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Moral Dilemmas in Indian Families: Balancing Tradition and Individuality

Indian families have long been revered for their deep-rooted traditions, strong familial bonds, and collective decision-making ethos. However, as society changes and individuals increasingly assert their autonomy, a clash between tradition and personal desires often ensue, giving rise to complex moral dilemmas. In this article, we embark on a journey to dissect some of these dilemmas, shedding light on the intricate dynamics within Indian families and the ethical conundrums they face: issues in family life, gender roles, and substance abuse and “cyber widows”.

Family Life

The dynamics of Indian families have indeed undergone significant changes over time. Traditional Indian families were characterized by joint family systems. However, this system has given way to nuclear families, altering the dynamics of relationships and decision-making within households. These significant structural and functional changes led to its decline, largely influenced by factors such as industrialization, urbanization, evolving societal norms, and educational expansion.

Concurrent with the rise of nuclear families, issues concerning children have exacerbated within nuclear family setups, particularly those where one or both parents work. Such challenges have posed threats to the sanctity and dignity of marriage, which is a major concern for Indian families. In contemporary society, fundamental aspects of marriage such as love, interpersonal relationships, sexual intimacy, procreation, unity, and indissolubility are being questioned. Consequently, marriage and family life face many uncertainties. There is a failure to recognize that the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman plays a crucial role in society as a stable commitment that fosters new life. Pre-marital cohabitation and forms of cohabitation that completely disregard the intention to marry are increasingly prevalent in many regions. [1] An increasing number of alternatives to traditional marriage are becoming legally recognized, which makes marriage, with its traditional characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility, and openness to life, seem outdated. Legal reforms are deconstructing the traditional family structure, moving towards models that prioritize individual autonomy.

This shift towards individual autonomy has affected other aspects of what it means to be family. In India, reverence for elders is deeply rooted in the cultural ethos. However, evolving family dynamics and urbanization have posed challenges to the traditional joint family system. A moral dilemma arises when families must strike a balance between their obligations towards elderly parents or grandparents and their own aspirations for personal autonomy and independent living. Should children prioritize their parents’ wishes or their own pursuit of individuality, career advancement, and geographical mobility?

With the advent of modern communication media and changing family dynamics, the space for devotional practices is also gradually diminishing. The traditional scene of family prayer in the evenings and the recitation of prayers and hymns have been supplanted by prime-time entertainment shows on television and smart phone usage. Parents scarcely find time to engage in conversations with their children, as both the elderly and the younger generations are often engrossed in their electronic devices. In the pursuit of virtual interactions with people near and far, genuine conversations within the family are neglected, leading to communication gaps and ultimately weakening family bonds.

In contemporary society, families are confronted with these dilemmas, highlighting the need for renewal within the institution of the family. [2] The strength of a family lies in its ability to love and to impart the values of love.[3] India’s rich diversity encompasses various religions and castes, and interfaith or inter-caste marriages often present families with moral dilemmas. Traditional beliefs and societal pressures frequently discourage such unions, viewing them as a threat to cultural and religious continuity. Families grapple with the moral question of whether to prioritize individual happiness and love or adhere to societal norms and expectations. These dilemmas reflect the tension between personal choice and collective identity.

Gender Roles

Gender roles and expectations within Indian families pose another moral dilemma. Traditional gender norms prescribe specific roles and responsibilities for men and women. However, as awareness of gender equality increases, conflicts emerge between traditional values and the pursuit of individual aspirations. Women, in particular, face dilemmas related to career choices, education, and balancing familial obligations. The moral question arises: Should families embrace progressive gender roles or adhere to traditional expectations?

Despite significant advances in recognizing women’s rights and their participation in public life, there is still much work to be done to advance these rights. Customs that perpetuate unacceptable treatment, particularly the degrading mistreatment of women such as domestic violence, dowry-related issues, and various forms of enslavement, must be changed. These acts are cowardly displays of dominance rather than manifestations of strength. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence experienced by women in certain marriages contradicts the essence of conjugal union. Surrogacy, exploitation, and the commercialization of the female body in today’s media culture contribute to patriarchal attitudes.

As joint families are gradually being replaced by nuclear families, the trend of single-income households is also giving way to dual-income households. [4] Indian women are inherently industrious, participating in the workforce across all stages of life. The proportion of women with familial obligations who also hold paid employment has seen a significant rise in the past two decades, with this trend expected to continue.[5] However, many working women struggle with feelings of inadequacy, believing they cannot devote sufficient time to child-rearing and subsequently experiencing guilt over perceived neglect of their maternal duties. The absence of an employed mother from home often leaves children longing for her presence; while she, in turn, may find herself with limited time to entertain relatives and guests. Additionally, the pressures of office work and personal problems can spill over into her interactions with family members, disrupting familial peace and happiness. [6] Despite her relentless efforts to bridge the divide, she may find herself engulfed in a cycle of anxiety, confusion, and role conflict. [7] Hence, achieving a balance between work and family life poses one of the greatest challenges for couples in nuclear families. However, the necessary changes—such as redefining roles, redistributing responsibilities, and garnering familial and societal support to resolve conflicts—often remain elusive.

