That Elusive Hug

Often, there are moments in life when all you really need is a ‘hug,’ not diamond earrings or the latest smartphone or a holiday or birthday bash. That tight hug which says “I love you…I won’t let you go…you matter…you’re the best thing to happen to me…I’m lost without you… you make me complete…I need you…”

She missed that hug and it made her feel so alone, helpless and unwanted. Quintessential housewife married into a well-to-do family, she had everything going for her. Yet she was carrying on with life running on emptiness.

Some days she felt emotionally bereft and had nothing more to give yet the expectation remained that she would because of the different roles she played. Often, she justified to herself, ‘they need you, your child needs you, without you the house would fall apart. You have to stand strong to make everything alright.’ But how? Where could she go for that dose of love and affection which was given without any expectation, a dose that was only meant for her well-being and sustenance, that which could keep the fire burning in her heart?

She knew he loved her. He was a good man, a good provider, father and husband. Yet often, he took out his frustrations on her saying things which made her feel as if she didn’t exist. He belittled her, spoke rudely or brushed her off without a thought. Sometimes she yelled back, she stood up for herself and yet there were times she stoically took it all in. In those moments, it wasn’t like she didn’t have anything to say but kept quiet because she cared too much and didn’t want to break their bond any further.

Her child was her lifeline and she did everything to make her comfortable. She knew her child loved her as much but even then, there were times she felt used and tired. Her in-laws were really nice which overwhelmed her, inadvertently forcing her to bend over backwards for them.

She was at a crossroads where everything seemed good yet there was something missing. Was she looking for an acknowledgement for all her hard work when in actuality she was simply playing her role as expected? If life seemed so balanced between the good and the bad, then why did she feel unsatisfied? And amidst it all, she was still surviving, wasn’t she, even though it was a day at a time? How?

Earlier, when the closeness was strong and the brief moments of togetherness aplenty, she could run a mile because she felt his love in her veins. Today, she missed them so badly. Instead she searched for those moments in every chick flick, television serial or book. She loved to read about people falling in love. She relived moments of attraction and bittersweet separation in the lives of star-crossed lovers. She would watch serials only till the lovers openly professed their love. After they did she would automatically lose interest. Sometimes she stopped watching the serials if the protagonists got married, simply because then their lives became dangerously close to her own. She didn’t want to deal with theirs when she was unable to find solace in her own.

Unfortunately, she felt alive only till she was engrossed in watching those movies or serials. Once they ended, the feelings slipped away and she could no longer find them. Soon they became her source of sustenance to continue living.

Sometimes she felt attracted to other men, both young and old. These were not good looking men (the typical Mills & Boons version of tall, dark and handsome that she had grown up reading) but most often they would have strong arms, or they towered over her making her feel protected. She would imagine being kissed, or making passionate love and then sometimes she could also see herself being pulled into their arms for that elusive hug!

Of course, she never acted upon any of these emotions. Did she lack the gumption to exhibit these feelings openly? Sometimes, she did feel similar vibes coming from them too. Was she just being naïve or had she imagined them? Or perhaps that wasn’t the point, at all. These were feelings to be felt not acted upon. They were not meant to be. She wanted those things done to her because she wanted to feel wanted and longed for. Perhaps that was all there was to it.

Suddenly she longed for that feeling of closeness, of being held, of feeling safe within the confines of strong arms. The longing slowly grew so strong that she quickly switched on an episode of a serial that she had seen a thousand times before. Her face broke into a smile as she watched the look of love and desire on their faces, and the momentary lapse of reason when he reached out to her and pulled her close, holding her tight and she reciprocated clinging on to him for dear life.

(That Elusive Hug was first published on Women’s Web on 16 November 2017 / Image source: Flickr, for representational purposes only)

You, me and friends!

When we were dating, my boyfriend was my good friend with whom I shared everything. I could say anything and knew that it would be accepted at face value. It wouldn’t be flung back at me during a fight or shared with others. Here was someone who truly listened and knew me – the vulnerable me who was scared of the world and had insecurities that stretched a mile. A friend who finished my sentences and could read me like a book – knew how I would react or what I would say in certain situations. A friend who made my day complete, whose presence protected my sanity and in turn, I depended on him completely.

I didn’t feel the need to invest time and myself to nurture any other friendship. At this point it didn’t matter since his friendship was more than enough to make my world a happy place. I let all other relationships, friendships slip through, happy and content being a twosome.

Then we got married!

Our friendship continued but its status subtly changed. The husband-wife relationship we now shared suddenly meant that we could no longer say the things we wanted to tell each other just like we wanted to say them. They had to be worded differently and their rippling effects impacted other areas of our everyday lives and relations. My one and only friend was still my close friend but not a friend anymore!

