Millennium Post

Society still grappling with live-in relationships

Who are you? is an extremely traumatic question for a woman who has lived with a man for years loving, sharing and caring. They have partied together, gone for films together, entertained, and been entertained in return, together, taken care of each other and together run the house often sharing mundane household chores like managing servants, cooking, shopping, paying bills and at times even shared the apartment rent. Her identity as a ‘live-in partner’ has been accepted over the years grudgingly, or at face value, with no moral judgment attached, as the case may be. But the moment she is without her partner, parted because of death, illness or return to his kin, just about anyone can pop this question to her. In this case, her name does not suffice as an answer. Nor does the fact that over a period of time she has been seen in public with the man she lived with.    

The question throws the woman in an emotional delirium because it carries a subterranean hostility, coupled with the unsaid that she has no standing whatsoever in a society in which only marriage provides a status. Even those who have accepted the live-in partner amongst their midst have little to advise when it comes to giving an answer to ‘who are you?’ Or, is the question actually ‘what are you?’

Live-in relationships are on the rise in metropolitan India. Many young economically independent city birds view it as bondage free living. They are not alone. Middle aged, and the elderly, too, are opting for this sort of relationship, which brings companionship with no strings attached. While there is nothing illegal about a live-in relationship, it is still frowned upon as socially and morally improper. Indian society is still to find an acceptable slot for the live-in partner.  

Live-in relationships are now a matter of fierce debate at the societal level and will continue to be for a considerable length of time. Many see such relationships as destroying the sanctity of marriage, while others view it is a permissive evil imported from the West, which runs contrary to Indian culture. A large number of people see this nothing else but another name for pre-marital sex. And there are still others who term it has cohabiting with out taking on any duty or responsibility. Pitted against the livid critics is the lot that sees live-in relationships as an expression of freedom – the freedom to choose to live according to their own rules. Some youngsters call it a relationship of convenience and others a ‘test run’ before entering marriage. The fact remains that live-in relationships at present have a social stigma attached. In this situation, there can be no doubt about the enormous social pressure faced by those who opt to be live-in partners. And with it comes many legal repercussions. Live-in relationships have brought to surface the question of rights of women when it comes to inheritance, of maintenance and if they are victims of domestic violence as well as rights of children of people in such a relationship. For women, who decide to go for the non-traditional and decide to live with a man without exchanging marriage vows, it is best to be aware of their legal rights. They well may be saving themselves from hurt and tears.       
It is well accepted that the law does not decide social norms but it does and should acknowledge ground reality and keep pace with changes in society. The judiciary in India has clarified the rights of those involved in such relationships and persons likely to be affected by such a relationship. The Supreme Court held in 2010 that a ‘long lasting’ live-in relationship cannot be termed as ‘walk in and walk out’ relationship and ‘there is a presumption of marriage between them.’ The SC has held that ‘…if they have been living under the same roof and cohabiting for a number of years, there will be presumption under Section 114 of Evidence Act that they have lived as husband and wife and children born to them will not be illegitimate …’ However, the child can only claim a share in the parents self-acquired property.  Another important ruling is that ‘live-in relationship is permissible in unmarried heterosexuals; otherwise it is adultery under Sec 497 IPC.’

Women in live-in relationships are not entitled to maintenance unless the couple has ‘held themselves out to society as being akin to spouses, must be of legal age to marry, qualified to enter into a legal marriage being unmarried. Must have voluntarily cohabited and held themselves out to the world as being akin to spouses for a significant period of time.’ The biggest lacuna here is that the judiciary has not specified the number of years when it says ‘long lasting’ or qualified ‘a number of years.’ The Domestic Violence Act, which came into force in 2006, entitles women in a live-in relationship to protection from physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic abuse, or threat of it from her male partner, just as it protects wives from husbands doing the same. [IPA]
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