Since 2008, the Shrinking Universe has appeared as a fortnightly column in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu and explores many facets of mental health including relationships, parenting, adolescent experiences and other psycho-social aspects of contemporary urban Indian life. The column enjoys a wide and dedicated readership, and as one reader says, '…gives the whole family a lot to talk about over breakfast on Sundays'. Some day, they may be collated and offered in the form of a book, but until them you can read them here.
 

The Shrinking Universe 130
WHAT'S YOUR PASSWORD?

For a nation that thinks nothing of asking a perfect stranger on a train all sorts of intimately personal details merely to pass the time, it's extraordinary how urban India is today abuzz on the whole issue of privacy. Many of us like to zealously guard our personal space, even if there’s very little happening inside it. I suspect, many of us aren’t quite sure what to do with this space, but we fight hard for it nevertheless. Almost on principle. And those who we fight with cannot understand our obsession for this personal space, for one look at our Facebook page is more than enough for them to understand what is (or more likely, is not) happening in it.
For a generation that demands privacy as vocally as it does, Gen X, Gen Y and perhaps Gen Z (when someone, realising that Z follows X and Y, gets around to using this nomenclature) are remarkably blasé about wearing their hearts, minds and pretty much every other part of themselves on their social networking sites, for not just governments, HR departments, jealous exes, suspicious spouses or curious parents to spy on, but for any passing Internet troll to like, dislike or trash. But, try asking them for their Facebook passwords, and bedlam is more than likely to ensue.
Evidently, while we are beginning to appreciate that privacy and personal space are valid concepts that we should be espousing and incorporating into our behavioural repertoires, we still haven’t quite got the hang of what precisely privacy is. For, the same privacy zealot wouldn’t think twice about eavesdropping on an office conversation to obtain leverage in the workspace or checking a partner’s mobile phone just to ensure there’s no hanky-panky afoot.
I believe that privacy is certainly a kosher construct, and each of us is entitled to decide what precisely we want to, or more specifically don’t want to, share with others in our lives. And certainly when it comes to strangers, we are even more justified in wanting to keep our personal information personal. But where the whole notion of privacy becomes extremely contentious is in the realm of  relationships particularly those with close friends, parents or spouses. Isn’t transparency the hallmark of intimate relationships? And if it is, should we reserve the greatest transparency for our spousal relationships? How transparent should we be with parents and friends? And while we’re at it, should we shoot for complete transparency? Or can we get by with translucency?
All valid questions that need to be answered. Personally, I'm a cheerleader for transparency in intimate relationships, but because many of us don’t pay much attention to these questions, we scramble to find answers to them, usually in crises. And since answers found on the fly aren’t necessarily thought through, we often end up throwing mixed signals. Proactivity could come in handy here, and we might be better off if we are able to devote some time to understand where we would feel comfortable defining our privacy boundaries in close relationships. 
And to do this, there are a couple of things we would do well to keep in mind. The most important of these is that privacy is not tantamount to secrecy. Many of us fall into the trap of believing that privacy refers to keeping things from the prying eyes of others. When we think along these lines, two things are implicit. One is that we have something to hide. And we only hide what we are embarrassed or ashamed to reveal or what, in our opinion, might hurt, offend or annoy the other. The second is that the other’s need to know our ‘secret’ springs from a less than honourable intention, and therefore what we reveal may be held against us at some time or the other or even forever.
Of course, if you have skeletons in your cupboard, you might feel that your need to keep them secret is justifiable. But in my experience, skeletons have a nasty habit of clattering and revealing themselves. And they usually have a very poor sense of timing. You might be better off 'outing' them yourself than struggling to protect them from others’ eyes.
But if your need for privacy is because you want others to respect your personal space and knock before entering it, this is perfectly reasonable. For, what is implicit here is that you’re willing to let people enter your lair, but would like to have the option of choosing who can come in, when they can come in and for how long they may stay. 
Put differently, if you’re cagey about sharing your password (and I use password-sharing only metaphorically) because you have something to hide, even from those closest to you, you’re on a teflon-coated slope. However, if you expect the other to respect the fact that you don’t have to share a password on demand, but you’re not really averse to doing so because you have nothing really to hide, then I think you’re dealing with your privacy rather well. And if the other doesn’t really feel the need to ask for your password, believing that you will have no compunctions in sharing it if ever the need arose, your relationship rocks!

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The Shrinking Universe 129
THE GREAT PERSONALITY MAKEOVER

The recent mushrooming of innumerable ‘centres’, whether of the hole-in-the-wall variety or more exotic five-star initiatives, offering to transform the personalities of young men and women in the country, tells me that that large numbers of young, urban Indians are unhappy with their personalities and are more than willing to cough up hard-earned money to trade theirs in for the latest model. 
I have always been intrigued by how precisely these centres went about accomplishing what they promised, and naturally pursued the matter a bit. From what I’ve been able to gather, many of these programmes had to do with polishing an individual’s presentation to the world, by enhancing grooming, styling, etiquette, conversational skills, socialisation skills, decision-making skills, public speaking, body language, voice modulation, and so on. Whether they actually work or not is hard to tell, but that is not really the point of this piece; the precise understanding of the term, personality, is.
Going by popular usage, the term is used, and often abused, in several different ways. Often we are told of people with ‘pleasing personalities’. Flamboyant people have ‘colourful personalities’. Shy people are referred to as ‘retiring personalities’. Attractive people are considered to have ‘good personalities’ and bland people are ‘colourless’ personalities. Thousands of people like to believe that they or others around them are ‘split personalities’. And many more speak of ‘clash of personalities’ when they cannot get along with some others.
So, what then is this personality thing?
If you want the official definition, the American Psychiatric Association describes personality as “the unique psychological qualities of an individual that influence a variety of characteristic behaviour patterns (both overt and covert) across different situations and over time”. These psychological qualities are manifested as ‘personality traits’ that are defined as "enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts". A more homegrown definition of personality would be something like, “It’s who I think I am, and who others think I am”. As may be evident, the term personality really refers to a set of consistently extant thoughts, beliefs and perceptions in our minds, that together result in a relatively stable pattern of behaviour that distinguishes us from the next person. What is implicit in this definition is that one’s personality traits don’t change from one day to the next. 
Of course, this doesn’t mean we are unlikely to change over time. We most certainly are, and most certainly do, based on the life experiences we accumulate. But, many personality theorists believe, although I don’t necessarily concur, that only ‘surface traits’ are amenable to change and our ‘core traits’ remain imperviously obdurate to our life experiences. Which probably explains why the personality development programmes referred to earlier, seem to focus on providing their trainees the skills and tools with which to re-sculpt their surface traits.
Ever since the days of Charaka’s descriptions of the  three doshas (vata, pitta and kapha) that resulted in the three gunas, (sattva, rajas and tamas) and Hippocrates’ almost identical postulation of the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) that resulted in four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic), personality theorists have been obsessed with classifying people into personality types, spawning innumerable classificatory systems. At the risk of over-simplification, the common element of all of these are that certain sets of consistently co-existing traits coagulate themselves into certain distinctive and inexorable personality types that all human beings in this world could be fitted into. Current thinking seems to favour the idea of   personality dimensions (often referred to as Goldberg's Big Five: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) and an individual's personality is said to be derived from the possible permutations and combinations of these. 
If you took all the research literature on personality, put it in a pot and boiled it, you would be left with six definite conclusions: Some personality traits are related to genes and hard-wiring and others to life experiences and learning; core traits are more resistant to change than surface traits; apparently contradictory personality traits can exist in the same individual; some people have severely maladaptive personality traits (personality disorders) which are notoriously difficult to change; some specific personality traits are associated with certain illnesses of both mind and body; and one's personality is fully formed only around 30 years of age. 
Now, coming back to the issue we started off with, can we makeover our personality or are we pretty much stuck with what we were born with? Clinical experience does confirm that even what were considered to be fundamental personality traits do change over time, and one commonly hears of former introverts becoming extraverted, risk-takers becoming risk-averse and emotionally unexpressive people becoming emotionally intimate in later life. Even if the overall personality remains relatively constant, we can certainly eliminate maladaptive personality traits and inculcate new ones, but only over time and with much mindful introspection, self-awareness and sustained conscious endeavour. And while I have no quarrel with your buying yourselves some skills and tools to navigate your world, you simply cannot buy yourself a new personality, even on Ebay. 

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The Shrinking Universe 128
LOOK INTO MY EYES!

If you are a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist, you are asked, much more frequently than one would imagine in the last decade or so, whether you could hypnotise your client in order to arrive at the root of the problem. Also, I’m often requested to hypnotically regress the client to a past life, so that the origins of a chronic and intractable symptom or a maladaptive behaviour can be rooted out once and for all. And since I don’t practice hypnotism, I do see a lot of fallen faces in my office room.
Typically, requests for hypnotism (some older people still refer to is as mesmerism) are made in two situations. The first of these is for some long standing ailment for which treatment has been unsuccessfully sought from the best specialists, and therefore it is concluded that the problem must be in the mind. The general belief in such a situation is that the symptom is caused by some deep-seated trauma that the individual must have undergone and because the traumatic event must have been very emotionally painful, the individual has repressed all memories associated with the event and converted the emotional pain into a physical or behavioural symptom. As a result, the belief goes, cure can take place only when the exact origin and nature of the trauma is identified, and the individual has had the opportunity to re-experience and purge the negative emotions surrounding the traumatic event.
This thinking owes its origins to Sigmund Freud and the early days of the  psychoanalysis movement, when the re-experiencing of the traumatic event, referred to as abreaction, and the process of purging oneself of emotional negativity, called catharsis, was considered essential for a cure. In his early days, Freud was a votary of hypnosis to facilitate this process, but gave up its practice when he realised that the more imaginative of his patients came up with a lot of dramatic repressed material, possibly arising from their rich fantasy worlds, and went on to develop psychoanalysis which eventually metamorphosed into psychotherapy. Modern day psychotherapists realise that mental health problems, except in the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, are rarely caused by one repressed emotional trauma, but by a concatenation of factors, events and circumstances that need to be carefully and patiently teased out of the recesses of the human mind.
Unfortunately, most of us, particularly the younger amongst us, cannot abide the waiting and the effort that goes into psychotherapy. Quick fixes are what everyone wants and this gives rise to the second situation in which quick hypnotic interventions are often sought for a specific problem like say cessation of smoking, enhancement of sleep, increasing self-confidence and so on. Sometimes, I receive extraordinary requests to hypnotise a spouse to be more loving and emotionally expressive or to become more thrifty or to flirt less with office colleagues. 
On the surface hypnosis seems a very attractive option to deal with one’s unproductive behaviours. In essence, hypnosis bypasses the conscious filters that one has, over the years, constructed in one’s mind, perhaps to drown out painful memories of unpleasant experiences. In the second half of the 18th century, Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician first demonstrated what later came to be described as mesmerism until the Scottish surgeon, James Baird, rechristened it as hypnotism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was a sensational process for it put an individual into a trance, during which the individual felt compelled to do and say things that seemed to come from a dim and distant past. Therein lay its use in uncovering repressed memories and psychotherapists of the time took it up with gusto.
Subsequently hypnosis came to be used in a wide variety of medical situations. Based on the principle of mind controlling matter, it has been used in lieu of an anaesthetic to conduct surgeries by inducing analgesia (a state of painlessness). It has been used in psychotherapy to facilitate abreaction and catharsis, and in recent times, the almost esoteric technique of hypnotic past-life regression, something which resonates very well with the Indian belief in reincarnation, has captured public imagination based on best-selling literature and hugely followed television shows.
Despite all of this, hypnosis has not entered the mainstream of medicine and psychiatry, still occupying the ‘alternative space’. The usual argument offered for this centres around a conspiracy theory between medical professionals, the pharmaceutical lobby and the health care industry that are believed to have together marginalised this ‘panacea’ for medical and psychiatric problems. I find this line of reasoning very specious, for it ignores the fact that if indeed hypnotherapy were such a catholicon, the all-powerful health insurance industry, which is always on the lookout for inexpensive interventions of which hypnosis is certainly one, would have overridden the ‘conspirers’, and guaranteed its induction into the health care pantheon. 
The way I see it, whether or not hypnotherapy is effective is not the issue at hand. It is our search for quick-fix solutions and panaceas that is. Hypnosis does have a role as an adjunct to other interventions, but only if delivered by a trained hypnotherapist (all hypnotists are not hypnotherapists). But believing that hypnosis is the nostrum that will free us of all our suppressed traumata in this life and earlier ones too, might well be more traumatic than one could imagine.

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The Shrinking Universe 127
MARITAL LAW

Much like those concerned with relationships, I too have been actively following the aftermath of the recent Madras High Court judgement pertaining to the rights and responsibilities of cohabiters. Unfortunately, the focus of the aftermath has been almost entirely on the peripheral comments made in the judgement regarding pre-marital sex, with only a small minority of opinions focussing on the essence of the judgement which ensures that committed, cohabiting relationships would be deemed as being equivalent to marriage and therefore both partners in such a relationship would, in the eyes of the law, be accorded the legal status of ‘wife’ and ‘husband’, even if the relationship was not formally solemnised in a place of worship or in the office of the registrar of marriages. As a result such couples would be governed by existing divorce laws, if the relationship was terminated. 
Unfortunately, most commentators on the subject have chosen to address the issue of pre-marital sex being used as a parameter for determining the status of the relationship and have implied, bizarrely if you ask me, that any young adult above the legal age of consent would have to contemplate divorce from a person they’ve had sex with before getting married to or engaging in a sexual relationship with someone else. This implication is also extended to those who are involved in sexual extra-marital relationships. 
I, for one, certainly don’t believe any of this was implicit in the judgement, although the vocabulary could perhaps have been more rigorously considered in order to be less open to multiple interpretations. 
However, this piece is not about this particular judgement. I am merely taking the opportunity to explore two issues that emanate from it - the relationship between law and marriage and the potential for abuse of even good judgements particularly those related to marriage.
One would imagine that marriage is essentially a very personal relationship between two people, who privately make a commitment to spend as much of their lives together as they possibly can in companionable comfort, and when they feel they can’t bear each other any longer, amicably go their respective ways, without troubling each other or their respective families and most certainly not the criminal or civil justice system. But obviously marriage isn’t going to be let off the hook so easily.
Society has always had a significant stake in ensuring that marriage, sex and sexuality be tightly, even rigidly controlled, owing, perhaps, to the historical prevalence of polygamy in a patriarchal social system that rendered women and children vulnerable. Initially marriage was thought of as a contractual obligation (the first such contracts are considered to have evolved from Mesopotamia over 4000 years ago) that ensured that the man took the woman and their children as his ‘protectorate’. Over the millennia since, marriage became a mechanism to expand alliances between families and create societies. From around the 12th century onwards, with the growing influence of organised religion, marriage came to be considered a sacrament.
However, since sacraments were not necessarily honoured as they were expected to, the state got involved over the last few centuries, and enacted laws pertaining to marriage, defining and protecting the rights and responsibilities of both partners in the marital union. In most parts of the world, including ours, marriage has remained a sacrament, although in recent times, certainly in the Western world, it’s beginning to be seen less as one, and more as a covenanted partnership, thereby increasing the need for more legislative support to ensure the protection of the protagonists. 
Even though marriage, or committed cohabitation of any form, is the most intimate relationship that human beings can engage in, it’s essential vulnerability lies in the fact that it’s not indestructibly bonded by ties of blood. And, since economic parameters such as inheritance are related to lineage and familial relationships, it certainly does need legislative protection for this and two other key reasons. In a patriarchal social system, women are certainly more vulnerable owing to their state of dependence, and their rights do need to be protected and adequate provisions have to be made for them in situations where the relationship breaks down irretrievably. Also, children, since they are conceived of two parents, do require the opportunity have both their parents, if both are alive, participating in their lives, and should not be permitted to suffer for no fault of theirs.

Sadly, in recent times, marriage and divorce laws, even though enacted with noble intentions, do tend to be abused more often than one would like to see. I have written in the past about the abuse of the laws pertaining to domestic violence and dowry-related cruelty. Similarly, I do see the potential for the judgement that stimulated this discussion, being misquoted as a precedent for those seeking redressal from courts of law for being cheated of a promise of marriage. Obviously, no law can be completely abuse-proof. And no law can comprehensively incorporate the entire panoply of social and moral norms in a pluralistic society like ours. However, if the law conceived of marriage as an extra-special contractual relationship and not as a moral sacrament and framed morality-neutral legislation along these lines, then perhaps the imposition of marital law may excite far less agitation than that of martial law.

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The Shrinking Universe 126
TAKE MY ADVICE

A few weeks ago, waiting at a crowded airport gate for the boarding announcement of my much-delayed flight, I couldn’t help overhearing several conversations taking place around me (since we are not a particularly discreet people, this is not at all hard to do). There were the usual disgruntled grumbles about flight delays and the poor quality of the airport and all of that, but what really struck me forcefully was that a fair number of these conversations offered some form of advice or the other, usually preceded by a clear statement of advisory intent, like ‘Take it from me...’, ‘Take my advice...’, ‘What you should have done...’ and so on. 

Evidently, as a nation, we  love to advise others. It may have to do with the fact that we have been advised so much in the course of our lives, but we do it with such consummate ease that we don’t even realise we are doing it. 

And here’s the kicker! We usually do so without being asked. 

Certainly sharing information or giving one a ‘heads up’ is understandable and usually appreciated. When one tells a stranger not to take a certain route to avoid a traffic jam, or not to use a particular toilet stall since it’s not clean, or that the front tyre on the driver’s side is almost flat, chances are the stranger may actually be grateful for the kindness. However when one advises a stranger nervously buying a sexual stimulant drug at the pharmacy that his sexual problem is more likely to be cured by homoeopathy than the pill he just bought, or advising the lady sitting on an adjacent seat on the train that she should have a child before she’s 30 so her parents can have a grandchild, or advising a doctor one is consulting that the Feng Shui in the clinic needs some work, one is probably violating the other’s personal space.

I believe that the intentions behind unsolicited advice are rarely malafide. In fact, we see it as our responsibility to share our wisdom with others. And when our unsolicited advice is not heeded, as is frequently the case, we are bemused, sometimes offended and often distressed. We resolve never to offer unsolicited advice again, but much sooner than we realise, we are at it again.

One might well argue that in personal relationships one should feel free to offer unsolicited advice, simply because such relationships are designed to benefit from such counsel. And this is not entirely untrue. Any relationship structured around learning employs advice as a currency. Relationships such as the ones between teacher and student, mentor and protégé, boss and subordinate, parent and pre-adult child and the like are generally rife with unsolicited advice given and taken. However, what are generally considered relationships between ‘equals’, like the ones between friends, co-workers, boyfriend and girlfriend, spouses or live-in partners, parents and adult children and so on are not  necessarily predicated on unsolicited advice.

I include parent and adult child in the ‘equal’ subset because, even though parents have more life experiences in their repertoire, adult children might not find these entirely relevant to their own contexts and may feel that since they too are adults, they can come to their conclusions based on their own experiences, less extensive though these may be. 

Typically unsolicited advice may trigger off a sense of being judged by the other and may therefore raise hackles immediately. It’s almost like the adviser is saying, ‘Look, I know more than you, so do as I say’. Obviously no one likes to be shown up as less knowledgeable, so it’s not surprising that the first instinct is to reject unsolicited advice, however sound it may be. Also, the dynamics of the relationship may impact on the acceptance or rejection of the words of wisdom, as when a person who feels controlled by the spouse, refuses to heed the latter’s perfectly sensible advice not to drive after drinking. And when the level of emotional dependence, and therefore emotional vulnerability in a relationship is very high, as it usually is (or should be) between spouses, statements of judgement, presented as advice, may produce unintended, but unpleasant, consequences.
 
On the other hand, solicited advice, as happens in professional relationships between doctor and patient, lawyer and client, service provider and service seeker, raises no such unconscious conflict, provided the adviser stays within the brief. Counsel from a lawyer to wait a few weeks before litigating will be considered perfectly acceptable, but the same lawyer will be violating a boundary if the client is advised to lose weight. Also, it is not unusual for opinions, guidance or suggestions (‘advice’ by many other names) to be sought even in ‘equal’ relationships, and such solicited advice, whether or not it’s acted upon will usually be warmly received. 

Essentially, unsolicited counsel will only be accepted when it comes from a source to whom one has given authority, whether on account of the nature of the relationship or the high regard the adviser’s wisdom is accorded. In any other situation, the more prudent thing to do would be to hold one’s counsel. However sound you think it may be. Until it’s asked for.  That’s the best advice I can offer. And, unsolicited at that.

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The Shrinking Universe 125
WANNA BET?

Once touted as a source of ‘family entertainment’, the IPL has progressively exposed millions of its bemused followers to the unprepossessing underbelly of bookies, fixing and windfall profiteering. Young and talented players who have acquired overnight stardom and wealth have given in got themselves inextricably entangled in Faustian deals, naively (or arrogantly) believing they would never be found out. However, more than the drama surrounding the issues of corruption, power politics in the BCCI and the arrest of individuals who have overnight moved from prominence to notoriety, what has intrigued me is the slowly growing mumble that has now acquired the proportions of a rumble, that the way out of all this is to legalise betting. 
The underlying implication is clear. If ‘honest citizens’ could place their bets with legal bookies, then the underworld may not find the gambling industry an economically viable enough proposition, and therefore ‘fixing’ would be a thing of the past. Not very different from argument that prohibition encourages black marketing, bootlegging and moonshine, and therefore citizens should be ‘protected’ by lifting it. Actually, if we don’t get on our moral high-horses, and consider the proposition dispassionately, we might realise that it’s not completely irrational. 
One of the biggest sports scandals in the 20th century happened during the American Baseball World Series in 1919, when eight players of the Chicago White Sox conspired with the underworld gambling network to ‘throw’ their game against the Cincinnati Reds. In the decades since, after betting and gambling became legal in most states in the United States, nothing on that scale has ever happened. So, the protagonists of this theory believe that maybe if we legalise betting in India, the IPL can safely carry on and reclaim its place as ‘wholesome family entertainment’. Just as betting on horse-racing has continued to thrive since it’s a legal activity. 
However, we need to ask ourselves whether by legalising betting in our country, we might end up inadvertently throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
In many American states (and likely elsewhere as well) some of the revenue generated from taxing the gambling industry is ploughed back into educating people about the risks of gambling and setting up centres that can provide interventions for those who become addicted to gambling. Evidently, most governments realise that legalised gambling increases the incidence of ‘pathologic gambling’ or ‘gambling disorder’ as the clinical condition is now called. And it does this, not by encouraging people to become gamblers (those who want to, will in any case), but by providing potential pathological gamblers an opportunity to indulge in it without fear of breaking the law.
A lot of recent research has demonstrated that neuropsychologocially, gambling disorder is remarkably similar to any other form of chemical addiction disorder (alcohol and drugs), and some authorities recommend that gambling disorder be treated in the same manner as alcohol dependence. It appears that some people more than others, for a variety of reasons, are hard-wired to become addicted to gambling, chemicals etc. This explains why not all drinkers become alcoholics and not all punters end up with gambling disorder. Only those who have a certain neuropsychological pattern hard-wired in their brains do.
Unfortunately medical knowledge has not advanced to the point where physicians can accurately predict those who are prone to gambling disorders. As a result when avenues for gambling are made more freely available, it is likely that even persons at risk, without realising their vulnerability, will access these and may end up becoming addicts.
Typically, there are two types of gamblers. The 'action gamblers' are those who engage in games of skill like poker, believing they have the inherent capacity to 'break the house'. They pit their wits against other gamblers and the high they experience has more to do with winning on the strength of superior skills than on just the money they earn. The 'escape gamblers' get their buzz from winning in games of chance, like lotteries, slot machines etc. Action gamblers are more ego-driven and  bank on their intelligence and escape gamblers are more emotion-driven and rely on their instincts. As can be seen betting on a game may on the surface appear to be action gambling, but given that the parameters that govern the outcome of a game are too unpredictable, it is really escape gambling. And when we gamble, we tend to lose as much, sometimes more, than we win. And therein lies the temptation to 'fix' things so the result goes our way.
Although there's enough data to suggest that the incidence of alcoholism isn't necessarily reduced by prohibition, the same cannot be categorically stated about gambling disorders, largely because bootlegging networks are much easier to both set up and dismantle than illegal betting systems. Also, legalised betting is far more risky for escape gamblers than action gamblers, since the former are usually casual punters who get sucked into vortices they never even knew of. 
While I have no doubt that more effective monitoring can help reduce the possibility of match fixing, I'm not sure we,as a nation, are ready yet to deal with the possible larger fall outs of legalised betting in terms of gambling disorders. And until we are, we might want to give ourselves more time to think it through.

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The Shrinking Universe 124
GOOGLEITIS

Whenever a client walks into my office with their tablets (the electronic variety, not those humble rounded objects that are blister packed in aluminium strips and used to make us feel better when we were ill), I know I’m in for a long session. Either they use these tablets to make notes during our session, or they refer to the notes they have made before meeting me, or sometimes, they just double check what I’m telling them with their most trusted source of medical reference – Dr. Google. Although, this can sometimes interfere with the smooth flow of a medical or psychiatric consultation, I have now come to accept this with good-humoured resignation and have gone on to acquire a tablet of my own to anticipate what google may have already told my clients.
Many contemporary physicians, when they get together at meetings and conferences, generally spend as much of their time extolling the Internet for the great contribution it has made to their continuing medical education as they do to bemoaning it for the adverse impact it has had on their approach to patient care. For, often, before coming to see the doctor, many urban patients seem to have done their research and tend to engage the physician in long discussions on differential diagnosis. While this can sometimes prolong a medical consultation, since a lot of time has to be invested by the physician in educating a half-informed patient or correcting anxiety-laden misapprehensions, I find the emergence of this phenomenon potentially very constructive, for it finally ushers in the possibility of the healing process being a joint venture between physician and patient.  
In other words, health and medical problems are slowly becoming demystified. But, and I wouldn’t like to put too fine a point on this, there is a difference between demystification and knowledge. Even if the functioning of our bodies and minds is now less foggy to us, it doesn’t automatically follow that we possess enough medical knowledge to make informed decisions. And unless both doctor and patient get this, their relationship is bound to become progressively more uncomfortable.
From the first decade of the twenty first century, physicians have begun to  talk about ‘googleitis’, which while being a perfectly googleable term, is not a recognised medical condition, and have come to use it in two contexts. The first refers to the almost compulsive need to check the Internet for answers to every question that arises in one's mind, even the most trivial ones, like how often the monsoon has been delayed in the last ten years, or how one can know whether or not an interview went well. The second variant manifests itself in the context described earlier – one’s health and well-being. And, while the former is at worst annoying to others, the latter has the propensity to be problematic. 
The reason for this is simple. The information available on the Internet is so copious that wheat and chaff are extremely difficult to separate. Also, a lot of the information is not necessarily authentic. Unfortunately, even if one visits only reputable and credible websites, the information available there merely whets the medical surfer's appetite since most of these sites end up asking one to consult one’s physician for more details, which seems to defeat the purpose for most medical surfers, who therefore end up visiting dubious websites and unmonitored forums where anyone can express any opinion ‘authenticated’ by a hyperlink to a site whose credentials may be difficult to verify.
That medical surfing is the new zeitgeist was brought home sharply to me, when I recently read a horrific story (on the Internet, where else?) of a mother in the United States who took her teenage son to the Emergency Room only seven hours after he suffered a gun shot wound, because she was busy reading up on a popular medical website all about the management of gunshot wounds. And I am always dismayed to hear the stories of those who google a combination of their symptoms and are convinced they suffer from some rare, untreatable medical condition, and spend months, even years, of their lives seeking expensive and unnecessary treatments. 
Also the plethora of health-related information available to us today from the print media as well as the Internet can make us feel thoroughly confused since medical researchers too are busy giving advance bulletins of their research findings and for every finding that says this, one can find an equal number that says that. It's no wonder then that we are on the brink of an epidemic of hypochondriasis. Equally distressing is the fact that a large number of people  deny themselves the benefit of legitimate medical treatment after googling a list of side effects that the medicines prescribed by their physician may produce, without realising that the Internet lists everything from diarrhoea to death as possible adverse effects of most prescription medications. 
We need some perspective here. The Internet is a huge boon, but googleitis is a preventable nightmare. We can easily avoid it if we realise that not everything in life needs an app. However, on reading this, I wonder how many of us can resist the temptation to google googleitis! Maybe there’s an app for that too!

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The Shrinking Universe 123
The Ex Factor

Without doubt, we live today in a romantically liberal social environment. Not that people never fell in love in the past. They most certainly did. And not just in myth or folklore, but in real life as well. I'm sure each of us has heard romantic stories attributed to our forebears that have become part of family legend. But romantic love, requited or one-sided, is now in our faces. Everybody seems to be tripping over themselves to fall in love and go through all the bittersweetness that the experience has undeservedly gained notoriety for. And, needless to add, many young people do this before they get married. Sometimes, such romantic love does end up in marriage. But more likely than not, many youngsters end up marrying someone other than the one they were initially romantically involved with. And this is when the ex-factor tends to rear its unprepossessing head.
If both spouses had a 'past', and neither is particularly concerned about the other's pre-marital peccadilloes, there may be no adverse consequences and the marriage may proceed with the customary trials and tribulations that the adjustment process entails. However, things may not always run so smooth. Even if both spouses had 'pasts', one may become uncomfortable with the other's, more so if the ex continues to play a role in the person's life, say as a friend or some such thing. Or, as is more commonly the case, partners without a past, may feel betrayed or let down when they learn of the others' ex or exes. And much more often than one can imagine, the ex-factor is often allowed to become a huge issue in the marriage, with suspicion, anger and hurt predominating the married couple's life.
And if you think that only men get upset with their wives' pasts, perish the thought! This certainly used to be the case in the past, for femininity was often equated with purity and therefore chastity, and masculinity with virility and playing the field. However, now many women too tend to feel that the sanctity of their marriage has in some indefinable way been defiled by their husband's pre-marital amorous escapades, even if these happened in the dim and distant past. 
One might wonder, why the past should play such a significant role in the marriage. From my experience, it seems to be all about purity, chastity and the loss of exclusivity. Usually purity refers to thought and feeling, and chastity to action. There exists a myth that one can love only one other person in one's life, and if the spouse has already been in love in the past, then the likelihood of their falling in love with the marital partner is rendered null and void, thereby making the partner impure. Unexpectedly, this myth is strongly rooted even in urban Indian minds, often to delusional proportions. And if a virgin partner, finds that the spouse has not been as chaste, then the fear of not being able to measure up to the ex's sexual prowess can sometimes be overwhelming and lead to sexual incompatibility as well. "How can I compete with your ex?", seems to be the underlying dynamic.  Loss of exclusivity can also be difficult to deal with since there is a general feeling that the 'loss of innocence' should be through a process of mutual exploration and joyful discovery, and the fact that one partner has jumped the gun, as it were, may be perceived as having violated the nascent bond of intimacy, even before it's been forged.
If dealing with the residues of a past relationship are hard enough, you can well imagine how much of misery is experienced when one discovers that one's spouse was compelled into the marriage by the family, but continues to be in love with the ex? A variation of this is when the ex continues to be in the spouse's life as a friend and it's evident to everyone else but said spouse that the torch that the ex continues to hold, is bright as a beacon.
All in all, pretty contentious situations. But do they have to be? If we look objectively at the whole issue, it's easy to recognise that the core of the problem lies in our considering marriage as a sacrament and therefore considering the marital bond as a hallowed one. Therefore, if anyone had a relationship 'in the nature of marriage' with someone prior to entering into 'holy matrimony' with another, then sacred vows have been broken even before they were taken. However, if we view marriage as a relationship, an exalted one doubtless, but in essence just a relationship, between two consenting adults who resolve to engage in committed monogamy by building a loving, trusting, respectful and intimate bond, then we can easily appreciate that having had a relationship or two in the past is not such a big deal after all and that such past relationships need never cast shadows on the present or the future.
However, at least until the marital bond is stabilised it would be prudent for the  ex to firmly remain an ex. Perhaps later, both partners can have friendly, even constructive relationships with the exes. But, some maturity needs to be acquired for this to happen.

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The Shrinking Universe 122
AM I SEXUALLY OKAY?

Every time a popular magazine publishes a survey of sexual attitudes and practices across the nation, I brace myself. Almost invariably, I am swamped by emails, telephone calls, consultations and social conversations, all of them having to do with questions pertaining to sex and sexuality, asked in a variety of ways, ranging from uncontained anxiety to feigned nonchalance. The underlying concern is always the same. Am I sexually okay? For a nation that’s frustratingly Victorian when it comes to issues concerning sex, it’s extraordinary how we lap up anything about the subject that appears in print, television and the Internet, as long as it purports to be scientifically authoritative.
I am not going to debate the merits and demerits of understanding sexual ‘normality’ of Indians through a survey of samples of people in different cities in the country, but what I have found is that these polls sometimes end up playing havoc with peoples’ sex lives. For instance, if the majority of say, male respondents, from one city have reported that they surf pornography for at least a few hours every week, wives and girlfriends in that city, often tend to become unnecessarily more edgy and vigilant resulting in entirely avoidable fights. Or when a couple finds that the frequency of their sexual activity falls below the national average, they get spooked and put a lot of pressure on themselves to have sex more often. Unfortunately, they do so not because they want to, but because they feel they should. They realise only much later that sex by calculator is neither enjoyable nor sustainable. 
Each of us has an intrinsic sexual rhythm. Some of us have higher levels of circulating sex hormones, as a result of which, we may have a higher libido. Some of us may have a lower level of circulating sex hormones and therefore, lower libidos. But merely because both partners have different libidos doesn’t really mean that there is a serious problem in evidence. What it does mean is that both partners have to tune into each other’s sexual rhythms and do their best to be as responsive as is possible, without being judgemental of each other’s libidos or lack thereof. 

A sexual issue can be said to exist only when distress or discomfort is experienced by either or both partners. If both are comfortable with their sex lives, then, there is absolutely no need to worry. But if one partner feels sexually neglected, then we need to get our heads around this and do something about it. In other words, don’t break your head over whether your sex life is normal or not based on what your glossy or your friend or the Internet tells you. If you’re happy with it, even if you are not having as much sex as the rest of the country claims to be having, you’re doing fine. However, if you do feel the need for more sex in your marriage, but have set aside your needs because you don’t want to upset your partner who doesn’t seem to want it as much as you do, then learn to talk about it before it becomes an explosive matter. Today, there are a variety of professional interventions precisely tailored to the requirements of such situations.
The bottom line is that we need to learn to talk to our partners about sex and sexuality with comfort. This is something we don’t do particularly well as a nation. Even urban Indians have a lot of ambivalence when it comes to sex. For one thing, we are generally poorly informed. This doesn’t surprise me because we receive most of our sexual instruction from porn sites on the Internet, and as is well known, such sites were never designed to serve anyone’s educational needs. However, there’s no point railing against pornography, unless we are comfortable enough with sex to provide meaningful sex education for our children. For another, many of us still think of sex as a biological need, and not as an expression of love between two people engaged in an intimate relationship. As a result, sex is often considered a key performance area, and the reluctance to talk about it stems from the fear of one’s performance being ‘appraised’ by one’s partner. However, couples who aren’t embarrassed talking about their sex lives and what they would like from each other, seem to enjoy a much greater degree of sexual congruence than those who hem and haw or giggle their ways around such a conversation.
Without doubt, sex is a very important part of any intimate relationship. However, we do tend to either overvalue it or undervalue it. To create a balance in our minds, it might be useful to expand our vocabularies so that we may talk about our sexual lives and remember that a performance-orientation when it comes to sex is the biggest romance killer. However, if we think of sex as a mutually satisfying method of expressing our love for each other, then we'll probably realise that the more we learn to tune into each other, the more likely it is that our sex lives are 'normal', regardless of what that survey says.

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The Shrinking Universe 121
Family Vs Family

A little over five years ago, in one of my earlier books, I had written that of all the issues that the contemporary Indian marriage struggles with, the most challenging was the ‘Me and My Family vs You and Your Family Conflict’. In the  years since this, I’ve had no reason to revise this opinion for it continues to remain the chief problem. I’m not suggesting that there is something fundamentally wrong with Indian families or that the families in question have any malafide intent. It’s just that the dynamics of the urban Indian marriage have changed quite discernibly in the last couple of decades, but families have not  always adapted effectively enough.
When I first started working as a couples’ therapist, I was surprised by the number of family members accompanying the couple who had sought an appointment, and my first task then was to cajole the families out of the marriage space, a much more formidable undertaking than it sounds. Although, over the last couple of years or so, it is certainly true that young couples have begun to own their marriages more, I find that the families, though physically absent, are not by any means out of the marriage space, as a result of which both partners have unnecessarily positioned themselves on either sides of a thorny, family vs. family, fence. As I see it, the principal reasons for this are two. The first is the widely prevalent, though fallacious, belief in our country, that marriages takes place between two families, not two individuals. And the other is the treatment of marriage as a sacrament and an institution, rather than as a relationship between two people.
Often, at weddings, the bridal couple seems incidental to the proceedings. While they may be centrepieces of the whole exercise, everyone around seems to be having a more enjoyable time of it than they, and all the decisions are taken by people around them. The big fat Indian wedding is designed to provide bonding opportunities for both sets of extended families and friends and are often a cornucopia of bonhomie between hitherto perfect strangers. However weddings, by virtue of being difficult-to-manage events, might inadvertently result in creating gaps between the families, and if these are not adequately managed, overt hostility may sometimes ensue. If such be the case, future family meetings could well be fraught with tension, rife as they usually are, with subtexts and unstated expectations.
Does this mean that Indian families are inimical to contemporary marriages? Far from it. I believe that families feel the need to play a continuing and active role in their children’s marriages, and feel rejected, hurt and upset if they are thwarted in their attempts to do so, largely because they feel they are only discharging their responsibility as caring family members, for they feel that good parenting demands continued involvement, at least in an advisory capacity, in their children’s marital lives. Which is why they are bemused and aggrieved when said children don't respond in a complementary manner. 
While I fully understand and respect parents’ need to remain engaged with their married children, we do need to remember that the marriage itself belongs only to the couple. Anyone else’s participation in it, in any form, can happen only at their invitation. Even if family members, as more experienced and aware individuals, are anxious to protect them from pitfalls and provide them appropriate solutions for the problems they seem to be having, they need to desist from doing so, for unsolicited advice may often be perceived as interference, not intervention, however genuine their intentions are.
In earlier times in order to propagate the discipline of monogamy, it may have been necessary to pedestalise marriage as a sacrament, solemnised in a place of worship, governed by a set of inviolable rules, thereby institutionalising the man-woman relationship. However, in contemporary times, where the emphasis is more on companionship than duty, on passion than compassion, and on spontaneity than compromise, marriage can no longer be seen as an institution that all human beings enter into out of a sense of duty and filial responsibility. It has to be seen essentially as a conscious relationship between two human beings who believe in monogamy, and are committed to spending the remainder of their lives together.
 The resolution of the ‘family vs family’ conflict can begin only when the couple starts to think in terms of ‘We and Our Families’. It is no longer a question of the wife rejecting her family and adopting her husband’s as her own, or the husband being swallowed up by the wife’s family. The new Indian marriage demands that couples define their mutually comfortable marriage space and establish boundaries between this and the family space, thereby making the marriage space sacrosanct, inviolate and inaccessible to anybody other than both the partners. Doing so is certainly not a sign that they reject their respective families. All they’re saying is that if they’re old enough to vote, have sex and get married, they’re also old enough to deal with their relationship issues as rational adults. If, in the process, the two families hit it off, let's think of it as a nice little bonus, unexpected perhaps, but welcome nonetheless.

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The Shrinking Universe 120
WANT, DON'T NEED

A few weeks ago, at an increasingly rare appearance at a wedding ceremony (I usually play a more useful role after weddings than during them), I heard something startling. It was one of those secular weddings where lots of speeches were being made and one of the speakers, an obviously venerated gentleman, was exhorting the couple to “seek the happiness that only co-dependency” could bring. I sincerely hope that the speaker was committing a malapropism, for the last thing he or anyone else would want to wish for a young couple is a life of ‘co-dependence’. I wouldn’t have had a problem with ‘mutual dependence’ or ‘inter-dependence’ for these are what relationships are all about. But co-dependence is entirely out of place for it refers to an unhealthy relationship pattern.
The term was initially used to refer to those who were in relationships with people struggling with alcohol and other drug dependence. The understanding at the time was that the ‘addict’ was in some subtle manner, manipulating the partner into aiding and abetting, even endorsing, the habit. The co-dependent partner was considered to be low on self-worth and extremely dependent on the affirmation of the addicted partner, thereby permitting the development of an extremely unhealthy relationship pattern that sustained the addiction. It was further thought that co-dependent people naturally sought out those who were addicts. 
In later years, partners of domestic abusers, narcissists, or those who were pathologically controlling were also brought under the rubric of co-dependents. There was in fact, a time when co-dependents were considered to be ill themselves and required treatment. As a result, a self help movement along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, called Co-dependents Anonymous or CoDA came into existence in the second half of the 1980s and continues to be sought after even today. In recent times however, the concept of codependence is a much debated one amongst mental health professionals, and there is no real consensus yet on the subject.
While I have no doubt there are certain people, especially those who have certain personality disorders, who tend to engage in what could be described as co-dependent behavioural patterns, it’s not as if all partners of addicts or abusers enable the addiction or abuse. Many of them do challenge the behaviour and suffer great trauma and indignity in the process. Often, the addict or abuser, reacts to such a challenge badly, and in an effort at rationalisation, blames them for ‘compelling’ a relapse of the addictive or abusive behaviour. Frustrated by this relentless pattern, many partners do walk away, but sadly, and this is certainly true of our country, many partners of addicts, narcissists and abusers, may not have the luxury of doing so, for reasons that are more economic than psychological.
However, if one has the economic wherewithal to walk away from an abusive relationship after exhausting all treatment alternatives and has a supportive social network that wills one to do so, but still doesn’t exercise this option, then I guess we do have a problem on our hands, and it is conceivable that such a person may be suffering from a psychological disorder that may require some professional intervention. However, in our country, where we tend to rhapsodise about sacrificing one’s own needs for the sake of the family, it’s often this that holds many people in unhealthy relationships for longer than necessary, since it’s considered inhuman to ‘abandon’ a sick person.
But let’s not limit our focus only to the extremes of, for want of a better word, co-dependency (a clunky and cumbersome term at best). Many of us do tend to be ‘emotionally needy’ in our relationships, by which I mean, we are tentative, too anxious to please, too quick to apologise, rarely feel we are gratifying our partner, and generally feel worried that we may be dumped. You don’t have to be Freud to figure out that low self-esteem is in some way involved in all of this, but this neediness can set into motion an unhealthy acceptance of sub-optimal relationships, more so when one’s partner turns out to be a closet narcissist or overtly domineering. 
I believe that potential co-dependence, and I exclude those with serious psychological problems when I say this, is better prevented than cured. When you enter into or stay on in a relationship because you feel you ‘need’ to be in one, you get into a one-down position even before you start. If, on the other hand, you don’t feel the ‘need’ to be in a relationship (because you’re confident that you can manage perfectly well without a partner), but ‘want’ to be in one, because you’d like to enjoy discovering a partner; don’t feel the need to abolish loneliness, but do want to engage in companionship; don’t feel the need to raise a family, but want to share the love you have with a spouse and children, then I guess you’re good to go. Unlike marketing professionals who want to convert your ‘wants’ into ‘needs’, your relationships would be better served by converting your emotional ‘needs’ into ‘wants’. Then, and only then, can healthy dependence enter your relationship.

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The Shrinking Universe 119
My Money, Your Money

For centuries in our country, money and talk of money was left entirely to traders, businessmen and bankers. Most people were happy to have it of course, but somehow, money was not something that one spoke about in the drawing room, except in very tangential forms, as one would do when speaking about the vagaries of the stock market or bemoaning rising interest rates. However, in the last couple of decades, money has burst into Indian urban drawing rooms. People seem to talk about little else. From the precise value of the latest scam to the price of their most recent designer acquisition or fancy car or exotic vacation.  Still, there remains one bastion that has remained impervious to money’s recently acquired braggadocio – marriage.
In the past, money was squarely the responsibility of the man, and few women had access to much money (often, the finances of women from wealthy backgrounds too were managed by some man or other in their lives). As a result, financial discussions, if at all, focussed on mundane quotidian expenses, acquisition of jewellery and saving up for dowries. However, a fair number of contemporary couples live in dual-income marriages, where each has full access and control of their earnings. Nonetheless, it is quite remarkable how recalcitrant young dual-income couples are to discuss money and finances, except when it comes to some big-ticket expenses that would require contributions from both.
A typical contemporary scenario that plays out in middle class urban India involves both partners servicing personal, educational or vehicle loans that they have no desire to disclose to each other. Or both partners would like to give some portion of their incomes to their respective parents, but do not want to run the risk of an inquisition from the spouse. Often neither knows what the other earns or saves, unless they find out by accident. And when this does happen, the surprise is rarely a pleasant one, for each ends up feeling that the partner is earning either ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ and are filled with concerns like ‘where does all the money go?’ or ‘how can we ever save on that income?’ 
More commonly, given our social structure, the family patriarch or matriarch demands to control the couple’s dual incomes cocking a snook at that bothersome issue of consent. And if the couple lives as a nuclear family, there is every possibility that the husband might chauvinistically insist on being the trustee of the family finances. If the wife resists, ugly scenes can ensue and family panchayats summoned. Sometimes, and this has now been tending to happen with increasing frequency, the wife continues to get her taxes done by her father and his auditor and relies on the father for investment advice, rather than discussing the situation with her partner. This too ends up causing deep schisms in the marriage. 
Every time I speak to a young couple who engage in what I refer to as ‘financial opacity’, both feel that financial transparency will result in increased expectations and unfair demands. After several years, some degree of financial translucency, even if not complete transparency, does enter the picture, even though little nest eggs are often secreted by either or both partners. This discomfort with financial transparency also manifests as a reluctance to have joint banking accounts. Even if such exist, they are used only as a transient space where shared money for specified purposes is located. Often such opacity is rationalised on the grounds that finances are part of one’s personal space and therefore to be zealously guarded. And in some marriages, although this seems to be on the decline in recent times, financial attitudes seems to operate on the ‘my money is my money and your money is our money’ paradigm. 
As far as I’m concerned, the most convivial way of dealing with the family finances is for the partner, regardless of gender, who has the better understanding of finance and economics to be designated to liaise with experts on the subject, always, of course, in consultation with the spouse. Unfortunately most people define themselves and their identities by the jobs they do, the designations they hold and the money they earn. As a result money has become a new instrument of control between partners. ‘I earn more than you, so I have greater rights than you’ seems to be the emerging mantra. 
I do believe that transparency, and by this I don’t mean sharing every gory, boring detail, but only those that are relevant and appropriate, is very important in a marriage, simply because it creates the nidus from which a bond of shared responsibility can grow. When there’s financial transparency and shared goals, it facilitates two people pulling together than away from each other. And marriage gets redefined as a partnership between two contributing adults. 
Maybe, as is done in the US, UK and several other parts of the world, the Finance Ministry could be persuaded to consider giving substantial tax reliefs to married couples filing their income tax returns jointly. It worked for the Hindu Undivided Family, at least for several decades. Maybe, it might be just the right shot in the arm that the Indian Undivided Marriage could use.

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The Shrinking Universe 118
MEA CULPA?

Over the last fortnight there’s been a fair bit of a fuss generated around the visit of the British Prime Minister David Cameron to India, a lot of it to do with the expectation that he apologise on behalf of his countrymen for the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre. He made all the appropriate noises, of course, describing the tragedy as “a deeply shameful event”, but stopped short of issuing an actual apology. There are undoubtedly political reasons surrounding this, but this brought to my mind how difficult many of us find it to apologise for something we have done, “deeply shameful” or otherwise. In almost all forms of inter-personal relationships, whether intimate, familial, social, or professional, apologising has become progressively more difficult to do, even if, one would imagine, expressing contrition for an act of omission or commission, should be the most natural thing to do. This is what makes the psychology of an apology such fascinating study.
The mechanics of an apology are absurdly simple: recognise the mistake, acknowledge culpability for it, experience remorse for causing pain, seek forgiveness and don't do it again. Unfortunately we are more used to hearing 'non-apology apologies' from public figures (“I did it, but I was a victim of a situation”, “I am truly sorry you’re hurt, but this was never my intention” “If anyone was hurt, I apologise for this”) and 'conditional apologies' in personal relationships ("I did it only because you/she/he did that"). Zohar Kampf, an Israeli social scientist has enumerated at least fourteen different ways in which non-apologies are usually framed. But, let’s leave aside public figures for the time being, for the dynamics of their apologies are quite different. They are made not just to specific persons, but to the nameless, faceless public at large, and are also seriously influenced by their fiduciary constraints as well as their public relations advisors. Let’s turn our attention to the inter-personal domain, and examine why some people (like Major Sergius Saranoff in Shaw’s Arms and the Man) rarely, if ever, apologise.
Research in the field has thrown up some intriguing findings. Possibly of greatest significance is the ‘cheap apology’ that many of us are prone to make. When we rush to apologise for something we’ve done, however sincere we are, this apology is not received as well as one that comes a little later, because the offended party may feel that a ‘considered apology’ is more heartfelt than an immediate one that rolls off the tongue too easily. Also, when one establishes a track record of apologising too readily, the value accorded to such an apology proportionately diminishes. Another interesting finding is that people are more likely to forgive someone who refuses to apologise than one who offers a ‘coerced apology’ (an apology made only after it was demanded). 
Obviously, the nature of a relationship determines the value accorded to the apology. One tends to accept an intimate partner’s apology more easily than one from a co-worker even if one’s partner is a ‘serial transgressor’ and the co-worker is a ‘first-time offender’. And, much to the chagrin of people who buy expensive gifts to mollify their hurt spouses or children, reparative behaviour (giving some ‘compensation’ for causing hurt) is more likely to work in non-intimate relationships (say, employer-employee) than in intimate or emotionally close ones. Amazingly, many of us, so the research literature says, are not very good at recognising the sincerity of an apology for relatively minor transgressions. We accept even insincere apologies because it makes feel exalted when we do.  
Based on the foregoing, it would be a no-brainer to conclude that, as long as we apologise after understanding the hurt caused to the other, are reasonably sincere about it, don’t wait to be asked to apologise, and don’t look for an expensive gift every time we’ve screwed up, then the transgression will be forgiven and we will feel virtuous and good about ourselves. 
But here’s the kicker! It may not always work out this way. 
A recent peer-reviewed research study from Australia, has shown that some people who refuse to apologise actually experience greater feelings of power, value integrity and self worth in the short term. Such people see and experience every relationship as a power struggle and feel even more empowered when they don't apologise because they value the fact that they did not permit any change in the balance of power in the relationship, regardless the harm they caused. It apparently adds to their feeling of being in control.
So, should we or should we not apologise? I guess that would depend on what you want out of the relationship. If you are a control freak, I guess you might never even dream about it, but if you’re one of those want an empathic, companionable relationship, you wouldn’t think twice about apologising when you have to. Not too readily, of course, but not too reluctantly either. And you would do this because it would be in your own interest to do so, because it makes you a better person, not because you want to mollify the other. The words mea culpa should only rarely be followed by a question mark, don’t you think? 

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The Shrinking Universe 117
VIVE LA DIFFÈRENCE

You’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t heard about American psychologist John Gray and the industry he has created around his basic postulate that Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars, centering on the belief that women and men are so psychologically different that they may well be considered to have originated from different planets. A whole series of books, workshops and training courses have been made available to ensure that, for as long as they are living on Earth, Martians and Venusians learn to understand each other and their respective vagaries, eccentricities and specificities in order that they may communicate effectively with each other and co-habit in relative comfort. Most relationship difficulties between the genders have been posited to exist on account of the consequences of an unbridged Mars-Venus divide. 
There also exists a fairly large volume of bestselling self-help literature (as for instance the series on Why Men Don’t Listen and Why Women Can’t Read Maps by the high profile Australian couple, Allan and Barbara Pease), that has also captured the public imagination by offering ‘scientific’ explanations for differences between the two genders. As a result, it is today considered axiomatic in many circles that men and women are fundamentally different and have to work hard at understanding each other. However, the academic community has never been comfortable accepting this hypothesis in its entirety and there have been periodic attempts by researchers to debunk it. 
In recent times, one of the better known voices articulating this has been American psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde from the University of Wisconsin at Madison who, in 2005 proposed her “Gender Similarity Hypothesis”. She reanalysed data published in several different research studies on the subject using certain clearly defined parameters and statistical techniques (a method known as meta-analysis) and found that men and women were more similar than different and that the perceived differences had more to do with stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that we all carry in our minds.
In the last fortnight, the debate on the subject has escalated owing to reports of a study emanating from the University of Rochester in New York state, which has helpfully been put out by the University itself on its website highlighting the findings of the research paper provocatively titled, ‘Men and Women Are From Earth: Examining The Latent Structure of Gender’. The propriety of a university releasing findings from one of their departments to the world certainly merits consideration in a future column, but the story has been widely circulated through the Internet, and has resulted in a perception in some quarters that the Mars-Venus hypothesis stands clearly debunked. 
I realised, when I went through the journal article, that this was not at all the case. Although the lead researchers Bobbi Carothers and Harry Rice have titled their article in an oblique reference to Gray’s catchphrase, the whole point of the research was to examine whether men and women are taxonically different or only dimensionally different. Put differently, are they completely distinct from each other physically and behaviourally like say dogs would be from cats (or Martians from Venusians)? Or can their differences be explained as ones of degree, as, for instance, a tiger may be a larger cat, but is still a cat. 
So the researchers didn’t dispute that men and women were different; they just wanted to see whether the difference was fundamental to the gender or whether it was more due to stereotypical role behaviour. Whether a particular behaviour will be found only in one gender and in all members of that gender, or whether it could exist, if circumstances dictated, in members of the other gender as well. Predictably, they found, by using sophisticated and complex statistical procedures that certain physical attributes were uniquely distinctive, but hardly any psychological attributes were (except, absurdly, scrapbook keeping and affinity for cosmetics in women and interest in boxing and pornography for men, all of which don’t seem to be fundamental attributes, but culture-related). However they also concluded that ‘average differences’ between men and women do exist, by which they mean that on a certain parameter like say nurturing capacity, on an average, women are more likely to be more nurturing than men, but this doesn’t mean that all women are more nurturing than men or that a man can never be more nurturing than a woman. 
On the balance of the existing evidence it does appear to me that men and women certainly do belong to the same species. Stereotyping male and female traits is dangerous as it leads to discrimination and oppression and should be actively discouraged. I also agree that masculinity and femininity are the ends of a continuum and most of us are somewhere between the two extremes, and blaming the mars-venus divide as the root cause of relationships going wrong would be short-sighted and foolhardy. 
But, I simply cannot agree that men and women are not different. While I have no doubt that both men and women have equal capabilities and potential, and that  neither should be considered the weaker sex, I believe, regardless of what  statistics say, that men and women are in their own special ways uniquely distinctive, whether as a result of culture, social environment or biology. And in truth, I’m grateful for this. Vive la diffèrence! 

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The Shrinking Universe 116
Why have you forsaken me?

I hear it all the time. In my office, at an airport, at a party, at a wedding reception, pretty much anywhere. I hear about people feeling rejected by someone or the other – a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a spouse, a boss, a friend, an interview panel, a University, a co-worker, a person or persons belonging to a different socio-economic class or caste, a sibling, pretty much anyone or any institution, with whom one can have a transaction.  Some experience a sense of relief, some others bewilderment, but most are hurt, sad, angry and maybe even hostile. And, mercifully only occasionally, some may find the pain and mortification too much to handle and end up coming to the drastic conclusion that their lives have no further value and may harm themselves. Or they may angrily plot and even execute a vengeful act against the rejecter, like throwing acid on an unresponsive object of desire or affection. 
Rejection happens to everybody. Certain severe forms of rejection such as child  neglect or abandonment, social ostracism and oppression on account of caste, social class, religion and the like, are more intensely painful, are more closely related to hierarchical power equations, result in feelings of unimaginable helplessness, have deeper psychodynamics and merit being considered separately. I will therefore confine this exploration to the more quotidian forms of rejection which, for the sake of convenience, can be classified as taking place in the inter-personal and social spaces. 
Social rejections, wherein we are either subtly or belligerently excluded or marginalised from a group of people we consider ourselves or aspire to be a part of, has a direct impact on our ‘need to belong’, the second tier in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Although in the animal kingdom, social exclusion often results in extreme consequences, even early death of the excluded creature, it’s not always as catastrophic for the human race, only because there are a large number of social groups we can belong to, unless the group that rejects us defines our primary social identity, as do groupings like caste and religion to many of us. 
Inter-personal rejections, as in being rejected by a parent, a child, a lover, a spouse, a friend, a sibling, a co-worker and so on, take place in the context of a specific one-on-one relationship in which we have invested our emotions, expectations, time and energy. As a result of this investment, we start looking at ourselves through the eyes of the other person. When, for whatever reason, the other person disinvests from the relationship, particularly when our investment remains intact, we experience a sharp stab of rejection for our self image takes a beating. For, after being rejected, when we look at ourselves through the eyes of the rejecter, we don’t any more like what we see. If the relationship is not really a close one, we may feel upset for a bit, but we’ll bounce back soon. But if the relationship was a deeper one, it’s going to take longer. 
Whether the rejection is inter-personal or social, it can happen either passively (excluding, freezing out or denial of privileges) or actively (bullying, harassment, aggression). Neuropsychological research using sophisticated techniques has revealed that the pain experienced by those rejected follows the same neural pathways that physical pain does. Which explains why some of us who, from childhood, are either hard-wired or conditioned to have a lower threshold for physical pain, experience and respond to emotional pain in an identical manner. This, of course, doesn’t mean that a couple of paracetamols are going to do the trick for you if you’re rejected, since whatever the neural pathways, the cause of rejection pain is a certain maladaptive thought process that requires to be corrected.
As I see it, the final switch that sends us spiralling downwards when we are rejected, is the thought in our minds that says, “You don’t value me enough”. And we usually extend this quite irrationally to include, “because, I am not good enough”. What we fail to appreciate is that a rejection of a relationship or the rejection of a transaction is not tantamount to the rejection of the person as a whole. There could be hundreds of reasons why one may be rejected. All that the rejecter is saying is, “I’m not in a position to continue in this, because there are aspects of this relationship that don’t work for me”. Or that “I’m not ready for this at this point of time in my life”. Or, “although you possess the required skills, you may not really fit into our company’s culture”. 
In other words, it’s not a rejection of you, but an assessment, right or wrong, of the perceived differences between you and me. If we keep this in mind, and never allow anyone else that much of control over us that we feel completely devastated when they distance themselves, we might never need “rejection therapy”, an online game that gets you used to being rejected by rejecting you over and over again in hundreds of simulated situations. And just as we value pleasure more when we have experienced pain, or profit more when we have suffered losses, so too do we appreciate the joy of acceptance more when we have mourned the grief of rejection.

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The Shrinking Universe 115
Crime and Punishment

It’s not uncommon to hear it said that when a person commits a terrible act, more than the punishment prescribed by the state or the community, it is the punishment meted out by the person’s own mind that is the more difficult to bear. This would, of course, not apply to psychopaths, who are considered to be constitutionally devoid of a conscience and hence feel no remorse for their actions, however terrible these may be. But for the majority of other human beings, the existence of a conscience that defines their morality, value systems and adult behaviour, can pretty much be taken for granted, even if some are more conscientious than others, and some are more sophistically adept at rationalising their ethically dodgy acts. 
In his extraordinary, even if at times ponderous, 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, takes us through the workings of the mind of Raskolnikov, as he agonises, rationalises and eventually rages deliriously consequent upon committing an avoidable crime. Among other things, the book is also, arguably, among the finest and most authentic narratives describing the emotions of guilt and shame, uncluttered by psychological references (Freud was only 10 years old at the time) and can take the involved reader down several by-lanes of the mind, whose existence, one was perhaps only dimly aware of.
Guilt and shame are emotions that all of us have experienced. We usually feel guilty when we are uncomfortable with something we have done or contemplated doing; something that goes against our inherent sense of what is right. It could range from some banal, quotidian act of omission or commission, to a more serious misdemeanour that may have more severe consequences. The guilt turns to shame when we realise that our act has resulted in other people judging us unfavourably and even, perhaps, taking action on this judgement. Put differently guilt is related to our own judgement of ourselves and shame is experienced when we are judged by others in our social environment. Guilt can be rationalised, but shame has to be lived down. 
Generally, all the emotions we experience, even guilt and shame, can serve a constructive purpose as well. When we experience guilt at some action or behaviour, it’s an indicator that some thing we are thinking or doing is dissonant with our internal moral compass. And when we feel shame, we know that the impact of our action has disturbed our social environment  beyond a certain threshold. This knowledge enables us to take counter-measures to reverse the damage we have inadvertently caused to ourselves or those we love. But, when guilt and shame take over our minds, and are disproportionate to the transgression, it can assume pathological proportions, as it tends to do in some of us who are more ‘guilt-prone’ either on account of hard-wiring or adverse life experiences.
There are a variety of reasons for why people feel guilt. The most common of these is misinformation, which is the basis for the completely unnecessary masturbatory guilt experienced by hundreds of thousands of poorly informed teenagers in our country, which if unresolved, usually ends up causing severe sexual anxieties later. Another is relationship guilt that many people go through owing to their feeling unable to do the ‘right thing’ in a relationship whether or not they are required to, as in not having the wherewithal to rescue an abused mother from the clutches of an alcoholic father, or not being able to afford quality education for one’s child’s education and so on. Sometimes we experience sacrificial guilt when someone we love has made tremendous sacrifices to enhance our lives and we are unable to reciprocate in the manner they want us to, and at other times people feel guilty on account of the demands made on them by their religious faith.
But, probably the most distressing of all forms of guilt is what is called survivor guilt that refers to the intense guilt experienced by those who have survived catastrophes – natural calamities, man-made disasters, accidents or acts of violence by one human on another – in which others, particularly loved ones, have perished or been severely traumatised. And the hardest form of guilt to deal with is the delusional guilt that those undergoing clinical depression often experience, which may necessitate the judicious administration of medication and psychotherapy.
Usually when guilt is experienced, one tends to punish oneself and attempt in some way to compensate for the act of omission or commission. If the guilt we experience is ‘normal’, we do this and we move on. However, if the guilt is pathological, the end result is more likely over-compensation and worse, a pattern of inequality may get defined in a relationship or relationships, thereby creating a platform for vulnerability to be taken advantage of. 
All of us do mess up (some of us seem to do this very creatively and some do tend to make a habit of it), but rarely do we commit unspeakable atrocities. While I have no quarrel with the argument that every crime needs to be punished, I also do believe that each of us must remember that wonderful axiom in law, echoed so resoundingly by the Mikado, “Let the punishment fit the crime”.

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The Shrinking Universe 114
RAPES AND WRATH

What more can I say about the unconscionable event that took place on the night of 16/12 at Delhi, that has not already been said or written about over the last fortnight? Every conceivable aspect of the brutal rape and the reactions to it have been reported, dissected and analysed. We have all seen stirring images of the outrage on the part of young Indians from Delhi and many other cities in the country. We have all been angered by the rank insensitivity of the powers-that-be and their anaemic responses. And most of all, we have all been deeply saddened when the undeserving victim's body, viciously savaged by six barbarians, could fight no more. We have heard, read, felt all of these and more, but still, I, like most other horrified Indians, feel the need to say something, if for no other reason, to at least, honour the memory of the 23 year old student, whose name has remained protected, and who will doubtless become a posthumous icon for the war on violence against women.
I know that at such a time, the most immediate thing to do is to demand the lynching of the perpetrators – the gang of six. Which is why we have had debates about the most befitting punishment for the crime and some of us believe that nothing short of the death penalty would be acceptable. Many of us want castration in the belief that this will not only be just punishment but will also deter other potential offenders from even contemplating such an act. Some want the rape laws to be tightened and legal processes to be fast-tracked. And some of us quibble about the definition of rape.
Whether accompanied by violence or not, rape is , more than anything else, the complete violation of a woman's self-respect and dignity. Her sense of humiliation and utter powerlessness at the time leaves mental scars that are far more difficult to heal than the scars on her body. Which probably explains why many social scientists consider rape to be driven by the need for dominance and control of men over women. However, evolutionary biologists are more inclined to believe that rape is more about sex than dominance and control. The underlying theory here is that the male of the species is more likely to be sexually profligate and is more likely to forcibly satiate himself sexually when he believes he can get away with it. 
This simmering sex vs control debate was powerfully renewed in 2000 after the publication of The Natural History of Rape: The biological bases of sexual coercion by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer. This book still remains controversial because its biologist and anthropologist authors pooh-poohed what has come to be known as the ‘feminist perspective’ that views rape as a patriarchal tool to dominate women. As I’m sure you can imagine, the issue is a complex one, but I believe the two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Obviously sex does play a role, particularly in a sexually repressed society like India where even at a protest march against rape, men reportedly sexually grope women in the crowd. But given the brutal manner in which the poor young girl was assaulted for no real reason other than that the perpetrators could do so, it's obvious that other factors are equally if not more important. 
If men didn't feel protected by the institution of patriarchy, they wouldn't feel as free to engage in sexual coercion as they do. Nor would they see their sexual gratification as an entitlement from their wives or from women belonging to the more oppressed castes. From eve-teasing (which has almost become a man's rite of passage) to sexual assault is not much more than a small step. There is something terribly wrong with the way in which we, as a nation, experience and understand masculinity.
While I have no quarrel with making the punishment for rape more stringent (I personally favour 10 years to life imprisonment), I don’t believe that changing the law is by itself going to ensure justice for victims of rape, for the implementation of even the best of laws by a system where power equations are lop-sided, is unlikely to ensure equity. Even after this tragedy, we still hear the voices of those who are considered leaders and opinion-makers exhorting women to ‘de-sex’ themselves so as not to arouse men's lust, thereby victimising the victims even further. And although I don’t believe that all women are necessarily more empathetic of other women than men could be, I still believe that an independent all-woman criminal justice system for acts of violence against women would stand a better chance of enabling equitable justice than one dominated, certainly at its lower levels, by patriarchal insensitivity and lumpenness.
It’s always easy to place the onus for the remedy entirely at the doorstep of legislators. But each of us also needs to do our bit, for patriarchy happens inside our heads. It is an attitude, deeply entrenched in our minds by systems that are constant reminders that men are more equal than women,  where men are the protectors and women the protectorate, where brides are ‘given away’ (kanyadaan) but grooms are not, where chastity is a feminine virtue but a masculine weakness, where daughters are dowriable liabilities and sons dowriable assets, and so on. For all of these to change,  each of us needs to ask ourselves, how we can ensure that our sons are never allowed to feel superior owing to their gender and our daughters inadequate owing to theirs. Tough question. But one that, at no time more than the present, demands to be asked. And answered.

