“In our home, all talk begins and ends with money,” Sarita complains to a concerned neighbour in Anurag Kashyap’s 2020 film Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai. A bank teller by day, Sarita’s (Saiyami Kher) main bane is her husband Sushant (Roshan Mathew), a man who could be a musician but coasts through life (and mountains of debt) by surfing the gig economy. Their marriage — a love match, not an arranged one — is at breaking point. “We can’t live this mediocre life forever, can we?” she asks.
In Choked — as in countless other family and romantic dramas — ambition and circumstance collide, rocking a relationship to its core due to economic turmoil. In everything from Pride and Prejudice to Bad Sisters, people have been leaving their partners, children and families in the financial lurch for centuries.
But this is real life. There are likely no wads of currency notes stuffed up your kitchen drainpipe to save your marriage; no rich dying dowager aunt ready to bequeath to you her estate in some last-minute, coincidental rescue operation. Instead, you and your partner (prospective or otherwise) are living through a world beset by a pandemic, a global recession, and an impending apocalypse. It’s not pretty.
At 1.1%, India has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world, according to a UN report released in 2019 — but also, the number of divorcees has doubled over the past two decades, especially in urban areas. In comparison, in the US, financial trouble is reportedly one of the leading causes of divorce.
It goes without saying that there’s a clear link between financial dependence and longevity of marriages, and the highly popular Belgian-American psychotherapist Esther Perel provides some historical context: “Marriage has always been an economic enterprise, an alliance of families, land, resources, and wealth,” she writes. “Love, and certainly sex, didn’t enter the equation until the late-eighteenth century. And in the Western world gender equality didn’t come into play until the 1970s.”
To be sure, a lot has changed. In 2022, no urban, young person with access to a 3G network needs pop culture to understand one universal truth: A single (wo)man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of… a partner who can contribute to the household, harbour similar life goals and dreams, and split the difference. The trouble often starts when this self-awareness isn’t acted upon in a timely manner: When we don’t discuss splitting the bill on the first date; when we don’t talk about how we’re sharing the rent before we move in; when we don’t set and share our life goals (children, world travel, or both) with our partners.
Talking about money is tricky in itself because, as Perel observes, “money is never just about money. […] Money is about status, access, comfort, freedom, interdependence, trust, loyalty, betrayal, fairness, and more.” She also notes that our response to money and money matters draws from how we’ve been raised and how we’ve raised ourselves. “Money is tied to our sense of self-worth and our feelings of power and powerlessness.”
In a relationship, this can also mean either ego wars or an imbalance when it comes to who has a say in how the household spends. “Why is it all so heavy?” asks Perel. “Because we equate money with love. We withhold money as punishment. We enforce compliance through money. We live with the belief that we could always be making more and that having more is better.”
In a way, navigating finances in a relationship depends to a large extent on the health of our personal equation with money itself. Personal financial literacy aside, the general wisdom is to be transparent about your credit status (share that ITR acknowledgement!), work towards some common goals (set up a recurring deposit for that trip to Bali!), and understand your partner’s perspective (they can’t digest your 26th pair of Nikes because they couldn’t afford any growing up!). As in other walks of life, compassion and empathy might be all you need to stay afloat, in every sense of the word.
Or, as Perel advises, for these extraordinary times: “Plan instead of panic.” After all, “financial plans are also emotional plans.”
Nidhi Gupta is a freelance writer and editor based in Mumbai.