A montage of second chances

With the pandemic adding its own flavour to the growing acceptability and ease of both divorce and remarriage in urban India, we explore what it takes to hold this big blended family together.
Last Updated 20 March 2021, 20:15 IST

At the US presidential inauguration ceremony, Vice President Kamala Harris cut a striking picture. This was a momentous occasion. Kamala was not just the first female VP, but also the first woman of colour to have held this post. But that is not the only reason why she stood out. In a contemporary departure from old norms, Kamala was surrounded by her big blended family. It included her spouse Doug Emhoff, his ex-wife Kirsten and their kids.

This is your modern-day version of extended families. The new-age narrative, where often couples who have remarried, continue to maintain ties with their exes as there are children involved. And in this scenario, the partner, who may or may not have children of her/his own, also learns to embrace the nascent family equation.

“This may vary depending on various factors like personal preferences, socio-economic status and other cultural factors in play. It is very likely that the social context of the individuals involved may explicitly prohibit such coalitions. In the Indian context, where ‘honour’ of the family is at stake in most cases of divorce, this may seem utopian. It may be noted that often the first marriage is a grand celebration in the family, while the second marriage is a much quieter affair. This could be an indication of our society’s inherent idea that divorces are a ‘failure’ of the individuals in ‘figuring their differences out’ and that a failure should not be celebrated,” points out clinical psychologist, Chandni Vijay.

Blended families

With divorces and remarriages becoming quite common these days, big-blended like what you see in the case of the famous Kardashian siblings or desi Bollywood stars like Aamir Khan or Saif Ali Khan, are here to stay. “A blended family makes it sound like a strawberry smoothie. In reality, it is a spicy khichdi. You deal with it one mouthful at a time. And pray you don’t suffer from permanent indigestion,” quips celebrity author Shobhaa De, in her characteristic tongue-in-cheek style.

Yogic guide and clinical hypnotherapist, Samita Rathore asserts that financial independence amongst women has led to the increase of remarriages in urban India. “What is important to note here is that remarriage is merely an effect of the cause. The cause being that women are becoming more and more economically independent and therefore are able to take decisions about their personal life choices. Socially, remarriages are becoming more acceptable in urban India as people are becoming open minded in their thought processes and expressions in these sectors. Though we still have to comprehend that this is a small fraternity and covers a pretty miniscule percentage of the population in India, nonetheless the trend of remarriages in India is gaining momentum.”

Men remarry first

Divorce is no longer the dreaded D word. According to the 2011 census, there are respectively 1.5 million and 3.2 million divorced or separated men and women in India. In a comparative analysis, there are more separated or divorced women as the rates of remarriage are higher among men in India.

“The gender gap is even more striking and tells a story about India’s gender biases and how patriarchy operates. This essentially means that either women are choosing to stay divorced or are not finding partners for remarriage, unlike men,” reveals Lalhriatpuii Fanai, PhD Research Scholar in Clinical Psychology.

Kalavati P, Assistant Professor and HOD, Sociology, Mount Carmel College, cites evidence from the recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS) report to confirm Fanai’s viewpoint. “Studies reveal that men have better chances for remarriage than women. Remarriages are higher amongst widowers than widows. Socio-economic status is the major determinant in remarriages. Women coming from nuclear families have more liberal choices to make in comparison to joint and extended families for remarriages. Attitudes towards remarriage has definitely changed amongst the urban, educated, middle- and upper-class population,” she adds.

Interestingly, as per research, the national statistic reveals that men get remarried approximately four times more than women. Consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist Mallika Patri reveals that, “Younger, urban, financially and socially well-to-do men and women find it easier to remarry. Rural women have the lowest remarriage rates.”

Dating app culture

While there is no clear-cut information available with regards to the success of these modern apps, Samita opines that dating websites work in the Indian scenario. “Most definitely yes in these times. The pandemic has also been a catalyst in having people explore relationships online through various mediums and not just dating and marriage apps. It is pretty common and the number of people using it is increasing rapidly,” she adds.

Concurring with her opinion, Mallika highlights the fact that online sites and apps have the highest success rate in bringing people together in a country like India. “The number of people using apps to look for partners has definitely gone up — apps provide a sense of greater autonomy, flexibility in sharing information and easy process, thus making it easier for people to connect. Targeted websites create a sense of kinship. ‘I’m not the only one in this situation.’ Societal equating of divorce with personal failure is somewhat abated and a sense of healing and hope helps clear the path for a new partnership,” she adds.