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The Shrinking Universe 113
END OF THE WORLD? NAH!

If you’re reading this, it’s fairly safe to assume that the Winter Solstice has come and gone and the world, as we know it, has not ended, despite the brouhaha surrounding the Mayan calendar’s termination.  It’s amazing how much employment the whole imbroglio has generated for doomsday prophets, and how much time and energy scientific organisations like NASA, have had to invest to quell the inordinate fear, anxiety and even hysteria concerning December 21, 2012. That doomsday prophets exist, doesn’t surprise me, for they’ve been around for millennia, exploiting ignorance and naiveté, expounding their gory visions to anyone who cared to listen. That they continue to find followers in such large numbers despite the technologically and scientifically advanced world we now live in, is astonishing.  And frankly, concerning.

Almost exactly 13 years ago, I remember a panicked world anxiously awaiting the mayhem and chaos that was predicted to be unleashed on January 1, 2000.  Aside of spawning a fairly substantial Y2K industry, nothing much really happened. I also remember the sheepish expressions on the faces of several techies I then knew who had been so strident in their predictions of global bedlam. Doomsday fears obviously don’t afflict only the ignorant and the naïve.

There is truth to the popular belief that modern technology, offers easy  conduits through which disinformation, untruths and half-knowledge can be spread; the Internet is not discerning in what it disseminates.  And therein lies the paradox, for the same Internet is also the storehouse of as much, if not more, information, truths and knowledge, but these don’t seem to be as readily accessed as conspiracy theories and doomsday predictions. Evidently, for some of us at least, fear seems to be more likely to drive us to action than the pursuit of pleasure.

In his 1920 classic, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud, who had thitherto believed that the pursuit of pleasure (and the avoidance of ‘unpleasure’) was the human being’s primary driving force, evolved the concept of what he referred to as the ‘death drive’, which in later years has been variously described as the ‘death instinct’, the ‘death wish’, ‘thanatos’ and so on. I’m not going to get into the nuances, merits, demerits and applications of the concept.  Let’s just say, even at the risk of oversimplifying it and making it sound platitudinous, that the conscious awareness of death drives us to fear it and avoid it.  For many of us, the conscious fear of death is neither overwhelming nor top-of-the-mind.  For some of us, it is just below the surface and could kick in when confronted with doomsday prophecies.  For some others, this fear could be paralysing enough to interfere with day-to-day functionality.

It is because of this fear that we sometimes tend to be superstitious, and engage in certain ritualised behaviours to avoid anticipated pain.  This fear also facilitates rumour-mongering and the creation of what is referred to as urban legends, a term used to define modern folklore or exaggerated stories meant to convey a message.  Some of us deal with such fears by vicariously experiencing them in a controlled situation, as when we watch vampire or horror movies with friends,  Sometimes we watch with horrified fascination, as tragedies are graphically displayed on our television screens. Sometimes we allow ourselves the experience of schadenfreude (pleasure at other’s misfortunes), which may not necessarily have malicious origins, but appears to be more out of relief that it’s happening to someone else.  These are all manifestations of primal fears of the unknown that all of us have felt or might feel in the course of our lives.  And if, by virtue of hard-wiring or due to traumatic life experiences, one is more fearful than others, then one easily falls prey to superstitions and doomsday predictions, which have been made every now and again even though history has taught us that all of them have been absolutely baseless.

Seeking pleasure, as long as it is done responsibly and in cognisance of the context one exists in, is obviously a good thing to do, but if we spend less time doing this than in finding ways to avoid pain, we’re going to end up making our lives more difficult for ourselves and for those around us, for it will be fear that drives us and not pleasure.  I'm not suggesting that all of us abandon fear and engage only in untrammelled hedonism.  Often fear can be a very beneficial drive and helps us learn to adroitly navigate life's minefields, but if this is to be our primary motivating force, we become very vulnerable to exploitation. The practice of mudita (the Buddhist concept of ‘sympathetic joy’ or finding joy in the happiness of others ) will actually make us fear our fellow humans less and reduce our susceptibility to doomsday prophecies, whereas schadenfreude actually does just the opposite.

So, the choice is ours.  Will we let ourselves be driven by our fears and wait for the end of the world, or will we have a sympathetically joyful new year? Hopefully, we’ll choose wisely, and learn to ignore the doomsday prophets' premature obituaries.

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The Shrinking Universe 112
BOUNDARIES, NOT WALLS

Every time I talk of relationship boundaries to anyone who cares to listen, I usually get pretty similar responses. Relationship boundaries – isn’t that an oxymoron? Why have boundaries in relationships? Aren’t relationships meant to liberate one from boundaries? Don’t boundaries confine and restrict? Isn’t that a western concept? And more along these lines. 
Whichever part of the world we live in, it would be a fallacy to believe that we can get by in our relationships without boundaries. Whether between parents and children, siblings, spouses, friends, peers, bosses and subordinate, masters and pets, in short, any situation where two living beings enter into a more-than-casual equation with each other, boundaries creep in, consciously or unconsciously, invited or uninvited. Every transaction you have with another individual is determined by the boundaries both of you have in a relationship. If you agree to go out to lunch with a friend but not to the movies, you have defined a boundary. When you tell your child that you won’t play with him but will help with the homework, you are asserting a boundary. When you tell your boss that you cannot stay back late because its your spouse’s birthday, you have defined a boundary.
Most of us are uncomfortable with the use of the term boundary, for it seems to imply that we set a limit on the relationship. Or that we draw a lakshman rekha around ourselves, which the other is not allowed to cross – a thus-far-no-further kind of approach. In truth, a boundary is neither of these. It is actually a recognition of our capabilities and limitations. It basically tells us how much we are in a position to extend ourselves for a person at a particular point of time in our lives. How much we can accommodate the other’s needs, given our own limitations of energy and time. And how close we feel to the person, for we generally extend ourselves more for those we care more for than less. 
This is why we are usually willing to extend ourselves more for one parent than the other, more for a spouse than a friend and so on. Usually we are not conscious of how and when we erect these boundaries, and therefore, run the risk of taking them for granted. It’s perfectly understandable that our childhood boundaries were unconsciously defined, but since our adult relationships are designed to be more conscious ones which require informed choices to be made, it would perhaps be prudent to be a little more aware of the boundaries we want to define in them. 
The first thing to appreciate when we do this is that there are no right and wrong boundaries, only congruent and incongruent ones. If both persons are comfortable with a boundary, it becomes congruent and poses no problem, even if this may appear to others to be a wrong way of handling things. The key thing to remember is that in accomodating each other, neither of you should have to bend over backwards, for this will only break your backs. Boundaries can be tight or lax. People who, for whatever reason, need more privacy than others, generally tend to draw their boundaries very close and very tightly around themselves. In other words, they are very private and very guarded. Some of us may be quite the opposite. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. 
Our need for privacy depends on a combination of factors: childhood experiences, personal values, other relationship experiences, what our favourite glossy has told us, and so on. So, if some of us need more privacy, this is not a big deal. It’s very likely that in time, with greater comfort, the boundary may progressively loosen and eventually become lax, for our boundaries are not cast in stone. They keep changing. It’s only when we demand a lax boundary as a right, can things become messy.
The other thing to remember about boundaries is that they can be inclusive or exclusive. An exclusive boundary effectively excludes any consideration of the other person’s needs or requirements, and focusses only on our own level of comfort. Even if the other person is reasonably comfortable with this boundary, thereby making it a congruent one, it would still be a good idea to define more inclusive boundaries, for these make for greater closeness since they take into consideration the other’s feelings, thoughts or ideas as well. The approach then is not just ‘it’s your problem and you’d better deal with it’; it becomes ‘it may be your problem, but is there anything I can do to help?’ 
However consciously we define our boundaries, most of us do tend to violate them every now and again, often unintentionally. Sometimes, we violate boundaries wantonly, perhaps out of anger, maybe out of spite, or even out of sheer contrariness, and fights and fallouts ensue. To ensure that these are minimised, it would be judicious to define very few incongruent, tight or exclusive boundaries as is humanly possible without, of course, compromising one’s sense of personal space. What I mean is,  do your best to extend yourself for the other person, but don’t sell your soul. Needless to add, the fewer the boundary violations, the more satisfying the relationship.

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The Shrinking Universe 111
TAKING LEAVE OF OUR SENSES

A recent story in The Daily Mail explained how, when in the presence of or shown a picture of someone they were passionately in love with, most people have a fairly characteristic response. An important part of their brain - the frontal lobe - that governs their capacity to make rational judgements, seems to shut down. Since its publication the story, though it has not exactly gone viral, has been echoed by a large number of news sources all over the world, both online and in print.  The ironical thing is that the research study on which this story is based was first published in September 2000 by Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki. Obviously, it was not considered hot enough then to be reported, but with the increasing interest on the part of the general public in the findings of scientific research concerning love, sex and relationships, it's evidently more saleable now. 
The leader of this and several other such neurobiological studies, Prof Semir Zeki, is the author of several scholarly books on the visual brain (the most recent being The Splendours and Miseries of The Brain), a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Professor of Neuroaesthetics (a discipline connecting science and art, that he pioneered) at the University College, London. He has done much path-breaking research on the relationship between the human brain on the one hand and beauty, art and love on the other. I understand he is scheduled to speak tomorrow on Neurobiology of Love and Beauty at the 25th Foundation Day Celebrations of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, and am sorry that I won’t be able to hear him there. But hopefully the Internet will make available the text of this talk soon enough.
Let's try to understand what precisely Prof Zeki's research threw up. By using the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technique, researchers can see which specific part of the brain is activated when we perform certain tasks, by assessing the oxygen flow to its component parts. Zeki and his co-workers studied the fMRI responses of 17 healthy male and female volunteers when they were shown pictures of their romantic partners compared to pictures of their friends. They found a distinctive difference between the way people responded to friends and to romantic partners. While both activated the expected areas in the brain that are associated with positive emotions, certain portions of the brain were significantly deactivated when pictures of the romantic partners were presented. Portions of the prefrontal cortex (which governs judgement and social behaviour) and middle temporal cortex (which regulates negative emotions) were deactivated, as is usually the case when we are happy. But, the more interesting finding was the deactivation of the amygdala which controls fear, sadness and aggression. Friends activated this part of the brain, but lovers deactivated it. 
Other research has also established that people in love have some chemical changes in their brains as well. There is a surge of a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) called Dopamine which gives us a feeling of euphoria. But there's also a depletion of another neurotransmitter called Serotonin, which is why we tend to feel easily anxious, jittery and depressed. There is also a deluge of adrenaline which makes our heart beat faster, our palms sweaty, and our mouths go dry when in the presence of the one we love.
So, putting this all together, when in love, we temporarily take leave of our senses. We suspend rational judgement, we are fearless and we think only positive thoughts. We can swing between euphoria, anxiety and depression,  within minutes. It's almost like we've consumed a narcotic drug. And here's the rub. Another interesting finding of the study was that the same portions of the brain that get activated by the narcotic drug cocaine are also activated by romantic love.
The biological explanation of all of this is that a temporary suspension of their judgement of each other is desirable to increase the likelihood of two human beings to reproduce. But in our country, we seem to be doing rather nicely without this. Which is probably the basis for the derogatory conclusion that love is blind. Or worse, that falling in love is the dumbest thing one can do. However, I suspect that this suspension of judgement is a very useful mechanism to ensure that love can sustain through the years and make for a lasting relationship. For most relationships break because we judge each other too harshly, based on our expectation that our partner should be perfect in order to cater to all our needs throughout our lives. I also suspect that if fMRIs were done on Indian mothers when it comes to their sons or Indian fathers when it comes to their daughters, a fair number of them might well show significantly deactivated prefrontal lobes.
As I write this, my wife and I have just completed twenty five years of being married to each other, during which period we have kept our prefrontal cortices pretty busy - activating and deactivating them on a regular basis - to the point that they have pretty much given up now, and remain in a state of irreparable deactivation, thereby increasing the likelihood that we're going to remain in a state of mutual happiness till death do us part.
Love may be blind. It may be dumb. But whatever anyone else says, there's nothing quite like it.

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The Shrinking Universe 110
POWER GAMES

It has almost become a modern aphorism that all relationships are essentially power struggles. One can readily see how this would apply in the case of political relationships, corporate relationships, institutional relationships and the like. But when it comes to inter-personal relationships, this may appear to be be a cynical observation. However, the more one thinks of it, the more likely is one to appreciate that this belief is not entirely devoid of merit. 
Looking around, one can see that in most dyadic relationships (those involving two people), there is the tacit, often explicit, assumption, that one of the two has a casting vote. Whether between parent and child, man and woman, boss and subordinate, teacher and student, sibling and sibling, friend and friend or service provider and service recipient, most fallouts take place when one doesn’t recognise or respect the authority of the other, or worse, attempts to reverse the power balance in the equation. The most serene relationships are those in which the power structure is accepted unquestioningly by both partners in the dyad, and both can therefore be relatively true to their respective selves and each other within the framework of this acceptance.
For millennia, in our country certainly, patriarchy has been accepted as an incontrovertible bedrock of cultural existence, except in certain pockets, where matriarchy ruled the roost. While this is slowly changing, whatever else the khap panchayats may want to believe, the fact that in the most intimate of dyadic relationships, one gender had be ‘in control’ of the other, represents the nucleus of this issue. This phenomenon extends itself to other less intimate relationships as well. Even within the same gender, there still exists a pecking order between the two participants in the equation, determined by the predefined authority that is traditionally vested on the prescribed role each is playing, and the one who's less 'powerful' is always expected to play the subordinate role in the relationship. Which is why regardless of strengths or weaknesses, the boss is always right, or the husband's word is law, or the brother is more equal than the sister and so forth. In other words, for a relationship to proceed smoothly, everyone has to "know their respective places" and function within these accepted perimeters.
In more orthodox societies such as the one we live in, social roles are clearly institutionalised, and 'violations' are easily identifiable. But in modern societies, which have broken the barriers of institutionalisation, new parameters to determine who has the power in a dyadic relationship are periodically redefined based largely on the zeitgeist of the culture one is part of. Thus, you have attributes like wealth, attractiveness, education, personality and the like that create a new class of relationship controllers; the richer, more attractive, the better educated and the more extroverted one is, the more the balance of power shift in one's favour. What is ironical is that the attempt to break the shackles of rigid control mechanisms like patriarchy, has resulted not in a state of classlessness, which one would imagine was the primary goal of rebellion, but in the emergence of new and equally rigid classification processes. Tomorrow, new parameters that define power-structures in relationships are bound to emerge. And so the cycle will go on. 
But why should it happen in the first place. Is it just learned behaviour? Or is it hard wired into us, part of our DNA? Certainly control or dominance is something we engage in instinctively without being taught. But even if it's been drilled into us that by virtue of having certain  attributes we can be dominant in a relationship, it's not uncommon to see men who are controlled by women or a younger sibling taking the one-up position over an older one or children who grew up in an ambience of pacifism turning out to be chauvinistic and intolerant. I would imagine that both nature and nurture together create a fairly complex template in the back of our minds that determine how we will behave in dyadic relationships.
But why do we need to have power in relationships? I believe that the closer and more intimate the relationship, the more dependent is one person on the other, whether financially, emotionally, physically or sexually. And when there exists a lack of reciprocity or mutuality, one partner is seen as needing the other more. The more 'needy' one feels the other is, the more likely is one to take the upper hand in the relationship. Some do it gently, some boorishly, and some even unconsciously. But we all do it, however evolved we may think ourselves to be, bolstered by the 'benevolent dictator' argument which rationalises dominance on the basis of good intentions. 
However, if we are not conscious of the power games we play with each other, or if the balance of power in a close or intimate relationship is permanently tilted in favour of one person over the other, a fallout is waiting to happen. But if we consciously work towards having a reasonably stable power structure in a relationship, then our power games can actually be fun (as games are meant to be), instead of resulting in power outages, as sadly, they so often tend to.

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The Shrinking Universe 109
YOU'RE NOT THE PERSON I MARRIED

People used to say it a few years, if not a couple of decades, after they got married. But in recent times, many seem to be saying it within weeks of getting married. “If I’d known you were going to change like this, I would never have married you”, or “You’re not the person I married”, or words to this effect. And then they ask that most sought-after of modern day sages - Google - why people change after they get married. And within 0.64 seconds, they have about 559,000,000 answers to their question. Whether they have the patience to go through even some, if not all of the results, I have no idea, but the fact that Google autosuggests the above question even when you type in only “why do people change…”, tells me that a lot of people are asking it.
So, why do people change….?
The answer to this question would depend on which one of the four methods you used of  choosing your partner. Yes, four. In the past, you either had an ‘arranged marriage’ or a ‘love marriage’. Today, in addition to these two, you could also resort to a ‘love-cum-arranged marriage’ (LCAM) or an ‘arranged-cum-love marriage’ (ACLM). These are not terms I’ve dreamed up, believe me, but these are what many young people throw at me when I ask them how they chose their partner. From what I’ve been able to understand, if you have an LCAM, you choose your partner by falling in love and getting your respective parents to accept this. The subsequent marriage functions like any other arranged marriage with all its rules and regulations. If you have an ACLM, your parents have chosen your mate, but both of you fall madly in love with each other almost instantly and for all practical purposes, yours is much like a love marriage with all of its trials and tribulations. If yours was neither was these, then you’ve had a traditional LM or AM.
Usually, during the period of courtship in a LM or LCAM, after the initial wooing and the first declarations of love, pretty much the entire focus of the relationship shifts to how it’s progressing. Will it end in marriage or heartbreak? What each partner looks for in each other is the strength of the commitment. As a result, the principal goal of courtship is to get married, and this period usually passes in a haze of hormones, romance, and anxiety. Even those couples who’ve been in a long courtship, don’t necessarily know or understand what sort of a spouse their partner will make and project onto their partners, idealised attributes of whatever they think will ensure that the courtship culminates in marriage.
In other words, they may know their partners well enough as a boyfriend or girlfriend, but little do they realise that the act of marriage is going to forever change their relationship, for the challenges that marriage brings in its wake, are extraordinarily difficult to anticipate or plan for. Not because marriage is a minefield (although many married people feel it’s precisely this), but because even the best boyfriend or girlfriend may have to learn new skills to make the transition to becoming a good husband or wife. Courtship is about attention, caring and being there for each other. Marriage, on the other hand is about prioritisation of each other, regardless of the demands made by others – parents, relatives, friends and work colleagues. So, a loving fiancé or fiancée,  may not necessarily know how to juggle these demands and still retain the same focus on the relationship, once the marriage takes place.
In an AM, the process of partner choice may appear to be more rational, even clinical, but is often not so, for the principal parameters used are family background, educational levels and financial prospects. Of course, the partners have to feel comfortable with each other, but in truth they are relating more to each others’ profiles than to who they really are and what they really want from each other. As a result, assumptions get made of each other based on their profiles, as in a man who’s lived for four years in the United States will not be a chauvinist or a girl who’s grown up in a joint family will be very loving to her parents-in-law and so on. In the case of an ACLM, since the courtship usually begins after the engagement, there are no anxieties about how the relationship will progress. However, the heady romantic attraction ensures that the courtship passes in a haze and that each relates more to the other’s profile than the real self, which means they are still going to be surprised when they start making a home together.
Here’s the deal. Marriage is full of surprises. The one you fell in love with or whose profile you thought was ideal, is still the same person sleeping next to you. The problem is not that you or your partner has changed. The problem is that you haven’t changed enough to adapt to the needs of marriage. It happens to all of us. If we anticipate this, even though we can’t predict much else about marriage, then we’ll probably be in a good position to learn how to jointly navigate our married lives better.

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The Shrinking Universe 108
THE FRACTURED FUNNY BONE

In 1905, the prolific and ingenious Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, published one more of the extraordinary treatises that he seemed to churn out with unnerving regularity that are still read, analysed and marvelled at by students of psychology and psychoanalysis even today. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious met with mixed responses ranging from ‘Why can’t he leave us to just enjoy a good laugh?’ to ‘What extraordinary insights the man has’. Although many critics have not been overly impressed with this particular book and have implied that it was one of his shallower works, and much of what he said in it has not necessarily stood the test of time, I refer to it today because I recently re-read it to understand why we, as a nation, and in particular our leaders, have collectively fractured our funny bone. There wasn’t much light that Freud could throw on this particular question, but during this reading of the book I was able to crack a smile or two which I had not been able to do when I first read it as a wet-behind-the-ears student.
There are a couple of things that Freud reiterated about jokes that still hold true. One is that the principal motive for joking is the intrinsic human need to experience the pleasure it produces and the other is that the pleasure produced by humour is infectious. And when we recall the good times we have had, the jokes we’ve laughed at and the ones we cracked that fell flat, only a very dour disposition could suppress a nostalgic chuckle. However in the PC Age that we now seem to live in (I refer neither to our Finance Minister nor the personal computer, but to Political Correctness), we seem to have become dourer and sourer when it comes to enjoying a good laugh, unless one’s a member of a Laughing Club that meets every morning and laughs uproariously at nothing in particular, just to get oneself into a cheerful mood until the neighbours complain.
There are, of course, different kinds of jokes, and several classifications of jokes compiled by serious students of the subject do exist in the literature (many of them deserving of at least Ig Nobel nominations), but I will desist from regaling you with descriptions of these. However, all jokes, whether spoken, written or drawn, smutty or clean, earthy or ethereal, silly or clever, have three major elements: transgression of  boundaries of social propriety, a high degree of exaggeration, and topicality. It is the individual’s tolerance of boundary transgressions and the motive of the jokester – pleasure or malice - that will determine whether the funny bone is tickled or the upper lip is curled. 
From the foregoing it may have become evident that PC and humour in our country, are very unlikely bedfellows, for true political correctness involves not laughing at anything that could cause offense to any individual or marginalised group, which means pretty much the whole country. Despite this, we laugh. Sometimes, we do so to relieve the pressures of our day-to-day life, or to escape from difficult situations, or because we find something funny despite ourselves or because someone else says things we would love to say but are afraid to. Some of us laugh easier than others. Some of us are seen as being funnier than others. And we may even end up believing that we have a great sense of humour. But in truth, not many of us do for, if we are honest enough to admit it, we’re likely to fail the acid test to determine whether or not we have a sense of humour: the capacity to laugh at ourselves especially when someone pokes fun at us. It doesn’t take us long to take umbrage at something being said, even if lightheartedly, about us or something that we think of as ours. 
The problem is that we often take ourselves and our beliefs too seriously. As a result our boundaries are a little too tight and even the mildest of transgressions (which is an essential part of humour) are perceived as violations. But when the motive is only to cause and experience pleasure, humour can be physiologically very desirable. Dozens of muscles are exercised when one laughs heartily. Endorphins get activated in the brain promoting a sense of joy and well-being. Also, many scientific studies have pointed to the healing effect of laughing. And when one is able to laugh at oneself, there is an added psychological benefit too. For this signals to others and one’s own ‘self’ that one is emotionally secure and comfortable under one’s skin. 
I do agree that sometimes, attempts at humour can be mean, even malicious. However, if we join in the laughter because we genuinely have the capacity to laugh at ourselves, the malafide intent of the jokester gets immediately negated, for such people want to hurt you, not entertain you. This reduces the likelihood of repetition, for the more they do it, the more they lose credibility with their audience, which is why good-humoured people rarely remain the butt of malicious humour. But, when our funny bone gets fractured, life can become hell for everyone around us, for humourlessness is as infectious as a good laugh.

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The Shrinking Universe 107
NOT SO DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Our Women and Child Development Minister strikes me as a well-intentioned person. She seems to want to do whatever is possible to empower women in our country who are victims of patriarchy, an indubitably lofty goal. However, whether the legislative process she's resorting to is likely to produce optimal results has become a hotly debated issue. Over the last week or two, the national media has carried reports of her sharing the intention of her ministry to table a bill in parliament that would ensure that husbands pay their wives (those who choose to be housewives, and who might, as one report says, hereafter be referred to as home engineers) a salary (or honorarium or whatever the babus in all their wisdom choose to call it) of about 10 -20 % of their earnings. Expectedly, these reports have generated more rants than raves. 
Since, there is nothing much about the said bill on the ministry’s website, nor is a draft bill yet available for public scrutiny, I’m assuming that the ministry is still at the stage of good intentions on this matter. As I see it, the core issue the ministry is addressing is the devaluation of the already undervalued role of the housewife in our country. While on the one hand, women are held up as the bedrock of the Indian family, the way they have been treated over the centuries makes one realise that this pedestalisation is more a sop than a genuine recognition. As a result, when a young woman chooses to be a housewife or homemaker or home engineer or whatever the politically correct term you may feel comfortable to use, she is generally looked upon as a bit of a loser. Also she is seen to run the risk of becoming overly financially dependent on her husband. And if she chooses to be a ‘working woman’ (a dreadful term really, for the implication here is that the housewife does no work), she is exhorted to keep her finances separate from those of her husband’s for her own protection. 
One major issue that young urban couples in our country face in the first year of their marriage is financial management - the ‘your money, my money, our money’ conflict. Obviously this is substantially on account of ego clashes and control games that most couples play out in the early stages of marriage, but to a lesser, though not insignificant extent, the feeling of devaluation or undervaluation referred to earlier does play a role, a reflection of the fact that, in contemporary life, the parameters we use to value ourselves and our contribution are generally economic. Which is why many husbands have a problem when their wives earn more than they do. And which is also why we don't know how to value the contribution of a housewife since a rupee value has not been placed on it.
And this is an issue not just in our country that, but in many other parts of the world too. Some countries have computed housewives’ ‘wages’, indexed to the cost of labour for housekeeping, child care, driving and other chores (e.g. more than $80,000 per annum in the US, about £30,000 in the UK). Ironically, the housewife’s salary so computed, may sometimes be twice that of the husband’s. Of course, these estimates aren’t really official governmental computations, nor are housewives, to the best of my knowledge, given these sums as compensation towards the work they do, but they certainly do reflect the growing need to establish parity between what the housewife does and what the husband earns. And I believe this is happening to ensure that the housewife's contribution is valued as much as that of the wage-earner so that both partners can mutually respect each other.
However, if the Ministry of Women and Child Development is able to pull off this piece of legislation, it will inexorably change the husband-wife relationship to that between employer and employee, for the expectation is that the payment be made from the husband’s post-tax income to the wife’s account as a tax-exempt salary. And what if the husband then starts adversely appraising, as employers are wont to do, the wife’s performance and therefore proportionately deducts what is due to her, or treats her visit to her parents as unpaid leave, or refuses to permit her more than ten days of sick leave per year? Who do you think becomes more empowered - husband or housewife?
I believe that the concept of community property wherein all property, movable and immovable, acquired after marriage, whatever the source of funds, is treated as joint property of both partners, is the most empowerment that legislation is capable of. Changing power structures and financial decision making patterns in a marriage, while being certainly desirable, can never be accomplished by legislation, for in a marriage based on patriarchy, a salary given to a housewife will only be managed by the husband.
Only massive educational efforts launched at encouraging financial transparency and joint financial planning by couples, can ever hope to make women who opt to be housewives and do thankless jobs day after day, feel vindicated in their choice and more valued than they presently are. Some investment to this end may, perhaps, be worth everyone's while.

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The Shrinking Universe 106
SINGULARLY HAPPY

When I was a medical student and for a few years thereafter, I was a member of a small, but exclusive club of four members. We called ourselves Bachelors Anonymous, named after P. G. Wodehouse’s 1973 novel of the same name, and resolved to ensure that if any member of the club felt his commitment to bachelorhood weakening, the others would collectively bring the poor sap back on track. Not that we were misogynists or any such thing. Neither had we been traumatised by what is generally referred to as ‘love failure’. Nor were we victims of toxic parental marriages. And none of us were lotharios either. It’s just that we believed that marriage was a mug’s game and certainly not one that any of us would care to have truck with. Our club’s motto was : Be Singularly Happy, not Doubly Unhappy. Within a few years of founding, the club had to be disbanded, for three of its four members got married. I was the third to capitulate. Mercifully, I have never had cause to regret this turnaround, but my thoughts, every now and again turn to the one member of the club who refused to succumb, because I am encountering, over the last decade or so, a greater desire on the part of urban Indians to remain single. By choice.
I have no idea whether the numbers of such SBCs (single by choice) are statistically significant, but it is not uncommon to find that one of the causes of parental depression is that their children are refusing to pop the question or have the question popped at them. And what’s more, they seem perfectly content with their marital status or lack thereof. In a nation obsessed with marriages and weddings, such an attitude can be seen as shockingly inappropriate. Most parents of SBCs end up feeling that they have failed as parents and have driven their children away from matrimony, for they simply cannot understand that their children are perfectly happy in choosing to stay single. Nor can society. ‘What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you married?’ is the often asked question. ‘Shall I find someone for you?’ is the next. But the real question that needs to be asked is, can a person remain single for life and still be happy?
The short answer: Yes.
Admittedly, a fair number of people who end up being single haven’t chosen to be so. Their life circumstances, some of them beyond their control, may have determined their civil status. Often, traumatising past relationships, impecuniousness, early widowhood, marital violence, family responsibilities and such tribulations may be contributory factors. But, even if they have been successful in other aspects of their lives, the deeply entrenched belief that in the absence of marriage and family one is incomplete, can sometimes be embittering.
However, SBCs don’t have such misgivings, simply because singlehood is a choice they have consciously made. While they don’t begrudge their married friends and family members the bliss that marriage is renowned for, since they are certainly not misogamists, they simply want to lead lives where they don’t have to, on a perennial basis, accommodate the needs of another within their own personal spaces. They prefer to think for one, not for two. This often leads to the specious accusation that they are selfish. As any of their friends or family members will tell you, many of them are indeed warm, affectionate and go the extra mile for those they love. So what makes them want to stay single?
For those who are committed believers in the institution of marriage, it's hard to appreciate that this is just something they want to do, because they see this as a better way of life for themselves. Most of us tend to believe that SBCs are doomed to lives of despondent loneliness, or worse, that they are licentious, whimsical and may end up becoming sexual predators. In truth, they are none of these. They experience no more loneliness than many married people too do, for in the final analysis all of us are indeed alone even if we are married, something that both married people as well as SBCs need to understand and come to terms with. And they are not necessarily deprived of the experience of intimate companionship that marriage offers, for many SBCs do have long-term intimate relationships. However, in their minds, they still see themselves as single, which means they ensure that they have their own lives and own personal spaces, and that when it comes to those contentious aspects of marriage – time, finances and property, they choose to invest and share only what is surplus. In other words, the relationship is not as compulsively prioritised as marriage usually is. 
From what I have seen, the biggest problem that SBCs face is the response of society to their choice of civil status. Having made their choice, they do learn to accept what their single status precludes them from having. I’m not suggesting that staying single is the better way to live. Nor am I saying that marriage is meaningless. It’s not an either-or sort of thing. You can be doubly happy or singularly happy. Equally, you can be singularly or doubly unhappy. It’s just a question of what works best for you. 

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The Shrinking Universe 105
WHO OWNS OUR CHILDREN?

“They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you”. 
KAHLIL GIBRAN, 1923

The pleasantly unexpected volume of mail generated by my last piece on ‘midnight’s grandchildren’ set me thinking about how much of a challenge parenting has become in 21st Century India. This was the precise subject of the 23rd Tara Ali Baig Memorial Lecture that SOS Villages India recently honoured me by inviting to deliver. I had touched upon several aspects of the subject in the talk, but the one that I’d like to excerpt and expand upon here is the whole bemusing issue of ownership of children, which, I believe, is one of the central challenges to parenting today.
In the past, most children in our country grew up in an environment of multiple parenting. Every ‘elder’ in the joint family owned the child and had an important say in major decisions impacting upon the child’s future. But by the end of the last century and certainly in contemporary life, the nuclear family has emerged as a distinctive entity in its own right and therefore the parents have jointly staked complete claim to the ownership of the child. However, since divorce is no more anathema in metropolitan India, ownership of the child is usually claimed by the parent who is granted legal custody of the child. As I see it, in the interests of effective parenting, the first thing that we need to understand is that collectively or singly, none of us owns our children. We have, at best, been bestowed the honour of being their guardians for as long as they need us to be. As early as 1923, that remarkable Lebanese writer, poet and mystic, Kahlil Gibran, with extraordinary prescience, gave us, in his best known work, The Prophet, a 20-line poetic essay on children, which I think of as a perceptive manual on parenting, that we would all do well to read and re-read. 
I do believe that it is only when we relinquish ownership of our children, can we truly begin to help them in their journey towards mature independence, for otherwise we may, inadvertently come in the way of their recognising themselves as distinctive individuals. That said, nothing should take away from the fact that for as long as we are their custodians or guardians or whatever other term we may choose to use, we still have certain responsibilities to discharge, until they are in a position to do these themselves, for children are extremely vulnerable and need our love, support and understanding  to grow and flourish. The first of these is to help provide them the tools with which they can counter the two major threats they face in contemporary life – sexual abuse and drugs. As important is the attention we pay to their education. When I use the term ‘education’ I do so in the larger context of providing them the best opportunities we can to maximise their innate potential and skills, by encouraging them to dream big and hone whatever inherent talents they believe are worth pursuing. More likely than not, if they are good at something, they will do it well, and earn a lot of money in the process, even if their choice of career leaves us cold. 
Arguably, the most important role that parents play in their children’s lives is in teaching them good from bad, right from wrong, ethical from unethical. Of course, there can never be universal agreement on what these morals or values are or should be. But, we need to remember that our belief systems as well as our prejudices will be imbibed by our children, who usually learn more from what we do than from what we say. Often parents fear, particularly when their children hit teenage and enter a phase of hormone-driven rebellion and oppositional behaviour, that the values they had taken the trouble to imbue in the children, will be forgotten or set aside. I don’t believe this to be the case at all. I have always found that, unless the child suffers from a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, when push comes to shove, whatever they’ve been taught by their parents, does kick in almost instinctively, for what you teach your children when they are young does get embedded in their minds. 
Effective parenting in 21st century India must move from an ‘ownership’ model to a ‘mindful’ model, where the child is not seen as mouldable raw material but as a unique individual that the parent can help blossom, but only as a gardener would tend to a plant, not as a sculptor would approach a slab of marble. Parents do need to recognise that if they approach parenting as a symbiotic experience, wherein even as they give the child the benefits of their wisdom and experience, they also have the opportunity to become more mindful and better integrated human beings in the process, then the parent-child relationship moves itself on to a more equal footing where both sides give as well take. Only mutually beneficial relationships can be engaging and joyous ones. Parenting gives us the opportunity to experience this provided we understand that we can only own the parenting process, not our children. 

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The Shrinking Universe 104
MIDNIGHT'S GRANDCHILDREN

Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed extraordinary changes in our social environment, and at an astonishingly rapid pace at that, flying in the face of classical social science teaching that social change takes place extremely gradually, over centuries than decades. The India of two decades ago and the one we live in today are distinctly different on a variety of parameters. The popular belief has been that these changes have been wrought by the ‘shameless imitation’ of western mores and lifestyles, owing to exposure through globalisation, television and the Internet. The implication is that all the changes taking place are only superficial, transitory and that sooner than later we will get back to our ‘old Indian ways’. This is what midnight’s children (I use this term to refer loosely to people born in the decade or so after independence) would like to believe. However, I (also a midnight’s child by the above definition) would not be foolhardy to assume that the changes we see around us are superficial. For, they are not. I believe that they are intrinsic, organic and reflect a much deeper change in belief systems than we would like to imagine. Midnight’s grandchildren (those born towards the end of the last century) are conspicuously different and bear little resemblance to midnight’s children.
I have been singularly fortunate to have had the occasion and opportunity to engage with teenagers and young adults from different parts of the country, and each time I do, I have been greatly impressed with not just their distinctiveness, but also the savoir faire that they seem to possess in much larger measure than their parents and grandparents. And believe me, this has nothing to do with the branded lives they lead, the branded products they wear or the branded vacations they take. They do all of this, of course, but out of a sense of matter-of-fact entitlement, with an almost complete lack of the tentativeness shown by their immediate progenitors. And what is marvellous, is that this attitude seems to cut across social class. If you spend some time with young software engineers who undertake ‘on site’ visits, you’ll know what I mean. They may tend to ghettoise themselves on their overseas visits. They may walk around hotel corridors wearing lungis and Bata rubber chappals, but they seem to know who they are, why they are where they are, and where precisely they will be going.
Midnight’s grandchildren are essentially Indian. They’re perfectly happy to live in India, warts and all, and even if an overseas work assignment is sought it is more for the experience, the independence away from the family and for the résumé than for better pastures. Apparently, the grass is green enough on this side. They are patriotic, but not in a jingoistic, chest-beating way. Being an Indian is just a fact of life. It’s who they are. It doesn’t need to be cried out from the rooftops, nor does it need to be a well-guarded secret. 
Also, they are less parochial and more pan-Indian in perspective, perhaps because they lead a more mobile life. Language is only a tool for communication. They switch easily between Kannada at home, Hindi with friends, and English in the office even if they’re not entirely fluent in any or all of these languages. Possibly one of the most endearing traits of midnight’s grandchildren is that they are conscious of their hypocrisy. I’m not saying they aren’t hypocrites. They can be, but they’re at least conscious when they practice double standards and have no qualms to either laugh about it or feel embarrassed when this is pointed out to them by one of their own (not by midnight’s children, I must add). 
Midnight’s grandchildren take criticism about India in their stride. Unlike their parents who constantly want everybody to acknowledge the supremacy of ancient Indian culture and feel slighted when harsh comments are made about India, they are perfectly aware of what ails the country and do not feel the need to defend the indefensible, such as coming up with pointless socio-historical explanations of why people defaecate on the streets. They have neither the need nor the time to extol Indian culture; they are too busy living it. To me it appears that their greatest strength is that they don’t see themselves as the defenders of their culture. They are perfectly willing to tweak it and enjoy it. They use Indian culture as a stepping stone than as an albatross around their necks.
It would be imprudent to think of midnight’s grandchildren as self-absorbed and irreverent. Of course, many of them annoyingly are. But when one spends more time with them, one will realise that a more than fair number are, in reality, neither of these things. They are just unself-conscious and feel less burdened by the nation’s past. And if midnight’s children can encourage them to dream big and to do the things they believe in, they can certainly make the country the powerhouse we all want it to be. To me, they are far more inspiring than their elders in public life currently are. And maybe if you look at them slightly differently, they might inspire you too.

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The Shrinking Universe 103
WE NEED TO TALK

It has become almost an aphorism of contemporary times that the four most dreaded words that can be uttered by anyone in a relationship are: “We need to talk”. Whether it’s between partners, spouses, parents and children, business partners or friends, these four words cause acute discomfort since they seem to  be loaded with an ominous undertone. The sub-text seems to be, “the fun and games are over, and now we must down to serious business”. And somehow ‘talking’ to the other person in a dyadic relationship arouses concern, fear and sometimes even hackles. Although, on the face of it, this would seem ludicrous considering that one would expect talking and communicating to constitute the very life-blood of any relationship, but when it comes to serious talking, we all seem to go slightly on the defensive, for it seems implicit that some critique of us or what we have or have not said or done is bound to follow these four words.
As the most advanced (though some may dispute this) species on the planet, and certainly one that has developed complexly organised language and articulation skills, one would expect, in all of us, a certain felicity to express and communicate our thoughts feelings and desires. We manage to do this almost flawlessly when it comes to making social conversation, business presentations, sales pitches or writing blogs or columns. However, when it comes to communicating something related to our feelings, we seem to flounder a fair bit.  We do fairly well when it comes to communicating positive emotions like joy, mirth and love, but when it comes to emotions like pain, hurt or sadness, we either get tongue-tied or lash out in anger. And since most of the conflicts that we experience in dyadic relationships usually pertain to negative emotions, we experience communication gaps. Some of us may communicate reasonably  well, but in the absence of reciprocity, true communication doesn't take place . 
To try and communicate at least a little better, there are a few things we would do well to keep in mind. 
The first of these is that men and women think differently, respond differently in the same situation and communicate differently. I am not going into detail about these differences in communication patterns between the genders, since several books have been written on this subject. (If you’re interested, you can read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray and Why Men don’t listen and Women can’t read maps by Allan and Barbara Pease). And, if you do hit the ‘gender wall’, you might need to make more efforts to understand each other. Secondly, most of us are masters at talking around an issue. When one talks through an issue, one deals with the issue completely. One confronts it head on and one tries to express one’s position on the matter as simply and clearly as possible. However, it is not often that we have a stomach for head-on confrontation, since we fear we could be judged or that the other person may feel judged by us. So we talk around it; we hedge a bit and try to ‘give hints’ to our partner rather than saying it directly. We end up thinking we’ve communicated what we wanted to say, but actually the partner has understood it completely differently. 
We need to remember that when we express an opinion or a thought  or an idea, we do express a judgement. However, if we learn to keep our judgements intellectual rather than emotive, factual than accusatory, neutral than negative, then the other person in the relationship need not fear being attacked by us but could learn to just respond to our observation in a matter-of-fact way. In other words, we need to ensure that we are not passing judgement on the person, merely expressing our judgement of a specific situation or behaviour. 
Also, we often talk at each other rather than talk to each other. By this I mean that we expect the other person to merely be a passive recipient of whatever words of wisdom we spout their way. One is not really engaging with the other person or what is being said; one has something to say and will say it in as many ways as possible, without even attempting to take in what the other person is saying or doing. And finally, we erroneously believe that the object of good communication is agreement and that at the end of discussion (or row or fight) both of us should converge on the same point of view. Which is probably why we argue more than discuss, until we hopefully realise that the object of communication is not convergence but mutual understanding.
However, when we talk to each other, we also listen to each other. We receive the other person’s message, even if we completely disagree with it, and our responses are more considered than off-the-cuff. Also we increase the possibility of understanding each other and talking through an issue. And if, at the end of the day, if both persons in the dyad are satisfied that they have said their respective pieces and have said them well, then we need never fear those four words again. 

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The Shrinking Universe 102
THE COMPATIBILITY CONUNDRUM

Over the last year or so, there has been a subtle though distinct shift in the profile of people who seek my counsel. While in the past, I would usually see people who’d been married at least a few months, if not a few years, looking for ways and means to deal with unanticipated, though unsurprising, issues in their relationships, I now find young individuals, sometimes young couples, who are not yet married, but are keen to be, assailed by fears, anxieties and concerns about whether or not the marriage will work. Have they chosen the right person? Or if they’ve not yet done the choosing, what should they look for to ensure that the person they end up choosing is right for them? I’m not referring to commitment-phobic people, although I do see a lot of them too. I’m talking about young people on the threshold of making one of the most key decisions of their lives, overwhelmed by the potential enormity of the choice they are about to make, but paralysed by the fact that they lack the tools or even an understanding of the parameters which they can use in arriving at a decision. So, who do they turn to?
The Internet, of course. 
After all, more likely than not, it is the same Internet that brought them in contact with each other (through the marriage portal they registered their profiles in) and created this dilemma in their minds. So, it’s up to the Internet to give them a solution. And as always, the Internet comes through for them and provides them the tools, in the form of a psychological test, with which to make a decision. However this happy outcome takes place only if they limit themselves to the first page of their Google search results. If they go past this, and many do, they then find a plethora of such tests, and each of them usually end up giving different results. The situation is not unlike 'doctor shopping' where, dissatisfied with the diagnosis, prognosis or treatment plan offered by the first doctor one consults, a second opinion from another consultant is sought, and if this is at variance with the first one, yet another opinion is sought until one finds a doctor who gives one the answer one was hoping for in the first place.
Some people use psychometric tests in just this manner. Initially a ‘best of three’, later a ‘best of five’, sometimes a ‘best of seven’ and so forth. In recent times, such tests have gone, pretty much viral on the Internet and I’m not unused to couples who are on the brink of getting married or even those that have been married a while, coming to see me with their scores and ratings, asking whether there can ever be harmony in their relationships considering they belong to such widely divergent personality types. On top of their minds is the whole issue of compatibility, whether both are well enough suited to each other to get it right. Obviously, this is not a new phenomenon, for our country has a long history of ensuring compatible partnerships by matching horoscopes. The basic approach is to find a perfect match based on an assessment of parameters that one may not quite understand, but nevertheless has abiding faith in. Today, the choice of tools is changing with horoscopes giving way to psychometry.  
Without detracting from the merit and validity of psychometric tests that have been developed to assess compatibility, I believe that they can, at best, only give you an indication of the kind of issues your relationship might be expected to experience given your basic personality types. No test can tell you how much of  an effort either partner will make to resolve these differences and get the relationship on to a companionable footing. What they successfully do though, is facilitate tolerance for each others' quirks, for now both partners have obtained a framework with which to view themselves and each other. In truth, partner choice in a marriage or any long-term committed relationship, whether through love or family arrangement, is a bit of a lottery. What you see is not always what you get, for over time both partners change, whether they want to or not. However, one can't be blasé about choosing a partner, as some people tend to be, when they give greater importance to the 'profile' of the prospective partner than the individual behind the profile. After all, one is marrying a person, not a profile.
The only true indicator of compatibility is the 'emotional and intellectual connect' between two people, for these would serve as the lattice around which a relationship can be built. And 'connect' is easier to feel than measure. If you're wondering how such a key decision can be made on such a tenuous and intangible parameter, take heart, for most major decisions in life are taken more by intuition than reasoning. 
The other key requirements for compatibility are mutual tolerance and flexibility. And for these to make their appearance, two 'connected' partners in a relationship have to like each other. Being in love can be wonderfully uplifting for both partners, but it’s only when they like each other can they hope to lay the compatibility conundrum to rest. 

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The Shrinking Universe 101
OVER THE COUNTER

A recent print media campaign by the Government of India on ‘Say Never to drugs’, would hopefully, have not missed your attention. The origin of the ‘Just Say No’ campaign is attributed to former American first lady, Nancy Reagan, who proffered these words in 1982, as a solution to the drug menace that was assuming almost epidemic proportions at the time. The essential philosophy behind this campaign is that a better way to deal with drugs is to reduce the demand for them, rather than spending large proportions of preciously limited resources on fruitless efforts at limiting supply. 
While it’s easy to blame the supply chain of the 'drug industry' for causing dependence on their products (for like the FMCG industry, drug-lords are also highly dependent on 'repeat buying'), I believe, like many others, that the more prudent thing to do would be to remind the population at large that they have a choice in the matter. If they can be persuaded to take greater responsibility for their choices, nothing would be better, for banning a product, as common sense will doubtless tell us, virtually guarantees its popularity. Unfortunately, when we start exhorting people to take more ‘personal responsibility’, we tend to come across as sanctimonious and preachy, however matter-of-fact we try to be. There’s little point in telling drug users what they already know: that drugs aren’t good for them. Making them feel ‘uncool’ for using drugs would probably achieve better results.
Typically when we talk about preventing the abuse of drugs, we instinctively think of alcohol and what are generally referred to as 'street drugs' (drugs like marijuana, heroin, cocaine etc). While these are certainly the cause of major problems, the focus of this piece is on the grossly under-reported, but perhaps as serious, problem of prescription drug abuse. Most educated urban Indians can actually tell when someone they know abuses street drugs or alcohol, for the levels of awareness on these issues have grown exponentially over the years. However, when it comes to prescription drugs, it’s not so easy recognising an addict, for they source their ‘fix’ not from some sleazy street-corner dealer or bootlegger, but from a perfectly legitimate and acceptable retail outlet – the pharmacy. 
There are, of course, a variety of drugs that are abused, but the most dangerous ones are the tranquillisers and psychotropic drugs, for many of these, particularly those belonging to a category called the benzodiazepines (drugs like alprazolam, diazepam and the like) are highly addicting. They are excellent drugs, of course, but only when they are prescribed for the clinically challenging situations that they were intended for. Unfortunately, they tend to be over-prescribed and even though they are Schedule H Drugs (under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, they are to be dispensed only on a prescription from a registered medical practitioner),  and may also be Schedule X drugs (listed under the Schedule of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act), some, though not all, pharmacies may not be averse to supplying them over the counter.
Dependence on these prescription drugs often takes place by accident, rarely by design. Typically a doctor may prescribe a drug for a specified period of time, but patients, finding it to be extremely effective and even calming, tend to extend the old prescription of their own accord at a friendly neighbourhood pharmacy, until they are soon dependent on it. At this point, even if the doctor who originally prescribed it says the drug may be stopped, it's too late, for the patient is already hooked on the drug, believing it to be a harmless one. Sometimes, people who experience insomnia may pick up the drug on their pharmacist’s advice or because a friend recommended it or because they read about on the ever-so-helpful ’Net. The very same ’Net also opens up new horizons for younger hard-core addicts to expand their drug cocktail by using psychotropic drugs. In recent times, it is true that pharmacies are certainly more careful in dishing out Schedule drugs, but there are a variety of ways in which addicts can and do procure them. For obvious reasons, I don’t intend to list these out here.
In this situation too, we could rant about the laxity of the system, demand more monitoring of doctors’ prescriptions and pharmacy’s stock and sales registers and exhort the government to come out with more stringent punitive measures to curb this growing public health problem. However, the way I see it, while these will help, of course, by placing some deterrents, we live in a country where traffic rules are inviolate only when a policeman is present. Which means, law or no law, we’ll still find some loophole to exploit.
At the end of the day, the only way to prevent the development of ‘accidental’ dependence on prescription drugs is by taking more personal responsibility for our health and well-being. We can do this by understanding our illnesses, acquiring knowledge about the medication we are prescribed and by taking them only in the dosage and for the period they are prescribed. Another good thing to  do would be to stop looking for over-the-counter quick-fix solutions to our health problems. 

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The Shrinking Universe 100
CULTURE Vs CULTURE

I never stop being pleasantly surprised that people who read this column live not just in different parts of our country, but in far flung corners of the world as well. I recently received an e-mail from Germany asking for my views on multi-cultural relationships. My interlocutor believed that the increase in migration between several countries of the world is likely to result in larger numbers of multi-cultural relationships and marriages, which he believed merited further exploration. I agree with him entirely that we are in an era of multi-cultural relationships. However, I also believe that, in recent times, many contemporary marriages, even those within the same culture, tend to function like multi-cultural relationships. Permit me to explore this a bit.

There was a time when a small number of intrepid Indians who had the opportunity to travel overseas or had occasion to interact with people from different cultures who were visiting or stationed in India, went ahead and crossed the matrimonial kala pani and actually got married to the foreigners they fell in love with. By and large, Indian men tended to do this more often than did Indian women, perhaps because, in those days, men had more opportunities to do so. Often, such couples ended up settling down in India and many have had remarkably stable marriages, owing in the main to the extraordinary manner in which some overseas partners imbibed Indian norms and mores into their personal behavioural repertoires. Obviously the success of these early multi-cultural marriages was contingent on the almost complete acceptance of the ‘Indian marriage culture’ by the overseas partner, although it must be said, a small number of successful multi-cultural marriages did have a more egalitarian approach to multiculturalism.

Up until a couple of decades ago, (and in some parts of the country, even now), the average Indian parent was uncomfortable when it came to sending their single children overseas whether for education or employment fearing that said children may engage in ‘unwelcome’ potentially matrimonial dalliances with opposite gender counterparts in the countries they go to. As a result it was not uncommon to see young people who were adamant about travelling abroad being compelled to get married much before they were ready to do so. However, trends are changing and urban parents don’t necessarily feel this way anymore, even though the fear of possible ‘cultural dilution’ continues to lurk somewhere in the back of their minds. 

In recent decades, we've seen a virtual 'epidemic' of ‘portal marriages’ (partner selection through online marriage portals) wherein many couples seem to choose each other despite wide variations in caste, community or socio-economic backgrounds. This, along with a higher incidence of immigration and emigration, both within the country and between countries, appear to have played a fairly substantial role in reducing the stridency of the ‘culture vs culture’ debate. It’s no longer de rigueur for parents of urban children who have chosen to marry outside of their community to have fainting fits, although some propitiation of family deities may still take place. For, even in arranged marriages between persons belonging to the same community and similar socio-economic backgrounds, the cultural issue can become quite a bugbear. As it can, and often does, in inter-caste, inter-state or inter-religious marriages too. It usually manifests in differences in “our custom” or “your upbringing”, but in essence, it constitutes an acute awareness of the dissimilarities between the partners, which usually happens when both partners are unhappy with each other, for whatever reason. However similar your social profiles may be, every family does have its unique styles, rituals and practices. And when things get a bit rough in our marriages, we always yearn for the comfortable familiarity of what we knew and enjoyed as children, thereby becoming sharply conscious of the difference between our ‘cultures’ or ‘sub-cultures’. 

Those who engage in these 'multi-cultural relationships', particularly those that proceed to marriage, often experience fears, concerns and anxieties, mostly centering around the possible discrepancies between their respective cultures and the impact that these may have on the marriage in the long-term. As a result, every time the relationship hits a roadblock, as even the best of marriages usually do, the tendency is to blame it on culture. When they do this, they are really doing themselves and their relationship a disservice, for culture can never really break a relationship. Only the use of ‘culture’ as a weapon to settle inter-personal disputes can.

I have no doubt that persons in multi-cultural relationships will have to work hard to  understand and engage with each others’ cultures of origin. But, as I said earlier, I believe that most urban couples are in multi-cultural or at least multi-subcultural relationships. For as long as there is mutual acceptance and respect for the differences between their respective cultures, and there is no diktat that the culture of one partner will have to be subordinated to that of the other, then the focus can happily shift from the culture of one’s origin to the bricolage constructed from both partners' cultures or subcultures, which may well result in the development of an enriched marriage template that can work effectively for all concerned. 

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The Shrinking Universe 99
AND THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL

It’s that time of the year again. The time that a small number of people look forward to, though a larger number dread. The time when the results of board exams and All India entrance examinations are published. The time when the news media is replete with pictures, stories and advertisements featuring toppers and rank-holders. The time when non-toppers and non-rank-holders are relegated to unsung backgrounds. The time that parents are as keyed up as their teenage children, for the published results will determine how well their parenting skills compare with those of their contemporaries. And when the results are finally announced and marks tabulated, the winners find themselves in a maelstrom of exultation that appears to go on forever. However, the excitement lasts, at best, for a few weeks, after which the same toppers and rank-holders get back into the hurly-burly of their lives, their moments under bright sunshine abruptly dampened by the onset of the south-west monsoon. And everybody starts breathing freely again, at least for a year.
Even the most casual of observers of this phenomenon cannot help being struck by how sharp the glare of the spotlight is on the winners (the toppers) and how conspicuous the losers (those who missed the top scores by a mark or two) are by their absence. I can understand when this happens in a competition that has winners and losers, like say, sporting events. In the minutes that followed the Indian victory at the ICC cricket world cup last year, visuals of the losing opponent, Sri Lanka, completely disappeared from the screens. Ditto when KKR won the IPL a few weeks ago. It’s almost like the loser has to not merely concede centre stage to the winner, but has to vacate the entire stage and fade into oblivion. In terms of rewards, these ‘losers’ also do pretty well for themselves. Runners-up in sporting events do get handsome enough purses, and in a sense this compensates for ceding the limelight. But for school children? 
Of course, non-toppers in board and entrance examinations, who are in the higher percentile also do get admission to the colleges of their choice. But somehow, they miss out on the hoopla that seems to be reserved only for the winners. Don’t get me wrong. I have no quarrel with those who have worked hard for years, getting the recognition they doubtless deserve. My only difficulty is with the manner in which we tend to pedestalise our winners and ignore the ‘also ran’, for the consequences can sometimes be traumatising.
The purpose of education is to provide children with an opportunity to develop their knowledge, skills, personality and overall emotional maturity. However, what most parents seem to be obsessed with is ‘marks’, which as we well know, does not necessarily reflect intelligence, as the term is currently understood. This obsession probably arises for two reasons. Firstly, in the absence of any other widely accepted objective parameters to assess growth and development, marks and ranks seem to be the only way in which we can measure how well or not, our children are doing. The other is the understandable fear in the minds of most middle-class parents that unless their children score high marks, quality undergraduate education may prove elusive. 
While these may be very legitimate concerns for both parents and children, it still doesn’t explain why most parents want their children to be toppers, not just good performers whose marks are enough to secure admission into a university of their choice. I think it in some way, has to do with the way our priorities have changed. We tend to feel that ‘professional education’ is the  only option available to secure our children’s futures, but we fail to realise that the career options open today to our children are extraordinarily wide-ranging.
 We do need to spare a thought, perhaps several, for the impact that this may have on those of our children who don’t perform as well in competitive examinations. Particularly on those who excel in other non-scholastic areas like music, art, sport, voluntary work, environmental consciousness and other ‘non-professional’ fields of endeavour. Of course, such children do receive some rewards for their excellence, but nothing like the glory that is reserved for board exam toppers. In my experience, almost all children have qualities and attributes that they can shine in, and some sensitive schools do, as a policy, encourage every child to find and acquire proficiency in her or his metier. I would imagine however, that such schools too would be frustrated when they realise that their efforts are not necessarily lauded if the child doesn’t do as well scholastically, simply because we, as a society, place a high premium only on the latter. Needless to say, when we do this, we are effectively killing our children’s special talents and abilities and raising them to be academically-driven and one-dimensional. 
As I see it, there’s only one way out. And this is to provide spaces where children who are not as academically-inclined can earn as much glory as do those who excel in academics. Not just spaces, but as many column-centimetres too. This way, we needn’t deny school toppers their just rewards. But we can ensure that those who have other aptitudes realise that they too are winners.

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The Shrinking Universe 98
HOW INFORMED IS MY CONSENT?

Although, we have evolved in many ways as a nation, when it comes to sex and sexuality, we rarely fail to get our knickers in a twist. In the last fortnight or so, much controversy has been generated around the age of consent for sexual activity and whether consensual sexual exploratory activity between teenagers should be considered acceptable or not. At the heart of the debate is the issue of ‘informed’ consent. Put differently, if they say ‘yes’ to sex, do adolescents really understand what this would imply? And even if they did understand the implications, are they consenting because they really want to, or because they feel compelled to, in view of changing social mores and peer-pressure?
In our country, up until the middle of the twentieth century, by the time a girl celebrated her sixteenth birthday, she was likely married and probably had at least one child. Obviously the belief was that rather than letting teenage hormones take them down forbidden paths, marriage would be the more appropriate soil for their oats to be sowed. Although teenage marriages do take place even now in some parts of the country, by and large, the age at marriage has progressively increased, (by law it’s 18 for women and 21 for men), leaving teenagers to deal with their oats in other ways. And herein lies the fundamental issue. Is a teenager less than 18 years of age (the age until which one is still considered a child as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) in a position to give informed consent to sexual activity?
Perhaps a good starting point to explore this issue is the age at onset of puberty, when a girl or a boy attains reproductive age. There is little disagreement that pubertal age has progressively decreased over the years. Since it’s more difficult to date the precise onset of puberty for boys, the age at which a girl has her first menstrual period is generally more frequently studied. While a study in 1980 in Punjab showed that the average pubertal age for girls (the age at which a girl has her first menstrual period) was 14.31, a more recent one in Uttarakhand in 2010, revealed that girls were attaining puberty at an average age of 13.6. Interestingly, girls from the plains were doing so much earlier (13.2) than those from the hills (14.2). Another study from Midnapore in 2007 found that more than half of the girls who were studied had their first period between the ages of 11 and 13. However, knowledge of puberty, sex and reproduction was very poor in this group, which raises the frightening possibility of young bodies that are reproductively mature, but minds that are not necessarily emotionally or intellectually mature enough to understand the implications of sex and sexuality, thereby leaving them extremely vulnerable to sexual predators and certainly rendering them incapable of making an ‘informed’ decision on sexual matters.
However, older teenagers (those between 16 and 18) are certainly more ‘informed’ about the implications and consequences of sexual activity, for their levels of exposure are sometimes frighteningly high. But the question is, is this enough? Most parents would think not, for in our country we still do believe that sex and marriage are inextricably inter-linked. That said, it also needs to be understood that marriage doesn’t ensure that sex is responsible and mature. The most common issues during the first years of marriage centre around, as any couple therapist will tell you, anxiety, concern and discomfiture related to sex. So, its not as if marital sex is necessarily more ‘mature’ than pre-marital sex, and although no hard data exists, non-consensual marital sex is also a significant issue in many marriages. 
To me it appears, that the age of consent debate has less to do with sex, but more with awareness and maturity that makes an ‘informed’ decision possible. While post-pubertal children often have some knowledge about sex and sexuality, sometimes more than many married couples, what they don’t quite full understand is the concept of sexual dignity. They need to be provided with the tools to understand that saying ‘no’ to sex, if they are not yet ready or comfortable, is not merely acceptable, but desirable. And this learning can only happen when the parents are comfortable enough to talk about sexuality and sexual choices with them. Merely saying that they are too young for it, is simply not going to cut it. Nor is saying that it’s against the law. 
We do need to get our heads around the fact that some form of sexual exploration is inevitable during the post-pubertal period, whether we set the age of consent at 16, 18 or any other number. I do appreciate that for a variety of reasons, both legal and social, we do need to define an age of consent. And, I am pragmatic enough to realise that whatever age is chosen, it will always be an arbitrary number. For, it’s not as if on one’s sixteenth or eighteenth birthday one is possessed of a sudden maturity to take decisions that one was incapable of the previous day. However, if we teach our adolescents how to respect their sexual dignity as well as that of others, then consent can be much more informed than it currently is. 

