People in our society still find it difficult to accept that marriage happens between two people, not two families.

In our country, there is a popular sentiment that it's not two people that get married, but two families. In the past, when most peoples' social networks comprised only families and some members of their community, the expansion and perpetuation of the supportive network was entirely dependent on families ‘marrying' each other. Living in a joint family meant that the new additions to the family belonged to the family and not to the person they married. In that sense the family owned the marriage and in return provided the couple enough space to procreate, as well as a web of security. But, living as we do in the era of Facebook, it is becoming increasingly clear that the safety net provided by families — extended, joint or expanded — may not be as critical as in the past.

In urban India, votaries of the New Indian Marriage view marriage as something that should be seen as distinct from the remaining family unit. This produces a lot of stress in the members of the larger family who end up feeling rejected and do everything they can to ensure that they retain at least part ownership of the marriage. When I first started working with couples over 25 years ago, it was always the family that brought the couple in for the consultation, and that too only after all efforts at a family-mediated rapprochement had failed. My waiting room was always crowded, not with couples waiting to see me, but with ‘married families'. The couple was there, of course, but they were buried under two sets of parents, maybe a sibling or two, assorted relatives, an occasional neighbour and so forth. The most difficult task of therapy was to get the family members out of the marriage space, so I could help the couple. This did not go down too well with the family. It still doesn't. I still have anxious parents calling and asking what their married ‘children' said to me. While I appreciate their anxiety and concern, I politely tell them that I can't discuss it with them since the couple are my clients and I owe them confidentiality. They are usually affronted by this response, however gently I word myself. One gentleman went on to tell me that I should subscribe to the basic tenets of Indian culture and not use a Westernised way of viewing marriage.

Commitment

In truth, there is no such thing as an Eastern or Western marriage. Whether you think of it as a sacrament or as a contract, the essence of marriage, in any part of the world, is a shared commitment that two people make to pursue a loving, supportive, nurturing and companionable intimate relationship, because they believe it would add value to their lives to do so. And a commitment of this nature can only be made by two individuals, not two families. That each is part of a family means that two families will willy-nilly engage with each other, but the families don't have to feel they have married one another. In fact, one of the biggest problems faced by the contemporary Indian marriage is what I refer to as the ‘Me and My Family Vs You and Your Family' conflict. The only way to deal with this is to ensure that the marriage space and the family space are distinctly separated. By this I don't mean that families should be cut off by the married couple. I mean that subtle, though definite boundaries between ‘We' and both families have to be delineated. The more substantial the marriage space, the greater the likelihood of having satisfying relationships with both families.

Taking charge

Clinical research and professional experience tell me that the best marriages, including those in our country, are those in which the ownership of the marriage by the couple is high. By the term ‘ ownership', I refer to the conviction on the part of both partners that whatever happens inside the marriage space stays within that space, that they need to take full and joint responsibility for both their joys and misfortunes, and that they and only they can take decisions on behalf of the marriage. They may choose to share their marriage space with others, but only by mutual consent.

In the past, people in arranged marriages tended to blame their parents and families if things went wrong, since it was the parents and families that had chosen the partner. In ‘love' marriages, the partners have no choice but to own their marriages a little more, since they did the choosing themselves. In recent times, since a lot of arranged marriages involve Internet matrimonial portals, the man and the woman are also actively involved in the short-listing process, even if the final decision is made by the families. As a result, in arranged marriages too, ownership of the marriage is higher than before.

In the final analysis, the couple that owns their marriage has a better chance of seeing it through the long haul. However you choose your partner, the first thing you need to do is to make a resolve to own your marriage jointly with your spouse. And the first thing everybody around needs to recognise is that marriage is between two people and not two families.

Email the writer at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com

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