India is a country where stigma and shame are attached to both 'love marriages' and 'divorces'. Even today, the 'ideal' and 'socially accepted' way to marry is letting your parents choose your partner for you (within caste and community lines) – and the 'ideal' way to address problems in a marriage is through 'compromise' (no matter how hard it is), and not divorce.
But the statement, albeit just a verbal observation made by the top court in passing, opens up several questions: Firstly, is there any factual basis to an observation like this? Even if it is factually correct, is it necessarily a bad thing? And what does it suggest about arranged marriages?
It's Nearly Impossible To Leave
It is a fact that divorce rates have been rapidly rising in India in recent years – but they continue to be very low compared to many other countries. The truth is, a low divorce rate is not a good sign as some might think. On the contrary, it is a reflection of how difficult it is to leave a toxic, abusive, or unhappy relationship – especially for women.
In recent years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made people realise how fragile and temporary our lives are, many couples finally took the decision to separate. Men have always been able to leave marriage by simply walking out, abandoning their wives, or having second families. But it has been almost impossible for women to do so.
Those that do manage to escape are shamed and stigmatised, not just by the patriarchal society at large, but often by their own families.
In our social and cultural context with entrenched patriarchal norms, women are conditioned from childhood to believe that the highest purpose of their lives is to be a good wife and mother. This involves 'sacrificing', 'adjusting', and 'tolerating' a range of situations – from abuse, violence, marital rape to bigamy and torture for dowry.
Say, arranged marriages have a low divorce rate. Is that necessarily a good thing – something to be proud of?
Arranged Marriages & Divorce
It is true that even today, the vast majority of marriages (95%) in India are 'arranged'. This is a code word for the fact that these marriages are ensured to be within caste, class, and religious boundaries. In fact, Dr BR Ambedkar had said that marriage is the gateway to caste. As a society, we continue to perpetuate the (illegal) caste system by arranging marriages within its confines.
If these marriages do indeed have a lower rate of divorce, then it is less likely to be due to boundless happiness and more likely to be due to the fact that it becomes almost impossible for women to leave such relationships for fear of reprisals and other spoken and unspoken punishments. They often lack support from their own parents to leave toxic, abusive, and even violent marriages.
Domestic violence or violence from an intimate partner is experienced by at least 1 in 3 women in India. The rates increased (almost tripled) during the pandemic as did the rates of child marriages in rural areas – a dangerous trend and a dreadful combination.
Despite dowry being illegal in our country, it is still being asked for and also given, since a young woman offered to the in-laws' family as an unpaid domestic manager and caregiver, who can never say no to sex and who will bear children – ideally sons – to carry the name of the husband's family is not enough of a contribution!
Even now, thousands of Indian women die every year due to dowry related torture. Suicide rates and mental health issues are rapidly escalating among young married women in our country (the data reports them, unironically, as 'housewives').
In the context of these realities, the low divorce rate overall is obviously a part of the problem and not something to celebrate.
How Marriage & Divorce Have Evolved
Post independence in 1947, it took a visionary like Ambedkar to espouse a uniform civil code that would include the right to divorce. It wasn't until 1955 that Hindu women in India even had the right to divorce. Then, too, the conditions included a list of now absurd sounding criteria, like the husband indulging in bestiality, taking sanyas, and not being heard from for seven years.
Mutual consent divorce became possible only as recently as 1988.
However, the divorce law is still based on the traditional framing where the husband is expected to give 'not more than 25%' of his monthly income to the divorced wife, so that she is not 'destitute', but on condition that she remains 'chaste'. This condition applies even if the divorce itself is because the man had an affair or wants to marry someone else!
If anything, the subjective observation that most divorces happen in love marriages could be interpreted as a social phenomenon whereby couples who have already challenged the status quo by marrying outside rigid caste class and religion boundaries find it possible to leave such relationships when they turn toxic or unhappy or violent.
We need to normalise conversation around divorce as one of the possible outcomes of any marriage, including those where 'silver' and 'golden' anniversaries have been celebrated.
Marriages are not an Olympic sport that there are winners and losers and records to be broken. They are meant to be joyful partnerships that allow both partners to achieve their highest potential and to live a life of fulfilment.
This sounds like a romantic or utopian fantasy because till recently it was, and, in many ways, it continues to be.
Marriages, an artificially created social and legal contract, have always been about transaction, whether as political alliances or for property and business reasons. This is also why we have the traditions of widows either being forced to marry the younger brother of their deceased husband, or being confined to a bleak existence.
Unless we view modern marriage through the lens of history, we will imagine that we need to stay stuck with the current system. But marriage itself is a human-created system, and laws regarding marriage and divorce have been changing every few decades.
With the current challenge of same-sex marriage being discussed in the Supreme Court, we will certainly need a revised law in the near future where both spouses are treated as equals, within the marriage and also when they separate.
Let us improve our lives with conscious uncoupling when the relationship is no longer meaningful or healthy or worthy of investing in.
(Dr Suchitra Dalvie is India's first certified coach for Conscious Uncoupling, offering help and healing to those going through or planning a divorce or separation. She is also the co-founder and coordinator of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)