I have my reasons for fixating on Zadie Smith (her cheekbones and freckles are key), but my favourite thing about her is this line from On Beauty- ‘The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.’
It’s true. Love restricts, and your success at it depends on how you work with, and around the constraints. There is much humble pie to be eaten and much pride to be swallowed- and you’re basically walking around with a belly full of regrets. Sound terrible? I’m sorry, it just is that way, at least the heart of it. The rest- the bit where you give each other names like moonpie and cutesickle and draw ketchup hearts on each other’s toasts at breakfast- all that is just schmaltz, the fluff that Hallmark and Hugh Grant make money out of. Love is hard work and a lot of coldblooded clearheadedness about where you stand in it, and what you’re getting from it. It’s also the ultimate challenge- being jelly-kneed and lucid, selfish and selfless, intense and relaxed, honest and deluded- all at the same time. And if you don’t do the hard work in the beginning- the un-knotting of the pressure points, the untangling of the strings that come attached, the paring down to the kernel that defines your relationship, you’re in for inevitable heartache and weeks of junk food and self pity.
I’m no agony aunt, nor is my relationship with the love of my life perfect (whose is?), but I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, because marriage is such a trajectory-altering experience that it’s a story waiting to be told. Not in a dinner party fodder kind of way, but in a here’s-what-I’ve-learnt kind of way, as a sort of peace offering to the sisterhood.
Before I get into that, here’s a Zadie Smith quote (again!) from White Teeth- ‘If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.’ She’s basically saying that tradition can make your life miserable especially because it appears innocuous and well-intentioned. And especially because it comes with and from the very people you trust. Which allows me to segue neatly into Marriage.
Whether you’re marrying for love or not, here are a few things you must clarify with your sweetums/ hone vaaley woh before he lands at your doorstep with his entire clan of weirdos. Yes, I- the hopeless romantic, the girl who still serenades her husband in verse and leaves squares of dark chocolate under his pillow- am saying that. If you don’t sort these things out before, no matter how cross-eyed with desire you get about each other, you’re in for serious trouble later. Not saying it’s easy; it will test your negotiation skills- your ability to take it on the jaw and give it right back- all without being bitter or vindictive or weeping into your coffee. And it will test how mature and even keeled you can be about all of it, how accepting of the fact that when you make a home with another person, things can’t always- and shouldn’t always be your way.
1. Talk about your jobs. You spend 80% of your time at your respective jobs, which in turn finance 100% of your lifestyle choices. Prioritize spending time with each other, and also clarify how important your work is to you and exactly how much of it you’re willing to cut back on for we-time. Before we married, I was working crazy hours that were much longer than those my (then) fiancé did, even on the weekends. This left me with little time for him, a subject we broached often. He is a doctor and couldn’t possibly have cut back (what monster says No to a sick person on the phone?), so I did. I decided to switch to a job with a better work-life balance, yet with the same level of challenge I’d so enjoyed at my previous one. This gave me weekends, and worked out well.
2. Talk about your future– the next five years, no more. Your individual goals- personal and professional- must be known to the other person, if not completely aligned. I know, for example, that I’d like to be a mother, and own a dog and a hedgehog. I also know that I’d like to be in a job that allows me plenty of time to think, to write. I’m not stuck up about the money, never have been. My husband detests children, winces at their snotty faces, and would like very much to be a Distinguished Dignitary with a degree in Economics from a red brick institution. He also dislikes hedgehogs and calls them ‘rodents’, which is really insufferably rude. We’re so obviously off-sync it’s a joke, but at least there won’t be any unpleasant surprises.
3. Talk about money. I know how Scrooge-y that sounds, how awful and unwarranted. But money’s going to be the atomic unit of your lifestyle, and there’s no point tiptoeing around it. Talk about how you’re going to spend, and who’s going to spend on what. Since the Husband was still studying when I bagged my first job, I decided to take on spending on us both. I financed all our holidays- the big ones and the little ones- the expensive stays and the cheap weekend getaways. When he started earning, he offered to pay for the groceries, and the occasional gifts we’d buy for friends and family. But before we got married, we decided to take stock of our finances and make rules. We opened a joint account, into which half my salary and half his found its way every month. We decided not to vacation unless we had a certain minimum in our joint account. We also designated his account the Spending account, and mine the Saving account. Credit cards were slashed into half (they’re evil) and debit cards were shared freely. It was, and still is very smooth. Unless I overspend on jewellery or shoes, which is when all hell breaks loose and I am threatened with the possibility of No Pets. (the horror!)