Road to remarriage

Attitudes have certainly evolved towards remarriages more now than ever. If we analyse the situation from a psychosocial standpoint, the factors and permutations that make it easier for people to want to remarry are manifold. “The overall physical and mental wellbeing of the individual prior to their previous marriage and their current well-being is important. This, coupled with their attitude towards remarriage versus remaining single. The desire to have children and the need for committed companionship, could also be a prime reason. The success of the new marriage is also largely dependent on this,” asserts Mallika.

Celebrity author and columnist Shobhaa De, who got remarried in the 80s, concedes that “given how dramatically divorce rates have gone up during the past decade, remarriage is no longer seen as ‘freaky’. There is more across-the-board acceptance — but deep down, attitudes remain frozen,” she adds. Shobhaa admits to being subjected to intense scrutiny (prior to her remarriage), despite being successful.

“The scenario for women who break any mould — not just marriage — is never easy. It was tough then, and it remains tough now. It’s a question of how much weight you grant to social opinion. These are not decisions anyone takes lightly. But yes, taboos and prejudice, both exist and can make the decision that much harder to take. Current reality is far more supportive, but I am not sure if the ‘support’ is superficial. In a patriarchal society, the lives of free-thinking women are always ‘suspect’ — and they are forced to live with intense scrutiny and suspicion. My life was analysed endlessly! My decision was brutally criticised and gossiped about in the media. Easy? No chance!” she confesses.

While India has evolved considerably in terms of social acceptance towards divorce and remarriage, we still have a long way to go. “The change has not reached all corners, literally and figuratively, of the country. The stigma that the society brands a remarriage with and the unhelpful beliefs/expectations of the individual about themselves and partners that may stem from the meaning of having a failed marriage in an inherent patriarchal society like India, can be pitfalls in remarriages,” adds Chandni.

A bit of number crunching

Divorce and separation rates vary widely across states and region. In metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, the rate of divorce is more than 30 per cent (Kumar, 2015). Although India has no central registry of divorce data, family court officials say the number of divorce applications has doubled and even tripled in cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Kolkata and Lucknow since the past 10 years (Dutt, 2015). Additionally, there are some states such as Kerala with higher rates of divorce compared to others.

Northern states like UP, Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan, which are known to be deeply
patriarchal, have much lower divorce and separation rates. The number of people separated
is almost thrice the number of people divorced — 0.61 per cent of the married population and 0.29 per cent of the total population.

Divorce rates in NE states are relatively higher than elsewhere in India: Mizoram has the
highest divorce rate (4.08 per cent), more than four times of Nagaland, the state with the second highest rate (0.88 per cent).

Gujarat reports the maximum number of divorce cases among bigger states — with a population of more than 10 million — followed by Assam, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and
Jammu and Kashmir. Meghalaya has the greatest number of cases of separation, followed by Mizoram, Sikkim, Kerala, and Chhattisgarh.

(Inputs by Chandni and Lalhriatpuii)

The physical anatomy of a divorce

Divorce can bring up a range of emotions, such as anger, shame, sadness, relief and guilt about feeling relief. Once the legal/practical aspects of a divorce are done, there may be an understandable impulse to avoid revisiting the emotions associated with it. However, working through the emotions can be immensely helpful. It can help the person find closure, understand their patterns in relationships, stay attuned to their emotional needs and
therefore, have healthier relationships in the future. For example, understanding the role we
played in a failed marriage can feel empowering, knowing we can do things differently the
second time.

On the other hand, leaving these emotions unaddressed can mean walking into a second marriage with some anxieties from the first. Sometimes, we may even carry shame or guilt that we are unaware of. Therefore, reflecting on the experience of divorce, whether through
journaling, with a trusted person, in therapy or through support groups, can be helpful. Another important part of working through a divorce is mourning all the losses that come
with it. Not just the loss of the relationship, but also of what could have been, of a part of
one’s identity, of extended family, among others.

(Inputs by Ashwini V, a clinical psychologist)

(Published 20 March 2021, 19:41 IST)

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