A few days ago, my team of mostly young women and I had a debate in the office about the importance of girlfriends versus romantic partners. I had shared with them a statement a counsellor had once told me: “The day you start talking negative things about your relationship to your friends, the relationship is in trouble.” The reasoning is (1) your friends will only tend to mirror your own prejudice at that point, starting off a vicious cycle of seeing more and more negative traits in your partner and the relationship, and (2) you should ideally resolve all issues with your partner himself instead of speaking to others about it.
My team felt it’s important to vent off to girlfriends, otherwise the frustration over a fight or a relationship issue gets stifled. They equated ‘unconditional love’ with submission and subjugation. But my life’s experience has taught me otherwise.
I’m glad that my teenage daughters have suddenly got themselves in a love relationship with grown-up dogs these days, since we recently adopted two. Iss mein bhi bhala hai (my favourite Hindi phrase, ‘There is good in this too’). Loving a pet can teach us a few things about human relationships, I think. Through this relationship, my daughters are going to learn a lot about romantic love and friendship for their future lives:
1. Loving despite all the faults: My older dog Ronnie is a feisty, riotous fellow, always jumping around, barking at other dogs, peeing in the house if he hasn’t been taken for a walk for more than his bladder limit (five hours), pulling at the leash when we take him for a walk. But he’s also the one who goes absolutely delirious to see us after a little or long gap, his bum jumping up and down in the air when we meet after a few hours. I used to initially resent the amount of work he’s brought into our lives, but now I wouldn’t change that for anything. We all love hugging him, he’s such a darling. He’s taught us to love despite all the negative traits we may perceive in the other.
When you accept someone as your own, you love them despite the trouble they put you through. You recall the tender moments of love between you, and that compensates for just about everything else. You love despite the occasional despair or frustration because at the end of the day, they are yours. What a beautiful lesson for a young person to learn early on in her or his life.
2. Self reflection in relationships: There’s really no point ranting or railing at the dogs when they are a little unruly with passers-by on a walk, when they leave paw prints of mud all over the house or hair all over the sofas, or when they smell like stinky poos (my pet name for my pets). Just like there’s no point in pointing out flaws in one’s partner or in any relationship for that matter. The only way to deal with it is to constantly look within yourself and see what’s really important to you. At the end of the day, or my life, will I complain about those muddy floors and disgruntled aunties on the road, or will I celebrate that I had two dogs and I gave them a lot of love?
Apply that to your relationship. At the end of the day, or your life, will you complain about his poor tax planning, his absentmindedness, his occasional insensitivity, or will you celebrate that you found your love and you loved him with all your heart?
3. Be the change: Self reflection has another benefit — learning to change yourself when there is a problem in your relationship. You can’t change any other human being. It’s as futile as trying to teach your dogs to wash their own dishes or make their own beds (my teens are referenced here too!). No, we must look within for what we need to change in ourselves — how do we need to change our behaviour so that they don’t bark at others? How do we need to lower our irritation levels so that a dirty house doesn’t bother us? How do we invest in this relationship so that they listen to us more and do not rebel as much?
It’s an excellent tool and opportunity to take responsibility for all the relationship issues in our lives, to put the power back in our own hands and ask, ‘What must I do now?’ instead of sitting and whining to friends about what the other has done wrong.
4. Unconditional love is not submission: When you love your dogs, you do not become a doormat. You scold them when they bark unncessarily, you give them meals at fixed times and not just when they ask for it, you know what’s healthy for them and what’s not, and you are able to even put them through momentary pain, such as while pulling out a thorn in their paw, in order to ensure their wellbeing in the long term. And you never, ever allow them into your bed no matter how much they plead.
It’s the same with human relationships. Sometimes we have to be firm, we have to draw the lines and the boundaries, we have to even inflict temporary pain (like pushing him out of bed on a cold, foggy day to take the dogs for an early morning walk) to secure their wellbeing and the relationship in the long term. And you never, ever give up on your personal space no matter how much they insist. But all this is done from a sense of love, compassion, even devotion — not a sense of submission or revenge or neglect. It is done from a space of 100 per cent purity and oneness, not from a space of ego and division from the other.
This is an unusually long blog post and I am surprised to find I can still go on. I guess I am hopelessly in love — with my family and the dogs, and with all the ways and means they have been teaching me lessons in loving and living, and some day, letting go. You don’t need manuals and schools and gurus to find God. You just need to learn the nuances of unconditional love.