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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 37, August 29, 2009

Marital Discord and Divorce in India—The Changing Profile

Monday 31 August 2009, by Namita Singh Jamwal


Family is the most important primary group in society. Family and marriage are considered to be the two pillars of any society and as such they are the two most important societal institutions. In India, traditionally and from time immemorial, marriage has been hallowed as sacred; and marriage for most Indians is not merely a sacrament but is sacrosanct. Once the couple enters into the bond of marriage, the relationship is considered perpetual—till death does them apart. In other words, marriage used to be for life and it worked as a bulwark against social vulnerabilities. It had an inbuilt system of checks and balances, and roles and priorities were defined by the society for the couple. What distinguished marriage in India from marriage in the West was the sanctity attached to marriage: a sense of perpetual bonding and an element of divinity in it.

The phenomenon of divorce, however, is not new to India, and it has existed at all times in known history. But it was resorted to only in extreme cases where there was unbearable cruelty, desertion, mental illness, impotence/infertility, and infidelity. But it is no longer so.

With the new strains and challenges that have emerged for the Indian family, the latter has been going through a new kind of transition. It has been wavering between traditional and Western models. The fast-changing social and family environment has thrown up new challenges, particularly to the young people, like growing instability, lack of communication, changing attitude towards sex, changing roles of husband and wife, and tensions of fast life. All these have resulted in the lack of harmony among married couples. The decline in harmony can be associated with values that emphasise individualistic, materialistic and self-oriented goals over family well-being.

Higher Incidence of Divorce

Not only is the incidence of divorce in Indian society increasing but also the underlying causes of divorce have been assuming a new dimension or getting a new impetus, if not entirely changing. The underlying forces of change have been giving a new meaning to the causes of disharmony. It is not that conflict, for example, due to incompatible personalities did not exist earlier, but the fact is that it has become more vibrant and open. Factors such as incompatibility of personalities etc. have all existed in the past, but what is new is that the tolerance threshold seems to have slided down while the egos of individuals have risen remarkably.

An extensive study of the working of family courts in urban India by a Mumbai-based legal activist indicated that whereas in 1995, 2055 couples filed for divorce in Mumbai, in 2004, the number went up to 3400 in that city alone. In the eight matrimonial district courts of Delhi, an average of 25 divorce petitions were filed every day in 2004. In Bangalore the number increased threefold from 653 in 1988 to 1861 in 2002. In Kolkata the number has gone up from 1633 in 1966 to 2388 in 2003. Seventy per cent of these figures represent divorces in the age-group of 25-35. In Kolkata, divorce cases have gone up nearly 200 per cent in the last few years. (India Today, February 28, 2005)

According to a consultant psychiatrist of Kolkata’s Belle Vue Nursing Home, nearly six out of ten married couples now require counselling to prevent break-ups and for every five weddings registered in Mumbai in the past five years, there have been two divorce applications—an increase of nearly 50 per cent. (Hindustan Times, February 17, 2008)

A very recent report points out that of the 1.3 lakh marriages registered every year in Delhi, about 10,000 do not live happily ever after. Alarmed by this, the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) has set up a pre-marital counselling cell where young men and women and their parents can call for help and guidance. (Hindustan Times, July 29, 2008) Because of increasing number of young couples resorting to divorce, six more family courts have come up in Delhi since the late nineties to deal with over 9000 cases of matrimonial disputes.

An extensive study of 243 individual respondents, directly involved in disputes and who had approached some external formal agency [Marital Dispute Resolving Agency (MDRA)] for intervention, mediation or help, revealed that the main causes of marital discord (male and female taken together and in descending order) were (Jamwal, 1998):

Overall, the three prominent main causes (with 20 per cent or more incidence), which contributed to marital discord, were personality related behaviours/tendencies including deficiencies/disorders (24 per cent), material/monetary gains through marriage (23 per cent), and incompatibility (21 per cent).

A comparison of the data regarding marital discord between male and female respondents, as per the above study, brought out the following four main distinctive features:

1. While as many as 46 per cent of the male respondents attributed the main cause of their marital discord to ‘incompatibility’ factors, far fewer, that is, 11 per cent female respondents attributed the main cause to such factors.

