The marital whisper network and why men don’t have it

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Disclaimer – While I am principally not opposed to the idea of gender as a spectrum, I must confess I am fairly illiterate. So, as always, this blogpost will cover only the two ends of this spectrum. My sincere apologies to anyone else in-between for not having enough to say.

I was talking to a good friend from school earlier this morning and we were exchanging notes on our respective married lives and she said atleast we women folk have a whisper network where we are able to vent/ share experiences, although we are shamed about it as being disloyal to the husband/ family, whereas men don’t talk about these things. Anecdotally, this seemed very true, but I wondered why men and women behaved differently despite sharing the same experience – marriage.

The three questions that I set out to answer are – (1) why do women share their personal stories, unlike men? (2) Why are they then shamed about it? (3) Why don’t men share their marital stories?

Men are structurally stronger, they went out to work, hunted/ gathered to feed the family and subsequently had access to education that resulted in superior jobs. Women on the other hand were the child bearers and rearers, and then when we started leading more settled lives, women’s responsibilities extended to managing all responsibilities within the house. This natural division of labour resulted in men becoming the financiers and women feeling indebted to the income for running the house. In this way, for hundreds of years, men have dominated women, and especially in marriages.

Given this social structure that has been nurtured by our patriarchal society, women opposing this dominance is never a pleasant thing. From a man’s perspective, shaming this rebellion is the most natural thing to do. Whether this is right or not is a completely different question, but all I am saying is that given our social conditioning, this is not unexpected. From a woman’s perspective, it is a matter of pride if you do stand up to this dominance, and like anything else we are proud of, this deserves to be shared to. However, given that women have to balance this pride with the shaming, they resort to whisper networks.

Does this make a woman disloyal to the husband/ the family? This question is best left to individual judgement as everyone’s circumstance is different and this depends on who you are sharing what information with and how that would affect the person being discussed. But you are being bloody disloyal to our patriarchy I tell you, for which our forefathers would never forgive you. But I’m okay with that, are you? Now, what about men? Why don’t they talk about their marriage with others? Ideally, I would have liked to ask men this question, but given that they don’t talk about it, I’ll try answering on their behalf although I’d be thrilled to have a man challenge me on this, though.

If our society is structured for men to dominate, then it is socially unacceptable for a man to declare loss of control. If a man talks about a disagreement with his wife, he is implicitly admitting to loss of control. What man can’t keep his woman in her rightful place? It is a matter of shame for the man, so he’d rather not talk about it. Today, as more and more women gain control in relationships, more and more men are comfortable breaking free from social conditioning to allow greater balance in power in a marriage. Unfortunately, in most cases, this is confined to the walls of their household.

Men are yet to talk declare loss of control more openly, and this is all down to social conditioning and how little incentive they have to break free from it. Why should they be more vocal about their problems? Who is going to champion this change? While gender equality is a great thing, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I have access to more opportunities than my grandmother did, I think we must encourage our men to speak up. It’s okay to not be in control. It’s okay to grow a pair and talk about your marital problems, because you are not alone!

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Dating’s over-rated!

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Few weeks ago, a friend was visiting London and we were talking about my escapades at Marriage Broker Auntie. In passing, I said, dating’s over-rated and that people much rather build the muscle to make a relationship work. A week later, he asked me to explain what I’d meant by dating being over-rated and as always, I thought I’d attempt to think out loud through a blogpost.

Until the late 90’s and early 2000s, you’d have a handful of people settled abroad in the extended family circles. With the advent of IT, pretty much every Indian household today has atleast one member of the family settled abroad. This exponentially increased our exposure to western culture. While earlier, Indian men were happy to fly down for a weekend, get married to someone from a prior shortlist by parents, suddenly these men wanted to “date”.

