Live-in relationships, a popular name for cohabitation, is just another adaptation to the contemporary times. The transformation of a woman’s role from just a caregiving one as a wife and a mother, to an instrumental one managing jobs and companies, has made her financially independent and conscious of sexual autonomy and reproductive rights. She has the freedom to make choices that reduce the risk of an unhappy marriage. Modern sexual ethics is changing with a focus on consent rather than on marital status. The age of puberty has dropped and pre-marital sex, even though perceived immoral as of now as per societal standards, has legal sanction. With economic development, people are entering into marriages and subsequently childbirth at a much later age. The control of religion over personal choices is also reducing, propelling the society into a much more egalitarian phase.
In the United States, 2/3rd of married couples admit that they lived together before marriage. In Latin America, a stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church, more than 50% children are not born out of wedlock. In places like Quebec, these children aren’t illegitimate, and one has claim over the property of deceased live-in partner. In the Philippines, around 20% couples cohabitate mostly due to poverty.
We might feel a certain unease in reading about these changes and accepting them. This feeling is natural as there is a certain cognitive dissonance – a disparity between our held beliefs that we cherish and a logical counter argument questioning them. You are not alone, the world elsewhere went through this process too. Why should then we be left behind?
Raja Rammohun Roy was able to bring out a revolutionary legislation banning Sati in 1829. This was because he understood very well that continuity and change characterize the Indian society. The resistance to any reform will be lesser if the same can be validated through ancient texts.
Though not very vividly, but some hint of similarity with cohabitation is found in Gandharva marriage. This is one of the eight classical forms of Hindu marriage illustrated in the Apastamba Grhyasutra. In this form, the girl selects her own husband. They meet each other of their own accord, consensually agree to live together, and copulation born of passion consummates their relationship. It doesn’t require the consent of parents or any ritual. The eternal love of Dushyanta and Shakuntala is an example of this tradition. Some say that Gandharva marriage is akin to love marriage but the absence of rituals in the former and presence in latter doesn’t substantiate it. The institution saw a decline with increase in family wealth that gave greater parental control over their children’s choices, the power of Brahmins that had wedding rituals as a major source of their income and the rise of child marriages owing to wars/conquests that targeted young girls as slaves.
Cohabitation is often seen as a recourse for those who fear commitment. How far this is true needs some thought. Live-in partners put a great deal of thought before moving in together. For most, it is a natural step in the dating process that gives them the opportunity to test their compatibility before binding it into a life-long commitment called marriage. The increasing trend of divorces being filed within a year of marriage even after dating proves that it is a completely different deal to stay with each other under the same roof. Getting up with a bad breath, hygiene habits that are poles apart, negotiating over responsibilities of the household, carrying a bad performance review into your home are things that live in partners deal with daily just like their married friends. So the picture of cohabitating couples evading commitment to have unlimited fornication is misplaced.
So do live-in couples wish to get married or continue cohabitation? This is, in fact, a matter of personal choice which doesn’t necessarily threaten the institution of marriage. If marriage is considered by them to be the ultimate form of commitment, live-in will automatically lead to it. The process of divorce in India is tedious and painful. Not only does it impact you financially but the stigma attached to it makes emotional recovery difficult. These oft-quoted failures of marriage may either lead to people questioning the institution in itself or being more careful in choosing their partners. In both cases, one may opt for a live-in, but statistically, the latter leads to less separation.
As we age, we consider time to be finite and hence the respect for positive traits in a marriage often outnumber the negative ones. Statistics prove that beyond certain years of cohabitation, marriage is a better option, in terms of mental and physical health, than continuing to cohabitate. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule too.
What about the rights of live-in partners? This can be tricky. The whole point of entering into such an arrangement is that it gives you the liberty to walk out of it without getting entangled in any legal obligations that come with marriage. However, the duration of a live-in, promise of marriage, jointly owned property, children born out of it, any form of violence or abuse can potentially lead to a demand for enforceable rights. As per the Domestic Violence Act 2005 and some Supreme Court judgements, live-in partners have certain legal remedies similar to married couples. This, however, should happen on a case-to-case basis rather than declaring all live-ins to be equivalent to marriage. Entering into a cohabitation agreement specifying the legal expectations can also be evaluated as an option for couples.
Those who work in metros or Tier I cities do understand the harassing cost of real estate and the time spent in commute. Which do you think is more practical? Traveling miles to meet your beloved in the same city and ending up paying for two apartments even if time is spent in one or living under the same roof posing as a married couple? Not only young ones, but old ones also have a life too and a need to connect. Those who have lost their partners and have been alienated by their children are increasingly opting to live-in to share those very last years with love and care. Isn’t this a practical solution to social security? A happy and everlasting union of two souls is the objective, the path taken immaterial. At the end of the day, how you see a phenomenon is what defines it. There’s a demand for change whenever something, somewhere isn’t perfect. If you desire perfection in what you cherish, allow and accept the change. You may be very pleasantly surprised by the results.