The Venus Flytrap: Rising Divorce Rates Are A Good Thing

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As a child, I once got my hands on some kind of corporate diary, and flipped through its strange front matter curiously. It contained various facts and trivia – time zones, international calling codes, capital cities, and what I think of now as a slightly pedantic list of statistics. Including, strangely, divorce rates. India’s was 0%. I didn’t live in India then, and assumed that that actually meant that no one there ever got divorced. Now I know, of course, that it just meant that so very few did that they were anomalies. And that in less abstract terms, divorce was often brushed under the carpet even when it did happen – so that, quite possibly, even people who lived in India would have liked to think that 0% meant exactly that. No divorces, just happily ever after. Each and every time.

Not much has changed in over two decades, not in terms of the numbers. In 2017, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, an international forum established in 1961 that works in public policy) reported that India’s divorce rate stood at 1%, or 13 in 1,000 marriages. This statistic has just been reconfirmed, and come to public attention again, thanks to an infographic released by an Australian legal agency called Unified Lawyers which has been making the rounds. According to them, India has the lowest rate of divorce in the world.

This is very unfortunate. Just as a very high divorce rate (such as Luxembourg’s 87%) could be construed as unhealthy, an almost non-existent one shows that something is wrong. Are the vast majority of Indian marriages even mostly fulfilling ones? Let’s not lie to ourselves.

The truth is that an increased divorce rate would be meaningful evidence of the effect of social justice movements on ordinary households. It would mean, among other things: women staying in or returning to jobs, which let them live on a single income; people getting second chances at life when the horoscopes are perfectly matched but the couple themselves are incompatible; survivors being able to leave abusive situations with support and without stigma; and respect for individual freedoms. Especially where women’s empowerment issues are concerned, more divorces would actually imply success. Not failure.

For those of us who are surprised by the statistic, given how many divorced people we ourselves know, this is a moment to reflect on our privilege. We think divorce is not so terribly taboo anymore, but if so, why aren’t there more of them? We must be careful to not generalise based on what is true for our circles, or to presume to understand individual experience even then.

I don’t know anyone who found getting a divorce easy, or who wasn’t punished for it in some way after. So it’s also a moment to reflect on just how much it takes to terminate a marriage. Staying married in a system that’s designed to make you stay is no evidence of the strength of a marriage. But being willing to to leave the institution, see the divorce through, and go on – that’s strength. May it become easier for anyone who needs to make that decision.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 7th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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