First, it started with the girl and boy going out a few times, with the excuse of learning more about one another with a clear intent to be engaged within a certain time frame. Then, this evolved into hanging out without any guarantee of these meets resulting in an engagement. After having lived away from parents for a while, there was less and less coherence in criteria of spouse selection, and hence, people wanted to lead the search independently without parental involvement. Hence, the advent of things like South Asian dating, Tinder in India and so on. Without much parental involvement, this was a great proxy for falling in love.

While largely chided by society in the past, falling in love suddenly became a matter of status for the entire family as if it reflected on the progeny’s ability to land a catch. People started looking down upon arranged marriages as the search was led by parents and this was perceived as a sign of inability on the part of the ward. Suddenly we were more hung up on how we sourced rather than the quality of marriages itself.

While marriages had always been a contract, trade in the relationship was more straightforward back in the day with men offering the finances and women running the administration. Today, the lines are all blurred with greater women empowerment (which is a great thing!) and hardly any work being done in redefining the terms of this contract, which makes for the increasing number of troubled marriages.

Some might argue that dating helps draft the terms of this contract better for individual couples and if we are all busy re-drafting terms, collectively, this will result in a better contract for the institution. But really? All people are trying to do with dating is test the waters before going knee deep into it, and if the waters are murky, dating allows a low cost exit that is not offered by a marriage. May be there is a marginal improvement in terms but why can’t this be done post wedding anyway?

By creating additional flexibility in the selection process, we are less flexible when it comes to accommodating changes post selection. We spend so much effort on selection, that we believe there’s nothing left to be done except living happily ever after, and that’s where we couldn’t have been more wrong. Relationships take a lot of work, sometimes every day and for years, and our societies have stopped focussing on preparing individuals for this journey, rather we are heavily focussed on beautifying the tickets for this once in a lifetime journey.

What you learn about someone while you are dating is like the tip of an iceberg waiting to be discovered post wedding, so why bother trying with incremental gains in discovery when you’d rather start seeing the whole deal once you’ve taken the plunge. Sound like an auntie you think? Yeah, I am one. Kthnxbye.

Bendekai huLi and being a naughty wife

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I grew up in a household where what my dad wanted to eat was always more important than what my mum wanted to eat. For most of my child-hood, my mum ate leftovers from dinner for breakfast and so I don’t think it ever mattered what she made for breakfast, as she never ate fresh breakfast. My mum was/ is a very devoted wife. She comes from a world where she believes that satisfying her husbands dietary needs is her duty as a wife. Most of her generation is like that and I don’t think any of them ever questioned it’s premise and validity in a world where women worked just as hard as men outside of home, if not more.

We never appreciated each other in our house very much. We all did things for each other as if it was our duty, and expected nothing in return. Then I got married to Karthik, in whose house people always gave each other feedback on every meal that one cooked. It was strange in the beginning, but I began to appreciate the new tradition until I had a series of “not nice” from Karthik. I realised I was making all this effort to cook and make him happy due to social conditioning. I always only cooked the vegetables he approved of, in combinations and proportions his mother had got him used to. I stopped eating all the vegetables I really liked – bendekai, tondekai, etc. because after all, what the husband wanted to eat was always more important than what a wife wanted.

Then I moved away from home for my MBA for about two years and I could suddenly eat what I wanted, and I didn’t have to ask anyone. Also, I lived with two guys who did most of the cooking at home, even when their girlfriends were visiting. I suddenly saw a world difference in how romantic partnerships worked outside of my society, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we led such illogical lives that were just legacies left by our grandmothers who didn’t have full-timejobs. I couldn’t understand how I’d just dropped everything I wanted to make this partnership work, even thought no one had explicitly asked me to do so.

I would constantly be reminded of an episode from when I was 21. My mum had had a viral arthritis attack, and she was basically bedridden for a few weeks leaving my dad to sub for her in the kitchen. He was used to making lunch on Sundays, but this seemed like quite a lot for him to handle apart from going to office and taking care of my mum. His frustration was obvious sometimes, although he is too nice to say anything out loud, and that would make amma guilty for being ill, which seemed silly.

