What would you say if I told you being stuck in Bangalore traffic can teach you a thing or two about love and relationships? You might find that ridiculous, but let me take just one aspect today and you might see what I mean.
Imagine you are driving quietly along the few two-way tree-lined avenues left in the city. It is a breezy, balmy 26 degrees, and you are in a place of general wellness and happiness. You drive along at an easy pace, enjoyable pace, happy that you are in Bangalore and not sweating it out in one of our huge coastal cities or in the smog up in the North, and all is well in the world. Suddenly, you start hearing a series of beeps, and that rises to insistent honks and a vehicle behind you is wanting to go ahead. There is enough space for them to overtake you and go on without making all that noise, but they do that anyway. You wave them ahead, and they honk as if it is going out of style soon, blaring as they pass you by.
What do you do? Do you just leave them be, or do you want to show them they can’t do that? Do you try and overtake them now, and blare your horn at them to show them what it feels to be at the receiving end of that behaviour? Or better still, do you overtake them and do it smoothly and quietly, setting an example on how they could have done what they needed without really impacting anyone else?
Think about it like this: You are sitting in your balcony, enjoying the view with your cup of tea and the newspaper, feeling all cozy and comfortable, and you start hearing a few beeps and honks from your loved one. You let it be and suddenly there is a lot of blaring. Perhaps they come and sit in the other chair and maybe even grab the newspaper out of your hand. What do you do? Do you quietly take out your phone and read something else? Or do you get angry and shout at them for being such bullies? Or do you, in quite the saintly fashion, ask them perhaps they would like your tea as well, or maybe a fresh cup?
The choices you have in both the situations are really not that different. There is so much traffic in our lives, both in the physical sense and in a more metaphorical sense, in our relationships. Sometimes, we get the unexpected honker, the surprise anger outburst for no known fault of ours. We don’t know what was happening to them – maybe they had an emergency, something urgent they needed, or just pent up emotions. Were they just being a horrible person at that time? Maybe – but if we assume that horribleness always, we may just end up being horrible ourselves.
Like with traffic, perhaps it helps in relationships as well to go with the most benign attribution.
As written for and published in the New Indian Express.
Infections spread easily. Being in a relationship means so much greater vulnerability for infections to spread especially if there is proximity to each other like where a couple is living together, travelling together or just physically being with each other for extended periods of time. Sometimes, couples take turns falling ill – first one gets the flu or the eye infection, and in a few days the other gets it, or both get it together. One could try and take all the hygienic precautions and escape being infected, and be in a position to care for the one who first falls ill, but it is not easy if you are in close physical proximity.
On the other hand, there are other types of infectious possibilities even when a couple is not physically close with each other. I am not talking of conjunctivitis, viral fevers or other myriad illnesses – I am talking of emotional contagion. Emotions are infectious. We are quite susceptible to our partner’s emotional state, and they to ours. It doesn’t need physical proximity. Sometimes, longer the distance, greater the emotional contagion.
A couple living thousands of kilometers from each other can pick up on each other’s sadness and start feeling the same, exhibit the same signs, get teary, distressed and disinterested in their immediate environment. When you are deeply connected, one person’s sadness can trigger an almost equal and similar emotion in the other, or even something deeper and more intense. Knowing a loved one is struggling with grief for instance, can make you even sadder than they may be, just because it is compounded with your own helpless feelings of not being able to be there with them. You might get a serious case of the blues through that.
Emotions are infectious, but may not always be the same – it often mutates. It is like someone near you has chicken pox, and that triggers jaundice in you. The triggered emotion may resonate in the same emotional space, like with the sad, concerned feelings, but quite often could be something very different.
If your loved one is really angry and shares that with you, you might get angry with them, but sometimes, you might actually get angry at them for getting into such situations. You might end up fighting with each other about it. Happy emotions might trigger sorrow, actually. Imagine a loved one calling you from the US, sharing with you how they had an amazing success, and that their project won some big prize – you may get happy for them, but you might also get really sad that you are not with each other, that you are missing out on celebrating it together. Similarly, your fear might trigger your beloved’s anxiety, and your jealousy might trigger righteousness.
