I read this quote in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed – A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage’.
She talks about this in connection with the Hmong(a tribe in Vietnam)’s view towards marriage. She talks about societies where people matter based on their ‘role’ rather than for what they are. As in, based on their contribution to society, rather than as an individual. The collective society versus Individualistic society argument.
Gilbert goes to Vietnam and meets some Hmong people, an ethnic minority there, and asks them about what marriage means to them. The above mentioned quote was the essence of what makes marriages work for them.
Gilbert goes on to say that while this makes perfect sense, it is not easy for a person of her generation who has grown up believing that she has the right to complete happiness to suddenly change that mindset and start believing that being unhappy is alright and acceptable. She questions whether it is wrong to expect happiness. Is it wrong to have expectations from something as important as one’s marriage?
This concept of having no expectations was probably the basis of marriages in almost every part of the world, just a few decades ago, wasn’t it? After all, in India, we still believe in it quite a bit, don’t we? While the ‘no expectations’ bit is a bit more relevant for women, the men are in no way unaffected. While they may have expectations of their wives, more often than not, these expectations are their’s parents'(and the society’s) expectations of the new daughter-in-law rather than the man’s own personal expectations(although that might be there too). Have we all not heard derogatory remarks made about a man, if he is a solicitous of his wife’s comfort. In a traditional, joint family environment, this is the expectation that he inherits, rather than what he might have had of his marriage if he had not been shackled by the environment that he grew up in. Or had he the freedom to approach the marriage based on what he, as an individual wanted out of his marriage.
Just as Elizabeth Gilbert finds it difficult to settle for anything less than ‘complete happiness’, someone brought up in an environment where all the women are seen giving up their aspirations, being submissive, and non-assertive would find it just as difficult to ‘expect’ anything more than what she gets out of her marriage.
I guess, this form of marriage worked at a time when both the parties felt that this was the only option. The moment, marriage became more about the individuals, instead of ‘convenience’, be it convenience for the extended family or the individuals themselves, expectations start to build. I think, when the marriage is primarily of convenience, expectations are low, so maybe, the disappointments are low as well. While in a situation where both partners are in it with their own expectations, there might be more disappointments when things don’t go as per plan.
With that as the background, I think it makes sense to me why marriages in the earlier times did not break up as much as they do now. That and the fact that men and women had their roles chalked out. So very few women actually got independent (financially) enough to have the confidence of walking out of an unhappy marriage. And again, how many people voiced their unhappiness, if it were considered frivolous to have such expectations from a marriage?
But I do have one question. Is it really possible to have no expectations at all ? One really has to be a superhuman to be able to have no expectations, don’t we? Or is that we have become a really spoiled generation, as some people would claim. I am not so sure about earlier generations not having expectations though. I think the lives were different, expectations were different. Instead of having expectations from one’s spouse, people had expectations from their children. Like a son would always look after them, the son’s spouse would have to be the primary care giver. So while marriages might not end, in the way they end today, it was not because of lack of expectations – it was probably because the expectation was not placed on the spouse. And where the expectation was placed on the spouse- it was more than likely to be the wife, who had far less independence to be defiant or walk away from an unhappy marriage..
So while marriages might have been just as unhappy(or even more, can we ever get a realistic figure?), they might have been termed ‘successful’, just because they did not fall apart.
*I had this sitting in my drafts, so thought I had might as well publish it – I never have completed posts sitting in drafts normally*