When the past rears its head, it helps to see marriage as a relationship worth working out.

Without doubt, we live today in a romantically liberal social environment. Not that people never fell in love in the past. They most certainly did. And not just in myth or folklore, but in real life as well. I’m sure each of us has heard romantic stories attributed to our forebears that have become part of family legend. But romantic love, requited or one-sided, is now in our faces. Everybody seems to be tripping over themselves to fall in love and go through all the bitter-sweetness that the experience has undeservedly gained notoriety for.

And, needless to add, many young people do this before they get married. Sometimes, such romantic love does end up in marriage. But more likely than not, many youngsters end up marrying someone other than the one they were initially romantically involved with. And this is when the ex-factor tends to rear its unprepossessing head.

If both spouses had a “past”, and neither is particularly concerned about the other’s pre-marital peccadilloes, there may be no adverse consequences and the marriage may proceed with the customary trials and tribulations that the adjustment process entails. However, things may not always run so smooth.

Even if both spouses had “pasts”, one may become uncomfortable with the other’s, more so if the ex continues to play a role in the person’s life, say as a friend or some such thing. Or, as is more commonly the case, partners without a past, may feel betrayed or let down when they learn of the others’ ex or exes. And much more often than one can imagine, the ex-factor is often allowed to become a huge issue in the marriage, with suspicion, anger and hurt predominating the married couple’s life.

And if you think that only men get upset with their wives’ pasts, perish the thought! This certainly used to be the case in the past, for femininity was often equated with purity and therefore chastity, and masculinity with virility and playing the field.

However, now many women too tend to feel that the sanctity of their marriage has in some indefinable way been defiled by their husband’s pre-marital amorous escapades, even if these happened in the dim and distant past.

One might wonder why the past should play such a significant role in the marriage. From my experience, it seems to be all about purity, chastity and the loss of exclusivity. Usually purity refers to thought and feeling, and chastity to action. There exists a myth that one can love only one other person in one’s life, and if the spouse has already been in love in the past, then the likelihood of their falling in love with the marital partner is rendered null and void, thereby making the partner impure. Unexpectedly, this myth is strongly rooted even in urban Indian minds, often to delusional proportions.

And if a virgin partner finds that the spouse has not been as chaste, then the fear of not being able to measure up to the ex’s sexual prowess can sometimes be overwhelming and lead to sexual incompatibility as well. “How can I compete with your ex?” seems to be the underlying dynamic. Loss of exclusivity can also be difficult to deal with since there is a general feeling that the “loss of innocence” should be through a process of mutual exploration and joyful discovery, and the fact that one partner has jumped the gun, as it were, may be perceived as having violated the nascent bond of intimacy, even before it’s been forged.

If dealing with the residues of a past relationship are hard enough, you can well imagine how much of misery is experienced when one discovers that one’s spouse was compelled into the marriage by the family, but continues to be in love with the ex?

A variation of this is when the ex continues to be in the spouse’s life as a friend and it’s evident to everyone else but the said spouse that the torch that the ex continues to hold is bright as a beacon.

All in all, pretty contentious situations. But do they have to be? If we look objectively at the whole issue, it’s easy to recognise that the core of the problem lies in our considering marriage as a sacrament and therefore considering the marital bond as a hallowed one. Therefore, if anyone had a relationship “in the nature of marriage” with someone prior to entering into “holy matrimony” with another, then sacred vows have been broken even before they were taken.

However, if we view marriage as a relationship, an exalted one doubtless, but in essence just a relationship between two consenting adults who resolve to engage in committed monogamy by building a loving, trusting, respectful and intimate bond, then we can easily appreciate that having had a relationship or two in the past is not such a big deal after all and that such past relationships need never cast shadows on the present or the future.

However, at least until the marital bond is stabilised it would be prudent for the ex to firmly remain an ex. Perhaps later, both partners can have friendly, even constructive, relationships with the exes. But, some maturity needs to be acquired for this to happen.

E-mail:vijay@vijaynagaswami.com