Suhail* and Priya* have been married for a little more than a year-and-a-half and one of their persisting arguments is about Suhail being too engrossed in his phone or laptop to register what she is saying. “I have accepted now that he’s the sort of person who will get very invested in what he’s doing. I still don’t like it,” she says. Suhail, however, confesses that he’s trying to work on it.
But the advent of technology is only one of the things that makes modern marriage harder. No longer do couples look for just love and companionship but a variety of other things like self-fulfillment too.
Dr Joseph George, a senior couples’ counsellor in Bengaluru with TalkItOver Counselling Services says that with the advent of technology and change in lifestyles (especially in the urban middle-class context), expectations from the partner have increased, but more than that, it’s their nature that has changed.
In both arranged and “self-arranged” marriages, as Dr Joseph calls them, people are increasingly looking to sustain individual freedom post-marriage as well. Women especially are becoming more vocal about their problems with the husband or his family, which the latter may not be used to, he observes.
Priya for instance, says that if there had to be a deal-breaker for her in a relationship, it would have to be a household where the woman is expected to stay in the kitchen all day.
Dr Joseph also points out how emotional attractiveness has also become a priority for people these days. Suhail is a case in point. “The most important thing for me is that my partner should be good at heart,” he believes.
Suhail and Priya dated for six years before getting married last January and say that not much has changed after marriage for them, except becoming financially more mature. And the reason is that their relationship is still rooted in friendship, explains Suhail.
The loss of friendship is one of the main problems married couples face today. Other issues include lack of emotional nurturing (where the couple stop positively affirming and appreciating each other) and sexual incompatibility.
But the three are closely interlinked. “Sometimes if a person feels an emotional distance from his/her partner, they may not be able to perform sexually or vice versa,” explains Dr Joseph. In this context, women are more open to admitting there’s a problem than men, he notes.
However, good communication does not necessarily have to mean talking every day. Ajith* and Yashika* for instance, say they do not see a point in making a fuss about not being able to speak to each other every day.
The couple are in their early thirties and were together for over a year before getting engaged about a week ago. “We don’t make a fuss about not having spoken 2-3 times in a day. When we have time, we will talk. At the end of the day, each of us have our separate lives and our own set of friends, though we often hang out together. We know we’re there for each other,” says Yashika.
Ajith reaffirms this. “I always wanted a partner who would work after marriage and shouldn’t wait on me all day. Maybe it just comes from our upbringing. Both of us are used to our independence,” he says. As for communication, Ajith says that both of them have been in relationships where they have wanted the other person to be around and talk all day. But they now realise that it’s not something worth fussing about.
The marital adjustment only begins after the “honeymoon period”, Dr Joseph says, when unrealistic expectations surface because the couple is not on the same page.
Rakesh* and Shweta*, who have been married for nine years, say they never had a ‘plan’ in place before tying the knot. The few expectations they had from each other were also never set in stone. "And they shouldn't be. You need to be able to adjust and go with the flow," says Shweta.
Over the years, the two settled into their respective roles at home – so much so, that their five-year-old son gets shocked when Shweta steps into the kitchen because he is so used to seeing his father cook.
Shweta says that she never wanted to have kids but about four years into the marriage, changed her mind. "I was never the 'traditional' wife who'd cook and wait on her husband and Rakesh never pressured me either. Then I decided to have a child because he had always wanted one," she says.
Rakesh has seen many of his friends getting divorced over issues like having kids and finances. One of his friends for instance, married a girl who had a posh lifestyle and liked to take expensive vacations. "For the first two years, he went along with it, but he couldn't do it after that. It took a toll on his pocket," he recalls.
"Unnecessary adjustments can only be made temporarily," argues Shweta.
Dr Joseph explains that many couples come to him complaining about how their partner or their family expects them to be in a certain way. He highlights the importance of being who you are and setting expectations from the very beginning. “Initially, you are putting yourself in the role which your partner wants to see you in,” he explains.
And then there are lifestyle problems which seem insignificant until you start living together. And women are no longer willing to clean up after their husbands quietly. Ajith and Yashika for instance have prepared themselves for arguments because Yashika is very organized and Ajith is not. But apart from that, the couple seems to have no other apprehensions. “Maybe you should ask me these questions a year from now when we start living together,” laughs Ajith.
So how can you have a successful 21st century marriage? Dr Joseph has four pointers. Maintaining a balance between individual needs and those of the relationship, making time to communicate without gadgets, differentiating between responding and reacting, and making an effort to understand why your partner is presenting a problem in a certain way.
“Often there is underlying angst beneath the way a person is reacting and presenting a certain issue. Understand that instead of reacting in a retaliatory manner,” he insists.
(*Names changed on request)