The cure for emotional infectiousness is to balance with a more logical, thoughtful engagement, but then, the cure could actually be worse than the illness if overused, leading to emotional distance and a falling apart.
Just notice your own emotions. See if you can hold a bit of distance, and that should be safe enough.
As written for published in The New Indian Express
It is the flu season. At doctors’ clinics all around, there are people sniffling and coughing, looking bleary-eyed at each other and wondering what sort of flu it is. For most of us, the doctor would give us a quick look, and after deciding it is none of the scarier variants around these days (H1N1, KFD, Zika and what not,) declare it is a viral fever and send us back home to rest, telling us that there is nothing to do except keep ourselves well-hydrated, take a paracetamol for the fever and wait it out.
There is probably no other time that one is grateful for relationships than when one is unwell. The idea of rest and relaxation at home and being taken care of is so therapeutic for the patient, but what does it do to one’s relationship?
When you are sick and need to rest, what kind of patient are you? Do you get needy and clingy, and ask for your hand to be held? Do you get possessive about the TV and demand that only your choice matters because you are sick? Do you meekly go away into the bedroom, bemoaning how your illness is taking a toll on everyone? Or, do you act as if nothing is the matter at all and that life needs to go on – do you try and continue to work, getting angry with the people around when they try to get you to rest? Are you the disobedient patient who will try and sneak in the ice-cream or something else that is against doctor’s orders?
If we are being honest with ourselves, we will likely confess that we are not exactly the model patient. Some of us seek extra love, and others seek to test the love available. A few try and distance themselves from loving attention, while yet others make their illness a matter of public record. We might regress to being childish, talking in baby-tongues and sulking or crying, and ask to be cajoled and pampered like parents would. We might act like a martyr and be self-sacrificing, but still, do a bit of drama around it.
How we behave if there is something major is often quite different – there is a far greater degree of concern and worry, and everything is different, but when we fully expect to get better in a few days, it is as if we give ourselves permission to almost enjoy this aspect of being able to love each other as a parent-child as well. We act less like the adults in a relationship and take on a distinctly more parent-child kind of relationship. The nurturing required becomes more like a baby and a caregiver than two adults.
Just like with a parent-child relationship, being able to get the care we need from a partner influences how deeply we bond with each other. The flu can be an annoyance, but it tests relationships and can also help deepen the bond.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
Tired of New Year Resolutions?
Here is a game you might want to consider playing with your partner, provided you have in some way, form or shape been together for significant periods ot the year so quickly passing by. It is quite a simple game that we call “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times.”
Each of you take a couple of sheets of paper. If you want to be dramatic, take a sheet of white paper and write in blue ink for the best of times, and take a sheet of yellow paper and write in red for the worst – twist it about as you please, but the requirements are quite simple. You each write a letter to the other about your best time that year and the worst time. There are no pre-conditions, and no constraints on what it is that you need to write. Put the letters in an envelope, and give it to each other to be opened in your new year. You could make a ceremony of it, open it together, open it separately – whatever suits you, but take some time to think over it, and see what happens for the two of you.
There are a number of possibilities.
Either the best or the worst, or both could have you featuring prominently in it, or not at all. You might have known about it or maybe it was something that never registered for you and yet you see it means so much for your partner. It could be something you considered trivial at the time it happened (“Your mother made me rotis, knowing very well that I prefer rice. I suffered for the whole week, and nobody even noticed” - for example) or something major that happened you think ought to have been noticed, but was not (“I broke my back and was bed-ridden for a month!” – for example)
The point of it is to notice what happens to you both as you share what is written. Do you find yourself empathizing with the other’s experience and feeling a warmth for them, or do you find yourself looking for you in your partner’s letter? In other words, is it about you or is it about your partner?
In relationships, we want to ideally be able to love our partner as they experience themselves, and share what their life is like, but in reality, we are rarely able to achieve that ideal. Most times, we are looking for simpler gratifications. We want our best times to be about each other and worst times about some body else, but where we played a supporting role (“I lost my best friend, and only having you with me helped,”) and we might hate it if the worst times was squarely about us and best times didn’t feature us at all. And that’s what makes this exercise quite powerful.
It can be a simple sharing, but could also be deeply insightful in terms of how you love.
In love, it truly is the best of times and the worst of times.
