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Human relationships are complex and fragile. Sometimes, or increasingly of late, after seeing each other exclusively for a while, they talk about the possibility of co-habiting or living together before even contemplating marriage.

Of course, there are those who are happy to consensually and permanently enter into a live-in relationship without there ever being expectations of marriage. But most couples agree to live together hoping to base their decision about whether or not to get married on the outcome of the live in relationship.

Why is it that there are some couples ready to leap into marriage while there are others who would like to go through a 'trial period' before committing themselves to marriage? For, living together may be considered just that - a 'sort of litmus test' if you may for marriage.

The reason most couples give for living together is, to check their "compatibility quotient." Others do it because it is convenient; they are anyway spending most of their time with each, so, why not conserve time and energy? Some have even decided to get married and live together in the engagement period, as it cuts their expenses and works out better, economically. Though, it may sound a bit lame, but it has been seen that a small percentage want to live together because most of their friends are in a live-in relationship and they don't want to be considered the odd ones out. And in yet others, there is a basic, deep-rooted fear of a lifelong commitment called ‘marriage’, either because they have been hurt in the past or are off-spring of traumatic divorces.

All said and done, living together is a big decision, one not to be taken lightly. It will have long-term repercussions on the relationship, so it's worth weighing the advantages and disadvantages. In S. Khushboo Vs. Kanniammal & Anr., the Supreme Court of India, placing reliance upon its earlier decision in Lata Singh Vs. State of U.P. & Anr., held that live-in-relationship is permissible only in unmarried major persons of heterogeneous sex.

As a result, a couple can settle into this state of "unwedded bliss" and put off marriage indefinitely. In the event one of the partners is actually holding out for marriage or anticipating a proposal, this could pose a problem.

Research bears this out by indicating that only a small percentage of those living together actually marry and ironically, there's a high divorce rate among those married that have already lived together.

In case one of the partners or even the parents have a strong religious background which forbids 'living-in sin', it sets a bad note for the relationship.

In a live-in relationship, the tolerance levels are much lower and if you don't 'shape up you can ship out'. The difference between the two is the commitment levels. In a live-in relationship, individuals are trying to test whether they can make a go of it; in a marriage they're trying to make it work, no matter what!

True, in the metros, the trend is catching up. More and more couples are living together before marriage — to gauge the level of compatibility — but what about smaller cities? After all, metros don't represent the whole country. Are parents in, say, Ranchi or Kanpur, willing to accept live-in relationships? Will they allow their son/daughter to walk into such an arrangement?   In spite of all the progress we have made, India still remains a conservative society.  Indeed, the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 does include violence against women even in live-in relationships. Section 2(f) of the Act defines domestic relationship which means a relationship between two persons who live or have, at any point of time, lived together in a shared household, when they are related by consanguinity, marriage, or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members living together as a joint family. Thus, the definition of domestic relationship includes not only the relationship of marriage but also a relationship `in the nature of marriage. The Supreme Court in the case of D. Velusamy  Vs. D. Patchaiammal held that, a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ under the 2005 Act must also fulfill the following criteria:

(a) The couple must hold themselves out to society as being akin to spouses.

(b) They must be of legal age to marry.

(c) They must be otherwise qualified to enter into a legal marriage, including being unmarried.

(d) They must have voluntarily cohabited and held themselves out to the world as being akin to spouses for a significant period of time, and in addition the parties must have lived together in a ‘shared household’ as defined in Section 2(s) of the Act. Merely spending weekends together or a one night stand would not make it a ‘domestic relationship’. It also held that if a man has a ‘keep’ whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose and/or as a servant it would not, in our opinion, be a relationship in the nature of marriage’.

While the system may be readying itself for change, the fact remains that mindsets are yet to change.  Here, it's the woman who starts out with a disadvantage. If a relationship fails, she is the one who is judged. Here too, the onus lies on the woman and people pass judgment on her character. Unless we change the way we bring up our children, our society will not change.  How many middle-class parents can really say their child has the liberty to choose if she wants to get married or just live with a man? Ours is a very patriarchal society.  Here, couples are killed for daring to fall in love. There are places where caste panchayats decide the fate of young couples who dare to deviate from the norm. Look at what happened in Muzaffar Nagar recently.  A girl was hung from the tree by her own family for having an affair with a boy they didn't approve of. If a society is so harsh about marriage without parental consent and inter-caste love affairs, how can it ever accept live-in relationships?  I am not passing a judgment on the idea. After all, a relationship is restricted to two people and this one has now been given a legal accord also by our Apex court but how it shapes up socially is entirely upto the society and its watchdogs as it is still a long road ahead before we can give any verdict about the future of this relationship.

By Richa Dhawan, Advocate, Supreme Court of India

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Category Family Law, Other Articles by - Richa Dhawan