Mint

Valentine’s Day

Had fun writing this piece.

Are you a spouse whisperer?

Pity the newly-weds this Valentine’s Day. Flush with love and fresh with flowers, these men and women make heartfelt declarations of love, little realizing that what they need is not a card embossed with hearts, or an app that suggests new ways to regurgitate that tired old phrase, “I love you”, but a spouse whisperer.

What, you will ask, is a spouse whisperer?

Remember The Horse Whisperer, the movie in which Robert Redford makes a horse do things that it does not want to do? Spouse whisperers do the same thing to spouses.

There comes a time in every relationship when you realize a simple truth: Your spouse doesn’t listen to you. The harsher truth will follow: Your spouse listens to someone else who says the exact same thing that you’ve been repeating for days, months, sometimes years. That beloved man with a dimpled chin that you fell in love with is 100 times more likely to follow well-meaning advice and instructions when it comes from a dispassionate third party.
You could have been telling him to buy mutual funds for years. Suddenly, one day, he will return from his golf game or even his barber and announce: “You know, Billu barber is buying mutual funds. I think we should too.” Before you froth at the mouth, read on. If you are as smart as I think you are, you will immediately see the need to cultivate the barber, tailor, hairdresser, golf buddies, drinking buddies, and colleagues, who shall henceforth be referred to as spouse whisperers.

The common need for spouse whisperers became apparent to me after a night out with friends. We had a few drinks and pretty soon, we began talking—lovingly, of course—about our spouses. My husband, poor thing, works long hours; he should exercise more. She should shop less. He wakes up too early on weekends to head out to the golf course. She stays late at work. He needs to cultivate hobbies; I only have his best interests at heart. She should nag less. After our venting, we arrived at the same conclusion: Our spouses didn’t listen to us. They followed the advice of TV news anchors; articles in magazines; and even random strangers they had met at parties.

Sounds familiar? I thought so. In all these situations, who are you going to call? A spouse whisperer.

Take a simple example that is the source of much discussion in many households these days: the amount of time that your spouse spends on social media. As her well-meaning husband, you believe she is spending far too much time on Twitter and Facebook. It is not a belief; it is a fact.

Being the software engineer that you are, you have ingeniously set timers to detect when she logs in and out of Facebook and Twitter on all her devices. You have wads of proof that you have collected on your daughter’s graph paper—pencil marks that go up and down like an ECG, plotting the amount of time she is on social media on a minute-by-minute basis.

One evening, you begin a discussion about this, little realizing that it is a path to self-obliteration. Let’s figure this out rationally, you say. As you speak, there is a series of reactions in rapid succession. First, she doesn’t listen. Then she pretends she doesn’t understand what you are saying. Third, she says that you are wrong! Flat out. Without discussion. It is all in your head, she says.

That’s when you bring out your ammunition: those green graph papers that you clutch in your hands. Proof. Going back weeks. That’s when her eyes go cold. “Have you been spying on me?” she says in that deceptively quiet voice you have come to fear. That is when you realize that all your meticulous tracking of her time on social media, and rigorous collection of proof, was not just suboptimal; not just a waste of time. It was worse. It was like digging your grave, jumping inside it, and smearing yourself with dirt just to save your face.

The tone of the discussion changes entirely after that. Your spouse spiritedly argues with you about how you are wrong in your perception of her. She has the gall to call it “perception” when you were waving around scientific proof. Then she turns the tables on you. She isn’t the one spending too much time on Facebook, she says. You are the one who is constantly on the phone—checking messages, texting colleagues, giving the thumbs-up to lame jokes on all the superfluous alumni groups that you are part of on WhatsApp, all late at night, when you should be sleeping or doing better things, like cultivating your mind. You are the one with the addiction, not her, she says.

At the end of 4 hours, she doesn’t merely disagree with you or think you are wrong. She is furious, packing her bags to go to her mother’s house. The present scenario is so far removed from the image you had in your head that it makes you doubt how somebody in your office called you empathetic and insightful in your last performance review.
In your imagination, you show her the graph paper. She pores over the weeks of data you have collected and goes red with shame. She sees the validity and truth of your statements. She sees the fault of her ways. Her eyes fill with tears of gratitude. “Thank you for showing me the way,” she says. What follows is a night of merriment.
What has ensued is the exact opposite.

