Have you seen your relationship through a major period of illness? It might have involved hospitalisation or not, but the kind of time we are talking about here is the one that has weeks if not months of at-home care, where the person who is unwell needs assistance with their body. Perhaps they are unable to walk, or get off their bed on their own, need assistance dressing, eating or in any other way need help.
How much do you stay with them and take care of their physical needs? How comfortable were you staying with them and working through the mess that is our body with all its random fluids, smells, textures and everything else? Were you able to do all the small things that a person needs in such a situation with a smile on your face and able to still make the ill person feel valued, and even desired? Or, did you go through that period as a temporary annoyance that just needs to be borne with as much fortitude as possible, but not really a period to be cherished in any way?
Conversely, think about the times you might have been the one in need and how your loved one was with you in those times.
The way we are with each other in times of sickness tells more about how we love and how deeply we love, much more than the times of good health and circumstances. It is something we understand in theory, and when we look at it through the lenses of our lived experiences, we find that there are so many nuances. It is a tricky situation because we have different conflicting needs acting up. On one hand, there is a self-assertion, a desire to be as independent as possible. On another, a fear of being needy, along with a strong need to feel related and reassured. One wants to do as much for oneself, and yet also want to be cared for.
We sometimes are able to overlook a loved one’s freezing in times of medical need, excusing them as being squeamish, sensitive or immature. We may look at an over-functioning carer as being over-bearing, self-sacrificing, taking away your agency, your freedom and really be angry with them, or just annoyed and irritated. If we are the ones providing care, we might feel ourselves overcome with compassion and be in tears along with the one suffering, or on the other extreme, be very annoyed – judging them for their difficulty in managing this much pain when you have gone through much more.
Finding that balance between two people on how much care is welcome, how much space is needed – that could be the journey of a lifetime. If these lessons aren’t learned well, you could be those bickering old couples who can’t stand each other in their old age. Or, you could be that picture book version of the old couple sitting on a bench together – one reading, and the other resting, quietly confident in their care for each other.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
Check in on your WhatsApp conversation with your loved one. How much of it is “What are you up to?” “Busy?” “Just checking in to see if you are free!” and messages like that?
It is one thing if these check-ins are at times of stress such as when there is something going on at work, or at home, someone is ill, either is travelling out or some key errands need to be done. It is quite another, if a lot of it is just about such quick check-ins even when there is really no pressing need for checking. If your WhatsApp history is full of such check-ins, take a moment to think about it –what did you really want when you were asking these questions? Were you stressed and seeking a bit or relief from your partner? Were you missing each other and wanted to get a bit of affection that will let your oxytocin flow? Was it to keep a tab on the other’s day so you feel you are in-touch with what’s going on? Or were you just bored?
If the answer is more of the “Just like that” variety, you might want to rein in that a little. The constant check-ins on each other, wanting to know every detail and stay connected throughout the day, almost as if one cannot really go through the ten or so hours without actually being around each other – all of it can be painted with an aura of Being Romantic, as acts of caring, of being thoughtful. Granted, sometimes it is just that – a sweet, romantic act, and even then, these can quickly cross the line into needy, entitled, demanding, sulky annoyances. You can see it again in the WhatsApp history, when the responses shift from equally endearing “XOXO, Sweetheart! Can’t wait to see you in the evening! What are you doing?” and “Yes, darling! Stuck in office meeting and thinking of you!” to curter, sharper “What is it?” “Yes, busy” or just plain blue ticks with nothing offered in return.
When that happens, it is time to recognize that the constant checking in is getting a bit too much and one needs to back off. Often though, instead of backing off, there is a greater questioning: “Why aren’t you answering?” “I am just MISSING you SO MUCH! And you don’t even care!” “Are you even in love with me anymore?” and while the first few times might get the loved one to squeeze out some attention, it is like trying to get more water out of a starved borewell in peak summer – it gets muddier and muddier, till that well of love is just coughing up ugly, dirty filth. Like our borewells, we often need to be left to recharge without being constantly drained out. We need our own rainwater harvesting, so to say – time and space for one’s own joys to fill up one’s life
Then, there can again be interesting and interested replies to those WhatsApp queries of “What u doing?’
As written for and published by the New Indian Express
If you are a gardener, you know that gardens do best when they are properly cared for – they flourish when there is appropriate watering, enough sun, protection from the pests, weeds are cleared, plants pruned and so on. You also know the one basic truth: you could plant all the seeds you want, but you cannot really force them to germinate. We expect with the appropriate conditions that they do germinate, but it doesn’t always happen. We could plant a hundred seeds, and maybe all will germinate or only a few – it is hard to predict. The one thing we can predict though is that the seed we plant will grow only into itself – a tomato seed won’t become a basil plant, an eggplant seed won’t suddenly start bearing okra.
If you planted tomatoes and suddenly find basil sprouting up, it doesn’t mean that there was some miraculous transformation – it only means that this new plant came up from seeds that were there already in the first place. What does that have to do with love or relationships, you ask?
Think of it: You go about doing small things for the person you love. A bit of shopping here, a bit of dusting there, some conversations, maybe a little cooking. You plant lots of seeds like that all around, and you expect that they germinate into a nice little garden of love. It typically does, when you have the best environment for it. Occasionally though, a small action from your side which you expected to have a certain kind of result, ends up bringing something else altogether. A volunteer plant, so to say, that grows up alongside what you planted.
