It was a chance meeting with a co-passenger that changed U.S.-based clinical psychologist Shaifali Sandhya's course. In Ambika's story, Shaifali spotted many more hidden tales caught in the shifting paradigm of marriage in India today.
“The Indian marriage is burning,” Shaifali says. Her conviction springs from “an in-depth study of interviews with 400 middle-class Indian husbands and wives in India and abroad”. Shaifali's study has rather startling corollaries; “80 per cent of divorces in India are now initiated by women.”
An expert in couple therapy and family systems, Shaifali recently brought out her research as a book Love Will Follow: Why the Indian Marriage is Burning published by Random House. In an e-mail interview, Chicago-based Shaifali throws more light. Excerpts:
Why she wrote the book
I was seated next to Ambika during a flight. She was beautiful, married to a wealthy businessman, adored by her in-laws, the mother of two boys. But one thing was missing in her marriage: her husband. He had another family in London. When she confronted her husband, he said, ‘I love you… You're my only legal wife, can't you see?' In the years that followed, Rajiv orchestrated two wives, two families and two stories of marriage — his and hers. Was the story of Ambika, I wondered, the story of others?
However, getting to the answer wasn't easy; compounding the problem was the paucity of research on marriage. As I examined work spanning more than a hundred years, I found not only that there were no scientific studies of marriage in India but fewer still where the perspectives of both husbands and wives were solicited in-depth. As I interviewed 400 husbands and wives from different cities, I found that the great Indian marriage is in trouble. For centuries, marriage was sacred and indissoluble; in urban modern India, only 30 per cent of couples have a chance of being in working marriages.
On the questions she focussed on
Faced with poignant stories that stayed with me, I became even more certain that I wanted to write for the common person.
My vantage point — as a cultural and clinical psychologist and expertise with over a decade of experience as a couples' therapist — enabled me uncover hidden world of couples as 94 per cent of them faked their happiness. I asked: Filled with hopes of love, what happens when young brides and grooms embark on marriage? Moving beyond divorce, I asked why some marriages become bankrupt while others are successful? There continue to be myths and lay opinions about marriage even today that interfere with couples' attempts to make their marriage work.
On women initiating divorce
Divorce is happening both in rural and urban India today. However, it takes husbands and wives considerable time to leave dysfunctional marriages. “He is not a bad person,” said Nalini, a 30-year-old physician. “Basically, he has a good heart.” Nalini's was an arranged marriage and, shortly afterwards, she discovered her husband was schizophrenic. Despite a traumatic two years, she attempted to make it work since the stereotype of a poor marriage is someone who assaults and batters; little emphasis is paid to the quality of marriage.
But, contrary to common belief, a woman's decision to terminate her marriage is neither impetuous nor easy. Society does not accept divorced women but their resilience can be gauged from pursuing their hopes of wanting more from their lives.
As I examined work spanning more than a hundred years, I found not only that there were no scientific studies of marriage in India but fewer still where the perspectives of both husbands and wives were solicited in-depth.
Portrayal of sex
The portrayals of female sexuality and sex is very different from real life. In order to have a better husband-wife relationship, we need effective and collaborative solutions between the partners.
Future solutions also lie with societal policies. If women are taught that their place in society is submissive to men, you don't have to be Freud to discover that it is going to create sexual problems for both men and women.
Marital discord in the West and the East
The problems faced by Indians around the globe may have different faces but the underlying issues are largely similar.