You know what the worst part is? It is not that she has packed and gone to her mother’s house. She will be back after two days. The house is in her name anyway; for tax reasons. If anything, you’ll be the one thrown out on the street should you guys split. The worst part isn’t the fight or its aftermath. It occurs during a casual dinner a couple of weeks later. As she sips soup, she says casually, “You know, there was an article posted on Surekha’s Facebook update about how women are addicted to social media. It causes our hormones to go entirely out of whack; and turns us into raging psychotic beasts. Do you know that the most aroused emotion when you are on social media is envy?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you?” you feel like shouting. But you hear the word “aroused” and stay silent.

Your lovely wife proceeds to blithely tell you that Surekha and she have made a pact to stay off social media for a week; to “detox”, as she calls it. You may wish to dump all those graph papers on Surekha’s head; you may wish to avoid her at all parties. But that would be a wrong approach. You need to cultivate Surekha so that she can deliver your messages to your wife. Silly Surekha, as you call her, is your spouse whisperer.

Spouse whisperers come in many guises. As a sneaky spouse, your job is to figure out who they are; and how you can get them to pass along your messages. If your wife reads a daily tarot card or an app that gives the day’s astrological predictions, you need to be able to get the astrologer to predict what you want: “Engage in loving habits with your husband and it will pay off handsomely this week. Don’t buy jewellery.”

If your husband is tight with his golf buddies, befriend them. Get them over for lunch or dinner. Then, have a quiet chat with the man your husband respects: “I think it is so great that you are strict with your children. You should mention that to Ravi (insert your spouse name). He spoils our kids and leaves me to be the bad guy.”

The last bit of advice I have for you is to cultivate a tag-team of spouse whisperers, because you never know when your spouse will wisen up to the fact that the driver is giving him suggestions for vacation destinations—particularly if those vacation destinations happen to be the ones you are pushing.

Always have a Plan B: in life and in terms of what you want whispered into your spouse’s ears.
Happy Valentine’s Day—to you, your spouse, and your team of whisperers.

Shoba Narayan has ruined all the whispering by revealing the concept to her spouse through this column. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

7 comments

  1. Brajesh: I am very sad to see your first post/s here to be so virulently hostile. You (and others) should know that this is a private blog, not a public domain press, so free speech is moderated by the tastes of the owner. I have also noticed that some of the young(er) visitors seem to want to come in just to pick a fight. As I wrote in an earlier post, this is a coffee shop for light / enlightening discussion, not a bar for free-for-all flamethrowing. Brajesh – you seem to be smart so just review some of the previous “heated” first posts: they don’t “register” and go un-replied, much like a childish tantrum. So what do you gain, other than your somewhat mean remarks visible for all to see. (If you still do want to pick a fight, just write me directly.) I come here for my weekly dose of culture and coffee, don’t spoil my fun, please.

    To Vaidehi – I understand your remarks, but trust me that 20 years of marriage is a *whole lot more* growth and development than what can be written or understood from a 20-line blog post. (Think how you would describe your first year of marriage to your teenage niece.) So I guess my gentle advice is — there is more to the journey than the destination or the waypost. Don’t read too much or too little into it. In general marriage is a complex lesson in human feelings; don’t push too hard or too little, and remember to enjoy the journey.

    To all the rest, please review these unofficial ground rules:

    (1) This is Shoba’s private blog, not public space, so be respectful at all times. Unnecessary flamethrowing is generally just ignored or discarded without comment, so just don’t bother.
    (2) It helps if you are familiar with the author’s work, and if you have read the previous debate/s on various topics. Many posts are repeats of previous points/arguments which, again, are generally ignored. You’ll just not have fun that way. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and remember to fasten your seat belt.
    (3) Some of the posts are in reference to articles etc. that are published in well known magazines. Standard rules apply, and if you really feel you have a claim on the author’s time, then do the Right Thing by subscribing to the magazine first, and then writing/commenting directly in that forum.
    (4) Many first timers lead with “Shoba you wrote XYZ in this article, I don’t agree because of [list of 30 reasons here]”. This causes the old-timers to just chuckle because you are not achieving your purpose in any way. If you want to enjoy the blog then try responding with an alternative viewpoint or suggestion. Also remember that timeless leadership lesson: say something positive first, it improves your chances of being taken seriously in the future. Mind your tone at all times.
    (5) This is a coffee shop for gentle banter and light/enlightened discussion. This is not a bar for hard drinks and protracted flamefesting. Put another way, if you’re in the mood for a boilermaker you wouldn’t go to Starbucks/CafeCoffeeDay would you?
    (6) Finally, come in, sit down, enjoy your coffee, tip the waiter and enjoy your day. Life is too short. We want your input, but not your “output” (alimentary canal reference). Chill and let live.