At this juncture, realization dawned that I had no other close friends! Slowly the need to find someone with whom I could let my guard down began to resurface. Growing up, no one tells you that as couples we must accept that one person cannot fulfil all our needs. Idealistic insistence that your husband or wife is your best friend (which definitely can be true in some rare cases) puts tremendous pressure not only on the self but the other partner and the relationship too.

flirtWithin my friends’ circle, I’ve seen numerous instances where either the husband or wife has reached out to someone else to fulfil the need for a close friend – someone who made them come alive, feel young and attractive again. These friendships are an outlet or release from the boring mundane existence. They come with no strings attached yet are beneficial to the self without any of the marital complications. One feels compelled to keep such friends and friendship secret – which in turn adds to its mystery and feels even more satisfying. Simply put, their presence keeps life exciting, there’s a reason to wake up in the morning and look forward to the day. Some blossom as office romances since more time is spent at work than at home. In many others, these serve only as friends with benefits or can potentially lead to other complications as many couples have found their soul mates in people other than their spouses.

I suppose one way of dealing with this scenario is that even when openly discussing about this friend and friendship you don’t give this relationship a name. I feel when you try naming it, you tend to box it into one of life’s many nuances and that not only takes away the charm of the relationship but also certain expectations start automatically building around it.

Unfortunately here is when slowly yet steadily a conflict of interest begins to arise – the conflict could be within us or a perceptive better half picks up the subtle changes in the marital relationship and most often can correctly point out the ‘friendship’ responsible for the change.

A good friend’s husband is the kind of person who takes his friendships a bit too seriously – he always bends over backwards to help others, especially if it is a woman who comes across as vulnerable. Outwardly there is no malice in his behaviour and he openly informs his wife about what he’s doing. He doesn’t get sexually involved with any of these women but his ego gets a huge boost every time he extends support. Also he’s accessible to them whenever they reach out to him, day or night. This feeling of helpless dependence on him and his ability to fulfil those needs gives him a high. It’s possible that there is a deep-seated insecurity here which only gets addressed or fulfilled when he’s made to feel important or when he comes across as the ‘only’ person who can truly help.

It really bothers his wife and after many such incidences she’s refusing to accept this behaviour any longer. He’s tried to explain that he does this from the goodness of his heart and believes that god blesses him every time he’s attentive, helpful and nice. So she’s given him an ultimatum – it was time he decided if god’s blessings were more important to him or his wife and the family! They’re now at a crossroad trying to figure out how best to deal with the situation.

Yet another kind of friendship exists which without the need for any sexual connotation can hold us together – keep our sanity intact in this crazy fast paced world we live in, these days!

drinkWhile we were in Mumbai and Gurgaon, there were a few of my husband’s friends whom we met almost every weekend – and in most occasions it meant eating and drinking with them. They were the ‘drinking buddies!’ We took turns to host the evenings and although sometimes it did bother us (especially the wives) we soon realised that although there was way too much drinking happening (which definitely wasn’t good for the health!) their discussions ranged from religion to politics to work to office politics to photography to life to music to films…an endless list. In other words, what really mattered about the evenings were the conversations. It was their ability to connect at such different levels that the drinking lost importance. No, they didn’t stop drinking nor did they drink any less but it didn’t matter. The other two important aspects were that in most cases they sat at home drinking and at times when they did drink in a restaurant or in public I’ve rarely seen them misbehave or become rowdy. Most of the ‘boys’ would drive back and once behind the wheel their love for their vehicles (perhaps not as much love of their wives and family) took control of their senses!

Friendships are extremely important in our lives. They have the ability to free us from life’s unending pressures, they spark faith in us to keep pushing ahead, and they are our anchors that keep us grounded. Every time there arises the need to redefine these friendships, I think the question one needs to address is how does the friendship impact the marital relationship? Simultaneously, it is essential to take a step back, look within and really try to understand why the friendship is so important to the partner. This acknowledgement not only means you’re accepting its importance in your partner’s life (which in turn makes them feel like you understand) but helps to identify the crux of the issue which is truly bothering us (sometimes it’s just a manifestation of something deeper) and also invariably provides a direction forward.

The First Lady

Arguably the most important person in the husband’s life and thereby in one’s married life – the ‘mother-in-law’ whom I’d like to address as the First Lady of the house!

I’d heard much about my MIL (mother-in-law) before the wedding – but of course soon realized that nothing can ever prepare you enough to face the real deal! Having grown up in a nuclear family, I was quite unprepared. My notions of a joint family, living with in-laws were ideological in nature – mostly derived from fiction, gossiping friends or the telly. Therefore the expectations set were in most cases unrealistic!

My MIL wasn’t too happy with me as her son’s bride-to-be, mostly because I was a Christian and therefore unsure of the ways of a Hindu household. She was uncertain about my ability to settle into their tradition bound set-up. Every year the extended family came together to celebrate Durga Puja in their native village and everyone pitched in to help – would I be able to fit in? Would the others be able to accept me? As a couple we had decided that I would continue being a practicing Christian and not convert – how would the extended family react to that?

To my credit, I was instantly liked and appreciated for my efforts at the Durga Puja. I wore sari the Bengali way and did everything I was asked to do – making chandan (sandalwood) paste, stringing a garland, giving away prasad (puja offering). I did it because it was an important part of my husband’s life, because I knew that the onus to fit in rested with me as my acceptability into the extended family depended on how I carried myself during those five days.