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The Shrinking Universe 97
TOXIC WASTE

Most couples do have disagreements and fights during the course of their marriages. Happily, they manage to resolve these conflicts and get on with their lives. Unfortunately, not all couples can pull this off. An increasing number of couples live in ‘toxic’ marriages wherein they experience hostility and resentment towards each other, but for a variety of reasons, are unable to either fix the marriage or move the family court.  They fight excessively and aggressively or they could be cold, distant and neglecting of each other. And often, they generously distribute their toxic waste to the ones who are least equipped to process or handle it – their children. Even if they are rational at other times, couples in toxic marriages become completely bizarre when it comes to handling their children. If such a marriage ends up in divorce, child custody is almost always the most acrimonious issue. But when toxic couples decide, for whatever reason, to live with each other, the adverse impact on the children is often worse.  
No child should ever be compelled to make a choice between the parents, even if the latter are separated – temporarily or permanently. Usually, depending on the stage of life the child is in, the need for one parent may be more strongly perceived that that of the other. How close the parents are to the child will also influence this. Sadly, in toxic marriages, the warring parents start actively lobbying with the child to be chosen as the primary parent. Often this happens subtly. Nothing may be stated, but the parental conflict gets expressed in undertones, in facial expressions, in non-verbal communication, and children being extraordinarily sensitive pick up the cues. It can be extremely disorienting for the child to be used as a pawn in their parents’ control games by being forced to make a choice - overtly or covertly - between them.
Often one of the children becomes the repository of all the emotional energy that the parent should have invested in the marriage. The Chosen One, more often than not the first-born child (since the first-born was probably conceived during the best period of the parents’ married life) has the worst of it. Envied and distanced by the siblings, vilified by the other parent, and suffocated by catering to the emotional needs of the parent that has done the ‘choosing’, this child goes through childhood in a state of alienation, confusion and great emotional vulnerability. 
One of the more poignant effects of toxic marriages held together for the sake of the children, is the burden of guilt that the children carry into their adult lives for something that they neither chose to do, nor were in a position to effectively keep at bay when it was dumped on their unprepared and under-nourished shoulders. When the children are told “I stayed in an unhappy marriage only for your sake”, an albatross is immediately placed around their necks that even a hastily added “but, I have no regrets” will do little to assuage. When children feel the burden of their parents’ relationship, and more importantly are not able to get what they want from their parents in terms of direction and support, it is but natural that they turn to other authority figures in their environment. If they are fortunate, they may get the surrogate parenting they’re looking for, but in a situation like this, the risk of their being sexually abused increases dramatically. Just in case you didn’t already know, official figures put out by the Government of India tell us that one out of every two girl children and about one out of three male children are victims, in one form or another, of child sexual abuse.
Another thing parents in toxic marriages would do well to remember is that in the absence of any formal training on marriage, for most of us, our first and probably only intimate exposure to a man-woman relationship is to the one that our parents had. Our marriage becomes the template that our children may end up using. Of course, whatever we do to mitigate it, our children are going to replay our dysfunctional patterns at some time during the course of their adult lives, but we can do some damage control, if we are mindful of this. When parents cling to their children and canvas their support to become the chosen parent, the chances are that the children are likely to do the same when they get married and have children of their own. Trying to correct this faulty pattern at that time, when you have made peace with your life and are ready to take on grand-parenting responsibilities with maturity, may not be possible, for your adult children are hardly likely to permit any interventions on your part, but will insist on playing out programmed patterns of behaviour which were imprinted in their minds during their childhood and adolescence. The last thing, I’m sure, you’d like to see happen, is for history to repeat itself.
The best thing to do with toxic marriages is to detoxify them by undertaking couple therapy and working through your conflicts. If this doesn’t work, then some hard choices may have to be made. Dumping your toxic waste on your children’s doorstep is just an open invitation for more Stavengers to happen.

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The Shrinking Universe 96
LIVING TOGETHER

Since, in our country certainly, marriage is still viewed as a sacrament, the very mention of live-in relationships as an alternative to marriage raises hackles and sometimes even results in tragic consequences. The intelligentsia is not entirely sure what stand they should  take and the law too is ambivalent about what is prosaically referred to as a ‘common-law relationship’ or ‘cohabitation’. While the Supreme Court has ruled that live-in relationships are a fundamental right of Indian citizens and are not per se illegal, other court judgements conclude that such relationships are “immoral” and an “infamous product of western culture”. The Domestic Violence Act does offer protection to victims of domestic violence in ‘relationships in the nature of marriage’, although what precisely this means is still open to interpretation. The usual arguments offered by the antagonists of live-in relationships are that they are immoral, encourage promiscuity, and are anti-family. The central assumption in all of these arguments is that live-in relationships will weaken the strong familial ties that we, as Indians, see as emblematic of our Indianness.
Perhaps it would be appropriate, in today’s climate of growing concern over climbing divorce rates, to examine the issue of live-in relationships in slightly greater depth. A cursory glance at recent history suggests that marriage has been the socially sanctioned form of, for want of a better word, co-habitation. In our country, marriage has been seen as a subset of the overall family structure and as an integral entity in family formation. Arguably, no other social institution has been accorded sacramental status as has marriage, and inevitably, when an institution is considered sacrosanct, any attempt at tinkering with it is bound to lead to much distress and even agitation.
Although ‘common-law relationships’ were accorded legal protection in Europe and the United States only towards the last decades of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, where they are now recognised as ‘civil partnerships’, clamorous  pleas to abolish the institution of marriage have been around for several decades before this. The basic contention of writers and commentators like Engels, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Germaine Greer and many others of their standing, was that the institution of marriage as it existed then (and perhaps, even as it does now) tended to enslave women and condemn them to certain subordinate roles in an unequal relationship where the balance of power was firmly tilted towards men. The objection was more to the institution of patriarchy, of which marriage was seen as an exploitative tool. Live-in relationships, where neither partner is expected to perform rigid marital roles were considered to make the power structure more equitable, for both partners had the opportunity to redefine their relationships in whatever manner they mutually wished.
When I use the term, live-in relationships, I refer not to the casual or short-term equations sometimes referred to as “hook-ups”, but to long-term committed relationships where both partners choose to live-in and define their relationships any way they want to. Having worked with many couples in such relationships, the one consistent impression I’ve been able to form is that couples in such relationships are as, if not more, committed than those who are married, the essential difference being that this commitment is a conscious choice and not a pre-ordained requirement. Very few couples choose to be in live-in relationships merely to have the option of packing their bags and leaving any time they want to. Many couples in such relationships have children as well, and for all practical purposes behave like theirs is a relationship ‘in the nature of marriage’, often, in fact, indistinguishable from marriage. The only substantive difference is that they don’t impose on each other the rigid expectations that ‘husbands’ and ‘wives’ have of each other.
The reasons they may choose to live-in are several. Some do so since they, as described earlier, feel they are in the relationship by choice, not compulsion, and feel liberated that they can define their relationship any way they choose instead of playing predefined ‘marital roles’. Some may be prevented from getting married either on account of societal pressures or because their ex-partners refuse to grant them a divorce. Others may be ideologically opposed to the idea of letting the law dictate their personal lives. And in recent times, there have been occasional reports, too sporadic to call a trend, for divorced or widowed senior citizens of independent means living-in together with, in a delicious reversal of roles, their respective children’s blessings, in order to pursue a relationship of companionship unencumbered by the potentially destabilising intrusion of property and inheritance wrangles.
For whatever reason couples choose to be in live-in relationships, it needs to be remembered that they usually do so out of conviction, and rarely for convenience. However, those who think live-in relationships are easier to get out of than marriage, do so at their own peril, for they are not; the absence of ‘legal sanctity’ often unconsciously strengthens the bond between partners. Whether live-in relationships are the way to go or whether the institution of marriage will reinvent itself in a more flexible and less patriarchal avatar, only time will tell.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that, for the immediate future, the big fat Indian wedding industry is still safe.

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The Shrinking Universe 95
MINDING THE BRAIN

Ever since 1641, when French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes pronounced that the mind and the body were two distinct entities, the mind has been considered responsible for consciousness and self-awareness and the brain has been believed to be, among other things, the seat of human intelligence. This ‘Cartesian dualism’, as it is referred to, laid the grounds for the eventual emergence of two distinct medical disciplines one involved with the brain and the other with human behaviour – neurology and psychiatry respectively, although the latter can be said to have had truly scientific beginnings only around the middle of the nineteenth century or thereabouts. Psychiatrists therefore, started taking care of ‘diseases of the mind’, concentrating primarily on those problems and issues related to the area of human behaviour while neurologists were primarily concerned with the management of problems produced by disorders of the brain, the spinal cord and nerves.
There has always been an interface between the two disciplines which psychiatrists have referred to as ‘organic psychiatry’ (psychiatric illnesses produced by demonstrable disorders in the brain) and neurologists identify as ‘behavioural neurology’ (brain syndromes presenting with altered behaviour as their chief symptom), thereby laying the foundation for territorial issues between the two medical disciplines. However, greater interest over the last few decades or so in what are generally referred to as the ‘higher functions’ of the brain (like thought, memory, learning, perceptions, attention, social behaviour, mood and the like) saw the development of the discipline of ‘cognitive neuroscience’ which today is the recipient of increasingly larger research funding since it’s expected to provide a clearer understanding of the functioning of the human brain. In the process, one hopes, conclusive answers on whether the brain and the mind are one and the same, will emerge.
Why, you may ask, is it necessary to know this? Why should we not just accept consciousness and self-awareness as givens and stop worrying about where precisely they are seated or about where precisely the human mind is located? For one important reason, I would imagine. We spend a lot of our time and energy in trying to better ourselves and get on the personal development track. This we do, by trying to understand our patterns of behaviour, our personality types and so forth, with the object of minimising our shortcomings and maximising our strengths. Since there are so many lacunae in our understanding of what is actually happening inside the human mind, it becomes difficult to know specifically what we need to do to achieve this. As a result, we have a plethora of theories and remedial interventions, ranging from the prosaic to the esoteric, that we can choose from, and often we need to do this without compelling enough data to support our choice. Also, if indeed we are able to pin-point the exact locations in the brain that determine gender differences in behaviour and are able to delineate which precise neurons need to be stimulated to ensure a greater acceptance of these differences, I daresay Mars and Venus can comfortably coexist on Earth. 
In the past, the principal tool of cognitive neuroscience research was the study of brain disease that presented with symptoms of disturbed higher functions and correlating them with post-mortem findings. With the advent of sophisticated imaging techniques of the brain, researchers don’t have to wait for autopsy findings to arrive at their conclusions, as a result of which much more research in these fields takes place today. There are also some researchers who devise highly innovative experiments to come to their conclusions. And judging by the fact that well-written books on the subject, like those by Oliver Sacks and V S Ramachandran among others, are consistently on best-seller lists, it’s obvious that more and more people want to know whether they need to mind their brains or train their minds in order to move forward.
I don’t intend to summarise the state of the art here, for that would, aside of being a foolhardy thing to attempt, require considerable more space than a shrinking universe could provide. However, if one looks at the direction that cognitive neuroscience research is taking, it would appear that many mental phenomena can be demonstrably associated with certain distinctive parts of the brain, individual variations notwithstanding. Although in the past, most research understanding was derived from disease or dysfunction of the human brain, today cognitive laboratories are in a position to map brain activity in a variety of situations – ranging from performing  simple tasks to more complex ones like solving mathematical problems or having a row with a loved one. Of course, most research findings in the area of human relationships are still equivocal, but I find it promising that attention is being paid to this aspect of human behaviour, for I feel that a lot about the human brain can be understood by studying human social relationships given how nuanced these can be.
Whether technology can be the final arbiter of the brain-mind debate is in itself debatable. So, until more concrete data emerges, I will assume that psychiatry and neurology will remain distinctive disciplines and that the exact location of the mind remains delightfully fuzzy. And where does the soul figure in all of this? I’m not even going there. 

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The Shrinking Universe 94
YOUR, MINE OR OURS?

Despite Samuel Johnson’s curmudgeonly observation that a ‘second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience’, it is no longer unusual for divorced or widowed couples to take a fresh shot at a companionable relationship. Although they do so for a range of stated reasons, more often than one would imagine, at the top of their minds is the need to provide a secure and stable home environment for their children (if they have young or teenage children at the time) who have already been traumatised by divorce or death. Some wait for their children to grow up and achieve independence before they decide to look for a partner for themselves. But the circumstances of many others may not permit them to wait that long.
Second marriages do indeed have their own unique set of issues, for both partners come into the marriage with a fair number of unresolved conflicts and emotions from their previous marriages. Sometimes either or both partners may be inadequately prepared to handle another marriage since they’ve not quite healed from the traumatic conclusion of the previous one, and often the early years of a re-marriage are bedevilled by ghosts from the past. People who have had a fair bit of time between their marriages are perhaps able to take these in their stride for they have often introspected, reflected and understood their past better. Many of the issues that re-marriages face are eminently resolvable, provided both partners approach them with maturity and mindfulness. However, the one issue that, more often than one would hope, remains extremely thorny, is that related to each others’ dependent children.
In the early days of the new marriage, everyone is very committed to building a new family environment and things are generally very positive. Couples seem to be able to handle the resistance presented by their partners’ children with patience and forbearance, and are often able to win the children over, at least initially. However, a few months into the marriage, problems generally start to surface, more often than not, on account of one partner feeling that ‘my children are not as important to you as your children’. The partner whose children are living away (usually with the ex-spouse, grandparents or even in boarding schools or college hostels) tends to experience this sort of feeling more readily, whether or not there is a basis for it. And slowly, but definitively the ‘yours vs. mine’ schism starts materialising. Sometimes, this conflict may be effectively repressed until the partners have a child of their own, at which point, a ‘yours, mine or ours’ conflagration can severely undermine the family.
The children too contribute their mite by engaging in manipulative behaviour. Not because they’re bad kids, but because they feel insecure. Any child who’s lost a parent either through divorce or death is bound to feel a bit anxious, particularly when the ‘substitute parent’ starts to play the disciplinary role even before the children have given them the authority to do so. Or they could feel threatened by the fact that they now have more siblings to experience ‘rivalry’ with. In these situations, children may appeal to their biological parent’s guilt to get their own way. For, most parents do experience guilt when they get remarried, even if they have the best reasons to do so. 
Some experience guilt that by divorcing their ex-partners, they have put their children through all this trauma. Others experience anger at their ex-partners for having forced them into a divorce. And still others may feel angry with Life and God for having stolen their late spouses from them. Since they themselves are dealing with ghosts from the past, the second marriage is not what they expected it to be (no marriage ever is what we expect it to be, for most of us expect marriage to be the magic pill that will solve all of our problems). They, therefore tend to feel instinctively defensive of their respective children and feel the need to protect them from their new partner. In other words, the yours vs. mine issue is really a reflection of the uncertainties and discomfitures that the partners are experiencing with each other and not on account of the children’s disquiets. Some couples, in an effort at warding off such a scenario, pack off all the children to boarding schools or hostels without realising that this is least likely to relieve their guilt and discomfort. 
While I have nothing against boarding schools or hostels, for I know these can be of great benefit to many children, they should be considered only for substantive reasons. Avoidance of the yours vs. mine conflict should never be the principal criterion for taking recourse to them, for this will only make the children feel that they’re being marginalised by their parents. Fortunately, many couples do realise sooner or later that the problem is not with the children but with their own relationship with each other and make a determined effort to work through their emotions and leave their pasts behind once and for all.  Only when this happens can ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ become ‘ours’. Happily, many couples today are able to pull this off. Even if not with aplomb, certainly with diligence, persistence and eventually, equanimity.

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The Shrinking Universe 93
I AM LIKE THIS ONLY

Every now and again, when a couple visits my office, they fight during the session. This can be very useful for the therapeutic process, for a lot can be learned about a couple’s relationship from the way they fight. However, what is perhaps more interesting is what precisely they fight about. And funnily enough, they seem, at least in my presence, to fight about pretty much the same thing: ‘don’t try to change me’. I cannot tell you how often I have heard the statement, “This is me! Take me or leave me”, the implication being that one of the partners resents the expectation that he or she should change to suit the other partner’s requirements.  It’s quite extraordinary how resistant we are to change, even if we have a sneaking suspicion that the expected change may actually be one for the better.
Every time we say, ‘This is me and I refuse to change for you or anyone else’, we are actually unaware that we are going against one of the most fundamental principles of personal growth and development, according to which, if we are to grow, we must change. And since all of us are growing, we are indeed, whether we are conscious of it or not, changing. Every relationship that we engage in whether with a spouse, a boss, a friend, a subordinate, a teacher and, sometimes even chance encounters, changes us a tad. What we were yesterday is not the same as what we are today or what we will be tomorrow. Change is inevitable, inexorable and even desirable. For if we stop changing, we stop growing, we stop learning.
Despite the myriad of ways in which ‘learning’ can be  described, perhaps the most serviceable, though not necessarily most elegant, definition is that ‘learning is a relatively permanent change in behaviour brought about by experience’. Put differently, every time you undergo any experience, you learn something from this. And when you’ve learned it well enough, your behaviour changes appropriately. It may change for the worse, or for the better. But change it does. Which is why resisting change is so meaningless and futile. 
The same experience may change two people in quite different ways for two key reasons. One is the inherent capacity to handle and process change. Some people adapt to change very easily and as a result their learning is much faster (not because they are more intelligent as is commonly believed), while others need several similar experiences before they accept it’s inevitability and learn from it. The second is the nature of the experiences an individual has had in the past. As a rule of thumb, the more the negative experiences or the less nurturing the emotional environment the person grew up in, the greater the resistance to change. This doesn’t mean that such persons will never change. In fact, they always do. They just kick and scream a bit more. They have no choice but to change, even if their behaviour takes a longer time to reflect this change. 
So, why this resistance? Simply because change is perceived to be a highly stressful process. And this is true. It is stressful, even if the change takes us in a positive and desirable direction. Good things in life rarely come easily and we have to work a bit to get them. Resistance is usually directly proportional to the quantum of effort one has to make to adapt to new situations we are faced with. But resistance also involves a great deal of effort for one has to counter with equal, if not more strength, whatever effort is being placed on us to change. Whether it’s acquiring new skills to keep pace with the demands of the working environment, or trying to figure out what our spouse is asking of us, or coming to terms with our children’s expectations of us, change requires effort. If we accept the fact that effort is a way of life, then we can start looking for ways to make things easier for ourselves by finding solutions that require less effort. And when we realise that resisting change actually doubles the effort we have to make, since aside of the effort of resistance, we need to make the effort to eventually adapt to the inevitable change, then we’d perhaps understand how inefficient we are being and choose the easier way out – accepting the new reality and going with the flow. 
The other difficulty with change comes from the arousal of our rebellious instincts when someone else wants us to change. And when it’s our spouse making the demand, our feathers become even more ruffled, for we feel that marriage is about being loved for who you are and not for who your spouse wants you to become. I do agree that mutual acceptance on an as-is-where-is basis is vital to a successful relationship, but if we configure our relationships well and see our partners, family members and friends as allies rather than adversaries, then we’ll be in position to filter out those expectations that come from their irrational spaces and  our lives may become less stressful. As a bonus, we won’t have to remain like ‘this only’. We can comfortably take a stab at being like ‘that also’. 

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The Shrinking Universe 92
KOLAVERI OF THE BLACK SWAN

In his extraordinary bestsellers Fooled by Randomness (2011) and The Black Swan first published in 2007 and updated in 2010, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, elegantly described how human beings deal with seemingly random events or those that fall outside of the apparent norm (what are referred to as ‘outliers’). When something rare or improbable (the sighting of a black swan would fall in this category, since we know that swans are usually white) happens, we tend to undervalue its relevance and concentrate on whatever our knowledge and understanding considers more probable or likely. He describes how this approach can cost us dear. The fact that these two books have sold millions of copies is perhaps an indicator that as a race, we are beginning to accord more importance to the occurrence of seemingly improbable events. 
That the recent shocking murder of a school teacher in Chennai by her 15 year old student ostensibly because she made multiple adverse comments about his performance in one subject in school, is an ‘outlier’ is unquestionable. Not every school child who dislikes a teacher, however intensely, takes a knife into the classroom.  While I, like almost every one else in the country who has heard about this tragedy, am shocked and upset, and feel the need to express heartfelt condolences to the family of the poor school teacher, I am loath to come up with the knee-jerk reaction that is in evidence not only in the media, but in social conversations, expert columns and in cyberspace as well. 
Nor would I like to dismiss this unhappy event as an ‘outlier’ and get on with my life. I’d like to spend some time trying to understand if it is a Black Swan and whether anything can be done about it. There was a time when the phenomenon of school children who tragically committed suicide as a result of severe academic pressures was considered as an ‘outlier’, for such extreme behaviours were few and far between and therefore outside of the norm. However, given that such suicides have now become significantly more frequent, educationists, mental health professionals and policy makers are scrambling to find suitable reparative measures to buck the trend. I wouldn’t like to wait for adolescent homicides to reach levels of statistical significance before figuring out how to prevent them.
While I wouldn’t like to speculate on the causes of this particular gruesome tragedy since I don’t have all the facts, I’ve noticed that many of the responses to it have veered towards one of two ends of a spectrum. Some have blamed indulgent parenting that has created spoiled brats who want to have their way in everything they do and are therefore unable to control their violent impulses when they are thwarted; television, cinema and video games are held responsible for seeding violence in their minds. At the other end of the spectrum are those who propagate being more understanding of and sympathetic to children’s needs and providing them appropriate support in the form of school counsellors who are expected to identify early signs of potentially disturbed behaviour thereby preventing their occurrence. At both ends of the spectrum there is a general lament about the breakdown of the joint family attributing this as the major contributor to the present scenario of poor frustration tolerance.
I think it would be irrational to look for one smoking gun in such a situation; obviously the reasons are several. We live in troubled times and our lifestyles certainly mirror this. We have a general overload of information but haven’t been able to find the right kind of filters to process it with. We want the best, but often don’t know how to recognise it. Every generation is smarter than the previous one as a result of which the gap between parent and child is becoming progressively wider. Our worlds have changed dramatically, but we don’t want to accept this and look backwards for solutions than forward. We love our children immeasurably but don’t know how to express this other than by buying them things or feeding them their favourite food. And most of all, we’re always looking for others to pin the blame on and find solutions to our problems, and are surprised when our children do the same.
So, rather than react angrily to what has happened and visualise worst-case-scenarios, now would perhaps be a good time for parents, educators and policy makers to take a good, hard look within themselves to see how we can, individually and collectively, initiate organic changes in the way we approach parenting and education. We need to be more mindful and predictable when it comes to parenting and balanced and equitable when it comes to education. I’m not saying that this can be guaranteed to prevent such catastrophes. But, it could certainly make school more enjoyable than being seen as a space where children run the risk of being humiliated trying to achieve a standard prescribed by someone who doesn’t always understand their needs. I would imagine that happier kids from happier homes going to schools that emphasise overall development of body and mind, would be less likely to experience kolaveri. 

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The Shrinking Universe 91
THE WONDER YEARS

The most abiding memory, for me certainly, of the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, a truly remarkable annual event on the national calendar, was not of the imbroglio surrounding Salman Rushdie or the hearty cheers that followed Richard Dawkins like a shadow or the frenzy surrounding Oprah Winfrey or even the sight of the eighteen thousand odd people every day occupying every available square inch on the grounds of Diggi Palace, the charming venue of the event. For me, it was the sight of droves of school children, shepherded by excitable teachers and minders, all smartly turned out in their school uniforms and blazers, who thronged the festival tents and open spaces, engaging with the proceedings with enthusiasm, not bemusement. I was truly happy that the organisers had made their participation possible and was grateful that their schools considered such an event an important enough occasion to warrant their presence in such large numbers. And some part of me was hoping that their parents had also been instrumental in persuading their children to attend an event which was centred neither around Bollywood nor cricket.
I don’t intend this to be a rant or lament about the ‘lost art of parenting’ or any such thing, for I do appreciate that the modern Indian parent does have a very hard time, for modern Indian life itself has become much more difficult than it ever used to be. Surrounded by a plethora of potential threats and fears, many contemporary parents end up either over-parenting or under-parenting their children. Usually the teenage years are the most difficult, for parents feel they have to negotiate not just hormonal minefields, but keep their children on track for those dreaded twin events – board exams and entrance exams. As a result, they generally have less time or energy to consider their role in expanding their children’s horizons, which are often left to untrammelled interventions from teachers, television and the Internet.
One of the principal difficulties experienced by children during their wonder years – the period of their childhood and adolescence when they explore and try and make sense of the world around them – is the dearth of adequate reference points or frameworks with which to engage with the world. If all of their free time is taken up with tuitions and coaching classes for entrance exams, they are obviously compelled to channelise all their emotional energies as well as their neural circuitry in only one direction – the pursuit of academic achievements. However, by failing to realise that the brain, a truly extraordinary organ though a sadly underutilised one, requires a much wider range of activities to develop and strengthen it’s millions of neural pathways, this approach inadvertently results in one-dimensional thought processes and early burn-outs since their brains have been trained to memorise but not necessarily think. However much you increase the RAM, you can’t expect your 80486 processor to function as effectively as its Xeon counterpart.
It’s been stated ad nauseam that as a nation we are obsessed with marriage. And once our children are married, we are obsessed with their having children of their own. And more often than one realises, children arrive before the parents have got their acts together. As a result, parents’ life anxieties rub off on their children as well, and it’s not uncommon to see parents burn a lot of their precious energies playing ‘catch up’. It’s not that they don’t try. They do try very hard, but when you start off a process, any process, anxiously, chances are the initial anxiety sustains over the years. As a resultant, parenting comes to be seen as onerous, even burdensome.
I have no doubt that parenting is a very responsible undertaking. However, the choice that’s open to us is whether we let the mantle of responsibility weigh us down or whether we choose to wear it lightly and enjoy the process, learning as we go. For, let’s get one thing clear. There’re no such things as good parents or bad parents. There are only ‘happy’ parents and ‘anxious’ parents. By happy parents I don’t mean those that are blasé and laissez fare, but those that are mindful of, engaged with and well-connected to their children, but don’t feel worn down by parenting. They may not always get it right. In fact, they often get it blatantly wrong. But the joy they bring to the process more than compensates for whatever slip-ups take place and children find it easier to forgive them their lapses. But when anxious parents do something injudicious, their children seem to remember this for much longer and with much greater emotional pain, for each time they get it wrong, such parents become more anxious, feel more burdened and drive their children just that tad harder.
The way I see it, the biological risk of delaying having a child by two or three years, is far outweighed by the psychological risk of feeling burdened by having one when one is not quite ready. When both partners are slightly more mature and the marriage slightly more stable, both parents are much more likely to enjoy being parents. Then, their children’s childhoods can truly be wonder years. Like they are meant to be.

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The Shrinking Universe 90
THE SHRINK IS IN

Often, the first thing that many of my clients tell me when they first come to see me is that there’s nothing really wrong with them, but they just want to bounce something off me. Sometimes they shuffle their feet, look embarrassed and say they really didn’t want to come, but their circumstances compelled them to. Some look at me truculently and say, in unnecessarily loud voices, that they have been forced to see me by their family members, challenging me to prove there’s something wrong with them. Some arrive late for the appointment and want to finish the session early so as not to be seen by the previous or next client. And still others ask for the last appointment of the day, preferably after sunset, to avoid being seen by anyone at all. Even in the twenty first century, seeing a shrink remains a discomfiting experience.
Stigma is something that most mental health professionals are used to. Before psychiatry emerged as a legitimate medical discipline, those doctors who worked in what is today referred to as the field of mental health, were referred to as ‘alienists’, and society was quite comfortable locking them up in asylums together with their incarcerated ‘lunatics’. While people were grateful that some doctors chose to care for the mentally disordered, the general feeling was that it was a pretty asinine career choice, particularly in view of the prevailing belief that those who worked with mental problems over a period of time, usually became a bit ‘mental’ themselves. To this day, many people still subscribe to this belief, and I’ve learned to take in my stride the not-so-discreet stares I get when people I meet realise I am a psychiatrist, as they scan me for any signs of incipient ‘insanity’. 
Since no one really believes that cardiologists end up with heart disease or neurologists have more than their fair share of strokes or nephrologists have weak kidneys, these are considered sensible career choices, but psychiatry and it’s allied fields of psychology, psychiatric social work and counselling are generally seen as the last refuge of eccentrics. Such is the power of stigma, for in our country today, to cater to the needs of 1.2 billion people of whom more than 20 million actively require mental health interventions, we have only a little over 3500 psychiatrists, an equal number of psychologists and psychiatric social workers and an even smaller number of trained counsellors. 
When a friend, family member or doctor refers someone to see a shrink, the first response is “I’m not mad. So, why should I see one?” Most of us are basically afraid of being branded or labelled as a ‘nutcase’, which is why we are reluctant to approach a psychiatrist or therapist and more often than not, the initial few sessions end up being devoted to getting people to admit that they do indeed have a problem (or an ‘issue’ to use the more acceptable terminology). Needless to say, aforementioned cardiologists, neurologists and nephrologists are not faced with this potentially piquant situation. At least, not often. But why this fear, which results in stigmatising those with mental health problems?
First off, there is a major concern that if one seeks psychiatric treatment or psychotherapy one can never stop doing so. Permit me to assure you that while mental health interventions can be life-changing, they are rarely life-long (except in the case of a very small number of people with very severe mental disorders). The second major concern is that if it gets out that one has seen a mental health professional, it may affect one’s marriage prospects or those of a close relative, for nobody’s comfortable marrying into a family with a history of ‘madness’. Although there is a widespread obsession about ‘bloodline purity’ in Indian society, it is less difficult in the age of internet portal matrimony, to find a suitable boy or suitable girl, provided full disclosure is made before marriage. The third concern is that ‘insanity’ can be used as grounds for divorcing one’s partner and this often becomes the reason for people’s reluctance to seek couple therapy. Fortunately, the law has in-built checks and balances to obviate this possibility, since it is not merely the presence of a mental disorder that can be used as grounds for divorce, but the existence of a disorder of such severe or untreatable proportions to preclude the individual from discharging the responsibilities of marriage.
That said, going by the increasing numbers of people who seek the services of a therapist in contemporary India (an astonishing number of people are referred to me by Google), it appears to me that stigma is progressively on the decline. And even if seeing a shrink is not really ‘in’, and I hope it never becomes that (the last thing one wants is for people to unnecessarily see a psychiatrist because it’s fashionable to do so), it’s fortunately still not ‘out’ (I hope it never becomes that either). If this trend continues, I soon won’t find it necessary to reassure my reluctant clients that it doesn’t matter if they are seen visiting a shrink, for whoever sees them is also being seen by them. 

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The Shrinking Universe 89
THE MORE THE MERRIER?

My last column on extra-marital affairs generated a fair bit of email. Not just from those who agreed with my position, but mainly from those who didn’t. The general theme of what most of my interlocutors had to say centred around the belief that since multiple partner relationships are successful in many parts of the world, they should therefore, be acceptable in our country as well. Although my research hasn’t provided me any convincing data that such relationships actually work in the short or long-term, I thought it may be politic to examine some of the dynamics in some clearly delineable prototypes of multiple partner relationships.
The first of these are what are usually referred to as ‘open relationships’, wherein both partners are free to get emotionally and sexually involved with other people without needing the partner’s consent every time. In other words, consent is a given. There is also no restriction on the degree of emotional or sexual closeness you can experience with the ‘paramour’. It is quite conceivable that you may end up having a committed relationship with the ‘paramour’ if this is indeed what you want to do, but then, you will have an open relationship with the ‘paramour’ too, thereby permitting you to still maintain a relationship with your original partner. In other words, the element of exclusivity gets taken out of your open relationship, although commitment is still inherent. 
This is different from ‘swinging’ and ‘spouse-swapping’ in which the focus is more on sexual than emotional intimacy. You’re still married to your spouse, but both of you, by mutual consent, engage, from time to time, in sexual romps with other swinging couples. The idea here seems to be to provide both partners some sexual variety, but in a reasonably controlled situation, so that some degree of exclusivity is retained, and when both partners tire of sexual frolic, they retire to lives of companionable monogamy. 
And in recent times, there is the new phenomenon called polyamory or simply, poly, sometimes described as ‘responsible non-monogamy’. While the definition of polyamory is not always absolutely clear, and can include open relationships as well in its ambit, it is distinguished from swinging, because it’s seen as encompassing sexual, emotional, romantic and spiritual dimensions. The basic understanding here is that anyone is capable of having simultaneous, multiple, deep, intimate relationships, and that the ‘distracting’ elements of marriage, like jealousy, exclusivity, power imbalances etc., are squarely removed from the equation, thereby creating opportunities to grow as human beings.
However, jealousy does appear every now and again, and the successful poly is one who has been able to conquer this emotion and replace it with what is referred to as compersion (the opposite of jealousy, where you experience genuine happiness that your partner finds fulfilment or joy from somebody or something other than yourself). Fidelity, loyalty, honesty, equality, respect and transparency are big virtues among polys, for no relationship takes place in the absence of consent and consensus. If ever consent is withheld, the reasons have to be substantial.  
Polyamorists may engage in long-term relationships in triads, quads or networks. They would still tend to have a ‘primary’ relationship and one or several ‘secondary relationships’. They are a growing movement in the United States (apparently there’re about half a million polyamorists there) and also participate in Pride parades to highlight the legitimacy of their cause. Polyfidelity is a more controlled method of engaging in multiple relationships. The partners that one can choose from are limited to members of a group, network or commune. And fidelity to this group is demanded at all costs. Otherwise, the dynamics are similar to polyamorous relationships.
And finally, there is the old faithful – polygamy, which, in our country, was not uncommon in the past, but confined, since we live in a patriarchal environment, primarily to the male of the species (polyandry, which refers to a woman having multiple husbands, is too rare to even mention). Polygamy refers to having multiple socially, even if not legally, sanctioned spouses. This means that the polygamist takes responsibility for all of his wives and whatever children may be born of these liaisons. However, in the last few decades, polygamy, whether on account of inflation, recession or just an increasing belief in monogamy is certainly on the decrease, even in religious denominations or sub-cultures where it used to be acceptable. 
Some research into multiple marriages is under way in the west, but it’s too early to tell whether it is a viable and sustainable alternative to monogamy. However, the fundamental issue is whether such multiple partner relationships could actually be considered to fall under the rubric of ‘marriage’, which, by and large, has been a monogamous institution. The general clamour of my email interlocutors has been to expand the institution of marriage to cover multiple partner relationships as well. But, my question is, why? If one is comfortable with monogamy, one gets married. If one is not, one can opt for one of the ‘poly’ alternatives. And then one can really understand whether more is actually merrier or whether three is indeed a crowd.  

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The Shrinking Universe 88
STATE OF AFFAIRS

It might seem extraordinary to you, but about a third of the couples who come to see me for couples therapy do so because one of them is having an extra-marital relationship. And every time I see the emotional pain and distress that accompany infidelity, I marvel at the amazing capacity of human beings to make their lives more difficult. For, affairs are not like illnesses. They don’t just happen. We make them happen. And what’s more, we actually go out of our way to make them happen.
When people ask me whether marital infidelity is a recent phenomenon, I am hard pressed to give them a clear answer. On the one hand, I know that I don’t have any hard data, for this is not the sort of information the Census Board collects (although sometimes I wish they would). However, I do know that when I started psychiatric practice over twenty-seven years ago, people were blithely having affairs even then. The most unlikely of people, really. People who, if you passed on the street, would give you absolutely no indication of the passion that lurked in their hearts and minds. Your average, conservative, middle-class men and, hold your breath, women, were breaking their marital vows with the same alacrity that their children and perhaps, grandchildren, are doing today.
However, the one key difference is that people used to be much more discreet in those days and many have gone through lifetimes without their dalliances being discovered. Today, people engage in infidelity much more brazenly, and affairs are more in-your-face than ever before. Technology has contributed its bit, for people can and do conduct extra-marital engagements through mobile phones, the Internet and so forth. However, the same technology that abets such relationships also exposes them more readily, for the commonest methods of discovery of affairs are itemised phone bills,  poorly-timed text messages or undeleted chat transcripts (it’s very hard conducting an affair if you’re not tech-savvy). 
In other words, affairs are being detected much more easily than before. This probably accounts for the perception that more people are having affairs nowadays. I don’t think this is accurate though. It’s just that since affairs were conducted more surreptitiously in the past, unless you hired a detective—which most people never even considered doing—it was hard to find out if your spouse was having it off with the neighbour. Of course, suspicious spouses have been known to come home unexpectedly and catch their unfaithful partners in flagrante delicto, but it’s hard to tell how commonly this happened.
Another thing. There’s also a fallacious perception that today’s Indian woman has become more ‘licentious’ than her counterparts from earlier generations and this whole ‘Westernisation’ thing is driving her to ‘promiscuity’. It is, of course, true that contemporary women have empowered themselves to be more expressive when it comes to the gratification of their need for emotional and sexual intimacy, but women of their parents’ generations were also in touch with these needs. However, since there were no glossies that exhorted them to be superwomen or told them how precisely affairs could be conducted, and neither family nor friends could be approached for tutorials on infidelity, they had to express their needs much more clandestinely. So let’s not put the blame on the West for extra-marital relationships. We’ve obviously been quite busy on this front ourselves for centuries (a document as ancient as the Manusmriti recognises their existence and comes down very hard on ‘adultery’).
So, where does that leave us? We know that many people engage in extra-marital relationships. We also know that both partners are traumatised when affairs are discovered. In addition, it’s abundantly clear that affairs are easier to discover today. And that many contemporary couples are aggressively seeking to stretch the boundaries of marriage to, perhaps, even include extra-marital relationships within its ambit. Of course, there are couples who have affairs because they are desperately unhappy in their marriages and who eventually have fulfilling marriages with their paramours, but this constitutes a very small proportion of extra-marital relationships. Does this then mean that we should just factor infidelity into our marriages instead of making such a big deal of it? Should we just provide for the fact that our partners are going to ‘stray’ and we should either ignore this or ‘stray’ ourselves? Or should we just learn to accept infidelity as part of modern life like, say, the Internet, and learn to enjoy it rather than rail against it?
The way I see it, any experience that produces the kind of emotional distress—and indeed devastation—that affairs do in the lives and minds of at least three, if not more, people, can’t be treated merely as collateral damage of contemporary married life. Anything that causes pain cannot be considered acceptable to the human condition. There are certainly many couples who don’t feel distressed about their partners having affairs and cheerfully return the compliment. Who am I to say anything to these couples who treat affairs as gifts from Santa Claus? But to those for whom fidelity is non-negotiable, all I can say is that although infidelity can be survived, the better way to deal with affairs is not to have them. 

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The Shrinking Universe 87
MOTHER-IS-LAW

The Indian mother does have a hard time of it. She’s extolled by one and all as the bedrock of the Indian family, but social scientists tell us that the Indian family seems to be becoming progressively more rickety. And in some strange way, without anything actually being said, she seems to be looked askance at. She begins to feel that she’s somehow not quite doing what, over several centuries, her foremothers are believed to have pulled off. And if she’s chosen to be a ‘full-time mom’, she feels even worse, for she feels she’s failed in her primary task. No wonder then that hordes of contemporary women balk at the idea of being  ‘stay-at-home moms’, for every time they look at their own stay-at-home-mothers’ lives they realise how much mothers have been scapegoated for a lot of things that have gone wrong in their families and how, for many of them, platitudinous lip-service has been their only tangible reward. So, when she has an opportunity to, it is no surprise that Mummy Strikes Back.

She usually does this when the children have grown up and don’t ‘need’ her any more. This is when her sense of self takes a pounding, for her primary identity is that of a mother. The typical Indian mother has usually derived her identity from having been somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife and eventually somebody’s mother. As a daughter and as a wife, she’s had a subordinate role to play but as a mother she comes into her own, and understandably, this is the role she is most attached to. And when it is threatened, she’s not going to go down without a fight.
 
Which is why we have the much-written-about and ad-nauseam-lamented-about conflict between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law. Often the son-husband becomes incidental in this conflict as the underlying dynamics are not about who loves him more but who has more ownership rights over him. Also over the last few decades we have also seen what I refer to as the ‘other-in-law’ wherein the son-in-law is also at the receiving end of much interference from his parents-in-law. But, you all know this and I don’t want to bore you with more of the same.

However, you might be interested in knowing about the “Mother-is-law” phenomenon, the incidence of which seems to be sharply on the rise over the last decade or so, although it’s been around for quite a while earlier, but in the background. I refer to the dynamics of the relationship between mothers and married daughters which has come a full circle. From being considered the in-laws’ property, married daughters have now become a bone of contention between mother and mother-in-law and mother and son-in-law. 

Typically, two scenarios seem to be the most common. In the first of these, the husband, who is expected to cut his umbilical cord from his mother, finds the closeness between his wife and mother-in-law uncomfortable. He finds his wife sharing everything that happens in the marriage with her mother, conducting the marriage as per her mother’s advice and spending endless hours in a day either visiting her mother or talking to her on the phone, regardless of the rift that’s developing between husband and wife. In the other common scenario, the mother, who cannot bear the idea of her daughter’s budding closeness to her mother-in-law, does everything to let her displeasure be known, thereby putting the daughter in a dilemma and sometimes effectively scuttling what could have become a good relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. 

One way of understanding this phenomenon is to see it as a manifestation of gender-equitation, whereby what used to happen to the mother-son relationship post the latter’s marriage is happening to the mother-daughter relationship as well. There’s some truth to this, but there is one important difference. The ‘possessiveness’ expressed by the mother of the son has been, over centuries, accepted as part of the ‘motherhood experience’ if you will, and is often seen as the mother’s right. Whereas the same response to the daughter is seen as neurotic, unnatural and therefore unacceptable. Evidently, we’ve not yet gone all the way when it comes to gender-equity in the mother-child relationship.

However, whether dealing with son or daughter, the major difficulty experienced by the Indian mother is that she’s overly attached to her identity as a mother, and often-times has not developed any other facet of her identity during the course of her life. This makes her extremely vulnerable, for when the possibility of actively ‘mothering’ her children is no longer available to her, she’s quite lost. Her husband, whose primary identity is not derived from his role as a father, can ‘let go’ of the married children, if and when he learns to delegate the ‘head of the family’ role, but she finds it hard to follow suit, particularly if she has nothing else to fall back on. And this is where you have to feel for her.

However, if she puts in more energy and dynamism in developing other facets of her identity, not only will she become a more nurturing and less stifling parent, but she’ll be a happier and better-adjusted person. And she need no longer feel compelled to lay down the law.   

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The Shrinking Universe 86
LETTING GO OF CLOSURE

A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between two young men sitting next to me on a flight. It’s very hard, when you’re packed like cattle in an aircraft of a low-cost airline, to have any private conversations, more so if your co-passengers are psychiatrists with biggish ears. And although I missed key portions of said conversation since the commander from the flight deck was insisting on furnishing details of our cruising altitude, the outside temperature and other such perfectly useless trivia, I heard enough to figure out that one of the young men was going through a rather messy break-up of a romantic relationship and his friend was exhorting him to confront his recently erstwhile girlfriend so he could apply adequate ‘closure’ to the relationship. The young man was advised that once he did this, he would experience a huge sense of relief and would be able to get on with his life and perhaps start dating again.
The term ‘closure’ has obtained wide currency in the context of relationships, whether romantic or otherwise, in contemporary life. The expectation is that a certain procedure has to be followed if we are to come to terms with the termination of relationships and that this ‘closure by confrontation’ process will enable us to heal from the trauma. The general understanding is that closure takes place only by confronting the person or persons who we see as being responsible for the trauma. And that unless we do this, we will be stuck like hamsters on a treadmill, never free to move on.
In truth, ‘closure’ is not really a psychological concept. It’s an American ‘pop psychology’ invention that has sold large numbers of self-help books and innumerable day-time talk shows. Rarely is it used in reference to actually closing or terminating a relationship, which in fact is what closure really means. The way it is used is really a reflection of a typical American response to a traumatic event - liability. Who’s to blame for the emotional pain? And if somebody is, then the somebody has to pay for it, or at least, take responsibility for it, thereby, it is believed, assuaging, at least to some extent, the devastation caused to the sufferer. However, most people who have attempted this sort of ‘closure by confrontation’ do not experience the relief from pain that they expect to, and often come away from the confrontation with a feeling that the ‘offender’ was defensive, aggressive, irrational, glib or all of the above. For, very few people have the maturity to respond to personal attacks with calm and good cheer.
What most of us don’t understand is that ‘closure’ takes place inside our minds. We have to grieve over the traumatic event, understand it and come to terms with it through a process of introspection, ventilation and perhaps, therapy if required. But, if we are dependent on the mature response of the ‘other’ to make us feel better, it only means we are still hurting and want the ‘other’ to make the pain go away. And this, believe me, is never going to happen simply because the same reasons that caused the break in the relationship will continue to operate even during the process of confrontation. Also, take my word for it, confrontations to deliver a broadside or two are most certainly not going to help you heal, and unless you heal, you’re never going to be able to apply closure.
The way I see it, closure happens when we learn to forgive. Not the person or situation that caused us pain, but ourselves. And the reason for this is fairly straightforward. We can take responsibility only for our own behaviour. We cannot force someone else to take responsibility for theirs. Also when we are in emotional pain, we can only see the situation from our own point of view, never that of the other person. But what most of us are not quite ready to acknowledge is that a fair portion of the anger and pain is directed against ourself and therefore, we direct it towards the perceived cause of the pain. 
It is not important to the healing process that the other person understand how devastated we are and provide us an explanation for the breakdown of the relationship. For nothing that the ‘other’ says will be acceptable to us. What is important is that we understand what happened, learn from it and realise that notwithstanding the trauma of the breakup, the relationship did contribute to making us better people. Sometimes, after we’ve gone through this process, we might or might not want to have a bit of a ‘chat’ with the other. This will work only if both have applied closure in their respective minds and are meeting, not with the purpose of discussing the break up or to rant at each other, but just to clear the air. Of course some mature acknowledgement of the broken relationship may or may not happen, but it’s not critical that it does. Nor should one feel compelled to forge an agreement to remain ‘friends’. 
Finally, it’s only when we ‘let go’ of the trauma from our minds, does proper closure take place. And only then do we really move on.

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The Shrinking Universe 85
LOVE GONE AWRY

Paeans have been sung to it. Epics have been written about it. Classic cinema is replete with it. Most people feel it, in some form or the other, at some time or the other, for someone or the other. The emotion of love, which is better experienced than described (unless you’re a poet or an artist), is something that most of us have or have had a more than nodding acquaintance with. It is an emotion that is not only much longed for, but also much feared, because many of us feel it may swallow us up completely and make us do strange things, that in our rational moments we might never even consider doing. We don’t wholly understand this whole business of love despite the said paeans, epic books and classic cinema. 
The good news is that even though we may do strange things when we are in ‘romantic’ love with somebody and experience as much pain as exaltation, over a period of time, this ‘insane’ love turns into a more abiding and enduring nurturing love. Which is why love has stood the test of time and, even today, most of us do feel the need to love and be loved romantically. For love, aside of being just emotionally uplifting, can also be a transcendental experience. But, since it’s a very intense emotion, sadly, it also has the potential to sometimes go awry. Fortunately this is rare, but when it does happen, it can range from being a dissatisfying encounter to a nightmarish one.
Although love is a selfish emotion in that people fall in love to experience the joy and rapture of being in love, reciprocity is an important part of the love experience. It’s not enough being crazy about somebody. You want that somebody to be as crazy about you. So, what happens when the object of your love doesn’t feel the same way about you? You could feel rejected, go through a period of dejection and bounce back after a few months, ready to fall in love with someone else again. This is what happens to most of us. Some of us, unfortunately slip into a deepish sort of depression, from which recovery is much more prolonged. A small proportion of us may experience a phenomenon called ‘limerence’ that may or may not lead to obsessive love.
Described in 1977 by psychologist Dorothy Tenov, limerence refers to an overwhelming and even obsessive need to have one’s romantic feelings reciprocated by the person whom we have developed such strong feelings for. It can happen to both single and married people. When we get into a state of limerence, we are needy, desperate, insecure, and do crazy things to attract the attention of the ones we are in love with. We may obsess about them and even end up stalking them, call them constantly, hack into their email accounts and so forth, just to get an idea of what the person feels for us, even if the person has demonstrated that our love for them is reciprocated. And inevitably when the object of our obsessive love feels smothered by our intensity, our obsessive behaviour and our clinginess and pushes us away, we are devastated, angry, enraged and even vengeful. Some rejected obsessive lovers may post nasty messages or compromising pictures on the Internet and ensure that any potential marital alliances are called off and so forth. And in the worst case scenario, assault, grievous or fatal, may also take place.
Obsessive love should not be confused with possessiveness (which is usually in evidence in the initial stage of falling in love but disappears soon after) or the Othello syndrome (where one has a delusion that the one we love is being unfaithful to us even though there is no reasonable basis for this). The latter is a clinical condition requiring medical intervention. But to ensure that we don’t fall a victim to obsessive love, we must work hard on modulating the feeling of possessiveness we feel for the one we love and be alert to signs of the same in our partner. It’s not a bad idea to escalate matters to others in the social network if the possessiveness quotient is becoming difficult to manage, rather than wait for matters to get out of hand. 
Fortunately, full-blown obsessive love is still not a major problem in our country, but given the fact that we are emerging from emotional suppression to social liberalisation, and we are still learning the rules of love, some prudence may be advisable. Many Indian parents are terrified that their children will fall ‘in love’ one day or another, which is why they assiduously guard their single children from responding to any undue attention paid to them by one of their peers. More often than not, their children, fall in love anyway. But their love doesn’t have to go awry, if they can, after the first flush of love, step back a bit and not allow the emotion to carry them into dangerous spaces. ‘Loving wisely, but not too well’ may not make a Shakespearean epic but may actually increase the likelihood of sustained happiness. 

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The Shrinking Universe 84
HOW CONVENIENT IS YOUR MARRIAGE?

I’m not any more surprised when young urban Indians tell me that they don’t think of marriage as an absolute necessity in their lives, and that they’d much rather stay single than be trapped in a loveless marriage. For marriage has moved from being a ‘stage of life’ phenomenon to a commitment that requires more forethought, application and responsible mutuality. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when older people who’ve been through all the tribulations that marriage has laid at their doorsteps, also seem to increasingly express the same opinion. They hasten, of course, to clarify that they have no regrets about being married, but don’t seem overly perturbed when their grandchildren of ‘marriageable age’ express this sentiment. 
Admittedly they are still a small tribe, even if a growing one. Admittedly, the large majority of Indians are still obsessed, not just about mileage, but also about marriage and start planning for their children’s weddings, about a week or so after they are born. Admittedly also, most older Indians still believe that their younger counterparts place too much of premium on the mystical emotion of love rather than approaching their marriages with responsible stolidity as generations of their forefathers have done. After all, weren’t marriages more stable in those days, is their argument clincher. 
However, what I find promising is that over the last decade or so, more people are beginning to realise that an important reason for this apparent stability is that large numbers of couples settled into  ‘marriages of convenience’, wherein regardless of the lack of connectedness between each other, they didn’t want to break away from each other. Equally they were not prepared to make the effort to get their marriage to a more companionable platform. They led their own independent and parallel lives, neither questioning what the other did, neither making any demands of the other, and neither evincing any great interest in the life of the other. They were pretty much like roommates who have learned to give each other a wide berth (take it from me, this is not giving each other ‘space’). 
Such marriages of convenience are not necessarily an ‘olden days’ phenomenon. Just look around you and you’ll realise that they are in abundance today too. More often than not, there is very little bitterness, hostility or acrimony in such marriages. There may have been in the past, but not any more, since couples in marriages of convenience have chosen not to have any real emotional expectations of each other. They have worked out how to have their basic needs taken care of. Their conversations are limited to practical realities of day-to-day living. They come together around the children and do engage in some joint socialisation. However, they have their own individual lives which the other is not privy to, and is in fact, not even interested in. If there are any peccadilloes, neither wants to know about this. Discretion is the primary requirement of each other. 
I’m not for a moment suggesting that all stable marriages of yesteryears or today are based on convenience. I am perfectly aware that millions of couples have had, and continue to have, loving and companionable relationships after having worked through whatever issues bedevilled the early days of their married lives. But, it simply cannot be ignored that a significantly large number of marriages last the long haul because both partners prioritise convenience over companionship and may come together only to discharge the responsibilities of marriage, in an almost fiduciary manner. 
You might well ask me how convenient such marriages are and why people stay in them. The reasons are pretty complex. For starters, such people subscribe to a basic belief that whatever happens, one must hang in there, and divorce can never be a serious option and often use the ‘known devil’ explanation to rationalise their marriages. Sometimes, the reasons are economic. Put simply, neither partner can really ‘afford a divorce’, so they plod on together, doing the minimum required for each other to ensure that the marriage still chugs along. Oftentimes, couples feel that they have to live with each other for the sake of the children which, as I have argued ad nauseam in this column, is arguably the worst thing they can do for the kids. But the more important reason is the vague sense of security we feel with something or someone familiar that counterbalances the fear of the unknown.
You might also well ask, what’s wrong with a marriage of convenience? After all, there is no hostility or resentment. Both partners seem to be sufficiently satisfied and everybody seems okay. If this is the question that springs to your mind, you obviously believe that marriage is just one of the many responsibilities that are placed in our paths as we struggle through our lives – just one more role we have to play in our lives. However, if you believe, like many younger, and some older Indians do, that marriage has a greater purpose than mere responsible procreation, then you’d probably like to get more out of your marriage by creating a platform of mutual companionship and harmony, rather than settling for mutual tolerance and lack of disharmony. If this is the case, you’d probably feel that close up, a marriage of convenience isn’t really as convenient as it may appear from a distance.

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The Shrinking Universe 83
READERS BLOC

Over the last two and a half years, this column has explored the dynamics of a wide variety of human relationships. However, as I was going through one particular email response to my last piece, it struck me that a relationship it has not touched upon is that between readers and writers. The email response I specifically refer to is from a very observant and astute reader who took the trouble to point out, what I believe was, an avoidable oversight in my piece on innocent divorcees. He drew my attention to the fact that the census data I had referred to in support of my argument that there were three times as many widowed as divorced people in our country was in fact based on the 2001 census and not the 2011 census as I had written, since the complete data for the latter has not yet been released. He’s absolutely correct and I am happy to apologise for the oversight. Of course, I don’t think that this will change the substance of my argument for I believe that despite the increase in divorce rates over the intervening 10 year period, the majority of divorcees, innocent or otherwise, do get married again and will probably be reflected in the census data under the ‘married’ category. However, that is not the point of this piece. The relationship between reader and writer is. What is fascinating about the reader-writer relationship is that it is, although a seemingly ‘virtual’ one, like most other relationships, based on mutual expectations that often remain unexpressed. When I started writing this column I, of course, expected to be read, considering the space in which it appears, but have been sometimes astonished, pleasurably though, by the volume and quality of interactions I have had with those who read what I have written. Many of them share their thoughts, views and suggestions, giving me a glimpse, even if fleetingly, into their minds, their personalities and their lives. One of my favourites is a professor who, regardless of which part of the world he travels to, makes it a point to not only read every piece I write but also send me his considered views and comments on the subject. The bulk of my correspondence though is confidential, from readers who identify with some aspect of what I have written and, perhaps emboldened by the relative anonymity that the medium of email offers them, write, in detail, about the difficult circumstances of their lives or a particularly knotty problem they are currently facing for which they seek advice. In many ways, the relationship between readers and writers of advice columns or for that matter, advice books, is analogous to the therapist-client relationship because, often the reader is emotionally vulnerable and at a crossroads of major life choices. Obviously, not even the most sensitive of writers can anticipate each and every reaction on the part of the reader and provide a completely comprehensive picture, but as long as the former is committed to avoiding glibly hacked-out panaceas, and attempts to engage with the reader with as much of responsibility, accuracy, integrity and sincerity as is possible in 800-odd words, then the reader-writer interaction can be a mutually satisfactory one.  But, as in any other relationship, the reader too has some work to do. An important first step would be to recognise the fallibility of the writer and not assume that all pronouncements in print are gospel. Engaging in personal research before coming to any life-changing conclusions would be prudent. Equally important is the recognition that not all research reports published in the popular press or the Internet (and there is an astonishing plethora of these in recent times) are conclusive certainties. For instance, when one reads a report of a study which says that people who drink four cups of coffee a day seem to have a lower incidence of depression, it doesn’t mean one has to immediately rush to Cafe Coffee Day four times a day, for it’s perfectly possible that people who drink four cups of coffee a day may do so because they have a certain personality or genetic or chemical factor, which is what protects them from depression. Even though readers of ‘non-advice’ writing may also make major choices based on what they have read, the relationship they engage in with these writers is based on appreciation, even admiration for the latter’s craft or sometimes, dislike, even antipathy for their opinions. Readers are often quite keen on meeting and getting to know their writers at say, book launches or literary festivals. Whether they should meet face-to-face or conduct their relationship only through the medium of the printed word is moot. As an avid reader, I have, on more than one occasion, felt quite disappointed when I actually met a writer I thought highly of. However, the converse is not true, for as a writer, I am yet to meet a reader whose company I am anxious to avoid. But, even though my readers have always been pleasant to me, I have no idea what they actually feel upon meeting me. Perhaps, it’s better that I don’t.

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The Shrinking Universe 82
THE INNOCENT DIVORCEE

Recently, I have been asked, surprisingly, to address a variety of forums on the subject of divorce. I’m not sure if people are tired of hearing me speak on marriage or whether the issue of divorce has assumed more top of the mind importance than before. Going by the number of articles in the popular press lamenting the issue of divorce and its increase over the last few years, one might imagine that the Indian marriage is terminally ill, but my experience would find it hard to countenance this perception. So, although I have written about divorce earlier in this column, I would like to take a fresh look at it, this time from the point of view of the divorcee.
When I went through the 2011 Census data, I found that in the age group of 20 to 44 years, there were three times as many widows and widowers as there were those who were divorced or separated. But this figure wouldn’t alarm us. We may commiserate with the distress of widows and widowers and may even do whatever we can to help them find new lives for themselves, because we feel that they are not to blame for their widowed state. But when it comes to divorcees, we become all ambivalent. Of course, we’ll always sympathise with the ‘wronged party’, even though at the back of our minds we have the feeling that maybe they didn’t try hard enough to make their marriage work. But more likely than not, we’ll believe that either or both partners were at fault.
Since we are by and large, a traditional culture, most of us think of marriage as a sacrament, solemnised in the presence of God.  As a result, a decision to divorce has to be substantially justified, not just by the individual but the entire family as well. In other words, one of the partners has to be ‘at fault’ or a ‘sinner’. Which is why, in the past, even in the case of highly toxic marriages, neither partner was keen on initiating a separation or divorce for fear of being seen as the ‘faulty’ one. Even today, if a couple is granted a divorce by ‘mutual consent’ (since this is the least acrimonious method of obtaining a divorce), when it comes to justifying the divorce decision to their social networks, each partner squarely points the finger at the other’s behaviour as being responsible for the breakdown of marriage. And both partners usually define themselves as ‘innocent divorcees’, particularly when they start looking for another spouse. Most people assume that when matrimonial advertisements begin with ‘innocent divorcee seeks alliance’, they refer to divorces where the marriage has not been consummated. While this may sometimes be the case, the fundamental message being passed on to potential respondents is ‘the divorce was not my fault’. 
If, instead of being considered a sacrament, marriage is seen as a committed intimate relationship that two consenting adults consciously choose to engage in, then the possibility of a ‘no fault’ divorce exists, for, under certain circumstances, said consenting adults may also consciously choose to go their separate ways. Recognising this, the Law Commission of India had in its 71st report, as early as 1978, recommended that ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ that was based on the principle of ‘no fault divorce’, be included as a ground for divorce under the marriage acts. However, this has not yet happened despite being endorsed by the 217th report of the Law Commission in 2009.  
An important anxiety that has been doing the rounds is that such a provision may actually increase divorce petitions as it has done in the state of New York, which saw a 12% increase in divorce filings in the seven months since the introduction of ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ clause last year (New York is the last state in the US to introduce this clause). However, experience from other parts of the world show that this initial increase is not sustained. Another concern that has been expressed is that such a provision may place underprivileged women in our country in positions of further disadvantage, since men may use it to intimidate them into submission .
The way I see it is that a divorce need not be the ‘fault’ of either partner. Nor would I see it as a ‘failure’ by either or both partners to make their marriages work. Divorce decisions are never taken lightly. Even those that appear to be based on the whim of an impetuous young man or woman are rarely without bases. But when they are taken, it obviously means that one or both partners have lost the will or the energy to fight for the relationship and if despite having sought and obtained professional help, they haven’t been able to establish companionable togetherness, then maybe they should be allowed to take a call on what they want to do. And perhaps if the concept of equal division of community property is linked to that of ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ to ensure that a woman who is a homemaker is not financially at the mercy of patriarchal control, then, no divorcee needs to feel compelled to establish ‘innocence’ to seek termination of a marriage that is not doing what it was intended to. 

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The Shrinking Universe 81
MINE'S BETTER THAN YOURS

A few months ago, I listened in (not eavesdropped, I assure you) on a conversation between two music aficionados. They were debating whether Carnatic music was better than Western classical music or vice-versa. Of course, each held on to their relative positions hotly and passionately and were getting quite nastily personal in their comments to each other, when they were joined by a third aficionado who declaimed that Hindustani classical music was much better than the other two. Had this remained an intellectual discussion, I would have been happy to continue listening, but the conversation, if you could call it that, soon degenerated into a slanging match, more so when the others present in the vicinity started taking sides with one buff or the other. Needless to say, they didn’t reach any rational conclusion on the subject. How could they? What parameters or algorithms does one use to determine which system of music is better? And, why on earth, should one even begin to make such a determination? Why should mine be better than yours? Or anybody else’s?
Unfortunately, chauvinism, a phenomenon that’s been around for centuries, though in a more sporadic form, has, in recent times, come to be worn as a badge of honour. Although the term ‘chauvinism’ owes its origins to a Napoleonic veteran, Nicolas Chauvin, on account of his extreme patriotism and loyalty, the use of the term is no longer restricted to a nationalistic context. It has been extensively used to refer to male chauvinism - a manifestation of the unprepossessing social bastion of patriarchy. And in recent times to any self-proclaimed superiority by one group over the other.  Thus, aside of gender chauvinists, you have language chauvinists, caste chauvinists, religious chauvinists, ethnic chauvinists and even music chauvinists. 
It is, of course, perfectly understandable that people love, enjoy and are proud of what they believe belongs to them and perhaps, even defines who they are. Which is why patriotism is considered not merely a desirable human trait but an essential one for the very definition of nationhood. This understanding can be stretched a bit to include religion, caste, community and other sub-cultural groupings too, for as elegantly described by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, once basic needs are taken care of, all human beings have a need to experience a ‘sense of belonging’ to a group. However, when one becomes irrationally identified with the group one belongs to, obviously the boundary between sense of belonging and chauvinism has been crossed and a new set of psychodynamics have taken over, for chauvinism is defined as excessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for one's own cause; the two key words being excessive and prejudiced.
Although religious, ethnic and caste and language chauvinism have been around for a while, at no time like the present have they assumed the potential to polarise and divide peoples and nations. While it may appear that chauvinism is related to the feeling of superiority of one group over another, this is so only on the surface. Probably the principal reason for chauvinism is fear (I exclude male chauvinism from this discussion for this is a much more involved phenomenon, having its roots in complex patterns of social evolution). Members of a dominant group fear a threat to the supremacy of their position from those less privileged, for they feel that the gap between them and members of the latter group is slowly closing on a variety of parameters. And they end up feeling that unless their positions are asserted aggressively, they are going to lose out. 
Which is why mine has to better than yours. Not because it is really better, but because if it isn’t, then you might become my equal, and this in some way becomes unacceptable, since over the centuries it has been drummed into our genes that we’re better because we’re ‘different’ from ‘them’, and our ‘different’ is better than ‘their’ ‘different’. While this may have been appropriate in the days of our forefathers when the laws of civil society were only slowly evolving, all it does now is to promise the emergence of an uncivil society, the signs – intolerance, rigidity and armed conflict – of which are already well in evidence.
However, what we often don’t remember is that it is this very fear of being dominated that prevents us from growing as a race (the human race, I mean). For if I spend a good part of my life trying to prove that mine is better than yours, then obviously my worldview becomes restricted and I run the risk of being sucked into the quicksand of irrationality that no one can pull me out of. Honestly, I’d much rather enjoy listening to whatever forms of music appeal to me than engage in mindless argument on which one is better. By the same token, I live in India because it’s my home and I love it with its warts, not because it’s better than every other country or because my culture is more ancient than yours. In the final analysis, if we stay stuck in seeking a sense of belonging, we end up compromising our intrinsic search for self-actualisation. And we wouldn’t want that, would we? Or, would we?

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The Shrinking Universe 80
THE HERO WITHIN

Although much, perhaps even too much, has been spoken and written about the momentous mass movement the whole nation has been witness to for the last few weeks, I cannot help adding my mite on the subject. The anti-corruption movement has fired the imagination of most citizens of urban India. It’s been truly extraordinary to see youth as well as people several decades older come together for a common cause and express their anguish and anger with the kind of discipline that’s rarely evident in any other aspect of contemporary urban living. Like every other Indian, I do have my views and opinions on the politics of the events that unfolded over the last few weeks. However, this is not the forum for me to express these, but what I would like to do in this space, is to explore the ubiquitous human need for a hero or a champion to bring out the best in people.
It is not as if corruption in public service is a recent vice. So, what made the Indian middle class break away from its famed apathy and assert itself in so resounding a manner? I believe that, more than any other factor, what really tilted the balance was the emergence of a champion - a hero who was acceptable to a cross-section of people, who are not necessarily on the same page on a variety of other parameters. 
Interestingly, the Jan Lokpal movement is not one that developed out of whipped up frenzy, which is probably why it remained disciplined to the end. Ostensibly, the champion did not set out to create a mass base to meet personal or political ends, but only to address a burning issue in his own distinctive style. Obviously his process resonated with large numbers of people who wanted to empower themselves but did not know how. And having found themselves a champion of unimpeachable integrity, they all coalesced around him and anointed him a hero.
There are some essential differences between heroes and leaders. A hero is typically someone who we can closely identify with and even admire, sometimes to the point of feeling that the hero embodies our own identity (remember the ‘I am Anna’ slogans?). A hero gives us hope that our aspirations will be realised.  A hero appeals to our hearts, our emotions. On the other hand, a leader, whether political, organisational or religious, is someone who appeals more to our heads and less to our hearts. A person in whom we vest great responsibility for our future deliverance. Someone whose shadow gives us comfort and security and whose achievements make us progress as a group. All leaders are not necessarily heroes, for sometimes they have to take unpopular decisions. And equally all heroes are not necessarily leaders, for the two require different skill-sets. Of course, many heroes do become leaders and many leaders are also heroes, but the ones we generally have more rational expectations of are our leaders for it is to them we have hitched our wagons for the long haul.
Do we really need heroes to champion our causes? Not always, but without doubt, a hero helps to energise and inspire us to rise above ourselves. In truth, a hero is the embodiment of our ego ideal - an internalised image of the ideal we strive to become. Which is why any interaction with our hero makes us feel empowered. What we don’t always appreciate is that the ones we have chosen as our heroes, rarely correspond exactly with our ego ideal. They are simply who they are, doing what they believe in. It is we who vest on them qualities and attributes that they may never have claimed to possess. It is for this reason that our expectations of our heroes may not always be rational. And since we are not conscious of having projected our own ego ideal on to them, we often end up hero-worshipping, idolising and deifying them, all of which can make for potentially turbulent situations, since heroes, by virtue of being human, are liable to fall on their faces every now and again, leaving us feeling disenchanted.  However, if we realise that our emotional identification was actually with the hero within us, then we can have a more balanced approach to our heroes seeing them as essentially human with some special qualities and use them as inspirations to move forward.
The other tricky issue about the Anna Hazare phenomenon has to do with the heterogeneity of the people who have come together around him. The only thing binding them together is the fight against corruption. Often, in the case of spontaneous movements, once the initial victories have been won and once the euphoria dies down, differences between the constituents start to surface. To keep the momentum going, adroit leadership is critical. One hopes that this transition from heroism to leadership does take place. However, even if it doesn’t, the fact that such large numbers of people have contributed to the victory, is what will keep it from becoming pyrrhic, for it’s bound to have increased their self-belief and given them an opportunity to experience their own ego ideal. And this can’t be a bad thing, can it?

