What makes a happy relationship? This millennia-old question doesn’t have a definite answer and even after millennia, the human condition, when it comes to love, remains complicated and love remains a mystery. We feel it, we know it, we want it and yet, so few of us truly realise love and understand that even if we are to love another, the feeling of love has to first come from within. Talking to Hyderabad-based Psychotherapist Sujata Ameya during this interview has helped me understand the finer nuances of modern relationships, and these issues are global and universal. Each one of us wants to be loved and feel connected but intelligently navigating relationships is a challenge in a constantly changing and evolving society, and with the stress and demands of modern life, do love and marriage even stand a chance?
Sujata is optimistic and believes that our ancient Indian wisdom and spiritual practices can help this cause, and teach us to fulfil and love ourselves because seeking that in another is the first step towards unhealthy attachments. I discussed my own relationship with her to start the conversation. My partner and I have been together for ten years, we’re not married and don’t plan to have children but still have all the issues that married couples do. We fight, we argue, but there is also love and affection and our decision to be together is a matter of choice. But I also know so many couples who remain in unhappy marriages, some don’t even realise they’re in a toxic relationship and some are just completely clueless on how to tackle the age-old dilemma of love.
Sujata approaches relationships with four basic laws that she feels we can find in every relationship and in nature. We discussed the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships within the purview of these natural laws and she beautifully explained how she uses these laws to “enable partners in a threshold marriage to reconnect consciously or disengage gracefully and transition powerfully.”
The Laws of Polarity and Cyclicality
Sujata is the first psychotherapist I’ve met who specialises in relationships, and it’s not a common profession, especially in India, even though we Indians have such complex, layered relationships when it comes to love and marriage. But, when I posed this question to her, she felt that it’s not so much about East and West. Love problems are universal but yes, we Indians approach it a little differently from the West because of cultural differences in the way two people decide to unite and spend their lives together. “I have clients in India and abroad and also Indians who live abroad, but when it comes to marital therapy, they look for Indian psychotherapists. This has nothing to do with being narrow-minded but it has more to do with a cultural understanding. There is a certain kind of complexity and intricacy and a lot of nuance that exists in the way Indian relationships play out. They’re not based on simple cut and dry decisions. Having said that, if there is one thing I’ve learnt (and I have lived abroad for around five years) is that relationship and family issues are identical across the world, and especially issues that women go through are the same across the board, so that was a very humbling and eye opening realisation,” says Sujata.
Indian or not, I was curious to find out why modern relationships seem more complex than they did in the past. I asked Sujata if relationships and especially marriage, has always been complicated and maybe we’re only hearing so much about it now because we have global access due to technology or, is the increase in marital problems and relationship issues the result of modern lifestyles? I wanted to understand why modern relationships suffer so much. Sujata’s analogy is as follows, “You’ve opened a Pandora’s box by asking me that (laughs), and I have to say it’s not a simple answer. Ok, to start with, let’s talk about gender roles. In the case of women, with so much freedom, independence and a voice, women have tremendous opportunities to realise their entire potential. But extreme feminism can have negative consequences, too. For example, women are now CEOs of MNCs, the are VPs of companies, they are excelling in almost every field that was conventionally dominated by men, and while this is great, it has also got an insidious aspect that has given rise toxic femininity where gender and it’s understanding is blurred. While I support this independent woman, I also believe that while both genders are equal, they are also inherently different. That difference being blurred is what is causing a lot of relationship anxiety,” explains Sujata. “As a woman, I’m all for gender equality which at one level is true - we are definitely equal as human beings but we need to understand that we are not the same. Genders are different from one another. Completely different and unless we completely honour and understand and accept that difference, these problems won’t go away, So what women end up doing unwittingly and unconsciously is that they are modelling and channelling the masucline method of living the ‘good life’ or reaching a higher goal - they are simply mimicking that and at the same time, they want to keep their feminine roles, so I hear things like, ‘I work 15 hours a day but I also have to make sure that my child is fed, is studying well, and gets a movie night with me, so I am also trying to be a very involved, hands on mother. Plus, I am trying to be a wife to my husband, plus run the house’ - so this whole idea of the super woman archetype is too much and is creating mental health issues. Now I am not saying women should not pursue careers. I am saying there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we are doing it. A male client of mine once joked that, ‘for a modern, urban nuclear family to survive, the couple needs a wife!’ (laughs). I saw some sense in that. It is the crux of why so many relationships are getting into trouble right now. So women who are out there with brilliant careers are suffering and on the other hand, women who are homemakers, who have not been allowed to go out, explore, express, and get a job and have an identity, are also suffering. So at the end of it, we are still dealing with very subtle, insidious rules of patriarchy. And by the way, women are not the only victims of patriarchy, men suffer because of it too,” explains Sujata.
