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