How often do you use the word ‘No’ in your relationship with your partner?
Try this for exercise: Over one week, try and keep a count of the number of times any of you say ‘No’ to the other person. It could be for anything: Do you want to get an ice-cream? Shall we go to the terrace and sit down there with our cups of tea and plates of pakoras? Shall we take a walk with our masks on? Can I cut my hair short, or just trim it down till it is almost tonsured - this CoVid is driving me to bits? Shall we go to bed? Can I kiss you? Shall I invite my sister and family over for Onam lunch in two weeks?
There are dozens and dozens of interactions that we go through in a day with our partners, and if you can keep track of how you respond to all those, and think back as to how your responses affect each other, the flow of energy between the two of you and the feel of the space itself, you will start noticing one thing: Saying ‘No’ is a lot more than just saying no.
Often, these seemingly innocuous interactions are not just mundane transactions. Every transaction is a call for connection. Not necessarily for a connection in terms of needing attention or wanting to do something together, but a call for connection nevertheless. It is a sign of wanting some engagement, some flow of energy between you and a sense of feeling you are interested in each other and what you do. These calls for connection might easily be overlooked because you think you are only talking about dinner or the cat or the house maintenance - nothing very serious or important that is really about your relationship, but the fact is that the relationship is built on all these small interactions, and not just the big ones of money, love, sex, society, parenting and the such.
What happens when we repeatedly hear No from our partner is that we start to make assessments as to the degree of connection that our partner is ready for or willing to offer, and that assessment generalizes into decisions we make, even without really checking with the other, because we know what we have heard and believe that to be true. We tend to then gradually limit ourselves, drawing boundaries as to what is possible in the relationship and what could have been a free flowing river of joy and intimacy full of vibrant life and connection, becomes at best, a small little oasis with a large desert around it, and at worst a stagnant, septic and toxic little pool of resentment and hatred.
If you keep a track of the Nos you say and you find you say far too much of it, take a step back and consider what else you could do. Could you offer an alternative? Get a little time? Maybe even say ‘Yes’?
Doesn’t it already feel livelier?
As written for The New Indian Express
Once upon a time, in a busy market, a flower-seller and a fish-seller started to fall in love. They would meet each day at the market, make googly eyes at each other, and playfully call out each other’s wares, enjoy each other’s successes and were just lovely with each other.
Over time, their friendship matured into a relationship, and what started at the market, moved into long walks by the riverside, conversations over shared plates of food and all the regular stuff till finally the fish-seller invited the flower-seller home, and after a long evening, when they went to sleep, the fish-seller slept soundly while the flower-seller twisted and turned missing the smells of the flowers back home, but being a good guest, did not tell anything much. The next day, the flower-seller called the fish-seller home, and again they had a good time and when they finally went to sleep, this time the flower-seller slept easily surrounded by familiar smells, and the fish-seller couldn’t.
After a few weeks of such tossing and turning, they confess to not being able to sleep well at each other’s houses, much as they love each other, and it becomes quite an issue. Finally, they reach a solution: the fish-seller would bring an old, empty basket of fish to keep close when visiting the flower-seller, and vice-versa!
Both were now able to be relatively happy at each other’s place. The point of the story is this: Are we markers of space? Do we need our space to be marked with our things to claim it as our own, and imprint our characteristics on it so that it feels like home and we feel comfortable in it?
It is not easy to be in an impersonal space and there are always some things that feel more like one’s own.
One might be able to sleep wherever and be comfortable for a few nights anywhere, and yet, feel that much more at ease when back home. Isn’t that every tourist’s experience? It is great to be travelling around, seeing the world, sleeping in amazing hotels and camps, and yet it is all so much nicer when you have your own home to come to, your own bed to come back to and your own things around you.
For some of us, the need for our own things is much higher. We take a little bit with us wherever we go. Maybe it is a pyjama, a toothpaste, a bedside kerchief, a mala of beads, a book – it could be anything. It is the rare person amongst us who doesn’t ever need anything of their own and can feel at home anywhere and wit anybody.
If we can’t make space for another’s need for a few of their own things, is it really love? Could the fish-seller really love the flower-seller, but not allow for a bag of flowers?
As published in The New Indian Express
How do you decide what shows to watch? Earlier, even with just the TV and all the cable channels, deciding what to watch with your beloved was not easy, unless you happened to luck out and both of you enjoyed the same things, and weren’t pretending through your courting period just to get each other’s attention.
Now with all the streaming apps offering shared subscriptions and “Netflix and Chill” becoming part of our daily language, there are thousands of hours of programming, season after season of shows from every corner of the world right at your fingertips. All this content is available on every kind of screen now, from TV screens, to iPads, mobile phones and other stuff. There is apparently a fridge with a screen that can stream content. Coupled with the very best of headphones that cancel out noise, it is convenient for people to watch what they like, independent of each other.
If you are out sprawled on your couch watching Game Of Thrones and all its gore, your partner might be three feet away but watching old reruns of The Big Bang Theory and getting ready to mourn that it was ending as well. Of course, for the most part, your partner might be in another room altogether, and telling you to call when it is time for dinner.
It is becoming harder than ever to bond over your favourite shows. You really have to up sell the content you want to watch, or search for shows that appeal to both your tastes. You find that odd Korean drama that also features vampires, or the 90s documentary on serial killers and it somehow gets both of you piqued enough to share a few hours together as you binge watch it all in one night, and then you have to trawl all through the suggested links to find something else.
There are silver linings if you look for it. If you are an older couple, maybe you would rediscover some old favourites that you could both reconnect over. Maybe you’d watch Friends again, or older classics – re-watch the whole lot, and then watch the rebooted versions, admire the hotter, younger actors, the more polished production values and yet diss how the show has lost its earlier charm – think Star Trek. You might find yourself introducing each other to new content or find yourself bonding over content that neither knew you would like.
It is a toss-up, whether these unlimited choices will bring you together, or separate you from each other. There is no telling what it will do, unless you really think about this together. When we are free, it takes so much more effort to stay together.
As written for The New Indian Express
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
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
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
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.