When it all crumbles

“When a relationship doesn’t work out, we all know what we do—take a break, introspect, maybe cheat, and then call it off. In a marriage, it isn’t so simple. There are the fat wedding albums, the memories of shared stresses, the hungry relatives searching for scraps of scandal, the terrified parents and the stigma of the label of ‘divorcee’.

No one walks into a marriage on the assumption that it will end, but it’s a bad idea to get into one for reasons such as, Tm so bloody sick of the groom hunt!’, or ‘Pah, people will finally stop asking me when they can eat at my wedding!’, or ‘I need to get away from my parents!’ To begin with, it isn’t the end of the questions, as much as the start of a whole lot of new questions and pressures. ‘When are you going to have a baby? It’s not easy to conceive, you know. It gets harder after 30.’ ‘You should have a second child. Only children are lonely, and they grow up selfish.’ ‘You look haggard. Is everything okay at home?’ But, all the questions aside, one is never prepared for marriage until one is married.

Software professional Preethi Madhavan, who is now 30, was to find out devastatingly that she’d entered wedlock for all the wrong reasons. Her parents had been searching for grooms for four years, and she was tired of meeting a line of men with fancy degrees, whose biggest concern was whether she was a virgin or not, whether she’d had boyfriends or not, and how far she’d gone with each of them, and whether she was still in touch with any.

‘Once I met this guy, who was an IIT and IIM alumnus, and he said something along the lines of, “If I figure out my wife is not a virgin, I will beat her out of the house”,’ she recalls with a laugh. ‘I was like, “Namaskaaram. May you find a masochist.”

But encounters of this sort had damaged her morale, psyche and clear-headedness. The final straw was a bitter experience. She’d finally met a man she genuinely liked, and to top it off, the horoscopes matched. They’d met several times over four months, and decided to get married. His parents were to come down to formalize the engagement, and her parents had taken the horoscopes back to the astrologer, to figure out an auspicious date. But the astrologer had suddenly exclaimed, ‘Oh, my God, this is all wrong. The horoscopes don’t match at all!’

To Preethi’s horror, her parents decided not to ‘risk it’. And worse, her soon-to-be-fiancé chickened out too, saying his parents set a lot of store by horoscopes.

‘I was just so angry. And so tired of everything,’ Preethi says, ‘On top of this, an aunt I was really close to was dying. There were too many tragedies in my life, and I wanted to escape my parents as quickly as possible, because they just kept parking one guy after another in front of me.’

She was complaining about her situation to Raja, a good friend of hers. Raja was also Malayali, and his parents had also been scouting for a match for him. They would meet, and laugh about the horrors they met.

At the time, my parents were after me to marry this guy with a PhD in a subject so vague and random and putting-off that I was like, “No way in hell can I even speak to this guy”,’ she says. And he had come down from the US, and was waiting for me to say yes. And once I did, we’d be engaged within a week or something. So, I was telling Raja how sick I was of everything, and how I was going to tell my parents that I’m not getting married for three years.’

And Raja responded with arguably the worst proposal in history. ‘My parents are also looking out for someone, so you tell me, if it works for you, we can think about something. Like, maybe getting married, you know. At least we know each other.’ Preethi was initially taken aback, but she knew he was that kind of guy—practical, unromantic and safe. The basis on which they got into the marriage had the same pragmatism in it—they were friends, they belonged to compatible castes, so why not take it to the next level?

‘We have to recognize that there is a type of a middle thing as well, that is arranged by you,’ she says. ‘Not the dramatic sort of love story where your parents are opposing it; not the happy love story where the parents agree and you have a traditional marriage; not the purely arranged marriage, where your friends or parents or relatives pick a stranger out for you, and you interact for some time and marry. There is another category, of people who already know each other, and are not in love per se, but think there’s some potential, an interesting friendship that could become a more lasting relationship. So you don’t enter that relationship with the notion of being in love or romance or anything. It’s calculated.’

She now recognizes that neither of them was in the right mindset for marriage, and that would shake its foundation.

