Thursday, July 07, 2011

Monogamy, marriage, family and everything in between

I was reading Mark Oppenheimer's column in the New York Times today which also covers Dan Savage's views and all the comments accompanying it.

I do agree with the overall premise of the article - that absolute monogamy should not be the only standard imposed on all people. Everyone may want different things at different points in their lives but this has to be negotiated with their partner. I liked the overall emphasis on honesty and trust in relationships rather than a universal set of restrictions. After all, marriage as an institution is older than any religion.

What I disagree about is that couples should agree on relationships outside marriage just to keep their union intact for the sake of the children. In an ideal situation, where both partners are happy with each other and are perfectly monogamous, there is no question of really sacrificing that much for the sake of the children. However, if one partner wants out of the marriage due to any reasons and is forced to stay because of the kids, what kind of message does society send out about the institution itself? This is supposedly a win situation for the kids and a lose situation for either or both parents.
Is a perpetually unhappy family member an asset or liability to the family unit?
An institution that is supposed to nurture and protect suddenly becomes a sort of prison for one of the parties. How many people would feel enthusiastic about getting hitched? No wonder there are 'commitmentphobes'.
This is also a patently unfair situation condemning one or two people to many unhappy years. There are studies that even report that couples who worked on their marriage reportedly felt happier 5 years later. However, working it out has different connotations for different people. For example, would you continue to sleep with someone you don't really feel like or are not in love with anymore? Would you constantly battle against the urge to walk out for the prescribed greater good of your family? A lot of relationship advice columns and religious folks would say that this is the responsible thing to do and that to shirk it makes you a very selfish person and that this is the reason for the current breakdown of society.

Disclaimer: I have no experience dealing with such a situation and coming from a country where divorce was and still remains a taboo, I do not have much anecdotal evidence or statistics to support or refute any related arguments. These are, therefore, only my thoughts and the questions that pop up in my head when I read about such topics.

At the heart of this debate is the assumption that divorce means only instability, hostility and the constant absence of one parent from the child's life. What about those responsible parents who handle the divorce with as little hoopla as possible and make an effort to spend as much time with their kids as possible, even together at times? Except in cases of abuse, a divorce is almost always less desirable than parents staying together. However, it does not also have to be the miserable hole that it is sometimes made out to be.

In a society where divorce is the exception, children would probably get affected more as their family is perceived as not normal. However, in societies where divorce is more commonplace and even handled gracefully, it may have a lesser impact.
When it comes to statistics, one has to remember that certain issues such as happiness are not easily quantifiable.

The article also raised more questions about the role of religion in defining relationships and family. I wonder about tribal societies where women actually could have multiple partners and they could have raised their children without the biological father living with the family at all times. By creating laws that are in line with the Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, some social conventions that could have actually been beneficial in many cases, have disappeared.
In ancient societies, fathers often went off to war and were absent or killed, leaving mothers and the entire extended family to raise the children. The nuclear family with just the husband, wife and children was not the universal norm and is still not in several countries.

I do not know about the difference between children raised by separated but otherwise loving and supportive parents and the children raised by parents living together but I do believe that children need love and nurturing to flourish no matter what their living arrangements are.

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