The Changing Face of Marriage
Shah Husain Imam
'Marriages are made in the heaven', 'the couple is a pair of soul mates', 'fit-right bowl and lid' (jemon handi temon sara) - these are no longer the archetypes of matrimony as we once knew. It is now more a habitual co-existence, a mutual give-and-take and contract-fulfillment, the child or children being the glue. There are, of course, exceptions but they are certainly a vanishing breed.
The institution of marriage has not been able to escape the occasional lively jibe. Here is one from Oliva de Havilland: “Marriage is an outmoded silly convention started by cavemen and encouraged by the florists and jewellers.” Through the stroke of wit comes a serious message which is, the pedigree of the institution is as old as history, if not older.
An eminent lady professor with a social science background, now teaching at the North South University (NSU), my batch mate in Dhaka University, the other day made a diagnostic remark on the frequency of marriage break-ups in today's society. While doing a stint in Jahangirnagar University (JU) she came by a research study carried out by a group of students that showed divorce and separation among newly-weds to be on a steep rise.
To a question my friend put to one of the researchers as to what he thought was the reason behind marriages going on rocks even before the henna hue had faded, he replied, "Working women's outlook has changed as a self-earning member in the family and so has the equation between the husband and the wife." This is often topped off by a crumbling in the unwritten already gender-unfriendly pecking order. The professor's reaction was: why doesn't the husband change too, conforming to the new dynamic that would make the two click?
A career woman has her own pasture, her own world with a badge of self-identity, a degree of financial independence and a sense of freedom. She has the freedom of choice and option which, if strained under overly stressful circumstances, she could make a statement of, if not applying it outright. The man has always had his own turf, authority and position, and as if like the moon deriving light from the sun, a woman's very social status, even identity has taken after the husband's in the traditional context.
All that has changed over the last four decades, and most radically since the eighties. Both have become edgy in their mutual relationships stressed out from work pressure at the office and the strain of obligations to each other in their homes. There, of course, the husband's disposition is towards seeing women intent on their housekeeping role with a sprinkling of exception thrown in, though. So what if she has carried home residual bits of official assignments or has been in an office meeting after working hours to hit home late, she can't always count on the sympathy she deserves.
In a demanding economic context, two-job families are here to stay and thrive not just on existential reasons but also for the balanced well-being and progress of a society built on the fast disappearing gender divide. But unfortunately, human psyche particularly the male, has not moved apace with the changing vibes in the male-female relationship. Even sensitive men want women to meet them half way first in a crisis situation while they don't feel the need to go the extra mile. Marriage is no bonding per se; it needs nurture through the potion of creative surprises which seem to have been badly wanting in our lives.
On a different but relevant plane, accidents are fast becoming the rule. A spouse after having been left in America to give birth to a child to secure a US citizenship (this now is perhaps about to change) to the newborn, returns to Bangladesh only to find her husband married to his secretary. In different settings, the instance can perhaps be multiplied.
In another incident, faking as man and wife, a pair hires a flat as the house owner won't let it out to a single woman or a bachelor. They then go on living together, a trend that is perhaps on the up.
A 35-year old woman married off to a virtual stranger, out of family and social pressure, had to accept a life of servitude before it was too much for her to bear, she landed in her parental home and hasn't heard from her husband since.
The young generation’s belief in marriage is ebbing away. As man is marrying late and the career woman increasingly deciding to stay single, this is a hair-splitter for the sociologist, and perhaps the demographer.
The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.