City City Bang Bang, Columns

The fear of marriage

In the mythology of the Hollywood romantic comedy, men and women view marriage very differently. If about a few hundred films are to be believed, men loathe commitment and run away from the idea of marriage while dream wistfully about the big day since they were 5. The idea underlying this stereotype being that men fear the idea of being tied down while women seek it. The whole Mars, Venus thing.

In India, things look a bit different. For given the nature of the social customs that surround marriage, for men in India, marriage is an institutionalised assertion of continuity while for women, it, more often than not, represents an acceptance of change that she cannot control nor fully comprehend at the time of the marriage. While this divergence in the meaning of marriage is quite apparent in an arranged marriage, even in a ‘love’ marriage, it is the woman’s life that changes more significantly, and in a manner that is often outside her control.

This is why for many young women in India today, nothing is feared more than the prospect of getting married or as the case might be, ‘married off’. The anxiety is heightened by the fact that young women across our cities and smaller towns do enjoy relatively greater freedom than they did in the past, which deepens the divide between the life they live before marriage and the prospect of a completely different kind of life afterwards. This has always been the case, and inherently the institution of marriage obviously comes without any guarantees, but what is happening today is the opening out of the gap between individual desires and social institutions resulting in an inability to accommodate the changing nature of expectations that individuals have from their own lives.

In a recent study that one was a part of across the country, we found a striking pattern that was common to a large number of young women in small town India- the co-existence of greater sense of freedom with a dread of marriage and the consequences that would unfold as a result. Interestingly, while it is acknowledged by some that they would prefer a love marriage, for most the issue was not about how the match was to be made, but about the transformation that would follow the act of getting married. Conceptually, there is no problem with the idea of getting married; the problem lies in the reality that accompanies it. Marriages converts a young individual into a social artefact; a shroud of expectations, explicit and implicit surround the young woman as she crosses that decisive threshold. Increasingly, women chafe at the idea of ceding control over their lives, without knowing exactly what they can expect to get in return.

In the past, elaborate social and cultural mechanisms prepared a young woman for this transformation. While the overall level of personal freedom was clearly much lower, it existed in a cultural ecosystem that made this seem effortlessly natural, it was seen as being part of the world as it was meant to be. More fundamentally, individuals, both men and women, were described primarily through their roles. Marriage thus was not a relationship forged between two individuals but an alliance that fused two families together in a particular way. The variables were generic-by not emphasising in individuals a sense of self, marriage as an institution did not have to try too hard to accommodate individual peculiarities.

Things have changed, more so for women. But the nature of the arranged marriage process, which has otherwise shown remarkable elasticity, has been unable to accommodate this new variable- that of a cultural fit between the individuals and the families based not on variables but on the compatibility between the individual units in question. A ‘good marriage’ is seen as one where the girl continues to retain some control over her life and actions, and there are enough instances where marriage does become the most liberating and empowering event in a woman’s life. It is precisely this possibility as well its relative rarity that imbues the prospect of marriage with poignancy for so many young girls. Many find excuses to postpone marriage, studying longer and insisting on working a while before agreeing to submit to marriage. Many have a ‘bucket list’ of things to do, as they enjoy what they see as their last fling with freedom as much as they can.

For men the change has not been that marked. Although the rise of women in many spheres does produce anxiety in men for they have not been equipped with the means to deal with the changed equation, when it comes to marriage, they have a vast cultural apparatus that works invisibly in their favour, one that implicitly reinforces entrenched roles and re-establishes traditional power structures. For the man, marriage is more of the same, an institution that leads them waddling off in well-fed security towards settled middle age. Women are prepared for marriage all the time, but men walk into it without any training, even in today’s times when gender equations are changing. Even in love marriages, traditional roles sneak in insidiously, and even the vocally progressive woman often finds herself reverting to a gendered role, seemingly of her own volition.

As long as being a woman in India is primarily about playing a useful role, things will not change rapidly. Till the individuality of women gets fuller acknowledgement, till every woman is seen to be unique, a full person with depth and many layers , the change we will see will stay at a superficial level. In today’s times, marriage does not complete a woman, it is the woman, fully realised, who completes it. Till this is recognised, many young women across the country will think of marriage with anxiety, hoping to take flight, but waiting to be extinguished.