Why do we get married? In ancient India or the rest of the world for that matter, marriage wasn’t so much about love. It was about forming social or political arrangements. It was an institution that gave society structure and a framework to function within. But as the world is changing, this institution hasn’t adapted to modern needs. “At the cost of sounding extremely radical,” says Sujata, “I feel in the next 30 to 40 years, marriage is going to be a defunct institution. Marriage across the globe was set up and became an institution for social containment, and social control, and in some ways, to offer some kind of security and predictability to things and society. Different roles were allocated to different genders but today, those roles don’t hold. I don’t think marriage was ever about just a man and a woman liking each other and getting married. Marriage was a social concept to ensure that society has a framework. Even if you look back all the way to the Mahabharata, marriage was always driven by political and social agenda, power and coalition. Kingdoms had their princes and princesses married to ensure no wars were waged, and at the time, everyone accepted it. But in today’s world, there are no kingdoms or coalitions to be formed. Men and women can earn their own money. Women know that if they’re in an unhappy marriage they can leave, even if their parents don’t support them, they can support themselves. So now what? We are seeing rapid unravelling of the marital system.”
So where do relationships stand and how do we form relationships if the end result is not marriage. Sujata explained that we need to redefine what it means to be with someone. The problem lies in thinking our partners fulfil us or make us complete. “In my experience, I have seen problems in both married and unmarried couples. In today’s society, people should ask themselves why they want to get married. Is it because everyone else is doing it? Is it because you’re of a certain age? Is it because of pressure from your parents? These are all wrong reasons. And, you don’t have to be married to have problems. Just living under the same roof is enough. The workshop I am doing on 21st and 22nd May with Indica Yoga, addresses these issues. It lays the foundation for understanding how problems emerge in relationships and why. You said something important when we started this interview. You said that your partner and you are together because of choice, and that if things don’t work out, either of you can leave without any complications. What you are actually saying is that in your own individual space and as individual entities, as people, as your human social identity, you are both separate, strong, established, with a sense of personal space and boundaries, and you both know how to take care of yourselves and engage with the world outside (contribute to it and receive from it). So, you carry that strength independent of your relationship. It is there. So what does your relationship do, it makes it so much more beautiful as it enhances your individuality and provides companionship. So you have the cake and the relationship means you can eat it too (laughs). Yes, you have a good relationship but is it free of problems? No. Of course problems will come up - for example that cake that you have…you might want pink icing and your partner wants blue…but this refers to the law of polarity - it is the interesting interaction between the need for autonomy and the need for attachment or belonging. So if you put this in a graph, autonomy is what grants strength to the relationship but attachment and belonging is what grants stability to the relationship. So if there is too much attachment, you will be coming closer and closer and like two porcupines you will start poking each other so there is a natural response to move away, to ensure that there is better autonomy, and that restores the relationship.
