And its all because of technology.
Dr. Vijay Nagaswami is a Chennai-based psychotherapist famous for his work with couples in trouble, and is one of India’s most sought after marital therapists. This acclaimed relationship consultant has counseled thousands of couples who come to him for a range of problems, and especially the problem of infidelity. He has written four lucid and bestselling books about marriage and infidelity, and claims to be happily married for 25 years to his wife Usha. He also says that Usha and he have “successfully dealt with several issues over the years”, which has formed the basis for his couples work.
If you ask Dr. Nagaswami whether infidelity is on the rise in India, he says with his trademark clarity, “No, it’s just that people are getting caught more because of technology.”
Over the years Dr. Nagaswami’s work in infidelity has deepened. He has met and Skyped with thousands of couples dealing with the shattering impact of one or both partners’ cheating. With the ways of communicating with your lover multiplying, has the technology related 'outing' changed the nature of infidelity itself? Says the doctor, “I think the increase in discovery of infidelity started around a couple of decades ago. Before this, it was easier for the transgressor to deny unless it was an in flagrante delicto situation or private detectives were involved. Nowadays, with copies of chats and pictures and itemized phone bills and romantic texts and the like, denial has become less of an option, though I've still met people who resort to stout denial even in the face of overwhelming evidence.”
He adds drily, “The ease of 'outing' an adulterer does not seem to have diminished the enthusiasm for infidelity.”
Nagaswami believes that boredom is the greatest killer of contemporary Indian marriages. Affairs are the second biggest danger. And within his practice affairs happen under circumstances that screenwriters would envy. Take the story of Shaila and Ajay that he talks about. Shaila and Ajay met Shailesh and Aruna in an infertility clinic, and both couples got friendly in the waiting room. The men liked each other. The women didn’t. Shaila detested Aruna, to be honest. Some time later Shaila and Shailesh bumped into each other at a bookstore. They spent a few hours together, and soon they had a thick friendship that they kept secret – according to them, it was a secret to avoid making Shailesh’s wife Aruna mad.
Even though they told themselves they had nothing to hide, not even the suggestion of a sexual attraction. Except that Aruna did find out and sent Ajay a stinker telling him to man up and keep his wife’s paws to herself. At this point Shaila found it rather hard to explain that all the texting, mailing and signing off with “I love you’s” between her and this other guy was not an affair. As Dr Nagaswami points out, sexual activity is only one sign of an affair. Secrecy and emotional intimacy are big markers too.
He says, “The 'no sex, so no affair' excuse has been done to death, even before technology came on the scene. However, as I see it, it is a fallacy. Affairs can be sexual, emotional or both sexual and emotional. Any situation in which intimacy is taken away from a monogamous relationship and invested either wholly or partially in another intimate (emotional or sexual) relationship, does constitute infidelity. So yes, merely because sex is not involved does not mean that a partner has no cause for worry, particularly if the WhatsApp or telephone conversations take place at odd times, consume a lot of time and come in the way of the intimate relationship.”
Dr Nagaswami classifies affairs into a few types. The predominantly sexual affair is about 40 percent of the cases he sees. Sulekha had severe pain during penetrative sex but refused to see a doctor. After a while Rajan, her husband, had an affair with Sulekha’s best friend who had been acting as a mediator for the couple. Or take Manish, who had an active sex life with his wife but was a bit bored, and embarked on a frankly disastrous affair with his wife’s friend Sharada. Or Malini, wife of a busy young politician who drifted happily into a Facebook and sexting relationship with an acquaintance abroad. Phone sex, Skype sex followed by the acquisition of (haha) an external hard drive to keep things confidential – Malini would not even see herself as cheating necessarily.
Predominantly sexual affairs can also be of the brief Thunderbolt variety. Or they can be peer-pressure affairs – because affairs are a rite of passage in your group and you succumb like a teenager to the pressure. Like Arif who was shamed into getting a ‘special’ massage while in Bangkok with his macho and well-travelled pharma sales gang.
