A couple of generations ago the idea of a live-in relationship was practically unheard of. Today the institution of marriage is still fundamental to the very fabric of society -- holding together families, tradition and marking one of the most important moments in people’s lives -- but increasing numbers are choosing to live together without getting married. So much so, even the law now has a view on the matter. TOI-Crest explores
It drives me absolutely mad when Joe leaves his clothes lying on the floor!" Rebecca complains of her boyfriend of one year. "He also tends to have mood swings when he's very tired," she grumbles. Joe and Rebecca, 25, have been living together for the last six months. This period has given them a chance to find out each other's foibles before they decide whether to marry and commit to each other for life. "Living together for a bit is a great chance to test the water," says Rebecca. "Joe may have a few bad habits but I now know I can live with them. At least there'll be no surprises after we're married."
The live-in dream
Increasing numbers of couples around India are opting for the benefits of a live-in relationship over marriage. In some respects, living together offers couples the perfect relationship. It allows all the benefits of marriage - without the hassle of commitment. If things turn sour, either partner can always just walk away. Couples have the chance to get to know each other without the pressures of family, the law and formality getting in the way.
Relationship consultant Rachna Kothari explains: "A live-in relationship is like a trial marriage. It gives the couple a good graph on their compatibility. It's like a dream relationship, with no strings attached. If you need to end the live-in, you just walk out. Whereas if you need to end your marriage, the divorce procedure is long and hassling." Such are the benefits of living-in that some couples do not feel the need to switch to marriage at all.
Meena Shah, 63, and Dinubhai, 73, have been together for 25 years. They find being unwed a happy alternative to marriage and see no need to tie the knot. "Rather than fight and get a divorce, I knew it was better to live together and part ways if things soured," says Meena. "If a marriage does not work, it does not work. Law can force people to live together but happiness cannot be enforced."
Trouble in paradise
Live-ins may offer freedom and equality, but there is a gloomier side to choosing a relationship out of the boundaries of law and social conformity. What if things go wrong? Will the law offer any protection to either party? If a partner in a live-in decides to walk out, could the other be left homeless? Will children born into a live-in be recognised by the law? The answers to these questions seem to be changing on a regular basis.
Despite couples like Meena and Dinubhai, the concept of live-in relationships is still relatively new in India, and the courts are still deciding how to treat them. The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act - which acknowledges live-in relationships - was first introduced in 2005. It gives protection to the woman in case of the breakdown of a livein relationship.
Last week, the Delhi High Court ruled that there are no legal binds in a live-in relationship. Justice SN Dhingra described them as "walk in and walk out relationships" where there are "no strings attached". A few days later, the Supreme Court overruled this decision, stating that live-ins can be presumed as marriage if they are continued for a long time. With the courts interpreting differently, it can be hard for people in live-in relationships to understand what their rights are. So where do they stand at the moment? Gyanendra Misra, a practicing lawyer in Delhi High Court, explains that the law is very fluid on the issue of live-ins and there is no clarity on the issue of a child that is born out of such a relationship.
"Courts tend to take a different stand on this situation from time to time. A baby born to a couple who are not married is called a love-child. Such children are treated as illegitimate, and denied any legal rights from the father's side," says Misra, adding, that it's time for the law to give clarity on the status of these relationships. "With change in social fabric, the legislature should codify the law to remove all ambiguity, " he says. But with the different judgements coming out of various courts, Misra feels that this sort of ad-hoc approach is creating confusion and causing harm to the legal fabric rather than sorting out the issue. From a rights perspective, choosing live-in over marriage is a risky business. Should things go wrong, it is unclear whether children from the relationship will have any inheritance rights or whether either party will have any legal protection. For some, this is simply not the point.
For Murali and Jennifer, advertising professionals in Chennai, the latest court rulings won't make a blind bit of difference to their relationship of three years. "It is we who have decided to live together. We are both mature individuals and no court can come in between us on our decisions," says Jennifer. Some couples would be happier if the law kept its nose out of their relationship! "The point of living-in is to escape the legalities that have epitomised an institution like marriage," explains Nancy, who has been living with her partner Saawan for the past three years. She believes opting for a live-in relationship depends on the individual and people who go in for such a relationship are not really concerned about whether it gets legal sanction or not.
