The Power Of One is to One

There are times, when you’re sitting by yourself in an over-crowded restaurant, that you can’t help being dragged into a small crust of other people’s lives. I won’t call myself an eavesdropper as such but I won’t deny, on certain occasions, I’ve sat silently with my husband at the dinner table, gesturing him to listen on to what other couples have to say to each other. One of my uncles had once casually observed during a dinner conversation — that you can tell a lot about the age of a couple by the way they order a meal. I was blissfully single back then and that statement struck me as odd, like one of those vague, pseudo-intellectual observations one makes at a party in a happy-high state.

What do I think now? Well, still don’t know a squat about that, but I do think ordering a meal inadvertently brings out one of the most significant aspects of a couple’s relationship — power dynamics. A conversation I happened to pry on made me think in that direction.

My husband and I sat down at our dinner table, uncomfortably close to another couple who seemed downright jubilant to be in each other’s company, lighting up at the slightest remark and holding hands from across the table. We were having one of those days when we didn’t have much to say to each other but sure, we were beaming at each other at the prospect of being in a swanky restaurant on a weekday. And dining out still had its special-occasion sheen for me, more from the fact that I get to wear a dress and I don’t have to cook. Anyway, so as usual, we’re mocking the names of entrées in the menu list and giggling hysterically, when suddenly I overhear the husband/boyfriend/fiancée from the other table saying, “You know, I’m really not that hungry. Let’s split something.”

Now I’ve been in this interesting predicament several times before. I don’t know but there’s something about splitting a meal that naturally brings out the push and pull of a man-woman relationship. So again, I gesture to my husband and for the next five minutes, we decide to be that obnoxious couple who dives their ears straight into other people’s conversations; you know, just for fun.

This is what I recollect of the conversation:

Man: You know I’m really not that hungry right now. You want to split something?
Woman: Oh! Well, if you’re not that hungry.
Man: Anything you want my love!
Woman: You want to split..you decide.
Man [looking furiously into the menu card]: Ok, how about some aubergine parmigiana?
Woman: Ha! Predictable! Like we don’t have enough of eggplant at your mum’s house. Get over it…
Man: It just sounds interesting. Your turn.
Woman: I’m sick of deciding meals. Give me a break today, baby.
Man: Fine. How about your favorite pasta and a soup?
Woman [pursing her lips]: Boring, vanilla pasta! OK, how about some Fois Gras de Canard?
Man: Ya! Pick the most pretentious sounding item on the menu and cough it out loud. Do you even know the meaning of Blah Blah?
Woman: Your ****!
Man: That’s all yours to have, baby. [smirking]
Woman: You forget that I took French in school. Besides they have descriptions. See! [gesturing to the menu]
Man: Ohhhh….Miss “I was born French”…Let’s be safe and just get some pasta and soup.
Woman [launching into a speech]: So just cos I asked you to decide, you take the easiest choice and shove it on my face. Should I give you a salad everyday and be done with it? Why should I take the pains to cook up a storm every freakin’ day?
Man [ looking utterly confused]: Huh? But I was just….
Woman: Pasta in red sauce…Fine I’ll choose. We’re going to have Fois Grad de Canard and Risotto di Zuccha. There you are!
Man [looking defeated]: Alright, alright..Either way, I’m not that hungry. I’ll just get a soup.
Woman: Oh, don’t be such a bore. You’ll have what I’m having. And you’ll like it!
Man: Mommy?
Woman [smiling]: Waiter!
Man: Hey, I want soup!!!

All this while, we sat with our heads buried in the menu pretending to make some light conversation and giggling to ourselves. You may think this is such an inconsequential, overblown argument but you’ll be surprised at the number of times you’ve been there before, neck-deep in the battle of power over who resigns first. Over who does more than their share of contribution to domestic chores than the other. Over who makes the infallible mistake of checking Facebook in the middle of a conversation. Over who succumbs into letting the other watch what he/she wants on TV and many such mundane, on-the-surface trivial power struggles that take up a good part of coupledom. I recall the first year of my marriage, where I dished out the silent treatment to my husband probably way more than I should. The first year felt like Groundhog Day; we were having the same fights, tugging at each other’s personal space. We took turns to being a stuck-up nag or an overgrown goofball, for seemingly no legit reason at all (OK, sometimes reasons took the shape of biscuit crumbs on the couch, wet towels on the bed or new dresses.)

The thing about marriage is that you see each other everyday — when you’re having a bad hair day, when you’re sick, when you’re feeling blue. Even when you’re gritting your teeth, cussing like a sailor while downloading a movie on a slow connection. It sure gets difficult to see each other in the perfect context all the time.

It’s no wonder that we’re tempted to reform the other. Sooner or later, you start resorting to some harmless power-play indulgences that may start with a passive-aggressive “You can’t wear this to my boss’s dinner”. However, you don’t realize that they come with a disclaimer. They can take a pretty ugly turn, spiralling down fast the vile path of pointing fingers at each other, layering arguments with counter-views, working up your individual emotions to a point where the other will be cornered into saying, “Fine, I give up. You’re right.” But it doesn’t stop there. You brainstorm other age-old manipulation tactics to have the upper hand in the relationship. You blow hot and cold to test your partner’s devotion to you. I know of couples who withhold intimacy to get even with their spouses. Some delay responses to urgent texts deliberately. And let’s face it. Haven’t you ever felt tempted, maybe in vexation, to use one of your partner’s pet peeves, say wearing an old raggedy tee, merely to exert your pester-power over him/her?

To have power in a relationship is a heady feeling. We vow to share our lives with our better halves in eternal happiness but at times, we also feel the need of fending for our individual desires. At any cost. We defend our interests with all our might. We play the victim, we throw snide comments and we scheme.

And of course, we try in vain to reform the other. Is it OK for you to try to change the other in a relationship if you’re doing it for the greater good?

Maybe. But sometimes it’s that tug of ‘you vs me’ that makes you miss the bigger picture — one that many older, wiser couples talk about. That you’re on the same team. That it’s not about winning or losing.

This year will be my fifth year of marriage. I can’t say I am an expert on the subject. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about marriage in these years is that whether your power-play tricks are aimed at winning an argument, getting TV control, or making your spouse feel guilty, the victory is only short-lived. So the next time you’re tempted to try out your genius little schemes into getting your way, try this instead.

Freeze your grey cells right there. Give in. Lay down your weapons. An hour later, it’s not going to matter who won.

Take one for the team.

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