The institution of marriage has been a process of constant evolution. Ancient Hebrews, Indians or Chinese all practiced polygamy.  The idea of marriage as a sexually exclusive partnership between one man and one woman is relatively modern. The first recorded evidence of marriage contracts and ceremonies dates back 4000 years in Mesopotamia. The purpose of marriage was the production of heirs, as implied by the Latin word matrimonium, which is derived from mater, mother. I was not surprised to learn that for most of human history love played no role in marriage. Even as late as 18th century, the French philosopher Montesquieu declared, any man who was in love with his wife is too dull to be loved by another woman.

Some sense of an elevated status for matrimonial unions exists in all cultures. Marriage is one of the most important as well as revered samaskara in Hindu religion. An unmarried person is only half complete till he is joined with consort or his counterpart. “Atho ardho vas ha atmanah yat patni” In Christianity marriage is regarded as a free mutual agreement or contract officiated by a priest and witnessed by friends and family.  For a long time ninety percent of all couples stayed in that union till death did them apart. For a Hindu widow remarriage was not an option even after the spouse’s death.  That however was not the case in Islam, Christianity or the Jewish faith. Now let me fast forward to the last half of twentieth century.

Somewhere in the last fifty years this scenario has changed drastically.  Our expectations of marriage and rules of engagement have undergone dramatic   changes. As Feminist movements gained strength, Western women began to demand equal rights as their husbands. At the same time, rise of effective contraception allowed couples to decide how many children they wanted to have or choose not to have any at all. Cohabitation became commonplace by the eighties and marriage for the purpose of reproduction started looking obsolete by the 1990’s.  Surprisingly   despite the staggering percentage of failed marriages and a steadily climbing divorce rate, popular culture still holds   the fairy tale wedding, as it’s ideal.  I find that average women still want to get married but the date has been pushed back further and further. Today thirty plus brides are the norm where as in the past such women would have been relegated to spinsterhood by the society. These changes are apparent   even in traditional societies like in India as more women go for higher education and hold salaried positions. There is nothing wrong with the first part of the scenario, where girl meets boy, and a fairy tale wedding is on the charts. Many couples and their parents throw caution to the winds and spend huge amounts of money on an extravagant wedding and honeymoon. Statistics suggest it is better to focus resources on what happens after the honeymoon.  It is common for couples to go into debt paying for a dream wedding. The common sentiment is “why not go the whole hog for the happiest day of your life?” Unfortunately, the “happiest day “ is short lived and often not the one that holds an elevated position in one’s memory for long as reality sinks in.  The wedding day merely serves to raise expectations too high. Keeping the ceremony simple, intimate and relatively less costly is generally the best avenue for most young couples. Being swayed by high priced celebrity marriage trends is best avoided.

“We will tandem as man and wife, Daisy, Daisy, Ped’ling away down the road of life.” (Harry Dacre’s 1890’s song, Daisy Bell) Tandem biking and marriages have a lot in common. Before we go into what leads to divorce, let us talk about ways to avoid going down that abysmal path. Couples are often out of sync, and pedaling the bike at different speeds. Many spend years together without specifying or sharing their dreams. We have to maneuver around detours, rough terrain and rad block to continue on our destination. Marriage, like tandem biking requires teamwork, cooperation, compromise and above all communication. Riding the bike of marriage can be fun or exciting or dull and disappointing depending on how you approach the relationship.

From the vantage point of my own thirty four years of marriage, I can say that today’s young men and women need to adjust their expectations and be able to wither periods of suffocation and even loathing of your partner. Marriage has now become a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability and happiness. As people took more control of their love lives, they began to demand the right to end unhappy unions. Truly unhappy or abusive relationships should be terminated. Most women fear not being able to face the challenge of upheaval, security and change to their known secure lifestyles. People often stay together for the sake of children. An abrasive, loveless rocky or abusive relationship filled with violent confrontations is detrimental to children’s welfare in the long run. Such relationships should end as soon as legally allowed.

But I am not in favor of divorce when there is no serious mal function in the relationship that cannot be salvaged by intervention. Marital longevity requires wives to establish strong individual identities separate from their husbands. Women resort to several coping mechanisms such as maintaining a tight circle of female friends, short flirtatious liaisons with boundaries, separate hobbies. It is not necessary to experience each stage of personal growth together.  Divorce does not necessarily offer opportunities for rejuvenation. Space can be found in togetherness, not apart.

Cohabitation before marriage is the norm in Western society today and I do not harbor any ill feelings towards this practice but it is not a substitution for marriage. Society and the institution of marriage have evolved and will continue to do so and reflect the current societal norms. Today marriage is no longer defined as the union between one man and one woman, an unthinkable idea even a decade back. At this point of time I do not feel that the institution is doomed or worthless. Marriage, our most intimate journey will continue for the time being even if the couple’s approach, gender identity   and coupling practice bear little resemblance to the past.


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