A Happy Marriage

Truth, Caring, Mutual respect are what I call my three Cardinal Principles of happy marriages. Please notice that I am not using the word ‘love’. Love comes out of these three things. What is called love is usually physical desire. The shape or size of someone’s body is not the inspiration for love; it can be the inspiration for infatuation and lust but not love. For love to happen, the lasting kind that is, the kind that grows with age and the longer you spend time together, you need truthfulness, caring and concern for one another – putting the needs of the other before your own; and mutual respect. Without respect there can’t be any love. One needs to respect one’s spouse, appreciate their strengths, make them your role model, icon and be proud of them and proud that they are your spouse. That kindles love in the heart which grows with time because the reasons for respect also grow with time. Physical attraction reduces with age. It is programmed to do so. Nobody grows more beautiful with age. You mature with age, grow wiser, more mellow, more patient and forbearing and more worthy of respect. The love that comes out of that also grows with age.

Truth is to express feelings as they are and not to have any pretensions. Caring is to treat the other with concern because you know that with you s/he has no barriers or safety nets. Respect is to acknowledge the value of the trust that is placed in you in allowing you into that inner most of places in the heart in which nobody else has been allowed before. To treat that privilege with the respect it deserves and never to abuse it for any reason.

2.            Is there a formula to be happy in a marriage?

Marry someone you believe is worthy of emulation; someone you can look up to and learn to forgive them. The formula of an unhappy marriage is to marry someone who you believe you can change. That is a sure recipe for disaster. When you marry someone who you think needs to be changed you are accepting that they are not good enough as it is. Also in most cases you would not have asked them if they want to change and that too to your preferred model. And then you will lo and behold that they have other ideas about changing and your marriage will be the casualty.

The second part of the formula is to be forgiving. We need to forgive one another. What tends to happen in many marriages is that we expect the other person to forgive us but we hold them to standards that we are ourselves unable to live up to and become curiously blind to this unreasonable stance. That doesn’t work. Good to remember the saying, ‘Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’

Share in each other’s lives. Take interest in what the other does. Don’t be nosey but learn and add value. Conversation is both the key to a happy marriage and a metre to judge its health. Marriages that are getting sick start to lose conversation. When there is nothing left to talk about after 10 minutes and when your idea of spending time with your spouse is to sit in front of the TV or to read the newspaper in the same room, then you can safely say that your marriage is falling sick. In happy marriages there is a desire for the company of the other. Not for the company of others. You hurry home because your spouse is there. You don’t hit home and bounce off to the club to sit with your cronies or to some other place to be with other friends. You want to spend time with your spouse not because otherwise s/he will complain but because you genuinely want to do it.

3.            How do you make a marriage work?

By working at it. We use this term, ‘Make a marriage work’, but we forget that a lot of it is actually ‘work’. It takes effort, time and energy, is measurable and produces results. Making breakfast for your wife is work. Offering to do her errands is work. Taking the trouble to look nice when your husband comes home instead of like animated laundry is work. Going to the airport to meet his flight is work. You get the drift? Doing what does not come naturally or doing something that is important for the other even if you don’t like doing it, is work. And all of it produces results in terms of appreciation and love.

Never complain if your spouse is not spending time with you. Firstly it is pathetic and undignified to do so. Secondly I have a rule: never tell someone to do for duty what they won’t do for love. And thirdly, that they seek someone else’s company is a message for you; so act and examine yourself and see why this is happening and correct yourself and things will change. People seek what is enjoyable. So if your company is more a pain rather than enjoyment, naturally they will go elsewhere.

As I say, ‘If I wanted to marry a nag, I would have married a horse. At least it would have carried me from place to place.’ Nag is a gender neutral term. There are male and female nags and both are equally painful. Finally companionable silence is also an indicator of a good marriage. You don’t have to be talking all the time. It is the quality of the companionship, the quality of the silence. You will know it without anyone having to explain, let me assure you. But pay attention to it if it there is tension or boredom in it.

4.            How can you try and make an unhappy marriage a happy one?

This is a tough one because there is a pre-clause to it. Once you satisfy that pre-clause then it is very easy. The pre-clause is, ‘DO YOU REALLY WANT IT TO HAPPEN?’ Now that may sound like a strange thing to ask but I have seen in many years of counseling that all the failures that I saw were because the partners did not really want to make it work. They were not sincere and were merely going through the moves with the idea of satisfying themselves or others that ‘they made the effort’. Now that is a lie because they never made an effort. They acted a drama with a precluded ending.