2. For as many as one-third of female respondents, the main cause of marital problem was ‘material/monetary gains through marriage (mainly dowry)’.

3. Personality related behaviours/tendencies (including deficiencies/disorders) were reported more by female respondents than by male respondents (27 per cent vs 19 per cent).

4. More female than male respondents reported ‘desertion’ as the main cause (13 per cent vs three per cent).

In a study of 1165 cases from four urban cities—Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad and Nagpur—concerned with the reasons for divorce, the researchers found that most couples seeking divorce were educated, between 25 and 35 years of age, and childless. Though they had arranged marriages and lived in joint families, seventy per cent break-ups took place due to reasons which included temperamental differences (apart from financial issues, family interference, dowry, and adultery). Eightyfive per cent called off their marriage within the first five years. (Desai and Bhujbal, 2004)

In the present scenario what is new is not only the growing number of divorces but also a qualitative difference in the undercurrents of the causes leading to marital discord and divorce. The social/societal stigma attached to divorce is also diminishing. Divorce is no longer a dirty word. A kind of social transformation that may lie at the crux of today’s marriage splits is the growing tolerance of society for divorcees. Divorced people are no longer looked down and judged by “there-must-have-been-something-wrong-with-him/her” kind of comments. They do not now have horns on their heads.

Divorce by Mutual Consent

More young people are filing for divorce, some in the first year of their marriage. Most of these divorces are mutual consent petitions. According to one estimate, the amicable separation within the first year of marriage has increased by 30 per cent since 2000. Contrary to what prevailed earlier, more women are initiating divorce proceedings. The society seems to be accepting the fact that divorcees need companionship. An increasing number of women are now hoping to click with someone online. For example, as reported (Hindustan Times, February 17, 2008), seven per cent of all registered women on are divorcees, as against four per cent of all male users.

Divorce is no longer a taboo and a divorced daughter is not unwelcome in her parents’ home even in small towns. Social trends originating in metros slowly percolate down to smaller towns and from there to villages. In the new socio-economic environment, women in small towns do not feel shy of walking out of marriage.

In the present environment two main causes/reasons stand out:

• Assertion of independence; and the

• Diminishing urge/capacity for adjustment.

These two factors, though different, are not unrelated to each other.

Assertion of freedom and the need for individual space, characterised by ambition and the fast pace of life, have created new pressures on marriage. For many career-oriented girls, their career, success and money are more important and hence get more priority over family. Priority of job over relationship is now an observable phenomenon. One partner likes films, the other the theatre; one wants to dance at night and get up late in the morning, the other wants to study and get up early in the morning. The words like “I hate you” and “I can’t stand you” have become commonplace. ‘Me’ and ‘you’ are now replacing ‘we’ and ‘us’. Psychological tiredness is one of the new realities, not much known earlier.

Many of the young divorces are the result of violent ego clashes. In many ways, these are the stresses of changing times and are generational issues and arise from work stress and changing mores. Unfortunately, however, the issues at dispute sometimes are so trivial that they do not fall in the age-old but still common factors like dowry harassment, impotence and the mother-in-law factor. Sixty per cent divorce cases, according to one Allahabad-based family court lawyer, relate to trivial issues. Today’s Indian wife has a mind of her own which unsettles the patriarchal male. For instance, it is interesting to note that a seven-year-old love marriage, in Darjeeling, went on the rocks because the man and his wife had different political affiliations. Obviously, the intolerance for each other is soaring and the tolerance threshold is declining.

Job opportunities for women have multiplied over the recent past, giving them economic independence. This motivates them to choose out of a bad marriage, particularly when they have no kids. Because of the opportunities the present-day work environment provides to the young people for closer interaction at the workplace and liberal views of the new generation, extra-marital relationship, including sexual relationship, have become a common malaise over the recent past, especially if there is a context of a failed/failing marriage. It is a well-known fact that, with modern methods of contraception available, many a couple delays starting a family. In a way, these are the compulsions of modern times.