MIL had grown up with her own prejudices about Christians – and in fact once quite innocently asked me if I could speak in Bengali! At that point I thought it was funny since I was a Bengali Christian and so could definitely speak in my mother tongue. But, was it really funny? After all I was more comfortable conversing and expressing my thoughts and feelings in English rather than Bengali. English was unconsciously the first choice of language when interacting with relations and extended family. Was it any wonder then that she was skeptical about my grasp of the language?

Soon after the wedding when my MIL was travelling, I went about re-decorating the house – the sitting room, kitchen, dining area. This was my home now and I wanted to make MIL happy. I was looking for a pat on the back for a job well done as I thought the re-decoration made the house look even more spacious and welcoming. Two days later after MIL’s return, I came home from office to see that she had changed everything back to what it was earlier! I was taken aback and couldn’t figure out why she’d done that. She didn’t say anything to me for days and then one day unable to stand the silence any longer I asked her. She politely commented, ‘this is my house and since I’m the one who mostly uses the kitchen and dining area, I like to keep things the way that suits my convenience.’

For a long time I was angry and hurt because MIL had in no uncertain terms told me that this wasn’t my house and that without her permission I shouldn’t change anything. What I failed to see and accept then was that it was indeed her home – one that she had painstakingly made her own with years of hard work. How could I, who had just arrived, want to change all that? I didn’t need to do any house work since she took care of everything – shopping, cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Why did I then need to change the set-up which she found most convenient? And more importantly why didn’t I ask if she needed my help without just assuming that I could make a difference? Today, years later I understand her sentiments as I too get upset if anyone makes any changes in my home, my own set-up!

MIL loved to dress up and wear jewellery while I always liked to be just presentable – I would dress according to the occasion and wore minimum jewellery. In the initial years there would always be a war of words as my MIL wanted me to wear practically every piece of jewellery I owned or was given! I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like the understated subtle look I preferred. During one such argument she openly told me ‘I can’t dress up the way I want to because of you. There is no way I can wear jewellery as I will look over dressed in comparison to you. People will say that I have kept all the jewellery to myself and not given you anything!’ I was aghast as that hadn’t crossed my mind but I guess her sensibilities dictated that she be forced to tone down because of my ‘subtle’ fashion statement! I understood that but somehow just couldn’t bring myself to do as she wanted – it still continues to be a bone of contention between us.

When I look back, as advised by the article in Times of India, Bond with your mother-in-law, I too had tried to be polite if she picked on me, tried to please her when she asked for my help, tried to mask my feelings by putting myself in her shoes to figure out why she behaved the way she did, tried to build a rapport by being open about my feelings and sometimes I also resorted to humour to lighten the situation. MIL too in her own ways failed trying to mould me into her ‘ideal’ daughter-in-law.

I complained to my husband whenever I had an issue with my MIL which was almost every other day! I still remember the night when in frustration he burst out, ‘you’re always complaining about her and she’s always complaining about you. Where do I go? Why don’t you understand that I’m hurting the most trying to balance between you both?’ He sounded miserable and for the first time it struck me that in our own ways we were making his life a living hell. That night I vouched that I wouldn’t complain to him again. Of course, I wasn’t successful but did try to keep my opinions to myself. I dealt with it the way I knew how but this in turn led to even more trouble. My silence was viewed as arrogance. In my attempt to avoid conflict I had in turn allowed everyone to assume the worst about me.

When my husband was offered an opportunity to work in Mumbai I was super thrilled – it was a means to escape the ‘respectable’ way – it meant living away from my in-laws without having to create a scene. Unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I thought it would. My in-laws and extended family taunted that I had broken up the family while my husband too felt pressurised that he had to leave his home for me. When I heard this I was devastated as in no way was that my intention – more so I had quit my job believing the move would make our lives better, there would be no visible conflict and it would definitely be a good career move for my husband.

Years later, I still carry that burden but believe it has worked out for all of us. The love that was almost at break-point was resurrected and we found each other again in the new city. Professionally my husband’s done extremely well, his view of life changed and today he is a better man. My MIL who had her own issues to deal with realises some of my worth (I’d like to believe!) when she sees us together, sees that her son is happy or compares me with her other daughter-in-law. With the birth of my daughter I’ve truly understood the meaning of being a mother and the innate protectiveness one feels when someone else tries to take my place – somewhere it’s helped me understand my MIL better.

Books, articles, researches, discussions about how to deal with the MIL are freely available but no one really teaches you how to ‘live’ with one. That is something that we each have to figure out on our own as every “mother-in-law – daughter-in-law” unit is unique with their own sets of baggage, needs, outlook and expectations. The “son” is as important to both parties but one has to acknowledge that the mother is the first woman in his life and he’s grown up being moulded by her. For some it’s difficult and ego battles are inevitable while there are others who have been able to live in harmony. There aren’t any easy answers but only those that one can find for themselves on their own – those that suit them and their situation.

In my case what is most important today is that we have each made peace with the situation. We’re still in touch, my daughter spends quality time with her grandmother, we’re together during Durga Puja yet we have our own separate lives.

Are we happy? I know I am.

This post was featured in BlogAdda’s Tangy Tuesday Picks on 26 November 2013