Who's the boss?

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No one actually, if marriage is an equal relationship…

On an equal footing...Photo: K. Murali Kumar
On an equal footing...Photo: K. Murali Kumar

By Vijay Nagaswami

Probably the first thing that many people attempt to do when they get married is to either make sure that their partners don't dominate them or, as a pre-emptive measure, try and establish their dominance over the partner. “Who's the boss?”, often becomes a very emotive issue in the marriage because of the popular, though fallacious, belief that one partner should have the casting vote in any contentious marital situation. Also, there is a popular cultural belief that men should be the dominant partner in a marriage, and even if during the courtship, the man is actually relatively mild, he ends up becoming domineering soon after the knot is tied. Many young brides are mystified when their hitherto gentle, sensitive and romantic suitors suddenly turn into demanding, aggressive and insensitive husbands.

Control strategies

Some men are very systematic, even strategic, in the manner in which they try to establish control over their wives. Not all men take that much of trouble though. Many simply expect their wives to ‘obey' and ‘serve' them, and usually use the well-worn, but still serviceable ‘Indian culture' explanation to defend their behaviour. And amazingly enough, they receive support from even women members of their family to this end. In fact, men are often exhorted by their mothers and sisters to ‘take charge' of the wife before she ‘sits on his head'. In such a scenario, even if the man does not necessarily feel the need to dominate his wife, unable to withstand the pressure around him, he generally displays some form of machismo in his marital life.

While men generally tend to be the aggressors in our country, there are many women who can match them blow for blow, for, the same ‘Indian culture' referred to earlier also trains women to ‘control' their husbands, though with guile rather than aggression. Such women quickly establish their position of supremacy in the relationship and crack the whip every now and again just to make sure the husband does not get any independent ideas. Thus, for every man who says, ‘Iallowmy wife to go to work', there's a woman who ‘gives her husbandpermissionto drink once a week'. Of course, it never strikes them that neither should be the other's sanctioning authority. And thus, without even consciously realising it does jockeying for control take place in the marriage. Typically, the controller tries to cut off all the support systems of the partner to ensure that the latter can only turn to the spouse in moments of distress. Which is why many men insist that their wives have no further contact with their families, and wives demand that their husbands dump their ‘ pre-marital friends'.

The essential reason for both genders feeling the need to dominate the relationship is not difficult to understand. Usually when one gets married, one realises that one's life has changed forever. What hitherto constituted one's personal space now has to be shared with another person. Even if the new element in our space is someone we love, there is a fear that the other may take our space over completely and redecorate it to suit their own requirements, paying scant attention to our needs. This, therefore, puts us in a position of vulnerability. Normally when human beings feel vulnerable, they either run away from the situation, or establish control over it, for, when we are in control, we feel our lives become more predictable. Since it is usually difficult to run away after one is married (although, it must be said, many contemporary couples do this with much success), one tries to establish control over the partner who is seen as the cause of one's vulnerability. Amazingly, we're aghast when we finally realise that the partner is trying to do pretty much the same thing to us.

Different reasons

Does allowing oneself to be controlled by the partner reflect low self-esteem? Sometimes yes, as in when we allow ourselves to be treated like doormats, but not always. Some people allow themselves to be controlled because it's the easier thing to do when stout resistance only results in fatigue. Some people have nowhere else to go or are not in a position to do anything else. And often, cultural conditioning demands that passive acceptance is the acceptable response. But as most couples realise, whatever the reason they try and control their partners, it actually creates a toxic and unpleasant situation, and if they are introspective and rational people, they will soon realise that the only person one can truly control is oneself. And if they establish good communication processes in their marriage, they will also happily realise that, in a relationship between two people, one person doesn't have to be the boss and the other, the subordinate. For, in a marriage, the best way to deal with bottlenecks and conflicts is to talk through them, not around them. Each partner has different strengths and different areas of expertise, and as long as the other recognises this and doesn't get into an ‘ego clash' sort of situation, then resolutions and decision-making need never be contentious issues. And when nobody is the boss, nobody gets sacked.

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in a relationship, one person doesn't have to be the boss...



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