As written for and published by the New Indian Express
The American sitcoms make it look so perfectly romantic. The glitzy New York skyline, Times Square brilliantly lit-up, the big ball getting counted down to the drop at midnight, and fireworks go off in perfect sync as the year changes and it is a new January 1st. It looks even better if there is a bit of light snow just starting, everyone dressed up cozily look up into the skies collecting pretty snowflakes on the tips of their noses, and of course, every couple has to - and as per sitcom rules, there can be no exceptions to this rule – gather each other into their arms and share a nice, long kiss that straddles the magical midnight seconds into the new year, only to disentangle well into the new year.
It is another matter altogether that Dec 31st is likely to be extremely cold and quite unpleasant a time to be in New York. It is cold, miserable and you really need a lot of New Year cheer to go through the day.
Despite the reality of the cold, the fact of the matter is that couples everywhere now have that expectation hanging over their heads. Even if they are not in Times Square watching the ball drop and getting into a kiss, wherever they are, they really must have the moment with each other and kiss each other. Woe to anyone who just happened to need a bathroom break at that minute, or had just stuffed their face with some hastily-ordered biryani, or worse – if you were even just chatting with anybody else during that 1 minute. You may just as well kiss the year goodbye, and forget about kissing your partner.
Does the new year kiss really have that kind of magic?
Maybe you are not a midnight person and you are very much asleep by the time the new year rolls in. Many couples quite likely have no interest whatsoever in these reveries and are in bed by their usual hours, making sure to shut their windows against the predictable midnight revelry. Other more traditional couples might turn up their joint noses at this midnight madness, and wait instead for Navroz, or Chithirai or any of the other two dozen New Year’s Days we have in the diverse calendars of the world. A few might have other, more pressing priorities to bother with this.
The naysayers aside, for a lot of us, it means something – not because there is literally magic in the air at that hour, but because we decide it means something to us. We put in that magic into that New Year kiss. We tell ourselves that with that new kiss to start the new year, we are committing afresh to a happy new year with our partner, that we wish and hope with all our hearts that the year brings us joy – whatever the circumstances of our lives might be.
The magic is fully ours.
So, go ahead if you like it – seek your partner out and share that New Years moment.
As written for The New Indian Express
It is one thing to date someone, and quite another to introduce them to your family given all the pressures that come along with it becoming ‘official.’ The pressures are even more if the family is the one doing the job of introducing you to prospective partners, and then waiting on you to say ‘Yes’ – a ‘No’ usually gets a lot more questions, arguments and even conflicts in such situations than a ‘Yes’.
In either case, when a relationship becomes ‘official’ it takes on a whole different avatar, because now it is not only your relationship with your partner, but also their relationship with each and every other significant person in your life. Inevitably, there will be some conflict or the other, and since you are the bridge between the two, you are often the battleground. You then become not only a witness to a whole new set of relationships, but also often times, an arbitrator, a judge and executioner
At first, it might start off just as an FYI, something they think you should know as it concerns your partner, but soon enough those comments become more insistent, more pressing and more demanding, till finally it becomes a real question: “Would you please tell X that what they are doing is not okay? Would you please make sure that X acts in a certain way?”
So, whose side will you be on? Will you judge what is the ‘right’ side and join it? Or should you be neutral? Or something else altogether?
Judging the ‘right’ side could more than likely make you part of the problem, with the affected party screaming at you that you have lost all sight of objectivity, that you are blinded by love or duty or whatever else they can accuse you of. Your partner might say, for example, that you are letting them be alone amidst the wolves that are your friends and family, and your old relationships might accuse of you of having changed so much, of having become a pushover in the hands of this new love of yours.
It is tempting to try and play the neutral party, the one who is above all these quarrels and can take a benign, objective view of the whole matter and be the person arbitrating between the warring parties. Being Switzerland works great for nations and politics, but in intimate relationships, neutrality is harder than it seems and attempts to be neutral are often seen as not being supportive to either, and all parties disengage. Neutrality doesn’t really get you anywhere, and might actually damage everything.
Alternatively, should you account for the newness of the relationship and just be on your partner’s side?