Substance Abuse and “Cyber Widows”

Another scourge of our time is drug usage, which fractures many families and brings about significant misery. The same holds true for addiction to alcohol, gambling, and other substances. Families could potentially be the most effective locus for preventing and addressing these issues, yet society and politics often overlook the vulnerability of families and their capacity to intervene and support their members. We witness the grave repercussions of this breakdown in families being torn apart, young individuals displaced, and the elderly left neglected. There are children who become de facto orphans despite having living parents, adolescents and young adults grappling with confusion and dislocation. [8]Violence within families fosters new manifestations of social aggression, as family dynamics can contribute to the development of violent tendencies. This is frequently observed in families characterized by poor communication, defensive attitudes, lack of support among members, absence of activities that promote participation, and hostile parent-child relationships. [9] In the foundational bonds of human interaction, familial violence serves as a fertile ground for cultivating resentment and animosity. [10]

The prevalence of “cyber widows” [11] and phenomenon such as cyber gambling is on the rise. These deviant behaviors lead to the deterioration of the family atmosphere, turning family life into a living hell for spouses. Consequently, many opt for divorce. Divorce is one of the most emotionally taxing experiences for couples and equally distressing for their children. Unlike in the past, divorce has become a commonplace occurrence in present times, often seen as an easy solution to marital problems. The widespread social acceptance of divorce challenges the very essence of marriage itself. It is essentially the culmination of the breakdown in the relationship between spouses. [12] This breakdown places all familial responsibilities, including the upbringing of children, squarely on a single individual, potentially having a significant impact on children’s ability to thrive and function normally. [13] They may be deprived of the psychological, emotional, and spiritual development that stems from the mutual love, sharing, and respect of both parents, as well as from their life examples.

Conclusion

The moral dilemmas encountered within Indian families reflect the intricate interplay of tradition, values, and individual autonomy. These dilemmas encompass various facets of life, including marriage, single-parent households, dual-income families, interfaith relationships, divorce, gender roles, child-rearing practices, and elderly care. As society evolves, these dilemmas serve as catalysts for introspection and dialogue, prompting a reevaluation of cultural norms and ethical frameworks. By navigating these complexities with empathy and understanding, Indian families can strive towards achieving harmony between tradition and modernity, while upholding the dignity and autonomy of each individual member.

References

[1] Relatio Finalis 2015, 25. 2015. https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20151026_relazione-finale-xiv-assemblea_en.html. Accessed on 24.06.2019.

[2] Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 53 (AAS 108: 332–33).

[3] Relatio Finalis 2015, 10.

[4] J. P. Singh, Problems of India’s Changing Family and State Intervention. https://www.un.org/ esa/socdev/family/docs/egm09/Singh.pdf. Accessed on 21.12.2020.

[5] Tapati Das, “Employed Women and Problems of Child,” Pages 139–47 in Family in Transition: Power and Development. Edited by J. K. Baral and A. Chawdhury. New Delhi: Northern Book Centre, 1999, 139–40.

[6] Bijoyini Mohanty, “Dual–Earner Family: A Journey to Freedom and Equality,” Pages 120–30 in Family in Transition: Power and Development. Edited by J. K. Baral and A. Chawdhury. New Delhi: Northern Book Centre, 1999, 120.

[7] Das, “Employed Women and Problems of Child,” 139–40.

[8] Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 51.

[9] Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 51.

[10] Yamini, P., ed. “Smartphones, Facebook, WhatsApp Break Down Marriages in Bangalore.” https://www.dnaindia.com/technology/ report–smartphones–facebook–whatsapp–break–down–marriages–in–bangalore–1969218. Accessed on 16.06.2022.

[11] “Cyber widow” is a term used to describe the wife of a man who spends more time with his computer or gadget than with her. This leads to greater loneliness and severe marital issues. Tharayil, “Family Problems and Family Breakdowns,” Pages 63–70 in Living the Joy of the Gospel Today: Challenges to the Family and to the Consecrated Life, Edited by Shaji George Kochuthar, Bengaluru: Dharmaram Publications, 2017, 67.

[12] Michael G. Lawler, Marriage and the Catholic Church: Disputed Questions, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002, 179.

[13] Ajita Gupta and Seema Kashyap, “Growing up in a Single Parent Family; A Determining Factor of Adolescent’s Well-being,” Advanced Journal of Social Sciences 7, 1 (2020): 138–140, 139.