Hillary Clinton was in town and brought to the fore a question that I have oft pondered: Do women compete with their husbands? The short answer is either “yes”, or “depends on what you mean by compete”, depending on who you are or who your spouse is. It also has to do with life-stage. Clinton certainly competed with her husband when he was in power. He, on the other hand, withdrew when she came to prominence. He’s had his turn and now, it is hers. Both are older.
Power couple: For duos like the Clintons, spousal competition can get real tough. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Human beings are programmed to compete. As are most species, according to Darwin. As children, we competed with siblings or close friends. As adults we compete with colleagues and on occasion, with spouses.
In the early days of courting or marriage, couples compete, albeit unconsciously, mostly to get a measure of the person they plan to spend a lifetime with. Who wins at chess? Who is a better debater? Who says “sorry” more times after a fight? Who compromises and follows when it comes to job transfers? All this lays the groundwork for the hierarchy in a relationship. Who decides what?
I have found that in most successful marriages, couples don’t compete over details. They cede entire swathes. Like warriors laying out boundary lines, they cede territory, usually based on interest and talent. This happened as a matter of course in our parents’ generation, which is why most of our parents didn’t compete with each other. Mom gets the home department. Dad gets income tax, bills and outside work. Socializing and helping children with homework can go either way, depending on attitude, education and interest.
Nowadays, it is harder. For better or worse, the lines between the sexes have thinned. Even President Obama is expected to attend his daughters’ ball games. Men these days do chores, cook, help with children’s homework and have opinions on all of the above. Women manage household finances, pay bills, buy cars and have opinions on these traditionally “male” matters. In this merging of duties begins the competition. She has always invested in stocks. Post-recession, he thinks it is a bad idea. They argue about who is right. He thinks he is right and so does she. Who is competing with whom in this situation?
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I compete with men. With women, I mostly cede. The women I know and befriend are better than me in every “womanly” area I can think of. They are better cooks, much better looking and excel at putting together clothes and jewellery with the casual nonchalance that I strive for but rarely achieve. While I fret about parenting, they execute—on buying Bharatanatyam costumes and having gifts ready for the next birthday party. Their homes are better maintained and they are able to deal with the help in a more consistent way than I can ever hope to. Ergo, with all my women friends—except with my really close ones, who are as batty as I—I bow my head in defeat and doff my hat in tribute. I attempt to learn from them.
Men, on the other hand, are easy game. When matching wits or tossing a ball is at stake, I have half a chance of being in the playing field, if not winning. I have had a whole childhood’s worth of practice. I learnt to match wits with boys and get a measure of how they thought. To this day, I choose women when I am down and men when I am up (emotionally, I mean). Men are great fun to hang out with but women solve my issues, of which there are many.
Most couples I know—in their thirties and forties—compete over time. Their negotiations mostly have to do with children and parents; caregiving and chores. My friends in Delhi resent that their husbands take time off to play golf on Sundays when they are away all week for work. My Mumbai friends party every night after the children are asleep—under the benign supervision of slumbering grandparents. Couples in Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata compete over job allocations. If the man has a higher profile job, he gets first dibs on the schedule. If she does, then she charts out what the month is like.
Most middle-class working couples rely less on ayahs (nannies) or relatives, which puts the onus of childcare entirely on their shoulders. Even couples with full-time help try to ensure that one of them is always around, particularly if the children are young. The man returns from a trip to Delhi; she hands over the kids to him and leaves the next morning for an all-day training session.
My marriage too is like a Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan pass. Can you cover me while I travel on assignment? Can I cover you while you are in Mumbai? Who takes mom for the medical check-up? That type of thing. What leavens it for everyone is the knowledge that like most things in life—this too shall pass. There are ways to solve spousal competition that have little to do with core capabilities. It is not about who is better than whom; or whether they are in the same business. It is about how busy they both are. The spouse who is less busy usually is the one competing.
So why do I compete with my husband? It’s what Hillary said. Not Clinton. The other one. Edmund. “Because it’s there.” Because he is there.
Shoba Narayan wonders if Himalayan mountain climbers compete with spouse or mountain…and which is easier to summit. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org