Although today, my dad gets more involved in the kitchen than amma given that he is retired, I can’t help but feel like my mum had a huge role to play in terms of not involving my dad equally in running the household early on. My ajji (the mother-in-law) might have played a role in setting expectations around what is to eaten at home/ what not, but I had no such pressures in my marriage. Everything was self-inflicted, may be due to social conditioning, or sheer stupidity, but ever since I have had a chance to re-live my life away from home, I have become a very naughty wife.

While I love to feed the family, I bail the moment I smell lack of gratitude for the efforts I make beyond what is fair in this relationship. I make sure I am always fair to myself, and have no regrets around how I treat myself in a relationship. This grossly scribbles all over the template of a wife my society has drawn for me, but I am living exactly how I want to. That’s precisely why after being criticised by the husband about my cooking 3 times in a row, I decided to make bendekai huli (picture above) for the 1st time in 7.5 years of my marriage because I love bendekai huli (and the husband hates it!). Berry and I absolutely enjoyed our meal, while the husband went out and ate Sushi at a nearby restaurant. So, I guess that was a win-win situation for all of us?

Berry might grow up to either endorse/ rubbish my way of living, but it’s for her to figure out how she wants to lead her life, I am by no means trying to set any examples.

 

The generation that wants it all!

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Today, the thirty somethings in India are really struggling to find life partners like never before. When I say like never before, I mean these are people you would have expected to be already married by now, but not anymore. Some 8-9 years ago, on Varamahalakshmi festival, our family priest, who also doubles up as a matchmaker, had come home to perform the ritual. He mentioned that one of my dad’s younger colleagues had approached him for matchmaking help. When my dad asked the priest about this colleague’s prospects of finding a bride, this is what the priest said – “This chap is a 30 year old muduka (roughly translates to grandpa), that too with just an engineering degree  (no masters) working in some private company, not even Infosys or TCS. Even software fellows are struggling to find women because all brides want to go onsite nowadays, so this guy doesn’t have a chance!” Of course it sounded a lot more amusing in Kannada with alliterations and all that, but the point being I am not talking about such men or women here. I am talking about people our society would generally consider very successful, if not too successful. So, why then, are these successful people struggling to find partners?

What is different about this generation is that we are full of high achievers, we thrive on a sense of achievement and we don’t settle for anything less than a sense of achievement from whatever we do. Simply said, we are at far higher levels of the Maslov’s hierarchy today than any other generation in the past. Until we have checked that self-esteem box in our professional lives (which is roughly measured in terms of founding one’s own company and making millions of an IPO/ sell-out), we want to push the decision of getting married and hence, the average age of people looking to get married is far higher today. So what does this mean in terms of finding a partner?

Men no longer just want a wife who can look gorgeous, cook, clean and bear their offspring, and women no longer want men who can just be the breadwinner for the family or be the macho protector like the Shah Rukhs and Hritiks of the world. We want partners we are proud of, we want partners who make us feel like we have achieved great heights in our choice of partners, and in turn our personal lives. And, it’s okay. Well, to be fair, our grandparents or parents were also fairly ambitious and you might think this is the problem of every generation with respect to the previous, but what is different about this generation is that we are looking for trophy partners in India vs trophy son-in-laws or daughter-in-laws or a general addition to our existing esteemed families unlike in the last few hundred years.

In the past, when parents/ aunts/ uncles found a potential daughter-in-law/ son-in-law, they optimised for values that matter when you recruit a new family member – cultural upbringing, physical genes, compatibility with a large extended family, workload reduction for existing family members, protection of family wealth and so on. The bride who finally got recruited would have cleared the bar on all counts, and the groom has nothing left to do in terms of getting social approval since his family would have taken care of that bit during recruitment. At the most, the girl would have to check off the “oh how did this dude land such a cute chick” test amongst the groom’s gang of single male friends.

