The ladies tell us about the things that can come as a surprise in a marriage. While no one is short of unsolicited advice in the years, months, weeks, days, and even hours leading up to her wedding, not all of it comes in useful. And not everything that could be useful is said. There are some departments that brides are rarely told the right things about, but which turn out to be crucial aspects of a marriage.
Most brides are sent off into marriages with the generic warning that life is all about compromise, or ‘give-and-take’. However, no one really knows what compromise means, or what situations may arise in the first phase of a marriage. Compromising on the wrong counts can quickly lead to resentment, or to a shift in the balance of power that leaves one or both members of the couple unhappy. Akhila Ravi feels compromise is acceptable when both people are doing it, ‘even if the compromise is not totally fifty-fifty.’
And when is it not acceptable? ‘If it goes against your individuality or if the compromise is forced on you by yourself or the other person, I’d say that will lead to resentment.’‘It is important to voice when you don’t like the way something is playing out, and perhaps talk through a solution that doesn’t hurt either person too much,’ she says.
Shreya Gopal says the idea of marriage hits you some time into your relationship with your husband. ‘The thing with marriage is that you’re so caught up in the whole thing of oh, my God, I have saris to buy, things to do, friends to invite, I’m getting married in a few weeks, that you don’t think, “Oh . . . wait, who is this man? I’m marrying him, and I don’t know him from Adam.” It doesn’t occur to you at all. And then, when you’re cooking, suddenly you have this epiphany—”I married a stranger.” Don’t panic. That’s just how it is.’
Running a house
The switch from single woman to wife entails running a house, and this can often pose a huge challenge. Living with family, there are several things we take for granted—that the bills will be paid, that the food will be on the table, that tea will be served. Living alone, or with roommates, we know that, worst-case scenario, we’ll get by irrespective of what happens. A power cut usually means a midnight party on the terrace. When you run out of gas cylinders, you order in. When you’ve forgotten to buy provisions, you make do with chips and booze. But running the home mandates that you employ a servant and a cook, arrange a milkman and a newspaper boy, perhaps buy an inverter, keep tabs on the gas cylinder and make sure the electricity bill is paid. All this, while you continue to work.
In Sara Jacob’s case, the shift wasn’t quite drastic. She had already been living alone and running a small place of her own since she worked in Bangalore and her parents were based in Kuwait. ‘Once I got married, what really changed was the fact that I had to remember to cook for another person,’ she says. And also that the place we stayed in was not my house but our house. For that idea to settle down in both our heads took some time. In fact, in the first few months, Sunil would refer to our place as “your house”. See, he’s never stayed in a hostel or on his own until he got married.’
And so he faced the tougher challenge. He was happy to be on his own, but most aspects of running a house were new and daunting. Initially, Sara had to take charge. It was she who saw to the bills being paid on time, it was she who got the newspaper boy to come in, and told him what he was to drop off. Eventually, though, Sunil took over most of the administration of their home.
She laughs when she thinks back to the early days of her own marriage. ‘When I got married, I also thought, “Imagine, running a household, and thinking about aloo, pyaaz and dal, all these bills … I can barely take care of myself, I keep losing my mobile phone all the time, how am I going to coordinate all this?” Of course, initially, there will be teething problems. It’s not like you’ll run everything smoothly from Day One. But you do figure it out.’
It is expected of a daughter-in-law to call up her husband’s relatives and keep in touch with them, says Sara. ‘Somehow, in Indian families, if the boy does not keep in touch with relatives or in-laws, it’s fine, but you’re expected to keep in touch with the guy’s parents and his relatives. They say it’s a woman’s job, and I think it’s high time that that changed.’
While a woman living with her parents doesn’t usually have to call up her own relatives to enquire after their health when they take ill, or congratulate them on a wedding in the family because her mother has already done that, things change after marriage. As a married woman, you aren’t represented by your parents anymore, and both your mother and you will have to make the courtesy calls.