Once you are sincere about turning things around then you need to sit down and write down all that you like about your spouse. After all there were things about them that you liked enough to marry them. What were they? Then when you have that list, you write down the problem areas. Usually that works like magic. Marriages go bad most often because we don’t appreciate the good enough and are not thankful for what they have. I often ask couples, ‘How many times a day do you thank your wife/husband? How many times a day do you hug or kiss them? How many times a day do you tell them that you love them?’

5.            Is the idea of a soul mate just a myth – or is it simple communication between people?

Soul mates are made, not born. And they are made over time. Sometimes a fairly long time. Then you see them sitting together and smiling at things that only they understand. Or looks that have meaning only for each other. Or speaking in a language that only the other understands. Phrases that they use only for each other and which may even be gibberish to others but which touch their hearts. This is the stage when every time you look at her you fall in love all over again, 30 years into your marriage. And laughing. Laughing is important. Laughing together at the same things. Showing each other things so as to add to the joy by sharing.

6.            What kind of initiatives and actions dictate a happy marriage?

Back to the basics: Truth, caring, mutual respect. Every action or initiative must pass this test. Are you being truthful? Is her need coming before your own? And are you showing the respect you feel? I remember that my grandmother used to serve my grandfather his meals. Every meal. She would put food on his plate, refill it, offer him the choicest pieces of meat, watch to see what he needed and give it to him before he asked for it. She would eat every meal with him, without exception in a house that was a mansion with several servants. But no servant was ever allowed to give my grandfather anything directly. They brought the tray to my grandmother and she served him. All this she did with such a look of love and devotion on her face that I can see clearly in my mind even today 40 years later and more than 25 years since both of them died. Why did she do this? Just because she liked to do it. It really is that simple.

He reciprocated this to the fullest extent. He never did anything without asking for her advice. He never went anywhere without her. He wore what she gave him. She had complete control of his money. He never touched it. He never asked her for any account with a level of trust seldom seen today, even though it was his money, so to speak. He never raised his voice to her for anything. He never even looked at her except with love. She was his whole life in every sense of the word.

He loved her and she loved him and it showed.

She died first. He died three months later of a broken heart. But they left memories for their children and grandchildren about how to be married and how to treat your spouse.

7.            How much involvement should parents and in laws have in a marriage?

None whatsoever. This is the single most potent recipe for disaster. Parents should be involved in their own marriages. Once your children are married, they are not children any more. Leave them alone and let them work out their problems. They are adults and that is why they got married. The problem with many parents (in this case mothers) especially in our society (Indian) is that they are most anxious about getting their children married and then they start feeling insignificant and so become competitors with their own daughters in law. Remember that if you become your daughter in law’s competitor, you lose if you lose and you lose if you win. Both ways you lose. So get out of the way. Leave them alone. Visit them for 2 days, not more, every six months – every year is even better. Don’t talk for more than 5 minutes on the phone. Don’t chat on Skype or Yahoo or anything else. Don’t ask personal questions. And above all, don’t ask, ‘Are you happy?’ I have yet to see a marriage survive the attention of parents and parents in law.

At the same time I would advise young couples also to take steps to kindly discourage this involvement if you see it happening. If you are old enough to get married you are old enough to solve your own problems. If you are running to your parents with your problems then put on your diapers. You are not ready for marriage. So if your Mom calls and asks you, ‘So what did he say when you told him such and such?’ Tell your Mom, ‘Mom, sorry I won’t tell you what he told me.’ Smile and say it but say it clearly. Spend time with your spouse, not with your mother. I am not asking you to neglect your mother or father but remember that your spouse has first call once you get married.

8.            How does one make compromises?

They are not called ‘compromises’. They are called ‘adjustments’. It is not the semantics of it but the attitudes that language indicates and dictates. We make compromises when forced to do so. We make adjustments to things so that we can enjoy them more. One of the things that most young couples don’t bargain for is the aspects of sharing ownership, time and privacy that marriage brings with it. Nobody told them about it and they didn’t think about it when they had stars in their eyes.

Honeymoons are in hotels and sharing a hotel room is different from sharing your own bedroom and your own cupboard. Changing from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is often a difficult process.