Most of us have been in and out of several relationships before we have resorted to the arranged marriage route, and we have pretty solid ideas on what kind of a partner suits us. Parents have no clue about what we learn from our past relationships and hence, there is a lack of interference in filters between parents and us. So parents actively encourage their kids to find their own partners, in numbers larger than ever before, despite having a pretty static view on what is a good son-in-law or a daughter-in-law.

This puts undue pressure on the ward to not only seek validation from the family, but also their ever expanding social circle thanks to the internet. So what do you then optimise for? Everything. And this in turn, makes it harder to find a partner because let’s be honest, you simply cannot optimise for everything. So, we start with trying to match ourselves in terms of professional success because by 30, our professions are a large part of our identities. Anyone who is as successful as us, is probably just as proud of where they have gotten in their lives, so if you are hoping to force-fit them into your families who is hoping to find you a “smart, modern, liberal thinking, yet homely” person, don’t you think you are going to find them to be “rigid”, “too feminist” or “not making an effort to get along with your family”?

Whether you like it or not, life is about trade-offs and we’ve all got to make them at some point. Being with someone who gives you a sense of achievement also means you both have very strong personalities and you are bound to run into disagreements, more likely on a daily basis but guess what? Making that work, embracing the challenge of convincing someone to see life your way, and agreeing to disagree is what will continue to give you a sense of achievement. Imagine if you were married to someone you never disagreed with, someone who would just listen to everything you said, and life was just too easy, would you enjoy that? Probably not.

You are in a market, this is an auction, and you only get something precious if you are willing to pay the price for it. Each of us has to figure out the price we are willing to pay and that’s what we are going to get. The big difference between a regular auction and a marriage is, you make a downpayment and have a recurring price to pay everyday of your marriage unlike in an auction. Sounds tough? Sorry boss, such are life. So, happy spouse-hunting and enjoy making your marriages work!

You live only once!

I was listening to a podcast the other day about correlation between our childhood and political views during adulthood. Given that we are governed for the very first time at home, our political preferences are very much shaped at home. I have mostly been a very obedient kid at home, where I’ve constantly feared the consequences of being otherwise. Having said that, I have done my share of sneaking behind my parents back to do things that they’d have never approved of, but everybody does that.

I have seldom challenged this invisible rule book for an acceptable format to life  – You study, you get a job, you get married, you buy property (more than one is preferable), you have children, you attend all family functions, you organise a few yourself, you go on foreign vacations, bring back presents for family, you continue to keep your job, go on business trips, bring presents again, religiously market your life on social media and so on. I may not have necessarily followed this myself, but I acknowledge the need for such rule based existence.

Naturally, when Karthik left a stable job within the first year of our marriage, you can imagine how distraught I must have been. I could never come to terms with his need to “take a break” because I was raised to slog my ass off in the hope of a post-retirement hibernation when I’d be free from all my familial duties. Karthik and I fought lots, not because he didn’t have a constant source of income, but just him sitting at home all day, everyday was just not healthy for him or our relationship.

The only way I knew how to get him to do what I wanted was to threaten him, and obviously, that didn’t work and we fought more. Sometimes it got very ugly, but none of that convinced him to get back to a job. He was so stubborn because life had been so unfair to him in the last few years that he genuinely believed he didn’t owe anyone anything. But I wouldn’t give up either – I revived my own dreams of studying further to make up for our combined dreams being shattered.

Recently, Karthik met a friend of his who was visiting London for a business meeting. This chap lives the epitome of a professional life that I had once aspired for. He found it hard to fathom that Karthik had moved to a new country just like that without a job. When Karthik told me this, I found myself getting extremely defensive although in the last 6 years I would never been seen defending Karthik’s life’s choices. I realised that I am incredibly proud of everything Karthik has done ever since he quit a stable job with Goldman Sachs, including moving to a different country just to support his wife live her dreams.

