the lovely us vs. them scenario…

    5. Divorce and separation are not uncommon. Kind acquaintances sympathize and advocate against it if all possible. I have several divorced and widowed family members, and they are treated like everyone else. One woman chose to get divorced twice.

      Looking at poorer acquaintances, I was surprised to see their remarriages and divorces can be simpler: several parted company and remarried in a community fashion, possibly not legally.

      No, my family is not ultra modern. The main criterion was practical: Can the woman support herself and her children? If not, well meaning folk coax her to stay on until the kids are older. I would never say this is a particularly Indian problem. Most people, anywhere, do not know how to help a divorced woman. Today I know enough to ask if she needs money, a roof, clothing or simple babysitting and have been able to help several acquaintances. In the west, I often found people I knew well unwilling to include me in their dinner or other invitations.

    6. This is a very interesting read. I agree with you about the importance attibuted to marriage in a woman’s life and how it is considered a sacred bond never to be broken. But I dont think it is only because of lack of female autonomy (financial and otherwise). For if that were true then the families of the male party would not oppose it much. But in my experience that is not true. I have no research to back my statements and my experience might lead to my bias, but I have seen families strongly opposed to their male members getting divorced (three out of five of my acquaintance) too. They ran the whole gamut of emotional blackmail, tears, threats, tantrums everything!
      Having said that, i realise that these examples could just reflect the reaction to divorce in my narrow social/economic niche. Do you (or any of the readers) have any relevant data/research that has a more wider sample set? I am just curious.


    7. Bharati: re: ‘people I knew well unwilling to include me in their dinner or other invitations’–are you saying this because you are divorced? The same happened to my mom in the US. Somehow events become couples only… quite exclusionary.

      SK: You are right that marriage being ‘sacred’ isn’t simply because of female dependence and I hope I didn’t come across saying that. It’s true that the husband’s side often may not agree with divorce. In my experience it seemed the husband’s side may have been quite concerned with ‘saving face’, among other things. I would also appreciate some research on the topic of divorce. Maybe I could find this book since I’m in Jaipur and it was published here: Choudhary, J. N. (1988) Divorce in Indian Society: A Sociological Study of Marriage Disruption and Role Adjustment. ”

      Check out these personal stories: http://www.sawnet.org/divorce/#personal

      BBC radio show: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/04/2007_23_thu.shtml

      Dunno about more formal research…

    8. Regarding the comment on ‘people unwilling to include me’ (Bharati) I also found that on my divorce my social life changed considerably. Part of the reason was that mutual friends felt they could no longer invite me to occasions where my (former) husband was likely to be invited. So they took to inviting me to quiet dinners at home and including him when they were going to the restuarant/ pub. I began to feel like an elderly aunt who had to be entertained but quietly!

      However, I have to admit that I also constricted my own social life by avoiding making new friends and especially avoided situations where I would meet men who I did not know very well as I was afraid of being perceived as easy prey because I was emotionally vulnerable. Did other people have similar experiences?

    9. I don’t think people are taking divorce lightly – i think the first problem is that people are getting into marriage without thought. i know at least 4-5 couples who got married after knowing each other for 2-3 days. and got divorced soon. barely knowing each other works in an arranged scenario because you have atleast your background in common. but marry someone from another community and not only do you have the differences to contend with but also the fact that the person is not what you imagined…

      of course i can’t generalise – just something i observed as common among these few couples.

      the one common thing i realised they all said was – they didnt want to make an effort. i think a lot of people give up a lot more easily than a generation before us…. again. no offence meant to anyone in particular.

    10. Good to read this topic. There had been reasons to consider divorce as a taboo in India. The marriages have been arranged and the divorce between the couple has become an issue of the whole family involved. Well these days, the love marriages do happen and they do get divorced. Well in such cases the family do not interfer if they have not approved the marriage first of all. When there is a drift from the value system that they are raised with, there will be serious conflicts in the personal life. Its one’s own responsibility. Sometimes I think, its hard to have marriage system anymore. Live-in relationships will be much better than the marriage system.

    11. Stumbling across your site was a great find. Not only did I enjoy the original artcile but I learned from the previous commentors as well. Thank you!

    12. I know this post is a few months old but I would be interested to find out how our current economic situation is affecting divorce. Are women more or less likely to divorce in our current climate?

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