Having said that, decide on what is important to you. Don’t make compromises on issues of principle. Explain to your spouse why you won’t compromise and wise partners will respect that. But issues which are important to the other and which you can live with changing, change. Remember the point about concern for the other? It is good to remember that everything is not a test of your masculinity or femininity. By ‘giving in’ to something you don’t lose face; you win hearts. So do it unless it is something that goes against your fundamental values.

It is a very good idea to have some frank sharing of thoughts on what is important to you. When this is happening, simply listen. Don’t justify, agree, disagree or argue. Just listen respectfully and then decide what you love, what you can live with, what you can change in yourself and what you need to talk to the other person about. Most couples, in the courtship stage are too busy on appearing their best and get into a pretense mode that has no relation to what they are really like. Acting can’t be sustained and the mask comes off sooner than later with predictable results. So speak to each other frankly and then decide if you want to get married. During this conversation speak clearly and tell them what are the non-negotiables for you. Don’t try to be politically correct or polite or whatever and hide or play down things that you really feel strongly about. Maybe it is something to do with practicing your religious beliefs, or about family values or that your Mom will live with you or that the cat shares your bed or whatever. No matter what it is, if it is important, then say it. That is far more positive and far less painful than having your spouse discover it later. Some things may seem ‘silly’ to you but if they are important enough for the other person then they will cause you serious trouble if you don’t respect them.

9.            When does one know that a marriage is not working? And when should people do something about it?

A marriage is ultimately an agreement between two people to live together for mutual benefit. When you find that there is no mutual benefit and that the living together is causing more grief than joy then you know that it is not working. Then you must ask yourself the questions:

•             Am I willing to make it work?

•             What will it take to make it work?

•             Am I willing to do what it takes?

If the answer to all of them is in the affirmative, then get on with it and work. If not then it is time to call it a day. The important thing to do even if you decide to divorce is to remember the first three rules: Truthfulness, concern for the other and mutual respect. Ensure that you don’t do anything that is not scrupulously honest and completely above board. Show concern that the other person should not leave with bad feeling. The divorce is bad enough. Don’t add negative baggage to it. And show respect for each other. You deserve it and your marriage deserves it. Part company if you have to but do it in a way that is respectful and honorable.

10.          How to make efforts to making a marriage work – for the man and woman?

It is essential to differentiate between Core Responsibilities and other things. In my view it is the Core Responsibility of the man to work and earn a living and take care of the financial responsibilities of the family.  It is Core Responsibility of the woman to make the home a place of beauty, grace and harmony and to focus on the upbringing of the children. I know this may sound old fashioned to some but just take a look at what the result of the Yuppy and Puppy culture is and you will come back to the basics soon enough. Having taken care of the Core Responsibility, naturally the man must help around the home, take care of children, water the garden, wash the car, mow the lawn, take out the garbage and not sit in front of the TV with his feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn at his elbow – or whatever passes as its equivalent in your culture.

Similarly once the Mom has taken care of her Core Responsibility then it is good if she waters the garden, washes the car, mows the lawn, takes out the garbage and does not sit in front of the TV with her feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn at her elbow – or whatever passes as its equivalent in your culture. I am sure you understand what I mean. Dividing responsibilities is a very good idea. Do it whichever way you like but do it. Role clarity is essential in a happy marriage and role conflict causes the maximum stress on it. It is essential for one of the spouses to be dedicated to the upbringing of children; teaching them life skills, manners, tools of thinking, decision making and teaching them core values of life. Today in the Yuppy and Puppy cultures the idea of bringing up children is to feed them, ensure that they are washed and dried and entertained. That is what you do with the dog. Not with your child. Children need a jolly sight more than food, clothing and shelter if you want to develop a human being who will be your legacy to the world. I believe you need to dedicate yourself to that because it is important.

If you don’t agree, use condoms. That is far better than producing children who are a nuisance at best and a painful reality in the lives of others, as long as they live.

