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
There is something wonderful about witnessing someone experiencing being in love.
There is a lightness about their being, a spryness in their walk, a twinkle in their eyes, and just the hint of a smile on their lips. You can see it a mile away and, when in close quarters, it almost feels like those feelings flow out and lift up those around them. There is a certain energy in that which is just delectable, like the sweetness of the honey flowing out of an over-full beehive bringing in eager bears who wanted the same in their life. That is just exactly the kind of energy that attracts and one to the person in love.
It is a story you find in every major love story - the story of the ubiquitous best friend who is helping out the one in love, who does all the labour of creating situations or escaping people that are against the lovers, just so the lover can get closer and closer to the object of their love. Shakespeare had it, and the old classics have it in whatever language you read them in, whether in Sanskrit or Tamil or Kannada or any other languages - the trope of the friend helping out the person in love is always there. Even in most of the modern love stories on screens, there is a wingperson or two for the star or the stars of the film. The love of the leads is only one part of the story - the stories of those supporting the lovers and even basking in it are rarely the centre of the stories we read or watch but they are just as rich and sometimes even sweeter that the main love story as it were.
In real life, it might not happen as often as one might like. Perhaps one would be lucky to have helped a friend or two find each other, fall in love and enjoy that experience. In families, maybe the odd sibling or cousin might have had the experience. The rare parent might experience the sweetness of seeing their child go through these feelings, and if they did much of the parenting really right, might even be allowed to participate in bringing that together. If and when one really sees it happen, it is like seeing magic unfold in front of you and that is really something special and wholly different from experiencing it for oneself - somewhat like watching an artist paint a masterpiece versus just seeing the finished work of art.
The jealous sibling or the covetous neighbour who would kill to try and take the love for oneself, only to see it disappear in tears knows this - the pleasure of seeing something as magnificent as love expressing itself and truly enjoying it requires one very special characteristic - the ability to witness without envy, a compassion that seeks not to possess but just to appreciate, a spirit that can enable without needing to own for oneself.
Loving others being in love is something precious in itself..
As written for The New Indian Express
One of the biggest fears people have is of dying alone. People often enter into relationships with little else as a motivation to be in a relationship other than the idea of not being alone when old, sick and certainly when dying. Of course, there is no guarantee that such company will be there at the time of sickness and death, but the hope of such company is enough for people to take the long leap into relationships even without love and all the other things that one typically looks for, and in any case, as any cynic will tell you, the tragic truth is that in any relationship, chances are that one of the partners will just not get to enjoy that companionship at death, having to outlive the others.
The life of the survivor in any relationship, especially one that had much love in it, is something quite different than one expects. Grief is a painful thing to live with. It makes itself felt in a million ways, many of them totally unexpected, and yet, all of them correct and valid at that time. There is no wrong way to grieve.
Love lost to death hits us in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. You might just be driving a car to work, park just as always in your usual spot, and something might just crush you back into that dark abyss of grief as if it were just yesterday that you lost your love to grief. You might be laughing with someone, even flirting, trying to make something happen and you might find yourself back in grief. There is no telling quite how or when grief finds itself back in the moment, back in your reality.
The idea of "moving on" is not about being done with grief or forgetting about the person lost as much as it is about making space in your life for yourself and maybe some new people in it that can bring you different and wholly new meaning in how you relate and even love. For many, acts of love itself can be a gateway into grief that has been denied, and being in a moment of great tenderness and love can bring forth a geyser of grief where one might find oneself weeping and sobbing for what was lost.
Grief is a theme that many people in relationships visit with their beloved, often as expressed wishes to be the first to go. Sometimes, people even fight over it in that tender way, wanting the right to die before their partner. Yet, in love, one might also find oneself wanting to outlive the beloved, just to spare the pain of the bereavement to their beloved believing oneself to be hardier to that pain.
We may choose to ignore loss and grief, leaving it to the vagaries of fate, or we can choose to engage with it, talking about it with tenderness and affection, even making plans for it. To love fully is to love in death as well.
As written for The New Indian Express
Are you the kind that likes a quiet Deepavali, full of light and warmth, maybe some music and prayers, lots of good food and company? Or are you the kind that likes it loud and big, lots of fire crackers and enormous celebrations, huge parties with multiple outfit changes? With the increasing cost of firecrackers and the such, Supreme Court regulations on the time when people can go out to burst these, greater awareness on the effects of pollution and general sensitivity to the environment, the tendency is by and large towards moderation, hopefully. Yet, there are hundreds of thousands who would rather defy environmental sense and sensibility towards fellow creatures, and defy laws at that, and assert their power to celebrate as they will.
Thing is, who cleans up after them? Granted, they cannot really undo the poisons they unleashed into the air, but do they take the trouble to sweep up after themselves and tidy up the streets so that these chemicals do not get washed away by the rains into our tanks and lakes from where we get our drinking water? Do they clear up the waste paper, plastic and random metal rods and chemicals into easily collected lots for the sanitation workers? Chances are, that they do not.
