How to make relationships work.

 This week’s theme is inspired by how couples are enduring the lockdown, and what we can learn from that about relationships and how to make them work.

Unfortunately, the pandemic wasn’t a choice, and as a consequence, the lockdown wasn’t either. We’re left with no choice but to be stuck at home. This has meant that whether we like it or not, we have to learn to co-exist with our partners 24/7, don’t we? It’s not easy, but the “do or die” mindset is very powerful in making us do things we’re normally incapable of.

Marriage imposes similar restrictions on a couple - till death do us part. When failing is not an option, failure doesn’t get the attention it deserves and doesn’t get documented in depth. We talk about infidelity, divorce and other “big” failures, because they’re too big to hide. When it comes to everyday failures, we prefer memes because we’re too embarrassed to talk about it seriously. So you see, there isn’t a lot of literature on how people fail in their marriages everyday, and how they wake up the next day to try and make it work. Instead, a lot of couples suffer in isolation and let the frustration build up to the point where they’ve to run towards the exit door at the drop off a hat because they don’t know how to make it work.

Isn’t it a bit sad?

When we get married, we should be given a manual on how to use the opportunity. We’re so exhausted by the time we find a partner and get through a wedding, we forget that we need to build a relationship with this person, let alone sustain it for the foreseeable future.

Common myths

  1. The all-expenses paid holiday

    Before you set out to find yourself a partner, a marriage is pitched to you as an all-expenses paid holiday in paradise. Sorry, it’s not. It can be paradise alright, but it’s pay as you go. You get things you can afford, you sometimes save up to get things you normally can’t afford and so on. Most importantly, it’s a partnership which means it’s a two way street. If only we internalized this, we’d be better prepared to navigate relationships.

  2. The right partner

    People warn us of this so called “holiday in paradise” saying love is compromise. So, we believe we can try to get around that by looking for the “right partner”. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a right partner. There is the right kind of relationship for you, and it’s not handed on a platter on your wedding night. It’s what you’ve a shot at building with your partner over the years together. Having a certain “right” partner only goes so far because life’s too random to anticipate the curve balls and ready-made only does as much to cater to your needs.

  3. The all-inclusive value pack.

    It’s true that it might be more valuable to have a spouse to cater to a bunch of diverse needs instead of having to find and sustain multiple partners for different needs. But this is by no means an all-inclusive combo pack of everything you need - physically, intellectually and emotionally. A spouse is expected to offer stimulation and sustenance across domains. The spouse is at best a general manager, not a magician.

So, how do married couples deal with the displacement of this myth?

Do they cheat? Yes, a little bit. This game is so random, that if you didn’t cheat, you’d have to rely purely on luck to ever win it.

  • You find friends for discussions that your partner doesn’t indulge in

  • You find other avenues for your body to produce serotonin if you can’t help yourself - running, lifting, hiking, reading, etc.

  • You hang out out excessively on the internet looking for some validation (Guilty!)

But the real question is - where do you draw the line? When does all of this go from carrying cheat sheets to full blown infidelity?

You draw the boundaries around what’s fundamental to your relationship

The most important things you expect from each other throughout your relationship becomes fundamental to the survival of your relationship. This isn’t a constant, it evolves over time but the direction in which it evolves doesn’t change course wildly over time. So, it’s important that you understand what’s important for your partner and what isn’t and they understand the same about you.

What’s important?

For instance, it’s super important for me that my partner and I can resolve any disagreements or conflicts by communicating with each other. If either of us feel the need to confide in anyone other than each other while dealing with a conflict, we’d be thoroughly disappointed in the other. So, as a couple, that’s where we draw the line, and over time we’ve worked on strengthening these boundaries.

What’s not…

My partner and I have limited shared interest in movies, and that’s okay. We try our best to not insist on movie nights. My partner likes to watch the same movie over and over again, and I just want to see if I can finish Netflix. I have friends who I watch and discuss movies with, and so, we never feel sad about not finding other partners to pursue individual interests.

