I am not the one to advocate for marriage because I believe that one needs to be ready to take on a life-long commitment challenge, because let’s face it, commitment is a conscious decision and not an incidental one. Commitment is about being true to oneself and to the person you are in a relationship with. Take friendship for instance, the most beautiful non-family relationship of all. Would I be showing commitment to a friend if I talk behind their back, or bail out when they need me, or don’t back them up when the world is ganging up against them? The same goes in a husband-wife relationship. One’s commitment is to the relationship and to the person you make your commitment to. How can you be a good husband or a good wife? Sadly, there are whole libraries of self-help books that tell a woman how to be a good wife in addition to generations of women and other family members telling them the do’s and don’ts about how to make a marriage successful. If that was not enough, we also have books, movies, and magazines sending women covert messages about the same. But what about the men, I ask.
The Peter Pan Syndrome
If you search for ‘how to be a good husband’ the search engine pulls up results that pertain to how you can have a satisfactory sex life or how you can keep things ‘interesting’ in a marriage. I am not surprised that there is nothing really out there for men to look up to, except their fathers perhaps, if they had a father or a father figure around while growing up. Mostly, they end up absorbing advice from (mind you, not discussing with) their friends in casual conversations. I don’t believe men talk about their relationships/marriages with their friends. It is all in passing, keeping it causal; because ‘it is not cool for men to talk about their feelings’. So, the result is that the popular discourse is how men are the ‘victims’ in a marriage. The general discourse is that it is the men/husbands who are the ones who are mentally tortured and forced to do their wife’s bidding. It is the men who have to ‘give up their freedom’ when they get married. I wonder where this comes from. Is it because they think that women didn’t have any freedom in the first place or is it because they feel that women don’t need any freedom. Either way, they feel that they have to give up their lifestyle. I suspect that they fear that when they get married they will be expected to share in the household duties. No more bossing the doting mother around for every tiny little thing. That is the real fear. The real fear is that they will have to become adults, that they will have to grow up when they get married. I believe, every man suffers from the Peter Pan Syndrome – they are afraid that they will not be boys anymore, gallivanting across town, drinking with their buddies till dawn and sleeping the rest of the weekend off! That is the real fear!
What makes a good husband?
The society has for centuries taken upon itself to instruct women or rather, mansplain to them every aspect of being a woman but it was presumed that men simply knew everything. But that’s not how it is. As every married woman will tell you, men need to be told what to do. They may walk by a pile of laundry on their multitudinous trips to the fridge but they are not manufactured to simply pick up a t-shirt and start folding, unless they are told to. So, we women, follow their instructions dutifully, and tell them. But that backfires because when the wife tells them, they are accused of nagging. But I digress. There are no rules out there for men to follow. Period. Okay, without any more sarcasm, it is true that there is no social rule book for men to become good husbands. They don’t receive innumerable social messages from their fathers, other family members, friends, that tell them how to be a good husband. I believe that most religious texts do have some instructions for men to be good husbands. I cannot speak for other religions but as a Hindu, I know that there are many instructions for women to be good wives, ranging from directives such as ‘a wife should work hard from dawn to dusk’ and should remain ‘dependent on the husband just as a creeper is dependent on a tree’ to ‘a wife should always ensure that there is sufficient milk and milk products in the house’. So, what are the poor men supposed to do? They have no reference point. They only have some maxims that tell them that they cannot cry, or that they need to protect the honour of their family. Look where that has got us! We have produced generations of men who are unwilling or incapable of emoting. They bottle up their emotions and then it all comes out wrong when they explode. It only results in negativity and passive aggressive behaviour at best or violence towards their wives and/or children, at worst. And what about their duty of protecting their household name? That has given rise to honour killings because only the women are capable of bringing shame to the family, right? What I can infer from this is that either family names are too fragile or women are too powerful. At the end of the day, the onus falls on the woman to make the marriage work, because, like I have heard multiple times, from multiple men of different ages, ‘no one told them’ what makes a good husband. And I sympathize with them whole-heartedly. It must be so difficult to treat women with respect, like you would another human being.
Marriage is the Median Line
Oprah has a list of 11 books for (married) couples on her website. What is common in them all? They are mostly written by marriage counsellors or behavioural psychologists who give you a do’s and don’ts list for marriage. I don’t believe in clinically dissecting relationships, so the list simply put me off. Relationships are meant to be spontaneous, natural, holistic, and interactive. I don’t believe any good can come from synthetizing them by putting a check on the boxes. That’s not the ideal way to go about understanding any relationship, let alone such a complex one or utterly simple one, depending on how you look at it; as between a wife and her husband. I believe in relationships. Hence, naturally, I also believe that marriage is the most beautiful of all social institutions, provided you find the right partner. So, what is a successful marriage? That will depend on what your definition of success is, isn’t it? Before I begin, let me just say that marriage is a very customised and customisable relationship. Every individual thinks differently about it and every marriage is different. At the very onset, both partners need to show their hand so that there are no aces up their sleeves later. But having said that, one needs to accept that there will always be surprises, and the biggest Jack-in-the-Box will be in the shape of the in-laws because there’s no point beating around the bush about this – you marry into a family and even though you may think you know the person you’re marrying; you will not know their family until after (in most cases). The best piece of advice I ever received about marriage was never to focus solely on good days or bad days but to always focus on the median line. Then, if you are mathematically inclined, you can decipher for yourself which half of the line your relationship with your husband falls into. But keep focussing on the median line and make sure you have your blinkers on.