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The Shrinking Universe 79
DINOSAUR, ALBATROSS OR PHOENIX

Probably the most significant challenge that many young urban married couples in our country face very early on in their marriage is the conflict between the needs of their marital relationship and the demands imposed upon this by their families. The more traditional the communities they are part of, the more intense the conflict. That unique and secular identifier of Indian culture – the joint family - is currently under a lot of pressure and finds itself at a crossroads. 
Many young Indians are ambivalent when it comes to taking a position on the institution of the joint family. Today, increasing numbers of young people have grown up in nuclear families (with their parents and siblings), and find it next to impossible to adapt to what they see as the ‘irrational needs’ of the joint family. As far as they are concerned, joint families are dinosaurs. On the other hand, those who grew up in either extended or joint families, are well aware of the advantages and are able to recall the joys of  childhoods spent with multiple parent-figures and large numbers of family playmates to the point that cousins aren’t really seen as cousins but as brothers and sisters. However, when they grow up and get married, they realise that many of the legitimate needs of their marriages have to be sacrificed if both partners are expected to function in a joint, or even extended family environment. But being unable to confront the patriarch (or matriarch), they stumble along, wearing their joint families as albatrosses around their necks.
The joint family was a historical necessity. Centuries ago, when environmental uncertainty was very high, when people were beginning to expand their geographical horizons, the village-community progressively became too large or too nebulous an entity to provide emotional support to individuals. The joint family filled the void admirably. It served the role of parent, protector and nurturer, and by harnessing collective wisdom, created an enabling environment to permit the growth and development of its constituents. However, as anyone who has worked in management will realise, hierarchies and disciplines are inherently necessary for the survival of any organisation. And so it was with the joint family as well.
To perpetuate itself, it had to evolve a strict code of conduct, clearly delimited individual roles, a prescribed power structure and unstinting subordination to the nominated head for it to be able to perform its function. Unfortunately, since the position of the head of a joint family is usually inherited (eldest son of the eldest son, usually) and not necessarily earned, the whole system started functioning more like a monarchy than like the democracy that post-independence Indians were getting used to. As a result, internecine politics, machinations and manipulation became an integral part of the institution, and rather than being a supportive environment, many joint families ended up having to deal with unprepossessing power struggles and rebellion.
Economics also played a role. Whether the joint family runs a family business or whether its constituents are individually employed, the functioning of a joint family often involves pooling of financial resources, with all financial decisions being taken or at least authorised by the paterfamilias. Often, this results in piquant situations, with those who contribute the most, not necessarily having the biggest say in the allocation of funds.  Not coincidentally, although we have been a democracy for the last 64 years, political processes in our country also seem to function like a macrocosmic joint family and increasingly many middle class Indians too tend to think of their political structures as dinosaurs or albatrosses.
But the key question is whether the joint family will remain this way, or whether like the Phoenix, it will rise from the ashes? I, for one, believe, that in a family-centric countries like ours, writing an obituary for the joint family would be foolhardy. Even though, it’s not yet been reduced to ashes, the joint family, I believe will rise again and this time around in a more contemporary re-invented form. The intrinsic value of family systems and kinship cannot be overstated or overemphasised. Nor can the need for a substantial social safety net, which the family is best equipped to provide. But the joint family needs a more benign and sanguine make-over. 
In its new avatar, it will perhaps be more flexible, provide more opportunities for recognising and rewarding individual excellence, not insist on uncompromising adherence to its diktats and provide more emotional space for the growth and development of all its constituent sub-systems. Perhaps the joint family will reinvent itself as a cluster of nuclear families that come together when needed, but also have the capability and freedom to function as independent units. Not unlike Facebook actually, except that privacy settings will be more clearly defined and ‘unfriending’ won’t be possible.
And then, every time a young couple decides to ‘go nuclear’, it need not be seen as a breakdown of the joint family, but more as spreading its reach and ensuring its longevity, for when people have well defined spaces for their respective nuclear families, they are better able to ensure that the larger family comes together to buttress everyone’s requirements. This way, the only nuclear holocaust we have to fear is the radioactive kind.

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The Shrinking Universe 78
THE MARRIAGE FORMULA

Pretty much everyone I meet, whether they express it not, want from me a magic formula that would guarantee them marital happiness. When I got married, I too was looking for one such. And now almost twenty five years later, a young man whom I know well, asked me on the eve of his wedding, whether I could distil my personal and professional knowledge and give him a formula for a happy marriage. He loved his fiancée very much, he told me, but with wisdom beyond his years, he felt that this alone was not enough. He was absolutely right. While love is very important in a relationship, it can’t make for a successful marriage on its own. Also, he didn’t want a marriage like that of his parents which he felt was not particularly bad in that they didn’t fight very much, but not particularly good either since they were not really close to each other. 
So, after some thought, I gave him my formula for a happy marriage: I = C3
Permit me to explain.
Sustained marital happiness is experienced primarily on account of Intimacy (I). In turn, Intimacy is a function of three Cs – Commitment, Connectedness and Companionship (the C3 in the equation). Of course, there are many couples who believe their marriages are doing fine because they have successfully negotiated marital minefields and have achieved a degree of solidity. And I have no quarrel with them on this, for their marriages are obviously functionally stable. However, if we are looking for marital happiness, then the absence of unhappiness can at best be seen as a beginning and not the end point. 
As a nation, we are not too hot on the idea of intimacy, since we shoot more for marital comfort rather than for marital happiness. If the couple doesn’t fight too much, everybody thinks of them as being ‘the ideal couple’. But marriage can actually be configured to offer us much more than this. Often when I ask couples how good the intimacy is in their marriage, the response I usually get has to do with their sex lives. However, intimacy is not just about sex. It is basically about emotional closeness which can only enter the marriage when both partners mutually experience feelings of commitment, connectedness and companionship. 
Merely hanging on in a marriage is not, as is commonly believed, a sign of commitment. As is well known, thousands of couples in our country live together even if they’re not particularly happy with each other simply because they don’t know what else to do, or because social norms dictate that they must, or they cannot find good enough reasons to part ways. As I see it, the term, commitment, refers to both partners determinedly seeking and finding solutions to issues that bedevil them and their marriages. As any couple therapist will tell you, solutions to marital problems are based more on common sense than any scientific principles, and that, closely connected couples will usually find very creative ways out of their bottlenecks. Not because they have to, but because they want to. As a result most couple therapists work, not towards finding solutions for couples’ problems, but towards helping increase their commitment to and connectedness with each other. When two people are committed to each other, they build a bond of connectedness and may actually have fun finding ways and means around their problems, particularly when they realise that two heads and two hearts work better than one. And when they do this often enough, they experience a feeling of companionship that ensures they enjoy the time they spend with each other, even if they have widely varying interests.
However, for this formula to work, two preliminary conditions need to be fulfilled. The first of these is the recognition that bonding is not, as many people fear, bondage. The bond of connectedness is based purely on a voluntary desire to connect, and not because the partner demands it. The second condition is that it takes two to bond. Of course, both partners may express their need for connectedness differently, since men and women are quite different when it comes to expressing and responding to intimacy needs. However, once both partners start the process, believe me, they will find the wherewithal to not only deal with their issues, but to forge a resilient bond that holds them together even during storms, and is flexible enough to accommodate their respective requirement for personal space.
The consequences of low-intimacy marriages, even those where the partners love each other, may or may not be disastrous. Some couples may just hang in there, but others may feel unstimulated or unsupported and lead parallel lives. Some others may find their marriages visited by what American relationship researcher John Gottman refers to as “the four horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse” - criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling - which can together make for an extremely distressing marital experience. However, if couples conceive of marriage as  a space they can jointly configure in any way they choose and put the I = C3 equation to work, then words like ‘apocalypse’ can remain where they belong – in dictionaries. 

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The Shrinking Universe 77
MY EGO AND I

One of the most common reasons for couples finding it hard to resolve conflicts is what is generally referred to as an ‘ego clash’. These clashes happen in a variety of other situations as well, and it is not uncommon for boardroom battles, national policy decisions and even international affairs to be either stymied by ego clashes or be decided on the ‘ego’ of the leader or leadership group. Spiritual and religious leaders often exhort us to ‘control’ or ‘drop’ our ‘egos’ on our paths to personal fulfilment, although motivational speakers enjoin us to use our ‘egos’ constructively if we want to develop as human beings. And most of us liberally use the term ‘ego’ in our day to day conversations, whether or not we fully understand what it means. What then is this ‘ego’ business all about?
The word ego, derived from Latin, literally means ‘I’ or the ‘self’. It refers to the sense of self that each of us develops from infancy when we realise that we are individual entities, distinct from the environment around us. Over the years, we develop our sense of self or ego, based on the experiences we go through and the relationships we engage in. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is the one to be credited with the broad use of the term in the field as well as in popular parlance. However, he used the term very specifically - to describe a part of the human mind that relates with external reality. 
He theorised that the human mind is made up of three parts – the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the storehouse of all our instinctive and irrational responses, and we are usually not conscious of what happens in our id, which is why, sometimes, even the best of us, behave in unpredictable and irrational ways. The ego is that part of our mind that relates consciously to what happens in the world around us – the rational part of our self, as it were. And the superego, which is partly conscious, is the rough equivalent of our conscience, where our values and belief systems are stored and which impact on the way we conduct our lives. He postulated that the dynamic interaction between these three parts of the mind would determine the way we behaved and the kind of neuroses we would develop in our lives. 
In spiritual terms, the term ego usually refers to a part of our mind that drives us in the pursuit of personal power and material gains. It puts us into an acquisitive mode thereby increasing our stress levels, and takes us further away from self-actualisation. As a result, spiritual interventions, regardless of the religion you subscribe to, operate on the maxim that, although the ego may play a useful role in the more basic stages of human development, higher order growth mandates that we let go of it, for its continued presence will hamper the development of a perspective that emphasises oneness of the Universe.
When you think more of the subject of the ego, you’ll realise that the term itself is delightfully banal and refers only to the sense of self. However when we use the term, ego, in daily life, we seem to refer to an ‘exalted sense of the self’: an ‘inflated ego’. For it’s only when bloated egos engage with each other that clashes take place. As it does when leaders, whether of business corporations or nations or world bodies, vaingloriously aggrandise themselves. Or when a chauvinist believes in personal superiority, whether based on gender, language, caste or rank. Or when one spouse expects the other to toe the line merely because of a perceived superiority over the other. It’s only when we think of ourselves as more important or lofty than others think we are, that we end up making unnecessary demands on people in our environment. And if the latter turn out to be crafty, we make ourselves vulnerable to sycophantic manipulation, and who, among us, can claim to have been immune to this, except, of course, constitutional sycophants?
If we are to function effectively and happily in the environment we live in, there has to be some measure of concordance between the way we see ourselves (our egos, if you will) and the way others see us. Your ego, as Freud defined it, is very useful in ensuring that you avoid snakes and find ladders to move up, by helping you deal with the demands of external reality using rational processes. However when your ego starts bloating and you become ‘egoistic’, what it really means is that your irrational id has kicked in and will have an adverse impact on your ego. As a result, you may well end up finding more snakes than ladders.
The way I see it, whether you choose to conquer your ego or work with it, will depend on whether you are seeking to fulfil your self-actualisation needs or your need for self-esteem. However, if you permit your ego to bloat, then you will paradoxically end up experiencing lower self esteem, and worse, you may also end up damaging your eventual quest for self-actualisation. Taking your ego out for a walk every now and again is fine. But only every now and again.

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The Shrinking Universe 76
MARRIAGEABLE PARENTS

A few days ago, I was in conversation with an engaging group of couples in their late forties and early fifties, who wanted to explore the issue of how they could facilitate the marriages of their children. They were at an awkward age (the couples I mean, not the children) – young enough to remember some of their own marital tribulations with parents and parents-in-law, but old enough to fear that the gap between them and their children was becoming unbridgeable. Obviously most people of this age are anxious to get it right, since they believe themselves to be more enlightened than their parents, but are bemused that their children perceive them to be dinosaurs. Post-midnight’s children (those born in the 1950s and 1960s) generally seem to have a bit of a hard time, for they cannot pay complete allegiance to traditional beliefs as their parents could, nor can they wholeheartedly subscribe to contemporary liberal thought as their children do. As a result they end up feeling like the perpetually-in-transition generation. But they somehow manage to walk the tightrope and get by until their children either get married or become marriageable, when they are forced to take a stand.
Ideally, to facilitate the process of your children having stable marriages, you need to make a beginning when they’re teenagers making tentative forays into the world of relationships. I believe that the teenage years are the best relationship training ground simply because they provide a platform for, not just the teenager obtaining an understanding of how relationships work, but the parent to learn and understanding the process of ‘letting go’ of the teenage child. By this term I don’t mean ‘cutting the teenager loose’, but the process of accepting the reality that your child is no longer a child, but a young adult; that you don’t have a key role to play in any relationship your teenager engages in; that you can’t expect your teenager to share everything with you as in the past; and that your teenager has the right to expect some private space, provided the overall boundaries defined by the parents are adhered to. In other words, when teenagers have relationships, and if their parents respond to these with grace and understanding, the first seeds of mutual respect are comfortably sown in the parent-teenager relationship.
I cannot emphasise how important this is going to be when you start dealing with all the different aspects of your adult-children’s marriages. First off, they may not want to get married. Or they may want to get married only in their late twenties or early thirties. They may want to choose their own partners. They may actually end up choosing their own partners, who may seem horribly wrong to you (you may derive some comfort in knowing that most parents think their children have chosen the wrong partner). Or they may want you to choose a partner and may end up rejecting every ‘alliance’ you bring their way. They may want a small wedding. They may want a fat wedding. They may call you every day of their honeymoon. They may forget completely to keep in touch with you. They may want to live independently. They may want to live with you. Whatever they do or don’t do, I think, parents need to have their own strategy to deal with their married or marriageable children.
In developing this strategy, they need to remember one critical fundamental: the most crucial determinant of a stable marriage is ‘ownership’ of the relationship. In other words, the couple has to feel that their marital relationship is inviolate, private and belongs only to them. So, even if they start talking to their parents about issues they have with each other or their in-laws, the most prudent thing that parents can do is to discourage them from doing so, encouraging them instead to talk to each other to find solutions. Or, on the other hand, if they seem to shut you out of their marriage completely, think of it as a good thing they’re doing, for this means they’re taking the ownership of the marriage in their own hands. 
There is, today, a distressing trend for parents to insinuate themselves into their children’s marriage. Whether this is because they find it hard to let go of their children, or whether since they’ve spent so much on the wedding and its accoutrements, they’re looking to protect their investment by demanding a position on the Board, is hard to tell. However, it needs to be also remembered that the single biggest stress factor on the Indian marriage is the Indian family. Of course, it goes without saying that the intentions of family members to help and facilitate are usually genuine and sincere, but even well-intended ‘interventions’ may end up becoming unacceptable ‘interference’, when parents don’t recognise that they don’t own their children’s marriage. 
Pre-midnight’s children didn’t feel the need to do anything about this since they wholly subscribed to the traditional belief that marriage was between two families and not two individuals. But one would imagine that post-midnight’s children who are relatively free of such and other similar dogmas can appreciate their children’s need for boundaries. Here’s an idea: maybe they can concentrate on their own marriage now, the one they’d put on the backburner years ago!  

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The Shrinking Universe 75
MONTH OF PRIDE

You may or may not be aware that a significant, though not-very-well-publicised event is slated to take place later today in Chennai and over the next few months in other cities in the country. For the third year in succession, persons belonging to the LGBT (for the uninitiated, Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered) community are expected to be joined by ‘straight’ supporters at Chennai’s annual Rainbow Pride Parade, an occasion not only for members of the community to establish their solidarity with each other, but also one that showcases their pride in being who they are. The first Gay Pride Parade in India kicked off in Kolkata in 2003. It took the rest of the country a few years to get galvanised. But since 2008, similar events have taken place, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Indore, Puducherry, Chennai, Thrissur and Bhubaneshwar. No doubt, in the years to come, many more Indian cities will see their own versions of Gay Pride or Rainbow Pride events and although not all of them may take place in the month of June for one reason or another, hopefully, June will come to be known not just for the onset of the South West monsoons, but as the month of Pride.

Gay Pride Parades are organised in many parts of the world in the month of June as upbeat events where celebrities - both gay and straight - often join in the celebrations (earlier this month, Lady Gaga performed in the Euro Gay Pride Parade in Rome). But June has unpleasant memories for gay people. On June 28, 1969, the New York City Police Department, perhaps in an expression of the widely prevalent homophobia of the times, conducted a raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York city, one of the few establishments that welcomed members of the LGBT community at the time. Such police raids were routine in 1960s America, but for some reason, this particular raid seemed to be the last straw for the long-marginalised community. The ensuing riot at the Stonewall Inn ignited a series of riots all over the city and the hitherto unorganised community soon realised that the only way they could claim their rights was to come together and assert with pride, their identity as a group.

The Stonewall Riots, as they have come to be known are watershed events in the history of the gay rights movements and the following years saw the origins of the gay pride parades, initially in the United States, and progressively, the rest of the world. Typically pride parades aren’t classical protest movements but more an assertion of LGBT identity and an expression of the community’s solidarity. Although most pride parades do carry a few protest banners, say against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code or list demands like the right of transgendered people to be recognised as an independent gender, the essential messages that the pride parades want to send out to onlookers are “we are proud of being who we are; accept us as who we are; we are normal”.

Unfortunately, ours, like many other countries is predominantly homophobic. Many of us find it difficult to get our heads around the fact that members of the LGBT community are as normal as straight people. Look at it this way: some people are dark-skinned; others are light-skinned. Likewise, some people are straight; others are gay. Simplistic as it may sound, this is pretty much it. Sadly, just as dark-skinned people are compelled to unsuccessfully spend fortunes daubing themselves with hefty quantities of fairness creams, people belonging to the LGBT community are expected to engage in expensive and sometimes degradingly painful procedures that claim to magically ‘convert’ them into becoming marriageably straight. There are a variety of such claims available in the market today, ranging from pills and potions to yoga and ‘conversion or reparative therapies’ practised by some mental health professionals. Take it from me. These cannot work. Homosexuality cannot be cured. Simply because it’s not an illness.

It took the American Psychiatric Association some time to realise this for even in the 1970s they classified “ego-dystonic homosexuality” (when the person engaging in homosexual behaviour is confused and indeed, deeply distressed about it) as a mental disorder. They got it right in the 1980s when they declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has gone on record to state that ‘reparative therapies’ for homosexuality are actually unethical. Our powers-that-be are also beginning to get it right, as when the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in its landmark judgement of July 2009.  Baby steps, but important ones.

Having worked with a fair number of lesbians and gay people in psychotherapy, I know that the only mental health problems they face are the homophobic social consequences of their sexual orientation – the humiliating marginalization, the social pressure to go in for straight marriages, the dearth of readily available resources that can help them respond to their inner dictates and the fear of “coming out of the closet”. However, the good news is that many members of the LGBT community have endured all of this and are willing, on behalf of the more reticent members of their fraternity, to stand tall and be counted. Whatever pride the community experiences in the process, is more than well deserved. 

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The Shrinking Universe 74
FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN

Every now and again reporters and journalists call me, often at inconvenient moments necessitated by their deadlines, to get a ‘sound byte’ for a feature they are working on, although the frequency of such requests seems to be increasingly decreasing. Evidently my bark is worse than my byte. Usually such calls last only a couple of minutes for their questions are very focussed and my responses very specific. However, a recent caller was unrelenting in her pursuit of information for a story she was writing on couples that get divorced around or after their silver wedding anniversaries, an urban phenomenon indisputably on the increase. She couldn’t understand why, having managed to pull along for so many years despite being unhappy, couples should go their separate ways at this stage of their lives. Finally, after much discussion on the subject, I asked her if the couples in question had children and she replied in the affirmative. She had her answer.
More and more urban Indian couples, when confronted with major crossroads in their married lives, are exhorted, by almost everyone in their social networks, to hang on in the marriage for the sake of the children. This seems to be the most compelling argument on offer, and sometimes, even marriage counsellors use it, in flagrant contravention of what they’ve been trained to do. However, it appears that the thought of hapless children, for no fault of theirs, being forced to split their lives between two separate families and establishments, is too heartrending for most of us to even contemplate. As a result, the more humane solution seems to be for both partners to suppress even legitimate differences and live with each other for the sake of the children. The contemporary corollary to this seems to be that the unhappy couple can consider divorce after the children have grown up and are no longer hapless.
However, when one examines how humane this freely prescribed nostrum really is, one realises that it is not exactly the most appropriate option open to either the couple or the children. If you speak to the adult offspring of parents who stuck it out in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children, what they’ll probably tell you is that they have mixed emotions on the issue. On the one hand they are happy that their lives were not cleaved into two and they didn’t have to go through the painful dislocation of weekdays with one and weekends with the other, summer vacations with one and winter vacations with the other or school concerts with one and sports days with the other, all the time making sure that they were talking and behaving in a parent-appropriate manner (saying the right thing to the right parent). 
But, on the other hand, they also feel burdened when they realise that, but for them, their parents might have gone their separate ways and might have actually found some happiness and fulfilment in their respective lives. Even if there’s no truth to this really, for those who want to find fulfilment in their lives will certainly do so regardless of the obstacles that come their way, children, by virtue of being guilt-prone, do take unnecessary burdens on themselves and let these affect their mental health. Also, they realise they have not learned from their parents how to conduct their own relationships with the opposite gender for the only template they have acquired is how to live with hostility and unfulfilled expectations, not how to resolve conflicts and respect each others’ needs.
Here’s the bottom line: All children are born with the right to consistent and appropriate parenting, but what they need more than anything else is two happy parents, not two miserable ones, who keep every now and again reminding them that they are together only for the sake of the children. Yes, parental separation and divorce does incalculable harm to children, particularly when the parents use the children as pawns in an acrimonious game of ‘payback’ for real or imagined injustices. However, staying together under the same roof and using the children as pawns in the same acrimonious game of ‘payback’, is merely swapping a rock for a hard place. In fact, I would go so far to say that the latter is the less desirable option. Children learn eventually, even if with much pain, to deal with their divorced or separated parents as two separate and distinctive units and eventually do come to terms with the fact that their family life is always going to be different. But what they find harder to deal with is the chronic stress of protracted parental marital disharmony, for this keeps them in a constant state of disquiet.  Can we spare them that?
Of course, we can. Not by sacrificing our lives, but by doing something about it. By desisting from playing the acrimonious blame game. By refusing to compel them to take sides. By teaching them that differences between married partners are normal. And by working on the marriage for their sake. This way everyone benefits. And no one needs to resentfully plod along in an unhappy marriage, for the sake of the children.

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The Shrinking Universe 73
WHO’S THE BOSS?

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 was 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.
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 except 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, ‘ I allow my wife to go to work’, there’s a woman who ‘gives her husband permission to 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.
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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The Shrinking Universe 72
THOSE WERE THE DAYS

Not very long ago, I overheard an interesting conversation at a school reunion. One of the protagonists was lamenting to a friend that the school seemed to have gone to the dogs and things seemed to be far from the way it used to be in ‘our days’. They then reminisced about the ‘good old days’ and the fun they had and what a wonderful place the school used to be. A pretty commonplace conversation, one would imagine. For all practical purposes, yes, save for the fact that the two conversationalists were all of twenty years of age and probably graduated from school just a couple of years before the reported conversation took place. Soon, an older person joined the conversation and went on to tell the the two twenty-year olds that they had no right to talk about the good old days. The thrust of the argument was that since it had only been two years since they’d passed out of school, they were still part of the ‘bad new days’.  
Soon a lot of people joined in and the conversation got pretty animated with everyone insisting on buttonholing the two hapless youngsters and giving them a lot of gyan about how good the old days really were and how unlucky they were not to have lived through them. The two youngsters made hasty exits as soon as was decently possible. So apparently, one doesn’t have to reach  dotage to experience nostalgia. Even twenty year olds can. But older people sometimes have a tendency to lay exclusive claims to nostalgia. So, what’s the deal with nostalgia? Were the old days really that good? Are the new days really that bad? Does it serve a purpose or is it just part of the bellyaching that we’re all so good at? The way I see it, everyone has a right to nostalgic reminiscences. A couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary is likely to get as nostalgic about the day they got married as a couple celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything that happened after the good old wedding day has been necessarily bad, does it?
It’s not uncommon to see nostalgia being expressed as a lament, rather than as fond reminiscences. Which brings one to the question, were the old days really that good? The typical lament is that things were much easier in ‘those’ days. Life was much easier. There was hardly any traffic. No pollution. People were nicer and kinder to one another. There was no ‘road rage’. Friends met and talked to each other face to face, not through a bunch of computers and mobile phones. There were more trees, more forests, and abundant water for everyone. People played with real toys. They played real games. Cricketers played for the love of the game and not for ‘filthy lucre’. Politicians got into politics to serve the country and its people. And so on.
But when it’s pointed out to them that there were fewer job and career opportunities in those days, that it took several days to complete a journey that takes just a few hours today, that despite the traffic, people are able to commute long distances, that the Internet has increased connectivity between people and has made life more convenient, despite its shortcomings, that you don’t even need to make a trip to the bank to transfer money, that cricketers today come from smaller towns today and still play high quality cricket, they are still not convinced, for their focus is almost exclusively on the less prepossessing aspects of modern life.
Despite the tendency to facilitate lamentation, Nostalgia is a very valid psychological experience since it serves to periodically recharge one’s energies in order to face the challenges of modern life. Nostalgia is a highly personal experience of selective recall of romanticised memories, all highly exaggerated by the passage of time. These memories bring forth a highly positive emotion in all of us, at some time or other, that we enjoy and celebrate. This positive emotion gives us a feeling of well-being and the wherewithal to get on with our lives.  Nostalgia can only be detrimental when we find that we spend more than a fair share of our waking life soaking ourselves in nostalgic reverie, if the life that we are currently leading is not stimulating enough for our needs. However, even if this were our situation, it’s quite likely that a few years from now we will be nostalgic about how nostalgic we were at this time of our lives.
But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be carried away and believe everything our romanticised memories tell us. For often, they are quite innacurate (even for those of us who pride ourselves on the infallibility of our memories). However it is undisputable that nostalgic reminiscences can be fun, refreshing and stimulating, as long as we learn to enjoy them and understand their place in our lives. The old days were not all that good. And the new days are not all that bad.

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The Shrinking Universe 71
WEDDING BLOOPERS

The Indian wedding stopped being a humble affair a decade or two ago. While the middle class Indian family traditionally frowns on showiness, when it comes to weddings, apparently every conceivable stone is turned to ensure that loudness, even garishness, and ostentation are not kept out of the proceedings, thereby according ‘Industry status’ to the Indian wedding. I am told, though I’m not sure how accurate this is, that the Indian wedding industry is valued at around ` 1,25,000 crores, and that it is growing by around 25 % every year. I am also reliably informed that the better known wedding planners, sometimes referred to as wedding management professionals, are ISO certified. And, although the rich and the famous do contribute their share towards keeping this industry busy, the middle class too are not to be left behind. Even the most Spartan of contemporary weddings costs not less than `5,00,000. All of this, you would imagine, should directly translate to more marital bliss than ever before. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case.
As any couples therapist will tell you, in the first five years or thereabouts of marriage, one of the key issues that consumes most couples’ fights, relate to the wedding. What was spent on the wedding. What was not spent on the wedding. That so-and-so uncle was not given due importance. Or such-and-such aunt didn’t get enough to eat. That your father dressed so embarrassingly ‘down’. Or your mother dressed so mortifyingly ‘up’. That the floral arrangements were pathetic. Or the DJ at the Sangeeth was so retro. That the silver was not displayed at all. And what happened to all the gold and diamond jewellery that was promised? Often, the issues are not related to just the minor niggles that are part of any large event. Sometimes jewellery is stolen, lechery is in evidence, passes are made and sexual peccadilloes discovered. The end result is that many couples take in this wedding-related baggage into their marriages, and since neither partner is willing to cede ground, and since, there is rarely any hard evidence to support any of the allegations that generally float around, issues are usually carried forward unresolved and are dredged out again when marital fights turn nasty. 
One of the interesting offshoots of globalisation, Internet and television, is that Indian cultural mores, far from being threatened by western influences as many people fear, are becoming more pan-Indian, and nowhere is it more in evidence than in the Indian wedding. Regardless of religion, community, state of origin and social class, a fairly large number of Indian weddings seem to follow fairly standardised formats. The religious rituals that solemnise marriages are more of a background phenomenon, for the festivities start several days before and may even last till a couple of days after. Typically you would have a groom’s cocktail party after the ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ parties. This would be followed by the mehndi, the sangeeth, the wedding ceremony itself, and the reception. After this, the guests from out of town still have to be entertained and so a couple of wind-down get-togethers usually take place, which would include watching the wedding video, opening the gifts and doing the wedding post-mortem, following which the couple is expected to visit all the close relatives within commuting distance and have a meal with them. Then the exhausted couple is packed off on a honeymoon where they are updated, by phone and sms, on all the gory details of all the wedding shenanigans.
Another interesting recent phenomenon is the ‘return on investment’ approach to the whole business of marriage. Since so much of money is invested on a wedding, the investors (usually the parents of the bride, but in recent times, the parents of the bridegroom as well) want to ‘protect’ their investment as a result of which they play a much stronger role in their children’s marriages to ensure that the couple stay together and experience the much-touted bliss (just to play safe, they keep meticulous accounts of the wedding expenses, in case these are needed by the family court at some point of time). This, as it usually turns out, is a sure-fire way to reduce marital harmony, for the couple engages in a me and my family vs you and your family sort of dynamic which they may find hard to get out of.
In the final analysis, a wedding should be something that couples remember fondly for many years to come. What makes a wedding special is not how exotic it was or how much it cost, but the joy that the couple felt on coming together. I have nothing against big, even obese, weddings. But what everyone needs to remember is that when large events are organised, there are going to be a lot of slip-ups even if you hire an ISO-certified professional to do it for you. So, there’s no sense in personalising and attributing malafide intent to lapses or making a big deal about wedding bloopers. They just need to be taken in one’s stride and laughed over. And most importantly, it should be remembered that special weddings don’t always make special marriages. Only special people do.

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The Shrinking Universe 70
RETIRED, BUT NOT HURT

Demographers consider the Indian population to be relatively young. By this they mean that the bulk (almost 65 %) of the population is below the age of 35, and only about 5% of the population is estimated to be over the age of 65. The fact that life expectancy at birth has been steadily increasing over the last few decades and currently hovers around the early seventies, indicates that the over-65 population seems set to increase in the years to come. The Finance Ministry obviously thinks so, seeing that they have created a new income tax slab for ‘very senior citizens’ (those above the age of 80).  However, since, as a nation we are still expected to reproduce frenetically, demographers predict that the percentage of over-65s is unlikely to increase dramatically for at least the next few decades. But it appears that the country will soon have a sudden spurt in the number of senior citizens, since the Finance Ministry has also reduced the age of qualification as a senior citizen from 65 to 60.
To me, as interesting as the fact that urban India has increasingly more senior citizens than before, is the manner in which they function today. They are much healthier, more health-conscious, more energetic and more mentally active than were their parents and grandparents. So, we have an increasing number of people who are healthy, active and experienced, with not a lot to do, since they are expected to retire (unless they’re self-employed professionals or businessmen) by the time they are 60 or maybe, 65 at the latest. Of course, even if they are self-employed professionals or businessmen, their heirs and heiresses, start muscling into their fiefdoms with gusto when they’re around ‘retirement age’. The usual arguments presented to facilitate this are cricketing metaphors. You’ve had a long enough innings. It’s time to retire and let someone else take the crease and so forth. Often the outcome is a bitter struggle for all concerned.
The biggest psychological issue confronting the soon-to-become and recently-become senior citizens is the ‘need to be needed’. In our country, as one gets older, one is expected to become more satvik and dedicate the rest of one’s life to spiritual pursuits, engaging in religious pilgrimages, babysitting the grandchildren and generally making oneself useful in the ‘evening of one’s life’. But today’s over-60s are still barely in the afternoons of their lives. They are generally extremely hardy and have the ability to contribute so much more not just to their families or their businesses, but to the country and society in general. Look at Anna Hazare! I agree he is a special man, and all of us may not have his vision, conviction or energy, but surely there’s more that we can do, particularly when the flesh and the spirit are still reasonably willing, than putting ourselves to pasture? Merely because our active working lives are behind us, doesn\'t mean that we are past our sell-by date and have little to do but to gracefully fade away.
Since modern life places such a premium on work, most of us tend to derive our identities from work. And this applies to home-makers as well, for they derive their sense of self from being in charge of the home and everybody in it. As a result, when these identities are threatened by retirement or by being asked by the children or children-in-law to take a bit of a backseat at home, many seniors tend to feel rejected, unwanted and unloved. As I see it, becoming a senior citizen is a wonderful opportunity to re-invent oneself. Given today’s economic environment, many urban seniors are comfortably off when it comes to finances, what with pension funds, reverse mortgage and other financial instruments being available to even those not particularly interested in them. Also, the fact that parents inevitably end up living with their children (except parents of NRIs, of course) means that they can stop worrying about paying the bills and planning for the future (this still doesn’t prevent constitutional worriers from worrying, for post-retirement, they have a new thing to worry about: the future of their children and grandchildren). 
We live in a world where there are many things that able-bodied seniors can do. I know of someone who’s made a list of fifty things that she always wanted to do, but never got down to doing, joyously ticking off the items from her list every few months. Of course, it helped that she had prepared the list well before she retired. For her, therefore, retirement was something to be looked forward to, not something to be hurt about. As she often says, ‘I’ve only retired from work, not from life’. In fact, for many people, life actually begins at 60, especially those who realise that their lives are not about being needed, but about their own needs. And all the wisdom they have acquired over the years adds to the depth of enjoyment of even the simplest of things they set out to do. If you don’t believe me, ask the members of the Dignity Foundation (www.dignityfoundation.com). They know better than most what it is to be retired, but not hurt.

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The Shrinking Universe 69
STOP THAT BELLY FROM ACHING

It’s not uncommon for many, if not most of us, to find something or the other to complain about. If it’s not the spouse, it’s the boss who gives us our daily dose of grief. If not the boss, it’s the children. If it’s not the children, it’s the parents. If not the parents, it’s friends. If not friends, it’s the traffic. If it’s not the traffic, it’s a service provider. If it’s not a service provider, it’s the government. In fact, every one, except perhaps God (and sometimes even He) can mess up our day, thereby giving us adequate reason to engage in what’s rapidly becoming the second favourite national pastime after cricket – bellyaching. And just to keep things in perspective, we bellyache about cricket as well. I’m sure that by now, you’ve realised that when I use the term ‘bellyaching’, I refer to the act of grumbling or complaining and not to a pain, however severe, in the abdomen. 
Sometimes when one looks at and listens to someone bellyaching, you get the feeling that they’re actually enjoying themselves. And what’s more they seem to make us want to grumble a bit as well, for bellyaching is often contagious. I do appreciate the fact that most of us live under uncertain, unpredictable and difficult circumstances and that many of us feel the need to ventilate to others whatever grievances we may feel. However, there does need to be a ‘grumbling limit’ we need to set for ourselves, for the more we bellyache, the more we set ourselves firmly in the victim position. As a result, we may well end up spending the rest of our lives feeling victimised and what’s worse, feeling that we can do nothing about it and that it’s best to accept that we are, and will always be, victims of circumstances. 
This phenomenon, called ‘learned helplessness’, was demonstrated by an American psychologist called Martin Seligman, through a series of not necessarily elegant, but effective, experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, in animals as well as human beings. His basic theory, and clinical evidence over the last half a century confirms this, is that when people learn in childhood to feel they are helpless victims of circumstance, they tend to feel less able to cope with their adult life situations, as a result of which, they may succumb to depression. Where do people learn to feel helpless? From the negative comments about the world, about life and about people that they hear as children at home, at school and when they’re with peers, as well as the negative experiences they are exposed to in the course of their childhoods. Of course, not everybody grows up to experience clinical depressions, only those who have significant negative conditioning during childhood do, but the rest of us invariably end up bellyaching.
Some of us, more than others, by virtue of having a series of negative and even, traumatic, events taking place during our childhood, are quite possibly justified in feeling victims of circumstances, but even so, we must, as adults, consciously make an attempt to understand that by continuing to feel helpless, we are falling into a ‘victim trap’ and that the only way we can deal with our lives is to understand that we do have choices. How often do we hear people saying, “What can I do? I have no choice”, thereby giving themselves permission to accept unhappy jobs, unhappy marriages, unhappy relationships or unhappy environments as their lots in life? People who have learned to be helpless, feel they have no choice, and therefore continue to live out their self-fulfilling prophecies. If they realise that they do have a choice to stop being victims and get on to the ‘survivor mode’, then their quality of life can change quite dramatically, for the better. And what’s more, when they stay in a victim position, they tend to influence others around them - their children, their spouses, their friends and their co-workers, who eventually either tend to avoid them, or join them in a good bellyache.
Yes, we do have choices. Often we don’t see them, or even if we do, we don’t recognise them as choices. As a result they pass us by and we stay on in our helpless fug continuing to believe that there’s nothing really good in life to look forward to. To recognise our choices, we need to first accept the fact that they are there, and then we need to start looking for them. And to do this, we need to fight the helpless feeling that pervades some of us, and realise that, even if the cards we were dealt in our lives may not be great ones, we can still find ways and means of using them effectively to get us to where we want to go. It’s certainly doable. There are many before us who’ve done it, and many after us who will. But are we ready to follow their leads? All right, I’m now going to stop bellyaching and am going to assume that each of us will make wise choices, and that if we don’t, we will at least learn to accept that we didn’t, and not believe that we couldn’t.

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The Shrinking Universe 68
A HEAD FOR ROMANCE

It would be fallacious to believe that romantic love happens only in ‘love marriages’. In arranged marriages too, the whole process is geared towards creating and engendering romance. The minute a wedding is finalised and the engagement concluded, romance shyly (or sometimes, thunderously) makes an appearance. The bride and the bridegroom suddenly become the centre of everybody’s attention (until the wedding day, when they are mere bystanders). It’s almost as if everyone goes on a bit of a nostalgia trip, remembers their own romantic history and transmits this indescribable and exotic feeling on to the couple, who generally, carried away by the occasion, tend to feel romantic about the whole thing too. If they are inherently romantic themselves, the feelings experienced are extremely strong and intense, and the whole engagement period is either wine and roses or tender coconut water and jasmine. 
However, unfortunately, there are many of us, who are completely impervious to our innate romantic streaks, and the engagement period draws out interminably and every day is like the one before and the one after. Despite being deluged by stories and imagery of romantic love by the movies, television, popular literature, massive hoardings, advertisements and, on top of everything, folklore (every region in the country has its own compendium of love legends), many of us seem to possess even less romance than a plate of boiled rice. But take it from me, even the most stoic amongst us is not bereft of sentiment and will certainly, given the right time and environment, experience, at least a smidgeon of romantic love. For, despite what conventional wisdom says, romantic love has more to do with the head than with the heart.
One of the buzz words associated with romantic love is ‘chemistry’, a term that many people find unacceptable, for they fail to see the connection between love and the chemicals that float around in one’s body.  But people who fall in love, even those not particularly scientifically inclined, realise that there must be some truth to this whole ‘chemistry’ business, for a lot of their responses to the loved one are physiological: sweaty palms, racing hearts, wobbly knees, flushing, blushing and a general feeling of being supercharged. A lot of psychobiological research has been undertaken over the last few decades to understand the biology behind love. You might like many others, of course, feel that medical scientists should mind their own businesses and concentrate on more important things like cancer, and let lovers get on with enjoying love, but sometimes it’s nice to know what’s happening inside our minds, don’t you think?
Romantic love starts off with a feeling of strong attraction which is initiated by chemicals called pheromones that give rise to a distinctive odour that our brains find attractive. This is why we are attracted to some people and not to others. Depending upon our social conditioning, our value systems, our personalities and our confidence levels, which can be seen as ‘filters’ in our minds, we may or may not act upon this feeling of attraction, but if the pheromones are strong enough, then our sex hormones (testosterone and oestrogens) kick in and reinforce the feeling of attraction. However, if we find that we like the person we are attracted to and think there’s a possibility of a relationship, we experience not merely sexual lust, but something more - romantic love. 
Romantic love is controlled by several chemicals in the brain, the most important ones being Dopamine and Norepinephrine that are responsible for the excitement of that loving feeling – the sweaty palms, hammering heart, dry mouth, flushing, speechlessness and that indescribable ‘walking on air’ kind of euphoria that makes all the world love lovers, and all lovers do slightly crazy things. Romantic love brings people together, but it’s intensity can be searing, as result of which it may be unsustainable. This is why the chemistry seems to fade after a while of being in love, to prevent us from burning out. Fortunately, another chemical now makes its appearance to ensure we sustain our love for each other. Oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘cuddle chemical’ or the ‘love chemical’ is generally held responsible for nurturing behaviour. It’s the same hormone that stimulates the secretion of breast milk in women and creates a nurturing mindset in them after childbirth. Men too, have oxytocin in their bodies and these, along with other chemicals like Vasopressin and Endorphins that produce a calm and tranquil state, then ensure bonding and attachment between the partners. 
A lot of research is also being done on the brains of people in love. By using an investigation technique called functional MRI, researchers have been able to locate which parts of the brain get activated when individuals are shown pictures of someone they are in romantic love with as opposed to pictures of friends and attractive strangers. If you must know, the medial insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, the caudate nucleus and the putamen (all singularly unromantically-named parts of the brain) seem to be actively involved in the process. And to think that you believed you were allowing your heart to rule your head when you fell in love! It’s all in your head! Now, the question is, while you may have the stomach for romance, do you have the head for it?

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The Shrinking Universe 67
WHO OWNS MY MARRIAGE?

In our country, there is a popular sentiment that it’s not two people that get married, but two families. In the past, when most peoples’ social networks comprised only families and some members of their community, the expansion and perpetuation of the supportive network was entirely dependent on families ‘marrying’ each other. Living in a joint family meant that the new additions to the family belonged to the family and not to the person they married. In that sense the family owned the marriage and in return provided the couple enough space to procreate, as well as a web of security. But, living as we do in the era of Facebook, it is becoming increasingly clear that the safety net provided by families - extended, joint or expanded, may not be as critical as in the past.
In urban India, votaries of the New Indian Marriage, view marriage as something that should be seen as distinct from the remaining family unit. This produces a lot of stress in the members of the larger family who end up feeling rejected and do everything they can to ensure that they retain at least part ownership of the marriage. When I first started working with couples over twenty five years ago, it was always the family that brought the couple in for the consultation, and that too only after all efforts at a family-mediated rapprochement had failed. My waiting room was always crowded, not with couples waiting to see me, but with ‘married families’. The couple was there, of course, but they were buried under two sets of parents, maybe a sibling or two, assorted relatives, an occasional neighbour and so forth. The most difficult task of therapy was to get the family members out of the marriage space, so I could help the couple. This did not go down too well with the family. It still doesn’t. I still have anxious parents calling and asking what their married ‘children’ said to me. While I appreciate their anxiety and concern, I politely tell them that I can’t discuss it with them since the couple are my clients and I owe them confidentiality. They are usually affronted by this response, however gently I word myself. One gentleman went on to tell me that I should subscribe to the basic tenets of Indian culture and not use a westernised way of viewing marriage.
In truth there is no such thing as an eastern or western marriage. Whether you think of it as a sacrament or as a contract, the essence of marriage, in any part of the world, is a shared commitment that two people make to pursue a loving, supportive, nurturing and companionable intimate relationship, because they believe it would add value to their lives to do so. And a commitment of this nature can only be made by two individuals, not two families. That each is part of a family means that two families will willy-nilly engage with each other, but the families don’t have to feel they have married one another. In fact, one of the biggest problems faced by the contemporary Indian marriage is what I refer to as the ‘Me and My Family Vs You and Your Family’ conflict. The only way to deal with this is to ensure that the marriage space and the family space are distinctly separated. By this I don’t mean that families should be cut off by the married couple. I mean that subtle, though definite boundaries between ‘We’ and both families have to be delineated. The more substantial the marriage space, the greater the likelihood of having satisfying relationships with both families. 
Clinical research and professional experience tell me that the best marriages, including those in our country, are those in which the ownership of the marriage by the couple is high. By the term ‘ownership’, I refer to the conviction on the part of both partners that whatever happens inside the marriage space stays within that space, that they need to take full and joint responsibility for both their joys and misfortunes, and that they and only they can take decisions on behalf of the marriage.  They may choose to share their marriage space with others, but only by mutual consent.
In the past, people in arranged marriages tended to blame their parents and families if things went wrong, since it was the parents and families that had chosen the partner. In ‘love’ marriages, the partners have no choice but to own their marriages a little more, since they did the choosing themselves. In recent times, since a lot of arranged marriages involve Internet matrimonial portals, the man and the woman, are also actively involved in the short-listing process, even if the final decision is made by the families. As a result, in arranged marriages too, ownership of the marriage is higher than before.
In the final analysis the couple that owns their marriage has a better chance of seeing it through the long haul. However you choose your partner, the first thing you need to do is to make a resolve to own your marriage jointly with your spouse. And the first thing everybody around needs to recognise is that marriage is between two people and not two families.

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The Shrinking Universe 66
HIPPOCRATES OR HYPOCRISY?

In my last column piece I had discussed how the relationship between physician and patient is slowly moving from an ethereal and mystical plane to a more rational and predictable one. What this paradigm shift has done is to facilitate Medical Ethics being viewed slightly differently. In general conversation, a discussion on medical ethics is usually confined to unscrupulous practices by a section of the medical community to exhort as much financial gain as possible from the hapless patient community. Physicians rationalise this by pointing accusing fingers at the astronomically increased cost of medical education, corporate bottom-line pressures, imbalanced distribution of health care resources and so on. And patients’ arguments centre around the ‘nobility’ of the healing profession, the need to de-emphasise the profit motive, and the intrinsic potential for self-actualisation that the healing process provides the healer. While this is certainly an important debate, I believe the focus must shift from ethics being perceived only as a watchdog concept (to ensure that the physician does no ‘wrong’) to one that is also concerned with defining parameters for an ethical doctor-patient relationship. 
Of course watch-dogging must and will continue to remain part of the ethicist’s job description in order to prevent abuse, which as fallible human beings, physicians, are likely to fall prey to, every now and again. But laws and their enforcement alone are not enough. To ensure that unethical practices are more a breach than the norm, we need to reinvent the doctor-patient relationship itself on more ethical lines. When I use the term ‘ethical relationship’, I do not do so from a moral or a preachy sort of position. As I see it, ethics exist to simplify our relationships by giving us practical and tangible anchor points around which we can build them. If properly implemented, these anchor-points ensure that we experience far fewer dilemmas than before, thereby enhancing our own quality of wellbeing. I believe that the bedrocks of the ethical doctor-patient relationship are formed by three related parameters: transparency, confidentiality, and boundary definition. 
When I talk of transparency, I refer to transparency in the consultation and intervention process. This can be difficult to achieve if the physician continues to perceive his location in the doctor-patient relationship from a one-up position (the demigod syndrome). For, if one does this, one ends up talking down to the patient and not treating the latter as an equal partner in the intervention process. However, if the physician is able to make this transition, an open consultation with the patient becomes possible, where diagnoses are discussed, treatment options are evaluated and interventions are initiated. If the patient has a full understanding of what is being done, what side-effects to anticipate and how to manage these (remember, the patient already has half-knowledge of this from the Internet), treatment compliance as well as outcome tends to be better. 
 Allied to the concept of transparency is the issue of confidentiality. The relationship between body, mind and the sense of self is unique to each individual and is frankly, the individual’s own business and no concern of anybody else, even those who are considered ‘loved’ ones. Since the doctor-patient relationship is a consultative one, the primary line of confidentiality that the doctor has is with the patient and no one else. However, if the patient permits or indeed so desires, expanding the line of confidentiality to include designated others is perfectly acceptable. When a patient realises that the doctor is serious about keeping personal information confidential, even if the information is not particularly damaging, it engenders a feeling of trust in the doctor and immediately creates an excellent platform for healing to begin. 
Transparency creates emotional comfort and confidentiality engenders trust, but nothing creates more respect in the mind of the patient than when the physician has a definitive awareness of his own limitations and limits, thereby strengthening the possibility of defining boundaries in the relationship. Learning how to say ‘I don’t know’, referring a patient to a senior associate for a second opinion, limiting the consulting hours to physically manageable proportions, determining the level of telephonic accessibility to be provided to patients, clarifying how emotionally close one gets to a patient etc, are issues that require conscious attention and discussion. An important aspect of defining boundaries is the consultation fee, for this ensures that the relationship remains on a consultative platform. I have found that often, fees are charged on the basis of perceived affordability of the patient. While this may be an apparently egalitarian approach to the issue, it immediately creates a potentially discordant class division in the patient population (‘will those who pay more get better care?’). Application of mind to defining the fee structure has the added advantage of ensuring that the physician need not supplement his income by resorting to dodgy alternatives. 
Ethical doctor-patient relationships create a win-win situation for both sides of the equation. And achieving these are not as difficult as one would imagine. Creating trust, respect and emotional comfort should be an important focus of the physician’s responsibility and this, I believe, goes a long way towards enhancing the quality of health care services. Then, medical professionals need no longer be considered hypocrites and the good Hippocrates need no longer watch over them. 

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The Shrinking Universe 65
THE LEGACY OF HIPPOCRATES

For close to 2400 years, ever since the legendary Greek physician, Hippocrates laid down the principles based on which physicians may interact with their patients, the basic dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship have remained relatively unchanged. Until recently, that is. The Internet has taken over our lives and has, whether we like to admit it or not, completely altered the way human beings experience themselves, each other and the world around them.  And needless to say, the patient-doctor relationship (it will soon become evident why I refer to it as the patient-doctor relationship and not the other way round) too has undergone sometimes subtle, but at other times dramatic shifts in orientation. 
Most contemporary physicians, when they get together at meetings and conferences, generally spend equal amounts of their time extolling the Internet for the great contribution it has made to their continuing medical education as they do to bemoaning it for the adverse impact it has had on their approach to patient care. For, often, before coming to see the doctor, many urban patients seem to have some idea of what their problems could be and tend to engage the physician in long discussions on differential diagnosis. Worse, they seem to have read all sorts of horror stories about the side effects of medication that the millions of pages of the Internet so generously provide them, and are usually very uncomfortable with whatever prescription the physician gives them. 
I have found many physicians get confused, irritated and agitated with patients who pay short shrift to the ‘demigod’ status that they have been hitherto used to and who actively challenge the physician’s pronouncements or even negotiate to be provided greater information and be treated with greater sensitivity. As a result, the patient-doctor relationship seems to find itself at something of a crossroads and unless rapidly addressed and responded to, may well end up polarising both players in the relationship on an adversarial platform, thereby rendering the concept of ‘therapeutic alliance’ meaningless. 
It may be appropriate at this time to examine the key dynamic of the patient-doctor relationship a little more closely: the ownership of the healing process, which in turn impacts on the inequality of the balance of power in the equation. When patients engage me in discussion based on information they have obtained from friends, relatives or the Internet, I am always gladdened for I see this as a sign that the patient is taking the initiative to establish ownership over the healing process. In other words, it is no longer a cry of “Please heal me”. The underlying dynamic seems to have changed to ‘Please help me help myself’. And this cannot be a bad thing, can it? 
In its most fundamental form, the patient-doctor relationship is a purposeful relationship initiated by the patient on account of a physical or mental ailment that results in some incapacity (for everything else, there’s always OTC). The basic nature of the contract is a consultative one in which the physician who is in possession of a certain knowledge base and skill set is expected to apply these to remedy the incapacity. And to ensure that the transaction is a professional one, a fee is charged for the service provided: pretty much the same basis as would exist in a consultation with a lawyer or a management consultant or any provider of a service. As a result, the patient’s expectation seems to be ‘After all, it’s my body and my mind, and I need to be comfortable with what is being done with or to it’ (of course, the unstated corollary is ‘after all, I am paying for it’).
The one major difference between a consultation with a physician and one with any other type of service provider is that the physician is charged with not just the responsibility of providing a treatment of the problem, but also of healing the sufferer. For complete healing to take place, a trusting emotional relationship between patient and doctor is of overriding importance. And as we know, a trusting emotional relationship can never be developed if the relationship is perceived as one-sided: as when the physician gives and the patient takes. So, to ensure the balance of power in the relationship, it is absolutely vital for the patient to feel part of a fifty-fifty joint venture in the healing process and that both bouquets and brickbats are to be shared equally by both partners.
However, there is, as there usually is, a caveat to all this. Even as the patient takes joint responsibility for the healing process, going ‘doctor shopping’ or constantly second-guessing the doctor or seeking multiple opinions or challenging the physician’s skills are only detrimental, never beneficial. After all the doctor is the ‘expert’ in this equation and while most sensitive doctors would welcome patient participation in the treatment process, there are very few who would care to be scrutinised in perpetuity by untrusting patients. But to ensure that the patient’s privilege is protected and that neither doctor nor patient find themselves on opposite sides of a particularly thorny fence, some ground rules are necessary - the legacy of Hippocrates. 

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The Shrinking Universe 64
THE ADDICT WITHIN

It’s always hard to decide what to write about at the beginning of the year. I mean the last thing I would like to do is to serve you a downer when you’re still full of good cheer and all of that, by getting into some soul-searing stuff or lecturing you on what you need to do for the year ahead and why your New Year resolutions may not work. But now, when you’ve hopefully recovered from your New Year’s Eve excesses and have probably told yourself that you will never again indulge in alcohol and the like, even if this may not yet have progressed to the status of a full blown resolution, may be a good time to explore the phenomenon of the addict that rests within each of us.
I don’t propose to examine the issue of chemical dependence – alcohol, street drugs or prescription drugs, for I, as well as many others, have written extensively on this subject in the past, here as well as elsewhere. These are very serious problems and require a lot of concerted efforts to mitigate the adverse impact they have on individuals, families and society at large. The good news is that the last two decades or so have seen the emergence of excellent initiatives in the governmental, non-governmental as well as the private sector that provide sensitive interventions to help people recognise and overcome these problems, even though they are still fighting some major battles like public apathy.
However, what I’m addressing today are the so-called non-chemical addictions or ‘social addictions’, if you’d like to call them that. Most human beings pass through periods in their lives, when they feel compelled to engage in some apparently mindless activity that, for the time being, seems to provide some relief from the prevailing chaos in their lives. This could be something as simple as spending hours in front of the television set. Or going on uncontrollable buying sprees just to feel and smell the newness of the product. Or getting into a series of dead-end relationships. Or going on eating binges. Or playing computer games or surfing the Internet for many hours in a day, uncaring of unattended work piling up. In other words, bingeing on anything potentially destructive to the body or the soul. Fortunately for many of us, after a period of this compulsive indulgence, we pull ourselves back to the mainstream and get on with our lives, until the next compulsion hits us.
Not everyone is so lucky, though. Some tend to become ‘addicted’ on a more permanent basis to whatever they feel compelled to do. As a result, we have love junkies, sex junkies, relationship junkies, food junkies, television junkies, shopping junkies, internet junkies, gaming junkies, facebook junkies and so on, the common features to each being an obsessive preoccupation with the activity they have chosen; difficulty in stopping the activity even if it comes in the way of their financial, social or emotional well-being; accompanying feelings of shame and self-disgust; and the experience of a sense of craving, irritability and restlessness when they are unable to engage in the activity – all classical ‘symptoms’ of addiction. And through all this, they may never have smoked a cigarette, touched a drop of alcohol or come anywhere within sniffing distance of non-prescription drugs. And you believed that only chemicals induced addiction!
These social addictions, have been less extensively researched than substance abuse,  but are increasingly being recognised as distressing enough mental health issues to merit further study. There is some early indication that similar brain mechanisms as in chemical dependence, may be in operation in these addictions as well, but the state of the art is not quite conclusive on this yet.  It would be most convenient to place the blame at the doorstep of phenomena like degradation of basic human values, the break-up of the joint family and social stress to explain away these social addictions, just as the very availability of drugs, poor parenting and character flaws have been at various times held erroneously responsible for drug addiction. But the real reason that each of us is an addict waiting to happen has to do with the fear that all of us, living with so many uncertainties in our social and personal environments, experience every now and again. When we’re afraid, we tend to ward off this feeling by numbing our minds and brains with repetitive activities.
What it takes to deal with the potential addict in us is to accept that fear, unpredictability and chaos are as much part of our lives as scams, mobile phones and traffic. To deal with these, we need to confront them head on, understand them and make our peace with them, whether with assistance or through a process of rational introspection. Most importantly, we should never attempt to suppress our fear and conflicts, for if we do, they will inexorably manifest themselves in other forms – compulsive behaviour and eventually addictions, whether chemical or social. So, if you’re going to make just one new year resolution, let it be to never fear fear, but to deal with it and let it go once and for all. So much for the lecture, here’s wishing you a Happy New Year!

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The Shrinking Universe 63
HOOPS OF STEEL

William Shakespeare is an annoying man. From the writer’s point of view, he has cornered all the good plots and left only the dregs for others. Also, he has cornered all the good lines and, with remarkable foresight and anticipation, his extraordinary soliloquies contain some of the soundest advice on how to conduct human relationships. Take his play, Hamlet, for instance. In Act I, Scene III, aside of offering a road map to a young man on the threshold of life, Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes, packs in considerable wisdom on the subject of friendships. Even though Polonius’ judgement and advice through the play was generally way off base, prompting Hamlet to think of him as a ‘tedious old fool’, the old counsellor’s words on friendship are, as we will see, spot on. Friends play multiple roles in modern adult life and well configured friendships, serve our recreational, emotional as well as companionship needs. But to make them all-weather instead of only fair-weather, we need to invest some time and energy in them, as Polonius obviously realised. 
Perhaps, the most important piece of advice that he gives us is Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar/ The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried/ Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. Once you have established in your mind the worth of somebody as a friend, you need to make an emotional commitment to them. For as long as friendship is seen only as an optional add-on to your life, your friendships will always remain acquaintanceships and commonplace (vulgar). But if you ‘grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel’, you will invest the emotion of love in your friendships and it is this that will stabilise your friendship even through hard times. And as you invest your emotions in a friend, you start exposing more of yourself (familiar), thereby encouraging your friend to do the same.

Recognising that conflicts are inevitable in friendships, he adds, ....Beware/ Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in/ Bear \'t that th\' opposed may beware of thee. When two adult identities attempt to get close to one another, differences of opinions and differing levels of sensitivity are bound to create situations of misunderstanding, hurt and conflict. The only way these can be resolved is by understanding that they are inevitable and need to be dealt with. When we do attempt to resolve these differences, friendships can become deeper. Try and prevent the quarrel to the extent you can, but if it’s inevitable, don’t pull your punches even if your friend does so. Be able to say whatever it is you feel, for if you don’t do this, your side of the story may never be seen or heard. The best resolution of a problem takes place when both have had an opportunity to express what they feel and finally, through a rational process, reach a conclusion on how to move forward.

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice/ Take each man\'s censure, but reserve thy judgment. Although in friendships, it is as important to share as it is to listen, many of us have a severe handicap when it comes to listening to what our friends tell us, especially when we receive unsolicited advice. I have found that even if such advice is a bit annoying, taking it on board will help at some time or the other. When your friend tells you something, it could well be worth listening, provided you do so without passing judgement on the adviser. 

Neither a borrower, nor a lender be/ For loan oft loses both itself and friend/ And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. I have seen innumerable friendships coming under severe strain and even collapsing under the burden of financial transactions gone awry. We all go through financial stresses in the course of our lives and our friends are bound to help us through these just as we would be more than willing to return the favour when it becomes necessary. However, it is our attitude to such financial transactions that will determine their impact on the friendship. If we take these for granted and are lax about repayments and so on, we are putting the friendship under pressure. However, if we remember Polonius’ words and treat the transaction seriously, then the loan need lose neither itself, nor friend. As a rule of Polonius’ thumb: the fewer the financial transactions, the fewer the frictions in friendships.

And finally, This above all: to thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man. For as long as you are honest to yourself, then it’s easy to not be pretentious in your friendships. Then, nobody can misunderstand you or take you for something you are not. Good friends value each other enough to be their respective selves in each others’ presence. Aside of making for honest relationships, this attitude ensures stress-free friendships as well. He may have rambled a bit and been a ‘tedious old fool’, but old Polonius knew a thing or two about friendships, don’t you think?

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The Shrinking Universe 62
MORAL OF THE STORY

Over the last few weeks the issues of morals and morality have re-entered the Indian mind-space consequent upon the sudden decision on the part of the government to relegate reality television shows, or at least some of them, from prime-time slots to late-night viewing. The stated reasons for such a move are related to the issues of obscenity and inappropriateness for ‘family viewing’, the implication being that in such shows, moral codes are being, in some way, breached. Usually morality-issues make news headlines around the time of Valentine’s day, which is the customary whipping boy of the ‘goes-against-Indian-values’ brigade. At this time, there is much discussion on television, the print media and the Internet, on Indian values, Indian culture, morality and the like, most of which dies down after a month or two. It is also around this time that concerned parents of teenagers tend to visit counsellors and therapists to seek solutions to ensure that their children’s moral values are not eroded. 
It is not my intention to explore the nuances of the reality show issue, for this is neither my area of expertise nor interest. However, what does interest me in this whole debate is the issue of morals and values and how we, as a nation, feel fearful of what we see as the inexorable osmosis of ‘western’ or other ‘decadent’ value systems into our social fabric, thereby ‘corrupting’ our 5000 year old culture. What fascinates me is our assumption that a 5000 year old culture is so easy to corrupt. And what fascinates me even more is that when we refer to ‘moral degradation’ or ‘value erosion’, we refer primarily to sexual licentiousness. Issues like corruption, dishonesty in personal as well as public life, domestic violence, child abuse, caste discrimination, disrespect for public property and the like seem to be accepted as part of the Indian social fabric and, in some indefinable manner, excluded from the purview of morality.
In its simplest form, morality refers to the distinction between good and bad, between right and wrong. For decades the touchstone, when it comes to the psychological study of morality, has been Lawrence Kohlberg, who described the process of moral evolution as going through six stages during the process of human growth and development. In the first stage, fear of punishment and the need for obedience guide moral development. Next, the child enters the second stage which is driven by a hedonistic orientation, where anything that satisfies self-interest is considered right. These first two stages are referred to as the Level of pre-conventional moral development. As the child enters adolescence and begins to relate to peers and adults, the stage of interpersonal concordance (behaving in a manner that pleases others and increases acceptance by them) takes over. With further understanding and growth, one gets into the stage of law and order orientation, where one respects and obeys rules and regulations for the larger good, to ensure the smooth progress of society and social life. These two stages are called the Level of conventional moral development, after which one enters the Level of post-conventional moral development, which is predominantly an adult activity. In the latter level, the individual’s approach is more principled and based on rational understanding and choices, and progresses to the fifth stage where the orientation is predominantly legalistic. Morality, in this stage, is understood by appreciating that rules and regulations are like social contracts that can be negotiated using democratic processes like compromise and consensus. Finally one enters the sixth stage driven more by abstract reasoning, where universal principles of justice define one’s internal moral code.
Of course, there is much critique of Kohlberg’s theory and there are many improvements made on it over the decades, and there is still little consensus on how much internal moral values reflect actual behaviour. That said, I believe it’s still a very useful framework with which we can address the issue of morals and values. What we need to  understand is that each of us can get stuck or fixated at any one of these levels or stages of moral development by virtue of our life circumstances and this may therefore influence the way we respond to moral or ethical dilemmas.
More important than whether Kohlberg was right or wrong, is the understanding that higher levels of moral development take place within our minds and cannot be blamed on globalisation, internet, television or government. Unfortunately today, by virtue of the pace of social change, our approach to our morals is dictated by fear and prejudice, and not introspection and thought. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studied the impact of culture on morals and morality identified five fundamental moral values that can be considered universal across cultures: care for others, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity. However, in contemporary life, we tend to be obsess most about purity - predominantly purity of our sexuality and of Indian culture. Maybe the moral of the story is that we need to shift our focus a bit, and reflect on other parameters as well, all the time remembering that we can blame no one for our ‘moral turpitude’ but ourselves.

