Apparently divorce is on the rise all over the world, including Pakistan. Statistics about divorce are quite misleading—a data sample may include children, for example. Divorce statistics do not account for the finer aspects of the data either, such as whether the couples married in one year are the same couples that divorce later. It’s a pretty strange set of numbers all around.

Dodgy numbers notwithstanding, divorce is a tricky and emotionally difficult decision. Couple that with the enormous brou-ha-ha one faces at the hands of our ever-hysterical haw-hai brigade and one has a recipe for a perfect headache. The (perceived) rise in divorce rates in Pakistan has been cause for much anxiety. People blame the evil NGO wallahs for telling women about their rights, too much Western influence (which is the one-size-fits-all reason for anything one doesn’t appreciate in society) and uppity women in general who set bad examples for the rest. Strangely enough, nobody seems to think that all the men who leave their wives are doing anything worthy of pointing out, or that abandonment is an actual thing. But what bothers me about our perception of divorce is how it links to our notion of happiness.

We belong to a culture of unrequited love. All our ghazals and poems and novels revolve around a beloved we just cannot have, and that yearning and sense of loss has been turned into perfectly lovely art—wisaal-e-yaar just isn’t one’s fate. Does that mean we have internalized the expectation that a happy, loving relationship is thoroughly beyond one’s reach, and so what’s the use? And yet, marriage is relentlessly considered to be the ultimate achievement of one’s social life. One must ‘settle down’, and for too many people, marriage is precisely that—settling. After all, for us a good spouse is one who doesn’t beat you, cheat on you and is not a raving lunatic. Anything other than that is mere selfishness on your part. Your wife isn’t affectionate? Who ever said that was part of the deal! Your husband never talks to you about anything? Well, what are your friends for? We are told over and over again to be grateful, to make allowances, to—oh god—compromise, because heaven forefend your marriage blow up, fall apart, or quietly disintegrate.

It makes me sad to think of all the people trapped in bad, unhappy relationships. It is fallacious to say that you should do it for the children, because children are perceptive, sensitive and intelligent, particularly when it comes to their parents, and it is certainly not healthy for them to live with antagonistic ones. It’s not like they won’t know or notice that Abbu and Ammi hate each other. A loving, stable home environment is not automatically one where the parents are together, and it doesn’t seem right for children to think that marriage means two miserable people living together miserably.

Another irony is other women, particularly the ones who continue to stick it out in their bad marriages. Someone leaves her husband and the onslaught of judgment begins. Again, men leaving their wives is still something manly that men do and the wife has the luxury of being the victim, but women who leave their husbands are the ultimate hoydens. What makes them think they are better than anyone else who is still plugging away at being married? What’s the big deal if your husband knocks you around a little, or always refers to you with a swear-word instead of your name? If other women can make do, why can’t you just put up and shut up like everyone else? Alternatively, men who are abused by their wives—and many men are—can’t leave because they’ll look weak and hen-pecked. You couldn’t handle your wife, ha ha. Like some men, some women are holy terrors who can’t be so poetically ‘handled’. Unless by ‘handle’ you mean something akin to dragon-hunting or belling a lion—terrifying, potentially bloody and perhaps even fatal.

I’m not sure when society decided that our happiness isn’t something we deserve. What about our emotional and mental well-being? Isn’t it important to have relationships that are warm and respectful? One’s spouse is such an important part of one’s life—the person who you build a family with, the person you pledge not only to support and look after, but to love and be a friend to. We all deserve to spend our lives with someone who makes us laugh, who makes us feel safe and happy. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Culturally we love to create pedestals and squash ourselves onto them—girls marry and become a Missus, no matter how young they are. Somehow being a wife to your husband means you can’t be his friend, and vice versa. Let’s also not forget the many forms abuse takes. Just because someone isn’t literally slapping one around or throwing teacups at one’s head doesn’t mean that one isn’t enduring cruelty in other ways. Emotional and mental abuse is a dangerous reality.

In my book, the best way to honour the importance of marriage is to be brave about setting the bar high. As a society, the day we are honest about what a good marriage means is the day marriages will begin to improve. Just because you had to endure a bad relationship doesn’t mean your children should, and if divorces are increasing that is probably why. Parents can live with something, but it is awful to see your child suffer. It is not all right to keep brushing marital difficulties under the carpet of family izzat and misplaced fortitude. If we profess to take marriage seriously—and we often bring in religious duty to beef it up—then we have to be clear about unacceptable behaviour and attitudes. Some marriages just don’t work, and that is an unfortunate reality. Divorce is certainly not the end of the world, but could well be movement towards a positive change, and change is progress. What good have we done for our children if we hand them the status quo?

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com