Some years back, we faced this question in a development course. Two of the discussants divided the question into two: Why Women marry? Why men marry? One of them kept the discussion to the basic issues and the other went in-depth into negotiation, survival needs and social and cultural options. Both peeked at the household economic models and theories like the ‘Black Box’, Neoclassical, and Bargaining/ Co-operative, etc. Both came to the same conclusion that women and men marry based on a personal perception of well-being. This perception, according to one of them, is a result of a negotiation between a woman/man’s survival needs and socio-cultural constructions of what ‘personal well-being’ means.
Taking Amartya Sen’s example of a rural Indian woman, who is not likely to extract her own welfare from that of her household and conceive of her own well-being as separate from that of her family’s, the discussant argued that the household, therefore, is the locus of inequality where discrimination and exploitation of women’s labour get naturalized. In other words, a woman from my part of the world is likely to marry based on what she considers to be her well-being but which may not necessarily be her well-being. Does this mean a North American or European woman is more likely to marry based on her sense of ‘personal well-being’, which is more individual centered and that she is more likely to be able to deconstruct the larger structures of inequality and thereby better placed to negotiate her position in the family? This is another debate and we shall come to it some other day. For today, so far, we have one reason which may make women and men inclined to get married. Let's look at some other reasons also.
The brokers of the सात फेरा, मंगलसुत्र, गठबंधन, सिंदूर, the wedding ring, et al or those who market the practice of marriage as ‘the holy state’ of matrimony tend to ascribe some sacredness and centrality of this practice for the institution called family. These brokers, in general, have a big say in the decision to marry, whether to be taken by the individual or the relatives, and/or the family. In some contexts, even when people have little more than a token affiliation with a religion, they tend to stick to the religious boundaries when it comes to marriage. This is not always based on a fear of reprimand or being ostracized. Rather it is based on deep seated belief in the advantages of segregation based on religious affiliation. This belief has a profound influence in the decision about who is fit to mate or is sacred enough to be a partner in personal and family life.
The brokers insist that all the matches for ‘this world’ are made in the ‘other world’ and that it is the duty of the follower to accept the person who the god selected for them. Marriage itself is regarded as a religious obligation by them. Among people who have an inclination to accept that they have a duty to marry, procreation has special value attached to it. Children are the gifts from the god or marriage and children come as a package gift from the god. In other words, religious brokers emphasize shared beliefs in religion, marriage and procreation as a foundation for the continuation of particular faiths, beliefs and way of conducting life. No wonder divorce is a taboo subject in the books of the brokers because ‘What God hath put together, let no man [or woman] put asunder’. But divorce is another [related] issue, not to be brought into today’s discussion [though an interesting one to understand how even when religion says yes to divorce, how religio-legalities disallow it].
The sociologists believe that marriage is a practice to establish a social order. Through marriage women and men are put together in a relationship of social and legal obligations to fulfill social and economic objectives. It is believed that marriage is a good way to put people’s mental and physical health, sex life, solid and liquid assets in an organized state. It is an institution that allows people to meet their sexual desires in a manner that doesn’t harm anybody [or so we like to believe]. It also helps bring together people with greater commitment and therefore provide a safer ground for procreation and responsible environment for bringing up children.
There is no doubt about the economic value of marriage [albeit disputed by some men]. Women have been free labour, partly thanks to the practice of marriage [remember, the complimentarity argument]. The many justifications for marriage advanced through centuries have one angle which has to do with ‘value’-based labour which leads to communal and family wellbeing and another angle of ‘income-based’ labour which brings income to the community and the family. The history of these arguments have subordinated the ‘value’-based labour and elevated the ‘income-based’ labour. The economic argument in an age when the ‘income-based labour has been making more sense to more and more number of women and there is considerable increase in educational and political equality, seems to be fading away. We will come back to this point a little later.
Then there is the whole economy of marriage where the marriage is seen as a contract. This particular reason for marriage does not quite stand on its own. Rather it stands as a dimension in all the above arguments and will remain, in my opinion, a factor in any other current or future reasons for marriage. A marriage contract can be visible or invisible; stated or assumed; or legal or social. For centuries, marriage has involved contracts like the dowry that a bride’s family gives to the groom’s family, the bride price that a groom’s family gives to the bride’s family [they are not to be confused as the same because the theories behind are completely different], exchange of women through marriage for settling disputes between families, giving a daughter or a sister in marriage for settling a debt or to earn goodwill and so on. These practices may sound like buying, selling, discounting and writing off or collateral and the kind that takes place in a market place. Indeed, these practices are exactly that. These contracts also create a lot of employment for people willing to serve as brokers [who are often clan members, church leaders, mullahs, priests, village or community elders, and the like].
In a secular legal context, the terms and conditions of a marriage contract may not have so much of economic angle but does have implications for how responsibilities will be attended and by whom. It is also a way to safeguard the rights of the contracting parties by registration and legitimizing by the state.
In many societies since history began and in the larger visible societies in the last century or so, there have been some departures from the above-mentioned reasons. Marriage here is seen as a relationship between individuals for mutual comfort and assistance and so the personal compatibility issues are as important as procreative and contract aspects of the practice. Now with the lessening of the some other dimensions of the marriage, the centrality of this practice to a family and communal life of an individual has also weakened. Alternatives to marriage are growing as a practice and marriage is increasingly being viewed as essentially an additionality that strengthens the emotional bonding and trust because of some level of social and contractual security that it brings with it.
The alternatives to marriage tend to require a lot of other things but often less commitments of social and contractual/legal nature. This is one of the reasons why some men are a game for the alternatives because they get comforts of a relationship without being responsible for it. Some of them, on the other hand, resent the women’s preference for the alternatives because they stand to lose out on the ‘value’-based labour or the fact that a woman is not willing to commit makes them feel insecure. But alternatives to marriage do not necessarily make the relationships any more egalitarian. Individuals, due to these two factors among several other possible reasons, find themselves participating in inequitable relationships, which leads to both emotional stress and stress in the relationship. The more inequitable the relationship, the more stress they face. So in a nutshell, if not the reasons related to community and family, marital-economics or contracts, the individual needs of emotional security and commitment bring the focus back on marriage in the alternatives to marriage because it is seen as a demonstration of those two qualities. But even without marriage, any real or perceived emotional or material inequity in the relationship has an effect on intimacy and continuation of the relationship. But breakup is not something that we will discuss today!