They had an eight-month-long engagement, but even though she knew they would be marrying each other, she could never bring herself to love him in any way other than as a friend. She assumed the relationship would change after marriage, and it did, but not in the manner she expected. But before we get to that, there’s another tricky aspect to converting a friendship into a relationship—where does the chemistry come from?

Can anyone build chemistry?

Preethi admits that it’s difficult, and one needs to be wary of how easily one can be fooled into imagining chemistry. She assumed love, and chemistry, would grow on them. They did have a deep friendship, and even now, separated and waiting for their divorce to come through, they want each other to be happy, she says. But it simply didn’t work in a marriage.

‘Friendship is a good foundation, but you need to build on it—and before that, you need to get some other basics right.

Marriage is about two completely different people coming together, and becoming a unit in some senses. In our case, our personalities were very dissimilar, and also, our environment wasn’t conducive to a marriage.’

She feels it’s important to bloom in a relationship, to feel one is being nourished, and that one’s partner is also growing because of their bond.

She identifies four levels of compatibility:

  • Physical: A couple should be able to harmoniously share the same spaces, should feel a sense of attraction when they are together. Sometimes, you just fit. If you don’t fit in when you’re making love, if there’s a sense of unease, of awkwardness not only in the closeness, but in the sense that the dimensions feel all wrong, that the couple feels strangely disconnected, an essential element is lacking.
  • Emotional: A couple should connect at a deeper level, where they understand each other’s emotions, beyond words. One could say, ‘Leave me alone’, when one means, ‘I need you, but I don’t want to admit it’, or ‘Persuade me that I don’t want to be alone’. The other needs to sense it, and to be willing to indulge one when one needs it most.
  • Intellectual: What keeps a couple’s chemistry alive is being challenged intellectually every day, especially if both  are intellectually inclined. There shouldn’t be a sense of competitiveness, but each must feel the partner is pushing him or her a little bit, to be his or her best, to grow a little bit. Of course, it also means the couple should ideally share an interest in several fields, or be willing to understand each other’s fields.
  • Spiritual: This is the most important, that a married couple finds spiritual compatibility. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with religion. It may have to do with existential concerns, or with the big questions that trouble one.

‘The spiritual aspect is completely missing in most marriages these days,’ Preethi says. ‘Even if you’re able to hit the first two levels—physical and emotional—it’s a big deal. I think, when the concept of marriage came in, it had not only to do with companionship and reproduction, keeping the human race alive, but for that sort of compatibility, that resonance.’

The breakdown

One of the main reasons Preethi decided to marry Raja was that a sense of equality had always been crucial to her. She, like most people, believed one’s partner should also be one’s best friend. And that, she feels, derives from a sense of equality, of trust, of understanding. Things needed to be transparent and open. If she had a crush on someone else, she needed to be able to joke about it with her husband. If she caught him checking a woman out, she needed to be able to tease him about it. That was what their friendship had been like, and things didn’t change much during their courtship.

But when they got married, things changed drastically, and that took her by surprise. Perhaps it was that he knew too much—whom she’d dated, whom she’d slept with, what her views were. He became strangely possessive.

‘These roles are assumed,’ she says. ‘It’s like, “Now, I’m your husband, now I shall not allow you to speak to this man”, or “Why is this person calling you up all the time?”, or “Why does he call up at this time of night?” All these filters start coming in.’

And the assumption of roles affected her in other ways. When she moved into his home, she discovered a completely new person. When they had been friends, and even during their engagement, Raja had been the kind who would volunteer to help out with things. When he came home, he would help her make the tea. He would take the initiative when things needed to be done around the house. He would follow her mother to the kitchen and chat away. But at home, he was different.

‘In four and a half years, I don’t think he’s once got into the kitchen and made tea. He’d expect the tea to come to him, he’d expect the breakfast to come to him, irrespective of what time he woke up,’ Preethi said. ‘That was a shock. And maybe because we lived with his parents, and that was how his mother had raised him and she thought it was completely normal, the entire family thought this was the course of things. As much as you have interacted with a person outside, when you get into their own comfort zones, their own environments, you will definitely make new, new, new, new discoveries that you have to take one at a time. And they are often unpleasant.’

