Pack your heart in a suitcase! And seal it with a kiss.

Let’s Face It, a long distance relationship challenges you on every front and a lot gets lost in between. But it’s important that you allow yourself to be tested by those waters. Here is a glimpse of Naomi and Sandeep’s simple and shared understanding of their relationship and how they’ve overcome the trials that long distance relationships entail. Naomi Thommy is an independent writer, creative thinker and part-time family baker. She chases after the simple things in life and finds happiness in the ordinary.

Sandeep and I were always at loggerheads in college. We always had to get one up on each other. I hadn’t completely outgrown being a ‘tomboy’ and he was at that crossroad where he couldn’t understand what to make of me, and yet in a sense we were closet comrades, quietly standing up for each other, without either of us realizing it.

As college came to an end and our ‘gang’ went their separate ways, Sandeep and I slowly realized that we really missed having each other around and decided to steadfastly keep in touch. It was through our many midnight conversations over the next year that we developed a deep seated friendship that formed the very basis of our relationship. Everything was out there. We were easily honest and fiercely loyal. We were inseparable as friends and before we knew it, we graduated to being each other’s first loves.

Soon after college came to an end, I was to take off to Poland on a six month internship. That was the first time we were to test our relationship, to see if it had legs, when we were apart. Sandeep begged me not to go and I had half a mind to cancel the trip, because I couldn’t bear to see him so disheartened and I really wanted to be with him, but there was this other side that couldn’t understand why he was being so demanding of my time.

That’s when we had our first series of exciting adult fights. We indulged in blame games, name calling and exhausted with all the hurting we decided to put our misery down, cut our relationship down to size and move on. And we did – For a grand total of one day! Truth be told, we were fools for each other and made promises to power through this, no matter what. We made a pact to take this one day at a time and pace ourselves out. Sandeep hates writing to the point where he’ll only do it when he’s angry about something and therefore has an opinion to voice or if it’s an official mail that needs to be written. But for the time we spent away from each other, I have a virtual mountain of e-mail to burrow in; written by him to me, filled with all of the things talking made easy.

Even though we were so far away, we still had our share of arguments and irrational fights. A lot gets lost in the distance between. Words get misconstrued, you forget to show up on Skype, you’re venting, and you’ve had a bad day at work… Everything becomes potential fodder for a fight. But we were more than the sum of our fights and both of us believed that completely. Both of us were quick to forgive the other (him more than me). Plus, if I went mum for a couple of days, he’d always reign me back in by helping me talk things through. When I’m upset I usually go quiet. I don’t talk, even though I’m seething on the inside. Sandeep could see through all of this and got me out of the darkness by making me laugh.  Every time he broke out into off-warbling, ‘Happy Birthday’ in Malayalam, in a silly falsetto voice, the horridness of whatever I was going through would just melt away.

Those months away from each other, made us go out of our joint comfort zones and think of each other so much more than usual. It made us understand ourselves as individuals and made us test our dynamics as a couple. We understood the concept of space and to willingly give each other that, when needed. We learnt that if we truly loved and cared for the other person, they would respond in return, the same way (in a year or so, but it’s worth the wait and the aha! moment that they have). We also realized early on, that there had to be more to us than the relationship we were in, and to not allow it to consume our every waking moment.

So we filled our lives with ‘stuff and things to do’ to get our minds off each other, and to lead more productive days. Friendships that were strewn to the side were rekindled. Hobbies and new experiences that we didn’t have time for earlier were explored.  Still, that empty feeling at the end of the day, of not having each other around, loomed large over our heads as we collapsed exhausted onto our beds.

Trust, a huge part of any long distance relationship always takes a beating when it’s subjected to the Minotaur of the mind. It’s easy for your mind to wander and make up situations, or to over think the normal and give in to a false perception of reality. Sandeep and I were both honey trapped into this, but we overcame it early on, because we both knew that we’re not of that mould. There’s too much love and friendship between us, for us to be seeking any of that elsewhere.

To a great extent, both of us share exactly the same value system, want the same things out of life and have clearly defined roles in our relationship. While we’re wildly different in our choice of music (I love Ella Fitzgerald and he loves Metallica) or fitness goals (Isn’t digestion an ab exercise?) we’re committed to each other completely (idiosyncrasies included). That in a sense, has helped us scale many mountains in our speckled sojourns away from each other, over the course of the last 11 years.

