Forget love. The glue that makes a relationship stick is how you fight and forgive. Do you sulk when wounded? Do you go silent? Or do you shout and scream? My father did not shout. His response to my mother’s anger, usually hurled as questions from the kitchen, was to leave the space and bang the doors and windows, all the while, muttering to himself.
Perhaps as a result of the way my parents fought— openly and publicly– I am not a sulker. I am a screamer. And I have turned my spouse into one too.
When we fight, my husband and I don’t let up. We talk and shout, scream and cry, till all the ugly things get said; till we threaten to walk out; till we reach almost the point of no return. And then—and this is the crucial part— one of us will say something semi-nice. The fight will turn. There are three things that have to happen for the fight to turn. The nice statement has to be sincere, authentic and decent. In other words, we can’t fake it because too many ugliness has happened for mindless compliments.
“In spite of all the shit that is happening, you are a good parent,” one of us will say—in the context of parenting styles.
“How can you say all these awful things? I know this is not you.”
Maybe it is because we are both tired of fighting. Maybe it is because our fights usually last at least four hours and by that time, we are either hungry, thirsty, or need to get somewhere. Whatever the reason, there comes a point in all our fights when the de-escalation begins. And then slowly, we stumble our way to truce.
In India, as far as I have seen, there are three kinds of love in a marriage— or a relationship that has lasted a couple of decades. One is where the couple has a fairly “equal” marriage in terms of the power structure. Both have opinions and their life is built on sharing of chores and duties. This type of relationship often involves lots of quarrels but also lots of respect. Such couples speak fondly about their spouses to friends— often when the spouse is absent. You can see pride and respect in their eyes, hear it in their voices. At home though, they are constantly negotiating, bickering, quarrelling to iron out differences, to do things their way. This is what I call a high engagement relationship.
The other type of marriage is one where either the husband or the wife has ceded power and is willing to be a subservient partner. It could be the wife who has decided to let her husband make the big decisions about spending or buying a home. It could be the husband who rules the roost at work but has completely abdicated the home to his wife. She says and he obeys, or vice versa. This type of marriage too works brilliantly and lasts long. It involves peaceful abdication of power, so let’s call it that.
The third type of marriage which happens very rarely is one where love and admiration pervades the relationship. In my life, I have only seen one such marriage—between my college professor and his wife. They were clearly in love, talked a lot, joked with each other and loved each other’s company. They rarely if ever fought. But such harmony is extremely rare in a marriage. I am not even sure it is worth aspiring to, because it cannot be engineered. You just have to get lucky.
So what do you do if you are married to someone who is basically decent and worthy of your love and respect? They have their quirks and irritate you no end but as humans they are loyal and kind. They don’t cheat or lie. They want the marriage to work. How then to make love count in your life?
I think about this every time my husband and I have a fight. I have come up with two solutions: forgive and invest. Forgiving has to do with letting go. When your husband has an idea for a vacation that you feel is totally wrong, just let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff. So he wants a vacuum cleaner and you think it is a terrible idea. Just say Yes. So she likes detailed vacation planning and you prefer spontaneity. Let her have her way. Go on the vacation and enjoy the ride. So she thinks the kids should not get into autos while you think that it will make them resilient. Fall in line. Maybe it is something in her past that makes her hate autos. Learn about it and agree.
Investing is a bit more work. It involves looking at things from the opposing point of view. It takes empathy and bit of client-service mentality. This doesn’t come naturally to me. But I am trying to learn this. My husband lives by calendaring and I hate doing this because I like having all options open at all times (this drives him nuts). These days, I am adapting to his method and he knows I am doing it consciously because we have fought about this too many times to count. It brings a smile to his lips when he sees my calendar entries. And I force myself to enter appointments into the calendar. I guess this is investment.
Both forgiving and investing take work and often my husband and I are not up to the task. You are tired, you are stressed, preoccupied, and you don’t really have the energy to put the other person first. In this case, often we just do things our way. And when we get caught out by the other, we explain, “Yes, I told you that I would do this your way, but this time, I am going to do it my way and here’s why.” Often, that’s enough.
Maybe it is because we have quarrelled about this before and we know the script. We know what will happen. Maybe it’s because we are tired of fighting each other. Or maybe this is what people call love.
Happy Valentine’s Day!