4. Talk about family. Unless you’re Pollyanna, you’re not going to like a lot of people in each other’s families. Here’s a Zadie Smith quote to help you- ‘Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time’. So let’s be real. It’s all very well to aspire to be the Glue That Binds ‘Em All Together but it isn’t going to work out. You’re not going to like everyone, and everyone’s not going to like you. You can either be a nag about it, or take it in your stride. We drew up lists of people we didn’t quite like in each other’s families, and then worked together on whittling it down to the people that really mattered. Then we created protocols for behaviour around each one of them. The parents were non-negotiable, you had to be nice to them. Nasty Aunt was mean and petty, so there need be nothing beyond superficial conversation around her potted plants and feckless darzi. Creepy Uncle was..well, creepy, so you needn’t go beyond a terse Hi, after which you could vamoose. Nice but Distant Cousin was sweet, so a small gift every time you visit. And so on. We solemnly swore to abide by said protocols and signed a pact with our blood on a paper towel. (okay, it was peach iced tea dripping off a straw.) This way, you both act with all the precision and integrity of a synchronised swim team, which you will agree looks awesome even on a small telly with a curved old-timey screen.
5. Talk about how you’re going to split time between families. Especially if both sets of parents live in the same city. Especially on festivals and key occasions like birthdays. Because some parents can be stupidly sentimental about these things, wanting to hog all your time without a care for your poor spouse’s feelings. My in laws were/ are like that, disdainful and dismissive of me wanting to be by my parents’ side because they come from a culture where a married woman’s birth-home is no longer hers. I sorted it out by giving them my word that I’d make sure we split our time equally between both homes- and I haven’t broken that promise, not even by a minute. It’s gone a long way toward reassuring them that I’m fair and just- which I’m proud to say I am- but I choose to ignore any residual resentment, which can’t be helped. On festivals, we spend an equal number of hours at each home, and per week, split visit-hours equally. It works out just fine. Neither side can complain, since we’re both being conscientious. Big win.
Small aside here- if you’re a married woman, please do not feel guilty about wanting to spend time with your peeps, or pressured into spending all your time at your in laws. This is 2014, not the 1600’s. Nobody gets to dictate where and how you spend your time. But because you aren’t Merida from Brave (let’s face it- she got away with all that only because red hair and general adorableness) and because there are Feelings involved (argh!), make sure it’s done with tact, honesty and openness. Chupan chupaai is seldom appreciated and could add to the trust deficit. Sit down with your in laws and wrestle them into a mature discussion if you have to, but do it- both of you.
6. Be completely accepting of each other’s friends. Unless there’s a major jarring note- like chauvinism, or gropeyness, or just plain bad manners- be tolerant. Try to get to know each other’s friends better, because they’re important to the person you love, and because you can attend each other’s parties with ease without feeling left out. I made it a point to drag the Husband/ Fiance to all office parties and home-bashes, and he invited me to his. It was fun, and always is. I met a lot of amazing people and so did he.
7. Never EVER let the world see the hole in your soul, the chink in your armour. A marriage is a wonderful thing- you suddenly acquire superpowers like ESP and telepathy and you just know what your fella thinks of the date your friend brought, the one in too-tight pants and pointy shoes. Respect that, and revel in its awesomeness. Don’t squabble in front of people. Praise in public, critique in private. Give each other that much respect. I’ve often wanted to cut the Husband short mid-rant but I bite my tongue for later, and when we’re alone, I tell him “That wasn’t cool, what you just said. Hedgehogs have feelings.”
8. Never make your fights public. If you had a personal, non-work related argument with a colleague at work, would you invite another colleague into the fray to referee? Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. A marriage is way, way more high-stakes than a work relationship, so keep your fighting strictly to yourselves. Do not involve friends or family- especially parents. Parents have a way of gleefully taking sides and worsening the situation, because no matter how liberal and just they are, they will always secretly root for their own offspring. Moreover, they use such situations to stepladder into others, and before you know it, you have Serious Third Party Interference. Unless you’re a total douchebag, you wouldn’t want to be unfair in that way to your partner. Clannishness can be devastating on a marriage. The Husband and I have NEVER let our folks get even a whiff of our differences. We speak in once voice, play on the same team. Want to drive a wedge between us? Hard luck, try elsewhere.
9. Celebrate each other’s family. You’re entitled to your differences, but family is important. Try spending a month abroad with an unreliable phone connection and you’ll know. You could be at each other’s throats, but the folks who made you, heaved you out on a hospital bed and pretty much held your hand into adulthood deserve your love and empathy at ALL times. Even if they’re being jerks. I’m ideologically opposed to everything my in laws believe in- women being inferior to men, sons pressed into parental service for life, children not leaving their homes to build careers etc- but I recognise that the cute piece o’ ass I’m fidaa over wouldn’t have been alive but for them. I make it a point to celebrate their birthdays, anniversaries and all their professional milestones with the same enthusiasm as I would my own. I’m not being a Preachy Prig- this is, frankly, the right and decent thing to do. Do unto yourself etc etc.
10. Don’t let the prudes get to you. If you’re not naturally demonstrative, its okay. But if you are, don’t hold back, sanskriti be damned. You have one Husband, a lifetime make out coupon, so use it. If you keep all that love bottled inside you’ll erupt one day into a sad, lonely and resentful person who rolls their eyes at couples holding hands. Here’s some inspiration from Pinterest:
That will be all for today, devis. Booty..erm, duty calls! 😉 Love.