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Family vs. Family

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While the dynamics of Indian marriages have changed dramatically over the decades, have the families involved adapted effectively enough?

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Alittle over five years ago, in one of my earlier books, I had written that, of all the issues that the contemporary Indian marriage struggles with, the most challenging was the ‘Me and My Family vs You and Your Family Conflict’. In the years since this, I’ve had no reason to revise this opinion for it continues to remain the chief problem. I’m not suggesting that there is something fundamentally wrong with Indian families or that the families in question have any malafide intent. It’s just that the dynamics of the urban Indian marriage have changed quite discernibly in the last couple of decades, but families have not always adapted effectively enough.

When I first started working as a couples’ therapist, I was surprised by the number of family members accompanying the couple who had sought an appointment, and my first task then was to cajole the families out of the marriage space, a much more formidable undertaking than it sounds. Although, over the last couple of years or so, it is certainly true that young couples have begun to own their marriages more, I find that the families, though physically absent, are not by any means out of the marriage space, as a result of which both partners have unnecessarily positioned themselves on either sides of a thorny, family vs. family, fence. As I see it, the principal reasons for this are two. The first is the widely prevalent, though fallacious, belief in our country, that marriages take place between two families, not two individuals. And the other is the treatment of marriage as a sacrament and an institution, rather than as a relationship between two people.

Often, at weddings, the bridal couple seems incidental to the proceedings. While they may be centrepieces of the whole exercise, everyone around seems to be having a more enjoyable time of it than they, and all the decisions are taken by people around them. The big fat Indian wedding is designed to provide bonding opportunities for both sets of extended families and friends and are often a cornucopia of bonhomie between hitherto perfect strangers. However weddings, by virtue of being difficult-to-manage events, might inadvertently result in creating gaps between the families and, if these are not adequately managed, overt hostility may sometimes ensue. If such be the case, future family meetings could well be fraught with tension, rife as they usually are, with subtexts and unstated.

Does this mean that Indian families are inimical to contemporary marriages? Far from it. I believe that families feel the need to play a continuing and active role in their children’s marriages, and feel rejected, hurt and upset if they are thwarted in their attempts to do so, largely because they feel they are only discharging their responsibility as caring family members, for they feel that good parenting demands continued involvement, at least in an advisory capacity, in their children’s marital lives. Which is why they are bemused and aggrieved when said children don’t respond in a complementary manner.

While I fully understand and respect parents’ need to remain engaged with their married children, we do need to remember that the marriage itself belongs only to the couple. Anyone else’s participation in it, in any form, can happen only at their invitation. Even if family members, as more experienced and aware individuals, are anxious to protect them from pitfalls and provide them appropriate solutions for the problems they seem to be having, they need to desist from doing so, for unsolicited advice may often be perceived as interference, not intervention, however genuine their intentions are.

In earlier times in order to propagate the discipline of monogamy, it may have been necessary to pedestalise marriage as a sacrament, solemnised in a place of worship, governed by a set of inviolable rules, thereby institutionalising the man-woman relationship. However, in contemporary times, where the emphasis is more on companionship than duty, on passion than compassion, and on spontaneity than compromise, marriage can no longer be seen as an institution that all human beings enter into out of a sense of duty and filial responsibility.

It has to be seen essentially as a conscious relationship between two human beings who believe in monogamy, and are committed to spending the remainder the remainder of their lives together.

The resolution of the ‘family vs family’ conflict can begin only when the couple starts to think in terms of ‘We and Our Families’. It is no longer a question of the wife rejecting her family and adopting her husband’s as her own, or the husband being swallowed up by the wife’s family. The new Indian marriage demands that couples define their mutually comfortable marriage space and establish boundaries between this and the family space, thereby making the marriage space sacrosanct, inviolate and inaccessible to anybody other than both the partners. Doing so is certainly not a sign that they reject their respective families. All they’re saying is that if they’re old enough to vote, have sex and get married, they’re also old enough to deal with their relationship issues as rational adults. If, in the process, the two families hit it off, let’s think of it as a nice little bonus, unexpected perhaps, but welcome nonetheless.

E-mail: vijay@vijaynagaswami.com


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