A safer alternative
Most people, however, decide not to take the risk. When weighing up the freedoms of a live-in relationship against the security of marriage, for most, tying the knot comes out on top. One such couple is Anamika and Rahul (names changed) from Kolkata. They toyed with the idea of living-in, but decided it was too risky. They have now been wed for two years. "Marriage is more secure," Anamika explains. "Also, I think people try harder to keep a relationship going when they are married instead of flippantly walking out." Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Varkha Chulani agrees that couples will put in more effort to save a marriage than a live-in relationship. "Divorce still has many more social ramifications than the ending of a live-in, so marriage weighs couples down more. They think twice before separating and work harder at staying together."
Make your own rules
Of course, when considering something as personal as relationships, there can be no hard and fast rule. Ultimately it is impossible to generalise. As Kothari puts it: "It depends how devoted or committed the couple is, because that will determine the levels of trust and commitment. If an individual is fully into his partner, then the label of their relationship will not affect him."
Gay not happy
Some people are not at liberty to choose marriage over living-in. Although homosexuality among consenting adults cannot be treated as a crime in India, gay couples do not have the right to marry. This means their relationships do not have the protection that the law offers to heterosexual couples. "I don't know how I will be able to pick up life's threads now," broods Abhijeet Mukherjee (name changed). "My life depended on keeping house for Charles and creating recipes in my free time. Now there is just this unending feeling of emptiness." After nine years of living together at Charles' home, Charles told Abhijeet their interests were no longer alike. For Abhijeet, the option of marriage had not been available at all.
What lies ahead
Who knows what the experience of Charles and Abhijeet would be if they had been born a couple of decades later. Perhaps, in the future, couples like Charles and Abhijeet will be allowed to marry. Or, maybe the law will give the same standing to live-ins and marriage, reducing the incentive for people to wed and thus changing the very fabric of society.
However, the concept of marriage is so intrinsic to Indian society that any changes are likely to take a long time.
According to matrimonial lawyer Mrinali Deshmukh, societal views and the law evolve together. "As society has become more accepting of live-in relationships the law has changed to recognise them, and as the law acknowledges live-in relationships, so do society's attitudes start to adapt." However, attitudes vary so much around India from state to state, family to family, person to person, that Deshmukh's rule is not infallible. The law may change to accept live-in relationships, but some families never will.
Supratim and Ananya (names changed)), for example, are having a hard time convincing their parents to allow them to live together, Supreme Court acceptance or not. They have been dating for the past three years and their parents have been pressuring them to marry. "We are not very keen on marriage right now," says Supratim. "Perhaps we may ask our parents to find out more about the Supreme Court ruling so that we can start living under the same roof!"
The law on live-in relationships around the world
No matter how long the relationship, unmarried couples do not have the same legal standing as those who are married
Both parents are financially responsible for their children regardless of whether they are married, co-habiting or separated
Partners in live-in relationships do not generally have inheritance rights over each other's property, unless they have been named in a will. This, however, can be contested.
Live-in couples are not legally obliged to support each other financially, even if they are sharing a home or raising a family together. Unlike married couples they are not entitled to receive maintenance payments from their partner, even if they have lived together for a number of years or given up their career to look after the home and children
There is no legal procedure required in China to end a live-in relationship
Under Chinese law children born out of wedlock have equal rights to those born to parents who are married
Contracts can be made between couples in a live-in relationship
Partners in a live-in relationship do not have the right to inherit each other's property, as is the case for married couples. However, property can be willed to each other
In the USA, the proportion of births outside of marriage has risen to almost 40%, according to recent federal data cited by USA Today Couples can agree to a Cohabitation Agreement, which outlines their financial responsibilities towards each other as well as remedies for a split
Some states have common-law marriage laws. These refer to legal marriage by default due to an unmarried couple's actions. These normally involve living together for more than a year and presenting themselves to the outside world as husband and wife
(Inputs from Radha Sharma and Ashleshaa Khurana in Ahmedabad, Swati Sengupta in Kolkata, Daniel P George in Chennai, Jayashree Nandi in Bangalore and Shikha Mishra in Delhi)