Shacking up in informal union

Shacking up in informal union

India appears to be making a great social shift - the gradual acceptance of hitherto forbidden relationships. When the Supreme Court sought to spell out that there was nothing immoral about live-in relationships, it did not say anything new or revolutionary. It was a recognition of a social practice that has long been in the shadows and sidelines of a strictly structured family system; and it has for far too long been labeled taboo, immoral, even promiscuous.

‘Bibis’ to white men
But there is abundant historical and contemporary literature that show that 19th century Indian women in territories that were part of the Bengal, Madras and Bombay presidencies cohabited as "bibis" with white men. Their consensual union invited social revile, branded as outcastes, called names, described as women of easy virtue and loose morals and denied the property they were entitled to inherit.
Is cohabitation living in sin? From a largely Indian social perspective, the union of two individuals of opposite genders is considered extremely objectionable and highly immoral prior to marriage. Therefore, taking note of variation across space is important while viewing the issue of living in informal union since it is not just normative but also subjective. What might be immoral for some might not be for others.

What is, however, undeniable is that cohabiting or living-in, without the formal norms and bindings of marriage, is becoming more and more trendy in India, especially in large megacities where the larger social bonds are loose and fluid. Among some, marriage and family are now being seen as institutions preserving a society which need serious alteration. To many, unmarried cohabitation seems to be an alternative to the outlived institution of marriage. Whatever maybe the outcome of cohabitation, successful or otherwise, that leads to marriage or not, a live-in relationship’s moral call is important.
The practice has barely picked up in India, so more data is required to study informal unions and the “winnowing hypothesis” that goes with it, positing a unilinear transition from dating to cohabiting to marital union. Cohabitation as a concept becomes an extremely complex analytical tool to comprehend its many elements - moral, emotional, economic, social and sexual.

But in the wake of increasingly turbulent family patterns, several perspectives now compete to explain why some unmarried couples remain together and others do not. In India, it is often mistaken to be predictated on sex and sometimes equated with the so-called "ills" of extra-marital relationships. The irony is that even those who cohabit are uncomfortable with self-exposure lest their parents, relatives, colleagues or even landlords get to know.

Marital compatibility test
Like any other social relationship like marriage, cohabitation too suffers from splits for a variety of reasons. Cohabitors tend to embrace individualism as well as ideals of personal autonomy and equity in each partner’s contribution to the relationship and the household. But cohabitation’s positive impact is greater since it promotes “premarital adaptive socialisation”, a process in which partners test for marital compatibility and strengthen their emotional bonds to each other. The partners are better able to perceive themselves as well-adjusted and view the relationship as a positive learning experience.

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