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The Shrinking Universe 61
A CLEANISH SLATE

When people ask me whether marital infidelity is a recent phenomenon, I am hard pressed to give them a clear answer. On the one hand, I know that I don’t have any hard data, for this is not the sort of information the Census Board collects (although sometimes I wish they could). However, I do know that when I started practising over twenty five years ago, people were infidel even then. The most unlikely of people, really. People who, if you passed them on the street, would give you absolutely no indication of the passion that lurked in their hearts and minds. Your average, conservative, middle class men and, hold your breath, women, were breaking their marital vows with the same alacrity that their children and perhaps, grandchildren, are doing today. However the one key difference is that people used to be much more discreet in those days and many have gone through lifetimes without their dalliances being discovered. 
Today, people engage in infidelity much more brazenly and affairs are more in-your-face than ever before. Technology has contributed its bit, for people can and do conduct extra-marital engagements through mobile phones, the Internet and so forth. However, the same technology that abets such relationships, also exposes them more readily, for the commonest method of discovery of affairs is a poorly-timed amorous text message or an undeleted chat transcript (it’s very hard conducting an affair if you’re not tech savvy). It’s because affairs are being detected much more easily nowadays, there exists the possibly fallacious impression that more people are having affairs today than ever before. 
Given that marital infidelity is as old as the hills, one shouldn’t be surprised at the increased incidence of a relatively recent phenomenon in urban India – premarital infidelity, oxymoronic as the term may sound. I’m not referring to teenage or young adults who are two-timing their girlfriends or boyfriends. This, of course, does exist, and has been around for a very long time and can be seen, if you will, as part of the process of mate selection. At this stage, a commitment has not really been made to spend the rest of their lives together. I refer to couples who are either engaged to be married or who have announced to the world that they intend to be married, whether their match has been arranged by their families or they have chosen their partner themselves. Sometimes wedding dates have been announced, venues booked, wedding cards printed and non-refundable travel plans of overseas relatives made, when suddenly one of the protagonists finds out that the other has been up to a bit of extra-pre-marital ‘no good’, and not necessarily with an old flame. Oftentimes, the flame is brand new. 
This casts a new light on the bride-or-groom-to be. Family, friends and enemies come to know all the gory details at lightning speed, and everybody realises a hard decision has to be made immediately. I have found that the majority of parents in such situations are keen to go ahead with the wedding and invest a lot of time and energy in family meetings, counselling sessions, ‘panchayat’ discussions and so on, with the idea of persuading the errant one to give up the paramour and settle down to marital bliss. More often than not, the weddings do take place and even go off smoothly. Sadly, the same cannot be always said for the marriage.
Surviving infidelity even after years of marriage is hard enough, but dealing with it even before it has begun, can be even more traumatic. Of course if said infidelity was more of ‘sowing one’s wild oats’ sort of thing, then recovery is relatively easier. Sometimes, this sort of thing happens as part of pre-marital jitters, and this too can be survived. But what is hardest to survive is when the one committing pre-marital infidelity feels genuinely in love with the paramour, which happens more often than you’d care to imagine. In this situation, if the person is forced or ‘persuaded’ to see the wedding through, the risk of marital infidelity increases exponentially.
The way I see it, if the young man or woman believes that what is felt for the paramour is genuine love, one should be very chary of pressing on with the wedding. Yes, a broken engagement is emotionally harrowing, socially humiliating and inordinately expensive for all concerned. But this is still less difficult to deal with than the trauma of a broken marriage, if and when it does happen. Hoping that nothing goes wrong in the future, is not always the best basis to start off a marriage with. And deriving solace from other such marriages that seem to have worked is also not a good idea for one is not really aware of the nuances of that situation. A minimum requirement for a workable marriage is that both partners come into it with a cleanish slate. Whatever relationships they have had before they met and agreed to marry each other is of no consequence. But after committing to marry each other, an ongoing relationship with someone else, does muddy the slate a fair bit. And that’s rarely a good way to begin.

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The Shrinking Universe 60
I, ME AND MY THERAPY

My last column piece generated a lot of mail. Many of my readers, and not just professional counsellors I might add,  wrote in to tell me that it did make things a little clearer in their minds. Some of the responses, however, were not as affirmative. I was advised to not mystify the counselling process, that counsellors were not really necessary and that there was little that a counsellor could tell them that they didn’t already know. In fact, one of my readers recommended that I should ‘get a grip on myself and live and let live’. Also, there were several who wanted to understand what actually the counselling process was all about. Since I believe that my grip on myself is reasonably satisfactory, I would like to use this space to ‘demystify’ the counselling process and explore what actually happens when you do finally decide to meet a counsellor. Here goes...
First off, most people seek counselling to help them deal with some road-blocks or bottlenecks they experience in their personal lives. There may not necessarily be any deep-seated psychological trauma or any overwhelming incidents in their lives, or the presence of any diagnosable mental disorder. In other words, most people who look for counsellors are as normal as you or I (of course, I’m assuming that you and I are ‘normal’). Counselling may be sought to help resolve some worrisome individual internal conflict or issues in relationships. Regardless of the reasons you decide to see a counsellor, there are some things you are perfectly justified in expecting. The most fundamental of these is that you do not expect your counsellor to ‘advise’ you on anything. You have already received enough advice from family and friends and are probably sick of it by now. The counsellor’s primary responsibility is to help you understand what’s happening in the unconscious part of your mind. With the insights that your counsellor helps you obtain, through a non-judgemental ‘therapeutic relationship’, you can make some considered choices about how to deal with your bottlenecks. The counsellor is a facilitator, an interpreter, a resource person who has an understanding of how minds work. The counsellor is not a ‘professional elder’ who ‘advises’ you to ‘adjust’ to whatever you’re struggling to deal with. 
The next thing you can expect from your counsellor is complete confidentiality. This is an integral part of the counselling process and whatever you reveal to the counsellor will be between you and your counsellor alone. We, as a nation, are not too hot on confidentiality, and it is not uncommon for concerned family members to call or meet the counsellor to ask what their loved one ‘revealed’ to the counsellor. Good counsellors will politely decline to respond to such requests, even though the concern may be legitimate and come from a good place. It’s entirely up to the individual whether or not to share the contents of the counselling process with family members.
Typically, counselling interventions take some time (between a few weeks and a few months), and usually, each session will last about an hour or a little less. Counsellors use several techniques to help you obtain insights and to overcome your resistance to counselling. Many of these may not be readily apparent to you and most counselling sessions may make you feel that you’re just having a chat with someone who seems interested. If this happens, take it from me, the counselling is going well.
As much as you expect your counsellor to approach you and your issues professionally, you too need to do the same. Your counsellor will expect complete honesty from you. Remember this is in your best interest, for your counsellor’s interpretations depend largely on what you tell them. They are not magicians, even if they sometimes appear to be. Also you need to put in effort to facilitate the process. In other words, counselling is not like a medical consultation where a prescription is going to take care of an illness. It’s your mind and your life, and you have to work to make things better. Tell the counsellor everything that’s on your mind, however trivial it may sound. Let the counsellor separate the wheat from the chaff. Don’t expect the counsellor to give you solutions. The solutions are within you. You can access them when, during the counselling process, you have empowered yourself to do so, by understanding what exactly is happening in your mind. Don’t expect your counsellor to make decisions on your behalf. Your decisions have to be your own; the counsellor can only help you by framing your options clearly and giving you insights into the decision-making process. Don’t expect to see visible changes at the end of each session. This will simply not happen. Counselling, is an involved process and gains are usually incremental.
And finally, don’t drop out half way through the process, just because the going is getting a bit rough or a few raw spots have been hit, for these have to be dealt with before you move on. Keep the faith and stick with it; believe me, you’ll be much the better for it.

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The Shrinking Universe 59
EVERYONE’S A COUNSELLOR

Although I was certainly aware that the term ‘counselling’ was being used to describe a variety of situations (as in ‘counselling for medical/engineering admissions’), I never realised that it had entered popular imagination so strongly until I encountered a teenager who told me she had tried her best to ‘counsel’ her parents to fight less with each other, but it hadn’t worked. After this, perhaps because my mind was tuned to it, I kept hearing other people using the term in the course of normal conversation. Everybody, it seemed, was counselling everybody else. And enjoying themselves thoroughly. Until, of course, they realised that the ‘counselling’ was not helping and that they perhaps required ‘professional help’ ( a scary term implying that one has gone beyond the realms of normal behavioural variances). Then the questions began. Is counselling enough or do I need psychotherapy? Who is a professional counsellor? Should one see a psychiatrist? Or, a psychologist? Or..?
First off, let’s examine the issue of counselling vs. psychotherapy. Typically psychotherapy is a set of interventions offered by a psychotherapist (or simply, therapist) who is intensively trained in one particular theoretical orientation, such as psychodynamic, systemic, gestalt, cognitive-behavioural and so on. (I am excluding psychoanalysis from this discussion since it is a much more involved form of psychological intervention and is quite different from counselling and psychotherapy). Counselling, on the other hand, refers to a more generic and eclectic process, although some counsellors are affiliated to a particular theoretical orientation. It’s not as if one is better than the other, it’s just that they are slightly different in their approaches, and the intensity of the training requirements are also not the same. However, in our country, for all practical purposes, the terms psychotherapist and counsellor are used pretty much interchangeably and it hardly matters what you call the person sitting across you and encouraging you to share every little detail of what is bothering you.
Just to give you some perspective on the different kind of mental health professionals available out there, a psychiatrist is a medical professional who undertakes post-graduate training in Psychological Medicine (a psychiatrist would hold either an MD degree, a DPM or both) and is licensed to prescribe medication. In general, the large bulk of psychiatrists in the country practice or work in medical settings where they deal with severe mental disorders like schizophrenia etc. However a small number of them, yours truly included, work in the field of psychotherapy and counselling as well. Although most people who’ve obtained a bachelor’s or masters degree in psychology can be called psychologists, when it comes to counselling, it is the clinical or counselling psychologist, a person who has a M.Phil. or doctoral qualification in the field of clinical and/or counselling psychology, whose help one needs to seek. Clinical and counselling psychologists cannot prescribe medication, and most work in the fields of psycho-diagnostics (doing psychological or psychometric tests to aid in diagnosis), counselling and psychotherapy.
A psychiatric social worker is a person who has done a masters or doctoral degree in medical and psychiatric social work. Basically a psychiatric social worker is more oriented to the social aspects of psychological problems, although a few of them do also work in the fields of counselling and psychotherapy. Then you have the trained counsellor who, more often than not, has an educational background in psychology and has earned a degree or diploma in counselling after undergoing specialised training in recognised training centres. This kind of professional is not to be confused with the lay counsellor who usually does not have a formal background in psychology, but has been trained in basic counselling skills for a one to six month period and can provide counselling ‘first-aid’, if you will. These apart, you have a whole bunch of not-necessarily-trained counsellors who usually use conventional wisdom or engage in more esoteric interventions like hypnotic regression and so on.
So, that’s the menu available today to whoever wants to be counselled. A fairly wide array of professionals, you might think, but the unfortunate part is that none of them is really licensed to practice counselling (only psychiatrists, being doctors, require a medical licence, but this is primarily for administering medical care). This means there is no overseeing body that monitors quality, redresses grievances and mandates refresher education, even though, most trained professional counsellors are affiliated to their respective professional associations and get the benefit of continuing education and skill upgrades. 
How does one then choose a counsellor? For a start, asking around is not a bad idea. If you’ve nobody to ask, try your family doctor. If you don’t have one, I guess Google or the yellow pages are your only option, but have a chat with your potential counsellor before you make a commitment. As long as the person is a trained professional (as described above), from a recognised training facility (medical college, PG medical training facility, university department, school of social work or counselling training centre) and you feel comfortable with the counsellor, you’re probably okay. But do remember that bad counselling can damage the mind as much as a quack can the body. So, some time invested in choosing your therapist, will be well worth the trouble.

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The Shrinking Universe 58
THE CLASH OF THE TEMPLATES

By and large, married couples tend to take the exhortations of the good bard seriously when he stated that “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players”. Which is probably why all of us tend to play what we perceive to be the role of the spouse when we get married. Of course, our partner is doing pretty much the same thing and before we realise it the great ‘clash of the marriage templates’ has begun. And since most couples are unaware of this (since most marriage templates are stored in the unconscious part of your minds), bitter fights ensue, hostilities are exchanged, lawyers are consulted and panchayats jump into the marriage, all avoidable situations if both partners sat down and understood their marriage templates.  
A marriage template is, to put it simply, the way you think a marriage should be conducted: the way you will behave with your partner, the way you expect your partner to behave with you. In other words, how each of you defines a good wife and a good husband. Typically, the marriage that we have viewed closely is that of our parents or older relatives or friends, whoever we were closest to. Even if we didn’t realise it, each of us has a model marriage imprinted in our unconscious mind. Nine times out of ten, this turns out to be our parents’ marriage. As adults, we may have consciously  accepted or rejected our parents’ marriage as either being an appropriate or not good enough basis to model our own marriage on. However, whatever we observed as children stays in our minds. And when we face an unfamiliar situation in our marriage, or are stressed by life events around us, we tend to respond to situations in the same manner as our parents did. 
The template we have acquired before we get married is called the primary marriage template. If both partners have similar primary marriage templates, which does occasionally happen, then things become extraordinarily easy indeed. In fact, this is why arranged marriages of yesteryears were based on finding alliances from similar backgrounds, resulting in more or less similar primary marriage templates that required the least adjustment on the part of both partners. However, given the rapid pace of social change over the last decade or so, even in those arranged marriages today where couples come from seemingly identical social and economic backgrounds, primary marriage templates are rarely similar. So, we have to get on with the task of defining our final marriage templates more consciously than our forefathers had to.  This latter template is what both partners define as being mutually appropriate and beneficial for the both of them and incorporates elements of the needs and expectations of both. The process of defining the final marriage template involves each partner exploring and sharing with the other, how they have understood their respective parents’ marriage. There is no need to discuss this with the parents to get their clarifications on the finer details (they are hardly likely to share intimate details with you, anyway), because accuracy is not the issue here. It is your perception of your parents’ marriage that determines how you have internalised your primary marriage template.
When one talks about one’s expectations honestly and openly, one ceases to play the ‘role’ of the spouse; one ‘becomes’ a spouse. The focus shifts to ‘being’ in the marriage from playing a role in the marriage. The only way both partners can ‘be’ in the marriage, is for them to understand their respective primary marriage templates, consciously create a final marriage template for themselves and to make sure that their marriage doesn’t get stuck in the same patterns that their ‘model marriage’ did. Even if the model marriage is considered a ‘good marriage’, it need not necessarily work for both partners, unless both consciously accept the model marriage as their final marriage template. By the same token, they also need to realise that the marriage template that works for them need not necessarily work for anyone else – parents, friends, siblings or children.
Put differently, your marriage has to have its own unique template. This way, both of you can just be yourselves in the marriage and not play any pre-defined, designated roles that each thinks the other ought to play. And when both of you are yourselves in the marriage, both experience a feeling of liberation and enrichment that marriage is supposed to bring. It’s all very well for actors to play roles, for they have a script with which to do so. You don’t. If you have to spend your married life, ad-libbing your way through the roles you are struggling to play, you have to be a fantastic actor to pull it off, or like most of us, fall by the wayside, either hamming or playing a nebulous role badly, thereby incurring the wrath of the audience - your partner.

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The Shrinking Universe 57
IN SEARCH OF SANITY

Once, shortly after I hung out my shingle as a practicing psychiatrist, I was approached by a young, and obviously distressed man, beseeching me to evaluate and issue him a ‘sanity certificate’. I can’t quite remember what exactly prompted such an extraordinary request, but I do remember feeling absolutely flummoxed by it. A few months ago, I was approached by a not-as-young, but equally distressed lady with an identical request, for she wanted to submit it to the Family Court where her estranged husband was trying to prove her legally ‘insane’. Although about twenty six years separate the two incidents, my response remains the same: I am still flummoxed.  I know how to certify a person who is not ‘sane’, one who suffers from a mental disorder, or even one who has clinically recovered from a mental illness. But a certificate of ‘sanity’? Nobody has taught me how to diagnose ‘sanity’ and I don’t have a clue where to begin. What is sanity? And who, amongst us, is sane?
As any good psychiatrist will tell you, conventional teaching has it that the concept of sanity can be considered at several levels. Also, as any honest psychiatrist will tell you, when the term ‘several levels’ is invoked, it more often than not implies that one is groping in the dark; the more the levels, the more frantic the groping. My experience as a practising mental health professional tells me that, whether or not one has a clear definition of sanity, the thing one fears most after death and income tax, is the loss of one’s sanity. Which probably explains why psychiatrists aren’t exactly the most popular creatures at social gatherings. When someone asks me what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a psychiatrist, they often sidle away imagining I am going to read their minds even if I tell them I’m off duty. The more intrepid tell me, usually accompanied with nervous chuckles, one of three standard ‘psychiatrist’ jokes that I used to tell before I became one, and the more brazen ask me with feigned insouciance whether I have shrunk any good heads lately. 
Originally referred to as ‘alienists’, an entirely appropriate term considering how much they, along with the sufferers they were attempting to heal, were alienated from the social mainstream, psychiatrists later came to be known as head-shrinkers, fashionably abbreviated in recent times to shrink. For those not in the know, the term head-shrinker owes its origins to the shamans and witch-doctors who allegedly  used their fabled magical powers to shrink the heads of those who threatened them and their societies. And even today many people fear that, this is precisely what a psychiatrist does. Which is perhaps why, when anyone is asked to see a psychiatrist, the first response is usually, ‘Are you nuts? I’m not insane!’. In modern times however, the term shrink has entered popular parlance and despite its unprepossessing origins need not be a pejorative reference, unless accompanied by a snigger. However, the fact does remain that psychiatrists are still considered a pretty quirky lot, necessary for others though not for yourself. At last count, there’s only over 3000 of us in India, practising our craft, still groping in the dark for a definition of sanity.
In matters of law the definition of sanity has been operationally addressed, although the primary concern in criminal law is the assessment of culpability, and in civil law, ‘soundness of mind’ when it comes to the discharge of statutory rights or responsibilities. Put simply, if, at the time of performing a crime, an individual knew that s/he was engaging in a criminal act and understood the consequences of the said act, then the person is not ‘legally insane’ and is therefore culpable. Similarly, if when discharging a civil responsibility (making a will, getting into or staying in a marriage etc), an individual is completely aware of what s/he is doing and its consequences, then no insanity exists. However, although many legal tomes have been written on insanity and unsoundness of mind, even the law is not really conclusive on what precisely sanity is. 
By and large, physicians and healers have concerned themselves more with ‘insanity’ than sanity, leaving the latter to the cogitations of philosophers, theologists and ethicists, preferring instead to define sanity as the absence of insanity. However, here too, the solutions are not readily forthcoming. Religious and theological definitions of sanity and normal behaviour are too rooted in their respective monotheistic fundaments for universal acceptance; statistical definitions of sanity are subject to too much variance; social definitions are too restrictive; philosophical and existential definitions are too obscure for day-to-day living; and New Age definitions are too fanciful. What we’re then left with are personal definitions of sanity. 
As I see it, until we reach an universally applicable definition, if indeed that is even necessary, let us for the moment agree that we are sane until proven insane. Let us also agree that seeing a psychiatrist does not mean we’re insane, nor does not seeing one make us sane. For, from where I sit, the universe is shrinking and in this New Age of ours, when the only things psychiatrists need consider shrinking are their waistlines, sanity, whether statistical, social, moral, ethical, or legal, will indeed prevail, provided we neither fear losing it nor go around looking for sanity certificates. 

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The Shrinking Universe 56
THE PYGMALION EFFECT

Ovid, the Roman poet, in his Metamorphosis, first recounted the legend of the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion who had little use for women in his life, until he fell in love with an ivory sculpture of the perfect woman that he’d made. He called her Galatea and prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to give her life. His prayers were granted and he then married Galatea and led a happy life. Based on this myth, social scientist Robert Rosenthal described in 1968, what he referred to as the Pygmalion effect, sometimes also referred to as the observer-expectancy effect. 
The basic postulate here is that the expectation a teacher has of a student significantly affects the latter’s performance. In a well-known experiment carried out by Rosenthal and his colleagues, teachers were primed by being told that certain students were “bright” and that certain others were “dim”, even though in reality, there was no basis for this categorisation. The hypothesis was that this would unconsciously condition the teachers to approach the bright and the dim students differently. This was exactly what happened, as a result of which they had higher expectations of the “bright” students who ended up performing better than the “dim” ones of whom they had much lower expectations and consequently did not really push to perform. This forms the basis for two contemporary phenomena: parents and teachers who drive their ‘smart’ children to perform like champions, and what in today’s corporate world is referred to as mentoring.
It is not uncommon to see parents, and sometimes teachers too, driving their children to perform at levels of excellence far above those of their contemporaries. This happens, more often than not, when the child displays a particular type of talent or ‘intelligence’, say academic skills, musical abilities, athletic prowess or whatever. Such parents are convinced that the child has the wherewithal to be a high achiever, and not only push the child to do better all the time, but devote a fair portion of their time and energy to providing opportunities and indentifying resources that can benefit the child’s progress. The fact that their child does better than others spurs them on even further in this endeavour. The concept of mentoring too operates along similar lines : identify potential ‘stars’ and attach them to a senior professional who will not only provide them with knowledge and understanding, but also motivation and pressure to grow by having high expectations of them. 
However, when you take a step back and look at the whole issue with some objectivity, there are a couple of readily visible catches. The first of these has to do with identifying potential. The very basis of the Pygmalion myth is that Galatea is a veritably perfect creation. Therefore, the raw material will have to be of very high quality to begin with. Could Pygmalion have created a Galatea out of clay or stone or even marble? He needed ivory as the starting point. Of course, the potential of ivory over stone or marble in sculpture may be readily evident, but in contemporary life,  although performance is measurable, potential is not, for it is a prediction of future performance based on estimates of current capabilities. History is full of anecdotes of people who were passed over as being ‘low in potential’, turning out to be world-beaters, not because they were actually low in potential, but because they were inaccurately assessed to be so. There is, equally, enough evidence that people who were adjudged to be high in potential, have burnt-out very rapidly. Put differently, this approach of dredging out potential winners can result in as many hits as misses and oftentimes it does seem that the effort put in by the Pygamalions of the modern world may not really produce the anticipated Galateas.
The next difficulty is the match or the compatibility between the mentor and the protégé. In today’s world, a potential protégé can hire a mentor from among an array of professional mentors or coaches, whether the protégé is made of ivory, clay or stone. Or the parent may choose a mentor for the child whether or not the child has the requisite raw material and may end up pushing the mentor as well as the child to extract quality outcomes. The best mentoring happens serendipitously, as when a senior professional takes a shine to a rookie and pretty much adopts the latter who is often happy to be mentored. And then there is always the risk of finding a Svengali for a mentor. In his 1894 novel Trilby, George du Maurier created a fictional character called Svengali, an evil hypnotist who uses his powers to control the minds of hapless people. Unfortunately, many young protégés have been ‘Svengalied’ and have become victims of their fiendish mentors’ malafide machinations. 
However, if one approaches the issue with some balance, and has high, though not astronomical expectations of oneself or one’s child, remembers that the Pygmalion effect cannot convert a ‘dim’ child into a ‘bright’ one, has a reasonable assessment of one’s capabilities, chooses one’s mentor with care, defines adequate mentor-protégé boundaries and knows when to quit if things don’t quite work out, Galateas, not Svengalis, will inherit the earth, and who knows, eventually become Pygmalions themselves.  

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The Shrinking Universe 55
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

One major truism of contemporary life is that many of us often look for solutions for all sorts of things. When we can’t find the solution ourselves, we look for solution providers. And more often than not, we find one, whatever our problem may be. That solution-seeking has become a modern epidemic was driven home to me recently when I noticed that the humble, hole-in-the-wall photocopying store that I usually pass on my way to work, had suddenly re-invented itself. Almost overnight, it had become a snazzier hole-in-the-wall and now sported swanky signage that said “Documentation Solutions”. So, in 21st century India, if you have a documentation problem (if you want something photocopied, that is), you look for a documentation solution provider. And if you look around you’ll find a huge range of solution providers, who are waiting impatiently to provide customised, tailor-made solutions for all your needs.
What does this mean? Are we facing more problems than ever before? Or have we become too lazy to find our own solutions? Or do we realise we have problems every time we see someone advertising solutions? Or have we just become more sensitive and are in touch with problems and issues that our parents never had even an inkling of? A bit of all these, I would imagine. For, we do live in a more complex world today. Our choices have expanded quite bewilderingly. We are also much more sensitive to what’s happening inside our heads, hearts and bodies. And more often than not, we possess neither the wherewithal nor the tools with which to solve the problems we face. And so, rather than sitting on the ‘victim bandwagon’, we try and find solution providers.
However, the key questions are, do we find the solutions we are seeking and having found them, are we truly better off for this? The short answers to these questions are ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively. As mentioned earlier, for every problem, there is a solution-provider and therefore, we are more likely than not to find a solution to whatever it is that bedevils us. But, having done so, we do not necessarily experience a better quality of life. If the solution we have purchased is a comprehensive one, we will, for a while at least, experience a sense of relief. And this might or might not sustain us until we hit the next problem, for then we are constrained to start the process all over again. 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against solution-providers (I am one myself, remember?). I’m just saying that if we confine ourselves to looking only for immediate solutions to our problems, we don’t truly empower ourselves, for we have purchased, not the technology of problem-solving, but only an immediate-term solution, which may or may not last. In a crisis, of course, immediate solutions are vital, but otherwise, we’d probably be better off, if we seek enhancement rather than solutions. Without doubt, we can get ourselves a bypass if our coronary arteries protest too much. This solution may make us feel we are good to go for another ten to fifteen years (at the end of which we can find ourselves a new heart or whatever medical science discovers for us), but as any cardiologist will tell you, lifestyle changes are the better way to empower yourself after a bypass, for these are what will truly enhance the quality of your life. 
One of the first assessments I make when a couple comes to see me is whether they are seeking solutions for their marital issues or enhancement of the quality of their marriage. As a rule of thumb, I have found that solution-seekers are so focussed on the problem at hand, that they are unable to see marriage as a larger picture that needs to be painted stroke by stroke. They tend to settle for quick fixes than look for lasting resolutions to their issues. And they wait for the therapist to tell them what to do, rather than owning the process of finding answers to the questions in the marriage. 
On the other hand, if a couple wants to take charge of their lives and the marriage, I think of them as enhancement-seekers, for what they are looking for is a more general overhaul of their marriage. They are more likely to go deeper into their issues and see what all they need to do or change in order to have a more intimate relationship. They are also more likely to see the process through for they have realised that quick-fixes are not going to help them and they need to engage in active self-exploration if they are to find a remedy for the issues they face. When they do all of this, they truly own their problems and therefore the solutions as well. 
I have found that enhancement-seekers benefit from therapy far more than do solution-seekers, whether in couples therapy or individual psychotherapy. I would imagine this to be true of any knotty problem we may come face to face with. Unless, of course, what you are seeking is a documentation solution. Then you know what to do!

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The Shrinking Universe 54
MAYBE! MAY BE NOT!

Living, as we do, in the age of internet matrimonial portals and wedding planners, you’d think that it would be most natural for two people who love each other or like each other’s ‘profiles’, to order mangalsutras and rings and so forth. Not always, it seems. Weighed down by the hundreds of doubts that burden their minds, increasing numbers of beleaguered urban couples find it easier to either call it quits or stay stuck in some sort of irresolute limbo. So when you think of the person you are dating or chatting with on the net as your spouse-to-be-maybe-may-not-be, don’t get into a flap about this. It happens to the best people and you are in excellent company. However, to resolve the issue and to regain mental health, you will need to work through your commitment conflicts. 
The first of these is the nature of the beast hypothesis. It centres around the concern that humans are innately polygamous creatures. And therefore the question is, Isn’t marriage against the nature of the beast? Sure. If the beast in question was living a few millennia ago. Monogamy has been such an integral part of our social history that it’s pretty much ingrained in our DNA now. However, those amongst us who are still conflicted tend to use the American divorce rate as a beacon to illuminate this argument. If you visit a remarkable website called www.truthorfiction.com, you’ll realise that the much touted statistic that ‘one out of every two American marriages ends up in divorce’ is, in fact, fiction. The basis for this inaccurate perception may be the observation that for every two marriages registered in a particular year in an American state, one divorce was registered. (The correct method of computing the divorce rate is dividing the number of divorces in a particular period by not only the newly registered marriages during the period, but all the existing marriages in the area). You might also want to drop in on your neighbourhood Marriage Registrar and see how many divorcees are getting married again. The beast, it appears, has finally been tamed. 
Many potential marriages have been aborted by the ‘What if’ conundrum. What if he turns out to be an alcoholic or wife beater? What if she stops loving me? The basic worry here is: what if our relationship changes after we get married? Let’s get one thing out of the way. Your relationship will change after you get married. Your partner will change after you get married. You will change after you get married. Change is inexorable. But it need not be for the worse. If both of you try hard enough, it can even be for the better. Then there is the ‘Mr/Ms. Right Uncertainty’. The soul mate or the ‘right’ partner could always be around the next corner and maybe the person you’re seeing now should be put on hold. As I see it, if you’re still going to be looking around corners, you’re never going to make it to the highway. At some time, you have to make a call and just because the person in your life is not a ‘10’, is no reason to dither. Go with your heart. Strange as it may sound, most marriage decisions are taken from the heart and not the head, for there exists no foolproof matrix that accurately predicts compatibility. 
And finally, there is the good old ‘Why Get Married, Why Not Live Together Argument’. You’d be surprised at the number of couples in live-in relationships today who are reluctant to formalise their relationships. I usually find that most protagonists of this argument think that living in would make separation easier if the relationship does not work out. This is a big fallacy. Believe me, it never easy to walk away from a relationship and if you think you can just pack your bags and leave your long-term live-in partner, please think again. Live-in partners find it much harder to separate than married couples. I have known couples in very long-term relationships that have been through real nadirs, determinedly sticking it out together, but equally stoutly refusing to ‘go legal’. Why they don’t get married will always remain a mystery to me, considering that for all practical purposes they’re probably more ‘married’ than other married couples. A sobering thought:  live-in partners run the risk of sharing the experience of Eva Gabrielsson, the long-term live-in partner of Stieg Larsson, the phenomenally successful Swedish author of the Millennium Mysteries trilogy, who died intestate (actually he left behind an unwitnessed, and therefore legally void, will). Since Swedish law does not consider Eva his legal heir, his rather substantial estate has gone to his father and brother. 
In the final analysis, the only resource that you have at your disposal when you pop the question or have it popped at you, is your instinct. We tend, most of us, to undervalue our instincts. And this can be a big mistake. Learn to respond to it and hone it and you will find that it rarely lets you down. All you need to feel sure of is that your partner responds with an equal and matching commitment. Remember, you are only making a commitment to work on your relationship; you’re not selling your soul.

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The Shrinking Universe 53
NOTHING OFFICIAL ABOUT IT

Contemporary urban lifestyles demand that we spend more than a third, sometimes even half, of our lives in the workplace. In fact, most urbanites, whatever the gender, derive their very identities from the work that they do. As a result, work has come to occupy a position of predominance in modern lives and the workplace has slowly become almost as important as home, oftentimes even being a substitute for it. This probably explains why many large business corporations invest substantially in creating work environments that are friendly, supportive and even fun. Today, employees in many progressive companies can, aside of doing their work, eat, sleep, work out, shower, change, lounge around, read books and magazines and so on, without ever leaving the office; the idea being that if employees think of their workplace as a more engaging environment than home, they may then find it easier to spend increasing amounts of time at work, thereby ensuring greater productivity and lower attrition. 
But despite all these efforts, attrition continues to be worrisome, employee satisfaction levels labile and productivity as-yet-unpredictable. Looking closer at this paradox, one realises that we have everything going for us except, unfortunately, the appropriate tools that could help us deal with our work relationships and their demands in a rational manner. So, we approach such relationships with tentativeness rather than confidence. And if things aren’t going too well, we imagine they will somehow improve, if we spend more time and invest more energy in the workplace. However, this by itself is not going to produce results, unless we are mindful of three mental phenomena acting in concert, that might end up holding us back.
The first of these is poorly balanced ‘domain investment’.  As a highly socially species, the human individual exists in a ‘personal space’ that relates to the following social ‘domains’ or ‘spaces’: the marital domain, the primary family domain (those that one lives with), the secondary family and friends domain, the work domain and the community domain. Mutually satisfying relationships in each of these domains are important for the individual to achieve personal growth and fulfilment. Each domain requires that the individual invests a certain proportion of available time and energy in order that the relationships within these domains be adequately nurtured. In other words, it is critical that the individual distribute the available time and emotional energy across all the domains, not necessarily equally, but in a manner that the needs of both the individual as well as those of the constituents of the domain are well served. However more often than not, the investment is usually lop-sided with the work domain being the recipient of a disproportionately large investment in the mistaken belief that the holy grail of growth and fulfilment are more likely to be found here. The danger of doing this is that the other domains suffer and are therefore not configured to provide us a  balance and an ‘emotional safety net’ that the process of fulfilment necessarily requires.
The second unconscious phenomenon is ‘transferring expectations across domains’. Each domain has its own set of relationships and each relationship is geared to fulfilling a different set of needs. As a result, we have expectations of individuals who exist in our social domains, to fulfil these needs and they, in turn, have expectations of us to fulfil theirs. If our emotional needs in one domain are unfulfilled, we, without even being aware of this, tend to transfer the expectation of fulfilment to another domain. For instance, a person who has a dysfunctional relationship with his father, may end up unconsciously expecting his boss to give him not just professional guidance, but also in personal areas (the kind of direction he never got from his father). What happens when expectations are transferred is that the transferee is never in a position to fulfil the transferor’s expectation because neither is aware that such an intense expectation exists. Conscious expectations are hard enough to deal with; unconscious ones are next to impossible.
The third unconscious deterrent is the phenomenon of ‘Control and Resistance’. All human beings tend to try and control the relationships they engage in, usually without being conscious that they are doing so. Some do it actively by being domineering and blatantly aggressive. Most others engage in passive aggressive behaviour – procrastination, non-cooperation, withdrawal and resistance to taking orders or instructions. Essentially what happens is that when one is placed in an unpredictable or uncomfortable situation, one tries to control the environment to make it more predictable for oneself. In the process one engages in active control or passive resistance.  Both are equally hard to handle whether you are a boss or a subordinate. 
In the final analysis, it is absolutely critical that relationships in the workplace be appropriately configured if we are to give the best to and take the most out of work. As a rule of thumb, every time bottlenecks are experienced in relationships with boss, peers or subordinates, it would be prudent to take a step back and see whether one of the above three phenomena are in operation. It will, I assure you, be more than worth your while.

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The Shrinking Universe 52
GET YOURSELF A LIFE

A nephew of mine, whom I always enjoy meeting, and who was going away overseas, asked me, in what I hope was an earnest desire to stay in touch with me, whether I was on Facebook. I’m not. Orkut (since I was an ‘older’ person)? No again. Did I tweet? I’m not a bird. Or, at least buzz? Not a bee, either. He looked at me with the authentic mixture of bemusement, horror and disgust that teenagers and young adults do so well. “Get yourself a life, man” was his conclusion. That I was on e-mail and sms, and could Skype till he was blue in the face, failed to impress him. Maybe the fact that I text in English and not smsese (which I can barely understand) had something to do with this. As far as he was concerned, I was simply not cool enough or connected enough. I could live with being ‘uncool’, but I always thought I was reasonably well connected. Or was I?
As extraordinarily socialised life forms, human beings have always had social networks. Sometimes small networks, but, usually in our fertile country, largish ones. For our networks comprised essentially family members and family members of family members, whom we usually met up with at weddings and other assorted religious and family functions (of which we have no dearth), and whose progress (or more gleefully, the lack of it) we kept up with through the family grapevine. However, those days are now behind us and our relationships are now more likely determined by the speed of our broadband connection (the 21st century’s grapevine). And therefore, maybe my nephew was right when he implied that I’d fallen off the grapevine. Happily this was not a viewpoint shared by some of the people I ‘network’ with, who believe that social networking websites offer only virtual comfort and virtual support, and that these can never replace the real thing. So, what’s the official word on social networking?
One definition (maybe by a wag, for the source is not quite clear) has it that social networking is “the intersection of narcissism, attention deficit disorder and stalking”. This argument, even if offered tongue-in-cheek is not entirely without merit. Most social networking pages concentrate as much, and sometimes more, on projecting one’s own image, as on keeping in touch with others. An element of underlying narcissism is certainly strongly in evidence. And when one’s social status is determined by the number of friends or followers one has, it’s hardly likely that one gets into too many deep equations online which indicates that one’s attention does flit a bit, whether or not this amounts to a deficit. Also, hostile activity does take place on social networking sites and it’s not unusual to see people peeking into other people’s activities, sometimes voyeuristically, sometimes jealously and sometimes with malafide intent, even if all this doesn’t add up to actual stalking.
The greatest criticism of social networking sites is that they facilitate only superficial relationships and give people a false sense of security about having large virtual social networks. However, this need not necessarily be a problem. Sociologists differentiate between ‘strong ties’ and ‘weak ties’ and have concluded that ‘weak ties’ too are an integral component of social well-being. They add to what is referred to as ‘social capital’. A recent study conducted at the University of Michigan in the USA convincingly demonstrated the benefits that social networking sites have on the social capital of American teenagers and young adults. The study also documented that such networking sites added to the self worth experienced by their users. From my experience with Indian teenagers and young adults who are active on such sites, I would imagine that our situation wouldn’t be too different. But before one concludes that social networking sites are the next best thing, there are a couple of caveats to remember.
Weak ties alone are not enough to maintain one’s social capital. If one is anchored in face-to-face relationships and has built up a sufficient base of strong ties, then facebook-to-facebook relationships can enhance one’s well being. Also, the way we use networking sites is important. If our focus is only on having a larger network of friends than anyone we know, we’re in trouble. Or if you’re like some tweeple (people who tweet, for the uninitiated) who smirk that they have more followers than other tweeple, do remember that there are enough instances of one false tweet bringing even the mighty to their knees. But as long as we use social networking sites to strengthen our social capital and not let them take over our lives, then we can genuinely enhance our sense of well-being. 
So does this mean I’m going to get on Facebook and become a tweeperson? I honestly can’t see that happening just yet, even if it means I have to forego the joys of ‘unfriending’. I’ve got myself a life that is full and rich, populated as it is, with real people, who I can touch, see and have coffee with. And even though I have nothing against online networking, I like my network the way it is. Maybe, it’s just me. But, know something? I don’t really think so!

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The Shrinking Universe 51
WHOSE FAULT IS IT?

A recent discussion with my good friend on what I felt about the idea of divorce set me thinking about the ambivalence with which we generally tend to approach the subject. While we have learned to accept divorce, we’d much rather not think about it, unless we are forced to. I believe that our ambivalence is largely owing to the fact that we’ve not quite made up our minds on what precisely marriage means to us.
Traditionally, marriage has been considered a sacrament and this is the way most older Indians approach the institution of marriage. Obviously, in this situation, divorce becomes a moral dilemma, for who would be comfortable engaging in sacrilege? Which explains why thousands of couples in the country, despite strongly feeling the need to separate from their partners for often very legitimate reasons, have hung in there and seen their lives through in an atmosphere of barely-manageable marital toxicity. Younger Indians though, don’t necessarily see marriage as a sacred institution. Which perhaps explains why they are willing to consider the possibility of divorce when their marriages are not configured for emotional fulfilment. However, it is still not easy even for young Indians to get blasé about divorce, for the sacrament theory of marriage is still strongly imbued in the hidden depth of their psyches, and perhaps their DNA even. So, despite the fact that the nation’s lawmakers have recognised the validity of divorce in certain situations, Indian couples approach Family Courts with some considerable trepidation.
Indian divorce legislation has rightly not made it easy for people to rush to divorce courts. The easiest form of divorce is that obtained by mutual consent, if both partners are mutually agreeable to a parting of ways. However, this is often not the case, for one of the partners refuses to consent to a divorce for whatever reason. In such a situation, if the other partner still wants a divorce, the only option available is to unilaterally approach the court for divorce on certain specified grounds such as cruelty, desertion, mental disorder, adultery and so on. Obviously the accused partner has a right to ‘contest’ the allegations, and the burden of proof is on the accuser to prove to the court that the grounds on which divorce is sought, really exist. Very often it is extremely difficult to prove these beyond reasonable doubt, as a result of which many divorces go through lengthy and expensive legal processes which benefit none of the players. And it is not uncommon for the partner who’s mind is made up on the issue of divorce to resort to unfounded allegations to strategically enhance the probability of divorce. However, this is now set to change.
Very recently, the Indian cabinet has recommended amendments to divorce provisions under the Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriages Act,  whereby ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ will be considered an acceptable ground for divorce. In other words, even if one partner is unwilling, if the partner who approaches the court can prove that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, or if the accused partner is resorting to delaying tactics and avoiding court appearances, then the courts will be empowered to dissolve the marriage (of course, there will be lots of checks and balances and things may not be as simple as they sound). This is the equivalent of the much-debated “no-fault divorce” in the United States. Although the no-fault divorce first made its appearance in the state of California about 40 years ago, the other states took their own time adopting it (the state of New York is only now in the final stages of doing so). In fact, for many years New York state prided itself in having among the lowest divorce rates in the US and many New Yorkers now fear that there will be a flurry of divorce applications owing to the no-fault divorce, which is exactly the fear in the minds of many people in our country with this proposed amendment. However, such concerns are baseless, for research has documented that although there is usually an initial increase in divorce applications when such legislation is enacted, things level off after a while, for the rates of the ‘contested divorces’ progressively decrease. 
Which brings me back to the point that I initially started exploring. If the laws of the land endorse the fact that some marriages can break down irretrievably, then marriage can no longer be viewed as a sacrament. Then how are we to think of it? A contract? I wouldn’t really take such an extreme perspective. I would much rather consider marriage as a special relationship that provides all human beings the possibility of peace, health and happiness, but only if it is appropriately configured. For this to happen, one needs to usher three C’s into marriage: Commitment, Connectedness and Companionship. I would much rather we work towards such “no-fault marriages” and consider “no-fault divorces” only if, despite exhausting ourselves trying, we’re still not able to get the marriage right. And since there are enough couples out there getting it right, I remain optimistic that the divorce rates in our country, which have been arguably pegged at about 11 divorces for every 1000 marriages, are unlikely to veer too sharply northwards.

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The Shrinking Universe 50
HELP YOURSELF

When I first started writing a self-help book several years ago, I had to ask myself what on earth I was trying to do. Would people actually read a book to find answers to burning questions? Would the quality of their lives really change by merely reading a book? In the west – America and the United Kingdom - self help books have established themselves as a popular genre. In fact, The New York Times’ Review of Books that appears every Sunday and is often what most people use as their principal yardstick in making decisions to buy books, lists ‘Advice books’ under a separate category, distinct from Fiction, Non-fiction, Graphic writing and Children’s books. But what about in our country? Given that we operate on a ‘panchayat mode’ when it comes to conflict resolution, would we be willing to buy a book to deal with our issues? I still had no clear answers to these questions when my first self-help book was launched in 2002. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, for  the response to not only my first book, but my subsequent books (all ‘self help’) was absolutely remarkable. It appears that educated urban Indians are perfectly prepared to use the self-help route to find answers. 
However, as one of my email interlocutors asked me, If a marriage is coming apart or one has experienced extraordinary stress, wouldn’t one do better seeking professional intervention than reading a book?  In an ideal world, yes. But, in our country, there is still a strong stigma attached to seeing psychiatrists or counsellors. As a nation, we don’t find it easy to seek help, especially when it comes to something like marriage or stress management that we are all supposed to possess natural expertise at (at best, we’d only consider approaching our family and friends to give us some counsel, however biased this may be). A book, though, can be read in relative anonymity and just like one finds it easier to open up to a stranger on a train, one might find it easier to establish an in-absentia-therapeutic relationship with the author of a book. Compared to suffering in silence, reading a book, seems to me a pretty good option.
Expecting people to resolve all their marital or other problems by reading a book would be foolhardy. But what I do expect to happen when one reads a self-help book, is that it might jump-start a process of seeking solutions. Rather than believe that nothing can be done, readers do feel empowered enough to seek solutions by talking, listening, reading some more, and maybe even talking to a therapist. In other words, reading a self-help book could be a very vital first step in moving out of the victim mode that most of us fall into when faced with a crisis, to a survivor mode that gets us out of emotional quagmires. But let us not for a moment believe that a book can offer us neat and pre-packaged solutions. 
The way I see it, when one is able to obtain an understanding of the dynamics of a relationship such as marriage, or is able to understand what precisely happens in the course of a mid-life crisis or whatever crisis one is afflicted by, one is empowered to act more consciously and make more considered choices. Of course, a lot depends on how the book is written. If it’s full of inadequately explained jargon (what has come to be cynically dismissed as psychobabble), then it certainly is conceivable that the reader might end up more confused than empowered. However it’s hardly likely that such a book would be a best-seller. So there’s a natural check and balance in place. I think the trick to using a self-help book is not to expect it to magically resolve all one’s problems, but to rather think of it as a piece in a jigsaw puzzle (a corner piece if the book is a good one). In other words the book is not going to change your life. But it can empower you to change your life. 
That self-help books are here to stay is a well-documented fact of contemporary life. The truth is, we all need help and advice, whether it’s on cookery, gardening, adoption, relationships or healing the soul. The sooner we come to terms with this reality the better. Before we dismiss this tendency towards using self-help books as a ‘western’ phenomenon, let us remind ourselves of the phenomenal success, in our own country, of the Chicken Soup series or John Gray’s series of books on the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus theme, among others. Obviously Indian readers are willing to invest in self-help books. This will doubtless, spawn a new generation of India-specific, quality self-help books in regional languages as well, and perhaps, sooner than later, Self-help books will become a genre that will earn for itself an independent category in national best-seller listings. In the final analysis, if we learn how to use self-help books well – as sources of inspiration and mental stimulation than of solutions, we might well find ourselves browsing for these online or at our friendly neighbourhood bookstore, and not just at airport bookstores while we wait for our delayed flight to be called.

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The Shrinking Universe 49
BOND. MALE BOND.

Many women believe that men don’t bond; they just spend time with each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Men have always bonded, ever since their hunter-gatherer days, when they realised that there was safety in togetherness and that hunting in packs was easier and yielded more consistent results. Put differently, men bonded with each other for survival -  their own as well as that of the family and tribe. Women, on the other hand, did not really, strictly speaking, need other women for their survival, as they could play the nurturing role and care for their families even without too much support from other women. However, being emotionally finely tuned and sensitive, they realised that there was much to gain from bonding with other women – sharing responsibilities, wisdom and so forth. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex situation, it would not be imprudent to say that men bonded because they had to and women did so because they wanted to. 
Over the millennia, the bonding process of the human male has changed substantially, with one fundamental exception: Men continue to bond over something. A shared interest, a shared activity, a shared past, a shared something or the other. Women need a shared interest or activity, if at all, just to get them together, but subsequent interactions are not necessarily based on this interest or activity.  Men, on the other hand, need an activity or interest to bond over: a round of golf, a game of cricket, a pub-crawl, a drink at a bar, watching a Formula 1 race and so on. You’ll rarely catch men bonding over a long telephone call, a walk, shopping for clothes, over a cup of coffee at each others’ homes and so on. It’s almost as if the activity is needed to legitimise the bond.
Still waters, as the saying goes, run deep, as do men’s bonds with each other. Men do love their male friends with an intensity that is rarely displayed, save for an occasional hearty backslap or a surprisingly thoughtful birthday gift.  When male friends meet, the intensity of the handshake or backslap determines how happy they are to see each other, although in contemporary times, verbal expressions are not uncommon. Traditionally, in Indian cinema and literature, the depth of the bond between men friends has always been depicted around the phenomenon of sacrifice. The protagonist’s best friend is often seen sacrificing something – usually the love of his life, and sometimes his life itself – to prove the depth of his love for his friend, although it is far less frequent for women friends to be portrayed doing this for each other (women are depicted as sacrificing only for their men). However, in real life, sacrifice is rarely a central motif in the male bond. 
Contemporary urban male friends invariably have deeper relationships with friends they have known over decades, typically those from school or college. The principal reason for this is that they have grown together with such friends and have little reason to pretend or project an image to them, and therefore do not fear being judged by them. It is not uncommon to see bachelor ‘best’ friends spending a lot of time with each other in ‘chilling’ activities, getting drunk and in general, collecting memories for the future. Invariably when old school or college friends meet, once they get past the stage of nostalgic reminiscence, they find themselves being able to start from where they left off, reflective of the depth of the male bond. Often, such old friendships last lifetimes, giving all the protagonists great comfort, joy and companionship. And through this period, not one sacrifice is asked for or provided.
Deep friendships between men can weather many storms, sometimes even more than those between women. For one thing, the expectations men have of each other are much less demanding and the slack they are prepared to cut for each other is much more. But this does not make the bond tenuous in the least.  Men are, in fact, far more tolerant of their friends’ irrationalities than they are of those of their wife and children and I have known this phenomenon to cause serious marital disharmony. Also, they seem to tolerate each others’ boundary violations better, sometimes to incomprehensible extents. One reason for this is that men are able to relate to each others’ foibles with greater empathy and when they forgive or tolerate a friend’s imperfections, they are actually vicariously forgiving and tolerating their own. However, they may not give their women friends the same leeway. 
There is no basis to the popular belief that when a man loves another man, a homoerotic element must be present, unless one or both men are gay. In fact, it is the absence of a sexual substrate that actually gives the male bond all the characteristics described earlier. The quality of male friendships is slowly showing subtle changes, at least in metropolitan India. Even if they’re still activity-centred, they are becoming more communicative, expressive and articulate. To me, this says that the urban Indian man, seems to finally feel more and more legitimate about the male bond. And that can’t be a bad thing at all! 

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The Shrinking Universe 48
THE HOPE PEDDLERS

“What is your position on God, spirituality and messengers of God?”, asked a potential client who was interviewing me to see whether I would be appropriate for him as a therapist. “My personal beliefs are neither here nor there and would anyway play no role in your therapy”, I ducked. “But, no”, he persisted. “What if I decide to go to a spiritual retreat in the midst of my therapy? Would you consider that incompatible?”. This question I didn’t need to duck. I could answer it because I had thought it through since several of my clients have been in the position my interlocutor was. Needless to say, I do not believe that the two processes are incompatible at all. Nor do I believe one is superior to the other. In the final analysis what is important is that, during a dark period of one’s life, one gets the support of an individual or group of individuals whom one trusts enough to walk one through some of the most difficult days of one’s life.

This is why the role of the therapist or the spiritual leader or the guru or whoever one turns to for support is so onerous. The individual is extraordinarily vulnerable and only when the intervener is sensitive to this and responds to the individual’s emotional state with respect and grace can the individual ever reclaim Hope and Faith, the twin touchstones of human growth and development. This is also why unscrupulous ‘god men’ and untrained ‘quack counsellors’ can cause considerable damage to an already fragile psyche. It’s a reality of modern life that large numbers of people seek the guidance and support of spiritual leaders of established eminence. I have been impressed by the inspiration and hope that such individuals have received from their chosen gurus. This has ensured that they have been able to overcome whatever problems or issues they were bedevilled by, thereby placing them squarely back on the path to development. 
I believe that those who choose to follow a guru or a spiritual leader, do so for one of two reasons. The first of these is emotional. Those who are in the midst of a personal emotional crisis or are going through a period of emotional vulnerability may seek a guru’s guidance, support and acceptance as a way of feeling legitimised, in order that they may heal from their emotional wounds. Their belief in the spiritual guru helps them believe again, in themselves, their fellow human beings and in their own future. The rituals practiced in the restful environs of the guru’s ashram or other retreat venues serve as a soothing balm and as a method by which they get back into a state of Hope and Faith. And all this may sometimes be accomplished even without a single face-to-face darshan with the Guru. Such is the healing power of spirituality. 
The second reason to seek a guru has a more intellectual and cerebral basis, although emotions do also play some role in the process. Some people may seek spiritual guidance when they are at a stage of their lives where they seek answers to spiritual questions that have nagged them all their working lives, but which they have never had enough time in the past to pay attention to (a contemporary vanaprastha, if you will). They see their spiritual leader not just as a healer, but as a teacher who shows them the right way by virtue of being an accomplished authority in the interpretation of the scriptures. The focus here is on acquiring knowledge from ancient treatises and understanding the philosophy of life itself from the chosen guru, to help them prepare, even if only very subconsciously, for the ‘after-life’, if indeed there is one. 
Whatever one’s religious orientation, established modes of obtaining spiritual enlightenment do exist and it is not at all uncommon to see people of different ages and backgrounds seeking answers aimed at spiritual fulfilment. In urban India, some people tend to approach a counsellor or a therapist who’s seen as a ‘miniature guru’, particularly if they don’t want someone to ‘talk religion’ to them. Whatever the reason people seek healing interventions, you don’t have to be a social scientist to observe that they are today doing so in massive numbers and therein, sadly, lies the possibility of exploitation. One does hear of and read stories, far more often than one would like, of susceptible men and women being taken undue advantage of by imitation ‘god-men’, ‘sex-seeking gurus’ and untrained ‘quack counsellors’, who often end up causing incalculable harm. Proper healing from emotional pain is absolutely critical, and just as the fractured bone will heal improperly unless appropriate interventions are instituted, so too is the case with the wounded soul. In the absence of licensing authorities and regulatory bodies (for counsellors I mean; it’s hardly possible to have ‘licensed gurus’, I would imagine), one can only hope that, with increasing education and exposure, our masses will learn how to spot a fake, and zero in on the real thing more successfully than they do today. Considering the difficult times we live in, compassionate and legitimate peddlers of hope are always welcome.

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The Shrinking Universe 47
THE UNDERPRIVILEGED PRIVILEGED

This column generates a lot of mail, most of it containing material that is too personal to share or even write about. However, every now and again, some of my interlocutors not only share their thoughts and views on what I’ve written about, but also send me recommendations on subjects they are familiar with and books they believe would be of interest to me. One such nugget arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago, in which an obviously sensitive reader recommended Madeline Levine’s book, ‘The Price of Privilege’ to me, saying its contents were worth reading and discussing. Having obtained (with some difficulty, I might add, for it is only available online) and read the book, I couldn’t agree with her more.
In the last decade and a half or so, the numbers of the Indian middle class are swelling with amazing rapidity, as are their bank accounts. This recently-privileged class is headily rubbing shoulders with the ‘older wealth’, and its members are as euphoric as they are confused at being in a position to do so. Euphoric because they are realising the Great Indian Dream, that their parents could never even have remotely aspired to. Confused, because along with prosperity comes a new set of rules, responsibilities and behavioural repertoires that nobody ever told them about. Unfortunately, this combination of euphoria and confusion leaves, in its wake, certain undesirable impacts, mostly having to do with family relationships, more specifically in the parent-child relationship.
This confusion is reflected in the manner many contemporary parents scramble to get their parenting strategies right and the frequent lament most mental health professionals hear from their clients when it comes to the latter’s children: “What’s wrong with my kid? We were never like that when we were their age. They seem to be out of touch with our Indian values”. Then they go on to lambast the most convenient punching bag of modern day India – GIT (Globalisation, Internet and Television). The way I see it, the problem we face today has nothing to do with Indian values or the perceived loss of these. Our children and teenagers are responsive to the environment and are still steeped in Indian values simply because they are growing up in an Indian environment. However, if despite this they end up being malcontents, it has more to do with what Madeline Levine describes as a combination of material advantage and parental pressure.
Levine, a California-based psychologist has based her book on over a quarter of a century’s research and experience in working with adolescents in one of the state’s most affluent districts – Marin county, as well as on information obtained from several practising psychologists from all over the United States. However, it would be foolish to dismiss her writing as being relevant only for rich Americans. Quite the contrary. What she says is perfectly relevant and applicable in our context as well, for, regardless of what we might believe, there exist a lot of universal similarities in the parent-child relationship. Ask any child or adolescent psychologist or psychiatrist and you’ll realise that Indian children too are slowly begin to show signs of alienation and disenchantment, particularly those who come from more privileged backgrounds, who, on the face of it, have so much, but feel so empty. And I’m not talking of the super-rich families or those toxic families where children are pretty much neglected and grow up independent of their parents either. This problem, referred to sometimes as disaffectation, is occurring more frequently even in recently-prosperous families where parents are not really disconnected from their children and act on the assumption that the kids will just ‘grow out of their adolescent angst’. 
You might well ask, what prompts kids who have so much to be so alienated and engage in potentially risky and dangerous behaviour to get some sort of buzz in their lives. Levine’s answer is simple: ‘the toxic brew of achievement pressure and emotional isolation’. Put differently, when we were materially less privileged we had something to look forward to and strove to achieve prosperity or more wealth by putting more pressure on ourselves. It was our internal need for achievement that drove us. However, achievement pressure, while it motivated us, may not do the same for our children. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see scions of first generation super-successful industrialists or professional practitioners (lawyers, doctors, consultants etc) being unable to emerge from behind their parents’ shadows and drive their companies or practices forward. This notwithstanding, we tend to drive our children towards greater and greater achievements in fields they have little interest in.
Add to this the fact that when we are motivated by achievement pressure, it becomes progressively more difficult to give our children the attention they need, however good our intentions are. And when we try and pass this pressure on to our children, without being able to engage with their emotions and their desires, all the ingredients of Levine’s ‘toxic brew’ are present. In this very well-written book, Madeline Levine very sensitively elucidates on strategies that can be employed by individual parents in order that they may prevent under-privileging their privileged kids. I, for one, am truly glad that an insightful reader pointed me in its direction. Hopefully, you too will benefit from it.

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The Shrinking Universe 46
THE CASE OF THE RELUCTANT SPOUSE

It’s  quite extraordinary how resistant most people are to the very idea of seeking professional intervention to help solve an impasse in the marital relationship. And though this tends to apply more commonly to the male of the species, it does not automatically follow that all women are comfortable with the idea of seeking help. They aren’t. Although seven times out of ten the first of the two partners who meets me professionally is the woman, I must add that, in the last decade I have seen at least three men out of ten who are highly sensitive to the issues on the relationship and are more ready than their wives to allow a stranger to intervene in their lives. 
The reasons quoted by reluctant spouses when faced with the prospect of visiting a marital therapist are usually variations of one of five themes. The first of these is : Our parents managed perfectly well, so why can’t we? Hey, we live in different times! The demands made by external reality on contemporary human lives are inordinately more than those that were made on our parents. We expect more from our relationships today than our parents ever did. And equally we are willing to invest more in our relationships than our parents ever thought possible. So what worked for our parents isn’t necessarily going to work for us.
The second is the belief that a man and a woman should be able to solve their problems on their own. Fair enough. There is a need that exists in all of us that we should be on top of our own problems and on the face of it, nothing may appear to be wrong with this proposition. However, when it becomes clear that the problems in the relationship are progressively less fathomable and despite one’s best efforts, the resolutions aren’t taking place, then does one just wait for something magical to happen, or go out and find someone who knows a little more about the subject and get some counsel? 
The third question posed by the recalcitrant spouse is, how can an outsider tell us what we don’t know about ourselves? The dynamics of marriage are,  by and large, unconscious and it would be unreasonable to expect anybody who has not had the benefit of training to pick up, interpret and deal with them. What the trained professional does is to help you understand the dynamics and patterns in your relationship that even you are not aware of. 
The fourth concern is, how can we possibly share all these intimate details with a stranger? I know it’s never easy sharing what we consider personal information with a stranger. The fear of loss of privacy can often be a strong deterrent to seeking help, particularly in those people, who for a variety of reasons are more private than others. Here it becomes a trade-off kind of situation. If your quality of life is going to be enhanced as a result of this sharing, then it’s probably worth putting up with the initial unease that the process entails. And remember, you don’t have to share everything at once, you can do so slowly as your comfort with the professional increases. 
And the final entry barrier: Surely our marriage is not so bad that we need ‘therapy’? It’s a fallacy to believe that only people with ‘broken marriages’ need to seek professional intervention. If I had my way, it would be made mandatory for every couple to talk to a professional if only to iron out some of the glitches in their relationships. However, in our country, we have a strongly ingrained belief system that only ‘disturbed’ persons need the services of mental health professionals. A great pity really, for when we think this way, we lose valuable time and build up more baggage before we deem the situation ‘serious’ enough to warrant intervention. In truth, if ever you visit a marital therapist’s office you’ll only come across normal people who are in the process of de-bugging their relationships so they can get out of a bottleneck with relative ease, not ‘disturbed’ people or people with ‘fractured’ relationships. As a rule of thumb, the better the marriage, the more valuable can therapeutic intervention be, for such a couple is geared to making use of the intervention effectively.
There is something to be said, of course, for doing things one’s own way and learning in the process, but this would hardly apply to say, removing your appendix, would it?  So too is it with marriage. One can hardly perform the demanding role of a contributing spouse without knowing what to do and acquiring the right tools to do so. I usually encourage reluctant spouses to take just a session or two of therapy before making a commitment to it. And the good news is that once they realise they’re not going to be judged by the therapist, but that the therapist’s objective is to foster understanding, all of the above arguments fall by the wayside, reluctance turns to comfort and therapy proceeds at a canter. 
The bottom line: It is the fear of judgement that makes many people reluctant to enter therapy. The footnote: Nobody can judge you but yourself. Your therapist is not a judge, merely an interpreter; and therapy is not a sentence, merely a catalysis. 

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The Shrinking Universe 45
THE RIGHT CHOICE

It is an undeniable reality that urban India has not quite made up its mind about which form of mate-seeking behaviour should be favoured in the 21st century. The protagonists of ‘traditional Indian values’ naturally plump for the ‘arranged marriage’. On the other hand, younger urbanites, and not necessarily those residing only in the metros, seem to favour the do-it-yourself approach. Given that each region in the country has its own love legend, variations on the Laila - Majnu theme, it does seem remarkable that modern India took such a long time to get on the ‘love bandwagon’. However, a closer look at our lore tells us that, more often than not, these love stories end in tragedy. It appears that there is more romance surrounding unrequited, unfulfilled and unconsummated love than its happily-ever-after counterpart. This may well explain why for centuries, Indians decided to hedge their bets, play safe and opt for the ‘arranged love’ that supposedly engenders a happily-ever-after scenario, even if it lacked the verve and dash of romantic legend.
The new Indian though, seems to be more entrepreneurial when it comes to choosing a mate. Young people are falling in love in far larger numbers than ever before and ‘the love marriage’ is no longer a few-and-far-between sort of phenomenon. More interesting than the fact that the incidence of love marriages is on the rise, is the fact that such events provoke less hysteria, panic and rage than they used to. Elopement is no longer de rigueur for the protagonists; today there is a higher probability of parental permission and elders’ blessings being obtained. In order to facilitate this, many youngsters are resorting to what one of my clients described as a ‘love-cum-arranged’ marriage. What is meant by this is that young people fall in love with someone who, in their assessment, has a high likelihood of being accepted by their parents. Having done this, they persuade their respective parents to go through all the ‘traditional procedures’ involved in firming up the alliance and organising the wedding. And all is well.
Or is it? More often than the liberal thinker would be comfortable with, some parents, even when presented with an excellent choice of partner by their child, react huffily and refuse to bless the alliance, proffering some patently irrational reasons for doing so. The principal underlying dynamic in operation here is control (the famed parental ego). ‘It is my job to choose a partner for you and I will not have you find one for yourself’ seems to be the unstated feeling. I have seen many potentially workable marriages scuttled on the basis of the we-know-better-what-is-good-for-you contention. And they use basically one of two arguments to substantiate their hypothesis. 
The first of these is that couples in love marriages fight more, as a result of which more love marriages end up in divorce than do arranged marriages. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although it is true that today increasing numbers of couples are seeking legal redress for an emotional issue, this has nothing to do with how they chose their partners. Couples in arranged marriages also fight as hard and the incidence of divorce in arranged marriages is as high. The reasons for people seeking divorce more easily today than ever before are quite complex and linked to changing social dynamics, but love marriages do not suffer more on this score. The second argument is the old it-goes-against-Indian-culture theory. These parents insist that they got married in accordance with Indian cultural norms using the tried-and-tested arranged marriage paradigm, and didn’t it work for them (even if it clearly did not)? However given how much Indian culture has changed over the last decade or so, this argument has fortunately begun to wash much less now than it used to.
It all boils down to the question, which is better – arranged or love marriage? There is no answer to this one, simply because neither is better. The only essential difference is that when two people fall in love and get married, they ‘own’ the marriage. They can’t blame it on the parents. In arranged marriages this sense of ‘ownership’ comes in much later, if at all. However, a recent phenomenon in arranged marriage partner choice is a very heart-warming development. Ever since internet marriage portals took over our collective consciousness, young people participate more actively in the screening process. Also, they insist on speaking or chatting or skyping with and getting to know the partner a bit, before making a commitment. Once they have worked out a short-list, they leave it to the parents to do the final weeding out. As a result, they too feel a greater ownership of their arranged marriage. 
 Ownership of the marriage is the single most important factor in predicting a good outcome. So, whether you fall in love and get married or whether love comes to you after the wedding, it is owning and working on your marriage that determines how successful it will be. The right choice is the one that works for you!