On a side note, the immediate male influences in my life were stifling and not very progressive to me as a woman. It always left me feeling tethered, with a low sense of worth. It was so important for me to be with someone who gave me the full freedom to just be me, who gave me my space, was kind and made me feel loved. Sandeep was all that and more. So no matter what, I told myself, I would put all of me into this relationship to make it work because I couldn’t do without this elevated sense of self he left me with.

Sandeep and I, both have very similar sets of parents. Heavily influenced by their relationship with each other, we were crystal clear in our heads about what we didn’t want in a relationship. And so, in our quest for companionship and love, we both unwittingly charted the same course, and crashed into each other.

longdistanceAs I write this, it’s uncanny that I’m in the midst of (hopefully) the last long distance chapter in our story. We’re both of the conclusion that we can’t do anymore of this being away from each other business and that the next time either of us travel, the other will be in tow, or least in a suitcase.

Honestly, a  long distance relationship challenges you on every front and it’s important that you allow yourself to be tested by those waters. It reveals much about the ‘three’ of you. That’s the light you shine on, when you want to see the myriad of details etched on your relationship. It gives you the wisdom to change, to maintain what you already have, to decide to be better, to heal and to grow.

There have been times in our journey when we couldn’t control the outcome of our arguments or the tenacity of my temper. My human frailty always drove me back to my Christian faith. It made me realize that both of us still struggle with our humanness and the drawbacks of having that show up in our relationship.  Cultivating the habit of being a peacemaker, of forgiveness, of bearing with one another, of being kind, patient, not remembering past faults and protecting one another, goes a long, long way in ensuring that you safeguard the interests of your heart from the world and from yourself.  1 Corinthians 13:4-7, is what we often return to for making relationships, especially ours, work. It’s helped both of us come to terms with each other, warts and all, because we’ve learnt to place the other ahead of our personal agendas.

Sandeep and I have this strange bond that the world cannot comprehend (there’s hardly anything of us together on FB) and distances can’t divide, because we’re bound by something greater than blood. We’re bound by daily practicing our love.

Let’s Face It, common interests are not crucial in a marriage

This edition of Let’s Face It! features Chennai based freelance writer, Saritha Rao Rayachoti. She writes short fiction and is currently grappling with a novel, a messy house and a compulsive need to travel. Her articles on Indian culture are available at her blog
Pottsandpan (PP): As an author you’re constantly exploring relationships. In your understanding how have expectations about certain relationships (with a focus on those relationships that impact marriage later in life) changed / evolved over the years?
Saritha RaoRayachoti (SRR): I think expectations are at the heart of all conflict. And conflict is at the heart of all relationships! If a traditional role-expectation is held by the mother-in-law and fulfilled by the daughter-in-law, the conflict is a lot lesser, and about relatively trivial stuff. There is no threat to the person’s core values. If expectations are not met, it takes some guts to step back and reassess the situation and see what to do about one’s own expectations. We can hardly do much about another person’s expectations of us other than being true to our self and hope things even out.PP: What inspires you about these relationships when you’re penning a story or a feature?

SRR: I’m amused as well as intrigued by the way we’re cock-sure of how relationships work, forgetting that we’re viewing things through our own personal lenses. I like to believe that my stories focus on how a change of scene, a different perspective, either caused by an internal shift, an external event or interacting with a different person can upset our closely held opinions and notions.

changePP: You’ve been married for 16 years and followed your husband when he changed jobs and cities. What has been your experience of this change and how has it impacted your marriage? Has it felt restrictive in terms of settling in, making new friends, building a life etc.

SRR: We moved to Mumbai when my husband’s work took him there. It was a difficult move for me since I had finally begun to sink roots in Chennai – I had moved cities often until my senior school years. In Mumbai, I did have difficulty making friends because even something as simple as a definition of friendship is different between Chennai and Mumbai. Also, I had to start from scratch to get writing projects in Mumbai. We have since moved back to Chennai and strangely, I miss the vibrancy and efficiency of Mumbai. I would adapt a lot differently today if I had to return to Mumbai.