11.          Whose responsibility is it to make a marriage happy?

Naturally it is the responsibility of both people like in any agreement. It is important to recognize and accept this responsibility so that you will then do what it takes to fulfill it. As I mentioned above, I advocate actually sitting down and having a dialogue before you get married about what each one is supposed to do. Say it to each other and agree on it. Don’t leave it to guesswork and discovery. That leads to misunderstanding and disappointment. A good marriage is a dream. To make it come true you have to wake up and work. If you expect your wife to cook for your friends who you will bring home from time to time, say it. And also say what time to time means. If you expect your husband to pick up the food on the way home with his friends from the restaurant, say so. If you expect your wife to make breakfast for you and sit with you watching you get outside the eggs and toast, say so. If you expect your husband to bring the eggs and toast to you in bed (never really liked the idea of eating without first brushing your teeth), say so. What I mean is that in marriages, it is often the so-called ‘silly things’ that lead to trouble. So silly or not, say it if it is important to you.

My second Cardinal Principle – Concern, is what is most important to remember. If you apply the Golden Rule – Do unto them as you would have them do unto you – you can’t go wrong. The virus that kills marriage is a two letter word – ME. To get you have to give. What you have in your hand is your harvest. What you sow is your seed. To get a harvest you have to first sow the seed. Remember that the harvest is always more than the seed. So give and give with grace, with love, with joy. And you will get much more than you bargained for. Show consideration for your spouse. Do things without being asked. Be aware of what they like the most and do it. Try to please them. Don’t play power games. The marriage is not a contest to get the better of the other. You are not in a race or in a WWF wrestling match or in a competition to see who is more powerful. Remember that every time you ‘win’ the other person loses. And losing is something that nobody enjoys. So at some point they will get tired of losing and you have no marriage. And that is the biggest loss that you brought on to yourself. A marriage is a relay race – long term, passing the baton to the other at each stage and the team – in this case the two of you – wins.

12.          In today’s times of pre-nups, fast track divorces and even websites as matchmakers, what kind of mindset should people have when getting into a marriage?

Today we live in a world where selfishness is not a sin anymore. However changing your mind about an evil does not make it good. You will get sick even if you fall in love with the virus. People wanting to get married have to learn to think about the other and to consciously give him or her precedence and preference. If you can’t do this, your marriage will break down sooner or later. Our lifestyles, the internet, social networking and talking to people across the world from other cultures, the TV with its unreal, fantasy world of soap operas are all designed to destroy marriages. They promote ideas that are either directly destructive or lead to the killing fields of marriage. A good marriage is about living in the real world, not in a world that is neither bold nor beautiful.

13.          Is the 7 year itch based on statistics or research? In your mind, does it exist?

I don’t think there is any such thing. Looking outside your marriage for companionship which can then lead to a breakup, is a sign of intrinsic unhappiness. If you feel it, the thing to do is to deal with it. Not look outside. The problem with 7 year itches is that every 7 years you are older and less desirable. Then where will you go?

14.          How important are children to have a happy marriage, some couples cannot have children, others choose not to.

I don’t think children either make a marriage happy or unhappy. It is more their upbringing that makes the home happy or not. Children give the parents a common interest but for a marriage if the only thing in common is the children then something is wrong. On the converse side children take a lot of time and attention and energy and this can be difficult to handle for many people. But if the spouses share in the work of bringing up children and take the trouble to bring them up well, with good manners, values and attitudes, then they can be a huge asset for the marriage.

15.          What can couples do to keep the bespoke “spark” in the marriage?

Appreciate each other and express this appreciation on a daily basis. Catch each other doing right. Do things for one another only to see the smile on the face. Invent your own language which only the two of you understand. We used to keep a book on a table in the house in which we would write things we liked about each other or something nice we wanted to say to one another. We did say it as well but sometimes writing is easier. Give flowers and chocolates. Men also like flowers, remember. Second most important rule: Don’t react to everything that the other says. Take 10 deep breaths. Then forget it. Reactions produce reactions and in the end it is taken out of your hands.

Finally never go to bed, mad at each other. Always make up before you go to bed. Cuddle up together and sleep. Never quarrel in the bedroom. Never in bed. Make this a rule. If you have a problem, deal with it in the morning. Usually by the morning it would have solved itself.

16.          Is fighting healthy?

Well, depends on what is meant by ‘fighting’. If it means trying to get the better of each other in an argument and using all kinds of means to do so then it is definitely not healthy. If it means arguing as in a friendly fencing match between equal intellects that leads to good feeling, then it is good. Avoid power games like the plague. Many marriages turn into daily competitions between the spouses to see who can control the other. This takes many apparently benign and legitimate forms. But they are all illegitimate, subversive and destructive to the marriage.

