The marital relationship differs from all others in two ways: (1) Sex and procreation, and (2) Expectations. Most people enter into wedlock with full commitment, to acquire a ‘life partner’. Unfortunately many of us receive no training, guidance or exposure on how to deal with this relationship that is expected to last a lifetime. Some of us do learn ‘on-the-job’, adapting, negotiating, learning and strengthening the bond. Some others continue to have high expectations which may not be met by the partner, and hence start feeling disappointed.
Many issues and differences in the initial stage of marriage can be resolved if there is open communication, mutual respect, and a desire to work as a team towards the goal of having a happy family. But this is possible only if: Both partners become aware that there are issues that may seem trivial right now but could grow if not looked into, and secondly if they have a genuine desire to resolve each issue without playing a blame-game. In my experience this does not happen with some couples. Either one or both do not understand the significance of the preventive and preservative aspects of nurturing a life-long relationship.
Issues that crop up and become serious as the years go past, vary from couple to couple. What is a serious issue to one person may be quite negligible to another. But differences can be resolved if arguments are ‘issue-based’ and do not degenerate into personal attacks. If one partner finds certain problems very serious and intolerable, the relationship deteriorates into one of the two outcomes: (1) they give up trying to improve the relationship and continue to live as strangers under one roof, primarily due to children, financial necessity, convenience etc. (2) they separate and the family breaks up. In India vast majority of the couples prefer the first option.
Among serious problems one of the most challenging is when one partner seems to have a relationship outside the marriage. Very few people can tolerate a spouse who seems to be involved with a third person – the “pati, patni or voh” syndrome. While this has been a major threat to marital harmony over the generations, even centuries, times and circumstances have changed to bring in new angles to it.
Monogamy has become the rule since 1956 when laws were enacted by the government and society also started expecting it. Hence extra-marital relationships have been pushed underground and perforce have to be indulged in clandestinely, with serious consequences if caught. But whether legal and social enforcement has resulted in greater monogamy is a matter of conjecture. My concern is about the emotional aspects of a person being faced with the awareness that the spouse has got involved with a third person. It can be quite devastating to most middle-class traditional adults who had committed themselves to lifelong fidelity and were expecting the same from the spouse. What goes through the minds of such people, and how they can deal with it is what I am presenting here.
Extra-marital relationships can be in any of the following forms:
- Visiting commercial sex worker
- Having a ‘one-night stand’ where a person indulges in sex unexpectedly with a known or unknown person after being sucked into a thrill of the unknown
- Person looking for sex from another person due to dissatisfaction with the spouse’s unwillingness, attractiveness, bad temperament, inability to satisfy physically
- Frivolous people who acquire the ‘MBA’ tag i.e. ‘Married But Available’, willing to indulge in casual sex whenever they get the opportunity
- Person who develops a deep emotional attachment to someone of the opposite gender, and the friendship slowly develops into a sexual one.
- Person indulging in sex with someone seeking financial gain, career advancement, or at times even under emotional blackmail.
- Open marriage where both spouses agree to have their flings and maintain the semblance of family for respectability and children.
Due to greater and closer interaction between the sexes, at workplace, in society, in parties, etc. there is another type of man-woman relationship that has grown significantly in this generation i.e. a man and woman getting very close emotionally, sharing most intimate conversation and thoughts that they do not share with their spouse, caring deeply for each other – but NOT indulging in sexual activity. This is a very difficult and challenging situation, because the person concerned may self-righteously declare to the spouse that it is not an “affair” and hence there is nothing wrong with it.
On the other hand the ‘victim’ partner may get very disturbed because it is a blow on the capability of the self to maintain an emotional connect with the spouse who is now interacting so closely with another person of the opposite gender. The question that arises is, is the person being disloyal to the spouse, can it be deemed to be an act of infidelity?
Often the dividing line seems to be Sex. Any sexual contact with someone other than the spouse is deemed to be a transgression, and if there is no sexual involvement people tend to give a clean chit – and the concerned spouse also takes a moral high ground protesting that “we are just friends.” But in reality it is not as simple as that.
Marriage is a commitment between two people to share not only their bed, but also their emotions, passion, secrets, desires, frustrations and ambitions. There is a certain sanctity to the relationship which is exclusive and where there is ideally a lot of co-dependency. A person who discusses very personal issues even with a mother, sibling or best friend is arguably crossing the Laxman-rekha of the intimate partnership of marriage. And if it happens with an unrelated person of the opposite gender, there is always an element of transgressing on what should be shared only with the spouse to the third person. There could also be an underlying erotic wave in a ‘platonic’ relationship, which can lead to further intimacy without warning.
Agreed that not everyone can have a harmonious relationship with the spouse that all deep issues can be shared freely. But if there is a dissatisfaction, leading to a desire to seek emotional outlets outside, it is best done with a close relative, a trusted friend of the same gender, a counselor, or a guru/ mentor. When a person chooses a person of the opposite gender, there is always a tenderness, a warmth and an emotional intimacy that is treading on dangerous ground. It can destroy or create cracks in a marriage (or in two marriages), it can lead to a lot of heart-burn and jealousy, and it can create a distancing between the married couple. The person indulging in such a ‘friendship’ needs to be aware of the price that may have to be paid.
If there is any secrecy involved in the interactions, if the friendship seems to become “exclusive” to all other friends, if there is communication at odd times of the day (at times even at the cost of family time), if there is even a hint of talking on issues that are primarily confidential and intimate, then such a ‘platonic’ relationship is causing harm to all the parties concerned.
If the other spouse expresses displeasure and unhappiness on this ‘friendship’ one has to realize that the commitment to a life partner is far more important, and it is not worth being obstinate and continuing – under the excuse that it is not an ‘affair’. Hurting one’s spouse emotionally is also a form of infidelity. If the person is giving the excuse that anyway the marriage is not going smoothly, then there is a need to first review, introspect and resolve issues within the marriage. Introspect what is wrong with the marriage and whether the communication, respect and trust can be strengthened, taking into account that the marital relationship lasts many decades and many phases of life.
Only if an extreme decision has been taken to end the marriage, then other friendships etc. can come into the picture. Just rejecting the feelings of the hurt spouse and putting labels such as “you have a very suspicious mind”, “you are reading meanings into an innocent relationship” is a bad defence. A person who persists on having such relationships with someone of the opposite gender in fact is a very insecure person, unsure of the self, perhaps lonely or with low self-esteem, trying to mask it with a relationship where a third person gives a boost – but at best it acts as an intoxicant. And every intoxicating experience ends up with a bad hangover.
Dr. Ali Khwaja