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The Shrinking Universe 44
ALL-WEATHER FRIENDS

Societies, over the millennia, have been threatened by a wide variety of changes and revolutions. But, in remarkable testimony to Darwinian principles, they have adapted and created new systems and buttresses that have successfully absorbed the shocks of new uncertainties. And changing societies have, in the process, not merely survived, but prospered. In the current era of resurgent India, even as family ties have indubitably weakened, another social support system – friendships – has reinvented itself to take in a fair bit of the slack to fill in the breach caused by the apparent breakdown in family support systems. In the past,  a friend was not seen as a necessity but, if one was lucky to find one, one usually had a friend for life. Today however, the functions that were performed by extended family members in the past have been evenly distributed across friends, thereby making friendships more purposeful than they ever have been. 
Most people usually have a core group of friends, with whom emotional ties are strongly forged. Typically such friends are from their childhood and youth, who play the role of ersatz siblings. Even if the intensity of these friendships wanes as one gets into adulthood, and meetings are not as frequent, a great sense of comfort is experienced when one gets together with childhood friends. In these days of increased mobility however, it is not at all uncommon to find that professional interests take one physically far away from one’s childhood home. As a result, contact with childhood friends has become progressively difficult to sustain. This is where the Internet and increasingly inexpensive mobile telephony have come to the rescue of the urban nomad. The fact that regardless of where one lives or travels, one can still stay in touch with one’s friends, has gone a long way in ensuring that  one rarely feels completely disconnected. . Being connected with one’s family is important, of course, but when one can stay connected with one’s friends as well, it gives one a sense, even if only an apparent one, of never having really gone away.
Although friends aren’t seen as a substitute for family, they come with two major advantages. The first of these is that we’ve chosen our friends ourselves and therefore, we can choose to dump our friendships whenever we want. It’s remarkable that despite having this option, we rarely exercise it, unless something dramatically negative happens to queer the pitch. We can’t really dump families even if something dramatically negative does happen. So, sometimes we end up suffering them. But with friends, even if one does suffer them occasionally, the empowering advantage of choice, gives us a feeling of greater control over the future of the relationship. Second, and as important, friends also provide recreation, not just emotional support. We can have fun with our friends. While we often can have fun with families too, the quality of the no-holds-barred, uncomplicated-by-baggage sort of fun that we can have with friends nudges us more in their direction, when we want to let our hair down.
However, it’s not just childhood friends who predominate our adult lives. Some adult friendships, when the chemistry between the friends is good, are similar in intensity to childhood friendships. However it is more common for adult friendships to operate on more adult parameters, in that boundaries are actively in place right from the beginning, which, in fact, ensures the longevity of the relationship. Such relationships are more maturely emotional by which I mean, although an emotional component does exist, this is not the only basis for the relationship. It is usually shared interests and activities that these friendships are built on and meetings are usually regular but evenly spaced. 
Of course, all friendships need not be deep and emotional. We usually also have a need for purely superficial social equations, and people with whom we can just ‘hang out and shoot the breeze with”. In these kind of equations, the focus is almost entirely on entertainment, and it is not unusual for the ‘gang’ to have a lot of floaters and new faces on a regular basis. But these kind of friendships serve a very important contemporary purpose. They give one a feeling of connectedness and belonging, and one looks forward to weekends or whenever it is we choose to meet these friends. Virtual friends can also give us a feeling of connectedness provided we keep such relationships in perspective and limit them to the virtual space, since most virtual friendships make the transition to ‘live’ ones very poorly. 
To me, it is quite remarkable how people today are responding to gaping holes in their emotional safety nets caused by the changes in family structures and processes. By reconfiguring their friendships to take care of them, they have ensured not just that their own safety nets are looked after, they have also created the possibility of actively contributing to their friends’ safety nets. They have at once become beneficiaries and benefactors, thereby lending the fabric of friendships a mutuality that will ensure longevity and greater network strength. Apparently, we are well into the age of All-Weather Friendships.

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The Shrinking Universe 43
PREDATOR AT WORK

The last three decades or so have seen large numbers of empowered women, entering the contemporary urban work space in the country. As a result, even hitherto male-dominated industries, have been forced to gird their collective loins and work out new ways and means of dealing with opposite-gender co-workers. This has not been an easy transition to make for both genders, since it has come in the wake of extraordinary change in Indian society’s mores on a variety of parameters relating to lifestyles, gender role redefinition, economic liberalisation, increasing choices, progressive urbanisation and the like. I don’t propose to examine in this piece, all of these or the essential differences between the ways in which men and women function in the workplace. For the interested reader, I would recommend John Gray’s Mars and Venus in the Workplace which does precisely this, and more. I will confine myself to exploring the dynamics that result in one of the most visible aspects of gender differences in contemporary workspaces: sexual harassment.
As a rule of thumb, people who have been educated in co-educational schools do have an easier time of it, for they tend to be less self conscious and more at ease in presence of the opposite gender in the work environment. They also find it easier to establish at the very least, working relationships, even if not civil ones, with the opposite gender. In this effort, they are ably supported by the managements of multinational as well as larger Indian business corporations, who conduct ‘gender diversity’ interventions like seminars and workshops or ‘gender sensitisation’ programmes, all geared to enhancing mutual tolerance and better team work regardless of one’s co-worker’s gender. However, as most managements realise, any process that denies the reality of the essential differences between genders and attempts to create a ‘neutered’ kind of environment at the workplace is doomed to eventual failure, for  la différence is bound to assert itself sooner than later.
But the key question is, how can one create an environment where gender differences are, even if not actually celebrated, paid adequate attention to, without creating a self-consciousness between the genders? Some managements attempt to toy around with the physical environment, making it most unromantic and banal in the hope that sexual tension will be denied an opportunity to make its unwelcome appearance. However, as experience has shown, even the most ‘de-sexed’ of work environments fails miserably to achieve this object. And the reason for this is that sex and sexuality play only very small roles in creating predators in the work place. Although repressed sexuality (a national malady) does play a more significant role in our country than in many others, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘control’ are the more important phenomena at work. It all boils down to whether men have genuine respect for their women colleagues and whether women respond to a lack of respect with meekness, assertiveness or blatant aggressiveness. 
Sexual harassment in the workplace has been in the forefront of management consciousness and many companies, even those that vehemently deny ever having any form of sexual harassment in their rarefied work environments, have, as a matter of abundant caution, set up gender sensitisation interventions, sexual harassment committees and so forth to ensure that the ogre of sexual harassment doesn’t visit them. However, it takes just one ogre (or sometimes, ogress) to set off the landmines. Although mutual sexual back-scratching does happen every now and again, it is more customary to see sexual tensions result in sexual harassment in modern corporate life, where the one with ‘power’ relates to the victim primarily as a sexual object. The ‘power’ can be derived from hierarchical position, the patriarchal belief in the superiority of the male gender, or from the stereotyped, though certainly not extinct, femme fatale.  Sexual harassment, like sexual abuse, has to be treated with a zero-tolerance policy, if we are to make any inroads into managing this menace. Internal systems and processes to check sexual harassment of any sort have been established by many forward-thinking companies and these must be allowed to function without fear or favour if they are to achieve their objective, even if every now and again, as with most systems, they do tend to be abused by disgruntled subordinates. 
At the best of times and in the best of contexts, man-woman relationships can be quite a handful to manage, but in the workplace, they can be potential minefields, if one does not approach them consciously and with discipline and understanding. If both genders got in touch with their own respective issues in dealing with opposite gender equations, one can certainly prevent unconscious dynamics taking over such relationships and running them. In such a situation decisive boundaries can be better defined and everyone can be clear that office flirtations can lead as likely to dalliances as to sexual harassment. Also, if one confines the quest for emotional fulfilment to personal relationships, therefore committing more time and energy to these than to office relationships, then the workplace can remain just a place of work, and not become a potential arena for the expression of unfulfilled intimacies.

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The Shrinking Universe 42
ROCKS AND HARD PLACES

When we look around at all the things that are happening in the world around us, it’s easy to conclude that we live in an age of conflict. But what is not as easily noticeable to many of us, is that we also live in an age of choice. As a race, we humans, have worked very hard ever since the Industrial Revolution to expand our choices, whether in the realm of goods and services or in that of human relationships. We all want choices and feel stifled and denied when these are taken away from us. Having said that, it is also true that we sometimes find it difficult to deal with expanded choice options. Whenever we are faced with choices we are hard pressed to make, we experience what is inevitable in modern life - conflict. 
In its most basic form, a conflict is the concomitant existence of two opposing and apparently incompatible ideas, thoughts or feelings. It might be correctly argued that problems of  conscious choice rarely remain conflicts for long, since over a period of time, the human organism’s natural need for harmony ensures some form of resolution, even if incomplete. The conflicts that would be of greater consequence and more difficult to respond to, since they are less accessible to the mind, are unconscious conflicts or what are also called intra-psychic conflicts. As can be readily appreciated, these conflicts exist within the individual’s mind and represent the individual being at odds with himself or herself for reasons that are not readily apparent. But since we are social creatures, such conflicts invariably get expressed in the interpersonal space.
It is extremely tempting to lay the blame for such interpersonal conflicts at the opposite number’s doorstep. In fact, this path is so tempting, that most of us end up going down the victim road and feel sanctimoniously indignant at the opposite number’s foibles. However, this road is really a cul-de-sac, simply because interpersonal conflicts have their origins within the respective psyches of the participants. In other words, the interpersonal domain is merely a stage on which intra-psychic conflicts are played out. 
It is a fallacy to believe that confrontations worsen conflicts, as many of us do. Actually confrontation is the only known manner in which a conflict can be resolved. And if confrontations do not seem to have produced the desired result, let us not ascribe blame to confrontation and abandon it as an invalid method; let us instead understand who or what we are supposed to confront to resolve conflict. As long as we think of confrontation as taking place between two people in an adversarial context, we will find an ‘antagonist’ to target. However, if we realise we need to confront our own unconscious mind with the object of understanding and dealing with whatever conflicts are housed in it, we will probably find that confrontation can cure rather than inflame. In other words, we need to use an interpersonal conflict to confront our own selves and not the opposing party, whether spouse, family member, friend, neighbour, colleague or stranger. 
In their earliest recognisable form, conflicts manifest as mixed signals. When accused of throwing mixed signals, one would be well advised to explore one’s mind for clues on why this is happening, rather than throwing something at the accuser. First off, we need to own the conflict. By this I mean that the conflict needs to be recognised as a conflict and the responsibility for dealing with it should be completely accepted. We then need to understand the origins of the conflict, by establishing connections between the present behaviour and past experiences that may have resulted in the conflict having happened. The final resolution of the conflict involves making a considered choice. This is where most of us come croppers. For given our cultural comfort with the concept of sacrifice, we make a lot of effort to not resolve the conflict, in order that we may earn ourselves the halo of martyrdom. Which is why we do nothing about unhappy jobs, abusive marriages, toxic relationships and the like, reassuring ourselves by believing that we don’t have a choice. But the truth of the matter is that we are not ready to confront ourselves.
However, when we do this we lose an opportunity for personal growth. Every time we tell ourselves we have no choice, we stunt ourselves, for learning how to use our conflicts to make choices is of critical importance in making our lives better. You don’t have to stay in an abusive marriage or a toxic relationship or even in a job you hate. You do have a choice. Just confront the conflict to resolve it. Even Hobson gave his customers a choice : they could always have said ‘no’. And neither rocks nor hard places are going to earn us halos. Our conflicts are wonderful pointers to issues within our own psyches. Let us not fritter away the mixed signals we throw to others. Let us milk them for all they are worth.

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The Shrinking Universe 41
THE MAN OFF-STAGE

Time was when for a woman to be successful she had to be either single, divorced or widowed. It did not appear conceivable that a woman in the limelight could ever have a happy marriage. Many high as well as low profile marriages were considered to have fallen by the wayside on account of the woman in the relationship being better known than the male. While women had learned to deal with highly successful husbands, men were not considered to be ready to handle successful wives. The blame was attributed to the ‘fragile male ego’ that would not permit a man to function from a position of relative obscurity while his woman was in the public eye. However even in ‘those’ days, there have been recorded stories of publicly-recognized successful women who had supportive husbands; apparently all men did not have ‘fragile egos’.

In truth, it is not ego fragility as much as social mores of the time that dictate how men respond when faced with the possibility that their women are more likely to be better recognized than they. This is why, till even as recently as the middle and late twentieth century (and, in some parts of our country, even today), many female careers, whether in the fields of art, literature, industry, trade or politics, were unceremoniously snuffed out by apparently tyrannical fathers or husbands. Today, in the more enlightened twenty first century urban India, ‘snuffed out’ is an unlikely option when it comes to women’s career choices. And  men have had to perforce learn how to deal with their women’s successes. And over all they haven’t performed too badly.

One of the most important differences between the marriage of today and that of a few decades ago is that traditional roles have become blurred. The male-provider vs. female-homemaker differentiation has long ceased to be the defining plank of the man-woman relationship. Economic necessity combined with the possibility of a better quality of life, has persuaded men and women to learn the value of sharing both roles. As a result, women today have fewer impediments when pursuing excellence in their chosen careers than did their mothers and grandmothers. Which means, that at least, some women are going to be more successful and better known than their men. Fortunately, today’s man is far better equipped to deal with this than were his father and grandfather before him.

Simply stated, it is the manner in which the man is able to deal with his own identity that determines whether he establishes comfort with his wife’s high-profile status. Often, many marriages become unstuck when one partner’s identity is advanced at the expense of the other’s. Which is why, sacrifice has often been a dominant theme in those relationships in which one partner is more high profile than the other. Unfortunately, martyrdom has no place in contemporary well-balanced relationships and it is vitally important that both partners experience freedom in the marriage to advance their relative identities to the fullest possible extent. For this to happen the marriage space has to be well defined, and ‘sacrifice’ has to assume backburner status. When you carefully look at some of the success stories of couples who have managed to establish balanced equations it will become readily apparent that both partners have fairly well defined ‘personal spaces’ without sacrificing their ‘marriage space’ at the altar of success.

When a man has paid adequate attention to carving out his own identity, even if he is not as much written about or admired as is his wife, he is in a position to actually enjoy her success, than feel threatened by it. Typically, for this to happen, the successful partner’s attitude to her own success plays a very important role. If she is able to view her success as a product of a joint effort, and as any successful person will tell you, her position of eminence is the result of the efforts of a team of people who have each played their roles with commitment, then there is no problem. However, if she wears her attainments as a badge of honour and considers herself one notch above her less-celebrated partner, then disharmony is bound to prevail. Put differently, the marriage cannot be seen as a battleground where two competing identities struggle for suzerainty. It has to be configured as a sanctuary where both partners set aside their public personas and relate to each other simply as a man and a woman.

Additionally, the man has to deal with the social response to his wife’s success. If he belongs to a social group that is derisive of such a situation, he ends up being the butt of malicious innuendo and back-biting that can ruin his sense of self. If however, he chooses to function in a more broad-based social environment, in the firm belief that his celebrity wife is first and foremost the woman he loves and who loves him more than any other, and only then a celebrity, then he deals with the situation with poise and equanimity. While this may be difficult to do, it is certainly not impossible and I, for one, have nothing but respect and admiration for the many contemporary men who manage to pull this off.

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The Shrinking Universe 40
HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS

As a practising psychotherapist I have lost count of the number of calls I receive from anxious parents wanting me to counsel their children. “My son used to be the class topper, but now he’s not even in the top ten”, seems to be the refrain. “Kids nowadays just don’t listen to their parents any more. When we were kids…”, they go on. I tell them that life is different today. Children are actually very purposeful, even if their purpose is not always readily apparent to adults. Furthermore, they are overloaded with the kind of information that we, even as adults, would be hard-pressed to process. “Could you please see my daughter, anyway?”, they persist. How do you tell parents that the problem has more likely to do with the expectations they have of their children? I know that my stand on this matter does not make me particularly popular with my clients, but if popularity was what I was after, I wouldn’t have become a psychiatrist. 
Let me make one thing very clear: I do not wish to trivialize the issue of childhood behavioural vagaries; however I have no desire to magnify it either. Unfortunately, this is what we tend to do nowadays. Parents tend to worry so much about their children’s achievements and performance, that they sometimes forget that their childhoods are just passing them by. Let me also add that I do understand parents’ anxieties. Living in a hot-house of a social environment, they are beleaguered by fears, concerns and worries that their own parents would never have even conceived of. They lead stressful lives and are trying to provide their children the best possible opportunities to succeed. However, this is what becomes counterproductive, for the children, sensitive as they are,  pick up on the parents’ fears, and respond with more unpredictable behaviour. And thus does the prophecy fulfil itself.
I am not for a moment suggesting that parents should not be concerned when their children start dropping grades or that they should pander to their extravagant tantrums. Modern science and child psychology have brought to our awareness that today’s children are subject to all sorts of problems. Learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, child sexual abuse, oppositional defiant disorders (a persistent pattern of disobedience and defiance of all adult inputs), childhood depressions and developmental disorders like autism are being increasingly diagnosed in children over the last decade or two, and I recognise that these are serious problems. However, pressing the panic button at the earliest sign of academic underachievement does not help one bit. More often than not, we tend to push the pressure back on to the teachers expecting them to take greater accountability for their students’ foibles. However, as far as the child’s mental health is concerned, this is not going to help either. 
Many urban schools enlist the services of a counsellor to address such and other sticky problems pertaining to the child’s behaviour. School counsellors play a very important role in enhancing the mental well-being of children, particularly those who come from very disturbed family or social environments and those who suffer from some of the diagnosable mental problems mentioned earlier; however, even they cannot be reasonably expected to function as ersatz parents to all their wards. Ideally a school counsellor could help by making an evaluation of whether or not the child is disturbed enough to warrant psychological interventions. But setting up the counsellor as a kind of bogey-person whose services are to be resorted to when the child’s behaviour is not up to some poorly defined par, will only result in undermining the counsellor’s credibility and the child’s respect for adults.
In short, what I am saying is that when your child’s behaviour seems a bit strange, or when your child drops grades, or when s/he seems to be actively rebelling against your diktats, don’t go off the deep end. Your child need not be suffering from a mental disorder or a behavioural problem at all. Just take a step back and evaluate what kind of pressure you may inadvertently be bouncing on to the child; take fresh stock of your communication with your own spouse or the stress levels in your family, for oftentimes disturbances in these areas may be the cause of the problem. See if your child is unhappy with the school or is being bullied at school or in the neighbourhood. It could also well be that your children are just not happy with the subjects you have chosen for them, for their interests may lie somewhere else. Do try and remember that in contemporary times being an audio engineer or a DJ is as, if not more paying, than, say, a software engineer.
Only then, visit a counsellor or child psychologist and take some guidance on what you can do to help the child through the crisis. But, most importantly, try not to be your child’s friend or counsellor. For what your child needs most at this time is a parent, not a friend. If you’re lucky and manage to tide over the childhood and adolescence successfully, you may yet end up being your children’s friend. But only when they have grown up, not when they are still children.

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The Shrinking Universe 39
Y2K PLUS 10

It seems only very recently that the entire world came together in a true expression of globalisation and watched with bated breath, near-panic and a sense of impending doom as y2k happened. Mercifully we are, against the run of prophecy, still alive and kicking to talk in hushed tones of the ‘good old y2k days’. However, as the century turned, so did our lives - upside down. As an avid people and society watcher, at no time in my life have I witnessed as frenetic a pace of change as I have in the last decade, globally, regionally and locally. Life, as we know it, has been taken roughly by the scruff of the neck and irreversibly churned up. 
And, needless to say, this pace of change has left in its tumultuous wake, several casualties, notably in the sphere of human relationships. 
It is no longer uncommon to see marriages breaking up within a month of the wedding on grounds that seem astonishing to those who got married in the pre-y2k era. People do not like staying in a job for more than two years for this may end up ‘looking bad on their CVs’. Legislation is on the anvil making it mandatory for children to look after their aging parents. Self-help books by home-grown writers become instant best-sellers, much to the chagrin of literary fiction aficionados. The corporate world hires ‘change management consultants’ who help people get comfortable with cheese that has acquired a nasty habit of always moving. Paradigms that used to keep shifting until a few years ago are now being lost and eventually regained. Brands do not chase yuppies any more, they are after the EEMI (English-speaking, Educated Middle-class Indian). People no more wait until they are ‘mad’ or ‘mental’ before they see a shrink. Accents are no more American, English, Australian, South Indian or North Indian; they are severely neutralized by Accent Neutralizers (although this sounds like a terribly painful and surgically mangling procedure, I am reliably informed that it is no such thing!). 
Yes, a lot has changed in the last decade. Except my editor’s unyielding insistence on sticking to an unchanged word count. So, I am going to restrict my comments to two very significant phenomena that are representative of the manner in which we deal with rapid social change. The first of these has to do with the tightening and compartmentalization of relationship boundaries.
When we are overwhelmed by external events as we today are, all of us feel the need to protect ourselves from the battering – either real or anticipated – that our changed environment has in store for us. For we are all creatures of habit and derive our sense of comfort and well-being from the familiar and well-trodden. When things around us become unpredictable and quirky or the external world seems to engulf us, we usually tend to dig our heels in and create our own mini-worlds or personal microcosms. This we do by defining tight boundaries around ourselves, so that external unpredictability does not drown us completely. We seek and find familiar touchstones like our religious beliefs, nationalism even of the jingoistic variety, our communal identity and so forth, since these, even though they place us at risk for xenophobic behaviour, also help us luxuriate  in liberatingly familiar ritualized behaviours.  And since we live in rigid compartments, we learn to behave differently in each of these. 
The other phenomenon that has made its appearance is the explosion of frustration intolerance. As children, we are usually taught that all our needs cannot be gratified instantly and therefore we learn to tolerate our frustration when the gratification of our needs is delayed. Indian society of a few decades ago placed a high premium on the attribute of tolerance not amounting to stoicism, and tolerance was considered not only a sign of maturity but a value absolutely fundamental to the fabric of Indian social living. However, that has changed now. As we have learned to tighten our boundaries and live in smaller and smaller personal microcosms, the emphasis has shifted to the here and immediate. We demand instant gratification. And when this does not happen, our frustration levels go over the edge and we lose it in one form or another. You only have to look around you or, if you are more honest, at your own self, and you will see hundreds of day-to-day examples of frustration intolerance in your own life.
The trick to dealing with change is to accept it, to embrace it and to enjoy it. The more you resist it, the more constricted and frustrating will your life become. Change is here to stay. Our lives will have to be re-organized, our relationships will have to be re-aligned, our touchstones will have to be re-defined. But through this process, we do not have to lose out on our essential identity and spirit, for no one can take that away from us. And what’s more, we won’t have to make our personal microcosms tinier and tinier, and we will be in a position to take frustration in our stride. And the world need not seem such a bad place. Actually, it isn’t.

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The Shrinking Universe 38
SIBLINGS-IN-ARMS

I know it’s the time of the year to be looking back at the year gone by and looking forward to the year to come, and that columnists worth their salt are expected to write something along these lines for their end-of-the year columns. And I was sitting down to do just this, when a friend called and told me of a public brawl at a shopping mall. The protagonists had turned out to be brothers who were litigating against each other on some property dispute or the other, and had resorted to fisticuffs in public, perhaps in the spirit of arriving at an out-of-court settlement. This set me thinking about sibling relationships, as a result of which you have been spared my year-end musings. 
What is it about contemporary sibling relationships that raises such hackles and results in such angst? On the face of it, one would imagine that a shared childhood, especially a happy one, should result in irrevocable filial bonds that are designed to last contented lifetimes. But, in truth, it is not uncommon to see those who were very close to their siblings as children, being deeply conflicted about the fact that they can’t really stand each other as adults. This usually happens when they grow apart in the natural course of their development. Their values have changed, their paradigms have shifted, they think differently and their points of contact have diminished rapidly. I have met several people who said that if they could choose their siblings as carefully as they did their friends, they might not be left with any at all. 
In a family-centric society like ours, sibling relationships are impacted upon by some distinctive phenomena. During adulthood, it should hardly matter who the older sibling or who the younger one is. It is only the comfort of the relationship that matters. However, in our country, we find the need to maintain a rigid hierarchy with the older ones playing the role of the ‘head of the family’ and the younger ones being forced to defer. This causes a lot of deep-seated resentment, particularly if younger siblings are more accomplished, more widely exposed or more successful than their older ones. We do need to remember that as we grow older, blind adherence to rigid hierarchies not only doesn’t help, but actively hinders the process of filial bonding. Just as we don’t seek to play the role of the leader with our friends, we need to stop playing these roles with our adult siblings.
As children, we are rarely taught to resolve conflicts and usually, decades of unresolved emotions, rivalry, hurt, anger and resentment, tend to pile up and spill over into our adult relationships with siblings. Often, the incidents themselves may be forgotten, only the negative emotions remain, but these are easily reactivated by certain cues that may remind us of childhood situations. There’s an old family therapy aphorism: the larger the family, the more intense the politics. In the old days of unrestrained fertility, large families were the rule and inevitably the politics within the families were powerful. Telephone calls and letters flying back and forth, one sibling cribbing to another about yet another, someone intervening unnecessarily thereby compounding the problem, years of not talking to each other, unlikely coalitions being forged to combat other unlikely coalitions and so on. All in all, more than enough to keep even the next generation occupied. Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn’t happen as often nowadays, since a modicum of restraint in fertility seems to have recently made an appearance.
If what I’ve said gives you the impression that siblings cannot stay together in companionable harmony, perish the thought! I’ve known many brothers and sisters who have always been, still are and will always be close, and free of conflict. If you look at successful sibling relationships, you’ll realize they practise, whether consciously or unknowingly, a few key behaviours. Realising that siblings who grow together emotionally, stay together, they remain involved in each other’s lives, but with restraint, using adult relationship patterns, not childhood ones. Siblings who live in the past, stay stuck in past patterns. Good futures are more important than great pasts, and to make this happen, sibling relationships too need to be worked on; they are not automatic ‘givens’. If siblings develop open, conflict-resolving patterns of communication, then obviously their relationships would resemble adult equations. They then learn to live with each others’ differences without feeling the need to react strongly to these. In other words, siblings who become friends are generally more strongly bonded for life. 
By following these simple norms, sibling relationships in adulthood can be healthy and companionable. The fact that siblings have a shared past implies that a bond already exists. One doesn’t really have to start from scratch, and this can be a huge advantage. I agree you can choose your friends but are stuck with your siblings; but it need not be an unpleasant ‘stuck’. They can be blessings and your friends, if you choose to make them that.
Oh, and Happy New Year.

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The Shrinking Universe 37
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS

Caught, as urban Indians are, in a twilight zone between orthodoxy and modernity, we, as a nation, are yet to come to terms with the question of how to respond to our parents and other elders as we, and they, grow older. Managing their emotional needs in our overcrowded lives is not always easy. But, since we are a family-centric culture, the last thing we want to do is to abandon our senior citizens to their own devices. So, regardless of what we really feel within us, we calm each other with the age-old platitude - “Respect your elders”, without really understanding what precisely this means. Does it mean indulging them their idiosyncrasies?  Or venerating them even when we have a hard time dealing with some of their foibles? Or grinning and bearing it when they pamper our children even though they brought us up with a seemingly unending supply of iron gloves? Or remaining cheery when they insist on treating us like half-baked adolescents even when we are rapidly approaching middle age? If we look closely at our relationships with our parents, and if we do this searchingly and honestly, we will be forced to confront the reality that we behave with them either as we did when we were young children or we end up parenting them in their old age. Rarely ever do we treat them like adults.
Today’s economics ensures that the average family, more often than not, comprises a married couple, their children and the husband’s parent(s), all living together in not-always- companionable equations. For such a unit to not merely survive, but also do the job it was meant to in the first place – serve as an emotional bedrock - all its constituents will have to co-exist in a state of mutual respect. And being respectful does not mean veneration but engaging in a mutually beneficial relationship of openness, honesty, understanding, tolerance and regard for each others’ needs, boundaries and limitations. In attempting to relate better to our elders, we often find ourselves at one of two poles: deification or vilification. And until we start actively searching for a middle ground, harmony in our family lives is going to remain elusive.
 
The characteristic that distinguishes the parent-child from other relationships is that a long road has been traversed that has seen immeasurably joyful times, but is also often littered with unresolved issues and unfulfilled expectations. If we focus only on the joys they gave us, we tend to deify them, and if we can recall only their shortcomings, we vilify them. But if we accept our parents as imperfect people who did the best they could within their limitations, and stop holding them responsible for our adult flaws, we can view them with balance and maturity. And when we can do this, we can express our adult needs to our parents without feeling bad or guilty, and encourage them to respect our boundaries and private spaces even as we learn to respect theirs. Then we can respond to them with love not amounting to adoration, respect not amounting to reverence and mutual dependence not amounting to over-involvement. Given the fact that most of our parents have not developed alternative roles to play other than the parental and grandparental roles, this might also mean facilitating their involvement in other activities thereby widening their universes.
It may come as a surprise to us to learn that our parents need, as they grow older, the companionship of younger adults. Not constantly, but every now and again. It keeps them feeling young, keeps their minds alive and their intellects stimulated. We usually tend to discuss only ‘necessary’ things with our parents – family events, children-related matters and the like. However what they could also do with is being stimulated in other areas as well – their world views for instance. You may well be surprised that you hardly know what views your parents hold on a variety of issues (unless they are explicit on these). This really entails a process of ‘getting to know’ who your parents really are. Don’t go by your childhood or adolescent images of them. Remember, they too have grown in the intervening years. 
When we fall into the trap of parenting our parents, we start thinking of them as dependents and feel the need to anticipate and respond to their every need. Some parents like this, even demand it. But in my experience, most parents do not like being cosseted all the time. Every now and again is fine, but not all the time. They feel the need for their experience to be respected and for some autonomy particularly when it comes to personal decision making. In short, the key to respecting our elders lies not in ‘serving’ them, but in relating to them with dignity as individuals, as companions and as one adult to another. To make this happen in your life, just remember the basic axiom – neither a vilifier nor a deifer be.

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The Shrinking Universe 36
THE GREAT INDIAN MARRIAGE OBSESSION

I recently had a surprising conversation with some good friends – a married couple. They had always struck me as being urbane and liberal. They were both professionals who had made the transition from hippies to yuppies with seamless ease. They were well travelled ‘people of the world’, as it were. And here they were, telling me that they were looking around for a bridegroom for their daughter. And how old was said daughter? All of 24 years of age. And from her rolling eyes and pursed lips, I gathered that she was not particularly pleased with the direction the conversation was taking. Obviously, she’d been fighting a losing battle with her parents for some time, because there was also an air of resignation about her. And when I looked at her, all she could say was, ‘Yeah, right! Whatever!’ Her 28 year old single brother just chuckled in her direction, until the aforesaid parents added that they needed a bride for him as well. Maybe a brother-sister combination would work for everybody, they mused.
What is it about Indians and marriage? I’m always astonished that even the most hitherto broad-minded and free-spirited Indians change dramatically when their children approach ‘marriageable’ age, even though each community, social class and region define this differently. However, across the country, there seems to be a general consensus that wild oats must be sown pretty fast. By the time one is ‘settled’ in one’s career, one’s brahmacharya is done and dusted, and one should settle down to grahastha. And, the onus of ensuring that one is ‘married off’ (a terrible term, really), rests squarely on the shoulders of the parents. I have lost count of the number of parents who feel that they are failing their children if they don’t find them a bride or a bridegroom to ‘settle’ down with. Once their responsibility to terminate their children’s brahmacharya is taken care of, then the parents, who are not yet ready for vanaprastha (and perhaps, never will be), want to extend their own grahastha with a grandchild or two who, when they grow up, will be subject to the same pressures all over again.
As a nation, we prepare for our children to get married, pretty much from the time they are born. There are all manners of saving schemes tailored for just this purpose. And we want our children to qualify themselves well and get well-paying jobs, so they become economically empowered and good ‘catches’ in the marriage market. Though we tend to worry more about our daughters than our sons, the latter too are not spared. Of course, since sons are considered to possess a few more wild oats to sow than do daughters, we tend to give them a little more time before we start haranguing them to get married. And most middle-class families’ savings are focussed obsessively on children’s weddings (the Provident Fund was probably invented for the purpose). As a result, bemused twenty-somethings are rushed into an institution they are as yet ill-prepared to engage with and end up in increasing numbers in over-crowded and under-staffed Family Courts that were never designed to handle such large volumes.
Let’s just step back a bit and try and get some perspective on this marriage obsession of ours. First off, merely because we got married in our early twenties doesn’t mean our children too have to. Remember our grandparents got married when they were eleven or twelve. We didn’t have to do the same, did we? So, if our children want to wait until their late twenties or thirties, why should we get spooked? In urban India today, the average age at marriage is increasing (about 25-26 for women and 29-30 for men). Had the men and women in question been permitted to have their way, they’d probably have got married even later than this. Let’s look at a worse-case scenario. What if our children aren’t able to find partners if they leave it too late? Or what if our children never want to get married? What if? There are enough single people who lead perfectly comfortable lives to testify to the fact that marriage is not the be all and end all of adult life. Sure, they may get bored and lonely at times, but then, so do married people. 
Having worked with married couples for a while (both young and older), and having had several conversations with liberal as well as conservative parents who obsess about getting their children getting married, it’s not difficult for me to come to the conclusion that young people should decide for themselves, when and even, whether, they should get married. Marriage can be a wonderful thing if we get it right, but the two most important predictors of a successful marriage are a state of preparedness for marriage and ownership of marriage, both of which are inter-linked. If young people they get married because they’ve run out of arguments against their parents’ obsession, the slope tends to get slippery. However, if they are enthusiastic about getting married, and both have had a say in partner choice, then they’ll feel a greater sense of ownership over their marriage and chances are, they’ll work harder at getting it right. 

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The Shrinking Universe 35
HOW BITTER IS THE CHOCOLATE?

All over the world, November 19 is commemorated as World Child Sexual Abuse Day. In our country, since we engage in a remarkable defence mechanism called denial, whereby we simply deny to ourselves the existence of some social evils, this day is seen as pretty much any other day, for we don’t think of Child Sexual Abuse as an ‘Indian problem’. However, owing to concerted efforts on the part of writers, activists, mental health professionals and non-governmental organisations who have espoused the cause and bellowed about it from whatever rooftop they could find, and owing to the best-selling book, Bitter Chocolate by Pinki Virani, we have at least started talking about it in recent times. 
Many people think that child sexual abuse in our country is a recent phenomenon. More denial. Let me assure you that child sexual abuse has been around in our country for many, many years. And if you still don’t believe it’s as much of a serious problem I am making it out to be, kindly get yourself a copy of the Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India’s report of the ‘National Study on Child Abuse: India 2007’, that dropped a bombshell by noting that “53.22% of children all over the country reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse” (when I last checked, it was available online at http://wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf). 
People who have been sexually abused as children, do survive into adulthood, and do end up leading normal lives, going to work, getting married and having relationships with family and friends. Since the abuse was such a traumatic event and since it took place when they were very young children, it’s memory is buried deep in the corner of their minds, and gets re-activated only later in life, usually when they engage in intimate relationships of their own. In some situations, for instance, if the abuse happened when they were slightly older children, the survivor may recall the horrors of the event well, and may even share it with family members, friends or partners, even though this is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things in life for them to share. If you are at the receiving end of the sharing, please remember you are being honoured. 
Adult survivors of child sexual abuse not only have to deal with the trauma of the abuse, but also the often insensitive responses of people around them. When they need understanding and empathy, they are not always fortunate to receive it. If ever you find that your family member, friend or partner is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, please be sensitive and understanding. With love and support they can overcome their trauma and lead perfectly normal lives. Seeing a mental health professional may help in speeding up the recovery process. It is worth noting that, although less commonly than girls, young boys are also victims of child sexual abuse. Their abusers are usually older males in their environment – family members, friends, older boys and so on. However, in some situations, they can also be sexually abused by older, sexually frustrated women. 
Typically, adult survivors of child sexual abuse tend to have issues related to emotional intimacy and sexual functioning. They may find it extremely difficult to experience and express intimacy in their personal relationships. The other big issues in the minds of adult survivors of child sexual abuse are trust and guilt. Invariably, their abuser in childhood is an older person they instinctively trusted and perhaps, even, looked up to. So when their trust was betrayed, they find it difficult to establish trust in their adult relationships. Also, their parents may have stayed in denial about the abuse and may not have done anything about the abuse even when they found out about it. This leads to a difficulty in trusting and respecting their ‘protectors’, which may spill over into adult relationships as well. Sadly, many experience guilt because they have this baseless feeling that somehow, they brought the abuse on themselves or that they didn’t do enough to stop it. It may take them ages to realise that they are, in no way responsible for the abuse. Some may find it distasteful to engage in sex. Sometimes, the opposite may happen and since they have been sexualised very early, they may display non-discerning forms of sexual behaviour in adulthood, for they may feel that it is only through sex that they can relate to the world around them. 
Whatever the individual variation, adult survivors of child sexual abuse need to be handled with compassion and dignity. Remember that one out every two of us has been a victim of unwanted sexual attentions from a loved, trusted and respected adult when we were young and had no idea what sex was. Try and imagine how traumatising it must have been. You can help by reading about the subject and talking to a mental health professional about it. I have known many people who have nurtured their sexually abused partners and helped them recover trust and the capacity for intimacy completely, thereby enabling them to make happy lives for themselves. Hopefully, with sensitive people in their environment, adult survivors of sexual abuse may find that the chocolate is not as bitter any more.

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The Shrinking Universe 34
OTHELLO AT HOME

Shakespeare’s famous Moor (the one that loved ‘not wisely, but too well’) could at least blame the machinations of the malevolent Iago for his obsessional suspicion of the fair and pure Desdemona’s fidelity, but most people who suffer from Obsessional Jealousy (also known as Pathological Jealousy or the Othello Syndrome) cannot. The fear that their partners may love someone other than themselves drives them to do things that most normal married people would not. It goes beyond insecurity or control. It’s a very deep seated fear that manifests itself in the belief that their partner could well engage in extra-marital relationships. And if the partner, driven by frustration, does end up having such a relationship, they feel absolutely justified in being suspicious of their fidelity. Despite its name, both men and women are equally susceptible to this syndrome. 
Sometimes, the suspicious pattern of behaviour may be on account of the partner’s past relationships. It’s not uncommon today for people to have had a relationship or two before they get married. And it’s also not uncommon for couples to share details of their past relationships with each other when they first get married. More often than not, this does not produce any major issues, since most partners are able to deal with these as pre-marital issues as long as they don’t impact on the marriage. Unfortunately, some spouses, who haven’t resolved this issue in their minds, end up fearing that if their spouses could do this once, then they are liable to do it again. Usually this happens when only one of the partners has had a pre-marital relationship. In this scenario, the one who hasn’t may end up feeling that the other is not to be trusted and therefore maintains a constant vigil on any potential trespassers. And you don’t need me to tell you that when you look for potential trespassers, every person of the opposite gender that your partner interacts with, could well appear like one.
However suspiciousness is not always based on perceived lack of morality on the part of the partner. Often, it has more to do with the fear that the partner is such a desirable person that others will definitely cross boundaries and poach. They feel that their partners may not recognise somebody hitting on them and might inadvertently encourage the latter’s advances. At this time it would be useful to distinguish between obsessional jealousy and a delusion. The former condition refers to a fear that some untoward activity may happen. The jealous partner may not believe that the spouse is actually having an affair, but fears that this might happen any time. In the case of a delusion of infidelity, the person is absolutely convinced that an affair is taking place and will take some extraordinary steps to try and prove this to both self and partner. By definition, a delusion is a false belief held with absolute conviction even in the face of evidence against it, and nothing can convince the deluded person of the partner’s fidelity. A delusion is usually evidence of a serious mental disorder. 
Some Othellos suffer from a condition referred to as ‘paranoid personality disorder’. This is easier to recognise though as difficult to deal with, since the individual tends to be suspicious of everybody’s intentions, not just those of the spouse. Whether it’s the Othello Syndrome, a delusion of infidelity or a paranoid personality that you are dealing with doesn’t really matter, for in the final analysis, all of these require mental health interventions by a trained psychiatrist or clinical psychologist or both. There’s not a lot that you can do, other than escalate the matter to other family members or mental health professionals.
However, as a caveat, let me add that not all suspicious behaviour is necessarily a mental health problem. I have known several people who are uncomfortable with one particular relationship that the spouse has with a person of the opposite gender, whether co-worker or social acquaintance. They may be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, the most common one being that they feel that the person in question is overstepping boundaries and engaging in a pattern of communication that is unacceptable, such as overly intimate text messages and so on. The accused spouse usually responds in a shocked manner, for there is absolutely no conscious experience of anything beyond a personal or professional friendship. But do keep in mind that intuitive spouses can pick up something that’s nascent. I have oftentimes found that the intuitions of some sensitive spouses have turned out to be prophetic. My advice here would be simple. If your intuitive partner, who is not usually jealous of your interactions with people of the opposite gender, expresses discomfort, don’t go ballistic. Just accept it and go easy on the burgeoning relationship. No co-worker or friend is worth destabilising your marriage for. Extra-marital dalliances, even potential ones, are best nipped in the bud. However, if jealousy is a predominant feature in your marriage and you do have an Othello on your hands, then don’t hesitate to seek help, for early treatment always produces enduring cures.

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The Shrinking Universe 33
EVEN ONCE IS TOO MUCH

In a country that won its independence on a platform of ahimsa, it is amazing that some spouses still engage violently with each other. Domestic violence, as it is officially called, has been happening for centuries in our country and is very much part of ‘Indian culture’. It has caused immeasurable grief, much damage to dignity and self-esteem and even incalculable loss of life and limb. Yet it continues to exist and has now reached almost epidemic proportions, thereby shaking even the government of India out of its customary stupor to enact, in 2005, a law to respond to the phenomenon – The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. Though it is debatable whether legislation is the final solution to social problems, in the absence of anything else, I hope the law serves at least to highlight the growing menace of domestic violence. 
When I talk of domestic violence here, I am referring only to the type of violent behaviour and abuse that takes place between married partners, although social scientists use the term to refer to a larger range of violent acts at home – against spouses, children, elders etc.  There are four ways in which spouses abuse each other. The first of these is the most basal of them all—physical abuse, where one partner slaps, hits, kicks or beats up the other. Equally basal is sexual abuse, where the dominant partner engages in marital rape, or forces the partner to engage in perverse sexual acts. Then there is verbal abuse, where the abuser regularly resorts to shouting at the partner, using foul and vulgar language. And finally, there is emotional abuse wherein one partner subjugates the other through persistent demeaning, insults, threats, and intellectual battering.
Many people think that abuse happens only in lower socio-economic backgrounds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Middle-class as well as wealthier homes see large amounts of domestic violence too. Since we live in a patriarchal society, most spouse abusers are men. Since men have been taught ever since they were boys that they should ‘control’ their wives and since, more often than not, they are physically bigger and stronger, they tend to resort more easily to using violent means to take charge of their marriages, if they find their wives challenging their authority. Having said that, it is no longer uncommon to see men, particularly in urban areas, being victims of spousal abuse from their wives. Typically verbal and emotional abuse are more common, but physical abuse also does take place. Women who feel the need to dominate their spouses may tend to, particularly if the man is generally soft natured and easy to push around, intimidate their husbands by constantly belittling them in private and public, thereby establishing dominance in the marriage. Also, some of them, if they are physically strong, may lash out physically at their husbands by slapping, scratching, kicking and throwing things at them. Since very few men want to acknowledge publicly that they are being abused by their wives, cases of spousal abuse of males are largely under-reported, although in recent times, abused men have been coming together in support groups and have formed associations to help each other deal with the situation.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act has provided succour to many women who have been victimised by their spouses. It is a well-intended and welcome piece of legislation, but, unfortunately doesn’t provide men who are victims of domestic violence any space for redressal of their grievances. Another important legislation that needs to be touched upon here is Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code which covers any acts of cruelty committed upon a woman by her husband or his relatives. Sadly, one of the more distressing by-products of both these laws, is that they are abused. Unscrupulous legal professionals as well as acrimonious wives and their relatives try and either intimidate the husband or extract their pound of flesh by filing cases under these laws. I do know of men who have been threatened under Sec 498A of the IPC, merely because the wife and her family want a better divorce settlement than he originally offered. Sometimes where the wife wants a divorce and the husband is unwilling to grant her one, Sec 498A is used as a sword of Damocles over the latter, and it is not unusual to see petitions filed under these laws on falsified charges. More often than not, a messy legal battle ensues that, from what I have seen, no one wins. The whole process leaves everyone scarred, angry and frustrated with wounds that take ages to heal. 
All I can say is this. If there is no violence at home, don’t file a petition under the Domestic Violence Act. If there is no cruelty, don’t go anywhere near Sec 498A, whoever advises you to do so. But, per contra, if there is violence or cruelty, don’t hesitate to take recourse to the law, for that is the best protection available to you. However, do so only after the matter has been escalated to other members in the family and assistance from mental health professionals has been sought. The way I see it, there is only one way to deal with spousal abuse. Don’t accept it. Approach it with a zero-tolerance policy, for even once is too much.

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The Shrinking Universe 32
RAMANUJAM OR TANSEN ?

Who was more intelligent – Srinivasa Ramanujam or Miya Tansen? If ever posed this question, most Indian primary school students would likely have no hesitation in naming the legendary Indian mathematician as having possessed a higher IQ than Tansen, if indeed, they had even heard of the legendary musician. And they would probably have been technically correct, for I’m fairly certain that, had anybody assessed them, Ramanujam’s IQ, would have been far higher than that of Tansen. Or Einstein’s higher than say, Mozart’s. And since the IQ is the most standardised measure of intelligence and intellectual capability available to us today, one would have to conclude that the Einsteins and the Ramanujams would be way higher on the totem pole than the Tansens and Mozarts.  But is Tansen any less of a genius than Ramanujam or Mozart less than Einstein? Obviously the genius in each of them was innate and each of them has contributed substantially to their fields of endeavour and each has left equally lasting legacies. However, since the Intelligence Quotient primarily measures logical and analytical ability, those who are low on these (like I am assuming Tansen or Mozart might have been, although I have no evidence to base this on; I’m just using them as examples, so don’t please quibble on this assumption) are unlikely to be considered highly intelligent regardless of any other extraordinary capability they may possess.
This obvious inequity has actively engaged the minds of psychologists, academics and educators for ages and long polemics exist on this controversy in the literature. In 1983, Howard Gardner, a Harvard-based psychologist and educationist, turned the concept of intelligence on its head when he published his Theory of Multiple Intelligences in his classic book, Frames of Mind. His theory was simple and elegant. He proposed that Intelligence was not a unitary phenomenon and contained several elements, each of which could predominate in a given individual depending on a variety of factors, more related to nature than nurture. He originally suggested that seven types of intelligences could be seen in the human race: Verbal-Linguistic (related to words and language), Logical-Mathematical (related to numbers and logical analysis), Spatial-Visual (imagery and space), Bodily-Kinaesthetic (body movement and coordination), Musical (music, rhythm), Interpersonal (relationships, sensitivity) and Intrapersonal (self awareness and self actualisation). He had also suggested three more – Naturalist (related to nature and the environment), Spiritual-Existential (religion, philosophy) and Moral (ethics and human values). The last two – Spiritual and Moral – are considered too subjective, culture-bound and context-anchored for universal applicability and have been set aside, but Naturalist has been accepted as an area of intelligence, thereby resulting in a total of eight intelligences that are applicable to all mankind. The basic postulate was that each of us would have multiple areas of intelligence, some predominating more than others.
Gardener’s theory sounds very plausible, attractive, and more than anything else, egalitarian, for it provides for the possibility that all human beings, other than those who are severely handicapped by lack of development of the brain, have the possibility of being equally intelligent, but perhaps, in different ways. It takes the competitive element out of intelligence and places all of us on an equitable grid, enabling us to take different paths to self-actualisation. Accepting the theory means making fundamental changes in the way we perceive each other, the way we educate our children, the kind of scholastic ability we test school students for and so on. Unfortunately, any theory that puts jocks and nerds on the same platform is bound to invite detractors, as has this one. However, there are some serious scientific issues in the theory and these have been systematically dissected, ever since it was formulated. The principal grounds for dissonance has been that the theory was not based on empirical evidence and has not necessarily stood up to the test of research scrutiny. In other words, although it appears universal, it may not actually be so and what’s more, standardised measurements of multiple intelligences are hard to derive. There are several websites that offer you a quick assessment of your Multiple Intelligences, but most of these scales are idiosyncratic, the questions are not standardised and you’re likely to get different results on each of them. Although, the theory has not been rejected, it is not universally accepted either.
I’m going to leave the contentious debate aside, for the way I see it is that whether or not the theory of multiple intelligences actually refers to cognitive intelligence, it provides a useful approach to understand where our strengths lie, thereby finding ourselves career paths that optimise our capabilities. For instance, if you score high on Spatial-Visual Intelligence and Musical Intelligence, you might do well in Art, Architecture, Design, Music etc. If your Interpersonal Intelligence and Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence scores are high, you might end up as a psychiatrist who writes books or in other people-oriented careers. And so forth. Please don’t ask me to provide a comprehensive list of career options matched to intelligence area. I’m limited by word counts and things like that. Ask Google, if you must. But, if you want to get a proper assessment of Multiple Intelligences, I’d suggest you visit a trained clinical psychologist for optimal results. 

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The Shrinking Universe 31
PLATO? WHO ON EARTH IS PLATO?

Young, single, people in urban India have never had it so good when it comes to relationships with the opposite gender. As part of the whole liberalisation scenario, there’s a virtual explosion in the incidence of man-woman relationships. Not just this, there is a wide array of relationships that young men and women can choose from. There is of course, the classic boyfriend-girlfriend sort of relationship which has a clear component of commitment and will probably end in marriage or living-in. But this is not as ‘cool’ as man-woman friendships, which are pretty intense involvements, but without the ‘burdensome’ element of commitment. Unfortunately, the lack of emotional connectedness in casual sexual equations, leaves many people feeling unfulfilled, even those that fear commitment. But since they are not yet ready to be ‘tied down’ to one individual, young people are using creative formulae to re-define and re-label their relationships. 
So, you have a category called ‘friendship with benefits’, where aside of being good companionable friends though not ‘in love’ with each other, a man and a woman enjoy the added ‘benefit’ of sex every now and again. However, multiple sexual partners are possible and even encouraged in this type of relationship, and this doesn’t always work out well for everybody. So, in order to satisfy the needs of the more monogamously inclined, you have the ‘hooking up’ sort relationship, where the friendship and sexual relationship are exclusive, but with no expectation of matrimony at the end of the road. And then there’s always, the  good, old-fashioned, platonic relationship to fall back on. Although the term continues to be in use, participants in such relationships often have little clue as to who Plato was, except that he was not Indian and allegedly had several platonic relationships with women in his time.  
The term, platonic relationship, refers to any equation between people of opposite genders that does not include a sexual component, but does include a good degree of emotional investment. In other words, when a man says a woman is his friend, though not his girlfriend, what he’s saying is that he cares for her, enjoys her company, is dependent on her for some things in his life and misses her when she is not around, but he cannot think of her as the woman in his life for she does not sweep him away, nor is there any sexual tension between them. It’s important to remember that a friendship a person has with someone of the opposite gender is qualitatively different from one with somebody of the same gender. In the latter, there is no underlying sexual tension between the two even when the most intimate of secrets are being shared. But, when a woman and a man engage in an intimate conversation, an underlying sexual tension is known to have made its unsolicited appearance. That neither may choose to act on this is what keeps the relationship ‘platonic’ or at least ‘quasi-platonic’. 
However platonic friendships are not just about asexuality. They are basically relationships that involve an emotional investment. Friends invest feelings in each other, help and support each other, spend time with each other and make a commitment to each other. In the absence of these, a ‘friendship’ or whatever else you choose to call it, remains a fair-weather equation. Like all other relationships, a friendship also grows and requires periodic emotional investment to grow. It is this emotional investment that platonic friends need to be cautious about. For, if it comes at the expense of other relationships, the fine balance in one’s emotional life suddenly goes out of kilter. You might find that your spouse is not so understanding when it comes to your supporting your platonic friend through some life stress, when legitimate spousal needs are being compromised. 
The upshot of what I am saying is this: We have to work as hard at our platonic relationships to keep them platonic as we do at our marriage and other relationships. If you find that you’re unfavourably comparing your wife’s quirks with your platonic friend’s calm, or every time you have a work-related problem you run to your platonic friend and not to your husband, then a crisis is simply waiting to happen. However, if you do define your boundaries with your platonic friend and are able to keep the relationship within these, if you keep the intensity down to manageable proportions and do not have irrational expectations of each other, you could well have a long, productive and meaningful friendship that does not take away from your other relationships and might well end up enriching you and making you the better person all of us are trying to become. And who knows, you may even end up with a blessing from the much maligned Plato himself, even if you neither know nor care who he was or what he did. 

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The Shrinking Universe 30
NO NEWS IS ALSO GOOD NEWS

However much social progress urban India may claim to have made in the last decade or so, when it comes to having children, we are still stuck in century-old patterns and processes. It would appear that the first legitimate activity for a couple after the wedding rites have been dealt with, is to produce a child. The question that newlyweds customarily get assaulted with, even a few days after the wedding is, “Any good news?”  Many couples come under severe pressure from concerned parents, well-meaning relatives and well-intentioned friends. Given this scenario, one can well understand the kind of emotional pressure couples face, when even after marriage, they remain childless.
For as long as a childless couple is seen to be feeling unhappy about their state of childlessness and are seen to be pursuing some method or other of assisted reproduction, they receive a great deal of sympathy, support, advice and cheerleading from their social environment. However when they opt to stay childless, a phenomenon in such increasing evidence in urban India that a name has been given to it – Voluntarily Childless Couples or VCCs , the sympathy seems to dry up. On the face of it, it would appear that not wanting a child could be considered an extraordinary decision for any couple to make. It seems to go against Darwinian principles of survival of the species and natural selection. Some people have inferred that VCCs perhaps represent the ‘weaker’ sections of mankind whose genes are not ‘good enough’ to be propagated. This seems quite an implausible conclusion when you talk to VCCs, who are as intellectually, physically and emotionally developed as their counterparts who choose to have children. It has also been speculated that such couples are afraid of taking emotional responsibility for children, which also seems unlikely when you look at how responsibly they conduct their relationships with each other and with other family members. Are they merely greedy, in pursuit of more wealth, and do not have children because they don’t have the time or energy or don’t want to deemphasise their career focus? Again not true. There are many middle class, single income couples who have enough time and energy on their hands, but still opt to be voluntarily childless. 
There can be no doubt that having a child is a truly wondrous experience and bringing up children, tribulations notwithstanding, can be joyfully enriching. But the converse is not necessarily true. Not having a child need not result in a wretched, miserable or doomed existence. And what VCCs have ‘lost’ in terms of not having experienced the joys of parenting, they seem to have ‘gained’ in terms of enhancing the quality of their emotional relationships –marital as well as others. From my experience, the VCCs who have managed to do well for themselves despite not having children, seem to have one important thing in common. They tend to marry a little later in their lives – late twenties and early thirties, by which time they are better set in their professional lives and have acquired the capacity to think for themselves and tend to actively question social norms. When you sift through the responses of VCCs who are asked why they choose to be childless, the most authentic reason that comes through is that they are perfectly happy as they are, and do not feel the need to have a child for their cups to run over. The decision to stay childless is more often than not, a mutual one, not imposed, whether subtly or through emotional blackmail, by one partner on the other. This ensures that each partner supports the other through all the periods of self-doubts that such socially unpopular decisions inevitably entail.
However, maternal and paternal instincts (even VCCs are not immune to the effects of these) do kick in at some time or the other, and in the absence of a child of their own, they do usually go through a phase of being hugely indulgent ersatz parents to their nephews and nieces or their friends’ children, much to the chagrin of the real parents. Or they end up parenting each other with smothering intensity. While a certain amount of parenting from the partner is good for the married soul, anything in excess can kill. Usually, they get the drift later or sooner, and start enjoying growing old together. And given today’s realities where children tend to fly the coop at much earlier ages than before, VCCs at this time of their lives, have a bit of an advantage over other couples, for they have perforce established companionship parameters and do not have to go through the sometimes serious adjustment issues entailed by empty nests.
All said and done, the choice to remain childless or to have children is a highly personal one and neither option can be considered more or less desirable than the other. The bottom line is that either option needs to be arrived at after considerable thought and application of mind (the mere possession of hormones and reproductive capacity should not be the determining factor). And more than anything, the decision has to be wholly and indubitably mutual.

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The Shrinking Universe 29
TEENAGER IN LOVE

In 1960, when he was 19 years old, Paul Anka, who was then madly in love with actress and singer Annette Funicello, wrote the song ‘Puppy Love’ that went on to be a chartbuster, for it echoed the plaintive voices of millions of teenagers all over the world. I am positive if, almost half a century after it was originally written, one of the innumerable charming boy bands in existence today would care to do a cover of ‘Puppy Love’, they could hope to go platinum in India alone. For the lyrics of the song will still continue to resonate with the soul of the love-sick Indian teenager.  
Teenage relationships have come into sharp conscious focus in the minds of contemporary urban parents. Not because they are of recent occurrence; it’s just that teenagers of yesteryears were more circumspect about their love-lives whereas today’s teenager is generally more in-your-face. When faced with a teenager in love, parents typically react in one of three ways. The more ‘balanced-liberal’ parents are blasé about the whole thing and see what’s happening as a rite of passage and try and be as supportive as they reasonably can. ‘Quasi-liberal’ parents label it as ‘puppy love’ and get all gooey and gushy with their teenagers, pat them condescendingly on the heads when the teenager has a fight with the loved one and are genuinely surprised when their teenagers react angrily to this, insisting they are not puppies, demanding to be taken more seriously and even threatening elopement and the like. The more ‘conservative’ parents press the panic button, advise the teenagers that they are too young to get married, cut off their privileges and seek a meeting with the parents of the teenager’s sweetheart, with whom they work out a strategy to sabotage the relationship and end up utterly humiliating both the girl and the boy and alienating themselves from their teenage child. 
To prevent over-the top reactions and respond appropriately to the needs of one’s teenager, one needs to understand the phenomenon of teenage love and recognise its value in the process of human growth and development. First off, we need to realise that when a teenager falls in love, there is nothing puppy about it. I am still to meet a puppy who thinks and behaves in the same manner as a teenager does when in love. There is, in fact, absolutely no difference in the feelings experienced by the teenager as well as the chemical changes in the brain when compared to the adult in love. The very heady feeling of being in love takes over their life and leaves room for little else. Academic pursuits becomes second priority (unless the object of love is an academic genius), friends are neglected and parents become drones. So dismissing this as ‘puppy love’ is bound to rouse the teenager’s ire.
You may ask me, is the teenager mature enough for a love relationship? And my answer will have to be yes and no. Yes, the teenager is ready to fall in love, physiologically and psychologically. But no, the teenager is not yet mature enough to make a commitment to a long-term relationship. While love is a necessary element in all relationships, merely being in love does not mean that one can necessarily have a good relationship. Other parameters are important for the conduct of a relationship, and some of these are not yet part of the teenager’s repertoire. Which is precisely why many teenage relationships end sooner than later, except in the case of extraordinarily mature teenagers. But what is important to understand is that adolescent relationships give teenagers an excellent opportunity to get in touch with and refine their relationship templates which will be invaluable in the conduct of their adult relationships. Teenagers who don’t fall in love (many such teenagers exist, though they’re dwindling in number) need not worry; they can figure out how to have relationships when they’re adults or from the behaviour of their ‘love-sick’ compatriots.
So next time, your teenager is mooning around the house or having long and intense telephone conversations with a ‘friend’, try and understand that this is a necessary stage in a teenager’s life and unless you are confided in, you cannot really play a role in what is happening. But if you do have an open relationship with your teenager, it’s quite probable that you will hear some, if not all, of the gory details and will be expected to provide inputs and guidance. If this is the case, try not be condescending. The best guidance you could provide is to help ensure that the teenager does not feel compelled to make a commitment to the partner, does not feel compelled to engage in a sexual relationship when not ready to do so, and does not get overly distracted from the primary purpose of going to school or college. And whatever you do, don’t ever forget that, as Paul Anka said,  this is not a puppy love.

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The Shrinking Universe 28
I THINK THEREFORE I FEEL

Last week I had written about the causes and treatment of depression (In the Times of Prozac, Magazine, July 19). Owing to constraints of space, I had not explored the role of psychotherapy in the management of clinical depressions, thereby inadvertently leaving the reader with the inaccurate impression that anti-depressant medication is the only treatment available for this modern epidemic. Although medication is one of the cornerstones of treatment of Major Depression, psychotherapy plays an equally important role. A review of the research literature reveals that with a combination of medication and psychotherapy, most people with depression recover completely and are able to approach their lives with a fresh enthusiasm that seemed so elusive when they were down in the dumps. 
 
Psychotherapy, which has been described by one of Sigmund Freud’s patients as ‘the talking cure’, has evolved considerably over the last few decades and today a bewildering plethora of psychotherapies exist, ranging from the more pragmatic approaches to the more esoteric ones. The basic object of psychotherapy is to help us understand what’s happening in those parts of our mind that are not readily accessible to us. Or put differently, what precisely our thoughts are doing to our feelings, and our feelings to our thoughts. One form of psychotherapy, called psychodynamic psychotherapy, helps people to create a better life for themselves by understanding their past experiences and helping them deal with these. It can and does help people when they recover from depression. But, of the different psychotherapies available, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT as it is popularly known, is the best researched and probably the most valuable when it comes to tre ating people going through a depression.
“If I think negatively, I feel depressed”, is the maxim that constitutes the basis for CBT. The starting point of cognitive theory is that when an event takes place, the way we evaluate and think about it (cognition), determines how we feel about it. For instance, if we lose a job, we could evaluate it either as an inevitable consequence of these recessionary times or we could interpret it as a signal that the death knell of our career has been sounded. If we do the former, we will doubtless feel bad, but we will still be in a position to rewrite our resume, get in touch with a head-hunter and so on. But if our thought process is along the latter lines, we sink into a depression, feel anxious, angry and resentful, and approach our next job interview with so much negativity that a prospective employer may not want to hire us. And this ends up making us feel even more depressed. 
According to cognitive theory, when we perceive an event using a negative filter (cognitive distortion), the emotion we experience is anxiety or depression, When this happens, we feel helpless and want to avoid the situation, as a result of which we may end up making inappropriate choices. And when we do this over a prolonged period, most of the filters we use become negative and we experience what are called ‘negative automatic thoughts’. In other words, we don’t even do it consciously any more. It happens pretty much on its own. When we get into a fight with the auto-rickshaw or cab driver in the morning, a negative automatic thought flashes through our mind to the effect that “today’s going to be a lousy day”. This heightens our anxiety and we set ourselves up to have a bad day and actually end up having one. Since all of us do have a fair number of negative experiences in the course of our lives, we do experience different types of negative automatic thoughts on a regular basis, but we build our own coping strategies, with which we can dismiss these and substitute them with more positive ones. However, if these thoughts cross a certain threshold or if we are experiencing a depression, we lose the capacity to do so. And this is where CBT can come to the rescue.
Aaron T. Beck, an American psychoanalyst, was the person who originally formulated the technique of CBT. He believed that people with depression have what he referred to as the ‘cognitive triad’: a negative view of the self, a negative view of the world around, and a negative view of the future. As a result of this, they develop what are called negative ‘schemas’ and they interact with the world through these. The object of CBT is to help people identify and correct their negative automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions, thereby giving themselves more accurate schemas with which they can engage positively with themselves, their world and their future. It is a simple, though not simplistic way of dealing with life’s problems, provided you are in the safe hands of a well trained cognitive therapist. And if you’re going through a depression, it might be a good idea to find yourself one in consultation with your psychiatrist. This  way, your medication gives you a lift out of your depression and CBT helps ensure that you stay that way.

