The relationship dynamics of married couples with its various facets – sharing of power, managing differences, working out the nitty-gritties of shared goals, etc. – is perhaps far more complex and delicate than it is for most other long-term relationships. The two individuals involved do not have to just navigate and align their individual goals with each other but also have to shoulder a wide gamut of extrapersonal commitments – familial, societal, etc. Concurrently they would also be trying to get a sense of the other’s person. Compounding it all is the fluidity of the dynamics over time. Situational – first romantic partners then co-parents. Dispositional – managing finances then coping with extra-marital attractions.
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Through the passing years, couples gather a slew of expectations and commitments that steam the marital cauldron with as much resentment as rewards. Marriage is a steaming pot, churning diverse brews. Often the result is chilli-garlic – its stings and flavours linger for a long time.
Two is company but that’s what it takes to fight, too. All couples fight on issues, on matters trivial or fundamental. It could be a short quarrel, lasting mere moments, but it could also simmer on for days. Most couples do achieve a working balance even in the midst of a raging battle. We are endowed by nature with the inner mechanics to not just restore, but also redefine, the skewed equilibrium. Silent treatments, quid-pro-quo responses, full throttle confrontations, threats, emotional blackmail – couples have many tricks up their marital sleeve, an innate knowledge of what must be used when, and to what degree. Sooner or later they usually do reach marital truce.
I remember my mother’s wise words when I was starting out on my own conjugal journey, ‘Yeh hamesha yaad rakhna. Kabhi bhi, ek dampati ki adrooni ladai me paksh pat nahi karna, aur na hi ek ki baatein dusre ko bata dena. Palak japhak me miya-biwi ek ho jayengi aur phir tum unke jhaghdo ki jaad!’ [Remember always, never take sides in a couple’s internal quarrels, never tell one what the other has said. In a flashing moment they could become one, and then you the one responsible for their quarrels.] Over two decades have passed since, and she has not once been proved wrong. I have witnessed couples switching, from wanting to kill their partners, to being willing to die for them, and both with equal fervour!
But our modern lifestyle has added another – dare I say, a third – factor into the marriage cauldron. Eavesdropping on this sensitive and very private re-tuning between a couple is a third pair of eyes, a third person, witness to otherwise intimate happenings, privy only to the couple and cloistered safely within their marriage.
Today couples socialise freely for long hours, perhaps over drinks, and uninhibitedly share their marital grievances and pleasures. In our individualistic times there is deep emphasis on I, me, my freedom, my likes and dislikes, vis-à-vis the other I am with. Sharing with a third person the nitty-gritties of their marriage they inevitably strive to prove how he/she is the better partner or the more persecuted victim. The pleasures of being seen as good…who can resist its lure?
Under a third pair of eyes, things get skewed in couple relationships. The couple’s we becomes the individual’s ‘I’. The horrors of the spouse are amplified, the goodness diminished. Legitimacy for one’s own perception is sought to be established through the medium of the third person. As it has been said, a falsity repeated often enough becomes the truth. Also, the more one speaks of a certain unfairness, the bigger it becomes in one’s life. In the telling of it, the trivial becomes fundamental, and antagonism gets accentuated.
We need to ask ourselves some things: Can a third person understand and appreciate the sensitivities and dynamics of a couple’s relationship? Are not intimate relationships guided, not just by conscious feelings, but perhaps very significantly by a complex layering of shared memories and shared experiences? Is it possible to convey that essence to another? Is it possible for another to assimilate that essence when not part of a dyad?
Certainly there are times when we need to share our anxieties and tribulations with a third person, if not for validification perhaps just to get a third perspective. Perhaps by doing so we may clear the cobwebs clouding our own minds. But should we do so in the presence of our partner? In doing so are we really solely motivated by the thought of sharing with a third person about our partner? Isn’t speaking in the partner’s presence our way of also telling him/her.
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Trained therapists and counsellors, the really good ones, give us thoughts to mull over and leave us with questions requiring deep soul searching. Under their trained guidance we can open the Pandora’s box and allow issues to surface in an open, non-judgmental, and healthy setting.
The involvement of the third “I” can be at most a surface level involvement. We expose to them, piece-meal, selectively, aspects of a hugely complex relationship – a relationship bond on which our peace-of-mind hinges.