Live-in relationships are still considered beyond the pale in India. But, in a country where parents sometimes even murder their children for marrying out of caste, many brave couples do live together without getting married. They face social opprobrium and many legal hurdles. Since I am on the verge of such a relationship, I thought it’s worth preparing a guide on what a couple intending to live together should be prepared for.
Despite live-ins having mushroomed in India for years, parents prefer to live in denial. Families cringe at the idea of live-ins because it hints at sex for pleasure instead of for procreation, which marriage implies. They see marriage as commitment while live-ins as abstinence from responsibility. Often it is assumed that in future the man would shirk and the blind-in-love woman who had been led into such an ignoble union shall cry her eyes out, for which other man shall accept her thereafter? This assertion of choice by a woman insults those who believe that the woman is to be given away through kanyadan—the gift of the virgin.
Getting even to the point where your parents may not be convinced by your stand but would respectfully and peacefully agree to disagree may be a long and arduous process requiring much patience. But some people find it worth the effort. “People in live-in relationships should definitely have the guts to talk about it without hesitation to their parents, friends, colleagues or anybody else,” said Anupama Kumari, a product manager in Bangalore soon to be married to her live-in partner.
Since such debates are held between logic and rationale versus rhetoric and emotional blackmail, they do not progress in a linear fashion and are immensely frustrating for both the parties. Be resilient.
“Just as it is their duty to protect us from the big bad world, it is the responsibility of the child to open up new worlds for the parents. Educate them about gender equality, about the freedom to act upon your convictions … In a way, equip them to answer back to the nagging society. But most importantly, show them that you are a responsible, strong and independent person,” said Paloma Dutta, an editor in a publishing house in Delhi and someone who has been in a live-in relationship for five years.
It took her half-a-decade, but she was eventually able to convince her mother to stop worrying and feel confident about her daughter’s choice and her ability to live with it.
Emotional and mental tugs-of-war apart, a live-in couple is confronted with their first pragmatic hiccup when they set out to find a house to live in. The first question a broker or a landlord would ask you is, “single or family?”
Most couples end up lying to the landlords. In posh areas, people may be more willing to accept you as live-in partners. But in my own experience of house-hunting when my partner moved to town, reservations existed in both expensive and more modest localities.
The same with hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations. Some hotel websites mention that they entertain “married couples only.” It is best to call in advance and say that you would be checking in with your partner so that you do not end up having an unpleasant argument at the last moment.
The benefit of staying honest about your live-in status is that nobody will get a chance to try to make you uncomfortable by probing or try to “report to parents.” From your own confidence in your conviction, your act would stagger their limited understanding of legitimacy.
In many other countries there has been a broader understanding of the idea of a couple and a family, which can be seen in their legal recognition of prenuptial agreements, cohabitation, civil union and domestic partnership. In India, the Domestic Violence Act 2005 included within its purview live-in relationships under which a woman having with a man “a relationship in the nature of marriage” can go to court if abused. Since this covers economic abuse, it affords women protection in case of a violation of their financial rights. The Supreme Court has stated that if a man and a woman ‘”lived like husband and wife” for a long period and had children, the judiciary would presume that the two were married.
In another case the court even declared, “living together is a right to life.”
The apex court has clarified that the children born of parents in a live-in relationship could not be called illegitimate. Lawyer-activist Pyoli Swatija points out that if a child is born of live-in partners, then, unlike within a marriage, the mother is the natural guardian of the child. However, it also means that the father is not obliged to fulfil any responsibility related to the child.
The Supreme Court held that a child born out of parents in a live-in may be allowed to inherit the property of the parents, if any, but doesn’t have any claim upon Hindu ancestral coparcenary property. Swatija, earlier in a live-in and now married, said that many live-in couples planning to have kids decide to marry to secure the legal rights of their children.
Recently an elderly couple in Kerala reluctantly married after forty years of living together. Having taken the ideological position that their relationship was not dependent on social sanction, they had to alter course when they felt that the legal rights of their family, including the grandchildren, were threatened.
Additionally, not everyone wants their children to face and be confused by people’s questions about their parents’ unconventional union.
A different argument is that if children are raised in a certain way and made to understand their parents’ choice they would actually contribute to making a more tolerant, open and equal society, which would ultimately make the world a better place for the child. Environment activist Manshi Asher working in rural Himachal Pradesh has a child with her live-in partner and has not considered marriage. “When we landed in the village with a baby in our arms, no one around really considered that we were not married. For the neighbourhood and local community we are a married couple. If people ask when we got married, we just mention the year we started living in together,” she said.
In having joint accounts, insurance and visas, and possibly in visitation rights to a hospital, it could be tough if the couple is not legally married. International chess player Anuradha Beniwal was peacefully living in with her partner with no objections from family. (She did face veiled disapproval from some mothers who stopped sending their daughters to her for chess tuitions.) But when her partner decided to take up a job offer in London and she too was willing to move, they got married in a rush to avoid visa troubles.
Live-ins are not a new phenomenon in India. Apart from it going on in hushed or open ways in cities, it has been the standard norm in many of our tribes, some of which believe that the contemporary marriage system brings with it “several impositions, especially on women.” In fact it was to secure the rights of tribal women in live-in relationships that the Madhya Pradesh State Women’s Commission had recommended that such unions be accorded legal status. That more and more people are opting for it due to their own respective reasons is attested by the fact that the internet has extended its matchmaking services to include finding live-in partners. In the year 2011, an NGO in Ahmedabad organized a first-of-its-kind event to help single senior citizens find companions. So clearly living together goes much beyond the simplistic notion of ”the rebellion of youth.”
Contrary to popular belief, live-ins are not devoid of work but confer much more responsibility upon both the partners since in many ways they are on their own. In such circumstances, it is best to apprise oneself of the socio-economic-legal aspects (like the guidelines for when the relationship would be seen as being in the nature of marriage to be covered under the 2005 Act), and go in prepared.