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The Shrinking Universe 27
WE DON’T NEED NO (SEX) EDUCATION !

I never stop feeling astonished by the fact that sex education continues to be an issue even in 21st century India. We are pretty much surrounded by sex today, but we still persist in reacting to it with embarrassing ambivalence. State governments still talk of banning sex education in schools all together for they feel it is an alien (read Western) concept and goes “against Indian culture and values”. Parents have still not made up their minds on whether or not to sex-educate their children and by the time they resolve the conflict, their children will probably be ready to provide them a refresher course on the subject. Nobody, save a handful of valiant activists and n.g.o.s, seems to be paying heed to  the report of the ‘National Study on Child Abuse: India 2007’ published a couple of years ago by the Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India, which dropped a bombshell by noting that “53.22% of children all over the country reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse” (If you don’t believe me, visit http://wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf). Over one half of our children are victims of Child Sexual Abuse and we are still ambivalent about sex education in schools? I don’t get it!
Today, we seem to live in the corridor of uncertainty where the whole issue of sex and sexuality is concerned. Even as we enjoy the growth of our incomes, greater exposure to the world around us, and the ready access we have to information and entertainment at the flick of a switch, we have not yet come to terms with where exactly we want to position ourselves when it comes to dealing with value change. While there are several value conflicts that we do and will continue to experience as we engage with this complex phenomenon of modernity, conflicts in the area of sex, sexuality and, in particular, sex education, need not be part of these. Sex education is a vibrant part of our country’s hoary past. We even had temples dedicated to educating passersby about sex and sexuality. Hopefully you don’t think Khajuraho and Konarak were the work of some extraordinarily insightful forefathers who had the foresight to predict that in the 21st century, Incredible India would need some tourist attractions! I think this is a good time to set aside the notion that sex and sexuality are western phenomena, and get comfortable with the idea that we practically invented it. 
It is most unfortunate that we think of sex education only in the context of child sexual abuse and the almost epidemic prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. Ideally we should be thinking of sex education not just as a tool to protect young people from abuse and disease, but as a rite of passage from childhood into adolescence in order that our children may obtain appropriate information about sex, have a positive attitude towards it and actually enjoy the physical as well as emotional fulfilment that it can bring, instead of going through a life of sexual apprehensions, performance anxiety, premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction which is the fate of a fairly large number of our fellow citizens, whose primary source of sex education is Internet pornography.  Let us also remember that children today mature sexually at a much earlier age than they did a few decades ago. Unfortunately, emotional maturity comes much later. In other words, we are left with a situation where our children are physically capable of reproduction, but are not informed by any reliable source as to how they should deal with their raging hormones. Nothing can be scarier than this.
Whatever sex education tends to be provided ends up being ‘reproductive education’ concentrating more on the anatomy and physiology of procreational sex. While this is undoubtedly important, this can only be a primer. Most adolescents want to understand the nuances of recreational sex and the value base surrounding it. Is masturbation ok? Is pre-marital sex acceptable? Does one have to love a person to have sex? And so on. As I see it, procreational sex education can be provided at school by sensitive teachers or educators, but recreational sex education is best provided by parents or a trusted family member or specially trained counsellor-educators. This way, teenagers can get all their sexual concerns addressed within the context of  trusting relationships than through word-of-mouth or by skulking around pornographic web sites that create enormous complexes in young minds. 
At the risk of sounding like a scaremonger, I would like to re-emphasise that unless we get our acts together soon and encourage sex education for our children or at least not discourage it if schools and n.g.o.s attempt to provide it, we leave ourselves open to the risk of one unpleasant surprise after another. Hopefully we won’t wait for an epidemic of teenage pregnancies to realise that we do need sex education, not just IITJEE coaching!

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The Shrinking Universe 26
MARRIED TO THE JOB

One of the major issues that HR professionals are required to deal with in recent times is what is referred to as ‘Work-Life balance’. The term itself seems to indicate that ‘work’ is something other than ‘life’. However, work has come to occupy a central part of our lives today. All our emotional energies are directed towards our work where we are obsessed with excellence; whatever dregs we can spare, we scatter tiredly around all our personal relationships. Work dominates our thinking, whether we are in the office or at home. While many of us are able to somehow get our acts together and find the balance between work and the rest of our lives, some of us end up becoming workaholics who cannot function comfortably outside of the work environment. Although this is an affliction that tends to affect men more than women, the latter are not spared either. I have known several women who feel more comfortable at office than at home, in a meeting than at a party, with co-workers than with family and with Blackberries than TV remotes. 
The physical environment in today’s offices, particularly some of the more recent and up-market ones, has become increasingly attractive to their employees. A lot of attention is paid to beautifying the physical space that one works in. Office cafeterias aren’t the grubby places they used to be. You might even have a gymnasium and a swimming pool for you to work out in after you’ve been worked up by office frustrations. And overall, the work culture itself tends to breed over-work: contemporary work culture demands a punishing 70-plus hours a week schedule. And if you’re living in a metropolis, the travails of commuting ensure even less time for family and other pursuits.
It would be unfair to pin the rap for workaholism on the stresses and strains of modern lifestyles and cultural norms. We do need to remember that not all those affected by the same stress factors turn to work as a remedy. And certainly there are better ways to deal with stress and even bereavement, than by immersing oneself in one’s work. Often, we tend to ‘escape’ into work. Unable to find the ways and means to handle the emotional vagaries involved in family and social life, many people may progressively spend more time at the workplace, where they experience a greater sense of security and comfort because the expectations of them at work are better defined. Performance appraisals in other relationships and life domains are far less acceptable because the targets are not clearly spelt out. 
Nobody exemplifies the ‘work is worship’ maxim, as much as the workaholic. To the rest of us, work is a means to a larger end, but to the workaholic, it is an end in itself. The “it runs in my family” line is often used by workaholics. But, believe me, this an excuse, for workaholism, unlike alcoholism, has no known genetic basis. To a certain extent, workaholism can be a learned behaviour. All of us are looking around for that buzz of adrenaline, that rush of blood that sets our pulses racing. And this can happen not just from bungee-jumping or falling in love, but also from a job well done. Some people keep looking for this buzz through the achievement of excellence at work and therefore programme their lives, habits, interests and behaviour around the pursuit of this buzz which can be heady indeed. 
Workaholism can be considered an addiction. Not, perhaps, identical to alcoholism or other drug addictions, where a physiological dependence takes place, but a social addiction nevertheless. And the fact that there are support groups for workaholics in different parts of the world, including the Workaholics International Network, testifies to the fact that workaholism is more than just mere a tendency to work too hard and does require more intervention than just telling the sufferer to “get your act together”.
In the final analysis, workaholism is a choice made by an individual. Like any other addiction it can be prevented by making an appropriate choice at an appropriate time in one’s life. Curing it requires the individual to appreciate that even inappropriate choices can certainly be reversed. The road to recovery for the workaholic requires a lot of support and belief from loved ones, but it is not as full of potholes as one may imagine. Of course, the starting point for recovery is to get out of the denial mode and stop offering excuses like “I work this hard only for the family’. If you find that weekends and vacations are interminable and you can’t wait to get back to work, that you have little or no interest in anything other than work, or that you forget your spouse’s birthday but never your boss’ wedding anniversary, you need help, my friend. While you don’t have to actually file for divorce from your employer, you might want to consider de-prioritising work and  getting yourself a life. 

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The Shrinking Universe 25
THE SEVEN-YEAR AND OTHER ITCHES

All marriages, even the best ones drift. Some do so just a little, but sometimes partners drift quite apart from each other and it is not uncommon to see some couples leading parallel lives, independent of each other. They come together only to deal with mundane, day-to-day issues. They make social plans, talk about the children’s needs, who needs the car at what time and whether or not they need to get the house repainted. These they do well, for these are not judgment-related issues (unless, of course, they have severe issues on whether to paint the walls teal or lemon yellow). What I mean here is that there is no value judgement that is being pronounced by either on the other, and since they have, over the years, worked out a basic understanding of how to engage in mundane communication with each other, they may be able to manage a civil conversation on such subjects. Sometimes, if they have been fighting a lot about other things, they are quite relieved to have such conversations in an atmosphere of apparent cordiality, for it lulls them into a feeling that if they are not fighting, there is no hostility in their life.
Although the term, ‘Seven-year-itch’ usually referred to one or both partners having extra-marital relationships, it has, in recent times, come to be used in the context of partners drifting away from each other. The understanding was that around seven years is the usual length of time that two people in a relationship could tolerate the ‘benefits’ of monogamy. At the end of this period, spouses were expected to become tired of each other and look elsewhere for excitement and fulfilment. The origin of the term is attributed to a Broadway play of the same name written by George Axelrod and first performed in 1952. Three years later, the movie version of the play, starring the legendary Marilyn Monroe, made the seven-year itch a household term. Of course, at the time, people generally got married when they were younger, when they perhaps were not in a state of either preparedness or maturity for marriage, and when their hormones were on overdrive. Today, however, people generally get married when they are slightly older, perhaps more mature, and in a state of greater preparedness to get married. Does the seven-year itch still happen? Yes, it still does, even if doesn’t always lead to extra-marital relationships. It could just end up in a parallel life sort of scenario, where both partners don’t look to each other for emotional fulfilment, depending instead on other social domains that they live in, such as work, children, family, friends and other all-consuming interests. And many couples don’t even wait for seven years for this to happen. Sometimes, even as early as three years from the wedding, couples fall into a parallel lives pattern and even if there is no overt hostility in the marriage, there is hardly any substance in it. And often the reason for this is sheer boredom.
The truth is people tend to get bored with their lives, and tend to hold the marriage responsible for this and the blame the partner for not being stimulating enough to keep the marriage alive. A recent (April 2009), elegantly designed, much-quoted study by researchers Irene Tsapelas and Arthur Aron from the Stony Brook University, New York, and Terri Orbuch from the University of Michigan, assessed couples on a variety of parameters at the end of the seventh year of marriage and again nine years later, that is after sixteen years of marriage. One of the major conclusions of the study is that if partners are bored with each other after seven years of marriage, then they are likely to experience a substantial decrease in satisfaction with each other and the marriage even after sixteen years (provided of course, they still stay married). And another important conclusion that the researchers arrived at is that when they are bored with each other, couples experience less closeness and this is what seems to contribute to decreased marriage satisfaction. In other words, it is not so much excitement and stimulation that keeps couples happy in their marriages, it is closeness and intimacy that really matters.
And believe me, if you do succumb to the seven or three-year-itch, and find another partner who shows you a way out of your boredom, you’ll start having the itch again within three years, unless you build closeness and intimacy into that relationship. From where I sit, the itch has nothing to do with your partner really. It has to do with you and the absence of substance in your relationship. If I were you, I would invest time, energy and emotions in enhancing closeness and intimacy in the marriage rather than looking elsewhere. You have to do it sometime, whether with spouse or paramour. So why not with the spouse and why not now? And always keep in mind that eyes that rove, tend to develop astigmatism sooner than later.

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The Shrinking Universe 24
THE OTHER-IN-LAW

It is a well established norm in our country today, supported by the popularity of the theme in soap operas in most Indian languages, that daughters-in-law have a hard time dealing with their mothers-in-law and vice-versa. But, as a recent e-mail from a hapless young male reader recently asked me, what of the other in-law relationships – those between sons-in-law and their parents-in-law? Conventional wisdom has it, and this has been borne out in practice over the decades, that Indian men have always had a good time of it when it came to dealing with their parents-in-law. In order to ensure that their daughter was well-taken care of by the husband and his family, the parents of the bride have always gone out of the way and bent over backwards to please every whim of their sons-in-law and have treated them like princes and even kings. The only exception to this rule has been in those instances where the brides’ parents are extremely wealthy or powerful or have converted their sons-in-law to ‘ghar jamaais’ or ‘veetu maapilais’. In this scenario, sons-in-law have been subtly expected to tow the line, and more often than not, they have uncomplainingly done just this, recognising that it has been in their best interests to do so. 
In-law empowerment
In recent times, metropolitan India has seen the emergence of a new phenomenon. As has been discussed ad nauseum in the national press, as well as in this column, the economic empowerment of women has seen new demands being placed on contemporary marriages, and has served, in some situations at least, to lend an element of parity to the marital partnership. As an interesting by-product, the economic independence of their daughters, seems to have empowered parents of the bride to participate more actively in their daughters’ marriages in sharp contrast to the hitherto hands-off approach they were compelled to adopt. As a result, it is not uncommon nowadays to see the parents of the girl playing a more directive role when it comes to their son-in-law. They no longer shy away from offering inputs to their new son-in-law on issues such as dealing with his financial investments, asking for a raise at work, padding his resume a little more, the location and budget for their first apartment, protecting his wife from his parents, when to have children and even the kind of contraception to use (I have come across one mother-in-law telling her embarrassed son-in-law that he would find ribbed condoms perfectly satisfactory, when her daughter complained to her that her husband was refusing to use condoms as a contraceptive method and was insisting that she go on the pill). 
Today’s son-in-law finds himself in not too dissimilar a position that yesterday’s daughter-in-law was in. The cynic would have us believe that it’s pay-back time and the tables are slowly turning. However, since I am not a cynic, I am not prepared to accept the sauce-for-the-gander approach to this issue. Today’s sons-in-law should not have to pay for the collective sins of their forefathers, particularly when there’s enough evidence that urban men are becoming increasingly sensitive to the needs of their spouses and are no longer as patriarchal in mind-set as were their fathers. I believe the reasons for this phenomenon lie slightly deeper below the surface.
Intervention or Interference?
By and large, many of us born in post-Independence urban India have tended to approach the job of parenting much more consciously and ‘hands-on’ than did our parents. This is not to say that older generations of parents didn’t care about their children. Of course they did. But their general approach to parenting tended to be laid back and driven by social norms than by consciously acquired knowledge and understanding. As a result, the tendency for the daughter-in-law being given a hardish time, had more to do with patriarchal norms in operation at the time than to a conscious need on the parents’ part. Post-independence parents however, by virtue of being more ‘aware’, resort to a more involved kind of approach. Sometimes, involvement ends up becoming over-involvement without our even realising it. Therefore, today’s parents tend to invest much more in their children’s lives and choices, and generally find it harder to let go of them even when they have grown old enough to sever the umbilical cord. This applies not just to their daughters but to their sons as well. By virtue of being more aware, the tendency to intervene in their children’s lives is much higher. However, we also need to be aware that the line between intervention and interference is very thin. I have no doubt that whatever inputs parents offer their married children comes from a good place – a concerned place. Unfortunately, when it violates the natural boundary that exists between parents and adult children, then, however well-intended, intervention becomes interference. And this is what we need to guard against. We would be well advised to pay serious heed to the advice given us by the admirable Roger Waters : ‘Leave them kids alone’ . They will make their mistakes. They will stumble and fall flat on their faces. But they will pick themselves up, heal and get on with their lives. The last thing they need is for us to be another brick in the wall between them and their spouses.

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The Shrinking Universe 22
WITH ALL DUE RESPECT

Mutual respect is an integral requirement of all relationships whether between married couples, parent and child, friends, peers or bosses and subordinates. In fact, nowhere else is respect more important than in non-intimate, non-familial or other relationships, characterised by the purposeful coming together of people for a specific reason or a cause,  for in such relationships, love, the binding glue of intimate and familial relationships, may or may not be present. And as we all are well aware, even if love is present in a relationship, its sustenance and growth cannot take place in the absence of respect. However, respect is not something that necessarily happens at first sight; it needs to be actively built into the relationship. Often we are not even sure if mutual respect really exists in a relationship, although it is very easy to sense when the other person does not respect us. And when, based on this sense, we start complaining of lack of respect, we end up sounding shrill even if there is some basis for our accusations.  To understand this business of respect, we need to turn to the first relationships that we learned how to experience and express respect in -  those with our parents.
As children, we are completely dependent on our parents for everything and, therefore, we look up to them and hang on their every word and action and try and emulate them as we grow up. We soon reach a stage when we start thinking and reasoning for ourselves, and this is the time when we start developing our ‘respect templates’ and learn the technique of respect, as it were. From this point on, the manner in which we experience and communicate respect will largely be determined by how our parents facilitate this. Some of us will find that the respect we have for our parents has more to do with what they have achieved, and not necessarily with what they are. This is often the case of children of high-achieving parents. Unfortunately in the pursuit of their high-achieving ways, they may not have had enough time or energy to help their children value themselves appropriately, hoping that the example they are setting the children will somehow be enough. It rarely is, for the children either get onto the high-achievement bandwagon and build their sense of self-worth around their own achievements, or they may end up feeling that they can never match up to their parents’ achievements and drop out of the race altogether, filled with a sense of frustration and low self-worth. 
Alternatively, if the parents are low-achievers, they may, sharply conscious of their low-achiever status, live out their aspirations through the children’s attainments, pushing the latter to higher levels of accomplishments than they themselves are capable of. In this situation too, the children end up with an achievement-oriented pattern of valuing themselves as well as others around them. Achievement-oriented respect is extremely fragile, since, as is well known, such respect is subject to a lot of variation, for achievement does not follow a linear pattern; crests and troughs are the norm. And if respect for oneself or for others is going to be dependent on achievement, it makes for an extremely fluctuating and unpredictable scenario. There are however parents who, even as they pursue excellence in their chosen career paths, do take the time to teach their children that self-respect is built, not around one’s professional attainments, but around one’s capacity to be a good, caring and sensitive human being. Children of such parents, obviously, have a healthy and well-rounded sense of self-respect, and find that they are able to add genuine value to the lives of all the relationships they may be part of. Such people do, of course exist, but the rest of us, however, have to make a serious effort to become like them.
 It may have become apparent that I do not see respect in the same light as admiration or regard for what one has done or who one is. From where I sit, respect has little to do with other people; it has to do only with one’s own self. It refers to the capacity on one’s part to extend oneself for another person. Therefore, respect for others can happen only when one respects one’s own capacity for self-extension. To do this, one must value, not one’s achievements, but one’s intrinsic capability to be a caring human being. However, extension of one’s self cannot be blind. If, in the process of extending oneself, there is no mutuality or reciprocity, the extension will be at a cost to oneself and this is something that diminishes rather than adds value to one’s life. In other words, you may admire and regard somebody’s skills highly, but if you extend yourself for this person in the absence of any reciprocity, the relationship lacks mutual respect and therefore offers less scope for value addition. The more you respect yourself, the more you will find that you experience genuine respect only in those relationships where the other person in the relationship feels the need for self-extension as much as you do. Otherwise, you will experience greater incongruence than congruence, and therefore your capacity for mutual self-extension will be that much lower. It’s never a pretty sight to see one person either demanding or pleading for respect from the other.
In the final analysis, respectful relationships involve mutuality, congruence, tolerance, extension of the self and a non-judgemental attitude. When these are present, the relationship starts to add genuine value to the lives of both parties. In their absence, what we tend to experience is ritualised patterns of respect as in the woman who bends over backwards to create a stress-free home for her brilliant doctor husband but is scared to express her legitimate need for more time with him, or the son who believes he must respect his elders simply because they are ‘elders’, and builds up resentment because there is little mutuality in the relationship. Constantly bending over backwards does not make for respectful relationships. It only breaks your back. 

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The Shrinking Universe 21
AN UNHAPPY STATE OF AFFAIRS

I am presently writing a series of books about different aspects of marriage and the one that seems to have aroused the hugest interest and promises to be a bestseller even before it is written, is the third book of the New Indian Marriage series, which will be about extra-marital relationships. The interest is sustained, even when I clarify that the book is not about how to have affairs, but how to survive them. In the last twenty five years that I have worked with couples, I have seen an extraordinary variety of extra-marital relationships. And, believe me, even twenty five years ago, they happened with the same intensity and frequency as they do today. The only difference is that there used to be a lot of clandestine skulking around then and paramours tended to be more discreet. Today however affairs are more in-your-face and more brazenly conducted. It’s easier to have an affair nowadays what with the kind of technology (mobile telephony, Internet chats and the like) available at one’s disposal, but interestingly enough it’s the same technology that causes affairs to be exposed - the spouse accidentally stumbles across a particularly torrid text message or a carelessly mislaid chat transcript on the family computer and so on. Extra-marital affairs invariably get discovered and leave in their wake considerable emotional suffering and scarring in the minds of a whole lot of people. The amount of emotional energy that gets locked into the resolution of an affair is quite astronomical and one often wonders whether affairs are really worth the trouble. But apparently people seem to think they are, otherwise why would they be falling over themselves to have one of their own? 
Your moral outlook on extra-marital relationships is entirely your own affair, but here’s the professional rub - there is no doubt that an affair does detract from the marriage and vice-versa. One needs to remember that the affair too, is a dynamic relationship, not a static one and requires nourishment for its growth in terms of love, time and energy, all of which are in finite supply for an individual. As a result, sooner than later, the affair is going to demand more. Inamoratos and inamoratas cannot be perennially satisfied with a few stolen moments, sizzling text messages at midnight and the I-can’t-divorce-my-spouse-until-the-kids-are-grown-up line. And when the demands increase, the person is immediately at a crossroads: who does one choose – spouse or paramour? Not always an easy choice, I am told. And sooner than later, living as we do in an age of monogamy, a choice will inevitably have to be made.
Let us also be clear that in today’s world, it is but natural to feel attracted to one’s colleague at work, considering one spends more time at work than at home, and therefore has more opportunity to bond with the colleague than with the spouse. It is also not unnatural to feel attracted to a perfect stranger or to someone else in your social network. But what determines the fate and quality of your marriage is how you handle this attraction. If you are able to check your need for instant gratification, you’ll probably have a cold shower and get on with your day. On the other hand, if you are one of those persons who must be gratified immediately, the well-worn backseat of your car will probably get another workout as will your emotions when you sit down to deal with this new incursion into your marriage. 
Put differently, the best way to deal with an affair is to prevent it. And to help you do this, you might consider examining why precisely people have affairs. The sex-seeking affair is probably the most common form of affair where the focus is on compensating for unsatisfying marital sex by seeking it outside the marriage. Frankly, there are far better ways of dealing with sexual incongruence: one could visit a sex therapist, for instance. The fulfilment-seeking affair, as the term suggests, happens when either or both partners feel unfulfilled in the relationship and choose to respond to this situation by getting emotionally involved with somebody outside the marriage. A visit to a couples therapist may be a more productive, though less enjoyable, way of dealing with this situation. Sometimes control is the reason for an affair. Unable to bear to the spouse’s constant control games, a passive-aggressive partner may transfer affections on to another person, even while still remaining in the marriage, thereby giving her/him the illusion of control over the controlling spouse. Alternatively, a controlling spouse may aggressively have an affair to reiterate to the other spouse who the boss in the marriage is.
Many persons end up replaying the patterns they observed in their parents’ marriage as a sub-conscious way of legitimising their parents’ peccadilloes and may end up having affairs if either of the parents engaged in one. Or, when one belongs to a peer group that actively encourages extra-marital affairs and if one feels closely identified with the members of the group, it is not inconceivable that one might end up having an affair to ‘belong’. Not the ‘best’ reason for having an affair, but surprisingly not as uncommon as one would imagine. There are also some persons who get their backs on their spouses for ill-treatment of some form or the other by having a ‘revenge affair’. Then, there is the ‘good friends’ affair that starts of as a platonic friendship and ends up as an affair ( platonic relationships require a lot of effort to keep them platonic). But the most difficult to deal with is the affair that just ‘happens’, for no good reason and with apparently no omens, much like the Sicilian ‘thunderbolt’. However, on closer scrutiny one can see that cracks had existed in the marriage, which the couple had chosen to ignore.
Whatever the cause of an affair, it needs to be dealt with. Decisions have to be made and emotions have to be handled. And surprising though this may seem, affairs do not always have to sound the death knell of the marriage. I have known many couples who have treated an affair as a wake-up call, gone through a healing process, reconfigured their relationships and have actually gone on to have lasting marriages. Affairs can be survived and even forgotten, if you and your partner make a concerted effort to do so. You might consider taking a bit of help, though.

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The Shrinking Universe 20
WOMAN AND SUPERWOMAN

A fly on the wall of a psychotherapist’s office in any part of the world may be surprised to note the disproportionately larger number of women help-seekers and might therefore assume that the label of the ‘weaker sex’ is well warranted. Of course, the fly would be wrong in coming to this conclusion, but would be perfectly accurate in its observation that more women than men actively attempt to get their heads around any emotional googlies they are suddenly faced with. The explanation for this phenomenon is that women, by virtue of being more in touch with their emotions, a major psychological strength, experience more intensely whatever emotional disturbances their lives may throw up. And not being chary of seeking help, they visit a therapist sooner than later. However, in recent times, larger numbers of urban women seem to feel the need to seek psychotherapy much earlier than they used to. This is not because they are losing their resilience or capacity to cope with stress, but because they are falling victims to the Superwoman Syndrome.
Traditionally men have derived their identity from playing the provider role and women from the home-making role, and this is true even in some of the matrilineal societies that we come across in our own country. However, in response to centuries of oppression and lop-sided power structures within the man-woman relationship, women, slowly but surely, started sharing the provider role, and with distinction at that. Initially men were threatened, later they were bemused, sometimes they were relieved with the burden being shared and some men even started sharing home-making responsibilities with the woman. In our country, although many empathetic urban men are increasingly beginning to share domestic chores, the primary responsibility for the homemaking role is still with the woman.
 One implicit subtext in all of this is that it seems that the act of going to work is what human development is all about. If you don’t obtain materially gainful employment, you are bound to stagnate, seems the unfounded assumption. Employment is seen as the messiah of modern life and the woman who has been oppressed over generations wants to make sure she gets her fair slice of the pie. But what of the woman who enjoys being a home-maker? What do you do the whole day? How can you be content being just a housewife? You’ll rot. The pressure not to be ‘just a housewife’ is so intense, that few women would even allow themselves the luxury of fantasising about this possibility. A pity really, since far from increasing a woman’s choices which is what the women’s liberation movement set out to do, this social attitude has in fact, reduced the woman’s choices to just one: Be a ‘working’ woman (home-making is not considered ‘work’). Or perish.
I am, of course not suggesting that women should not seek to join the work-force if they wish to. That is an individual choice that each woman needs to make. But expecting, as some of us tend to do, that this will restore the balance of power in a man-woman relationship is far-fetched. For the control games we play are not about economic control, they are about emotional control and even if both partners are employed, the power struggle in the relationship does not abate. New dilemmas emerge. Who will do what chores? Who should take primary responsibility for the child? What happens when one partner gets a transfer or finds a better job in another city? Whose job will be prioritised? What happens when one of the partners earns more than the other? Dilemmas all. Demanding resolution. Thus is born the superwoman. And her remit? To resolve all these dilemmas by taking primary responsibility for all the roles involved in her and her family’s wellbeing. She gives it her best shot, achieves some early success until inevitably, she too gets tired. 

Of course, given the economics of life and lifestyles today, many women also enter the workspace to either contribute to the economic wellbeing of the family or to enjoy economic independence or both. However, this argument cannot really be used to justify the expectation that women should become superwomen. Recent studies in the United States and Western Europe have revealed that a small, though significant percentage of employed urban women are tiring of this role multiplicity and are actually choosing to return, with relief, to single-domain identities. The fact that the homemaking responsibility has started to be quantified in economic terms has helped. In some countries such as the Netherlands, a weekly wage rate for homemakers is being defined. Whether homemaker-spouses are actually paid this amount by the provider-spouse on a weekly basis or whether this quantification really comes into effect only in calculating a divorce settlement, I am not really certain, but I think this is a brilliant innovation for it truly takes the issue of financial dependence completely out of the equation and thereby expands the choices available to the contemporary woman.
It would be easy to say that today’s women have no choice but to become superwomen, an argument I am hard pressed to buy. The choice to make our lives better is available to all of us, including superwoman-designates, but we need to look for tough answers to hard questions if we are going to achieve this. Let’s be clear about one thing: Being a superwoman or for that matter, a superman is certainly not sustainable and sooner than later, something has to give. However, choosing not to be a superwoman demands a resolve to relentlessly pursue the goal of ensuring responsibility and power-sharing on the part of both spouses. And this will not happen overnight, for years of conditioning need to be neutralised. But if this process of sharing of responsibilities is approached, not as a gender-based control game, but in the spirit of supporting each other, there is a high probability that each partner will learn to genuinely respect the other’s needs as well as capabilities, and role sharing will automatically fall in place. Then, a woman no longer has to be a superwoman. She can aim for excellence in being whatever she chooses to be - a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend, a boss or an employee, without the additional burden of juggling multiple roles with inadequate support.  What it takes is a belief in oneself, a supportive relationship, and oodles of patience. Happy belated Woman’s Day, not Superwoman’s Day!

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The Shrinking Universe 19
YOU THINK, THEREFORE I AM

Today, in our country, probably one of the biggest buzzwords is ‘self-esteem’. In every place I visit, whether a metropolis or a small town, I see innumerable advertisements and hoardings exhorting people to undertake ‘personality development courses’ guaranteed to boost self belief and enhance productivity. Some HR professionals in the corporate world seem to have re-invented themselves on the self esteem bandwagon. Consultants design courses and programmes tailored to helping people enhance their self esteem. People visit psychotherapists in the hope of feeling better about themselves. And all this over the last decade or so. The self esteem industry has arrived in our country. But, what is this fuss all about? And why only now? What is this whole self-esteem thing?
In its simplest form, self esteem reflects two  independent but related phenomena - the accuracy of our perception about our self as well as the way we value our self. However we need to realise that the concept of self esteem relates to the ‘core self’, not the ‘surface self’. In other words, merely because you have some extraordinary skills does not necessarily mean you possess good self esteem, for skills are situation-specific. In this situation you may be ‘self-confident’ i.e. you may be believe in the skills you possess, but may not necessarily have high self-esteem. A good cricketer for instance, may or may not have good self esteem in situations outside the cricket field. A captain of industry might not know how to function outside the office. So, anybody who attempts to enhance self esteem by acquiring more skills in whatever form, is really barking up the wrong tree. But the concept of the core self is a fairly abstract one. Erudite tomes have been written about it, philosophers have dissected it with gusto and psychotherapists make their living from it. What we need is a more practical construct with practicable processes we can engage with. The concept of the ‘social self’ is one such. 
It is important to understand that as highly socialised beings, we live in a social context, as a result of which we experience our sense of self from equations within this context : from relationships. The best chance we have of enhancing our self-esteem comes from the quality of relationships we get into. And not just any relationship, but the more intense ones where the deeper layers of the self relates to the deeper layers of the other person’s self. Put differently, the harmony between the way we perceive and value our own self and the way people in our close emotional environment perceive and value our sense of self is what makes for self esteem. If you are a wonderful musician with a large fan following but your spouse and children think of you as egoistic and self-centred, then you  still have some work to do on your self esteem.
However, experiencing our self esteem in the context of our relationships does make us vulnerable. For the equation then becomes, ‘You think, therefore I am’. To a certain extent this is true and in the early stages of our growth and development, all of us tend to see ourselves as reflected in the eyes of people we love and respect. As children, the way our parents see us, defines the way we see our ‘self’. Slowly our teachers’ perceptions as well as those of our peers adds to the definition. But if we constantly define ourselves only through other peoples’ eyes, then we will stay vulnerable through our lives and end up being a ‘people pleaser’ for we try to get people in our emotional environment to value us by pandering to their every need even if this is at a cost to our own growth as a person.
We do need to remember that as we grow, we become more conscious of what we think of and how we value our own ‘self’ as well. And when this clashes with the way our environment perceives and values us, we become unhappy, restless, agitated and low in self-belief. In such a situation, the first instinct is to blame the environment and try to change it. This can be a dangerous trap to fall into, for we end up falling into the ‘victim mode’. We must, if we are to enhance our self esteem, move to the ‘survivor mode’ and regain a modicum of control over the situation. For this to happen, we need to inculcate in ourselves a pattern of introspection, for it this process that will truly help build our self esteem.
Every time we experience a disturbance or temporary dissonance in any of our close relationships, it may be useful to engage in a process of introspection. This way we can try to understand why a gap exists between our own self-perceptions and those of others in our environment. When we do this, we put ourselves in a position to truly be in touch with our core self and add value to it. And along the way, we obtain insights into the self of the other person in the relationship too, thereby enabling us to contribute to her/his growth as well. ‘You think, therefore I am’, now becomes ‘We think, therefore we are’. And as we stay in touch with our true self and keep refining it as we go along, the equation finally changes to ‘I think, therefore I am; you think, therefore you are’, at which point vulnerability is no longer an issue and self-esteem can be said to have been truly enhanced.
As a caveat, let me emphasise that a person who has an elevated opinion of himself does not experience high self esteem. It is only when this opinion has been arrived at through a process of honest introspection and is shared unequivocally by others in the person’s emotional environment can self esteem be truly enhanced. From this definition, you would surely have realised that the more conscious we are about pursuing our self-esteem, the more likely we are to enhance it. By the same token, the fact that we are talking about it, reading about it and actively pursuing it, means we are pretty much on the right track.

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The Shrinking Universe 18
HELP! I NEED SOMEBODY

When I was younger, so much younger than today, 
Never needed anybody’s help in any way!
But now those days are gone and I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind; I’ve opened up the door.
Lennon & McCartney
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Asking for help, an absurdly simple thing to do on the face of it, is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for many urbanized people today, ranking right up there along with saying ‘sorry’. We find it relatively easy to ask for help for the ‘small stuff’ but when it comes to things that really matter, it’s really extraordinary how difficult it becomes. The easiest thing to do would be to dismiss this phenomenon as being caused by ‘ego problems’, a basket term that is gaining increasing currency in recent times. However when we see people who are laid-back, self-effacing and far from egoistical, also resorting to the same behaviour, this explanation simply does not cut it. We need to dig just a little deeper than this.
Looking back at about two and a half decades of being in the ‘healing’ profession, I can readily see that people sought my help the easiest when I was a general medical practitioner, with much more difficulty when I was a clinical psychiatrist and with the most awkwardness when I settled down to the practice of individual and couples psychotherapy. In other words, having a physical illness is perfectly acceptable when it comes to seeking help. When it comes to a diagnosable mental illness, the stigma associated with having such a problem does come in the way, but eventually when the problem becomes unmanageable, a discreet visit to the mental health professional is still not illegitimate. But when it comes to seeking help for ‘non-illnesses’ like relationship problems, active inertia usually sets in. 
As is well known men find it hard to ask for and get help, unless they are employees of an enlightened organization that pays for them to attend expensive seminars and workshops on sensitivity enhancement and the like.  In the United States, 96% of those who seek the services of  couples’ therapists are women. Men enter the process only when they are compelled to and with poorly-concealed reluctance at that. The situation in India is interesting. When I first started working with couples, nine times out ten, it was the woman who first sought help. However, the good news is that in recent years, three or four times out of ten, it is the man who comes to see me first, whether or not his wife wants to. We are apparently well into the Age of the Metrosexual. 
Put differently, it appears that one of the hallmarks of masculinity is the capacity to ‘handle’ everything – emotional or intellectual - by taking these in one’s stride. Even if one doesn’t know how to handle a situation or one doesn’t possess the wherewithal to deal with a crisis, one somehow bumbles through or ‘wings’ it. Revealing one’s inability is unacceptable. Why should this be so? What is wrong with exposing one’s difficulties or shortcomings? Is it not the imperative first step in managing one’s problems, to acknowledge that they indeed exist, so one can confront them and deal with them? 
The answers to these questions centre around a major fear in contemporary life: the fear of vulnerability; and the resultant emotional conflict between dependence and independence. The more vulnerable one is, and the more one exposes it, the more dependent one becomes on others in the environment and therefore, the more prone one is to another person potentially exerting control over and manipulating one. The quest for invulnerability appears to be the ‘better’ option. One of the manifestations of this quest, is the reluctance, even refusal, to ask anyone for help. Although this evolved as a masculine trait, contemporary urban women too have included it in their repertoire. The net result: Everyone aims to be invulnerable and independent of everybody else and many people do believe they are. In truth, those who do believe this are deluding themselves. Nobody is truly independent or invulnerable. We are a highly socialized species, and as a result, will always be dependent on one another, whether we like it or not. The process of personal growth and development demands that we accept this reality and come to terms with it; the mature person is one who seeks to get comfortable with vulnerability, not to eliminate it. The sooner we recognize that we are all interdependent on each other and can be so with comfort, the better will we perform as a race. 

So, next time we feel vulnerable, let us not attempt to be strong, silent types. Let us try to identify resources in our emotional and social environment that can assist us with solutions. To do this, we first need to learn to ask for help. Not indiscriminately of course. Let us choose our help-providers with care and discernment, and utilise their experience and expertise as best we can. It is customary for people to first discuss their issues with family and/or friends. In fact, some friends as well as family members are well known in their circles for being ‘fantastic counsellors’. While I would not disagree with this and would be the last person to interfere in any natural process, I would like to add that, however good their intentions, however wide their experience, family members and friends may not always be the best counsellors. They may find it hard to be objective and may not have a good enough understanding of intra-psychic processes to facilitate lasting resolutions. Seeing a mental health professional may actually be a better option. Almost all our urban areas have a fair number of mental health professionals - psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors who can help. 
Whomever you choose, make sure you are comfortable with the person for much of the success of the therapeutic process would depend on this. Don’t expect them to come well recommended though. Most persons who’ve gone through therapy in our country feel too stigmatized to even acknowledge the fact, let alone pay encomiums to their therapist. 

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The Shrinking Universe 17
SENSE & SENSIBILITY

We all have prejudices, even those of us who are prejudiced against prejudices. In fact it is our prejudices that distinguish us from each other, that enable us to come closer to each other, that enable us to stay away from each other, that enable us to hate each other, that enable us to love each other and that enable us to fear each other. Our prejudices could be socially low-impact such as being prejudiced in favour of vegetarianism or against consumption of alcohol and tobacco, or they could be socially high-impact such as ethnic, racial and religious prejudices. But whatever the social impact, we hold on to our prejudices intensely and sometimes, privately. Though in the last decade or two, we have tended to be more articulate about them, often wearing them on our sleeves, even taking pride in them.

Search all the dictionaries you want, and you will come across one common element in the various definitions of prejudice – irrationality. And search literature in any language and you will find that prejudices have always been rich source material for litterateurs, authors and philosophers. They are therefore not recent phenomena. A prejudice can be thought of as an adverse judgement that has been arrived at without a full examination of all the facts at our disposal. In other words, it is a value judgment that we easily make based on half-facts and half-truths with a mind that is pre-conditioned to readily accept such a judgement. Put differently, we are emotionally primed to come to a certain conclusion and we look for ‘facts’ to support this ‘sense’ that we have. This ‘sense’ comes from a closely related phenomenon – Stereotypes. 

From childhood our minds are battered by stereotypical images and ideas we carry about a whole range of things and peoples. These stereotypes come from our parents, other family members, teachers, peers, friends, political leaders, the media and from our own personal emotional experiences. Therefore we grow up with half-formed feelings, which may or may not have become full-fledged beliefs: that the west is decadent, all south Indians eat only idli and sambar, all Punjabis are aggressive, all Bengalis are temperamental, all Germans are Nazis, all multi-nationals are exploitative, all drinkers are alcoholics and so on. More often than not, the circumstances of our life may never call upon us to even examine, let alone challenge these half-formed feelings based on stereotypes. But one day, when out of the blue, your son wants to marry a German or your granddaughter joins a multinational, then you are forced, whether you are ready or not, to come face to face with your hitherto-dormant prejudices and deal with them. Otherwise the only option available to you is to rant, feel distressed, feel hurt by someone you love or even cut the loved one out of your life. From the foregoing it may be evident that for a dormant half-formed stereotype-based feeling to mushroom into a full-fledged prejudice, a catalyst is required. More often than not, the catalyst is fear. When we are faced with a situation where we experience some form of emotional discomfort dictated by fear of loss (loss of self, of identity, of loved one, of dignity, of stability, of predictability), our dormant prejudices are activated into full-blown active prejudices and will from that moment on impact our conscious thought and processes until we have made our peace with them. And they will lead us down the path of discrimination, resulting in polarisation, factionalism and eventually fundamentalism.

The process of making our peace with our prejudices is not so simple and requires committed introspection and a supportive emotional environment. Before we hasten to ‘eliminate’ our prejudices, we need to realise that some of our prejudices can actually be beneficial to us. For example, if one is prejudiced against alcohol consumption, this may actually be a protective mechanism to prevent one from going down the road to alcoholism like one’s father did. Of course, the prejudice precludes the possibility of one being part of a cocktail circuit, but this may be a small price to pay for prevention of alcoholism, knowing that this disorder does tend to run in families. So, in the first instance we need to make a distinction between ‘adaptive prejudices’ such as the one just described and ‘maladaptive prejudices’. The latter are usually much harder to be rational about, held with more emotional than intellectual intensity and may sometimes actually place the holder in a position of personal or professional disadvantage such as You could not help being an observer of the recent events in Mangalore and Bangalore, as well as the ensuing raging debates in newsprint, on national television, at cocktail parties, coffee shops or street corners and I am sure you possibly cannot help being struck by the sheer intensity of peoples’ responses. Everybody has a definite opinion and is prepared to state it unequivocally and even stridently. Of course, it is becoming apparent that, in recent times, ‘moral policing’ has assumed a strongly political dimension, and has been an easy plank for marginal political parties to acquire a national presence.  Leaving aside for the time being politics, dramatics and rhetoric, it appears that at the root of the intensity lie two distinct but related behavioural phenomena – tolerance (or, in this case, intolerance) and morality (or, in this case, immorality).
Let us first explore the phenomenon of intolerance. Traditionally, protagonists of  Indian culture have harped on how tolerant we are as a people, tolerant enough to permit ourselves to be repeatedly invaded by foreign conquerors. Where then has all this tolerance gone, one may wonder, when images of pub invasions, violently manhandled women, vigilante policemen and hostile middle-class faces flash across our television screens or are splashed in our morning newspapers! It does appear that we are no longer as tolerant as a nation as we used to be. And not just when it comes to national or societal issues! Even in personal relationships, we are less tolerant than ever before of each other. Husbands and wives are ready to approach the Family Courts over what would have been considered trivialities just a few decades ago. Parents and children position themselves on opposite sides of a rather thorny fence, brothers and sisters spew venom at each other through civil litigation, neighbours erect impenetrable walls against each other, strangers resort to fisticuffs to settle traffic slights and so on. 
Does this mean that civil society as we know it in our country is breaking down? Far from it! After millennia of passive tolerance of all kinds of indignities, we, as a nation, have finally come to understand that we do have voices and are beginning to realise that we do not have to take things lying down. The more tolerant we have been, the more like cattle we have been treated. In other words, intolerance by itself is not a bad thing, for it forces us to act. However, how we act will determine whether we practice rational intolerance or irrational intolerance. 
We respond with rational intolerance when we launch an awareness campaign and engage in dialogue, debate and other civil action about or against something that distresses us. We respond with irrational intolerance when we use rhetoric, whip up mob frenzy, burn effigies, attack stores selling Valentine Day cards, physically assault hapless young women who go to a pub or talk to young men and so on. Whether the cause is religious or civil, in a democracy there are several methods of redressing grievances and even if imperfect, these are the only methods we can use if our intolerance is to be responded to appropriately. Had, for instance, the protestors (who, in a civil society, certainly have the right to have their say) resorted to street theatre or debate or press releases or television interviews to articulate their counterpoint, then the process of conflict resolution could have begun; the general public could have examined both sides of the argument and reached its own conclusion. When instead they responded with irrational intolerance, they obviated the possibility of resolving the conflict, for irrational intolerance serves to further polarize an already heated conflict. Of equal importance in conflict resolution, is how the protestors are responded to. If irrationally intolerant protests are to be countered by more irrational intolerance, the only cause to be advanced would be that of tabloid journalism.
The other related phenomenon under exploration is that of morality, which, whether you are a philosopher or a psychologist, boils down to an issue of personal choice. Of interest is the fact that issues pertaining to morality evoke the most irrationally intolerant responses. Of greater interest is the fact that when we refer to morality we think not of values like integrity, probity in public life, family connectedness and the like, but more often than not to sexuality and related sexual ‘transgressions’. We are blasé about corruption but ‘morally outraged’ about sex-related matters, and when we bemoan degradation of values, we are usually talking only about phenomena like virginity, chastity and pre-marital sexual behaviour. Coming from the land of the Kama Sutra, this is indeed paradoxical, more so when we, as a nation, frequently, whether publicly or in private, venerate our past. It is almost as if our 5000 year old culture did not include an actively sexual past.
While I have no doubt that attitudes towards sex and sexual behaviour are indeed personal choices that individuals make based on whatever value systems they subscribe to, these attitudes need to be tempered by the recognition of sexuality as an important, though not preeminent, element of contemporary life. When we continue to exist in a state of repressed sexuality as we today do, we run a huge risk of engaging in sexually puerile behaviours that usually have malignant repercussions such as child sexual abuse, eve teasing, rape and public as well as domestic violence against women. Also, the targets of ‘immorality busters’ are invariably women, not men. Which just means that as a society which apparently deifies women, our repressed sexuality results in sexual violence being perpetrated on their vilified avatars.
I am certainly no advocate of unbridled sexual behaviour, nor am I blind to the possibility that alcohol and drug consumption at younger ages can increase the risk of alcohol and substance dependence in later life. However, I certainly do see the scope for more rational debate on this subject, which does legitimately concern many urban middle class families today. But this can only happen when we approach matters with sense and with genuine respect for others’ sensibilities; when we stop equating morality with female sexual liberalisation; when we start using rational intolerance as our guiding force, thereby taking full advantage of the systems and processes that the democratic founding fathers of our nation have left behind as their thoughtfully considered legacy.  

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The Shrinking Universe 16
PRIDE IN PREJUDICE

We all have prejudices, even those of us who are prejudiced against prejudices. In fact it is our prejudices that distinguish us from each other, that enable us to come closer to each other, that enable us to stay away from each other, that enable us to hate each other, that enable us to love each other and that enable us to fear each other. Our prejudices could be socially low-impact such as being prejudiced in favour of vegetarianism or against consumption of alcohol and tobacco, or they could be socially high-impact such as ethnic, racial and religious prejudices. But whatever the social impact, we hold on to our prejudices intensely and sometimes, privately. Though in the last decade or two, we have tended to be more articulate about them, often wearing them on our sleeves, even taking pride in them.

Search all the dictionaries you want, and you will come across one common element in the various definitions of prejudice – irrationality. And search literature in any language and you will find that prejudices have always been rich source material for litterateurs, authors and philosophers. They are therefore not recent phenomena. A prejudice can be thought of as an adverse judgement that has been arrived at without a full examination of all the facts at our disposal. In other words, it is a value judgment that we easily make based on half-facts and half-truths with a mind that is pre-conditioned to readily accept such a judgement. Put differently, we are emotionally primed to come to a certain conclusion and we look for ‘facts’ to support this ‘sense’ that we have. This ‘sense’ comes from a closely related phenomenon – Stereotypes. 

From childhood our minds are battered by stereotypical images and ideas we carry about a whole range of things and peoples. These stereotypes come from our parents, other family members, teachers, peers, friends, political leaders, the media and from our own personal emotional experiences. Therefore we grow up with half-formed feelings, which may or may not have become full-fledged beliefs: that the west is decadent, all south Indians eat only idli and sambar, all Punjabis are aggressive, all Bengalis are temperamental, all Germans are Nazis, all multi-nationals are exploitative, all drinkers are alcoholics and so on. More often than not, the circumstances of our life may never call upon us to even examine, let alone challenge these half-formed feelings based on stereotypes. But one day, when out of the blue, your son wants to marry a German or your granddaughter joins a multinational, then you are forced, whether you are ready or not, to come face to face with your hitherto-dormant prejudices and deal with them. Otherwise the only option available to you is to rant, feel distressed, feel hurt by someone you love or even cut the loved one out of your life. From the foregoing it may be evident that for a dormant half-formed stereotype-based feeling to mushroom into a full-fledged prejudice, a catalyst is required. More often than not, the catalyst is fear. When we are faced with a situation where we experience some form of emotional discomfort dictated by fear of loss (loss of self, of identity, of loved one, of dignity, of stability, of predictability), our dormant prejudices are activated into full-blown active prejudices and will from that moment on impact our conscious thought and processes until we have made our peace with them. And they will lead us down the path of discrimination, resulting in polarisation, factionalism and eventually fundamentalism.

The process of making our peace with our prejudices is not so simple and requires committed introspection and a supportive emotional environment. Before we hasten to ‘eliminate’ our prejudices, we need to realise that some of our prejudices can actually be beneficial to us. For example, if one is prejudiced against alcohol consumption, this may actually be a protective mechanism to prevent one from going down the road to alcoholism like one’s father did. Of course, the prejudice precludes the possibility of one being part of a cocktail circuit, but this may be a small price to pay for prevention of alcoholism, knowing that this disorder does tend to run in families. So, in the first instance we need to make a distinction between ‘adaptive prejudices’ such as the one just described and ‘maladaptive prejudices’. The latter are usually much harder to be rational about, held with more emotional than intellectual intensity and may sometimes actually place the holder in a position of personal or professional disadvantage such as loss of a child who either elopes or commits suicide when we refuse to permit her/him to marry someone affiliated to the religion we are prejudiced against or the loss of a wonderful career opportunity because our homophobic prejudice refuses to permit us to work for a gay boss. Some of our prejudices may only be based on what our parents taught us from the way they lived their lives. Their prejudices become ours merely through a process of osmosis. These ‘osmosed prejudices’ are the easiest to deal with, for there is not too much energy surrounding them. Many of our other prejudices will have roots in our adolescent and young-adult years when our personal life experiences started becoming more substantial. For instance an adverse experience with a person belonging to a particular community or ethnic affiliation may be traumatic enough to leave a scar in one’s mind that ends up blighting all those belonging to that sub-group. 
When dealing with our active and maladaptive prejudices, we first need to ‘own’ them. Our prejudices do make us who we are and they are very much part of us. Denying their existence is futile, however much of an intellectual or a rationalist we may believe we are. We then need to try and trace our prejudices back to their origins. And finally having understood where they came from, we can then decide what we want to do with them. Do we hang on to them, do we let them go or do we wear them on our sleeves with pride? Frankly I have found that letting them go is the most mentally healthy option, for it makes us less fearful and less irrational. Also this gives us an opportunity to experience a greater sense of inner peace. Sadly, many of us tend to derive pride in our prejudices today. Happily, it is possible to stop doing so in the interest of our personal growth and development. What will you do?

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The Shrinking Universe 15
RE-INVENT YOURSELF

Self-reinvention is not a particularly recent phenomenon; people have been doing it for ages. Unfortunately, more often than not, they have been doing it usually in the throes of crises, most commonly of the mid-life variety. Or in the contemporary age of pink slips, downsizing and downscaling, only when things around start melting down. When one feels completely ‘burnt-out’ in one’s career, one’s marriage, one’s very life itself, or when one has had a completely unexpected mid-life bypass surgery, one goes through a ‘mid-life crisis’ and attempts to make major life-style changes in order to enhance the quality of a hitherto well-abused  life. And sometimes these lifestyle changes assume the proportions of a fairly major overhaul and the new lifestyle often has little resemblance to the original frenetic one. But if truth be told, and one should not mind the truth being told every now and again, we do not need to wait to be ravaged by a crisis to engage in this apparently complex, but actually straightforward, process of self-reinvention. We can do this by simply incorporating the process of periodic self-reinvention into our lives and use it as an effective tool of personal growth and development. 
Since we are highly socialized beings, our sense of self exists in the context of a few social spaces. The first of these is the self space or ‘I’ space, in which we pay attention to our emotional, intellectual and biological needs. The way we define this space will determine whether we put our own needs on the back-burner and ‘martyr’ ourselves for others around us or whether we create a universe that is centred around us alone or whether we are located somewhere between these two extremes. Second is the marital space, where we engage in possibly the most important relationship of our lives and learn to give of ourselves and take from our partners in a spirit of mutuality whether enforced on us by law, tradition or commonsense. The third is the primary family space, where we see ourselves as providers, protectors and nurturers of those whom we think of as constituting our primary family – our children, our parents or whoever else. Fourthly we exist in the secondary family space, where we engage with our extended families and our close friends for emotional, social and recreational well-being. Next is the work space where we relate with co-workers, superiors and subordinates in an attempt to enhance our self esteem, intellect and our skills, thereby pursuing excellence in our chosen disciplines, in the process buying ourselves a decent quality of material life. And last is the community space, in which we attempt to give back to society and community some of what we have been fortunate enough to obtain during the course of our lives, either through charity, social activism or volunteerism. 
The smart thing to do is to invest your emotions and energies across these spaces in a manner that enhances the quality of your life than detracts from it. The first thing you are expected to do when you approach a personal wealth manager, is to provide a detailed idea of your financial goals as well as your comfort or discomfort with risky investments. Following this your wealth manager will give you an idea how to spread your investments – in equity, in mutual funds, in debt instruments, in real estate, in commodities, in futures and so forth. What you might consider doing is to apply a similar approach to your emotional investments.
At different stages of your life, different social spaces will require different levels of investment of your emotional energy and if you approach this with as much of smartness as you do your financial investments, your rewards though intangible, will be incalculable (as a bonus, they are relatively immune from ‘market fluctuations’). For instance, during the early stages of your career, your work space will require large emotional investments and will, in return, provide you economic security though little emotional security. When you get married, your marital space will require a fairly large tranche of emotional investment to securitise your emotional future. Unless you provide for this, you might well find your boss telling you to pull up your tattered socks, or an irate spouse growing irater by the day, or parents who wish you never got married and so on. As you reach mid-career, you might find that the boss seems to prefer the young chaps who change their jobs every two years and offers them better financial deals than ever came your way, and you realise you have over-invested in the work space. And so on...
Every time you experience a mini-crisis in your life or feel the need to ask yourself, ‘Is this what I want from my life?’, is a good occasion to take fresh stock of your emotional investment spread and see what kind of re-distribution is required. Every time you do this successfully, you reinvent yourself. And the better you get at anticipating your emotional investment needs, the less likely are you to suffer from burn-outs or mid-life crises. As you learn to do this effectively you will realise that with advancing age, the spread of your emotional investment changes. During childhood you invest mostly in your primary family space, as a young adult  in the work and marriage spaces, later in the primary and secondary family spaces and from mid-life onwards, you might consider investing more in your self space and your community space. Remember there is no ideal investing pattern; there is only a stage-appropriate pattern of investment that is concordant with your own personal goals and the needs  of your immediate emotional environment.
Unfortunately today, since many urban Indians invest the bulk of their emotions in the work space , they tend to periodically reinvent themselves only in this space, which I suppose is better than not reinventing themselves at all. As long as you make sure that the new career option you choose is congruent with your sense of self, and you have made appropriate investments in your marital and family spaces, you can make the switch with comfort. And who knows, a software professional could well become an environmental activist, an accountant an entrepreneur, an advertising professional a travel writer and maybe even a psychiatrist a novelist?

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The Shrinking Universe 14
A CUP O’ KINDNESS

It’s that time of the year again when one has just done the ‘looking-back-at-the-year-gone-by-looking-forward-at-the-year-to-come’ routine, when editors ask their columnists to review the previous year and make predictions for the ensuing year (which fortunately, my editor hasn’t done, thereby earning you a bit of a reprieve) and when there’s a general air of hope that the annus horribilis is finally over (and 2008, at least the last few months of it, has been a horrible annus). It’s also that time of the year when even the sanest of urban people are recovering from what I refer to as the Auld Lang Syne Syndrome. 
The first component of this syndrome is compulsive gaiety. Since ‘tis the season to be jolly, everyone is jolly well determined to be jolly. You would have seen it even on the streets. Even as there was a certain joy experienced in wishing perfect strangers a happy new year at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, this amity has not extended itself to the subsequent days and has probably disappeared by now. And, if accosted today by the aforementioned strangers, there is little recognition of the individuals let alone any residual camaraderie. The same autorickshaw drivers who were victims of one’s bonhomie and good cheer are back to being at the receiving end of one’s road rage. Closely linked to compulsive gaiety is the second symptom: celebration anxiety.  The buzz on everybody’s lips for the week (sometimes even the month) preceding New Year’s Day is  “what are you doing for new year’s eve?” The need to be invited to a party or to have booked places for a ‘commercial party’ at a starred hotel or to go to another city to bring in the new year is so strong that people who had not made their plans by say, the middle of December or so, would have experienced a certain anxiety accompanied by a bit of depression as well.
 And the third element of the Auld Lang Syne syndrome is that extraordinary phenomenon called the New Year Resolution. We have vowed to ourselves and our loved ones that, come January 1, we will turn over a new leaf, we will give up our sins and vices and concentrate on getting back on the straight and narrow, we will never invest in the stock market again without telling our spouses and so forth. There are of course, the more resolute among us, who will actually keep their resolutions and march forward to conquer new frontiers and the like, but the fair majority usually cop out within a few weeks, if they have not already done so, and resolve never to make new year resolutions again, until the next new year’s eve rolls around. So what is it about January 1 that makes us do such extraordinary things? Why all the fuss? If you’re still reading this, chances are that you might have, if not this time, at least some time in the recallable past, experienced one or more of the three symptoms of the Auld Lang Syne Syndrome, as of course, would most urbanized individuals in our country.
Actually the Auld Lang Syne syndrome has, to a large extent, to do with our lifestyles. Let’s first take a look at the new year resolution thing. The inescapable conclusion that one can come to in the face of millions of abandoned resolutions is that one enjoys the vice too much to want to give it up. However, at some level, one does feel the need to give it up, as a result of which the individual faces a classic approach-avoidance conflict. The heart says, ‘don’t give it up’ and the head says, ‘you must change the situation’. And eventually, as it usually does, the heart emerges the winner. But before this, one goes through the motions of assuaging one’s head by setting a deadline and making a resolution, which seems easy enough to do, for after a night of debauched revelry as often happens on new year’s eve, one is ready to promise any one anything until the hangover goes away. In other words, until the resolution is something that both your heart and your head are congruent about, it is unlikely that you will ever be able to implement it. And once your heart is sold on the idea, take it from me, you will not need the prop of  a new year resolution to implement it.
The gaiety and celebration anxiety phenomena are not necessarily specific to new year’s eve. Whenever we are faced with any celebration situation like say, birthdays, festivals etc, where convention prescribes a celebratory format, one compulsively feels the need to actively engage in all the aspects of the ritual whether or not one wants to, for fear that one would otherwise be left out of the loop. When our lives are surrounded by uncertainties, we need the comforting predictability of familiar rituals to anchor us and make us feel rooted. Whether these are religious rituals or party rituals, it does not really matter. What does matter is that they should be familiar and socially acceptable. Another reason for celebration anxiety is today’s ‘work hard, party hard’ culture. What most people do not realise is that both are highly stressful and ‘hard partying’ rather than relaxing one more, actually puts one’s body and mind in a state of greater fatigue and results in early burnouts.
Probably the best prescription for the treatment of the Auld Lang Syne syndrome was made by Robbie Burns himself. Scotland’s national poet, who wrote the extraordinary Auld Lang Syne exhorted everyone ‘to tak a cup o’kindness yet’. Indeed, if we succeeded in doing just this all year round, we might never feel the need to experience the Auld Lang Syne syndrome ever again. And in case you had a doubt, let me assure you that, by ‘cup o’kindness’, Burns was not referring to whiskey. At no time like the present do we, as a nation and indeed as a race,  need to dig deep into our reserves and find quarts of kindness that we can imbibe through the year. Hopefully, we will find the wherewithal to do this, not as a new year resolution, but as a gift to ourselves. I certainly am going to give it a shot. Happy New Year.

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The Shrinking Universe 13
THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN

Time was when you had a child because you were not quite sure what else to do with your spouse and/or your marriage, or to give your parents a grandchild, or because it was the most natural thing to do or because of one enchanted though unprotected evening. Whatever the reason you had children, you did not worry too much about bringing them up. Children in ‘those days’ just grew up. Until the Spocks and the Stoppards exploded on the scene informing and reminding parents that there was more to parenting than ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. And then the doubts started creeping in. Should we have a child? Are we ready for this? Can we be good  parents? Are children really necessary? Who’ll look after the child? And when finally, despite all the doubts, the child actually came along: I’m a lousy parent. How do other parents manage? What’s wrong with me? Am I giving the best to my child? I hope my child doesn’t end up hating me. And other variations on this theme.
So, why is it so difficult bringing up a child nowadays? The common assumption is that this can be attributed to the breakup of the joint family and the three punching bags of modern urban life: Globalisation, the Internet and Television. There is of course a kernel of truth to this argument. But, only a kernel. As I see it, parenting is becoming more difficult in the present age, simply because of the higher prevailing levels of awareness, sensitivity and psychological sophistication than ever before to which Globalisation, the Internet and Television have contributed. The need on the part of the modern parent is to get it ‘just right’ or at the very least, not to perpetuate any imperfect parental patterns that s/he was subject to in childhood. As a result today’s parent tends to go tight-rope walking on a daily basis and does go a little off the deep end every now and again, confronted repeatedly with child-rearing dilemmas that they had no clue of when conceiving the child. 
The only way to find solutions to child rearing problems is to seek them from established authorities on the subject. But for this to happen the parent has to be in a state of relative calm. And given the barrage of information, advice and input that parents today are subject to, they end up experiencing greater self-doubt and apprehension than confidence and comfort. How then do some parents get to a zone of tranquillity and think of parenting as a joy rather than as a confusing and onerous journey? Largely because they realise that children can actually make parents better human beings if indeed they want to do so. Many contemporary parents fear that when a child comes, everything else, including their own growth and development, goes on the backburner and all life centres around the child. This does not really have to happen if you respond to some of the cues that your child provides you and realise that parenting, aside of being a joyful experience can also be a growth experience.
First off, children force you to stay in touch with your emotions. In a madly busy world we tend to lead fragmented lives, distributing our emotions along a continuum of relationships and often seek more intellectual stimulation than emotional responsiveness. Both partners are badly in need of recharging their emotional batteries, but are too drained. In the face of such emotional barrenness, your child can offer you that enriching emotional anchoring, so vital for balanced growth. Caveat: If your child is your only source of emotional recharging, the burden is going to be too much for the child to handle. A jump-start is about the best you should expect.
Children can, often, increase intimacy between partners. Everything else can be his or hers, but the child is truly theirs and nobody can ever take that away from them. This creates a new bond, a new closeness and a new sharing. However, if a couple plans to have a child with the express purpose of enhancing their closeness and intimacy, they are asking for trouble. This never happens for a child can only enhance intimacy, not create it. Children can also keep the parents’ inner child alive and healthy. For most people, the ‘inner child’ often gets submerged in the hurly burly of urban living; your child can stimulate and often force the expression of the child in you, keeping you in touch with parts of your psyche that you either suppressed or denied. But even as you enjoy your inner child, do remember, every now and again, to parent your outer child.
Children force the parent to explore basic values and to confront and deal with their own prejudices. As the child grows and begins to ask those awkward questions that make invention the necessity of mother, both partners are presented a wonderful opportunity to explore the basic values that they grew up with, identify the gaps that exist in the way they practice them and examine ways in which these could be bridged. A good bit of our identity is made up of the prejudices we have accumulated over the years. The naiveté with which children approach things and people will force parents to address if not come to terms with these. And this is also true when the children get older. The easiest thing to do when confronted with a prejudice is to shush your child and ignore the issue. A piece of unsolicited advice: desist from doing this. 
Children force parents to be intellectually more aware. Any parent who has helped a child with homework or been humbled by a child’s felicity with the computer will understand when I say that parents have no alternative but to enhance their intellectual capabilities if only to keep a step ahead of the child. To respond to the child’s questions requires not just knowledge, but also adroitness and presence of mind that no school can ever hope to teach. The easiest thing to do, and many parents do this, is to consider the child’s intellectual needs a dreadful chore, and delegate it to tuition teachers and the like. This would be a missed opportunity. While I am not implying that we dispense with the tuition teacher, what I am saying is that we use the child’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge to refresh our own. 
I am not suggesting that the only way one can enhance intimacy, be in touch with emotions and the inner child, explore basic values, confront prejudices and enhance intellectual awareness is by having a child. Couples who do not have children are still able to do all these things. However, they have to do so much more consciously. Whereas those couples who have children, have to just tune into their children and all of these will stare them in the face. Of course, they can still ignore them, which sadly they often do, but they would be doing themselves great injustice if they did. It is quite conceivable that when you think seriously about it, you could come up with many more aspects of your own growth and development that your child may have inadvertently helped you with. And to think, you believed that you were your child’s care-giver!

