In the changing times, demands made on the success of a marriage are much different from what might have mattered for the previous generation. There may be a number of decisions regarding the day-to-day lives of the couple or of their children that they may want to take on their own, which may be thwarted by strong-willed parents who may want to have control over their son and daughter-in-law, causing constant strife.
A recent judgment of the Supreme Court, which ruled that if a woman asks her husband to move away from the house in which they live along with his parents and set up a separate home for the couple and their children amounted to cruelty, seems to be a sweeping generalisation that sets an undesirable precedent in making the waters of marital harmony murkier than calming it.
For one thing, the judgment affixes a legal stamp on the erroneous assumption that existing traditions of society cannot be flexible and are set in stone for all times to come, totally ignoring the way in which all aspects of our lives have been changing in modern times.
It pre-supposes that the parents will always be paragons of virtue and can never say or do anything that might cause mental trauma to a woman , who in accordance with the same traditions , have had to leave the familiarity of her own surroundings and enjoin her loyalties to her husband’s family. It is taken for granted that it is incumbent upon the woman to bear with any or all the sharp edges and align herself to the man’s household.
To a layman, however, it is strange that this case has dragged on for so long. This is a judgment of the apex court of the country, dealing with a domestic matter that was initially adjudged upon in a family court , nearly 15 years ago , in November 2001. The husband had approached the family court, seeking a divorce on the grounds that his wife was not happy with him, that she was forcing him to leave his parents and withdraw his financial support to them, constantly accusing him of sexual misbehaviour with other women and had even attempted suicide in a bid to ‘torment’ him, which in fact, had accentuated his mental trauma.
The family court had ruled in his favour. The wife had thereafter, in 2002, filed a petition in the high court against the above verdict. The high court dismissed the ruling of the family court in 2006, thereby validating the continuance of the marriage. Ten years later, this judgment of the high court is reversed, allowing the divorce.
The first stray thought that comes to one’s mind, while reading about the judgment, is perhaps this - why on earth was the woman wanting to hold on to a marriage that had become just an empty shell, embodying nothing of what this institution is meant to provide? To all accounts, she was so distressed in the initial years of her marriage that she had considered a complete exit from life itself more desirable than continuing in circumstances that were thoroughly offensive to her. Her version was that the man had betrayed the trust between them, by having physical relations with the maid and that he was spending most of his income on his parents, giving no importance to her role in the family.
In such a scenario, shouldn’t she have been the one to walk out and seek an annulment of the marriage? If her husband’s infidelity was the main reason for her unhappiness, did she hope that a change of premises would alter his promiscuous tendencies? Stranger still is the fact that she has been living separately for the past 20 years. Their daughter has grown up. Seriously, her denying him divorce in these circumstances really seems to be a little twisted. What does she hope to gain by hanging on to such a marriage, as clearly there is no love or respect remaining between the two? If it is the financial aspect, how did she survive for so long? How did she bring up the child? If she had borne the responsibility on her own, then why didn’t the court rule that she should be compensated for that, even while upholding the divorce?
It is so difficult to take sides when looking at the case from outside without being privy to the real truth. Suppose the parents were really financially dependent on the husband and there was no understanding or commitment on his part that after the marriage the couple would live separately with his wife, it would be really unfair to insist on such severance later on. His financial status may also not be such as to allow him the leeway of maintaining two households.
However, if the parents were of a dominating nature, wanting to have control over the purse strings, and denying even reasonable demands of the wife, and interfering with every aspect of their marital lives, it would indeed become very suffocating for the woman to continue in the same household. Her desire to move out so that there would be enough space for their relationship to find a firm ground and prosper should in no respect then be considered cruelty. Every individual has the right to be happy, as long as it does not impinge on another’s well-being. Here, there also seems to be the angle of the husband’s infidelity, which the Supreme Court has brushed aside as having no proof. So then, is it to be assumed that unless there are photographs or video clippings or some other visible proof to substantiate such allegations, the benefit of doubt would always be granted to the person who is being accused of such waywardness and not to the person staking such a claim, even when that may be truth? Here then is the catch of jurisprudence. A court can only render justice on what is proved and the actual truth may be far different from the perceived truth.
Of course, that works both ways. If the woman was indeed of a cantankerous character, being unnecessarily suspicious and selfish in her relationships, unable to forge a real bond with his parents due to her own self-centredness, then the husband should indeed be seen as the victim. It would conflict with his own humaneness, if he was compelled to succumb to her demands to completely cut off from his parents, particularly if they were dependent on him. Constant emotional blackmail by way of threats and actual attempts at suicide to malign the man may become suffocating and, if he desires to put an end to his marriage that shows no indication of improvement in the state of mistrust and belligerence, then he cannot really be found fault with.
There doesn’t seem to be enough spelt out in her defence by her lawyers. If she is actually is the victim and her attempt at suicide and her decision to leave the house were the result of a mentally unbearable situation in the house of her in-laws brought about by indifference and neglect on the part of her husband, which may even have been abetted by the other family members, then it is a badly handled case.
Notwithstanding all the above dubious aspects of the matter, the insistence of the court that a wife is expected to be living with the in-laws and any desire on her part to want to set up a separate household amounts to disregarding the traditions of our culture is perhaps not called for. There may be countless cases where the woman may feel comfortable with the husband, but daily interference into their privacy and inter-personal space by the other family members may begin to wear away at the marital relationship between the two. If the couple opts to stay separately in such circumstances, maybe it is not appropriate that a judgmental perspective be taken by someone outside, be it the court or any other outsider. As the old saying goes, only the person who wears the shoes knows where it pinches. In the changing times, demands made on the success of a marriage are much different from what might have mattered for the previous generation. There may be a number of decisions regarding the day-to-day lives of the couple or of their children that they may want to take on their own, which may be thwarted by strong-willed parents who may want to have control over their son and daughter-in-law, causing constant strife.
If, in such circumstances, the wife expresses a desire to move away and set up their own household, so that such constant confrontations are avoided, that should not be seen as intentional cruelty.
A pronouncement to this effect seems to totally ignore the reality that nuclear families are the norm nowadays, rather than exception, and even live-in relationships are on a rising trend amongst the present generation.
The observation that it is the “pious obligation of a son in a Hindu society” to support his parents, in a judgment of the apex court, seems to be unnecessary. That is not to say that the vulnerability of aging parents who may become bereft of financial and emotional support , if one or all of their children do not arrive at some way to ensure that they are not left stranded in the twilight years of their lives, should be ignored. Yes, parents who have no other means of income or insufficient income are to be supported.
In all fairness, such responsibility should be shared between all the children and not devolve on just one of them. But that again would depend on the individual circumstances of each family. Any reference to such responsibilities towards parents should, however, be couched in words that uphold humanitarian values and not as the piety-driven duty of any particular religion. Respect and responsibilities towards parents should be seen in the context of universal values and not as a traditional virtue unique to one particular religion. Such a position would not align itself to the secular ethos of our Constitution.
Nadia is a Social Worker.
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