Monday, January 2, 2012

Spring clean your Marriage

Just about everyone spring cleans their homes, at least once a year. In the West it’s during spring – when carpets can be aired, winter clothes put away, junk thrown out, windows opened to let out stale winter air and let in the freshness of spring. Here in India the cleaning fever grips us before our festivals, and the more tidy amongst us will spring clean at least once a month. We do it, not as a chore, but as a chance to run our eye and our duster over all our possessions - cleaning, mending, discarding, replacing, rediscovering. Lurking pests and fungus are shown the door, and now we’re sure that nothing scary is going to jump out at us. It’s a great feeling. Once we’re done, we have the satisfaction of knowing how things stand in every nook and corner of our home. Every area – the parts that are visible and in regular use, as well as tucked away unseen areas – have been examined and blessed with our attention and efforts. And we’re all set, or one should say reset, to enjoy the joys of being a householder.
It’s the same with our cars – servicing, regular petrol filling, maintaining tyre pressure, cleaning inside and out, listening out for any odd noises. How well and how routinely we manage all this.
Many of us do a fairly good job of maintaining our bodies too. And if we don’t, the ill-effects show up soon enough and quite obviously so, in the form of weight gain or illness - so we’re forced to take stock of our habits and make some quick and sustainable changes.
With our careers too, we see to it that things remain on track. Our own ambitions and the demands of corporate life demand that we remain focused, skillful, flexible and forward-moving; and that we learn to manage our relationships at work.
So there it is, then: our homes, our cars, our bodies, our jobs – all of them routinely get their share of attention and care.
However, the most important relationships in our lives - the ones that will outlive our homes and cars and jobs and even our bodies - we treat as if they’re completely weather-proof, Teflon-coated, maintenance-free, unbreakable and come with a lift-time warranty. We leave them out in the rain, we scratch them, we provide them little nourishment, we toss them around, making big dents and small ones.
How come?
It’s usually because our relationships are ‘expected’ to take the wear and tear. Marriage is one such relationship. The definition itself, in every culture, says ‘for better or for worse’, ‘till death do us part’, etc. But many of us don’t seem to read the fine print – or the fine print is not pointed out to us – it says: ‘highly inflammable; not to be loose shunted.’
Which means that when we enter marriage, we’re undertaking something, like all high-energy projects, with tremendous and powerful potential. And for this power to work for us, we need to handle it with care and follow certain protocols for maintenance and troubleshooting:

Fuel efficiency and body work: Tired, underfed or overfed, unkempt bodies are a serious marital-energy sapper. Don’t ignore the early warning signs that come from your mirror and from gentle jokes made by your spouse. Commit to staying fit and reasonably slim, for yourself as well as for each other. Work, kids, ‘i’ll do it if you do it’ – none of these excuses are valid. What’s the fuss really? Make small but sustainable changes in your eating habits. Don’t wait for a gym to open up nearby or the weather to change or for the right shoes. All you need is enough space to stretch, a walking track or a quiet lane or even the corridor of your building, and 30 minutes. It’s bound to rust-proof your marriage.

Odd noises: Listen to yourself speak to your spouse. So many couples complain that “he/she talks so sweetly to the rest of the world and is so careless/nasty with me”. And no, that is not a sign that you’re ‘comfortable’ with one another and being formal with the rest of the world. If this is the case, you need to rethink your definition of what communication with your spouse means. All that warmth and good cheer that you reserve for even the neighbour who irritates you – do redirect some of it homewards. And it doesn’t always have to be Words. It can be completely non-verbal, and yet caring and intimate, respectful and warm, in public as well as private.

Tyre rotation and retreading: The worst marital skids take place when we let the interesting grooves and grids of our personalities wear out. We married in the first place because we liked certain facets of each other’s personalities. Over just a few years, those seem to vanish, or are reserved only for the outside world. While the marriage itself runs on bald, featureless tyres. Redefine your grooves and patterns, evolve – on your own and with your spouse – and you’ll continue to have a great grip on the bylanes as well as the highways of marital life.

Pest control: Parasites, pests and fungi find their way into every marriage in the form of well-meaning meddlers and malicious manipulators – these could be some of your friends, family, even spiritual/financial/psychological advisers. They usually thrive on discord and your intimate secrets. Keep them firmly out. If they have crept in, take a joint decision on the best way to get rid of them. Remember, however, not to use toxic methods that could be hazardous to your marriage. Humour and a gentle nudge should do the trick. Most importantly, you have to agree with each other about who the real pests are and how best they can be thrown out.

Planned shutdowns and timeouts: Every system needs a break – a genuine one. Hectic holidays, expensive dinners, major partying – they create the illusion of relaxation. They’re usually a source of much stress, as we’ve all experienced. The airports are overflowing with bored looking couples looking in two different directions, ‘holidaying together’. Find what you really enjoy doing as a couple. Also find what you like to do alone and go do it, without guilt. It’s completely ok to seek and give each other time on your own – whether to read, stare into space, walk, play a game or go out with friends.

Safety features: Put them in place. Wear a helmet to protect yourselves from falling financial/health/emotional equipment. Wear seatbelts of restraint so that neither of you hurt yourselves and each other with sudden shocks. Install a smoke detector – so that you’re not just running from a fire or consumed by it.

Discard and upgrade: Throw out outmoded attitudes and grudges. Forgiveness, that much-touted and much-misunderstood word, is the key. All marriages have had their teething troubles – don’t cling to these and hold them up like a penalty card at each other for years later. Change, and appreciate change in the other.

Focus on core competencies: Whether it’s parenting, financial management, looking after elders, a career, hospitality…everyone has their speciality – that they’re good at and do with ease. Find it and focus on it. And do try to stop berating each other for what you are not. In this exercise, you’ll find that you’ll do away with much dust and rust and many of the original facets for which you loved each other will emerge.

So many people, when faced with the task of spring cleaning and overhauling their marriages, feel most resentful and say: “If I can’t be comfortable around my own house and spouse – what’s the point.” Comfort is one thing, and neglect and sloth is quite another. And let’s learn to make that distinction! Many relationships are comfortable – ‘like an old shoe’, as people say. But do remember, that an old shoe becomes comfortable because you’ve used it well, you didn’t drag it through muck or leave it neglected under a whole pile of things, you repaired it when required…and you chose good material to begin with. It’s something like that with a marriage – it can flourish on comfort, but it just cannot thrive on neglect and abuse.

There’s a saying in hindi – chalti ka naam gaadi. Loosely translated, this means, if it runs, it’s a car. Don’t let your marriage be one of those. Inertia never got anyone anywhere !

(appears in marathi translation in this year's Kalnirnay calendar!)


dipali said...

Great advice, Gouri! Marriages need to be treated like a work-in-progress- maybe then they will become genuine works of art:)

mallika said...

What a wonderful article Dipali . Youre very right - marriages need to be injected with a rejuvenation shot at times to make them more solid and robust ! Came to your blog via our mutual friend Dipali 's blog !