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The number of Indians on the Ashley Madison extramarital dating website highlights the fluid boundaries that couples are beginning to draw today.

When Nikhil and Heena married, they were in their early 20s and madly in love. Years later, they realised they had made a mistake, but by now they had a child for whose sake they decided to stay together. When their son was around 21, a childhood sweetheart came back into Nikhil’s life, and he was soon in an emotional extramarital relationship with her. Today, he plans to finally divorce his wife.

Swapnil, in his 40s, says he loves his wife to whom he has been married for 17 years, but admits frankly, “I have slept with other women because my wife and I have outgrown each other physically.”

Sexologist Dr. Narayana Reddy tells the story of a young woman who visited him about 12 years ago with a reluctant husband in tow. The problem was sexual dysfunction, but the husband refused treatment and walked out. Recently, the woman returned, and when Dr. Reddy asked how her husband was, she laughed and said, “Oh, now I have a boyfriend.”

That’s one set of stories. And then there is the woman who was sitting next to me on the train recently. The papers were full of the Indrani Mukerjea case, and the woman sniffed and said disapprovingly, “God knows how many more husbands she has.” My co-passenger would have had a lot to talk about with Minister of State for Home, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary, who said in Rajya Sabha in the context of marital rape that “the mindset of society [in India] is to treat marriage as a sacrament”.

Contradicting views on morality are common enough, but the recent Ashley Madison hack revealed what must be India’s worst-kept secret: that despite seeing marital infidelity as morally repugnant and marriage as a sacrament, a fair number of Indians cheat on their partners.

The data is interesting: it shows that Indian users of the site were not only from the rapidly changing metropolitan cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata (with 38,652, 33,036, 16,434 and 11,807 registered users, respectively), but also from smaller cities and towns such as Jodhpur, Aizawl, Leh and Nagarcoil. So, clearly, it is not only “those” people — the wine-sipping, holiday-going, upper crust — who have affairs.

In other words, swept under the carpet of a nation that is fiercely trying to protect its “age-old culture” is the fact that thousands of married Indian men and women are exploring sexual relations outside marriage, “without qualms, without guilt,” as Dr. Reddy says.

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Extramarital affairs are neither surprising nor new. What, however, is significant now is the changing nature of adultery itself. It is no longer necessarily a hush-hush thing — ‘Life is short, have an affair’, says the Ashley Madison website succinctly, and obviously many Indians have taken that advice.

Second, it is no longer accompanied by guilt. “I do my duties, I cook well, I look after my children, why should I feel bad?” asked the woman in Dr. Reddy’s clinic. More, in many cases, marriages have become more open, pushing the boundaries of monogamy and the rules of the social contract.

What is really new is that there is now more space to talk about it. Says divorce lawyer, Sudha Ramalingam: “The practice has been prevalent since the Mahabharata, but the difference is that people have now become more emboldened to talk about it; they live with their partners openly.”

Do many of the couples who come to her cite adultery as the reason to break up their marriage? “Of course,” she says. “And the stories are quite similar. One woman came up to me and said, ‘Madam, my husband and his colleague used to work together. In fact, we were all good friends. I don’t know how it went wrong.’” It is not just women who complain; men do too, she says.

Sparks can fly in any situation but long working hours are one major reason for crossing the boundary. Ira Trivedi, author of India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, says. “Some years ago, a 30-year-old man would have found few women in his workplace. But by the time he turned 40, things changed and the workplace was suddenly filled with women. Curiosity about the other sex naturally increased,” she explains. Dr. Reddy agrees. “Colleagues go out of town together and spend more time with each other than with their spouses,” he points out.

Other reasons for infidelity include boredom (when the man works for long hours and the woman is left at home); the impact of movies (which show glamorous people having glamorous affairs); the changing values of an ultra-consumerist society; and finally, the new willingness to separate hedonism from morality. Says Dr. Reddy, “Earlier, the attitude towards extramarital affairs was, ‘Don’t tell anyone’. Then it became ‘So what?’ Now my patients say, ‘Just tell me how to prevent getting pregnant’.”

Trivedi, who conducted 600 interviews with couples in 15 cities across India over four years, says the biggest change she found was that youngsters are now making their own choices. “Earlier, people were married very early and they married to settle, to survive. For that generation, arranged marriage was a way of life. Not being married was socially unacceptable. That is not the case anymore. Besides, people also separate sexuality from marriage.”

The breakdown of the joint family system, in which the family elders provided the emotional glue, has not been replaced by any alternative, says Ramalingam. She narrates an example. A client visited her recently, agitated and afraid that his wife, who was in a relationship with another man, would abandon him and his children. “Counsel her, madam, please,” he pleaded with Ramalingam. “If you talk to her, she’ll come back to me.” India is not yet ready to provide emotional support for broken marriages; there are not enough professional counsellors. Countries such as the U.S. have far more robust support systems for couples in distress. In other words, despite being in a turbulent and confusing “transition phase”, as Dr. Reddy calls it, we are not equipped to deal with its repercussions.

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Two factors, technology and the push for gender equality, are especially impacting marriages.

“Adultery has been made easier by cell phones and the Internet,” says Trivedi. “But, of course, it can also work the other way around; it is equally easy to keep tabs on your partner.”

And the move towards gender equality, manifested in the increasing number of women in the workplace and less clear-cut gender roles, has also impacted marriages, says Dr. Reddy. “Men don’t want to give up privilege; women’s roles are changing rapidly. Everyone says, ‘It’s my body, my right.’” In this situation, a philandering husband no longer necessarily comes home to a loyal wife, but to one who has no qualms cheating on him in turn.

Equally, however, infidelity need not be an outcome of an unhappy marriage at all. Studies have shown that human beings cheat simply because it’s a strong impulse. Women have philandering tendencies too, as a New York Times article titled ‘Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes’ explains. “Sex has never just been about procreation. Cheating can be intensely pleasurable because, among other things, it involves novelty and a degree of sensation seeking, behaviours that activate the brain’s reward circuit,” says the article.

Ramalingam agrees. “We have been conditioned to accept monogamy,” she says. “There was a lack of opportunity earlier to explore other options; now that’s not the case. If anyone is given privacy and anonymity, he or she will engage in adultery. People are afraid of repercussions; that’s why they don’t break the rules.”

What does this dizzying churn mean for the good, old monogamous marriage? Dr. Reddy asks me not to panic. “Society is not static,” he says, repeating it for emphasis, and adds that this is the bone he has to pick with fringe elements who insist on protecting India’s culture. “What culture,” he asks. “All this is also part of our society. Once we become more gender equivalent, things will settle down.”

And until the dust settles, we will continue being hypocrites, he rues. “We will not talk about sex, but we’ll have extra marital affairs. Our culture will keep changing, but we will insist on protecting whatever idea we have of it. That is India for you.”

(Some names have been changed to protect identities)

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Printable version | May 25, 2019 4:45:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/radhika-santhanam-on-the-fluid-boundaries-that-couples-are-beginning-to-draw/article7619144.ece

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