When I wrote about the 7 lessons on our first anniversary, I was starting out with marriage. I was learning a lot. Picking up traits. Exploring. Another year into it and I found myself awed at its realness. With each passing day, the fundamentals of marriage were being laid bare in front of me. In the largest of events. In the tiniest of moments. With love. And I couldn’t help but feel amazed.
I’ll give it to you upfront. Marriage isn’t a fairy tale. Because that would make it fictitious. Marriage is hard work. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to scare you away from it. Truth is, everything that truly means something special requires hard work and consistency. Marriage is no different. But the question is, what do I mean by “hard work”?
This struck me even more back in December 2019 when a reader of my blog reached out to me with a personal message. This is what she said:
If you’re reading this, a big shoutout to you! I can’t thank you enough for being a part of the Red Velvet family.
So I thought about what she said. Is it that simple? Looking “in love”? I’m not so sure. But what I am sure about is that efforts never lie.
I wanted to write about this because I think this is something that all couples face at some point. Investing in the marriage. But why am I writing this now? I believe that the initial years of a marriage are critical in building a solid foundation. While a marriage matures over time, like all good things, it is the principles we lay down in the initial years that go on to reflect on its long-term health and direction.
So, in this blog, I’m going to focus on the five conscious and intentional habits that Tathagata and I try to implement in our marriage.
- True Partnership
The last thing I wanted was a marriage where one person calls all the shots. I’ve never wanted to be in a place where there is hardly any contribution of one spouse to the partnership while the other compromises continuously. Who does, right? So what we attempt to build in our marriage is a healthy partnership where neither is made to feel inferior or superior.
Before I get into that, let’s get one thing out of the way. Partnership is not the same as equality. A husband and wife are partners. Not equal. We are not the same person. Would you like to be married to yourself?
Tathagata and I are very different from each other. For example, Tathagata does the accounting of our finances and I draw the limit. He is good with the research whereas I do a sick job in pulling up the itinerary. He wouldn’t touch a mussel (let alone half-cooked) and I would polish off a plate of it. You see, we are different. But we are a team. Our roles are unique but we couldn’t do without one another.
So, what Tathagata and I actively practise in our marriage is recognizing that we have different roles. We mutually agree on our contribution and take up responsibilities accordingly. We support each other’s endeavours instead of sidelining the other person’s effort. This makes life a lot easier.
That being said, it isn’t always so black and white in our marriage. There are grey areas where things get out of hand and one person (usually Tathagata) has to cover up for the other (usually me). But we treat each other with respect no matter what. In our marriage, no one is the alpha. No decision is made without consulting the other partner. No one gets the lion’s share continually. So, if I decide to pick the best and larger portions of our favourite food on a certain day, it is expected that Tathagata would do the same the next day. The same applies for chores.
One thing I try to avoid in our marriage is “gatekeeping”. It is when a partner expects the other one to help and then micromanages him/her to do the task according to their standards. The obvious consequence is criticism of the work one partner attempts to do. If you think about it, it is already delighting to know that your partner has volunteered to help out with something that he/she hasn’t done before. It isn’t fair to trample on that effort. So we allow each other the freedom to do the work on our own terms.
I feel that true partnership is about being fair irrespective of gender, the money each person brings home or any similar factors.
- Personal Space
Life moves fast. Look at us. It still seems like yesterday that Tathagata and I were walking around the fire all starry-eyed and full of beans, exchanging vows (remember our Wedding Diary?).
Relationships move faster. Before we even realize it, we are smack dab in the middle of it. And when we get caught up in this race, it becomes easy to lose sight of our individual identities. We forget to prioritize ourselves. Eventually, it becomes difficult to identify where one person ends and the other begins.
Why is that wrong?
I’ve already established that Tathagata and I are not the same person. As individuals, we have different dreams, interests and goals. If we become “joined at the hip”, we would begin to cloud each other’s spaces leaving very little room to pursue these goals. We would end up taking each other for granted. Love will begin to fade. Gradually, we will turn into a very different person from the one our partner married. It isn’t until I strive to build a better version of myself can I be the better half of TG, right? And vice versa.
For us, the most viable way to make this work has been by respecting each other’s boundaries and sticking to them. For example, if Tathagata is on a phone call, I have zero curiosity about who he is talking to or what about. Why? Because if it is about anything I need to know, I know that he would tell me in his own time. Similarly, if I am flustered with anything, he doesn’t question me beyond “Are you ok?”. That’s because he gives me the space to process my thoughts at my own pace and he knows that if I’m unable to sort it out myself, I would seek his help. If he is sitting on new information about something we’ve been discussing, I don’t push him to tell me. Instead, I give him the space to process it for himself before he is ready and feels that the information is actionable or important enough to share. Tathagata never lets anyone in on anything I share with him, no matter how insignificant it is because he understands that it is my story and it is mine only to tell.
We never force our decisions on each other or dictate one another on how to run our lives. This makes the time we spend together feel more genuine and valuable.
What we hope to achieve for our marriage through upholding our individuality is strengthening the love we share for each other and the future we are building together.
