Religion: The elephant in the room


(Names changed to protect identities)

Raneem, they called themselves – the alternative, Tasghav, sounded like a boil on a toad – much to the irritation of Raghav and Tasneem’s friends. Having married after completing their undergraduate degrees within a year of each other, they supported each other as they rose in their careers. The couple presented a convincing picture to those outside their magic circle of two. So convincing, in fact, that when the occasional difference arose, they refused to react with anything but surprise, not noticing that their arguments always seemed to revolve around the elephant in the room – their different religious heritages.

Related reading: Does love conquer all – Marriage across religions

The rising pitch and speed in Tasneem’s voice was a bad sign – Raghav would have done better than continuing to argue despite the warning sign, chuckling intermittently at his phone. At the end of a long working day, Tasneem loved to talk to Raghav about her day, and listen to his baritone voice, the details of what he was actually saying blurring in her mind. “…and you never listen when I ask you not to belittle my religion! Why did you have to bring it up on Facebook yet again? None of your friends finds it funny when you fling insults at others in such a bigoted way.” Raghav grew irritated at his wife’s reaction to “Real Housewives of ISIS”, a satirical BBC video, in which a posse of burqa-clad women are dancing but actually highlighting the absurdity of extremist ISIS claims.

Where Raghav saw an opportunity to defuse a tense moment with humour, his wife saw denial of her cultural heritage.

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In the face of stark differences in deeply cherished beliefs, it sometimes makes little sense in intimate relationships to try to hash those differences out at every possible opportunity, because in such tight spaces those differences don’t smooth corners as much as cause burns.

However, now that you are in such a relationship where those differences are indeed a part of life, how can you deal with it? Raghav and Tasneem have no background in conflict resolution or professional counselling, yet they seem to be doing fine. Fine, except for this one issue of different religious beliefs, something that they had promised will not overwhelm their love for each other. When their friends and family had fretted over their choice of marrying “outside the community” they chose to laugh their concerns away, but the frictions of living in close quarters had whittled away at those defences. Yet their secret, if one might call it that, seems to be a staple of loving relationships everywhere – a trifecta of kindness, doggedness – what the less kind would call resignation – and respect.

Related reading: How our differences make our marriage a success

Here is an idea – a steady stream of kind gestures is far more nurturing to every relationship than the waxing and waning of passion. Making breakfast to start your spouse’s day, sitting down with them to chat at the end of the day, an unexpected phone call to check in on them, a helping hand when they are about to stumble, switching the geyser on before they go for a shower – it is such thoughtful gestures that Raghav and Tasneem extend to each other almost unconsciously and as a matter of sheer instinct.

Raghav, though a habitual worrier, never betrays even a shadow of doubt over his commitment to Tasneem or their relationship, and while Tasneem sometimes drops names of her ex-boyfriends who could wax eloquent on Junot Diaz and Ismat Chughtai, she too is viscerally attached to her web of identity that their relationship has grown into to consider giving up on Raghav.

Religion can be a source of strength – let it not become one of annoyance and bitterness.

What do you do when your partner comes from a radically different ideology? Often, the only way to be at peace and practice your 10,000 hours of being in a relationship is to make a cup of tea for your partner – make it with kindness, stay with them while you both enjoy it, and respect what they say about it. Irrespective of what our cultural overlords will tell us, relationships are not a space for negotiation and total self-actualisation, but rather a duet of constant compromises and shifting positions.

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