More than personality flaws like chronic lateness or indecisiveness; more than failings like snoring or fidgeting; the one thing that seems to infuriate couples is the public put-down. It’s odd really, how much we value this public appearance of solidarity in a marriage (or relationship) when it ought to fall fairly low in the hierarchy of sins. Consider.
Wife in her nightie talking on the phone with her husband: “Yes, I am ready. I was just getting into the car when you called. Yeah, sure, you can start driving. I’ll be at the club in 20 minutes. Pucca.” Blatant lie.
There are few things that upset us more than a sarcastic comment casually uttered by the spouse in front of friends.
Husband to wife: “Oh, didn’t I tell you that I was going out of town with my motorcycle buddies this weekend? I thought I had. I thought I checked with you before committing. Didn’t you get my email?” Lie. There was no email.
We all tolerate such white lies from our spouses even when we know they are lying. For one reason—we’ve all said them. The same goes for spousal failings—undressing and dropping clothes on the floor; or doing the reverse and cleaning up obsessively. We accept all those irritating, infuriating habits of our spouses because we each have our fair share of them. Public put-downs, however, are in a league of their own. Nothing good comes of them, and yet spouses dole them out anyway. Usually in mixed company, and often in front of a group of friends.
“Rahul does your taxes? Wow! I’ll be glad if Sriram even balances our chequebooks.” Wife laughs. Sriram glares at her. She stares back defensively. Friends fidget.
“Man, your sister is a saint. Cooking non-veg food for her hubby when she is a strict vegetarian. I’ll happy if Deepa makes me some tea occasionally.” Glare from Deepa as husband smiles at her impassive face. Doghouse for husband. Why?
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Public put-downs spring from private frustration. Every casually thrown public barb is a spousal after-clap with a long history; the last step after repeated attempts to influence and convert. The public put-down is a declaration of spousal failure—from both sides. One is unwilling to change and the other unwilling to accept defeat. So she scoffs, sneers and taunts. He tosses out a sarcastic comment under the guise of humour, realizing only later that he is the only one laughing. It’s a no-win situation. Friends are embarrassed; the receiver is furious; and the giver is nonplussed.
Recently, a group of Bangalore women hit upon a rather novel solution to this problem. Public put-downs can only be prevented by private venting. The key is to find a friend or three to whom you can complain and confess your frustrations without the pressure of having to portray your relationship as perfect. These friends have to be discreet and non-judgemental. Most important, they have to view your relationship as fundamentally sound and your spouse as decent even though you are telling them all the dirty secrets. This is a tall order. If you find one friend who meets all these criteria, my advice is to hang on to them. If you find three, you are incredibly lucky. Men need to do this too but for some reason, few men are comfortable discussing personal stuff with each other. They will talk about sports or politics but clam up when it comes to spouses. “Avoid, yaar,” said one Mumbai man in a tone that said it all when asked about his wife.
Every marriage is as imperfect as its participants. Even good marriages go through bad patches. All this we know. Even so, it gets lonely when couples bicker. Who do you talk to? Parents and relatives will immediately attempt to do something: confront the erring spouse and confuse the situation even further. That leaves friends.
Latter-day friendships are difficult. The stakes are too high. First, there is the time involved in making friends, which needs to be prioritized over family, children, work and other commitments. Who has the time to simply do lunch to nurture a friendship these days? Second, middle-aged folks have reached certain positions in their careers and life as a result of which they cannot reveal themselves in the carefree fashion that they used to in college. They have to hide their vulnerabilities. Third, most of us don’t need friends the way we did in college when they were our supporters, soulmates, cheerleaders and rescuers. As we get older, we rely on multiple people for all the things our friends did for us: Spouses become soulmates, household help supports, and colleagues can become cheerleaders. Money covers much of what friends did. Where once we asked friends to pick us up at the airport or train station because we couldn’t afford a cab, now we can afford a limousine. Latter-day friends however (and this is the great merit of friendship) can be great emotional salves. Talking to them is a way of dealing with spousal frustrations in what psychologists call a “safe place”. Most people in the West go to marriage counsellors and therapists to talk about their marriage. In Bangalore, women go to Hypnos, Hard Rock Café, Bacchus and Kyra. After a few smokes and drinks, the stories came out.
“I used to be the sulker. Now he has usurped my role. He’s sulking and expects me to be the sweet-talker. I don’t want to sweet-talk. I want him to sweet-talk me. I deserve it more than he does.”
“When we fight, I want solutions. I don’t want apologies and compliments. I want a game plan, or at least a sense of where we are headed.”
“I can’t have sex when I am mad. I withhold. I am a withholder.”
The evening winds up. The girls go home with lighter hearts and wallets. Best of all, thanks to the sympathy and understanding they have received, their relationship becomes better. At least for a short while.
Shoba Narayan believes in latter-day friendships. Write to her at email@example.com