PP: How do you think the dynamics of the modern day Indian marriage are changing? How pressurising or challenging do you think the labels of new-age husband or feminist wife are? How do they impact marriages?

SRR: I think every marriage is unique, more so in the case of modern Indian marriages. It’s about two individuals with their own qualities, experiences and baggage, and how committed they are to make the partnership work with someone who may be very different from them. The factors that are changing and also challenging are not just the labels which are attributed rather casually and assumed to be generic, but also the fact that we’re attributing labels based on what we see second hand and not from life experience. If you analyse every label that you assume or attribute – say, feminist, new-age – and trace it back to where you got the definition from, it would be shocking to discover how much of it was second-hand. Today, labels are prone to being stereotypical, derived from magazines, books, movies, television and social media. And may I add, from frameworks we’ve imbibed from the West. For instance, resilience doesn’t score too highly in western feminism and contemporary feminist speak in India – it is often mistaken for subservience.

PP: The spoken word is powerful but sometimes honesty is not the best policy in a relationship – what is your opinion?

SRR: I guess that would depend completely on one’s discernment of a situation. There are no hard and fast rules – it really depends on whether speaking the truth in a specific situation is beneficial to the marriage or it’s just an individual whim to get something off one’s chest out of guilt or compulsion.

PP: You currently live with your mother-in-law. Based on your own experience, do you have any advice on how to create better ‘mother-in-law – daughter-in-law’ relationships?

SRR: As one of my cousins said, the relationship with one’s mother-in-law is at best like that of a favourite aunt. Unfortunately, nobody told our mothers-in-law that! Just like every marriage is unique, so is every ‘in-law’ relationship. The only difference is that there are heightened expectations. My own experience has been that finding common ground – in our case, Carnatic Music – makes us step outside our roles and regard each other as individuals. I cherish the times when we do that.

PP: As a freelance features writer and author, how has your journey been to receive recognition for the same within the family set-up? Have you felt the pressures of measuring up?

SRR: The concept of a working woman hasn’t sunk in yet and here we go confusing people with the term ‘freelance professional’! A lot of the time, since it’s not a job for the sake of an income, it is regarded as a hobby, an indulgence. And there are pressures of measuring up to not only the ‘working men’ and ‘working women’, but also busy mothers. I don’t have kids and my time is not perceived to be important as compared to mothers my age and people who work outside home. Maybe if I got a little more professional, published something substantial like a novel, actually looked the part of a writer or went away to an office, I may be perceived with a little more respect. But that may also be wishful thinking on my part!

PP: You’ve reviewed and commented on movies on your blog, can you name 3 movies (and comment why) which you believe rightly represented the changing nature of marriage and relationships in present times?

SRR: I love watching movies, but I honestly don’t think they represent the changing nature of marriage and relationships in present times. I don’t know of too many movies where the commitment to be together overrules all else. If Saathiya (Alaipayudhe) was one of the first to talk about what happens in the ‘happily ever after’ of love marriages, Queen gave us a glimpse into how women are blossoming into individuals. English Vinglish is a snapshot of many of our families where the wife/mother is underestimated and it takes something as superficial as the ability to speak English as a means to gain respect. Our movies are all about Indian men – no matter how they are – and how ‘their women should be’. At best, we try to emulate a western model of feminism that at some level inspires, and some level, feels disconnected from reality.

PP: Writing, at its best, is a lonely life ~ Hemingway. How do you deal with this notion when it brings you into conflict with who you are as a person and societal expectations from you?

SRR: It is a lonely life as a writer and I otherwise love people! Social media has been my saviour for interactions but I do recognise the need to have a better planned week so I write my quota as well as hang out with people outside of social media. Maybe I haven’t done a novel because I know it will consume me – it’s scary to be oblivious to expectations, to tune out others and their needs.

PP: As a couple, what is the one thing that has strengthened your marital relationship over the years? What would you therefore advice couples wanting to commit to each other?

glassesSRR: We have a similar value system and are in agreement on the big stuff. It helps that we’ve come to recognise that we’re different people, but can respect the difference (I’m still working on that!). We’ve grown in this marriage not only as a couple, but also as individuals. We’ve discovered that we love travel together. There’s just something to be said about handling challenges together – having one’s wallet picked, finding good accommodation, struggling with local language and currency, the quest for vegetarian food, making do with one strolley and a backpack each – and still have a terrific holiday.

