The Changing Face of Family and Marital Relationships in Kerala

Sensationalized reports in Kerala of women involved in family murders and extramarital affairs serve to obscure more than they reveal. Anjali K.K. draws upon her research to explore the broader contexts of marital breakdown in Kerala through the perspectives of women.

Anjali K.K.

A silhouette of a woman standing near a door, her hands resting on the frame of the door to her left; she faces away from the camera

Kerala is considered to have made substantial progress in education, per-capita income, social security, and mental health in comparison with the other Indian states. But the recent reportage of many incidents of ‘extramarital affairs’, filicide, domestic violence, and divorce centering women in Kerala prompt one to think about the changing face of family relations in the state. While issues such as dowry, domestic violence, and family conflicts are widespread, it is incidents of women getting involved in ‘extramarital relationships’ or ‘illicit affairs’ and the murder of family members that receive maximum media attention. For example, the Thodupuzha case (2019), Soumya case (2018), and the Thanoor case (2018) became sensationalized by the media and were also debated widely by psychologists and legal professionals. In contrast to other social issues such as a hike in the number of women seeking divorce due to extramarital affairs, it is the extreme cases like those mentioned above that are intensely discussed in the media. While it is important to act upon and evaluate such instances of violence and deviance, a nuanced understanding of broader social issues concerning married women cannot be foregone in light of these extreme cases. 

In my research on domestic violence against women in Kerala, I have found women talking about their experience of domestic violence, their rights, their relationships outside marriage, and remarriage. What is often not recognized by society and media are the contexts within which women choose to move out of their marriages, either formally or informally. According to a report by the Social Welfare Board in Kerala, the number of cases of domestic violence and marital rape lodged in the 2015-18 period is 18,378 and 2,482 respectively (Atholi 2020). Women have increasingly started to move out of violent marriages, but not all women are able to report their violent experiences. For instance, a married woman died in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala in March 2019. She was underweight (weighing a mere 20 kg) and passed away as a result of starvation and extreme dowry-related domestic violence at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law. She did not receive any support from her natal family, friends, or neighbours. Her husband’s family had fed her only sugar syrup and soaked rice. Although this case is particularly horrendous, my research found that in cases of ‘extra-marital affairs’ involving women, there were often hidden stories of women feeling neglected, abused, harassed, or unsupported by their husbands.

For instance, Sanjana,1 a 30-year-old woman from a middle-class Nair family working as a receptionist in a dental clinic, said:

I had an arranged marriage at the age of 21. We have an 8-year-old child. I could not live happily with my husband. He beat me, kicked me, and verbally abused me. We sleep in separate rooms. He does not know anything about family life, women, their bodies, and desires. I paid all the bills on my own; I spent all my salary on the household. I did not get any financial or emotional support from him. I was working all the time to forget my sorrows. After all these years, now I have a new relationship. I have decided to be with him. He said that he will take care of me and my child. So I filed a case for divorce in the family court

Sanjana’s family and friends did not accept her decision. She was accused of ‘spoiling the family name.’ Similarly, Rahna, a 35-year-old Muslim woman from an upper-class family, narrated her experience: 

I got married at the age of 18 and soon we bought a very big house. My husband and I were from wealthy families and I expected that this life would be heavenly. However, after some days, I started facing many difficulties at home since he was not behaving as I expected. I had to live there like a servant and it was like a boss and employee kind of relationship. Anyhow, our children were happy because he used to spend a lot of money for them. He would buy very costly clothes and toys for them. I also got very costly clothes, but it did not amount to my happiness. I could not question him anytime as he used to beat and kick me and restricted all my freedom, and I was always sad. During those days, I started talking to my neighbour, and he was the only listener I had. Slowly, I started to have an affair with him. There was a reason for that affair; I was living with my husband, but I sacrificed all my dreams, wishes and freedom. However, when I started talking to my neighbour, I realized that life is very beautiful. After three months of this relationship, my husband came to know about it and he asked me to leave the home. I just went with the neighbour. Even my parents and siblings did not support me and my cousin is the only person who supports me until now. After one week, the police case was settled and I went back to my husband and children. Then started the next level of harassment. He did not allow me to use my mobile phone. Moreover, he would lock the gate from outside when he left. Emotional care is important, but I never experienced it. He did not play the role of a husband, while I got emotional support in my new relationship. Eventually, I left my husband and went with my lover to begin a new life.