For a child prodigy, having always been miles ahead of his class, having topped JEE and CAT, it must have been incredibly disorienting to see that one needs a very different set of skills to survive the corporate world unlike in school years. After having been disillusioned at his first consulting gig, having gone through several less than stimulating jobs consequently, and dealing with the death of both parents, it must have taken enormous efforts to pull off a stellar consulting business, become a faculty at his alma mater, become a national newspaper columnist and a soon to be published author (Skipping the part where he has been an amazing partner putting me through business school, managing an entire household and surviving long-distance, because this would need an entire blogpost).

Over the last few years, I have begun to make peace with Karthik’s aspirations being very different from mine, and how we optimise for different things in life – me for stress and he for the lack of it. As a couple, if our focus had been on nurturing common formula driven dreams, building complexes and farm houses, we’d have learnt so little about embracing differences and me, about challenging meaningless rules.

Most people just cannot take risks and in turn impose the limitations of such a life on everyone around them. Anyone not following the prescribed path for success is warned of the potential dire consequences instead of just being understood. We think we are doing this out of concern for the other person, but in reality, we are trying to validate our own path by being skeptical/ condescending about someone else’s. It’s this lack of curiosity that deams us to failure as a society.

P.S – In our madness of shuttling between abiding and challenging, we have managed to study, get jobs, buy properties, have a child, travels loads and have the balls to quit jobs and move countries whenever we’ve wanted because you live only once!

Emotional dependence and why we remain unmarried

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Marriage is a (wo)man-made institution to legalise two people choosing to live together as romantic partners, engaging in procreation and so on. But at a very carnal level, there is no need for it and we can very well do away with it. So, if any one of you believes that you “have” to get married for your parents’ sake, we have a problem because you’ve probably surrendered to the society much more than you should have (Okay, that’s a judgement alright).

While we know our parents would love to see us married and “settled” (an unattainable state of stability that parents dream of for their children), it’s okay if we don’t settle. A lot of parents’ hopes/ dreams for us, get shattered at various points in their lives and so one more won’t make so much of a difference unless they are convinced you don’t have much else going on in your lives. So trying to get you married is their desperate attempt to find us a “purpose (read distraction)” in life, so you don’t die of loneliness/depression as you age. So, if your parents are breathing down your neck constantly, either you need to convince them that you have a bigger purpose in life or go find that purpose asap before their concerns can break you to pieces.

Some one or two generations ago, parents bulldozed their choices on children in terms of when, whom and how they must marry, but that was usually quite premature and you couldn’t quite blame the kids for not having picked their own partners by then because the kids were usually busy focussing on their careers (mid-late 20s). Off late, I’ve been meeting more and more fully grown adults (in 30s) with mostly sorted professional lives still waiting for their parents to find them partners or play the primary role in deciding who they should marry, which makes me wonder if our parents were too focussed on keeping the family close-knit and in the process missed raising us to be more independent.

Now, I don’t blame our parents because their generation was fighting the transition from joint families to nuclear families and hence, resorted to emotional blackmail (not consciously of course) to retain family bonding. Naturally our generation values emotional independence having got very little of it growing up and so, we might be headed towards raising more nuclear lives. And as we raise more independent thinkers, our children might get very little of the warmth and closeness of a huge close knit family resulting in them making up for it in their own ways as they raise their following generation and so on. But that’s not for me to worry about.

As far as my generation is concerned, we might want to focus on raising strong independent decision makers because it is scary to see the number of people who remain unmarried because they haven’t found a partner, their parents approve of. It scares me to see that lack of parental concurrence is an acceptable excuse for someone even in their 30s. If you had found your life’s greatest passion, would you let someone else (even if its your own parents) tell you what to do with it?

Karthik often said he wanted to marry someone who has lived in a hostel (I’d spent 22years of my life living with my parents at the point when I met him), but I never really understood what he meant until recently. Living in a hostel away from home allows us to “grow up” in so many ways that staying home with parents doesn’t. We learn to take control of our day-to-day lives, make independent decisions and uproot a few roots that have grown deep into our families over the years.

