Is your marriage a beautiful friendship or is it just a “co-existential drama”?
A friend constantly keeps whining about his wife to us. He says she is dominating, she’s very conservative, she doesn’t want to get involved in his business and she does not want to learn to adapt with the times. He says he has stopped expecting anything other than physical intimacy from her. He wanted to know if there is a better way of handling their relationship.
I reminded him that the issue here was not about the gender. Men are known to be equally inflexible and dominating when dealing with their spouses. So, this isn’t about his wife. The moot point here is whether my friend can relate to his wife. And if she can relate to him. A marriage can be continuously exciting and romantic only if the couple in it are relating to each other than merely going through the daily motions of ‘maintaining’ the relationship.
I think many people don’t understand that it is not their marriage that keeps two people together. It is their friendship which acts as the bonding glue. When you strip away all the frills and the individual or societal expectations, what you are left with is the friendship of two people who come together and decide to live, learn and walk together through Life. True friendship is really about being yourself and allowing the other person to simply be too. Actually you don’t need the label of a marriage to certify or consummate a friendship. We don’t do it in the normal course, with other friendships we may have struck with people from either sex. So, why does it become so complicated, ever so often, in a marriage? The answer lies in the contractual nature of the relationship itself – as defined and practised by society today. While no scripture or tradition prescribes this contractual arrangement, society, over centuries and generations, has ended up, in the garb of pronouncing marriage to be a ‘sacred institution’, turning marriage into a business contract. You give me this. And I give you this in return. If you are this way, then I promise to be this way. Marriage, in a majority of cases, has ended up being nothing but a conditional acceptance of the ‘not-so-mutual’ affairs between two people. Great friendships, however, are never conditional – they thrive on mutual understanding, respect, brutal honesty and compassion. As long as two people can be this way, relating to each other, despite the circumstances, their friendship will survive, grow and thrive. Truly, in such cases, you don’t need a certificate, a label or any protection or safety net – legal or social. Of course, it is quite possible that sometimes, friendships grow through a marriage. So, it is not to be concluded that the institution is itself losing credibility.
I guess the question really is – how can two people continue to relate to each other without really worrying about the relationship?
This, from my own personal experience, and what I have learned observing couples over the years, is possible when the ‘relating’ is continuous. Life is a long journey. Couples live-in together for at least 35+ years in a normal lifespan. Now this togetherness can be a beautiful friendship or just a co-existential drama enacted for both self and society. That is they “legally live-in together” in a marriage but don’t connect, don’t relate at all. When relating is continuous – there are no terms, no conditions, no impositions. There’s an expectant air about everything. Pretty much like the early weeks of two people getting to know each other. Waiting for the appointed meeting hour. Letting go. Giving space to each other. Disagreeing at times. But agreeing to disagree. There’s nothing predictable or taken-for-granted. Then, when everything’s fresh, despite the years of being together, then, the relating is continuous. Conversely, when the relating is continuous, the romance is still new and fresh.
Of course, Life’s design will challenge the greatest friendships. But only those that are built on the foundations of mutual respect and compassion__what I call relating__survive these challenges. Whatever label we give this friendship, I for one believe that walking hand-in-hand with someone you can relate to is the greatest gift you can have in Life. If you have that gift, celebrate and be grateful. If you don’t then stop kidding yourself. Have the courage to accept that while you may be in a relationship called marriage, there’s no relating in it anymore. So stop grieving, stop wishing your Life were different and stop complaining about your spouse. You are as much responsible for the non-relating in your relationship as your spouse is. And remember, you still have an option to go find that friend who’s out there waiting for you, and who will walk with you into the sunset!
Separate as a couple if you must, but stay together as parents.
I saw an interesting – and valid – observation made by Justice Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court in today’s Hindu. He advises estranged couples to put their children first, ahead of even themselves, while working out divorce settlements. This way, he believes, the parents may be able to agree on all their differences and set up a workable, practical, compassionate, parental relationship with their children. I agree with this point of view completely.
Some years ago, this is what I advised a dear friend too. He has a drinking problem which had led him to being out of work. He was often fighting with his wife because she, naturally, hated him being drunk most of the time. One day the poor lady gave my friend an ultimatum that if he wanted to live with her, he must give up his habit. That very evening this friend invited me to a bar for a drink. Two pegs down, he said he was going to divorce his wife for “ruining his peace” and for “giving him an ultimatum”. I asked him if he had thought of his teenage daughter. And he replied he would fight for her custody in court. That’s when I held him a mirror and told him that if he loved his daughter, he must learn to respect his wife’s point of view too. Especially when she had a valid point. I dropped him home that night. To his credit, my friend sat down with his wife and worked out an arrangement where they started to live separately in the same apartment – but with no rancor between them, sharing parental responsibilities, splitting the bills and the chores between them. Their daughter has gone on to college now and the couple look forward to being more independent with their individual choices and outlooks in the years ahead.
I think this couple have implemented a very fair and workable arrangement. And this can be made to work in most cases if a couple can understand that a.) it is perfectly fine to fall out of love, just as they had once fallen in love (irrespective of whether it was before or after marriage!); or b.) it is okay to realize and concede that there was never any love lost between each other at all! The simplest way to clear up all the confusion over a soured or souring relationship is to ask yourself – would I want to (continue to) live with this person if there was so social stigma attached, if there were no financial claims involved and if there were no parental responsibilities towards the children? If you answer yes, then you are no longer relating to your partner in the relationship. Which means, the relationship is dead and you must separate. Now, when the decision to separate is made, think of the children and make them your first priority. Don’t think of social stigma or financial claims, they are surely less relevant that the children. And the way to look at your roles as parents is to be able to give your children the best of both parents and an environment of love and care. This can happen only when the parents are not fighting. So, stop fighting! Period.
Understandably the point when a couple come to separate is fraught with myriad differences. Of opinions, of attitudes, of claims and of just the way they are experiencing each other. It is also possible that while one partner may be willing to see the larger picture – involving the welfare of the children – the other may not. This is where a spiritual perspective comes in handy. If you consider the futility of any fight that saps all your energy and fills you with anger and negativity, you will want to clearly abandon it. A good fight, if at all, is when you don’t suffer while going through the process of fighting. There is a lot of endurance which is tested but you believe in the cause you are fighting for. Often most fights stop being worth it because they are not cause-led, they are ego-driven. Which is why they turn bitter. And divorce proceedings are no exception. However, when you bring in this understanding that you will first work for your children to get a compassionate environment, that allows both parental influences to thrive, you will see value in dropping all differences and moving on! Bottomline: it is totally unnecessary that divorcing couples fight with each other at the cost of their children. This is the way to go through a divorce without side-effects!