Some people use religion as a means of control and invoke religious rulings and promise the other brimstone and hellfire for disobeying some whim or fancy of yours. In many cases it is people (mostly men in this case) who have not done anything significant in life and are suffering from an inferiority complex and can sense that they really don’t command any respect on their own, who use religion and religious rulings to enforce their will on the woman. Women use religion to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy where they feel that they are not loved or desired as much as they would like to be. ‘Should’ is the most useless word in the language. If people did what they should then the world would have been a different place. Both need to look at the real drivers behind their apparent religious orientation because it has nothing to do with the Almighty. Power games come in many packages. Spouses use children as pawns in their games at getting the better of each other. Others use health concerns, eat more, eat less, joint family rules, cultural taboos and many other things. All are power games and all are destructive.

17.          How important is money to keep a marriage happy?

Not important at all. Both financial hardship and plenty can be a source of bonding or a source of drifting apart. It is mutual respect and concern for one another that counts. And that is a result of character, piety, learning, nobility of conduct and deportment, confidence, trustworthiness, dignity and grace, genuine desire to please one another and to place the need of the other before and above one’s own. None of these are things that money can buy or that we need money for. Marriages are happy or break up for reasons other than money. Money problems are not money problems even when there are money problems; if you see what I mean.

18.          What are the worst things couples can do to a marriage?

Lie, betray trust, cheat, play power games. Also making fun of one another as in mocking. Showing disrespect in the name of humor. Humor is to laugh with someone, not to laugh at them. Lastly but by no means the least, by being overly self-focused and showing disregard and no concern for the other. Honesty is still the best policy in 2010 and will still be the best policy in 3010 if the world lasts that long.

19.          Should people resort to white lies or tiny lies to keep the peace?

There’s a difference between telling lies and not divulging all the details. Not divulging all the details, for example about your friendships before marriage, is not wrong and is a very wise thing to do. The spouse has no need to know and it is something that does no good to the marriage no matter how ‘broadminded’ the spouse may be. But to tell a lie is wrong and goes against the grain of all that I have said above. Incidentally ‘white lies’ is a racially color biased term, like ‘black sheep’, ‘nightmare’, ‘black heart’ and so on; the legacy of English which is originally the white man’s language. Knight in shining armor can be all black too – black shines even more than white if you notice.

Having said that, telling ‘the truth’ inappropriately or in a harsh manner does no good either. Being silent is an option that is worth exploring. For example if the toast is burnt or the food has no salt or something is not to your liking there are many ways of saying it. But you also have the option of remaining silent in honor of all the times that it was delicious. If the husband comes home cranky it is irritating but you have the option to remind yourself that a nice cup of tea and talking about something else is probably more productive than saying, ‘Don’t bring your office home.’ You would be justified in saying so if you did, but sometimes it is better to be kind than to be justified. Diplomacy and wisdom are great virtues and most useful in a marriage. Not rubbing their nose in it is wise. Turn away gracefully. Don’t watch their discomfiture. Spouses realize that they are wrong but may not necessarily grovel at your feet and beg forgiveness. It is wise to leave them alone and not demand groveling. People’s dignity is important to maintain. Be it a management – union negotiation or a domestic disagreement, it is important to allow the one who is wrong to ‘save face’. To insist on humiliating them is to burn bridges to future relationship. Remember that you are also human and will surely be wrong one day. Don’t create a situation where the other is waiting for that day to return your favor.

20.          Does it help couples when they talk about their problems? To whom, a stranger or someone they know?

It is helpful for couples to talk about their problems to someone they respect and whose advice they are willing to listen to. Usually it is better to talk to strangers as they are perceived to be fairer and more objective, as they don’t know either party but really it doesn’t matter as long as it is someone you respect and who you have decided to listen to, meaning to obey his or her advice. As I have said earlier, before you go to talk to anyone, decide if you are going to listen to what they say even if they don’t agree with you. If you are going to someone with the expectation that they must agree with you and support your stance no matter what it is, then don’t waste your and their time. No self-respecting, honest arbitrator with any dignity will agree to be biased in favor of one party or the other. If they do, then they are not fit for the position.

In conclusion I would like to say that a marriage can be as good or as bad as you would like to make it. It is literally in your own hands.

Mirza Yawar Baig