For example, you might have surprised your loved one with a small box of macaroons. Just for the heck of it. You expected smiles of joy, maybe a hug and a kiss. What if you get a bout of tears instead? You did something nice, and you expected something nice to come out of it, but something else happened. Was it your action that caused this reaction? The short answer is No. Your action triggered something else to express itself – a different seed possibly come there by accident, from somewhere in the past, has germinated and is making itself heard.
Now, in the gardening example, would you get offended that a different plant has voluntarily sprung up when you planted tomatoes? You would likely not. You might observe the volunteer plant to see if it is valuable, like say, basil – and keep it if it is, and if it some random weed, you might discard it. It isn’t personal.
Can you do the same when there is an unexpected reaction for something in a relationship? Can you see that these may not be about you at all? That they are random seeds germinating – perhaps an old memory, a story handed down by parents, something religion or tradition has planted. Can you then see if this is valuable or not and act accordingly, instead of blaming?
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
The coming of summer in Bangalore always seems so very sudden. Even up to the first week of February, everyone still has their quilts out and the ceiling fans are quite still through the night. We don’t need heating, but certainly don’t need any cooling either. Then quite suddenly, within a couple of weeks, it gets so very dry and so very hot. The winter just passed has had so many Bangaloreans connecting back to how Bangalore used to be, the long, pleasant weather causing reminiscences about winters past and how wonderful it is to have a taste of that old Bangalore weather yet again.
Now, even though it is not even March, places in the city where all the trees are gone and it is just another steel and concrete mess, temperatures are already above 35 degrees. People around Bangalore are likely making the transition from quilts to summer blankets very quickly this week. The ceiling fans are getting dusted off and conversations are starting about whether this will be the summer when Bangalore will finally lose its “A/C City” tag to become yet another city full of droning air-conditioners, like in much of mainland India.
Relationships are quite often like that in how the mood of it changes rapidly.
Let’s say the beautiful Bangalore winter is like the honeymoon period of any relationship. It is pleasant, comfortable and there is a lot of space to just chill and be with each other. When it gets over, life moves on into some kind of general routine, and there are times of connectedness and others when it is not so much. Then, quite unexpectedly, we sometimes get a longish second honeymoon – like our longer and more pleasant winter that just passed. After many, many years, there comes again a time when there is a strong sense of that connectedness, there is joy in being together, love in the air, fond smiles and affection overflowing – and then, in a manner of weeks, it dissipates and we are back to humdrum relating, as if the cool winter is over and the harsh summer has set upon us already with barely any springtime in between. It is so rapid, as if to shake the whole thing off, that it was unbelievable in the first place that the ease and chillness of it was ever warranted at all.
Either we are like Bangalore where things get dry and dreary, or we are like Leh-Ladakh where we get far too cold and distant after brief summers of joy, or we plod along in the sweat and steaminess of Chennai with just that little Margazhi season of fun and happiness. Can relationships be in a state of forever pleasantness like, maybe, Hawaii? Can the honeymoon last forever?
It is the rare relationship that can sustain pleasantness right through.
For the vast majority of us, we need to learn to appreciate the subtler joys of the changes in how we relate in our lives – like how we look forward to mangoes in this summer heat.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
Elections are coming in a few weeks, and soon, campaigning will pick up steam. Already, it is in every news channel and unless all you watch in your home is Netflix or ongoing soaps on your favourite TV channels, you are likely being bombarded with the pre-campaign propaganda from all channels.
Elections in India have always been such a grand spectacle, full of colour, volume and expression. Every political party brings out their flags, symbols and colours so prominently, and there is so much noise around it - not just in terms of the debates, but also the special songs and in recent years, even stand-up comedy!
It really is difficult to not notice, and whether you like it or not, you probably are talking about politics already with friends, colleagues and social media. Reluctantly or otherwise, you are likely being pulled into debates, and even if you have temporarily unfollowed most political pages on your social media feed, it probably seeps through everywhere.
The general commentary in most circles seem to hold familial units as insular in their political affiliation. There is talk of vote banks and sweeping assessments of how certain populations vote one way and others another. Yet, as a country, we have major political dynasties and even though most continue in the same lineage, there are often diametrically opposing shifts across and even within generations. A parent might be centrist while the child is right-wing, or vice-versa. There are differences of opinion and convictions everywhere. Very few couples with major political rifts though.
The question is: Do you talk about your politics with your beloved? Do you both agree on the politics or do you defer? How does that affect your relationship?
One supposes that if political viewpoints really converge, it quite likely is fairly comforting in a couple, but when political opinions differ widely within the couple, is it really a recipe for disaster?
Politics takes on a much larger sheen than say, movies. A couple could laugh over their different opinions on which actor each thinks is a greater star, but politics doesn’t often get that amused tolerance. Politics takes on a brighter, sharper hue because it is often seen as a direct reflection of one’s core values. If you are on one side, you are standing for, say, secularism, tolerance, liberal attitudes, eco-friendliness and the other side stands for a different set, maybe, pride, heritage, prosperity.
The political affiliation becomes a proxy for all the values one has, and in an intimate relationship, knowing your partner supports a party you are opposed to can be a particularly hard perspective to accommodate. You might find yourself wondering if you really knew this person, or how much they have changed. The arguments can get personal very quickly, because the political is almost always personal as well.
What’s the way out then?
Well, that’s the whole reason for the ballot being secret! You get to choose how much you disclose of your political position, even to your beloved.
The political affiliation becomes a proxy for all the values one has, and in an intimate relationship, knowing your partner supports a party you are opposed to can be a particularly hard perspective to accommodate. You might find yourself wondering if you really knew this person, or how much they have changed.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
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.
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
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
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.