Living with the in-laws

Preethi, like many women of her generation, lived with her in-laws after marriage. Sometimes it’s a question of convenience, when both members of the couple work. Sometimes, it has to do with staving off the insecurities of parents who feel abandoned when their sons leave their homes. Either way it’ a bad idea, she feels.
Tor any woman, when you’re newly married, when you’ entering a different life, you want to make a home, you want to choose the furniture and curtains, the crockery and cutlery, the mugs, the walls, you dream of painting walls together, arguing over colours. You want to build your home, and it becomes a metaphor for the process of the growth of the relationship. You walk into an empty house, and you fill it with something together. You bring the best things into your home, the things you like, the things you find beautiful, the things that comfort you, your little idiosyncrasies. And you do it all together—and it’s so important, especially in your first year of marriage, to build those rituals.’

As an example, she tells the story of a couple she knows who have two children and live in a joint family. They’ve followed one ritual every day, since the day they got married. Every morning, at 8.30, they walk down to a tea shop at the end of the road where they live, have a cup of tea, have their own conversation in their alone time, and come back. It takes all often minutes, but it’s one of those small things that can be immensely important in keeping a marriage together, in making one feel harboured, in making one feel one isn’t alone.

‘If these rituals get broken, you feel the rupture in your relationship. You’ve built something, and then you can’t sustain it. In Raja’s and my case, we struggled even to build something. We couldn’t come up with a single ritual in all those years. We thought we’d go out for dinner every Friday, but something or the other would come up. The point of a ritual is, whatever the crisis, whatever happens, you do it. It’s a way of saying, “At this time, I’ll be there, no matter what. We’re together in this.” The fact that there was no ‘their thing’, and the fact that she had walked into a house that already had its routines made her feel unanchored.

‘When I went to my parents’ home, to the one I had grown up in, I never felt like I was home. And when I went to Raja’s house, I didn’t feel like I was at home either—yes, it was my house now, and I knew I was part of the family, but I never felt like it was my home, because there was no creation of mine, or of ours together, in it. So, that makes a huge difference.’ The clinginess of parents can be debilitating to a marriage.

‘It happens a lot nowadays, surprisingly so, and by the way most of these people are the ones who’ve walked out on their own parents, for other cities, for other jobs, for whatever reason,’ she points out, laughing at the irony. ‘Most of that generation lived away from parents. They’d go look in on them maybe once a year. Many of them were not present even when the parents died. But, somehow, when it comes to their sons, there is an expectation of a joint family, which I feel is completely unfair. They had the luxury of space to build their lives, raise their children. Why not give it to us?’

In Preethi’s case, the fact that they lived with her in-laws meant she had a four-hour commute to work—two hours each way. She would leave the house at 7 a.m. and return at 10 p.m. She felt guilty about not being able to help her mother-in-law with work around the house. Weekends were her only reprieve, and so she was too tired to do anything around the house. She feels there’s another aspect to the clinginess—it is yet another instance of parents giving their children a shield, saving them from the responsibilities of running a house. As a culture, she feels, India keeps people irresponsible—and submissive—for too long.

Whose money is our money?

Another issue Preethi was unprepared for was the idea of shared finances. She had always handled her money and investments, though her parents didn’t think much of her financial acumen. When Raja and she decided to get married, he suggested they open a joint account.

‘Many times, especially if you’ve been friends, you go in with a lot of trust, which is good actually. But I think you need to keep yourself safe as well, and these contracts of money, and understanding, should be drawn right away.’

Neither of them had individual savings once they got married—they had one account, which was handled by the husband. Most of the money in that account was going into his home loan, a loan he had taken to buy the house they lived in. It had been a good investment, and the house was worth something in the range of Rs 3 crore now, far more than the price they had bought it for. Raja had a weakness for gadgets, and since the EMI for the loan was high, he ran up a credit card debt. He took personal loans to settle the debt, getting into further debt.

When Preethi finally decided to walk out of the marriage, she was told there was only Rs 2000 in the joint account. She

had no savings, since all her money was going into it. And she was asked to sign over control of the account to her husband, and withdraw her name from it.