However, this was routine for Sara. She hadn’t stayed at home much since she finished school, and so she did make courtesy calls anyway, irrespective of whether her mother had or not.
In the kitchen
‘How can I forget the biggie here … you should know how to cook. Write that down in capitals,’ Sara laughs.
For all our concessions to the modern woman, she is still expected to run the kitchen. And when guests come home, they do expect a signature dish from the lady of the house, even if everything else is cooked by the help.
Fortunately for Sara, her parents had already told Sunil that she didn’t know much about cooking. But, while he didn’t expect culinary wonders from her, those visiting them at their new place did.
‘They think you’ll give them the sort of awesome meals your mother would have. It took me a proper year to make a decent meal for more than four!’
When to lie
Madhumitha Prasad feels modern marriage does entail some things that one has to figure out for oneself — things that our parents cannot, or will not, advise us to do.
‘Like, lying sometimes to balance career, friends, family and interests,’ she says. ‘After a certain phase, you don’t even have to tell your family all that you are doing outside home, like meeting friends after work or joining recreational classes of any kind. Take, for instance, when I was staying with my in-laws in Chennai and was working. By this time, I had a little daughter. Now, I used to go dancing classes on Saturdays, from 4 to 5 p.m. My mother-in-law would take care of my daughter on all the weekdays after she came back from school, and also for the few hours that I worked on Saturdays. I would finish work a little early and then go to dancing classes. I didn’t think it necessary to tell them that, lest they should feel that I was burdening them with childcare even on a Saturday, while I was dancing and having a nice time. On a bad day, even nice people — which my mother-in-law is — may tend to think that way, and I did not want that.’
There are several generation-specific things parents don’t tell us, Shwetha Srinivasan says, and that’s because they can’t. One of these is how to handle the pressure to have a baby. In our mothers’ generation, a woman would be considered barren if she didn’t have a child one year into her marriage. Timing a baby is one of the things very few parents can advise on.
‘The other thing is that the rules in your in-laws’ home will always be different from those in one’s own,’ says Shwetha. ‘My mother herself wasn’t brought up in as conservative a household as my in-laws’ home. Some of the rules they had made me feel like I was in an old book. Like, I’ve never worn a nightie in my life. I find them very uncomfortable. I wear pyjamas at home. Now, both cover your legs properly. But to my in-laws, it was like, “Ooooh, she’s sitting around in pyjamas, it’s so untraditional!” and I’m like, how does it matter? Unless I’m sitting in nine yards, nothing is traditional, no?’
But there is one piece of advice her mother gave her, which has stood her in good stead. And that was to talk to her husband and make him a friend and ally. ‘She said, even if he’s a quiet chap—which my husband is—you need to keep talking to him, tell him everything, become friends. And she’s taught me well. That’s really helped.’
Your Husband is not Your Girlfriend
A husband may be a good friend, but he’s not going to be a girlfriend—he may not even be a boyfriend. One of the things women are caught unawares by is that their need for validation is often unfulfilled, Zainab Haider points out.
Husbands don’t dish out compliments like mothers and roommates and gal pals do. You’re not told you’re a superwoman for doing up your place, taking care of your children, working out and doing well at your job. And the certainty that comes with marriage appears to make husbands less passionate—and less eager-to-please—than boyfriends are. Over time, the romantic flourishes and the birthday surprises tone themselves down.
‘It doesn’t mean you’re not appreciated,’ Zainab says. ‘I think men just aren’t built to say the things that women do. They’re quick to point out mistakes, but you have to worm every little compliment out of them!’ Perhaps that’s why it’s important for a woman to maintain her own circle of friends, and have a life outside the marriage too.
Often couples befriend couples. Even more often, the wives of one’s husband’s friends become one’s friends. This isn’t enough. Your friends from school, college and work, who’ve seen you in different roles, who themselves are in different stages of a relationship, can provide you with a support system.