If one does not clear up after the literal mess one makes during a celebration full of joy and exuberance, would one expect that they clear up after themselves at other times? In relationships, we are so likely to make a mess every now and then. Sometimes, it is a literal mess like when in a burst of anger, we have upended a flower vase on the table, or tipped over a kitchen shelf and made a mess of mixed up dals, flours, masalas, oils and what not on the kitchen floor. Those are horrible to clear up and someone has to do the job.
Is it the one who made the mess, or is it somebody else in the house? Does the job end up on the person at the receiving end of the outburst? Or does it, yet again, get outsourced to someone like the house help who had nothing at all to do with creating the mess in the first place?
At other times, the mess we make is a lot less literal. We say and do things that are ugly, dirty and stink to the high heavens. There is bitterness, resentment and pain for the person this rage was directed at, and quite likely, for a lot of others in the vicinity, like children and pets. Who then does the picking up of the pieces and cleaning up of the emotional mess? Can this as readily be outsourced to poorly paid sanitation workers? Like with the environmental damage we do around the festivals that come back to bite us through clogged drains, poisoned waters, charred air and scarred animals, the damage we do here comes back to us as well.If you make the mess, you ought to clean up as well.
As written for the New Indian Express
When we are young and in the care of adults, sooner or later we do something that displeases them and we are bound to get disciplined one way or another. When we are babies who haven’t yet even learned to crawl and explore the world, perhaps there was very little need to discipline, but from the moment crawling happens and curiosity starts, we hear “NO!” in two dozen ways, have our hands smacked away if we reach for those power points or knives, and we are disciplined in half a dozen ways.
Hopefully, the ways one was disciplined was more a matter of reward for good and expected behaviour and not being the object of emotional or physical violence, but given how we are still raised in this country, the occasional slap or a smack is not even considered physically violent. It would, even in 2019, be the rare person over 20 years old who can say that they were never beaten or slapped or smacked ever in their life by a parent, a caregiver, an uncle, or a school teacher. Even then, where there has been some degree of permission for some physically violent acts as a way of disciplining an errant child, at most places it stops as a child gets into adolescence. There is a popular saying that once a child grows taller than one’s shoulders, beatings have to stop.
Discipline then becomes strictly a matter of negotiation and bargaining, with rewards for good behaviour, or by trying to show up better behaved people and praising them, hoping that they will take the hint and that the desire to be praised and adored will outweigh any instincts to indulge in mischief.
In adult relationships, we still carry so much of the ways of relating as parent and child into our relationships. Often times, we believe we know what needs to be the way to live, talk, dress and behave, and when others in the relationship do not do what we believe is right, we try to think of ways to discipline them. Think of all the times you might have thought about your loved one and said to yourself, “I have to make them change.”
Even when we were children, despite all kinds of social and legal permission to use pretty much any kind of disciplining, there was little that anybody could do to make us change if we were very decided to not change. So, why would an adult subject themselves to any kind of disciplining efforts from another adult, unless they really buy into it?
If you are in an adult loving relationship, and you feel your loved one needs to change, there is little else to do that showing very clearly one’s sadness and disappointment, making sure there are consequences that affect the relationship and hoping that there is enough love to trigger an empathetic reaction to these feelings that the bad behaviour stops. Anything else is just going to make life miserable.
As written for The New Indian Express
How often do you go out for a meal?
In these days of food delivery apps and heavy traffic, it often feels so much easier to be at home, put on the latest season of Master Chef from one of the streaming services, settle into your favourite couch and just chill.
If you are single, it is that much rarer to go out to a nice restaurant for a fine dining experience. Most times when one goes out alone, it is to a tried and tested, familiar hole in the wall place where one knows all the staff and the menu, and one might have gone there so often that the staff probably know what you want to order before you do. Fine dining by oneself is a rare experience for most of us. It can be quite a daunting experience to go by yourself to a nice restaurant and ask for a table for one. In most places, tables for one are relegated to the most unattractive places to sit, like next to the restrooms or at some other obscure corner as if to hide the singleness.
Restaurants do make a great deal of fuss about people in relationships come over. It is very much a sweet spot for them, especially because so much of dating revolves around food and drink, where each date matters because of what it says about each person to the other.
Post the early dating period though, when one is in a steady relationship, more often than not, one would just have a quick and easy meal at home, whatever is available or fastest to make on most days, leaving the more elaborate meals for weekends or holidays and perhaps the one meal a week that is had outside, just for a change – and again, even that one meal out, is probably in a selective set of restaurants. You would have three or four of your favourite restaurants that you cycle through whenever you want a break from home cooked food. Most often, the special dining out experience is reserved for holidays and special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
We often accept it as the natural course of events. People in relationships will get into routines and stay in their comfort zones. Food is one place it is most obvious in but we do it everywhere – the clothes we wear, the way we groom ourselves, the conversations we bring to the table and so on. Thing is, these so-called natural courses are really entropy in action – that old principle that all systems decay and disintegrate, unless there are other forces in action.
