Marriage series – Part 3

In developed countries where there is no social compulsion to marry and where a man and woman can live together without marrying, most of the educated people enter into marriage if they have or want to have a child. On the other hand, less educated people – which would also mean economically vulnerable ones – may not marry when they have a child. Or the issue of single parenthood is more prevalent among those who may not have a high school diploma or those who have not gone to the college.

Why should we take this evidence from the developed world? Why can’t’ we see the situation in India where most people – educated and uneducated – marry? Countries like India where most people marry will not tell us the practical use of marriage in the current context. We don’t know whether most people marry in India because of the persistence of social norms or because of the practical needs. However the situation in these developed countries – where the social norms permit non-marriage or living together – tell us something on the practical uses of marriage.

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Having children and fostering them could be immensely joyful for many individuals. Or this could be a source of meaning for life for them. However viewing children from such a perspective reduces the compulsion on each and every adult to have own children. Or this may change the situation wherein many married couple feel depressed in India when they cannot have own children. Since children give joy and meaning, and there can be other sources of such joy and meaning, some may focus on children and others may think about other options especially when they see the higher (emotional or psychological or health) cost of having children.

What about adopting children? It may be possible that the joy in bringing up own children could be higher for some people. Parents may feel that biological children may be a little more inclined to provide care when the parents are in need. However when children are not expected to contribute their labour or income and provide care to the parents, they may be less compelled to have biological children. A reduced dependence on return-rewards from children may encourage people to be less discriminatory between biological and adopted children as a source of joy and meaning in life (through nurturing and fostering them).

There are some merits in father and mother jointly taking care of (biological or adopted) children1. The problems when one of them – usually mother – has to take care of children singlehandedly in the event of a breakdown of the marriage are somewhat obvious. The presence of a father-figure and mother-figure could be psychologically advantageous for the wholesome growth of children. (I am using the term figure here since same-sex couple may adopt and foster children). There are some advantages in the joint presence of these two figures in the same household. Children growing up in single-parent households or without the presence of both parents seem to be doing badly in terms of educational achievements, psychological growth and later-life outcomes.

There could be certain disadvantages in mother taking care of children during certain periods (a few weeks or a few months) and father taking care at other times. Separated mother or father may have their own frustrations or anxieties and this may reduce the quality of care. The presence of one may enhance the quality of care provided by the other and that benefit may not be realized when they live separately. Children may exploit (innocently) the rift between the parents and that may not be good for their personality development. Or children may simply like a home where the father and mother live together.

We have talked about the joint presence of the father and mother in a home, and not about their marriage. It may be adequate if father and mother can signal to the children that they are going to stay together (during their growing stage). The actual registration of marriage may not be that important. However such a registration may be important for other reasons. First, it may have implications for tax payments2 and property rights of children or the access of one of the spouses to the accumulated wealth of the other in the event of his/her death (before writing the will). This is a legal reason. However there may be signalling reasons too. Just like the children who need certain signals of the longevity of the relationship of their parents (for their psychological comfort), each of the spouses may need the signal of the longevity of the partnership or companionship. The uncertainties in this regard, if any, may influence the attitude or behaviour of the parents and these may reduce the quality of care provided by them to their children. After all human beings are not machines – what they do is affected by their emotions. A disturbed person may not do his/her job well. The signals of the longevity of partnerships/companionships could be enhancing their comfort and hence the ability to function (as a parent).

There could be counter cases too. One of the partners may acquire not so nice habits (such as alcoholism) and that may affect the life of the spouse and children. Or one of them may be irredeemably antagonistic to the other. This conflict may affect the quality of the care provided to the children and then there may be a usefulness in both caring the children but by not living together. Certain level of emotional distress seems inevitable when two people who are in love break up whether they have been married or not. Most relationships of love (with an underlying sexual contact) tend to be exclusive in nature and one person’s movement away from such a relationship (with or without entering into another one) may be seen as a betrayal by the other. (There could be evolutionary explanations for this feature.)

What about having a step parent3? It is true that many children may have to be taken care of in households with one step-parent. This is unavoidable in the event of the death of a biological parent. However households with one step-parent may create certain complexities due to the asymmetry between the positions of two parents. The general concern was the ill-treatment of children by the step parent. This could be a reflection of financial and other vulnerabilities or lack of awareness or education or sensitivity. Such an issue may recede in situations where taking care of adopted children becomes common or where divorce and re-marriage are usual4. This may also happen when the ill-treatment of children (own or adopted) becomes a punishable offence and its enforcement becomes more certain.