There are no clear answers, of course, but if you stood with your new partner even if privately you might have a word or two, you might get some brownie points for the longer term.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
One of the tropes in Indian movies of the '80s was on the spontaneous sexual escapade of youngsters, often depicted by the proximity of combustible substances spontaneously bursting into flames. That and two flowers kissing. In Hollywood movies and lately in our own movies, things have become more human - the actors playing the lead characters actually kiss and do stuff.
The problem though is it is still so much spontaneous combustion.
Our TV serials and movies value spontaneous physicality in totally unrealistic and very harmful ways. You see two people look at each other and next minute, they are eating each other's faces off and two seconds later, one has jumped and has legs around the other's hips.
Growing up on a diet of such messaging, would it not be disappointing that neither you nor your partner do those spontaneous high-jumps? Do people's legs even work like that at will and if the partner isn't quite ready, can you imagine the tumble?
Our backs are fairly fragile things as anyone who has experienced any degree of spondylosis can attest. One small twitch and we might be laid flat for days on end. If we look at a bare human skeleton, we see how our spine hinges on our hips so precariously - like a spinning top on the ground, one tiny end of a rickety, tottering set of jointed bones balanced on a hip. After observing that, it makes one really concerned what pressures we put on our backs. It takes a great amount of physical training and fitness to take that much pressure on your backs.
Other than gymnastic acts for talent shows on TV, I am yet to see one real life moment with real people where they literally jump on each other. We see dogs and babies spontaneously jump and even they are trained out of it. Hardly any adults do it unless they are trained cheerleaders, athletes or performers putting on a show.
Think about it. If a grown person asked if they can jump into your arms, throw their legs around you, wouldn't you want to take a moment to check in on whether you are up for it? You might think for a bit before saying, “Ok, fine!” say “I am ready!” & when they run to you, you might still have second thoughts and say, “No, no! Stop! I can't!”
Why would it be different just because it is a possibly romantic or sexual situation? Wouldn't we want to be more careful in such situations? If we are being fully honest, while we may romanticize the idea of spontaneity, in reality, we don't really want to be surprised physically. We want to be able to say No. We want to be asked and given the time to consider what is being asked for us.
If all we see in our movies and shows are spontaneous combustion, we lose sight of actually expressing desire, asking for consent and more still, don't realize we want to consider our response, and that it might be No and even if we say “Yes” first, we can change it.
In real life, do we really spontaneous combust?
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
There is something about being in a steel tube hurtling at 100s of miles per hour, up in the air at over 35,000 feet. Air travel is significantly safer, at least statistically speaking, than most other modes of travel. For the most part, other than the take-off and landing periods, it feels almost like nothing is going on. We might just go about the day, eating peanuts, watching a movie, enjoying the airline food or taking a nap, not remembering that we are indeed a mile high in the air, in a closed container, hurtling through at rocket speed. If we take the time to think about it, we probably will have a few moments of anxiety till we reason with ourselves that it really is quite safe, that we are being taken care of by professionals and that there is absolutely no reason to worry at all and that it really is OK to just go back to enjoying that book or whatever else.
What does air travel have to do with love or relationships, you might ask.
There is, of course, the oxygen mask warning that every flight mandatorily talks about before take-off: In the unlikely event of an emergency and cabin pressure dropping, oxygen masks will drop from just above your seat, to pull one and put over your face, tug on it to get the oxygen flowing and breathe normally. And then, there is the kicker: put on your own mask before assisting any one else, and that includes children and your beloved. That is of course great advice for any of us on self-care first.
Let’s look beyond that and consider what is it that triggers the oxygen masks falling in the first place. It is the loss of cabin pressure. There is an optimum amount of pressure that is needed to be maintained for passenger comfort, for everyone to be able to breathe normally, feel comfortable with the air temperature and just be OK.
If you think about it, relationships are much like flights. They are wholly improbable events that somehow magically occur every day for millions and millions of us. At the outset, it feels absurd to think that two people can actually stay together for years and years, hurtling through careers and society at breakneck speed, staying afloat through turbulent air pockets and be calm and relaxed right through. And yet, it seems to happen all the time, and quite successfully at that.
What is that cabin pressure that couples bring upon themselves to maintain that sense of comfort in the face of fairly hostile environment? What keeps relationships from crashing down?
