Deepika Roy and Shome Banerjee have been "decoupled" for the past two years. For the Delhi-based journalists, it does get a little difficult sometimes to present themselves as a couple in public. But most of their close friends are aware of their marital status. It may appear complicated to some, but not to them, especially why they chose this route over divorce—they have a five-year-old special-needs child. Deepika says, “My husband may not be the perfect partner to me, but he is a great father. Going for divorce, we thought, is not going to be a bright option, because it's going to be more traumatic for my child. Bringing her up single handed wouldn't be easy on me, and our daughter needs both of us and loves us dearly. So, we live in the same house, but lead separate lives."
Both Deepika and Shome have also come to an understanding over finances, because both of them are working and there is a lot of expenditure in bringing up a child. Deepika explains, “When I'm not at home, my husband takes care of our daughter. When he is not around, I take over. There are times we sit together as a family, but it is for the sake of our daughter. We have dinner together too. Not that I don't enjoy the so-called family time, but my husband and I don't share any emotional or physical connect. The only connection is our child."
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Effectively, decoupling is the dissolution of a marriage in the conventional sense, but with a twist. The couple agree to stay together under the same roof, sharing responsibilities, bringing up children and looking after mutually symbiotic business ventures.
What makes decoupling a catchy concept is the doing away of marriage with calm and understanding, in a manner that saves time, money, angst and litigations. Although it is still legally on soft ground, it can be as clinical as lawyers drawing divorce terms for dissolution and separation of assets, with everyone going home happy. It is what follows that piques the concern of puritans, social pundits, judiciary, and of course, the State. Socially and judicially, the West is already looking at and experimenting with decoupling. On the face of it, the concept seems like Aladdin’s lamp, but for the genie to do their owner’s bidding, there is an immense amount of social, psychological, economic and judicial thought that has to go into it.
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Mumbai-based advocate Mohit Bakshi says, “If one looks at it purely from the social perspective—coupled with India’s social acceptance of hypocrisy—I would say decoupling is urban India’s family secret. It has been around for a very long time, but no one wants to talk about it. All of us know plenty of people who have, in moments of introspection, confided in us that their marriages are over, but they continue to be in them for fear of upsetting the apple cart—their futures and that of their children, coupled with the ever-present fear of the unknown. So, decoupling has been part of Indian families for eons and will continue to be around till we stop looking at the institution of marriage as a stifling, one-way street and mandatory benchmark for social acceptance.”
Bakshi explains that while decoupling may seep into a marital relationship and drive two people apart over a period of time, a couple may choose to stay married and live under the same roof with utmost civility, bringing up their children, shouldering social responsibility and allowing each other to lead a parallel life they find agreeable.
A puritan may ask: Why the façade? A realist answer would be that a couple may arrive at and accept a state of decoupling (and the status quo that follows) for the greater good—their own futures and that of their children, social acceptance, fate of mutually-run business interests and of course the apprehension and insecurity of what the future might hold for them. Once the decision of a mutual ‘decoupling’ has been taken, a truce is called out and one proverbially ‘breaks bread’ with the enemy on a daily basis.
Photograph by Sudarshan Shetty
India is yet to acknowledge ‘decoupling’ as a socially acceptable end to a marriage. Bakshi says, “If I were to guess, I believe over 90 per cent of marriages in India are under immense strain, and perhaps hanging by a thread. The only reason why they persist is because, in a vast majority of these cases, the spouses have reached an unsaid, unspoken understanding of only ‘living’ with each other but not ‘being’ with each other. A condition we’re now starting to define as ‘decoupling’.”
Many marriage experts believe that a vast number of urban Indians, who have been married for over eight years or more, are in all probability living in an active state of ‘decoupling’. Strangely, a lot of them may not even be aware of this, because they define such a state in their marriages not as ‘decoupling’ but ‘understanding’. Robbed of reason and emotional connect, their marriages are mere residues, continued only to keep up the social façade and to shoulder responsibilities.
Dr Seema Hingorrany, a clinical psychologist from Mumbai, says the trend of decoupling is catching up fast, and that she has noticed it rising in the last 4-5 years. She says, “I get many cases of couples who don’t want to work on their marriages but decouple themselves without getting divorced. Decoupling totally depends on the dynamics of a relationship. IT depends on financial resources, joint property and taking care of children.”
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Meeta Singh and J.D. Singh have been married for two years. They don’t have kids and feel they are not mentally ready to go for a divorce, and deal with the paperwork. Says Meeta, “Financially, divorce would be a major stress on us both, because we have bought a property in Mumbai together and selling that, distributing the funds and going through the hassle of living alone is a pain. In Indian marital laws, there are no areas of grey. Either you are married till death does you apart, or you are not. So, a couple must choose to either continue bearing the heavy cross of a long-dead relationship and persist with their marriage, or approach the family courts.
Experts believe couples who have mutually agreed that their marriages are not working and who share a certain amount of mutual warmth, commonality, liking and ability to work through their differences, are most likely to choose the option of ‘mutual’ decoupling. They are able to do so because they realise that they are perhaps wonderful as individuals but not so as a married couple. Such couples choose civility and harmony over discord and mudslinging. In most cases, such couples do not come seeking judicial opinion, unless there is a business or estate involved; and there too, the transition of ownership is rather smooth. Alternatively, some families don’t even talk about it and the distance becomes the unsaid reason for decoupling, mostly benefitting one partner more than the other. Decoupling has a fine line between agreed separation and a choice-less separation. Sometimes, decoupling is accepted as a way of life rather than a friendly agreement.
Given India’s social circumstances, decoupling is seen purely in terms of material comforts—avoiding the strain or risk of litigation, or upsetting the social apple cart. But with couples still heavily invested in the institution of marriage—they choose chores like eating at the same table, bringing up children and attending family weddings together. From the perspective of the children, unless they face any imminent physical, mental or psychological danger from one or both parents, it is widely accepted that they must never be consciously placed in a situation where he/she has to choose between a good life and not being with one or both parents. That is not only cruel but an absolute infringement of the rights of a child. Sadly, judicial separations and child custody battles ordained by law look at the ‘interests’ of the children in terms of basics of life and movable or immovable assets, but are seldom able to qualify and quantify those ‘interests’ to include their mental, emotional, social and psychological well-being.
Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, says, “At most times, older children are already prepared to understand the dynamics of a relationship and have the capacity to accept the physical and legal separation of their parents better. But from the point of view of younger children, since they still don’t understand the dynamics and may not be emotionally capable of handling a separation, and would benefit from a team rather than a single parent, it [decoupling] may seem like a better arrangement if both partners mutually agree without grief, disrespect, pain or hostility.” Sometimes, divorce or legal separation can be a better option than decoupling. One has observed that after judicial separations and custody decrees, children tend to bounce back and take the change in status quo in their stride, and with time, learn to accept and see things pragmatically. Whereas, with decoupling, it is the play-acting, the façade of a happy marriage and a wholesome family life that bears down heavily on the hearts and minds of children.
There are many tough and perplexing questions, and in most times, neither parent wants to be the one to address them. For a child, it is tough to fathom why their seemingly in-love parents, who an hour ago were laughing and posing for pictures at their birthday party, suddenly become different people once the cameras stop clicking. For most couples, the concept of discreet decoupling may sound like the best option, but for their children, it could be a difficult cross to bear and may leave them with immense scarring in more ways than one.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Friends Without Benefits")