When I was conducting research in Kerala in May 2015, none of the women I interviewed spoke about being involved in relationships outside marriage. But two years later, in April 2017, I could find a drastic change in women’s narratives about their marital lives. Women who were unhappy with their husbands due to strained relationships or those who experienced intimacy outside their marital relationships were now more likely to consider divorcing their husbands to have a better life with a new partner. In 2015, women spoke about how extreme violence or abuse made them consider divorce, but not new relationships. Emergent narratives in the post-2017 period, such as that of Sanjana and Rahna clearly indicate that marital relationships in Kerala are undergoing significant changes.

Changing Expectations, Changing Relationships 

Women in Kerala today have new expectations from marriage and are increasingly verbalizing their desire for intimacy, companionship, emotional commitment and understanding from their husbands. 

30-year-old Suvarna is a magazine designer with nine years of work experience. She works in a reputed press and also as a freelancer. She is from a middle-class nuclear family that belongs to an OBC (Thiyya) community. She said: 

I sold all my gold and spent my salary and other savings for building a new home. Soon after marriage, I became pregnant. After my delivery, we shifted to a new house with our daughter. During pregnancy, he did not care for me. He used to visit me, but he didn’t know how to speak nicely. I always bought everything for myself. After delivery, I did not feel any attachment to him. He thinks only about himself. He does not buy anything for the home or pay the bills. He does not have savings. When I felt detached from him, I stopped wearing my ‘thali’ and vermillion. After our child was born, we started sleeping in separate rooms. He does not have any sexual desire also. Moreover, he never spent time with our daughter. She is very scared of him, because she has seen him beating and scolding me. For almost seven years, we stayed in a house like two strangers. I cooked for him, but other than that we did not have any attachments. In 2016, I met a person, and I liked him. Now we are in a relationship. It has been almost a year now. Only after this relationship did I realize what happiness is. I am very happy now. Six months ago I filed a divorce petition. Now I am staying in a rented home with my daughter. I am planning to move to his place. 

From this narrative, it is evident that the lack of attachment and support made Suvarna feel isolated, and when she did not get what she expected from her husband, she was ready to move away from him. She was not satisfied with her husband’s contribution to the family income. Given a situation where she experienced neither financial security nor emotional intimacy from the marriage, she saw no reason to continue in the marriage when she found happiness elsewhere. In some cases, women have higher educational qualifications than their husbands, which causes difficulties (Chua, 2014). This disparity may create dissatisfaction among women. 

Women are now increasingly deciding to move away from marital life when they feel unhappy. In this social scenario, social media platforms help them to meet, talk and become friends with other people. How do we understand these changes? It is very easy to dismiss the killings by Soumya as the acts of an extreme criminal with a deranged mind. It is also easy to write off extra-marital affairs as frivolous acts by women with a ‘loose character’. For instance, Kerala Women’s Commission member J. Prameela Devi has commented in 2016 that many women in Kerala are involved in ‘extramarital affairs’ which result in divorce and destruction of the institution of family. In such a narrative, dissatisfied family atmosphere and the misuse of social media are some oft-stated reasons for women’s ‘illicit’ relationships. 

Psychologists commenting on such incidents have called for the need for mandatory premarital counselling for men and women. Yet, my observations during my research showed that counselling does not always work to change the family situation of the affected woman. Many women in the study spoke of their husbands’ irresponsibility, alcohol addiction, and violence as the reasons for their infidelity. This clearly shows the need for structural changes in women’s lives. In the current context, women’s familial expectations have changed, and the social system has to change accordingly. Women are now ready to move out from violent family environments; they question their husband’s irresponsibility and are not willing to put up with restrictions on their freedom. In discussing these cases, what needs to be acknowledged is that women are actively making certain choices and exercising their agency in their marriage in ways that were not encountered frequently until a few years ago. It is important to recognize these shifts while analysing familial relationships and shared intimacies between men and women in Kerala. 


About the Author: Anjali K. K. has a PhD in Psychology from the Department of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Hyderabad. Her PhD thesis is titled ‘Marriage, Intimacy, and Violence: The Changing Face of the Family in Contemporary Kerala’. She has published two papers in peer-reviewed Scopus-indexed journals, and is a Graduate Member of The British Psychological Society. Her research areas are mental health, feminist approaches in psychology, qualitative research methods in psychology, critical psychology, and ethnography.

Note: The author acknowledges Dr Shubha Ranganathan, associate professor, IIT Hyderabad for the discussions and feedback.

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