Monday, October 15, 2007

Accepting Your Wife in Marriage

I read a change management book a while back. It said that all changes follow identical phases. How long you spend in each phase may vary, but you will go through all the phases. The phases are inevitable.

“Changes” are anything new - a new job, a new house, a new hobby, a new spouse, or a new way of doing things.

When you initiated the change you did it because you felt the change would be for the better.

Initially there is a honeymoon phase, you see all the nice things about the change. You are excited and happy.

After a while you start noticing the drawbacks, the negative aspects of the change. You enter the disillusionment phase. You are upset and angry, you feel cheated.

At this point three things can happen.
  1. Breakdown. You abandon the change, and go back to the old ways. You try to get another job, another house, abandon your hobby, or divorce your spouse.
  2. Trapped. You are unhappy but grit your teeth and go on. You feel trapped, stressed out. You continue in the job, house, hobby, marriage, but you are unhappy.
  3. Recovery. You find ways to handle the drawbacks - you see things are better than before. As time goes on you start enjoying the change.
Marriages typically follow these phases.
In my marriage with Vandana I went through the honeymoon phase, the disillusionment phase, the trapped phase and finally reached the recovery phase.

Moving from the trapped phase to the recovery phase was difficult. It is difficult for a lot of people. Some people never manage to do it. I want to talk about some of the things that helped us move to the recovery phase.

I read Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works”. He talks about how our mind has evolved to learn “right behavior”. This allows us to learn to ride bicycles, drive cars and say “please” and “sorry” without consciously thinking about it.

When your distant ancestors heard a lions roar, they either climbed a tree or started running. They learnt this. However once they learnt it, it became instinctive. Our environment, innate feeling, peers, parents teaches us certain behavior is the “right behavior”. A lot of martial arts are about teaching you the “right behavior” in fights. You respond to attacks without thinking about it. The South Indian martial Art Kallaripayattu has a phrase, "your whole body becomes an eye". Your eye blinks instinctively when something moves towards it. The aim of Kallaripayattu, an attack on any part of your body will lead to an instinctive response.

More importantly since so many factors affect what we learn as “right behavior” no two people have identical ideas of “right behavior”. Pinker gives an excellent example, feed meat to a person brought up as a strict vegetarian, he will vomit. He cannot control it, but it is still “learnt”.

This cleared a lot of cobwebs from my mind.

Once the honeymoon phase was over Vandana and I had spent a lot of time trying to convert each other to the “right behavior”. Didn’t work! Disillusionment slowly set in. We “put up” with each other. We were “trapped”.

The first step to recovery was acceptance. We accepted each other - warts and all. We gave each other the space to follow our own “right behavior”. I stopped trying to convince her to follow my “right behavior”. She stopped trying to convince me to follow her “right behavior”.

She likes going to religious discourses. I like watching movies. I used to get irritated every time she went for a religious discourse. She used to get irritated when I watched movies. After “accepting” Vandana I stopped getting irritated when she went to religious discourses. After Vandana “accepted” me she stopped getting irritated when I watched movies. Acceptance drastically brought down the list of things that we found irritating about each other.

However even after this “acceptance” there were still items on our “can’t stand it” list.

I found out things on her “can’t stand it” list and figured out which of those were “no big deal” and changed myself. For instance, in the morning she usually gets up first, later in the day she would have to make the bed. That was on her “can’t stand it” list. Now, I make the bed when I get up, everyday. That was on her “can’t stand it” list and it was on my “no big deal” list.

Another approach to handling the “can’t stand it” list was mitigation.

Reducing the irritation. I like playing “silly” computer games. She “can’t stand it”. But that was not on my “no big deal” list. I was not willing to give up computer games. I talked to her and found out my delay in responding to calls to sit down for dinner or requests for help when I was playing games were causing the irritation. So even though I continue to play “silly” computer games, I consciously try to respond quickly when she calls me for dinner or asks me for help. She still “can’t stand it”. But it is not so bad. :-)

The next approach to handling the “can’t stand it” list was consequences.

I like putting things in specific places. If they are inches away I can’t see them. That’s the way my brain works. Let me give you an example. Long back when I used to have hair, I used to carry a comb in my left trouser pocket. One day it went missing and I complained and complained. After a few weeks and God know how many washes, I noticed there was something in my right trouser pocket. I fished it out. It was my comb. Somebody had put it in my right trouser pocket. It was definitely not me. :-)

Vandana on the other hand has an eagle eye. She will just look at an unholy mess, poke around a few times and find something that I have been unsuccessfully searching for in exactly the same mess for ages. However she finds putting things away in specific places stressful.

As you can imagine we used to argue about this endlessly. I would keep bugging her to put things away in the right place and she used to keep telling me, “It is right in front of your eyes, I don’t understand how you can’t find it”.

We talked this over, we made a deal, Vandana could put things wherever she wanted. But the consequence of this was that I could always ask her for help to find things and she wouldn’t get irritiated even if it was “right in front of my eyes”.

To make bullet points of how we moved to the recovery phase of our marriage from the trapped phase.
  • We accepted each other
  • We made the "No big deal" changes
  • We mitigated the irritations
  • We accepted consequences
Of course all these neat bullet points are hindsight. :-)

The main thing is we listened to each other, gave each other time and space to untangle ourselves from all the negative emotions. It took us a while but it was worth it. It is still not over, we are still working on enjoying being married to each other.