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The Shrinking Universe 12
THE JOINTLESS FAMILY

The unhesitating reply of many urban Indians, when they are asked to define the most unique identifier of ‘Indian culture’, is “the joint family”. I am never really sure whether they actually believe this or whether they assume this to be the politically correct response. If indeed they believed it, their attitudes towards their families should be far more venerating than psychotherapeutic experience, contemporary literature, performing arts, and media reports would have us believe. I believe it to be an unconsidered response motivated more by a sub-conscious sense of guilt, for the joint family in metropolitan India has been a visible casualty in the course of the process of national development. In fact, as a practicing psychotherapist, I find that over the last ten years or so, the greatest stress factor in modern urban life is the family -  an institution that has been the bedrock of Indian life over the centuries. Our leaders continue to lament the breakdown of the joint family in the country, exhort us to return to ‘Indian cultural values’ and resurrect the joint family. But is this possible? Or, hold your breath, is it even necessary?

The joint family was a historical necessity. Centuries ago, when environmental uncertainty was very high, when people were beginning to expand their geographical horizons, the village-community progressively became too large or too nebulous an entity to provide emotional support to individuals. The latter, who had a strong need to belong to a group of familiar and supportive people, looked to the joint family to fill this emerging void. And the joint family responded admirably to the situation. It served the role of parent, protector and nurturer, and by harnessing collective wisdom, created an enabling environment to permit the growth and development of its constituents. 
To perpetuate itself, it had to evolve a strict code of conduct, clearly delimited individual roles, a prescribed power structure and unstinting subordination to the nominated paterfamilias (or, in some instances, the materfamilias) for it to be able to perform its function. But, as midnight’s children and grandchildren started appreciating their need for individual identity, the restrictions placed by the joint family were not easily manageable, and therefore the extended family (parents living with one married child and grandchildren) made its appearance, This seemed to, temporarily at least, satisfy the individual’s need, and guilt was kept at bay. Unfortunately, extended families, unable to shake off the hangover of their origins from the rigid joint family, began to function like downsized joint families. The dynamics were similar: The benevolent or tyrannical paterfamilias, the power structures, the subordination to the head of the family, all continued, though in a mildly diluted form. 
But, in 21st century India, economic realities, practical considerations and the demands made by the process of identity development, all inevitable aspects of the process of maturation of a culture, have already started gnawing at the institution of the extended family. More and more people are becoming dependent on their nuclear families to provide them whatever support they require. The joint family with its rigid structures or the extended family with its uncomfortable undertones have become more like albatrosses than the facilitating agents they were designed to be. Even in extended families, active jockeying for the coveted position of Head of the Family takes place, with the incumbent often finding it extremely difficult to relinquish the reins, even when economically dependent on the heir-apparent for survival. This often results in messy and sometimes Machiavellian power struggles resolved only by the passing on of the former. The situation is, of course, more critical in urban and peri-urban India, but given the rapid pace of development, it is not unreasonable to speculate that, over the next few decades, the problem may become more severe in rural India too.
As a result of all this, equations within the family are not defined by mutual respect, as successful relationships should be, but more by some subliminal filial bonds that are expected to magically hold the unit together. They do not, because they cannot. Does this mean that the only possible future scenario is large numbers of broken families and elders abandoned by callous children? Not if we see the writing on the wall, get our collective acts together and actively redefine the institution of the family, just as we are attempting to do with the institution of marriage. One can actually visualise a scenario where families become more functional and their members engage in more mutually respectful relationships than has been the case in the past, provided the focus shifts from the individual having a relationship with the ‘family’ as an entity to having more conscious relationships with the constituents of the family. Only then can the family emerge as a more substantial unit of social support than the hollowed out institution it appears to be today.
It is the search for mutual respect that places a burden on the perpetuity of the family as a functional unit. But it is this same search for mutual respect that is finally going to ensure that the family survives as an unit, even if in a redefined form. For relationships to become mutually respecting, the fundamental requirement is for the individuals within them to be objective about each other. No longer can the parent-child relationship function in a parent-child  mode. By this, I mean that the adult offspring should be able to relate to the parent as one adult would to another. Equally critical is for the parent to engage in a similar process. The child needs to cut the umbilical cord completely and the parent needs to ‘emotionally let go’ of the child and facilitate this process. Likewise siblings too, need to start relating to each other as adults and not with the same patterns that they have been used to since childhood. 

But for this to happen, we need to change the way we look at the institution of the family. Rather than look at the family as one large umbrella identity that requires rigid disciplinary processes to survive, we need to start thinking of the joint family as a cluster of nuclear families. Each nuclear family unit may have its own unique processes that distinguishes itself from its counterparts. And each of these units needs to be respected as an organic entity that has every right to pursue its own stated aspirations, even if the other units in the cluster have a differing perspective. Such a redefined joint family, provides support to its constituents by learning to respect the space required by each of its constituents – a federalisation of the joint family, if you will. The end result is an apparently joint-less family, that is nevertheless jointed, not by virtue of a common genetic structure, but by virtue of mutual respect. 

The redefined family, that builds itself on a satisfying present than on just a shared past, has the potential to construct an optimistic future. But the process of redefinition needs to be undertaken actively and consciously. It will not happen miraculously. There is, of course, one other way of dealing with the family : Keep chugging along and hope that something will happen to change things dramatically, or that with advancing age everyone settles down to mutually accepting and acceptable patterns of behaviour. Does it work? I have no evidence that it does. But the choice is ours. Hopefully, we will choose wisely, thereby preserving the integrity of the special Indian institution – the family, instead of constantly lamenting its breakdown.

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The Shrinking Universe 11
WHAT MAKES MEN PAUSE

This column generates a lot of e-mail, most of which are of too personal a nature to share. However, there are a couple of regular correspondents who continually bewilder me since they seem to feel that I am pro-women and anti-men. I cannot understand what in my writings, leads them to such a conclusion, for being an unapologetic member of the male species, I cannot recall saying or doing anything to fuel such a speculation. However, I hope their concerns are laid to rest by today’s piece, for it is exclusively about men and a distressing experience that they tend to undergo, adding even more to the burdens they inevitably have to carry into middle age.  
It is now an acknowledged fact of life that women, in their late forties or early fifties, go through a troublesome period (pun unintended) of hormonal transition accompanied by irritability, mood swings, hot flushes, capricious menstrual cycles and unpredictable behaviour, collectively referred to as the menopause. This kind of transition, it was believed, did not happen in men, because men did not have a discernible menstrual cycle. In the 1940s though, a definite period of transitional symptoms was described by medical scientists and researchers as occurring in men in the 40 to 55 age group. Researchers struggled to name the phenomenon and referred to it as male menopause or the male climacteric or worse, PADAM (Partial Androgen Deficiency in the Ageing Male), all of which sound either too clumsy, too esoteric or too pejorative, as a result of which men with such transitional symptoms just further stiffened their collective upper lips and ‘manfully’ rode things out until life returned to normal again. In recent times however, a new term has begun to find universal acceptance: Andropause. 
One of the reasons why Andropause was not seen as a clinically distinct phenomenon was the vague symptoms that it manifested with. Typically, men in the 40-55 age group (rarely men in their late thirties too) slowly become irritable and grumpy. They experience mood swings and feelings of sadness. Attributing these problems to adverse circumstances in the environment, they may blame their jobs, their partners or the pressures of family life. There is also a general loss of energy, initiative and vitality. Their muscle mass decreases a bit despite pumping the same quantity of iron as always and they also experience back pain and aches all over their bodies. The ‘middle-age spread’ also takes over as more fat gets distributed around the central and upper portions of their bodies. Also some men find it hard to concentrate on work and are unable to pay much attention to relationships – personal and professional. Usually there is an accompanying decrease in libido and sexual energy as well, even though they generally try harder to keep their normal sexual rhythms going. More often than not, they mistakenly diagnose themselves as going through a depression and ignore these symptoms. Although Andropause can be part of a mid-life crisis, the latter phenomenon involves much more and merits more detailed exploration at another time. 
So, what actually happens to men between the ages of 40 and 55? Put simply, their primary male hormone – testosterone – starts slowing down. The body progressively reduces its installed production capacity from the late twenties of the average man’s life and by the time he hits his forties and fifties, the drop in testosterone levels becomes perceptible. Sometimes, the drop tends to be sharper and therefore the symptoms may appear suddenly in some men, but by and large Andropause starts, like menopause, insidiously. After a couple of years or so, the body gets acclimatized to the new levels of testosterone and life goes on as usual, but if the testosterone levels are slow to stabilize, some men end up being at a high risk for developing two medical problems – osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.
Osteoporosis is usually thought of as a woman’s disease since women are more prone to developing it than are men. However in the event of prolonged testosterone deficiency, men too enter the high-risk zone to develop the illness. As the name suggests, the illness is a case of ‘porous bones’ resulting from loss of bone tissue. The bones become weak and easily vulnerable to fractures. Also, the illness can progress to an extremely painful condition. In short, an extremely avoidable illness. Low testosterone levels also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Although this fact is not yet as well documented as the relationship between osteoporosis and testosterone levels, all accumulating research evidence seems to point in this direction.
Of course, not all andropausal men end up with osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease, but, as I see it, the other symptoms of Andropause are hard enough to deal with and one doesn’t have wait for major illnesses to strike before taking recourse to medical treatment. Men in this age group have a hard enough time dealing with everything else on their plates and the last thing they need is a lowered sense of self worth because their sexual functioning is not as good as before. Many andropausal men also experience a lot of stress at work on account of the general loss of initiative, energy and concentration. As a result, there is the frightening prospect of losing their jobs or suffering business losses as well. And you know what this does for one’s self esteem especially if one is in one’s early forties or thereabouts.
Probably the best thing about Andropause is that it is amenable to medical treatment. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is possible and the duration of treatment would really depend on testosterone levels and a few other medical factors. HRT, when administered by an experienced practitioner, despite having received bad press, is safe and can be beneficial, particularly in cases where the risk of osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease is high. All andropausal men may not need HRT, but whether or not it is advisable is best decided in consultation with an andrologist / sexual therapist / endocrinologist / psychiatrist. What your physician would likely do is to order a couple of blood tests. Serum Free Testosterone (SFT) will tell you whether the level of testosterone in your blood is low or normal. Usually this test is done on three separate occasions before a conclusion is arrived at, since blood levels of testosterone can fluctuate a lot. Also your physician may ask for a Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) blood test to ensure that your prostate is doing all right, otherwise HRT may not be possible. Your physician may want a few other tests like tests of bone density, before taking a final decision. If you do decide on the HRT route, you might just need to pop a couple of pills a day and get your SFT levels checked every now and again. However, be warned. Never try HRT unsupervised; you could end up with severe complications including prostate cancer if you do. 
HRT is not mandatory. Andropause, like menopause, is a self-limiting condition and you could be back to normal, on an average, in a year or two. Some men have it worse than others for a variety of reasons and may have a longer andropausal duration and require the support of HRT. Some men benefit from the use of other interventions like yoga, homeopathy, acupuncture and so on. There are, of course, those extremely fortunate men, who sail through their Andropause with enviable ease. But the rest of us, whether we like it or not, are forced to pause. 

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The Shrinking Universe 10
DON’T ASK; WON’T TELL

Even in the newly liberalised India, most marriages tend to be arranged by families, either through a marriage broker, a newspaper classified advertisement, a web-based marriage portal or the long-established oral tradition:  word-of-mouth. One would therefore expect that the rigorous screening process that takes place would result, particularly when endorsed by the family astrologer, in a reasonably compatible couple who have all the potential ingredients for a long and satisfying marriage. However, as any family court regular will tell you, the number of arranged marriages that break down within two to three months of the wedding, is alarmingly on the increase. The reasons for these are many and include sexual as well as emotional adjustment issues, but one reason that keeps cropping up with astonishing regularity is, I feel, an eminently preventable problem : premarital non-disclosure. To get a sense of what I mean by this term, take a look at these three randomly selected marriage scenarios:
A 22 year old graphic designer by training but a homemaker by choice, is told that the bridegroom identified for her in Australia is a chartered accountant working in a large international bank. Two months after living in Australia with him, in a chance conversation with her neighbour, she comes to know that her husband, has actually never been to college, and works in this large international bank as a teller. 
After two reasonably happy years of marriage, an engineer prepares to take his wife to Muscat. When he takes her passport to apply for a visa, he realises that she is eleven months older than he is. Both are aghast. He, because this was not what her father had told him at the time of the alliance. She, because she thought he was aware of it and was liberal enough in his thinking not to mind.
Three months after the wedding, when they are investigating the cause of her husband’s erectile dysfunction, a young stewardess learns from his doctor that her husband’s anti-epileptic medication could be the cause of the problem, but under no circumstances is he to stop the medication, for he had his last fit as recently as eight months ago. She is shocked, for this is the first time she is hearing of his epilepsy.
This is what I mean by premarital non-disclosure. Some facts are actively suppressed (‘this matter should never be revealed under any circumstance’), some not made explicit (‘but you never asked!’) and some just ‘hinted’ at, before the wedding takes place. How the ‘deceived partner’ reacts when matters come out into the open, as they inevitably will (how long can you keep information about things like your job, your age or a major illness under wraps?), cannot really be predicted. Of course, it is unreasonable to expect disclosures on everything under the sun, for many facts are completely irrelevant to the present and the future, but some of the things that families suppress are quite extraordinary: that one of the partners is previously divorced, that one of the parents practises a different religion, that the person has not got a masters degree from the US even though the profile on the matrimonial portal said otherwise, that one of the partners is dependent on alcohol and/or marijuana (not just a recreational user), that one of the partners suffers from a rare genetic disorder that obviates the possibility of having children, and so on. And when the truth finally comes out, further creative mendacity attempts to locate the problem as post-marital (or at least not known to anyone before the wedding) and the quagmire just becomes deeper and deeper. And the marriage is driven squarely on the rocks.
Every time I speak to the non-disclosing family and ask them why they did what they did, they are invariably filled with remorse. They tell me that the primary reason for non-disclosure was the fear that the truth might mean the loss of a perfectly good alliance. What they never contemplated was that the truth would come out at some time or the other, and when it did, however long the couple had been married, however strong the bond they had developed during this period, the ‘non-disclosing’ partner would come under severe pressure, and experience indescribable humiliation. Even if such a partner were not aware of, nor party to, the non-disclosure, they are not believed by their partners. The essential trust in the partner and the marriage is lost and if the ‘deceived’ partner does decide to stay in the marriage, a long and painful process of re-building trust has to be gone through. Also, the balance of power in the marriage tilts and the ‘non-disclosing’ partner is expected to shoulder the primary burden of this re-building process.
Frankly, the best way to deal with this is prevention: making sure that no relevant fact is kept away from the partner before the commitment is made. To do this, one first needs to deal with the popular feeling in middle class India that ‘marrying off the children’ is the parents’ primary responsibility and that this has to be done at any cost. If one the children seems to be a little ‘less appealing in the marriage market’ and is therefore unable to land a partner easily, padding the résumé or glossing over critical facts or stout denial, can never be the recommended courses of action, for although they may ensure that a wedding does indeed take place, they, more often than not, also result in mortification and visits to the Family Court. Marriage is not the only guarantee to life-long happiness. Urban India has enough content single people as role models to testify to this. The price for non-disclosure is simply too high and investing in career pursuits may be the better option if a partner is not to be found. 
There are, of course, no formulae to decide what precisely needs to be disclosed. As a rule of thumb, anything major that will have some form of impact on your partner’s perception of or comfort with you, is better shared. There’s no need to overdo it either. Your partner does not need to know that you had chicken pox when you were nine and measles when you were six. However, if you had mumps in childhood, as a result of which you’ve become sterile, you might be well advised to consider telling your prospective partner about it, because this has a direct bearing on the future of the marriage, in terms of child-bearing. When you do disclose, the risk you run is that a potentially ‘good’ alliance may be nipped in the bud.  However, if you are making a decision that is meant to last you a lifetime, you need to know all the facts before doing so. So does your prospective partner.
 A word to the ‘deceived partner’: Try not to be too harsh when you come across a non-disclosure of this sort. I do agree that it can rock your trust in your partner, but try and understand that it took place in a certain context. Because you were considered a good alliance, your partner’s family probably did some window-dressing, which they, in hindsight, perhaps should not have done. If you find that in other ways, your partner is reasonably good for you, try and practise some forgiveness, and you could still end up having the long and stable marriage that you sought when you said ‘yes’.

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The Shrinking Universe 09
ON THE COUCH

When introduced to me, the first thing that comes to many peoples’ minds, whether they express it or not, and a good many do express it, is some gag or the other about the couch. And when clients visit me for the first time, they usually look around, surreptitiously of course, for the couch. After all, how good can a shrink be, if he doesn’t have a couch? The couch has come to be thought of as one of the tools of a therapist’s trade and some of my clients look a tad disappointed when they can’t spot a couch in my office. It’s almost like seeing a doctor who doesn’t own a stethoscope.
 
So, is a couch really necessary for the process of psychotherapy? Actually it is not. The couch came to be used in therapy when, around the turn of the last century, Sigmund Freud, the much-maligned genius, invented psychoanalysis or the ‘talking cure’. Freud used hypnosis in the early stages of the development of psychoanalysis and, therefore, a recumbent posture was considered more desirable. Even after he abandoned the use of hypnosis, the couch continued to play a role, as he believed it caused the client to be in a state of relaxation when exploring unconscious conflicts. Also, the recumbent posture gave the analyst the opportunity to sit behind the client’s head, out of the client’s view, so that the analyst’s physical presence did not disturb or distract the client. Even today, psychoanalysts use the couch as an integral part of their interventions. But, all psychotherapists do not.

The difference between a psychotherapist and a psychoanalyst is much more than many people may believe. An analyst uses a very stringent theoretical framework and very specific tools and processes such as ‘free association’ (a technique whereby the client is asked to state each thought as it comes to his mind without censoring it and allowing the analyst to interpret the thought) and dream analysis (the client or ‘analysand’ is asked to describe his dreams in graphic detail, thereby giving the analyst an opportunity to analyse and interpret them). The framework that an analyst uses would depend on the school that s/he is affiliated to. Thus you have Freudian analysts (who follow the theories of Freud), Jungian analysts (who follow Jung’s teachings), Rankian analysts (Otto Rank), Kleinian analysts (Melanie Klein) and so forth. All practicing analysts would have undergone a period of personal psychoanalysis with a qualified analyst as part of their training and for a few years when they first start practicing, are usually supervised by a senior analyst. The process of psychoanalysis can take from anything between one and five years and clients usually meet their analyst once or twice a week during this period. Psychotherapy developed as an offshoot of psychoanalysis to counter the criticism that analysis seemed too long-drawn out and time-consuming, and therefore, often unaffordable. However, it’s important to realise that psychotherapy is not an abbreviated or ‘instant’ version of psychoanalysis. Also, the therapy-seeker needs to know that there is a wide range of psychotherapies available in the market today, some better known than others.

First off, you have Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy which  is very close to psychoanalysis but is a little more focused on the immediate problem that the client has and not necessarily all her/his unconscious conflicts, although some generic conflicts are addressed. It’s generally shorter than classical psychoanalysis and could last for up to a year or two. Then you have what are referred to as the Psychodynamic psychotherapies. These too use some of the theoretical foundations of psychoanalysis although the process and techniques vary. The focus is on arriving at insights into the impact of unconscious and unresolved past issues on the individual’s present life and could last between six months and a year. The Brief Dynamic Psychotherapies usually follow similar principles as psychodynamic therapies in either an anxiety provoking (produce insights by inducing stress) or an anxiety-reducing format (produce insights by reducing stress). Such interventions usually last for about 12 to 18 one-hour sessions. Then there are Rational-Emotive Therapy that appeals to rational processes in the mind of the client to help overcome whatever issues the client faces, and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, that is based on the theory that negative cognitions (ideas and beliefs) cause emotional problems and therefore attempts to substitute negative thought processes with positive ones. Aside of these there are other psychotherapies – such as Psychodrama (uses drama as a method of exorcising unresolved issues) or Gestalt therapy (based on the well developed Gestalt psychology) and other Humanistic therapies such as Client-centred Psychotherapy that seek to shift the focus on to the human beings or clients, rather than the problems they experience. Needless to say there are a lot of esoteric psychotherapies as well.

On the face of it, going by the list of psychotherapies described, it may appear that the psychotherapies are really more whimsical than scientific. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is growing research-based evidence confirming the effectiveness of these different psychotherapies. However, the research literature is not too voluble on which of these is better than the others. One important reason for this is what is often called the therapist variable. There seem to be some therapists who, for a variety of reasons, are very gifted and deeply empathetic in the way they approach their clients. Obviously the results produced by such therapists would be far better than another less gifted or empathetic counterpart even if both administer the same sort of psychotherapy. The notable exception to this is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which, by virtue of being a highly standardised method, does not depend as much on the gifted therapist as do the others. The research literature is also clear that judicious combinations of medication and psychotherapy produce better results than either does individually. In the final analysis it is the relationship between the therapist and the client that produces consistently successful outcomes.

In India, most psychotherapists use what is referred to as an ‘eclectic’ orientation to their psychotherapy. The term usually means, ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’. However it is not as capricious as it sounds. A fairly distinctive form of ‘Indian psychotherapy’, for want of a better word, seems to be evolving over the last couple of decades that takes the best of all worlds and, like most good therapies, is based on a relationship between the client and therapist. Even though many Indian therapists are eclectic, they would invariably lean towards one of the classical psychotherapies, based on their training and experience.

The experience of psychotherapy from a client’s perspective need not be a formidable one at all, if one understands when one should take help and what one should expect of the therapeutic process itself. You should seek therapy not when you become ill, but when your life seems to be at cross-purposes with you and you don’t feel as composed as you would like to be. The therapeutic process itself, regardless of which form of therapy your therapist is oriented to, is exceedingly simple: you just sit in an armchair or across a table and talk to your therapist for about an hour or two a week about the issues that are bothering you and the therapist helps you understand these issues from a slightly differently perspective so you can empower yourself to make considered choices. The most important criterion that needs to be satisfied is that you feel comfortable with your therapist. Also try and remember that psychotherapy is not about getting advice or solutions to your problems from a professional. It is about your obtaining a deeper understanding about yourself and arriving at your own solutions, with some professional nudging. It’s your mind. You own it. As you do your therapy. 

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The Shrinking Universe 08
THE NEW INDIAN MARRIAGE

You don’t have to be a social scientist to conclude that the institution of marriage is currently facing its most severe test. Gone seem to be the days when a man and a woman, stoically (oftentimes, lugubriously) plodded their ways through anniversary after anniversary of cohabitation, the perpetuity of their relationship being almost fatalistically taken for granted. Today in metropolitan India, issues like serial monogamy, simultaneous multiple relationships, single parenthood, voluntary single status and the like, actively impinge on the conscious minds of many young adults who seriously address the issue of whether and when to get into matrimony. On the flip side, the extraordinary success enjoyed by internet matrimonial portals does, perhaps testify to the fact that the institution of marriage is not yet on the verge of collapse, although it must be said that non-marriage friendship portals are enjoying increasing popularity. Even when educated urban Indians do finally decide to get married, they tend to do so when they are a bit older and, arguably, a little more mature than their parents were when they themselves tied the knot. Also, when one takes a closer look at urban marriages today, it appears that the rules of marriage are changing significantly. In other words, in adapting to contemporary social and emotional realities, ‘New Indians’ in metropolitan India seem to defining a  ‘New Indian Marriage’ markedly different from its ‘older’ counterpart.
Before exploring the phenomenon of the New Indian Marriage, let us take a look at the ‘New Indian’, a recently emerging metropolitan creature who is perfectly happy to live in India, warts and all. Even if an overseas work assignment is sought it is more for the experience, the independence away from the family and for enhancing the résumé than for leaving the homeland for good. Apparently, the grass is green enough on this side. Paav bhaji and masala dosa are as much enjoyed as pizzas and hamburgers; Kumbakonam degree coffee as much as Cappuccino; tender coconut water as much as energy drinks; Shahrukh Khan as much as George Clooney; the salsa as much as the garba; Art of Living as much as Stephen Covey. In other words the New Indian does not reject India and Indian. Other things from other parts of the world just get added on. The New Indian’s patriotism is not of the jingoistic, chest-beating variety. Being an Indian is just a fact of life. It’s who s/he is. It doesn’t need to be cried out from the rooftops, nor does it need to be a well-guarded secret. 
The New Indian is more pan-Indian in perspective, perhaps on account of leading a more mobile life. Born in Ludhiana, educated in Kolkata, MBA from Lucknow, working in Chennai and married to a Hyderabadi is no longer an exceptional scenario. The New Indian does not make a big deal about language; it is seen as only a tool for communication and no longer defines identity. The New Indian lives life more consciously. As a result, relationships are more emotionally intense and personal experiences more meaningful. However, the New Indian is also impatient, brash and in-your-face. Frustration tolerance is poor. Instant gratification is demanded and the tendency towards impulsive decision-making is high. Political awareness and participation is not particularly high on the New Indian’s agenda. Art is not as highly valued as is entertainment. And the risk of conspicuous consumption also looms.
All of these attributes of the New Indian find reflection in the New Indian Marriage, which is no longer seen as an inevitable stage of life, but as a life domain that needs to be nurtured and configured to provide emotional fulfilment. Put differently, the New Indian marriage is growing into a substantial entity that is far more consciously experienced than it ever used to be. The fact that divorce rates are on the increase need not be cause for concern, for re-marriage rates are still fairly high. Also, it must be acknowledged that the reasons cited for divorce in recent times, have more to do with frustration intolerance than with fundamental incompatibilities. The way I see it, this is just a part of the early reactions to the phenomenon of liberalisation of the new Indian thought process. After years of suppression, we, as a nation, are suddenly discovering that we have the power of choice. So we make our choices more consciously today. However, some of us, intoxicated by this sense of personal empowerment tend to go over the top a little. Until we reach a certain level of maturity, we may, in the interim period, exercise our choices without proper application of mind. But this is only a transient phenomenon, a correction of a hitherto lop-sided situation. Many of the ‘old Indians’ would have dearly liked to have divorced their spouses, but could not owing to the social stigma at the time. Today New Indians can, and often do. But, I believe they are smart enough to realise that they don’t always have to.  Particularly, if they succeed in structuring their marriages and personal relationships slightly differently.
As a couples therapist I have had a ring-side view of the changing face of Indian marriage. And I can attest to the fact that the last decade or so has witnessed some dramatic shifts in perspective. The New Indian Marriage tends to focus on emotional fulfilment for both partners, and not merely procreation or recreation. It is owned by both partners in the marriage and not by everyone else. This is true even in ‘arranged marriages’ for the New Indian tends to participate more actively in the search for a spouse through matrimonial portals and so on, as a result of which the sense of ownership of the marriage is generally higher than it used to be in the past. Both partners recognise two sets of personal spaces (‘I’ spaces) in a marriage, but pay due attention to the marriage space (‘We’ space) as well. They also appreciate that fights, issues and conflicts are inevitable when two individuals engage in a close and intense relationship and attempt to use rational processes to manage these. Adequate attention is paid to the experience and expression of sexual and emotional intimacy. There is also a recognition that parents and children need their own spaces and that these spaces are to be clearly located outside of the marriage space. Both partners work towards transparent and honest communication styles. New Indian couples generally do not hesitate to seek professional help when things get sticky between the partners or when they find it hard to find solutions to their issues. Also, they understand that divorce is a legitimate option (if the marriage does not work despite the best efforts of both partners), but only the final one.
I am not for a moment suggesting that all contemporary urban Indian marriages are conducted on the above lines. They are not. But, given the fact that these New Indian Marriages are becoming increasingly more visible, I am hoping that they also become more enduring and viable in the years to come. The New Indian Marriage is definitely here, but whether to stay or not, only time can tell. The only thing that can confidently be stated today is that it is too premature to write an obituary for the Indian marriage.

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The Shrinking Universe 07
GAY, BUT NOT CAREFREE

Most people have mixed feelings when it comes to gays, lesbians and homosexuality. There are, as there usually are, extreme reactions. The conservatives would have us believe that homosexuality is unnatural and therefore execrable and condemnable. They agitate for more stringent legislation against gay people and are smugly satisfied with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises carnal activity ‘against the order of nature’ and therefore, gay sex. At the other end of the spectrum, exist the activists who stridently proclaim that gayness is superior behaviour and a sign of great creativity, for many of the world’s leading artistes have been known to be gay. And somewhere in between are the liberals who have mixed feelings. While they vaguely believe that  it is the right of the individual to choose whether to be gay or straight, they’re not quite sure how they’d handle it if a member of their own family announced that s/he was homosexual. 
However, the human race has no choice but to address the issue of homosexuality seriously today for, there are far too many lesbians and gay people in the world who are articulately refusing to be marginalized. Although there exists an acronym LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender) that collectively refers to people preferring to have same-gender relationships, I will, for the purpose of this article, restrict myself to the use of the term homosexuality to refer to both gays and lesbians. I do so because I am not proposing to examine issues pertaining to bisexuals and transgendered persons in this piece, for these merit independent exploration.
Certainly over the last decade or so, awareness on the subject of homosexuality has increased. Indian film-makers have addressed the issue in films such as Fire and Girlfriend, even though they have, unfortunately, portrayed homosexual behaviour as arising from emotionally traumatizing events, thereby implying deviance. Books such as Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History edited by Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai have been published and have also received awards. Homosexual behaviour is also being written about, even if only sporadically in popular fiction where gays and lesbians are not being portrayed as caricatures. NGOs for LGBTs have sprung up in most metropolitan cities, even though most, but not all, of these organisations have to do with the protection of gay people in the context of the management and prevention of HIV/AIDS. Gay pride parades have taken place in some of the metros without their participants courting arrest. Politicians, gay rights and other social activists, NGOs, intellectuals and even the judiciary have urged the government to review Sec 377 of the IPC and make homosexuality legal, or at least, not illegal. All of these notwithstanding, gays and lesbians continue to be misunderstood and marginalised largely owing to the ignorance that shrouds the subject of homosexuality. 
Tackling the issue of whether homosexuality is normal or abnormal is the first step in understanding the phenomenon. Going by evolutionary theories, the absence of reproductive mating would imply that same-gender relationships are unnatural. However, the fact that homosexuality has been referred to in ancient historical literature (including in the Laws of Manu) coupled with how widely-practised homosexual behaviour is, suggests that this thinking be reviewed. If a phenomenon assumes the magnitude and proportions that homosexuality does, then obviously, it has to be factored into the theory of natural selection. At the risk of oversimplification (I am certainly not an expert in evolutionary biology), it is conceivable that for the survival of the species in an over-crowded planet, the human organism has evolved some form of procreational balancing mechanism and therefore, homosexuality, far from being against the order of nature, is actually built into the natural selection process in some complex manner and actually ends up providing the human race an evolutionary advantage. 
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association is one of the keystones that mental health professionals have used when it comes to diagnosing mental disorders. Interestingly, the first and second editions of the DSM labelled homosexuality as a sexual deviance. In 1973 when the second edition was being revised, there was much controversy surrounding the inclusion of homosexuality and in its third edition, a new term was introduced – “ego-dystonic homosexuality”. The term simply means a person who engages in homosexual behaviour but is unhappy and indeed, deeply distressed about it. As a result of this there were multiple therapeutic interventions that such persons were subject to, ranging from psychoanalysis to aversion therapy (application of an aversive stimulus such as a mild shock every time the individual was shown a photograph depicting a homosexual act). Finally, sense prevailed and by the time the revised version of the third edition of DSM was released, homosexuality was quietly eliminated from its ambit. And it has stayed that way for the fourth edition as well.
Having worked with a fair number of lesbians and gay people in fairly intensive psychotherapy, I know that the only mental health problems they really face are the social consequences of their choice – the marginalization, the experience of humiliation, the social pressure to go in for straight marriages, the subterfuge associated with their search for partners, the lack of ready availability of resources that can help them respond to their inner dictates and the near-impossibility of going public with their relationships even if they are lucky enough to find long-term partners. It is important to remember that homosexuality is not only about sex. It is more about relationships. People with a homosexual orientation can have intense, complete and committed long-term relationships only with people who share their orientation, and these relationships, like any other, include both emotional and sexual intimacy. And this is the biggest problem that Indian gays and lesbians have. There are very few spaces where they can meet and court each other. Add to this the fact that they come up against large masses of homophobes, and you can well imagine why their cups of joy don’t particularly run over. As a result many force themselves into straight marriages that they cannot sustain, thereby causing havoc to the life of the hapless spouse as well. And those who cannot do this end up either leading extremely lonely, frustrated, single lives or become commercial sex workers. There are, however, the lucky few who do manage to come to terms with their homosexuality and find like-minded partners who they ‘marry’ and settle down with.
Theories abound when it comes to why some people are homosexual and I do not propose to examine the nuances in detail. Some people believe that hormones are responsible. Some have it that masculinity and femininity are on a continuum and depending on where precisely one locates oneself on it, one could be gay or straight. Others believe that childhood events and the nature of the relationship with the opposite gender parent are implicated. And still others maintain that gayness is the natural state of all human beings and that straightness is the deviance. Whatever the reasons that are responsible for homosexuality, it is important to remember that homosexuals are just a group of people who have made a conscious choice to practice a different form of life. Hopefully, in the foreseeable future, the law too will see that alternate sexuality is just an adult choice and not an aberration. Until then, let’s just leave them alone to choose their partners and get on with their lives, just like the rest of the world does.  

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The Shrinking Universe 06
THE WEAKER SEX

A recently published book called ‘Save the Males’ written by  leading American columnist Kathleen Parker, has caused a major furore in the United States owing to its central theme that it’s extremely hard to be a man in the 21st century, since men are being effectively emasculated by the expectations that feminism has thrust on them. That metrosexualisation of the modern man has only resulted in diminishing his capacity to provide for the woman and the family, is the basic theme that Kathleen Parker expounds upon. Apparently she does this with a lot of felicity, for I have only read the reviews of the book and some of responses to it, but I am looking forward to getting my hands on it, for it promises to be a good read. One aspect of what the author says does resonate with my own understanding of the gender conflict. Despite conventional wisdom having it that the male of the species is the more empowered of the two genders, I believe that the human male is the more handicapped of the two genders and whatever ‘empowerment’ he seems to enjoy today is more virtual than real. Permit me to explore this premise.
It would be fair to say that at no other time in recorded history than at the present, has the human male been at a crossroads, as far as defining his identity is concerned. This is a rather unusual situation for him to be in, for whatever else he has or has not been, he has been reasonably sure of what he was, where he was going and how he was going to get there. This was the situation even until the 1960s when male and female roles were very clearly delineated and men knew what precisely was expected of them. The hunter-gatherer role that was refined over the centuries to the role of the provider-protector, is the one that man seems to have adapted to with the greatest degree of comfort. It seemed to be in keeping with his anatomical prowess and gave him the opportunity to express his identity by utilising his natural assets and strengths, thereby providing him a substrate on which he could define his essential masculinity. The better the provider, the better the man; the stronger the protector, the stronger the man. A fairly straightforward equation that the women’s liberation movement unfortunately put paid to by questioning and actively encroaching on the domain of the larger environment that the male had defined his very maleness in. The threatened response of the male to this incursion could be interpreted to mean that he is unwilling to concede his social position of dominance to the female, since the provider-protector is the one who holds all the strings. However, we need to probe the issue further and go one level deeper to understand, acknowledge and address a more fundamental sub-text that is in operation.
At the core of the sense of one’s self is the recognition that one is created from two genders. Each individual will therefore necessarily be the repository of the generic attributes of both genders, even though biologically only one may predominate. It is not one’s maleness or femaleness alone that defines one’s identity, it is the harmony between the two that determines how comfortable and integrated one’s identity is going to be. Karl Gustav Jung, the celebrated Swiss psychoanalyst and one-time protégé of Sigmund Freud, used the term anima to refer to the feminine aspects of the man and the term animus to the masculine aspects of the woman. In other words, shocking as this may be to the more macho in our midst, inside every man there lies an unexpressed woman. And even more shocking is the proposition that the object of masculine identity development is not the elimination of this woman, but acknowledging the existence of and fine-tuning the feminine side with the masculine part of the identity. In other words, blending the yin and the yang. Unfortunately, men have either embraced their anima too much or not enough, as a result of which they have either over-metrosexualised themselves or ended up being committed retrosexuals. The ‘masculine woman’ has become more socially acceptable, than the ‘feminine man’, who is still an object of derision. And herein lies the root of the gender conflict. Women find it easy to pursue their masculinity; men find it disagreeable to even acknowledge, let alone pursue their femininity. 
When one looks back at social evolution over the latter half of the last century, it is readily apparent that women, once they decided on the direction they wanted to take, were able to make inroads into what were traditionally male bastions - territories men had protected and mystified over the centuries as being particularly unsuitable to the woman. Whatever the nature of work-related activity, women have shown the capacity not just to function as effectively as their male counterparts, but have often bested the latter in their chosen areas of strength. In the process, some women, in the aggressive pursuit of their animus have lost touch with their essential femininity. An unfortunate by-product really, since this is hardly conducive to the integrated development of the woman. What has been most striking about the women’s liberation movement is the ease with which women have made the domain shift. In other words, it appears that the task of being a provider-protector is not a particularly specialised one; you don’t have to be a man to do it. However, when it comes to femininity, the parity seems to vanish, since it is the woman alone who has the biological capacity to bear a child. She usually gets to choose whether to have a child, when to have a child and how many children she should have. The man’s cooperation is desirable though not mandatory, for sperm banks can come to the rescue. Men are completely marginalised from this uniquely female experience, unless the women involves him to whatever extent she may choose. From the man’s point of view, it would appear that being feminine is a specialised activity. And this is why the male feels threatened by women’s liberation. Not because women are encroaching on his territory, but because he can never completely encroach on hers. She can do pretty much everything that he can, but the converse is not true. So, he responds twice as aggressively to her, often painting himself into a lonely corner in the process. 
The way out of the situation is to remember that even as the male pursues his feminine side, he does not have to lose his masculinity and become a woman. Nor for that matter does a woman need to lose her femininity as she explores her animus. For gender equilibrium to be maintained, it is harmony between the yin and the yang that is critical. When one approaches this issue with equanimity, it is perfectly possible to find a balance of power between the genders that pays due attention to the assets and liabilities of both. However when stridency and competitiveness predominate, the man is going to end up feeling disempowered and the genders are going to be stuck in an indefinite face-off, for neither wants to be the first to blink. 

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The Shrinking Universe 05
THINKING TOO MUCH!

Politically incorrect though it may be, it is not uncommon for women to sometimes feel or be told that they are thinking too much. I know several women who not only think too much but agonise that they do. Unremarkably, this is not such a common phenomenon in the male of the species. In fact, women accuse men of either being unthinking or thinking only about sex, money and power. It is of course, conceivable that gender stereotyping could be responsible for this contention that women think more than is necessary. However evidence that it is not mere hyperbole comes from Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a psychologist from the University of Michigan, who has actively researched the subject for several years. In fact, she refers to it as an ‘epidemic of over-thinking’. Her research on the nature and causes of depression in women, from which her treatise about women thinking too much has been derived, has been well documented in scientific journals. Fortunately, her writing has not been confined to these erudite spaces, and she has taken the trouble to allay the concerns of millions of victims of  over-thinking by writing a series of books for them. The first of these, Women Who Think Too Much which was published in 2003 and expectedly went on to become a bestseller in the United States, was brought to my attention a year or so ago by a woman friend who thinks too much. I enjoyed reading it, for aside of being very well written, it is full of practical strategies that over-thinkers can use, as the subtitle of the book says, ‘to break free of over-thinking and reclaim your life’.
Nolen-Hoeksema begins by distinguishing over-thinking from garden-variety worrying. Worriers worry about the future. Over-thinkers fret over the past. What has happened in the past. What they’ve done in the past. What they should and could have done in the past. And so on. Nor is over-thinking a variation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where the individual’s conscious mind is actively intruded upon by unwanted and often, blasphemous thoughts that pretty much have a mind of their own and can sometimes take over the sufferer’s entire thought process. She defines three categories of over-thinking: The first of these, Rant-and-rave over-thinking is usually related to an event of perceived injustice which sets into motion a ‘thought rage’, as it were, from which the individual finds it very hard to escape. The second,  Life-of-their-own over-thinking starts of as a sort of rumination of something that the person is a little unhappy about, say, being over-weight. Her mind then launches on a tirade directed against herself and her flaws and shortcomings which are immediately exaggerated to epic proportions. Her mind then goes around in circles, much like a roundabout that just cannot be stopped. The third variety, Chaotic over-thinking, involves jumping from one chaotic thought to another, not necessarily in linear progression. It’s almost like multiple thought processes explode against each other, each feeding off the other and setting a reverberating circuit of unhappy and unrelated thoughts.
Why does this happen? Nolen-Hoeksema draws on her own research experience, as well as that of other cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to postulate that some brain-circuitry problems concerning the interconnected networks in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus, all of which are together involved in emotional regulation, may actually be responsible. The very connections that are responsible for the increased efficiency of thought processes in women can, when they are slightly out of kilter, cause over-efficient thinking, whereby switching off becomes increasingly difficult. However, given that these circuitry problems are not easy to conclusively demonstrate, this postulation can, at least for now, be considered at best, an extremely plausible speculation. Nolen-Hoeksema also looks at the social psychological research and comes to some other causative elements of the phenomenon. She concludes that the ‘Over-thinking generation’ is beset by a ‘Vacuum of Values’. This results in a culture of over-thinking, especially when combined with the ‘Entitlement Obsession’ that is commonly seen in the current generation of young and middle-aged women, the ‘Compulsive Need for Quick Fixes’  that’s part of the contemporary solution-providing times we live in, and what she enjoyably refers to as ‘Our Belly-Button Culture’, by which she means our habit of pushing the envelope on the self-awareness thing as a result of which we constantly gaze at our navels and over-analyse each and everything we do to death.
Understanding that women do over-think and that there are a few recognisable causes and patterns to this phenomenon is one thing. But can anything be done about it? Can over-thinking women indeed reclaim their lives? In a refreshing departure from many self-help books in recent times that really peddle commonplace solutions that any self-respecting agony aunt could provide, although using shiny new nomenclature, Nolen-Hoeksema spends most of the book describing practical strategies that women have used successfully to combat the downward spiral that over-thinking sometimes sends them into - depression, alcoholism and self-destructiveness. The basic approach to escaping the over-thinking syndrome lies in three steps – breaking free, moving to a higher ground and finally learning to avoid future traps. Each of these steps are described in great detail with many practical things that can be done with ease by anyone who cares to try. On the face of it, many of the  strategies described may be considered too simple, even simplistic. However, they are hardly that. Thought and experimentation has obviously gone into them and only an over-thinker belonging to the belly button culture would find it easy to reject simple solutions and seek more complex panaceas couched in the language of self-awareness.
Aside of the pristine solutions that are offered in different contexts of over-thinking like parenting, workplaces etc., what is perhaps most impressive about the book is that, if Nolen-Hoeksema had given it a bit of a gender spin, the book could have easily sounded strident and judgmental, making over-thinking women feel even more victimised than they need to. The author has avoided falling in this trap by treating the subject with empathy, diligence, scholarship and authenticity. Her detailed stories of over-thinking women and her comprehensive description of the thought process of over-thinkers are a delight to read and I’m sure will be readily identified with by most women who read the book. Large numbers of American women have benefitted from Susan Nolen-Hoeksema’s wisdom. It is my hope that many Indian women too will. That said, I do believe that this book is not just for women. It would certainly also help men who find it hard to deal with their over-thinking partners. And the understanding they get from this may ensure that they never have to read a book that I’m sure someone will write one day – Men Who Don’t Think At All.   

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The Shrinking Universe 04
DEALING WITH TRAUMA

As I write this, the nation is reeling under the horrific impact of the bomb blasts that rocked the vibrant cities of Bengaluru and Ahmedabad. Unsuspecting and vulnerable citizens have been caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s war and have ended up sacrificing their lives or suffered grievous bodily harm for doing nothing other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even though the overall damage may not have been as devastating as it was in earlier terrorist attacks such as the one in Mumbai a few years ago, the recent blasts have left in their wake huge physical and mental trauma that the survivors and the families of the departed have to deal with. I don’t propose to examine the causes of the blasts or remedial interventions against terrorism, as these are beyond the scope of this column. But what concerns me is how the survivors are going to deal with the mental trauma of the blasts, and how many of them are going to experience the potentially debilitating consequences of what psychiatrists refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

This phenomenon came to the attention of mental health professionals during the war years, when it used to be called ‘Shell Shock’ and ‘Battle Fatigue’. As it’s symptoms were studied in greater depth post-war, especially in the context of natural as well as man-made disasters (earthquakes, fires in nightclubs, cyclones, nuclear leaks, airplane accidents, hijacks, terrorist attacks etc), this psychological condition came to be recognized as a distinct psychiatric entity and was given the name PTSD. The word trauma has come to be used for a variety of situations today, but PTSD refers to extraordinarily traumatic events that would involve actual or threatened death, serious injury or rape, and not the many frequently encountered traumatic stressors that are severe but not extreme (e.g., losing a job, divorce, failing in school, death of a loved one). Today, any mental health professional dealing with a person who has survived such a hugely traumatic event as the bomb blasts will look for the tell tale signs of PTSD, particularly when the individual who survived the event experienced intense fear, horror and a sense of helplessness during the trauma. PTSD usually starts a few weeks to three months after the traumatic event and untreated, can even last several years. Women seem to be more affected by PTSD than men. 

As detailed by the Expert Consensus Guideline Series that appeared in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 1999, the symptoms of PTSD fall in four categories. The first of these are referred to as symptoms of Intrusion and include intrusive, distressing recollections of the event; flashbacks (feeling as if the event were recurring while awake); nightmares (the event or other frightening images recur frequently in dreams); heightened emotional and physical reactions to triggers that remind the person of the event; and survivor guilt. The second set of symptoms refer to Avoidance Behaviour and include avoidance of activities, places, thoughts, feelings, or conversations related to the trauma as well as avoidance of relationships. These are often accompanied by symptoms of Emotional Numbing such as loss of interest, feeling detached from others and restricted emotions. The fourth set of symptoms concern Hyper-arousal and comprise sleeping disturbances, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hyper-vigilance and a heightened startle response.

As can be seen, all the symptoms of PTSD relate to the horror, suddenness, unexpectedness and sense of helplessness surrounding the event. Two of the most typical symptoms of PTSD – flashbacks and survivor guilt – merit greater elaboration. It is not uncommon, even several weeks after the event for trauma survivors to experience ongoing and recurrent nightmares of the event. But these happen during sleep. Sometimes, it appears that the survivor is actively re-experiencing the horror, fear and helplessness of the event in the form of ‘flashbacks’ which could happen any time during waking hours. The emotions associated with the trauma just don’t seem to go away. Flashbacks tend to happen more when the survivor has had to be ‘strong’ for others and has not had an opportunity to work through the horror of the event. Survivor guilt is another very distressing phenomenon associated with PTSD. Survivors of the event, particularly when they have lost loved ones to the disaster feel extremely guilty that they alone have survived. They blame themselves for not having saved the victims of the tragedy and feel they have no right to live when their loved ones are dead. To get a sense of what these emotions are all about, try and recall what happened when you first heard about the bomb blasts and saw those horrifying images splashed across your newspapers and flashed on your television screens. All the emotions that we, at a distance from the tragedy experienced, arose as a result of this phenomenon called survivor guilt. But what we experienced was only a miniscule fraction of the guilt that PTSD victims feel and have to come to terms with.

Fortunately, help is available for victims of PTSD. Mental health professionals experienced in dealing with such disasters have worked out different modalities of treatment  for the victims. Most of these treatments focus on getting the individual to talk about the trauma and share their emotional experience with trained professionals who then help them put things in perspective, change the way they think about the event and overcome whatever fears are residual in the minds of the victims. Teams from various national mental health facilities in the country, have acquired experience in managing PTSD beginning with the aftermath of the Bhuj earthquake a few years ago, and have, along with other mental health professionals and non-governmental organizations, organised such interventions for survivors of the Tsunami, Godhra and other national disasters, in order that they may lessen the impact of PTSD on their distressed minds. Interventions could include both medication as well as psychotherapy and counselling. Medication can help in allaying the anxiety and terror such individuals experience and get them into a slightly calmer state of mind, which facilitates a more beneficial response to counselling and psychotherapy. In such situations, psychotherapy is very focussed and encourages the individual to ventilate and express the terrifying emotions that have been experienced and works towards prevention of nightmares, flashbacks and survivor guilt. Also, special techniques are used to help the individual out of an avoidance pattern of behaviour and facilitate return to near-normalcy. 

It is never easy to deal with PTSD. Even though most of us are filled with a burning need to help our fellow citizens who have been forced to endure the kind of horror they never imagined for themselves or their loved ones, the best thing we can do, even as we wait for higher and better trained authorities to figure out who was responsible and how they should be brought to book, is to try and look for symptoms of PTSD and gently persuade the victims to visit the nearest mental health professional. It has been comprehensively demonstrated that medical and psychological interventions do help a lot in the prevention and management of PTSD and we could do the victims of such devastating disasters an exceptional service by ensuring they received the benefits of these, even as they limp back to manage the aftermath of the unimaginable trauma they have suffered.

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The Shrinking Universe 03
THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP SEA – MANAGING CONFLICTS

We live in an age of conflict. We hear of international conflicts, political conflicts, industrial conflicts, communal or racial conflicts, and of course, closer to the realm of this column’s concerns, gender conflict and marital conflict, And going by reports, these conflicts seem to be raging on and on, with no apparent end in sight. They only seem to result in confrontations of a hostile nature that usually give rise to conflagrations rather than resolutions. And when we realise that continued conflict can threaten our very survival, we initiate, with a sense  of great urgency, steps to mitigate the adverse impact that such conflicts may have on us. And we negotiate for all we are  worth. However, as anybody who has attempted to deal with conflicts by negotiation will tell you, although the confrontations and conflagrations are kept at bay, the underlying tensions that define the conflict continue to operate, and given a certain mix of environmental conditions, will likely erupt again. This is well borne out by what we see around us, whether in the marital domain, the family domain, the work domain or the community domain. If you think I am implying that relationship conflicts cannot be dealt with by negotiation alone or that keeping confrontations and conflagrations at bay are not enduring solutions to the conflicts we find ourselves experiencing, you are absolutely correct. We can and need to do better. However, to make this possible, we do need a framework with which to understand conflicts and their resolution.  
I began by saying that we live in an age of conflict. But, we also live in an age of choice. As a race we have worked very hard ever since the Industrial Revolution to expand our choices, whether in the realm of goods and services or in that of human relationships. We all want choices and feel stifled and denied when these are taken away from us. Having said that, it is also true that we sometimes find it difficult to deal with expanded choices, like contemporary young adults do when faced with choosing between two or three suitors.  Whenever we are faced with a choice we are hard pressed to make, we are in a conflict. And considering that our development as human beings can happen only when we make our choices and learn to live with them, it can be readily seen that conflicts are inevitable. 
In its most basic form a conflict is the concomitant existence of two opposing and apparently incompatible ideas, thoughts or feelings. It might be correctly argued that problems of  conscious choice rarely remain conflicts for long, since over a period of time, the human organism’s natural resilience helps define personalised frameworks that the individual can then use to resolve these conscious conflicts. The conflicts that would be of greater consequence and more difficult to respond to, since they are less accessible to the conscious mind, are the unconscious conflicts that bedevil many of us through our lives because we do not make the effort to come to terms with them. To understand unconscious conflicts a little better, we need to make a distinction between intra-psychic conflicts and interpersonal conflicts, both of which also exist in the conscious form. As can be readily appreciated, intra-psychic conflicts exist within the individual’s mind and represent the individual being at odds with her/himself for reasons s/he may not even be aware of. Interpersonal conflicts are better known since conventional wisdom has it that  the only conflicts that really matter are those that operate in the interpersonal realm. However, conventional wisdom cannot always be expected to be infallible. And this time, it has indeed got it wrong. 
It is extremely tempting to lay the blame for interpersonal conflicts at the opposite number’s doorstep and seek validation of the victim position from one’s supporters. In fact, this path is so tempting to take that most of us end up going down the victim road and feeling sanctimoniously indignant at the opposite number’s foibles. However, this road is really a cul-de-sac simply because, in reality, interpersonal conflicts usually have their origins within the respective psyches of the participants. In other words, the interpersonal domain is merely a stage on which intra-psychic conflicts are played out. And although an interpersonal conflict may be more than merely the sum of intra-psychic conflicts, not unravelling the intra-psychic threads of the conflict is what results in the conflict remaining in the interpersonal space and therefore, unresolved.
It is a fallacy to believe that confrontations worsen conflicts since they sometimes lead to conflagrations. Actually confrontation is the only known manner in which a conflict can be resolved. And if confrontations do not seem to have produced the desired result in the past, let us not ascribe blame to confrontation and abandon it as an invalid method; let us instead understand who or what we are supposed to confront to resolve conflict. As long as we think of confrontation as taking place in an adversarial context, we will continue to believe that the conflict is generated by the ‘antagonist’ and, therefore, it is this person who is to be the target of our confrontation. However, if we think of confrontation as a process directed at our own unconscious mind with the object of understanding and dealing with whatever conflicts are housed in it, we will probably find that confrontation can be ameliorative rather than inflammatory. In other words, we need to use an interpersonal situation to confront our own selves and not the opposing party, whether spouse, family member, friend, boss, neighbour, colleague or stranger. 
Once we recognise our interpersonal conflicts as having their origins within our own minds, we need to learn how to deal them. First off, we need to own the conflict. By this I mean that the conflict needs to be recognised as a conflict and the responsibility for dealing with it should be completely accepted. Rather than wait for a conflict to become a conflagration to recognise it as one, we would be better off engaging in the early detection of conflicts. In their earliest recognisable form, conflicts manifest as mixed signals. When accused of throwing mixed signals, one would be well advised to explore why this is happening, than throwing something back at the accuser. Once the conflict is owned, we need to understand the origins of the conflict by establishing connections between the present behaviour and past experiences that may have been difficult to deal with at the time. Following this, we need to legitimise the conflict by valuing the unpleasant past experience as having played an overall positive role in our development. And finally we choose to eliminate the conflicted behaviour from one’s repertoire. Thereby one sends fewer mixed signals and experiences fewer conflicts. 
If we conceive of conflicted behaviour as being akin to fever, which is a pointer to an underlying infection somewhere in the body and which goes away only when the underlying cause is treated, we can deal with our conflicts more efficiently. Learning how to use conflicts to make choices is of critical importance in developing the human identity. And choosing between the devil and the deep sea also has to be done at some time or the other. Our conflicts are wonderful pointers to issues within our own psyches. Let us not fritter them away. Let us milk them for all they are worth.

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The Shrinking Universe 02
CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET?

One unquestionable axiom of contemporary existence is that life is noisy. There is pressure all around us. Television, the print media and the Internet dictate our opinions, thought processes and general lifestyles. The morning commute sets the tone for our emotional state through the day. Relationships that we enter into in all good faith and with lots of good intent, make us envy Robinson Crusoe. The stock market’s capriciousness defeats our belief in rational processes.  Add to this, our own ambitions and aspirations to achieve the kind of success that all those high-energy motivational speakers tell us is within our easy reach, and you have a potentially deadly recipe for early burnout. Little wonder then, that most urban professionals feel they lead treadmill-lives, not knowing why their cheese keeps on moving and unsure if when they finally get to it, it will turn out to be stale and smelly. 
Forgive me if I’m depressing you on a perfectly pleasant Sunday morning. I am ordinarily a reasonably positive person, and am only trying to portray the experience of a state of existence described by psychologists as ‘the victim mode’. Individuals in this state see themselves as victims of an unpredictable environment and therefore retreat into a state of, what Martin Seligman, an American psychologist, described as ‘learned helplessness’. To them, it appears that they have little control over their lives. As it did to an Australian lady in 2004. Rhonda Byrne’s life appeared to have fallen apart. She had overworked herself into a state of exhaustion, was traumatised by the death of her father and her personal relationships were in turmoil. Around this time, her daughter gave her a book called ‘The Science of Getting Rich’ by Wallace D Wattles, published in 1910. Reading it, Rhonda had something of an epiphany and discovered what she calls ‘The Secret’.  Her search of The Secret’s origins led her to living masters and practitioners of The Secret and with their help and support, she made a documentary film, ‘The Secret’, which took the United States by storm, resulting, as such unqualified successes usually do, in an entire industry surrounding it (www.thesecret.tv). And in 2006, the book version of The Secret made its best-selling appearance.  

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, Beyond Words Publishing, Simon and Schuster, London, ISBN 9781582701707, Rs 550

So, what then is Rhonda Byrne’s Secret? It is based on what has been described as a Universal Law – The Law of Attraction, an idea that has been around for millennia. Based on the principle that ‘Like Attracts Like’, it spawned what can be referred to as the Positive Thinking Movement that prevailed over the latter part of the twentieth century. In 2004, it received a fresh shot in the arm with the publication of a whole series of books like Ask, And It Is Given, The Law of Attraction: The Basics of the Teachings of Abraham etc by Esther and Jerry Hicks. Byrne’s video, book and seminars, as well as a much-publicised interview on the Oprah Winfrey show, have brought the concept bang into the mainstream of American, and in recent times Indian, popular thought. 
The Law of Attraction basically postulates that human beings are rather like thought magnets. In other words whatever thoughts we think, we tend to attract similar thoughts to us. So if we think negative thoughts, we are encouraging the Universe to send negative thoughts our way. But if we think positively, we attract positive energy. Some quantum physicists have described the law as functioning by displacing energy and magnetic fields in as yet, incompletely understood ways. In ‘The Secret’, Byrne, along with the several other gurus who are also credited with the book’s authorship (including among others, Jack Canfield, the creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) describes the three steps involved in making the law work for you. The first of these is that you should Ask or command the Universe for whatever you want. This should be stated in a positive way, otherwise you would attract something negative to you. The next step is to truly Believe that what you have asked for is already yours and behave as if you have already got it. Visualise it clearly and experience the sense of fulfilment that you expect from it. The final step is to Receive it. You can receive it only when you are prepared to and allow yourself to receive it. You need to recognise that its coming your way and embrace it. 
This in a very small nutshell is The Secret. If you want to understand this better and with examples and clear descriptions of each step of the process, I would recommend you invest Rs 550 and read it.  Handsomely produced, The Secret, even though a tad cheesy in places and sometimes a bit evangelical in its approach, serves to communicate the essentials of the Law of Attraction very effectively and can be inspiring to someone who is feeling victimised by life. I have found that some of the people I have recommended the book to have responded positively to it. Whether or not all their questions have been answered, I do not know. Whether they are really thought magnets, I cannot tell. Whether the Universe has conspired to make their dreams come true, I have little idea, even though this seems to stretch my rational mind somewhat. But I do know that they have felt better for having read it and have given themselves a jumpstart towards greater positivity in their lives. For those who require more pragmatic processes to get themselves out of their state of Learned Helplessness, I have also recommend, with some success ‘Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy’ by David Burns.

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, Avon Books, ISBN: 9780380810338, Rs 246

The New Mood Therapy that Burns describes in his best selling classic is based on the principles of Cognitive Therapy, developed by an American psychiatrist called Aaron T Beck. Where The Secret approaches the issue of positive thinking from an emotional-spiritual perspective, Feeling Good looks at it from the end of thought or cognition. Based on the understanding that negative thoughts result in negative feelings rather than the other way round, the book helps the reader to understand how these negative thoughts form automatically in one’s mind, thereby leading one in the direction of negative feelings and eventually negative actions. Burns goes into exhaustive detail and discusses a number of techniques that one can use to identify one’s negative thought processes and correct them by replacing negative automatic thoughts with more positive and healthy ones. Unlike ‘The Secret’, ‘Feeling Good’ is not a curl-up sort of book. It demands more time, more application of thought, and some paper and pencils if you are going to get the best out of it.
Probably the most important insight that both these books provide is that to make your life better, you have to want to make it better. You are the master of your destiny and it is only when you get your act together, will you be able to overcome life’s speed breakers, even if you are not the one that put them there in the first place. I would suggest that if you feel you have hit a bit of a roadblock and are feeling victimised and helpless, you might consider reading both the books. Then perhaps The Secret of Feeling Good will be yours for life.

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The Shrinking Universe 01
SEEKING GOOD MENTAL HEALTH

As a practising psychiatrist, I have often been asked the question, “What precisely is mental health?” This has not  been an easy one to answer simply because there is little general consensus on what constitutes good mental health. In fact it is easier to certify someone mentally unhealthy than healthy. I’ve heard it said that, if one feels the need to seek psychiatric help, one is not in sound mental health, and for many years this was considered axiomatic. However, in the last decade and a half  or so, I have seen a good number of people approaching me, not for treatment of mental ill health but for enhancement of mental health through psychotherapy. In other words, essentially normal persons without any diagnosable mental disorder, seem keen to better themselves and are willing to risk the stigmatizing effects of seeking professional support to do so. I see this as an excellent development, not just because it keeps me busy, but because it is a sign that people are paying more attention to their mental growth and development than ever before.

So, this then brings us back to our original question. To many people, good mental health is the capacity to develop one’s intellectual faculties. To others it represents personality development of the kind that is taught in the plethora of personality development workshops and training programmes that have mushroomed in recent times. Still others think of it as a spiritual exercise and seek interventions from gurus and the like. To some, it represents professional success, and to others it means the ability to effectively manage stress. To the optimist, it is the capacity to be and stay happy, to the pessimist to stay mentally alive, and to the cynic to avoid unhappiness. The more one thinks about it and the more one reads about it, the more bewildering it becomes. So, what precisely is it?

As I see it, mental health is not confined to any one of these things. To me, mental health means the capacity, interest and courage to always seek good mental health. To put it differently, the more answers we seek, the more we find out about ourselves, our relationships and the world around us. It is the act of seeking good mental health that keeps us in good mental health. Whether we figure out what precisely good mental health is or not, is hardly important. The process of seeking is. If we wait for the answers to drop in our laps, they are not going to come. We need to seek our answers within our own minds and our hearts, using outside assistance to navigate our minds whenever we hit a roadblock or bottleneck.  The more unresolved conflicts we carry, the less mentally healthy we are. So, this is the area we need to work on, if we are to experience good mental health. To initiate a process of self-discovery therefore, we need to understand the kind of equations our sense of self has developed to respond to the universe around us, the kind of relationships we consciously and unconsciously engage in, and what our dreams, hopes and aspirations are.

We also need to understand how precisely we are going to find all of this out.  Do we meditate in the Himalayas till we get the answers? Do we read books that tell us how in seven, eight, ten or a hundred and one steps we can achieve good mental health? Do we attend workshops and retreats? Or do we flop onto our neighbourhood shrink’s couch and talk about little red rubber balls that we lost when we were three?

Up until the end of the nineteenth century, until crusading mental health professionals like Emil Kraeplin, Eugen Bleuler, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and other such persons with flowing beards and severe faces destined for sepia prints in oval frames, blazed scholarly trails, psychiatrists were generally referred to as ‘alienists’, an appropriate term considering how much they, along with the sufferers they were attempting to heal, were alienated from the social mainstream. In later years they came to be known as headshrinkers, later fashionably abbreviated to shrink. For those not in the know, the term headshrinker owes its origins to the shamans and witch-doctors who allegedly  used their fabled magical powers to shrink the heads of those who threatened them and their societies. Today however, the term shrink has entered popular parlance and despite its unprepossessing origins need not be a pejorative reference, unless accompanied by a snigger. However, the fact still remains that psychiatrists are still considered a pretty quirky lot, necessary for others though not for yourself. Today, not just psychiatrists, but psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists (anyone who can lay legitimate claim to a prefix of ‘psycho’) are referred to as shrinks (the alternative term ‘mental health professional’, is unfortunately too wordy and doesn’t roll of the tongue quite as smoothly). What they all share in common is a professional commitment to enhance mental health, help resolve psychological conflicts and generally heal traumatised psyches. 

I am not suggesting that a visit to a therapist is the only way to enhance mental health. I would recommend psychotherapy only when, in the pursuit of one’s mental health, one hits a speed-breaker. Otherwise, one can use that most wonderful of inventions that has led the Universe to shrink – the Internet, provided one has figured out a way to filter out the psychobabble and toxic waste that it also unfortunately stores. Or one could visit the self-help sections of our nearest bookstore. For many years, The New York Times’ bestseller list, a weekly guide to millions of readers in the United States and many other parts of the world, has listed bestselling books in two categories - fiction and non-fiction. However, in recent times, the editors have found it expedient to create a third category called ‘Advice’, which lists self-help books on a variety of subjects. The truth is, we all need help and advice, whether it’s on cookery, gardening, adoption, relationships or healing the soul. However, expecting people to achieve good mental health by reading  books would be foolhardy. What I do expect will happen when one reads a self-help book is that, it could well be a very vital first step in moving out of the victim mode that most of us fall into when faced with a crisis, to a survivor mode that gets us out of emotional quagmires.

From where I sit, it certainly does appear that more people are seeking, and therefore experiencing, good mental health today than ever before. This column is being written in order to provide a few pointers to those intrepid people who, having initiated the pursuit of good mental health, find themselves bogged down in the quicksand of information overload. I propose, over the coming fortnights, to explore various facets of mental health and relationships in the different social domains that we live in. I will also be reviewing some self-help books in these areas that have caught my attention. And in the process, I am hoping to understand a little better myself, what precisely good mental health is.

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