As many of the female spouses today are well educated and employed on good jobs, they have become quite conscious of their rights. They also expect cooperation and adjustment from their husbands. While women have tended to become assertive, many of the males, on their part, have not learnt to adapt to the new situation. Our society is in transition, in a state of flux. While old values are getting uprooted, the new value system has not got sufficiently entrenched. The frequent ego clashes may be the consequence of this fluid situation.

With the elderly sane counsel or intervention of the joint family system, which earlier used to ensure the stability of the young couple’s marriage being largely not available or absent today, small differences get magnified in the nuclear family of today. While the level of intolerance has gone up, there is a diminishing urge/capacity for adjustment. Earlier, the non-likable personality traits, which got to be known after marriage and which led to sulks or temporary suspension of intimacy, are now resulting in divorce.

The assertion of independence and diminishing capacity for adjustment quickly gives rise to the emergence of a feeling of incompatibility. The couple are tempted to conclude that they are incompatible to each other. The so-called temperamental differences get highlighted.

Adjustment and Understanding

Though, in general, incompatibility may arise from a number of factors such as: differences in values and beliefs; differences in educational, socio-economic status/level; differences in life style/social orientation; differences in personality characteristics, including temperament differences, differences in sexual behaviours; and differences in likes, dislikes, tastes, hobbies etc., however, it may be noted that no two persons can be totally compatible in temperament and behaviour, even siblings may not be. In marriage two individuals with often-different backgrounds come together. The thinking, attitudes, mindsets and behavioural patterns cannot be expected to be similar or exactly matching. It naturally takes some time to know and understand each other. The understanding, resulting in compatibility in marriage, can thus develop only gradually and, further, if there is a desire to adjust with each other.

The essence of success in marriage is “understanding” which also means understanding of each other’s compulsions. Adjustment requires not only the merging or submerging of two personalities, but closer interaction to complement each other for mutual satisfaction and the achievement of common objectives. Conceptually, the two main elements of marital adjustment are cohesion and affection. This is not to say that there would always be perfect adjustment. Since marriage involves two persons, perfect adjustment is a myth. Some differences at times may take place or are inevitable. Perceptions about life, its problems and solutions are individualistic and vary from person to person. Speaking even about religion, Dr Radhakrishnan once said: “Religion is behaviour, not mere belief.”

From the practical standpoint, the concept of adjustment between husband and wife is not that of assimilating the one into the other but of togetherness and simultaneity in behaviour with the greatest possible level of feeling for each other. Marital cohesiveness is the glue that holds partners together. The other side of cohesiveness is marital commitment, that is, the desire to stay in the marriage relationship through thick and thin, good times and bad times over the years of marital life. Commitment springs from emotional bonding and the belief about the permanence of marriage per se. The greatest chance of divorce is where partners feel a lack of cohesiveness and are not committed to making the marriage last, despite personal dedications. (Jamwal, 1998, 232)

All said and done, however, despite the new strains on the marriage and the increasing number of divorces being filed or taking place, the faith in the universality of marriage as an institution remains unshaken in our society and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. The survival of the family unit, in a large measure, is dependent on the ability of the family to absorb and adapt to the external challenges. And it should be explored how this adaptability or capacity to absorb the likely strains can be fortified in society. n


India Today, February 28, 2005: ‘Split Seconds’, pp. 62-70 (cites a Study by Flavia Agnes on p.64)

Hindustan Times, July 29, 2008: ‘10 Divorce Cases Per Day in City’, p. 5.

Hindustan Times, February 17, 2008: Marriage on Trial, p. 12.

Jamwal, Namita Singh, Marital Discord: Modes of Settlement (with special 1998 reference to family courts in India). A Doctoral Thesis submitted to the Department of Social Work, Jamia Millia Islamia, The methodology consisted of semi-structured interviews and discussion with the respondents, in-depth case studies and observations.

Desai, Madhvi and Bhujbal, Suvarna: Pratibimb (Maharashtra Family Counsellors’ Magazine, January 2004).

A doctorate from Jamia Millia Islamia, Namita Singh Jamwal has varied experience of working (as a social worker and senior counsellor) with NGOs in and around Delhi, including UNHCR and FPAI. Her current interests include developmental and socio-economic issues relating to family, marriage and marital harmony.

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