Marriage series – Part 2

Two people decide to marry not merely because they are in love. In fact, such people who are in love may decide to marry in India since they cannot go on with their affair normally without getting married. The ninety percent of couples in India go through the route of arranged marriage, and hopefully, they may start loving each other after the marriage. Marriage in India is mainly to meet certain instrumental purposes.

People have different expectations from marriage. People want to have children and foster them within the family. Children have served a number of instrumental purposes, in addition to meeting certain emotional needs of the parents. In situations where farming, cattle rearing or such occupations are prominent, technology is pre-modern and where governments have not provided social security schemes like pension, children are valued as co-workers, possible wage-earners and also care-takers of the parents in their old-age. Given the need for labour for ploughing for cultivation, cattle-rearing, itinerant trade, and so on, males are valued highly by the families in major parts of India. Hence families wanted to retain sons, marry off daughters, and accept daughter-in-laws to facilitate reproduction. This had led to what is called patri-local residence wherein girls live in husband’s house after the marriage with his parents.

Families are concerned about the welfare of their daughters, and hence want to get the best possible man to take care of her. This competition to get the `best possible’ boy increases dowry. Girl takes financial and other assets from her home as dowry but depends on the income generated by the husband or his household. She would have a secondary status in the beginning as the daughter-in-law but gradually acquire certain power there through the emotional control over her sons. Children have been seen as the care-takers of the aged parents. Parents cultivate land and foster children when they are healthy so that the latter cultivate land and take care of the former later on.

Men may have had other expectations too from marriage. They wanted somebody to cook homely food, to take care of other chores (like washing their clothes) or to take care of home. He wanted a woman to take care, say, when he is sick. Though each of these services can be received by hiring someone for the purpose, having one person who do most of the services on a long-term basis and with an emotional and sexual relationship may have some advantages for men. Women may have similar expectations from the marriage (in addition to financial and social security), but there could be an unequal sharing of benefits and costs for them – a greater burden without much care when they are in need – in the majority of Indian households. The age-seniority of husbands would mean that they may benefit from the care of wives during the old age, whereas the care in the return direction may not materialize in most situations. Hence women may have to depend on children.

It is possible that sections of girls are interested in providing such services at home and live on husband’s income. People make different kinds of trade-offs. We may see even educated (and employable) women deciding to be the housewives of richer or powerful men. It is possible that some of these housewives may develop an interest in professional or business or cultural activities later on. However, there could be many others who may get stuck in household chores.

In summary, marriage and children have served important instrumental roles. That has encouraged people to get married. This was important not only for individuals but also for communities and societies and hence social norms that valorise marriage and regulate other relationships develop. Hence it is not easy for boys and girls in most parts of India to have companionship with an underlying sexual contact before the marriage. There could be social sanctions or outright objections to (including moral policing of) such relationships. The importance of marriage has led to community/social sanctions against divorce. When getting out of marriage becomes costly (not only financially but also socially, culturally and emotionally), people would become excessively cautious before getting into it. Hence horoscope and caste-matching1, parental and community wetting, and social approval and all these become important for fixing marriages in India.

We may think that parental or social control over pre-marital relationships is to avoid teenage pregnancies and related problems. This may not be fully correct. First, there are societies where spouse selection has been carried out historically by boys and girls themselves and not by the parents. In fact, there are not many countries in the world where arranged marriages are prevalent as much as in India today. (The parents get involved in the marriage in these countries only after the match-making.) Secondly, teenage pregnancy is a reflection of the vulnerability of the individuals. There are many teenage girls who become pregnant not only before the marriage but also after the marriage in contexts wherever child marriage is practiced. There is evidence to indicate that girls who are educated and are capable to think about what is good for themselves are less likely to encounter this problem. The less educated girls are likely to fall into motherhood at a young age since ` they feel they have little chance of advancement’2. In societies where there are no serious restrictions against the relatively free interaction between boys and girls, teenage pregnancy is an issue more among those girls who come from vulnerable families (with single parents, inadequate education, conflicts within the household, poverty, and so on)3. Hence there is not enough evidence to think that a permission for relatively freer interaction between boys and girls before the marriage, per se, may lead to an increase in teenage pregnancies and associated problems. On the other hand, poverty, lack of awareness or education, and so on may lead to such a situation.