Doesn’t matter how big or small your needs are, boundaries must be clear

Some people meet their partners very early in life, and their lives are more shared than individual. Some couples meet when their personalities are much more solidified and their needs might be more disjoint than shared. People often mistake the size of shared needs to be an indicator of a relationship health. They begin to optimise for shared passion, and put all their faith is shared interests to carry forward the relationship. But in reality, it doesn’t matter. What truly determines the health of a relationship is how clearly you are able to ascertain your fundamental needs and how clearly you’ve drawn the boundaries. In fact, I’d say, if you’re able to coexist in peace without shared interests, that’s some other level.

For instance, most couples value sexual exclusivity, and any deviance is considered highly inexcusable. However, when you are polyamorous, sexual exclusivity may not be as important as emotional connect or something else. Here, being aligned on your needs and being clear on where boundaries are drawn becomes critical to the health of your relationship much more than the fact that you are polyamorous.

Boundaries are drawn together

Is it possible for us to draw boundaries around what we need and don’t need from our partners so we’re not setting ourselves up for disappointment? Couples often don’t agree on their fundamental needs and where boundaries must be drawn…

  • “I need you to call my parents” - “I’ll call them on anniversaries/ birthdays”

  • “Can you please tell me what you’re thinking?”- “Leave me alone for a while”

  • “I don’t feel like having sex today” - “You almost never want to have sex”

…and it’s okay.

You may not inherently want the same things, but are you willing to negotiate? Do you have the tools to have an effective discussion?

Willingness may be a necessary condition from the start, but tools are build jointly along the way. You draw the boundaries together through effective negotiation. It’s not easy, it’s frustrating when you don’t know how to. It’s even more frustrating when you don’t think you need to.

What if you actually need to? What if commitment is like lockdown where you have no choice but to find a way to co-exist, would you behave differently versus having an exit door to run through every time you disagree or argue? When did running away become the only option?

The next time you feel the urge to run away, but don’t have any where to run to because you’re stuck in “lockdown”, can you please pause, and document it? Because resilience and growth mindset are much more important for life partners than start up founders.

More from Shapely Gal

As mentioned in my previous few newsletters, there are a few initiatives that I’ve been working on with a few friends that I’d like to remind you about in case you haven’t had a chance to participate or share with those who might find this super relevant.

  1. Couples in Lockdown- We conducted a poll asking couples about their needs during lockdown, and these are the results. It’s interesting to see that couples need a combination of therapy, date nights and new friends which means they’re looking to make things work while diversifying their risk. I’m personally offering free consulting sessions all week for anyone who wants to have a conversation about making their relationships work. DM @LoveinLockdown on twitter if you want to help build literature around real committed everyday relationships.

  2. Quickies: I recently put out a video on the internet about the interesting things I’ve heard people say in the marriage market. Surely, this resonated with a lot of people, but a few reached out and wanted to understand how to rise beyond the superficial reasons flooding the market. If you are one of them, find your answers with a Quickie.

Sneak peak into …

What I’m reading:

  • White Tiger - Aravind Adiga. Sometimes, fundae based non-fiction can be tiring, especially when you get through a book that could have very well just been a series of blogposts. Reading for the sake of reading with no grand outcome or message is awesome - just like talking to someone without hoping to marry them.

  • This recent article on FT shared by a friend does help in beating some cynicism. Though, not enough to not question if there will ever be a new normal post lockdown w.r.t dating.

That’s it folks. Happy Weekend? Who’s keeping track anyway!

P.S. - I am not an opponent of divorce, I am just persistent. Probably even stupid. There are plenty of reasons to not have to even try, and if that’s the case with you, I am sorry you’ve to go through this. I am with you too. Just to be clear.

Shapely Gal is a weekly-ish newsletter that discusses love, relationships, marriage and the various markets these are traded on. This newsletter is a concoction of observations, theories, ideas, real stories, figments of imagination and sometimes just rants on romantic relationships.