Very occasionally, there is an actual sex addict like sweet Nilima, who was fine as long as her husband was up to speed and sexually active every day. When his sexual energy tapered off Nilima threw herself into a tornado of porn, cybersex, sex with strangers and friends. Eventually she was found by her horrified husband, diagnosed by a therapist and treated, but there were some pretty sketchy months.
Then there is the predominantly emotional affair, like Shaila’s at the infertility clinic. There is also a class of affairs that happen under very special circumstances, says Dr Nagaswami – affairs conducted for revenge (not necessarily consciously) or exit affairs. He describes the case of Subroto who had been married to Kalyani for eight years. Their families had been friends and their ‘rishta’ was sort of on since they were in school. They got married with no antagonism towards each other, but also without any great expectations. Over the years they were bored, depressed, childless and dutiful. Subroto felt like he wanted more but had no idea how to get there. Enter Kalyani’s cousin Parvati on a visit. Immediately attracted to this lively woman, he had sex with her 10 days after she arrived. Then everyday he escalated their affair by being hugely attentive to her during the day, and plainly leaving his bedroom every night to have sex with her in the next room. Parvati was terrified of being caught but Subroto didn’t seem to care. When Kalyani did catch them, it was almost anti-climactic. With a minimum of fuss, they split and got divorced. This is the classic ‘exit’ affair, conducted to give you a ‘real’ reason to leave your marriage.
With the (seeming) rising number of office affairs and midlife affairs and every other kind of affair, have attitudes to infidelity changed in the New Indian Marriage? No, the expert doc believes that “people are not either less or more tolerant of infidelity now.”
However, he adds, “Much more leeway is provided for partners to have friendships with people of the opposite gender, and perhaps even for ‘harmless flirtation’, but when a partner suspects that boundaries are being violated, particularly when so much slack has been cut, the feeling of being betrayed is that much higher. For instance, when a person trusts the spouse implicitly, the feeling of betrayal, if infidelity is discovered, is enormous.” In this scenario he includes couples who may not be married but been living together. “When a commitment has been made, whether or not both partners have formally solemnized the relationship, it is considered exclusive and monogamous and any violation of these result in the feeling of betrayal.”
All kinds of people don’t want to deal with how their infidelity may be wreaking havoc. “Infidelity and monogamy are incompatible, unless both partners are on the same page and are happy to spice up their lives with mutual infidelity,” says Nagaswami. His acquaintance Rakesh, for instance, stoutly defended both his extramarital affairs and his wife Reema’s, and said it caused them no mutual harm. He found it almost personally insulting that Nagaswami had written a whole book about infidelity! But Rakesh was also suspiciously reluctant to let the doctor speak to Reema and confirm if their 18-year-marriage was actually thriving.
One key strategy to get past infidelity is to avoid the blame game. Sometimes, though, even a professional therapist finds himself amused – such as the ‘social service’ defense. “People come up with some extraordinary rationalizations to justify their transgression,” says Nagaswami. “The most extraordinary self-defense statement that I’ve heard is that the transgressor was being altruistic and doing the paramour a favour since the latter was begging to be in a relationship.”
Circumstances may change but his one piece of unchanging advice is that “infidelity can happen even in good marriages. Infidelity need not sound the death knell of a marriage, but can be seen as a bit of a wake-up call.”
After seeing thousands of couples, does any piece of human behavior still surprise him?
“In all honesty,” he says, “nothing surprises me anymore. If at all the one thing that amazes me in recent times is the way couples choose marriage counselors. In the past, the stigma attached to seeing a therapist was so high that people would research a lot through their personal social networks before choosing a therapist. Nowadays they use Google or Justdial or some such mechanism to find themselves a therapist.”
And what does he think of Valentine’s Day? “Personally, I think it’s more of a Hallmark thing. Having said that, I’ve seen in our country people giving Valentine’s Day cards to parents, friends, siblings, etc. So obviously many Indians see it merely as an occasion to express love and affection. Considering that we, as a nation, are not great at expressing love and honoring commitment, I guess having an occasion to do so may not be too bad a thing!”
Disclaimer: To protect the privacy of certain individuals some names have been changed.
By Nidhi Bansal
Photo Credit: https://www.google.co.in