We may not often realize it, but relationships need to have that bit of healthy pressure being maintained. Just the right level of expectations, regard and respect. Too much and it implodes. Too little and the whole thing drops, and it is a “Put on your own oxygen mask” situation of each for themselves first.
Enjoy the flight. Keep the pressure on.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
As kids in school, we studied The Gift of the Magi by O Henry in high school English. This famous story is of a loving couple, too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts, and too desperately in love to not do that. One sells off their long hair to buy watch straps for the other, while they sell off the beloved watch to buy combs.
We also read The Nightingale and The Rose by Oscar Wilde that year, with its story of the sacrifice it took to make a rose red a precious gift for a beloved, and how it is tossed aside for something else, casting away in that bitter act what it meant to sacrifice for love’s sake.
Between those two tragic love stories, our heartless English teacher had us teenagers in tears, more so because we were expected to write ‘precis’ versions. Does love really require gift exchanges? Would it really be impossible to love and be loved without ever exchanging gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, festivals, etc? Is it humanly possible to be perfect gift givers, or are designed to be tragic magi in our gifts, irrespective of our levels of poverty?
So much of our culture is built around ceremonies of gift giving. Traditions dictate what gifts are appropriate and when. There is a whole list of what to give for which anniversary. One could interpret it as anything from a handwritten card to money, to property, or, going by certain movies, divorce papers!
These gifting protocols may have helped some people but for many others, it also builds expectations. One is ‘supposed to’ give wood for the fifth anniversary. Sure, you could Google something that sounds appropriately woody enough, or close enough to hopefully pass, but then, it also has other expectations that it needs to be personal, it needs to have value for the recipient, something that they can cherish because otherwise, it is just a useless gesture.
Why has gifting come to occupy such an important place in relationships? As a measure for how much one loves the other in its physicality and demonstrability, gifts seem to offer some value, but it really is hollow if gifting is the only measure of love offered. If those high school stories really hold any truth, it is this: Gifts aren’t as important as love.
So this Christmas season, gift only if you really want to.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
For many of us working in corporate and corporate-like spaces, end of year means one thing, and one thing only – performance appraisal time. Some companies do it once a year, others twice or quarterly. A few do the appraisal at end of the calendar year, promotions and things at the end of the financial year, and pay hikes at the end of the first quarter – just to keep their people around, like the seasons of How to Get Away with Murder. Whatever the means and ends of it, appraisals are something one cannot escape if you are working in an organization of some sort.
The question we are asking today is quite simply this: If performance appraisals are such a key part of your work life, how come they are not so systematic as far as relationships go? Why wouldn’t you and your partner invest some time and energy in appraising your couplehood to see how you both are doing, what your goals are, where you are doing well and where you need to improve?
Granted, there might not be much of an opportunity for promotion or pay hikes. There is no ladder to climb as such in the relationship and it is certainly not a simple matter of getting a better designation or a pay scale so you can plump up your CV so you can get the more lucrative job at a fancier address. Any such aspirations might in fact work against you and get you a tight rap on your knuckles.
Still, there is a lot to gain from a systematic performance appraisal of the relationship.
The reason why organizations do performance appraisals in a systematic manner is that there tends to be so many dimensions to a job. If we don’t sit down and focus on each dimension, we might get carried away by the latest, or the most obvious, or the largest – and miss out on everything else that makes a person well-suited to the role they perform. Similarly, a relationship is a lot more than just an overall sense of contentment or happiness. There are so many aspects to it – the social, the physical, the fiscal, the sexual, the familial, the personal, the inter-personal, the spiritual, and with each of these having a few key wishes or aspirations. You might find yourself adding more to this list, of course.
If we were to sit down and appraise where we are in our relationship in each of these dimensions, what we might see is something quite different and actionable. It might help you set some real and much-needed #RelationshipGoals for yourself, than a picture of Michelle and Barack Obama sharing a moment together at the Trump inauguration, or an aww-inducing video of an old couple helping each other cross the street on a lazy Sunday morning or any such thing.
So, are you ready to put your relationship up for a performance appraisal? Can you work with each other on a performance improvement plan, if needed?
As written for and published in the New Indian Express
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.