Marriage is a Joint Happiness Account
Marriage is a journey that you embark upon and if your travel partner wants a luxury holiday and you prefer to backpack, then you might think that it is a recipe for trouble. Continuing with the metaphor of marriage as a journey, I believe that when two people who love each other come to an impasse, then it is an opportunity to think outside the box. And no, I don’t think that the only solution is to travel solo. I believe you can come up with multiple alternatives as long as the focus is on finding a middle path which is equally enjoyable for both travellers. For instance, you can perhaps plan two trips—a luxury trip and a backpacking holiday, or you can combine the two and spend a few days luxuriating in a posh villa after a shoestring budget holiday. The key is to find the middle ground. Some people give it a negative connotation by calling it a ‘compromise’ but I prefer calling it a ‘joint happiness account’. You dip into it from time to time to ensure that both are happy because let’s not forget love. If there is love, then seeing your partner happy makes it all worth your while. It is like a dance that you choreograph. You dance in rhythm with each other and create something beautiful for you to enjoy. There will always be uncertainties in a dance recital, like in a marriage, but if one can tune in to the other person, then the partner can catch them in time or break their fall when they trip unexpectedly.
Marriage is Symbiosis
I think most married women will agree that you cannot live with them and you cannot live without them. But why is that so? I realised that Symbiosis in Biology can be of various kinds. When both benefit from each other, it is called Mutualism. An example would be when both wife and husband can watch a movie that they enjoy. A common example in nature would be flowers and bees. Then there is the symbiotic relationship called Neutralism where neither benefits from the other. There are virtually no examples in the biological world but the term is a theoretical one, used to describe situations where interactions are negligible. In the human world, an excellent example would be housework. Neither the husband nor the wife benefit from it and the interactions can be kept at a minimum. Finally, the last among the positive interactions is Commensalism where one species benefits while the other is neither harmed nor does it benefit. Let me give you an example. I don’t share my love for tea with my husband. So, at times when he makes me a cuppa, I benefit immensely because of the sheer joy it brings me while my husband is neither harmed (unless you consider making a trip to the kitchen harmful) nor is he benefited from it.
Now we come to the tricky part of the symbiotic relationships where either, or both species experience something negative from their interactions. These are antagonistic relationships and the most well-known of them all would be Parasitic, where one is harmed while the other benefits. Count Dracula comes to mind. More commonly, abusive spouses may be part of a parasitic relationship where they derive pleasure or feel powerful from inflicting pain on the other. Amenalism is where one species is harmed while the other remains in a neutral state, neither getting harmed nor benefiting. This is most commonly experienced by couples because there are many instances when a glance or a word or a lack thereof, can amount to either of the parties feeling a negative emotion while the other remains oblivious to the inner turmoil of the other. The last of the antagonistic symbiotic relationships is Competition when both are negatively affected by it. There should be no competition about who loves the kids more, who is more stressed, or who is contributing more to the household financially. No one benefits from these discussions and it can only result in more unhappiness.
Apart from the extreme case of Parasitism, I believe husbands and wives experience some degree of all these kinds of symbiotic relationships at some point or another in their marriage. Depending on the trajectory of their marriage, the length of time they have spent with each other, the amount of love and respect they have for each other, the faith they have on each other; the duration and intensity of these kinds of symbiosis will vary. If you are not leaning over backwards to accommodate the other, if you are spending sufficient time nurturing your soul, and if you are respecting each other’s space, then you are somewhere in the positive side of the spectrum. Once one is able to identify where they are located in terms of Symbiosis, then all one needs to do is accept the other person with all their flaws because, let’s be honest to ourselves, we all have flaws. What you choose to do about this knowledge is within your control. Nothing else is.
Rhombus or Möbius Strip?
In a dream I saw the symbol of the Rhombus. It was two triangles joined together at the base. I woke up feeling how strange it was because that shape has no significance in my life. The next morning, I was reading a book where the same shape was mentioned in the context of the love between husband and wife. It piqued my curiosity enough for me to Google it and what should I find? The Rhombus or Diamond shape signifies Light and Life. It is the emblem of purity and perfection. The Diamond is the stone of commitment, faithfulness, and a promise between husband and wife. Spiritually, the shape symbolizes equanimity. Marriage can be symbolised as the Rhombus. When the male and female powers are in harmony, and creating harmony takes a world of patience; the world is dazzled by the brilliance of the light that emanates from their love. But in more practical terms, I think the husband-wife relationship is more like a Möbius Strip, a never-ending loop with only one surface, where you end up at the starting point having traversed both sides of the surface without crossing over an edge. Whichever way you look at it, there is a lot of drama involved. Best to embrace it.
Room for improvement?
I don’t believe that you are only one half of a person and the other person is out there somewhere to complete you – your better half. I believe that you should spend your life making yourself complete on your own. You are whole on your own. You need to be happy in your own company because unless you are happy, you cannot make anyone else happy. But happiness can also be found in the company of someone who shares most of your views. You may be sceptical about love or you may not believe in destiny or perhaps, you do not believe that there is anyone out there who can possibly live with your eccentricities. I would only urge you to keep an open mind and when you find someone who makes you a better person and with whom you can envision sharing a positive symbiotic relationship; then you should not hesitate to take that step forward and take a leap of faith because marriage after all, is hard work but the trick is to make it feel like play!