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The thin line

SHEILA KUMAR
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RELATIONSHIPS If marriage is a sacred bond between two people, then just how much of it should leak into public space?

TOGETHER For better or worse Photo: AFP
TOGETHER For better or worse Photo: AFP

S tripped of its inessentials, marriage really is a relationship between two people. They choose each other as life partners; vow to see each other through times good and bad, to be there for each other, always and forever. On the periphery, though, stands a small crowd of people… in-laws, siblings, friends, co-workers, all who have the potential to impinge on that sacred space, in ways small and large, happy and disastrous by turn.

An American academic defines a good marriage thus: the devout belief that your partner is a better person than you are. This litmus test really does sift the grain from the chaff; it's when a man or woman focuses on only the flaws in his/her partner, that the rift is tearing apart that particular lute.

What happens when the sacred bond starts to sag a bit, tested by problems internal and external? Well, in typical cases, the husband reacts in textbook fashion: he initially swallows his hurt, anger, chagrin. He clams up. Then he throws himself into activity unrelated to the marriage, takes up a new sport or a new hobby. Or he strays, picks up a girlfriend. After which, when he realises he cannot put off decision-making any longer, he seeks or accedes to a request for divorce. Rarely does counselling play a part in his plan. Even more rarely does he turn to his mother or his friends for advice.

The wife, on her part, at the first sign of a problem, turns to her mother, her sister(s), and her close set of friends, all of them female, of course. The problem is discussed in great detail, suggestions offered and considered, a plan of action drawn up. The whole process is of infinite comfort to the woman, whether she acts on the advice she has received or not. Viewed from her husband's perspective, though, nine times out of ten, he sees this spilling of private sayings and doings as a violation. A violation of the terms implicit in the marriage. Actually, he sees it as nothing short of a betrayal.

Here's the irony though. If either party turns to an astrologer or palm-reader, seeking correction of course in the marriage, it is doubtful if the other will be offended. It's talking about the marriage to family and friends, peers that puts up the hackles of one's spouse.

It's a male-female thing, of course. The man will never understand that innocuous details of matrimony are invariably grist for the girlfriends' mill, not offered seriously, not taken seriously. Girls tell other girls all about their boyfriends, anyway; it's a crucial component of girl talk. When these boyfriends become husbands, usually both husband and wife acknowledge the thin line that is drawn around them, enclosing them in a protective and loving circle. They don't talk about this circle but both know it's there.

What the husband invariably fails to comprehend is that even when things are hunky-dory, the wife thinks nothing of exulting, bragging, chuckling over some foible or the other in the marriage, with her family or her friends.

At this point, it usually is only the most innocuous of details that are spilled.

So, when real problems crop up, it is but natural that the wife would turn to the very same set of people, looking for a venting pool, a shoulder or three to cry on, some sound advice. This act of verbal unfaithfulness is seen as equal to sexual infidelity by the husband.

So. The moot point is, when is it all right for any one partner in a marriage to talk about it? Is keeping a stoic silence in the face of problems a sign of fealty, loyalty or simply long-suffering resignation?

Who is to decide when the thin line can be crossed? Ours is a society where much is kept under purdah, not spoken about, not even acknowledged, in the hope that what is not looked at directly will either resolve itself or simply go away. Unlike the West, you don't find people…women…discussing intimate details of their marriages in mall-store queues, cinema hall queues or the queue to the ladies' restrooms.

Men in any case, are always the silent sex when it comes to talks, discussions or even acknowledgment of the unpleasant detritus of life. So, it gets buttonholed as a gender thing.

Marital discretion, that's what the argument boils down to. This discretion lends dignity to the relationship, this privacy indicates specialness. Viewed from the male perspective, any breach of this, regardless of the provocation, is a violation of the trust reposed in matrimony. That “Lakshman Rekha”, that sacrosanct thin line, has been crossed with all the consequences the act entails.

Ultimately, it all comes down to just how much of emotional investment has gone into the marriage by the two parties concerned. Because, in a good marriage, both husband and wife see that thin line as a magic marker of a boundary; they recognise that to stay within that boundary is only good for their relationship. Breaches of privacy may happen but are put into and viewed in the right perspective. The relationship stays healthy, the marriage stays good. It's as simple as that.

SHEILA KUMAR

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