The excessive concern about the pre-marital relationships that exist in India could be due to the concern of parents about marriage outside their caste and religion. When parents’ older life depends on children, and when girls’ welfare depends on the husband, there may be excessive (parental) care in the selection of the spouses of children. This may lead to the continued use of caste and community networks in marriage or the persistence of intra-caste marriage. This is so since caste is the main form of social capital for most people in India.

The absence of inadequate spaces for interactions between women and men outside marriage in India is a reason for the compulsive entry into the marriage. Girls are not allowed interact with boys or to go out on their own. Hence they can go out to a movie or an entertainment program only with the relatives or the husband in many parts of India. All these encourage girls to wait for the marriage to have some glimpses of a less restricted life.

However, the situation is changing gradually in India

Though marriage continues to be important in India, there have been changes, especially for its urban middle class. The dependence on children for sustenance has reduced as part of the modernisation of the economy. Children may not be used as workers in farms or homes among these sections, and they are encouraged to acquire education. Parents may have social security (say pension) with their savings and the contribution of their employers. Hence their dependence on children for old-age financial security is also declining. about children as care-givers in the old age of these parents? This has become a not-so-feasible option for many families in India whose children are educated and employed elsewhere. Grown up children may not be able to take care of their parents during their old age. They may have to `buy’ care – by hiring home nurses or by enrolling in care homes. There is a need for money for this purpose and this may be mobilised during the working life of parents. In brief, the care-giving role of children is receding for the middle-class in India.

Educated and employed children may earn incomes, and hence they may not depend on parents’ property (say land) that much. Similarly, parents may have their own social security (pension) and may not depend on the income of children. Then it is likely that the grown up children and parents may live separately. Parents may not be then that keen to ensure that the spouses of their children are of the type that they wanted. The kind of precaution – like the use o caste and community networks – may come down to the arrangement of marriage. In general, children may get (or assert) higher freedom in the affairs of their adult life including the selection of marriage/sexual partners.

Older people who are separated or widowed tend to marry or develop new relationships in developed societies4, whereas such marriages/relationships are not viewed positively in India. This is not necessarily due to our cultural difference but due to the inter-dependence of the welfare of parents and children. Children may view the remarriage of their father or mother as a threat to their welfare. This may change in a situation where children do not depend on the incomes of parents and are not expected live with them during their old age.

These changes may reflect the attitude towards divorce too. A relaxation on the view of marriage as the main institution for the financial, social or personal security of girls may encourage them to get out of unbearable marriages. Education and employment of girls and the emergence of an environment wherein they can lead a comfortable life as a single woman5 or re-marry as and when there is an opportunity, may facilitate such a transition. Hence if there is an increase in divorces initiated by women these days, it can be explained by the changes in socioeconomic conditions, and it need not be due to any decline in moral values!

Hence the conventional reasons for marriage may not be valid, especially for the urban middle-class India. This is the case in most of the developed societies. That is why people are not compelled to marry in US6, Europe or Japan7. Nearly half of adult women are not married in some of these countries. Despite these changes in social circumstances, norms which shaped marriage when it has been serving many instrumental purposes in the lives of people, may continue to persist. This is a general issue, and norms are like habits, and these cannot be changed easily even when the underlying social conditions change. Though one can see some gradual changes among a small section of Indian society, majority follows the conventional practices related to marriage. Hence they continue with intra-caste arranged marriages wherein elder boys who earn (higher) incomes marry younger girls (with a transfer of financial assets from the bride’s family to that of the bridegroom.) Under such a situation, and also because of the prevailing notions on the gender division of labour, girls tend to be housewives or their jobs become a secondary source of income for the marital family. Though sections of girls may be happier in this situation, there are others who may regret sooner or later with such a subservient status.

Does it mean that marriages are unimportant in the current social context? We discuss this in the following essay.


2 Kearney, Melissa S., and Phillip B. Levine. 2012. “Why Is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(2): 141-63; Another version can be seen here

3 The rate of teenage pregnancy in European countries can be seen here ; Data on sexual activity is given in

4 Websites such as this provide advice on such matters.

5 Problems faced by single women in India are narrated in websites such as this