Conviction and choice, rather than convenience, drive those who opt for live-in relationships.

Since, in our country certainly, marriage is still viewed as a sacrament, the very mention of live-in relationships as an alternative to marriage raises hackles and sometimes even results in tragic consequences. The intelligentsia is not entirely sure what stand they should take and the law too is ambivalent about what is prosaically referred to as a “common-law relationship”or “cohabitation”. While the Supreme Court has ruled that live-in relationships are a fundamental right of Indian citizens and are not per se illegal, other court judgements conclude that such relationships are “immoral” and an “infamous product of western culture”. The Domestic Violence Act does offer protection to victims of domestic violence in “relationships in the nature of marriage”, although what precisely this means is still open to interpretation. The usual arguments offered by the antagonists of live-in relationships are that they are immoral, encourage promiscuity, and are anti-family. The central assumption in all of these arguments is that live-in relationships will weaken the strong familial ties that we, as Indians, see as emblematic of our Indianness.

Perhaps it would be appropriate, in today's climate of growing concern over climbing divorce rates, to examine the issue of live-in relationships in slightly greater depth. A cursory glance at recent history suggests that marriage has been the socially sanctioned form of, for want of a better word, co-habitation. In our country, marriage has been seen as a subset of the overall family structure and as an integral entity in family formation. Arguably, no other social institution has been accorded sacramental status as has marriage, and inevitably, when an institution is considered sacrosanct, any attempt at tinkering with it is bound to lead to much distress and even agitation.

Obsolete institution?

Although “common-law relationships” were accorded legal protection in Europe and the United States only towards the last decades of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, where they are now recognised as “civil partnerships”, clamorous pleas to abolish the institution of marriage have been around for several decades before this. The basic contention of writers and commentators like Engels, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Germaine Greer and many others of their standing was that the institution of marriage as it existed then (and perhaps, even as it does now) tended to enslave women and condemn them to certain subordinate roles in an unequal relationship where the balance of power was firmly tilted towards men. The objection was more to the institution of patriarchy, of which marriage was seen as an exploitative tool. Live-in relationships, where neither partner is expected to perform rigid marital roles were considered to make the power structure more equitable, for, both partners had the opportunity to redefine their relationships in whatever manner they mutually wished.

When I use the term live-in relationships, I refer not to the casual or short-term equations sometimes referred to as “hook-ups”, but to long-term, committed relationships where both partners choose to live-in and define their relationships any way they want to. Having worked with many couples in such relationships, the one consistent impression I've been able to form is that couples in such relationships are as, if not more, committed than those who are married, the essential difference being that this commitment is a conscious choice and not a pre-ordained requirement. Very few couples choose to be in live-in relationships merely to have the option of packing their bags and leaving any time they want to. Many couples in such relationships have children as well, and for all practical purposes behave like theirs is a relationship “in the nature of marriage”, often, in fact, indistinguishable from marriage. The only substantive difference is that they don't impose on each other the rigid expectations that “husbands” and “wives” have of each other.

All valid

The reasons they may choose to live-in are several. Some do so since they, as described earlier, feel they are in the relationship by choice, not compulsion, and feel liberated that they can define their relationship any way they choose instead of playing predefined “marital roles”. Some may be prevented from getting married either on account of societal pressures or because their ex-partners refuse to grant them a divorce. Others may be ideologically opposed to the idea of letting the law dictate their personal lives. And in recent times, there have been occasional reports, too sporadic to call a trend, for divorced or widowed senior citizens of independent means living-in together with, in a delicious reversal of roles, their respective children's blessings, in order to pursue a relationship of companionship unencumbered by the potentially destabilising intrusion of property and inheritance wrangles.

For whatever reason couples choose to be in live-in relationships, it needs to be remembered that they usually do so out of conviction, and rarely for convenience. However, those who think live-in relationships are easier to get out of than marriage, do so at their own peril, for they are not; the absence of “legal sanctity” often unconsciously strengthens the bond between partners. Whether live-in relationships are the way to go or whether the institution of marriage will reinvent itself in a more flexible and less patriarchal avatar, only time will tell. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, for the immediate future, the big fat Indian wedding industry is still safe.

vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com