Is marriage still an institution?

Over the last few years, even back here in India which one would consider more conservative than the West in the area of marriage, one hears so many stories about marriages breaking up, people having affairs, people leaving their spouses after 12 or 20 years of marriage...Everyone I know knows at least 5 marriages in trouble, and it's something that's distressing and scary for all of us married people.

Most of us think we're in happy marriages and yet you never know what's around the corner. A friend of mine made a highly percipient remark some time back. She said, "I always thought my marriage was special. But suddenly I have realised that it isn't, that it is the same as any other marriage." It's true. Most of us who consider ourselves happily married think that we have something special, that we know a secret other couples don't know. And it's a highly dangerous misconception to labour under.

I was thinking back about the time when marriage was probably invented - just post the caveman era or something like that. And if you connect it with Maslow's heirarchy of needs, it makes sense.

The caveman lived at a time when he was worried about basic things - food, water, not getting eaten by dinosaurs and stuff like that. Marriage probably became a part of society when farming was discovered. Farming led to a little more sustained security than hunting, certainly. Farming also needed living in communities, and therefore rules, institutions and precedents built up. Farmers probably needed the security of knowing who was going to till the land when they were old, and who was going to inherit the farm. Marriage made perfect sense.

If we think back to our grandparents and in some cases our parents' marriages, we would find that many of them were based on a place in society and affection rather than love, esteem or any of the higher order needs. The thing is, today we're a lot farther on. We've moved on to needing love and wanting esteem, not only from society at large but from the people we live our lives with. Many of us have moved to a stage where we want self-actualization - we want to discover who we are as people and realise all our potentials. What creates conflict is when the two people in a marriage aren't at the same need stage. Further, what we often see happening around us in India is that the parents of the bride and groom are at a different need-stage and are trying to find a partner suited to their need-stage rather than their child's.

I think the biggest problem is that most of us still think of marriage as a 'forever' institution. It's not an institution, it's a live and sometimes fragile and tenuous connection between two individuals. Unlike the ties of blood that bind us to our parents or our children, there is nothing but an emotional bond in a marriage. There is no society, no safety net, nothing but what the two individuals choose to put into a marriage that holds it together. That is what marriage is today - a bond that should lead to esteem and self actualisation for both individuals. We need to start treating it as such, and recognising its intrinsically delicate nature in today's scenario as well as its ability to become what we want it to be, free of society's restrictions and rules and roles.

That's a little frightening, but at the same time, isn't it liberating and empowering?

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