‘Yes, I was a fool. It’s foolishness. I don’t even know if he had the intention of fooling me or cheating me, or whatever. It was just circumstantial. He moved the money, and that goes back to this change in equation—the man feels that he owns her, so owns her money, he owns her things, he has the liberty to move her things, he has the liberty to use her money. That’s what you need to be wary of. So, all right, you two are a unit. But shouldn’t you give each other that amount of respect? If you’re going to move her money, shouldn’t you ask her or keep her informed at least? It’s our money, right? But the lines start blurring.’

She feels the best way out is to have a joint account, but also have separate savings accounts. A percentage of earnings goes into the joint account. That way, you’re not paying for a house that will never be yours.

Preethi is now in a happy, live-in relationship. Can an arranged marriage achieve that sort of harmony?

She finds the question difficult to answer. One way of looking at it, of course, is that there are different ways of meeting a person—whether you run into him at a concert, or you work together, or you meet online, or you meet through friends, or you meet through family. An arranged marriage could simply be another way of meeting a man you fall in love with. But, she says, a marriage only really starts when you’re married. Even when two people are dating, they’re putting on masks at times—pretending to like things they don’t, pretending to be better people than they are, camouflaging their eccentricities.

But, of course, there’s a huge difference. When you’re dating someone you’ve met by chance, you don’t know how long the relationship will last, you don’t know whether he’s the marrying kind, you don’t know what he’s keeping from you, you don’t know whether you’ll sleep with him. When you meet someone with the idea of marriage already on both your minds, and your family waiting like a wake of vultures, everything is more rushed.

‘You know, I feel it’s like plucking a fruit before it’s completely ripe. It’s like those artificial injections you put in to ripen them faster!’ Preethi says. There isn’t enough time to get comfortable with someone, so you take up a checklist, and tick off whatever answer appears most suited to your preferences.

Unprepared for responsibility

Preethi says parents need to be more responsible about their children’s marriages—it isn’t a duty they can tick off a list, it’s a responsibility to their children. One of the reasons for the increasing rate of divorces, she feels, is parental pressure in the face of the unpreparedness of children.

In the end, what do parents want for their children? They want them to be happy, right? But they take away the wrong responsibilities, and impose the wrong ones.’

The problem starts when parents say, ‘We’ve found this person for you, this person is perfect, all you have to do is marry him, and your life will be fine’. This essentially means the parents have taken on all responsibility for the rest of the life of the child. But once the daughter is married, the marriage becomes her responsibility—a burden she is unprepared for. ‘In Indian society, children are never given the opportunity to take on responsibility. That is the biggest problem with marriages. Why are Indian youngsters so confused about marriage? Because they’re trained to not take responsibility for the longest period of time. School—your parents decide which school you go to. College—they decide what stream you choose. Suddenly, when you have to choose a person, which is probably a lifetime’s decision, is when all the confusions erupt. Because now you have to take on some responsibility. Even if your parents have chosen the guy, they’re not going to stand behind you and instruct you every day. Even if they do, in ten years, they’ll both die. So, you have to live your life anyway. Then you’re also participating in taking on that responsibility, and that’s why most youngsters are freaked out by the idea of marriage, especially arranged ones.’

Why are marriages so hard to break?

Preethi answers with a single, poignant word—hope. She knew six months into her marriage that it was not going the right way. But she stuck it out for the next four years, because the decision was too tough. She could have stayed on in the marriage, and no one would have known it wasn’t working, except she and Raja.

‘It was definitely the choice between “Do I want to live my life more openly?” and “Do I live a life where everything seems perfect, but I am not at peace inside?” Either you get out of it, and break everything that exists, or you live inside it and break yourself. You want to survive through this marriage, and you want to show the society that you’re married, and your parents will be happy that you’re married. But at some point, you have to realize it doesn’t work. Somewhere, the marriage has failed, it’s become a farce. You could stay on in it, and have children, and they may not know how unhappy you are. Or, you could leave it, which is, of course, healthier for you. But it takes a long time to work up the strength to leave it.’

When it all crumbles
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