If you ever find yourself thinking your relationship has been in a nice little steady state for long, just be careful – it might actually be getting into a rut, that there is increasing entropy. You need to shake it up a bit, make a few shifts so that the systems are back buzzing and alive.
Go. Eat out or do something like that. Even if alone.
As written for the New Indian Express
Smart phones are so ubiquitous. People use their laptops and personal computers only when they need to really type out large pieces, or work on multiple documents or when they have to work on software that is only designed for such computers. All other connected life is on the phone now that phones operate with equal or greater computing power as compared to computers, and there is internet everywhere. Very few actually use their computers to access social media, dating sites, news or anything else that one gets around to on a daily basis, unless they are on some kind of digital detox and are limiting their access to their mobile phones.
More and more smart phones these days come with fingerprint and face scanners that can unlock the phone. Gone are the days when the only option was a complex pattern or a numerical pattern were the ways to lock a phone, now it is your own face or finger that does the job. Most people set the unlocking pattern to their thumbs or index fingers, and sometimes, just for convenience, store all their fingers as unlocking patterns on their phone. It makes sense if you think about it – what if a couple of fingers get hurt and are damaged, or in full masala movie style, you are in trouble and only your little finger can reach the phone!
Jokes aside, smart phones and their being locked or unlocked is often a sticky issue with people in relationships. It is much more common to find people insisting that they have access to each other’s phones rather than have people who are quite OK that phones are each other’s private spaces and do not need to be accessed. Many take the half-way path where they ask for and get access (“just for emergency sakes”) and give the same open-door policy to their partners. The rare person uses their partner’s finger to unlock their phone when the partner is deep asleep or not in a conscious state, adds their own into the security system, just so that they will have access should there be need to have such access at all, and maybe not let the partner know at all because they want to avoid arguing over something that might never really happen.
How people in relationship access each other’s smart phones then becomes quite an important issue for many people in relationships. They want to be able to see each other’s WhatsApp conversations, messenger history, browsing history and everything else. With people taking their phones to their toilets and glued on to the small screen, with wireless ear-phones on almost all the time, there is very little that others in the relationship get to know of one’s lives unless there is an open sharing.
Issues of consent, transparency, connectedness and so on that have been the key concerns in relationships. More than rechecking your phone’s security protocols, people need to talk about these issues with their partners, or risk them playing out on a screen very near you.
The fairy tales we grow up on had so much enchantment built into them.
One of the tropes was that of a happy family that for almost no fault of their own, fall into the bad books of an evil magician, who curses them with all sorts of bad things, and life would have been hell. Just in time, as the curse is starting to have effect, a benevolent fairy god-parent sneaks in just after the cursing evil magician is gone and gives a small gift that keeps the cursed royalty in an enchanted state of stasis for years, if not decades till finally the enchantment wears off with a magical kiss and all is well again. That is typically how the story goes.
What does that have to do with love and relationships? Think of it this way: We might be happily going about our every day life, when suddenly something awful happens. Something quite unexpected and for hardly any fault of out own, and it throws our lives out of whack. It might be something like an old long-forgotten ex- coming back into life like the evil, cackling magician in the fairy tales, dropping a bomb on the new life with some story or a debt that wasn’t serviced, or in true Bollywood style, a child that people didn’t know existed till them. It could be anything really – maybe a change of job, a posting abroad, someone falling critically ill, loss of wealth from a stock market crash, not necessarily involving an active, malevolent person, but something that changes our lives altogether.
These times when our relationship goes through some serious strife, it can come to a breaking point, and one wishes there was a fairy god-parent who could somehow magically freeze the relationship, give it time and space to suffer through that period, and maybe, just maybe, there will be that magical kiss at the end of it to heal the relationship.
We don’t have too many fairies floating around in real life, and we are forced to find substitutes for them. It might be a kind parent, a good friend, a therapist, a colleague – anybody could be that person in real life. We just need someone who can hold the trauma, to have time to process what just happened and allow for our shaken lives to stabilise again. Sometimes, it is a gentle holding, and at other times, it is a scolding from a good friend like in the 1980s hit Hindi movie Masoom, where the idyllic life of the couple gets shattered with the arrival of an unexpected child, and there is a lot of emotional distress, till finally the character played by Shabana Azmi gets one nice little lecture on how life could throw up unexpected surprises and yet, there are blessings there if only we can get over ourselves – and we got ourselves a sweet little ending for that movie.
In our lives, we do have these fairy godparents around us in abundance. It is just up to us to make use of them.
As published in 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
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
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.