While this might recalibrate our bond with our families, it is an especially important trait for us to be truly marriage-ready since the recalibration facilitates welcoming a new bond in our lives. Some of us get confused by this recalibration as having to choose between the family and a partner. It is not one or the other, instead it is making way for both in the long-term while giving the partner short-term benefit of being new in our lives. And there is no way you can strike this balance gracefully if you haven’t learnt to make your own choices.

P.S – Don’t be like Wilbur Saragunaraj and go in an auto with your mummy!

Can infidelity be nourishing?

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That’s an absurd title you’d think? But we understand very little of infidelity to be sure we don’t encounter it in our own lives and if it hasn’t happened to us, we usually hold the right to judge. The way we traditionally understand infidelity is when someone gets physically intimate with another individual of the opposite gender, who is other than their partner. Now there are several levels even within this age old definition of infidelity – one kiss, several kisses, one night stand, many night stands and so on. It can be argued based on convenience that one is less worse than the other but the truth is, its all bad enough or its all quite irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.

If your wife imagined making love to another man (or even woman) while making love to you, would that be adultery? If your husband sat next to you and enjoyed a text conversation with someone else while you longed for a conversation with him, would that be adultery? What if one of you thought a complete stranger in the mall was good looking, now, is that adultery? What if you were about to have a meeting with a new colleague someday and you spent some extra time dressing up to make a good first impression, would that be adultery? What if your recent searches on Facebook featured your exes because you had nothing better to do on a commute back home, would this be adultery?

Neetisaara dictates the virtues of an ideal wife as “Karyeshu Dasi, Karaneshu Manthri; Bhojeshu Mata, Shayaneshu Rambha, Roopeshu lakshmi, Kshamayeshu Dharitri, Shat dharmayukta, Kuladharma Pathni”, This features as a part of the wedding vows you take as a couple in a Hindu wedding ceremony and it dictates the behaviour of a spouse through the relationship over 7 incarnations but today, we like to do this in a different order. We like to verify all the different bits before we commit to marrying someone and hence, stepping outside (even in your imagination) for sexual, intellectual, emotional and social stimulus makes a strong case for infidelity in a marriage.

Given that we have such a high bar for fidelity (almost making it an imaginary concept), I can tell you with reasonable confidence that we encounter infidelity in different forms in our own lives. It’s easy to let society dictate our reaction to infidelity because that’s how we have been conditioned. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna brings back Subadra from the time he is on an exile and Draupadi (who already has 4 other husbands) gets pissed off, but the story of how she feels about either Arjuna’s exploits with Chitrangada or Ulupi is not very famous. It’s our society’s way of setting boundaries on what’s acceptable and what is not – feel free to screw whoever but don’t bring them home and all will be well. But honestly, to each their own and I am going to tell you why it needn’t always mean that we are heading to doomsday.

We feel the need to step outside when we seek something that we don’t get from our existing relationships anymore. When our spouse doesn’t make us feel the way we used to feel when we first fell in love, in an attempt to get rid of this feeling of not being explicitly desired, we have this intense urge to turn back time to when we felt good about ourselves. We try to reconnect with our glorious past, we try to re-invent ourselves to be more interesting or just try all of this in our imagination, disconnecting ourselves from our realities, in turn straying from our present commitments. Our spirit doesn’t settle unless we see some hope for all glory being restored and no amount of sexy lingerie can change that.

Given that routine sets in contempt and this feeling is bound to consume all of us at some point at different levels, feeding this feeling with opportunities to make ourselves feel better could possibly be nourishing for us and our existing relationships. In an attempt to look sexy for someone else, you might make your husband notice you. This might trigger him to reciprocate and this could set things back on track. Or not. But that’s a chance I urge you to take because infidelity stems from a need to revive a dying spirit, that has the potential to be happier in any relationship, in or out. If you find your partner cheating on you, at any level, give them a chance because it doesn’t mean your relationship is dying but it means your partner is trying hard to prevent his/ her spirit from dying.