Despite these changes, the step parent may face a problem of appropriate signalling – how to communicate his/her genuine concern to the step child. This is important since parenting requires not only the provisioning for the needs and affable care but also disciplining and enforcement of behavioural restrictions. When the step parent enforces such disciplining, the child may become unsure of whether such `restriction’ is due to the genuine concern or an outcome of discrimination. It is also difficult for the step parent to communicate his/her genuineness. This may lead to a situation where the step parent may fall short in terms of carrying out the much needed disciplining; or the child may become adversarial as he/she sees the step-parent involved in disciplining. The disciplining by the step parent may create similar confusion in the mind of the biological parent too. It may be perceived as the ill-treatment by the step-parent even if she/he is genuinely concerned about the welfare of the child. This tells us something about the functional role of the biological parents. The biological connection may be serving a legitimisation role for the disciplining carried out by the parents.

Won’t this problem be there in the case of adopted children? There is no asymmetry between the parents here (and both have the same status of adopted parent). In certain cases children are adopted at very young age, and they are separated completely from (and hence may not know) their biological parents and the event of adoption may not be revealed to them until a particular age. These may make them by and large similar to biological children. However the success of adoption also depends on the social context. In contexts where grown-up children are not expected to live with the parents (and take care of the latter), the close engagement between parents and children may end after the stage of upbringing. Parents’ older life may not depend on the productivity or nice behaviour of children then. Parents may become less anxious about the nature of adult life of their children. This situation enables the upbringing of adopted children or the practice of adoption. Moreover, this may encourage parents to be somewhat indifferent between reproduction and adoption while thinking about having children. Instead of seeing adoption as a fall-back strategy when a couple cannot have own children, people may opt for adopted children even when they (can) have biological children.

Coordinated care of children may be possible if the parents are not adversaries after their separation. However separated couples, especially in contexts where marriage is considered sacred and/or compulsory based on social norms, may have an adversarial attitude to each other and this may affect the coordinated care. Hence a relaxation of the compulsive view of marriage may facilitate the caring of a child by its biological parents even if they live separately. Or in places where divorces and re-entry to other marriages are not so uncommon, two people may be willing to have some coordination and cooperation for the care of their biological children after the separation. The lack of willingness to take care of children then becomes a reflection of socioeconomic and psychological conditions of the person and not of the marital status per se. It is not uncommon to see fathers who are not willing to take care of their children in India and elsewhere even if they continue to be married to their mother. Despite these possibilities, there could be certain advantages of marriage and its continuation and the joint care of children until they grow up5. Hence one may consider the institution of marriage favourably if he/she wants to have children. This does not mean that long-term relationships are not needed for other purposes.

Importance of trust-building and longer-term relationships

In normal transactions (say when we buy something from a shop) two people may interact with a focus on their self-interest. However trust-building and the avoidance of opportunistic behaviour are important even in these cases. People pay the charge to an auto-rickshaw driver after the trip, not merely because of the possible attack from the driver if the charge is not paid. Paying charge after the trip is the nice and right thing to do. If everybody follows this behaviour, that is good for the society (for passengers and auto-rickshaw drivers). People would be happy to rent out houses to those who are known for taking adequate care of these properties.

Even while working in an organisation, it is important to demonstrate long-term interest and commitment. Though youngsters may move from one organisation to other quickly (like they experiment through dating), there is a need to develop a longer-term interest as they progress in their career. Moreover, one should be working effectively in an organisation not only because of the monitoring of the supervisor but also as part of a set of values. It is costly for any organisation if its employees shirk the duty as and when there is a lax in monitoring. A society cannot progress if most people there are of this kind.

Trust-building and commitment are needed in normal friendships too. People may not be friendly to a person who is focussed always on what she/he gets. Compassion and willingness to give and a consideration that goes beyond once own gains are useful traits for individuals in a decent society. These characteristics are important for marriage and other longer-term relationships.

Marriage Series Part 2


1 Though there are arguments and facts used by advocacy groups to encourage people to stay married (for example, see this, these are not violated in situations where biological parents stay together and take care of children without legalizing their marriage.

2 Information in this regard is available in sites such as this

3 There are interesting documentations on the experience of step-parenting. For example see here

4 There can be legal changes too. For example, see the description in THE AUTHORITY OF A STEPPARENT TO DISCIPLINE A STEPCHILD

5 Effective coordinated care of children by separated parents is a problem in developed countries too. See here