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Two golden-coloured band rings atop a dictionary page zoomed in on the word ‘marriage’. Above that, the definition of the word ‘marrano’.
CategoriesRisk and SexualityVoices

Marriage as Risk

Whenever we hear a mention of risk and sexuality, it’s often people who have multiple sexual partners that get frowned at. In slightly more progressive spaces, risk may be discussed in terms of the lack of safer sex or consent. However, almost nowhere do we speak about cisgender-heterosexual marriage as a risk. My friend and fellow therapist Aryan spoke of marriage as self-harm in the context of the LGBTQIA+ community. Society often forces heterosexual marriage on them and they sadly have to go through with it at times because of legal restrictions, social and familial pressure, and/or limited access to resources.

However, this made me think that this applies not just to the LGBTQIA+ community; marriage is actually a risk even for cisgender and heterosexual people. I have worked with cisgender men and cisgender women both in private practice, in the family court as well as in a legal aid setting in my capacity as a counsellor/therapist. The married couples I see in court settings are often there for a divorce or a separation. In my private practice, I meet married couples because they’re having issues but aren’t yet considering divorce. In both cases, I see how trapped my clients feel. Stepping out of marriage still carries great stigma. Therefore, for people to admit something is wrong and seek help or a divorce takes a really long time. By that time, people feel caught in a web of stigma, maladaptive couple patterns, family dynamics, vested interests and emotional and mental health issues. And of course, the most bitter pill to swallow is the never-answerable question of what is in the best interest of the children in the family. Arduous legal proceedings and vilification of one partner by the other often adds to the trauma.

So, what are the risks in a marriage? Well, the first and the most obvious one is that you don’t know if the partner you’ve chosen or has been chosen for you will make you happy. In the Indian context, even if they do make you happy, the family might not be too thrilled about the match. Moreover, there are just so many expectations of marriage that it is often not possible for a single person, especially a cisgender woman, to meet these expectations on her own. There can be issues if there are no children or too many children. There can be concerns around cooking, housekeeping and child-rearing practices. Cultural traditions and religious customs might be a cause for clashes. Sharing of authority and juggling between various roles and demands often leaves the couple gasping for breath, hardly connected to each other and most often just caught up in the various logistics of running a house together. There is, of course, a huge issue of power and agency, and women are often financially, emotionally and socially dependent on the marriage. Often, consent is not part of their sexual lives and even contraception is up to men.

The other big risk, of course, is that none of the claims that people make about why marriage is a good idea – a guard against loneliness in old age, a source of financial and social security, a way to avoid stigma – are really true. While one may not face the stigma of singlehood, there are other issues waiting on the other side of “I do”. There are as many problems people need to face once married, if not more, than they have to as single people. Hordes of couples who live as two strangers under the same roof can tell you that marriage in itself is no guarantee against loneliness. Love or companionship is not concomitant to marriage. And as testimonies from many show, financial and social security too is largely a myth in most households as power is unequally held by the men and elders in the family. In these cases, children are often seen as a retirement fund. Often even when children do end up caring for their elderly parents, the power may still be held by male elders or male children, and widowed mothers and unmarried or divorced daughters continue to suffer. Because of this, the children not only carry unresolved intergenerational trauma and the brunt of dysfunctional family patterns, but they also carry the burden of their parents’ unfulfilled wishes and retirement safety. That seems to be very unfair to the children who should, ideally, be able to, at the very least, make major decisions regarding their own career and life and choose their sexual/romantic partners without guilt.

The third biggest risk is what happens when this union supposedly made in heaven does not deliver on its promises (which happens quite a lot, by the way). Whether people hold family meetings to work on their marital struggles, seek police intervention (in cases of intimate partner violence), or legal intervention, most are left high and dry. They have to wait for years before something solid comes through and that too, is rare. And, because of the way our society is structured, women cannot leave abusive marriages and homes most of the time. Their natal homes often turn them away. There are no half-way homes or other such spaces where women can seek shelter if they face violence. Most domestic violence shelters are already at full capacity and not in a very great condition. Therefore, investing in marriage is a gamble because there are no alternative options in case it does not work out well.

The reasons for marriage, as I have said, can range from escaping the stigma of singlehood, not feeling like a burden on the natal home (for women), a desire to have children, an escape from loneliness in old age or a search for financial security – none of which are guaranteed to meet with success. Therefore, keeping all of this in mind, I think that we should start talking about marriage as perhaps lying at the top of the list of the risks that one can take in one’s sexual/romantic life, rather than a holy union or a shot at lifelong companionship and happiness.

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Article written by:

27 year old, cis-woman. I'm a therapist and a researcher with five years’ experience. Community mental health,looking at issues through an intersectional lens, and listening to and telling stories are my passion. I love art, music and baking , and also love to read a wide variety of things. I am a cat-mom to two Turkish stray cats. My work includes consulting on projects with Bapu Trust, working as a counsellor for Sukoon (Tata Insitute of Social Sciences field action project), and a private practice. My qualifications are a Masters degree in clinical psychology from TISS, and certificate courses in arts-based therapy, queer affirmative counselling practice and couples and family therapy.