- Recognition, Appreciation and Choosing Love
I have been carefully warned by many to enjoy the dating phase and then the “Honeymoon phase” of the marriage because it ends after the two-year mark. And I began to wonder if this would happen to us. You can’t be in the honeymoon phase forever, right?
So, we got married, we crossed the two-year mark and this is what happened. Our love did change. It grew deeper. Every day, we decided to choose love whether or not we felt like it. We kept our principles right at the centre of our marriage. And it felt like we’ve let the light in.
You see, feelings are temperamental. You’re not going to feel the same each day. There’s stress at work. There are important life decisions to make. There are finances to work on. There’s just a whole bunch of external factors to work up a mood sooner than you can say “Jiminy Cricket”. But the decision to choose love each day is ours. So we own it.
What matters most in our marriage is how we treat each other. Knowing that Tathagata appreciates and values me is as important to me as the reciprocation is to him. He never forgets to say, “Thank you” each time I help him out with something. When I have something to say to him, he pauses the video he was watching, puts the phone down, makes full eye contact and pays attention to me. When I’m not feeling up to it, he volunteers to make the bed. And every time he does that, I thank him.
We make it a point to recognize each other’s efforts and appreciate them. We encourage each other, own up to our mistakes and apologize. These habits have become stable grounds for our feet to land both in times when the sun shines on our marriage and when we are feeling burdened.
- Anger Control
Thankfully neither Tathagata nor I have explosive rage. But we do get angry. There are days when we fall back to our default mode. We shut down and give each other the silent treatment. And as soon as we do that, the very bitterness we try to avoid in our marriage find the wiggle room to spring to life.
I have observed that most of the time, anger results from frustrations and these frustrations stem from uncommunicated expectations. It is a vicious circle. So the first thing we do is open dialogue. We try not to shy away from talking about our expectations, the reason behind them and lending each other a helping hand to work on them. For example, if any of Tathagata’s habits rubs me up the wrong way, I try to discuss it with him instead of expecting him to read my thoughts and waiting for it to magically disappear.
We also try not to express anger built up from external sources on each other. We communicate instead and use a gentle tone of voice. And we never, at least not consciously, test each other’s limits.
But we have bad days too. Sometimes it feels like the most natural and instant response to one another’s opinions is criticism just because we have different perspectives on the topic. There are times when we end up being condescending. And then it culminates into a fight. In situations like these, calling for a time-out has been the most effective way for us to defuse conflict. Through enough practice, we have recognized the importance of NOT sorting the issue in the heat of the moment. Words said in anger cut like a knife and they cannot be taken back. So we take our time and space to calm down and organize our thoughts instead of demanding a quick reconciliation.
I do three things in my time-out. First, I consciously try NOT to let my emotions run the show. Second, I try to locate the reason of the anger. And finally, I ask myself, “What would the best version of myself do in this situation?” This calms me down and helps me see more clearly. And then when we are both ready, we share our thoughts and work on our differences together. Like a team.
- Being Vocal
Early on in our marriage, I could’ve won an award for how long I could bottle up something inside. And Tathagata, being the keen observer that he is, would instantly know that something was wrong and wouldn’t give up on helping me talk it out. He refused to let the sun set without resolving the issue. Being an introvert, this was frustrating for me. But as time proved, it was crucial to break the wall and speak about the problem to overcome it. As soon as I would do that, the pent up negative energy and emotions in me would dissipate.
I realized later on that there was a reason for internalizing my thoughts. I used to think that I wouldn’t be understood and my emotions wouldn’t be valued. Tathagata has worked with me patiently to show me how wrong I was. He has always lent a listening ear and has never devalued my opinions. There was resistance from my side in the beginning. But as the positive results began to show, I started to cave. I still internalize stuff but I do it a lot less and take a lot less time than before to talk about what’s bothering me.
If you’re still reading this, kudos to your patience for sticking around this long!
Now are these five practices what the “hard work” in our marriage is all about? Yes and no. These practices are the precursor. The real “hard work” is in remembering them each day and in every situation and then choosing to follow them come rain, hail or shine.
Do we get them right every time? Hell no! Maybe only 10% of the time. But we learn from our mistakes and try to be persistent. Do they absolutely work for us? Not always. We tweak them to suit our dynamics as we go. Did we have a rulebook to decide on the practices? No. We started as a blank slate from the moment we became a freshly-minted couple in God’s eyes. We drew from our personalities, our upbringing and our circumstances. And we decided to go with what we had.
You see, that’s the beauty of marriage. You can never fully prepare for what it holds. But if you are lucky enough to find someone who is always willing to reciprocate love and seek out the best for you, chances are, you will do just fine. You may even end up ridiculously happy. Thankfully, Tathagata is a place of understanding and support while I try to be the listening ear at the end of the long day. In our marriage dynamics, one always needs to be the place of rest for the other – looking out for each other.
Truth is, there is no shortcut to building a strong relationship. It is made of hundreds of tiny choices each day to love each other through the coarse and bumpy bits. Through the good, the bad and the beautiful.