Have Young Indians Found The Secret To A Happy Marriage?
The secret of a happy marriage is perhaps the most elusive, most coveted in history. One man thinks he’s found it. The question is, did he get there first?
In a recent piece for TIME, the philosopher Alain de Botton made the claim that the conception of love known as Romanticism – that mutual, breathless tumble into unflagging passion, unspoken understanding and uncritical adoration – had conquered the world, from Brazil to Tokyo. And, he said, it was killing our relationships:
“Our strongest cultural voices have—to our huge cost—set us up with the wrong expectations [of love],” de Botton writes. “They’ve highlighted emotions that don’t tell us very much that is useful about how to make relationships work, while drawing attention away from others that offer more constructive guidance.”
Both are big claims, particularly in the context of a 1.2 billion-strong country where a family’s stability tends to be valued over individual happiness and where 69% of people favour arranged marriages over love matches.
De Botton calls for a “post-Romantic” attitude toward love, one that allows room for flaws, effort and conversations about “whether bathroom towels should be hung up or can be left on the floor.” He has only to look to India to find it.
“There’s a practicality aspect that people are keeping in mind [today],” says Vineet Thanedar, founder of ekCoffee, a dating app. “They want to find someone and fall in love. But at the same time, they don’t want to be stupid about it.”
In a country where love has long been typecast as either from the heart or the head, as true or arranged, as a lightning bolt or lukewarm smoulder, India’s young couples are carving a middle ground that looks a lot like de Botton’s ideal.
“My generation grew up with parents in arranged marriages,” Thanedar says. “We’ve seen what is good and what is bad about it. We’ve taken the good.”
Young couples have also had plenty of time to see the stress fractures of Romanticism. Madhulika Mathur, founder of weddingsutra.com, references an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, in which the comedian compares his parents’ arranged marriage to the pressure of his own overwhelming quest for romance.
“You carry a smartphone with tons of matchmaking and dating apps and endless possibilities of romantic options,” Mathur summarises. “It’s like Netflix, where by the time you browse through everything available, you are too confused or too tired to watch something. And if you do commit, there’s always the nagging doubt if there is someone better out there.”
The result is a new and improved version of love that takes the best of romanticism – attraction and choice – and pairs it with the best of arrangement – compromise, respect and communication.
“Arranged love is the new arranged marriage,” Mathur says. “Even if people are not finding love on their own and families are involved, there is an expectation of some kind of attraction.”
And when the attraction fizzles in the face of real life, there’s a determination to make it work.
“Most of them, I think, want to put in an effort to make it work before calling it quits,” says Megha Tulsiyan, a counselling psychologist and psychotherapist, who works with couples in Mumbai.
Tulsiyan says romantic expectations are behind the marital troubles of some of the couples she sees, as de Botton suggests, but the fact that they’re in counselling shows effort. This marital work ethic, of course, can come at a price. Traditionally, it’s been used to justify keeping people in unhappy or outright abusive relationships. But that is, perhaps, where romance tempers tradition – and where a happy marriage grows.
“While I cannot condone most of what the Indian arranged marriage system stands for,” Mathur says, “there is something to be said about being practical in picking your partner. And accepting that tolerance, generosity and healthy communication are probably as important if not more than passion and romance.”
It’s not just India’s wealthy urbanites leading lovers into a brave new post-Romantic world. Mathur says her website receives proposal and ‘how we met’ stories from couples all over the country who see romance as a critical part of their marriage.
Seeing romance as a part, practicality as a percentage – it’s a path most successful couples stumble onto at some point, whether or not they realise it. But if today’s young couples are starting on surer footing, perhaps they really have managed not to be “stupid about it.”
Then again, marriage is a long game for both the people in it and for society. And to outsmart love has been the dream of every man and woman since time began – a dream that usually (per most Indian romance epics) ends in failure. Mathur cautions against crediting so much wisdom to a whole generation, many of whom have been swept away by Romanticism, as de Botton claims.
“Not everyone understands that marriages need work,” she says.
So while some of India’s young couples may have made fools of love for now, de Botton’s post-Romantic vision may just be another fool of time.