My advice for couples – common interests are not crucial in a marriage – there’s no fun in marrying your clone, is there? The differences can bring different dimensions based on different experiences to the marriage. Also, as individuals we change over the years – the person you married is very different from the person he/she is today, as is the case with you. Allow for change, growth and difference. Ask for what you want, don’t wait for the other person to perceive your needs.

Marriage is Not a 50-50 affair

I was recently reading the guide to intimate relations that Reader’s Digest had published in 1999 and it brought back memories. I was going through a rough patch some years ago – seriously questioning why I had married and what was making me stay in the marriage. That’s when a close friend said, ‘marriage is a 50-50 partnership. Each of you need to be equally involved to make this work – that’s the vow you took when you married and you can’t back out of it now’.

Well his comment at that point in my life made me rethink if I was being selfish, just thinking about myself – addressing only those issues that mattered to me, impacted my life instead of looking at the alternative view – my husband’s? So I took a step back, tried to curb my instinctual reactions and made an effort to re-look at the good things we had going as a couple.

The rough patch passed or did it? In some ways it had but then again sometimes I’ve felt that those issues that we’d shoved under the carpet had ways of raising their ugly head once in a while.

Its much later in our lives together, that we both realized and more importantly accepted and acknowledged that marriage is NOT a 50-50 affair.

When my husband took up photography as a hobby, we enjoyed spending time together. I accompanied him on his travels and it was fun. He shared his thoughts on photography with me and wanted my inputs on the images he took. He inherently likes to delve deep into anything that interests him – in this case he researched on cameras, lighting, exposure, Photoshop, lenses etc – he slowly developed his expertise to the extent that his friends looked up to him for his opinion and advice. He would talk to me at length too about the different facets of photography – some of which I enjoyed but realized very soon that I didn’t share the same passion for photography. I didn’t totally understand the concepts behind the making of a photograph although aesthetically they appealed to me. I couldn’t converse with him with the same authority and soon got bored. I truly wanted to share his pleasure but it did take us a long time to realize that some joys are solo activities.

Similarly I loved to read and write, watch crime serials, play word games or Sudoku – none of which required interaction with others. When we’re on a holiday I like to carry a book along and believe in lazing around. My husband on the other hand prefers to check out local spots, take photographs, enjoy the local cuisine, and meet new people. We each looked at a holiday in different ways. It’s taken us some time to accept, accommodate and let go – allowing each other the option to do different things and at other times accommodating the other’s view do something’s together. I still regret the time when my friend offered me the opportunity to travel with her to Hong Kong – I declined as my husband was busy working and couldn’t accompany us. I believed that as a couple; we should always travel together (except when travelling on work). But years later, as I still regret that decision I now know that I should have gone ahead – travelling without him for fun didn’t mean I loved him any less nor did it mean that there were no feelings of ‘togetherness’!

After our daughter was born, we took the joint decision that I would stay home with her and work either part-time or on projects from home. Of course it meant that he was completely responsible for bringing in the moolah – a real pressure especially since we’d lived life king size as DINKS for a long time. The decision felt right for some time, rather most of the time except when I was physically and mentally drained looking after my daughter and desperately needed a break, when people only insisted speaking to me about motherhood and child upbringing, when I felt lost without the work ‘anchor’! On the other hand he too had his own battles to deal with, used to be equally tired after a long day’s work and needed ‘me’ time to unwind and relax. Although tempers flared often, the point was that apart from regular work, he too did a lot of other things around the house, shared many a responsibility. I too had help at home which helped hugely when I was working on projects from home. So our expectations from each other and our new roles in life needed to be revised.

The idea that an equal marriage had to mean identical experiences for us wasn’t true as it ignored our personal preferences. It’s a trap to assume that a marriage can be a 50-50 in all spheres, all the time. It only leads to unrealistic notions as no two people are identical in emotions, interests or responsibilities. Nor can two people divide their skills in some identically ‘fair’ way.

What is important in marriages is the spirit of 50-50, with the flexibility of give and take. Emotional equality where both partners felt equally loved, shared in family decisions and contributed equally to the family’s well-being – that perhaps is the kind of equality that really works.