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  2. Brajesh although I can’t fully agree with your view I have to admit I can’t disagree with it either.

    I guess there is a lot of stuff out there on “men from Mars and women from Venus” and vice-versa. But if it frequently comes to one party arguing with facts and data and the other arguing with tone and emotion then it is definitely a bad match. It can’t go on forever.

    I recently had lunch with an (older) acquaintance who is divorced. She is the artistic type and her husband, IIT-ian, was the brilliant engineer. They had a typical south Indian arranged marriage and the first few years were great. Then “no job” depression for her, then she got a job with the government. They lived in the Midwest. The guy traveled all over for all his “deals” and she worked at the government office a few miles away and was home by 4pm every day. It was perfect. But some 10-12 years in, it became apparent that her worldview was very very different from his: he lived in numbers and data and golf (yes!) and she wanted to travel to the African interior etc. They fought like hell. He began beating her. She kept it from their children until they were old enough and realized it. They went off to college and now, empty nester, she quietly told him she was leaving. She offered herself to him when he threatened to beat her to a pulp. She said you can destroy my body but my mind will never ever be with you. He did not touch her; instead he confessed he had not truly loved her in years, and then apologized to her and, with sadness, drove her to the airport. She lives in India now and occasionally visits the US (but not him), and he is by himself. Asked separately if they are now happy, they each say they are distinctly happier than before but not completely happy.

    This may read like a Jumpa Lahiri story but it is true. You put up with crap when you are younger but eventually you realize that “these incomplete relationships don’t bring happiness to anyone”.

    As for me — I had this discussion with my husband who is also an IIT-ian. We love each other and desperately want to avoid this sort of thing in the future, so we try to work on it now – by finding common activities to enjoy etc. so we don’t have to sit in therapy 20 years from now and ruminate over how “happiness had been”.

    Shoba to be honest I am very surprised that while you appear to be very forthright etc. in the blog and take pride in this sort of thing, you are suggesting third-party whispering? (OK, you did this once in light hearted spirit … but the fact that you’ve picked “quarrel” stories for this article indicates something deeper is at play in your head and heart.) One sister to another — everything is solvable (even if I am younger to you akka) so ignore the naysayers and do what you can to recover the love you rightly and richly deserve.

    Wish you a belated blissful Valentine Day and a Valentine Year ahead everyone. XOXO

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  3. Wow. What a classic downer post.

    Isn’t it easier to just marry the right person instead?

    The semi-Buddhist art loving freebie drifter gal who married the mathematical scientific-proof-proffering mutual fund genius, who (sadly) now realizes that her spouse needs and wants so much more than her tired old recipes – neem bark and sunflower seeds and bamboo sap – now wants to get others to whisper secretly to her hubby about the wonders of mitsuba and hojosu???

    Please. To the gal (even like the JP Morgan letter). Enough is enough. What value are you adding to his life anyway. The kids won’t even listen to you (“neem bark!”, they laugh to their friends about their mom’s tired trying of all things Indian). You’ve done your duty even if it is the Indian way: you joined him overseas, bore his children (yes I get it you love them too), brought them back, fought like hell to get them to dance the Bharatabhagyavidhata (oops Bharat Natyam) and finally fought for a full fifteen hours on the flight as they insisted on signing up for science at Stanford. Then you cried tears that all the nutmeg-chai wouldn’t stop. Now the math-mutual-fund man wants to pick up his next whizz-bang social network inclusive growth idea and lunch with Modi … and leaves you to explore (alone, again!) the mountains of Thailand. And when you bring back, mightily labored, the Ratcaprek flower, just special for him, he says, just, “hum” and back to his laptop.

    Enough is enough girl. Twenty years is a bloody long time.

    Amitabh had a great moment in K.A.N.K. He says to his daughter-in-law Maya (who has been out of love with her son). “Rishi ko chod do. Tum use pyar nahin karti. Is tarah sath rehkar tum use kisi aur ke pyar se door rakh rahi ho, aur apne aapko bhi. In adhoore rishton se kisi ko khushi nahin mil sakti. Galti tumhari nahin hai, mohabbat aur maut dono bin bulaye mehman hote hain”.

    Of course all this could have been avoided if the girl, silly girl, would have married her real true love, the football player instead of settling for the phoren arranged marriage to math-wizard-gentleman dude. But, such is life, live and learn.

    Oh, and happy Valentine’s day!

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