Ok. I am going to make another radical statement, fights are mandatory for the health of a relationship. If you don’t fight, there is a huge risk. So when people say ‘oh, we never fight,’ the relationship is already dead. There is nothing to revive. Now, how do you fight, what do you fight for, what are the methods and how long do you fight - all that can be fine tuned and refined. But if you have nothing to fight about, there is something wrong. Because it is in-built in nature. Attachment and autonomy - the interplay is constantly present. It’s what gives rise to creative tension and something new is constantly possible. So what makes a happy relationship? Awareness of reality. Relationships are fundamentally a disguised search for the self. I am seeking a mirror to see myself. I want to be seen in your eyes and see myself through that parameter. So relationship trouble can actually become a catalyst for self-discovery. So if I have some challenge with you, it could mean you are spotting a blind spot that I can’t see, and if you say that or show me that, it becomes an opportunity to discover. If you are kind while showing me, even better. Even if you’re not, it’s ok, I can still take it. So the constant feedback loop allows each person to go deeper into their space, and come out a better version of themselves. That exchange is what will make a relationship healthy and happy. This refers to the law of cyclicity - there are four laws, I spoke about polarity already and now we’ll look at cyclicit. You start with something pleasant, there is connection, that eventually leads to conflict because it is inevitable and that becomes the root for the silent stage, which is the cocoon stage where you withdraw into yourself and understand, to go deeper and from there you emerge into a better version and can even establish a deeper union with your partner. So this keeps happening cyclically in healthy, vibrant relationships. It might seem like a very abstract analogy but when someone comes to me with specific problems, I apply the same logic to their individual issues,” says Sujata.
The Laws of Mutuality and Transition
If fighting is healthy, how do we differentiate between a healthy fight and an abusive relationship that is toxic? It’s tricky but Sujata offers a sound analysis and solution. “Abuse is not just what is inflicted and visible. There is also abuse by deprivation, where your need is not met. It could be your need for affection, your need for eye contact, need for validation, need for sex - anything. So yes, abuse can be inflicted and it can be due to deprivation. When does it become toxic? I think anything becomes toxic when disrespect occurs, consciously or unconsciously - doesn’t matter. When your boundaries are not respected, when your space is infringed upon, when there is judgement, when there is criticism, discontent and disdain, that is when a relationship is toxic. And this is something we all know deep down in our hearts. The soul recognises respect and disrespect. The mind then comes in and rationalises and justifies bad behaviours. But deep down, you know when someone is being disrespectful towards you. You know when someone has a benevolent regard towards you and is being angry with you and fundamentally disregards you. So toxicity is not only that one party or both parties do this to each other but it is also about not being able to stand for that and call it out. For example, this is classic in alcohol and other types of codependent relationships. Where someone does something that is not acceptable but the partner is first angry and sulking and all of that happens but then they go inwards and say, ‘but I also did this to evoke that or to deserve that.’ That is toxicity, where neither party is able to point out and accept that it is not ok. Where each is justifying the bad behaviour but the essential component of this interaction is disrespect. This also refers to the third law which has to do with mutuality. These are all laws from nature, these are not just psychological. If you observe the five elements and see all the processes of nature - you will see these four laws eminently working. Mutuality has to do with the law of symbiosis - I serve you and I am served. But in relationships, what happens with mutuality is that we are ok with being transparent when it comes to telling our partners what to say and do but we don’t want to be on the receiving end. (Laughs). The solution is to communicate even negative attributes with love and compassion. For example, if your partner is always late to occasions or outings, Instead of yelling at him or her, understand how their behaviour makes you feel. Try authenticity with vulnerability rather than authenticity without vulnerability,” advises Sujata.
When we learn how to authentically address our feelings, we can make powerful positive transitions within our relationships because the relationships become a source of growth and inner development for both partners.
To Love or Not to Love
Listening to Sujata talk about relationships is a deeply calming experience. My next questions to her were about how to decide whether a relationship is worth saving or not and what happens to relationships and people who just aren’t working. This is where her work really comes into play because she enables and empowers men and women to either reconnect consciously and resolve their issues or if she feels it’s just not working, she also enables and empowers people to transition powerfully. “Nobody gets married thinking there is an expiry date to it. But lying is like holding sand in your fist and trying to contain it. You can’t. Especially the lies we tell ourselves. To be honest, I see this transition more in women than in women. Their dilemma is that staying in an unhealthy relationship is unbearable and leaving is unthinkable. How I approach this is by making them aware of who they are. Who you are? What do you stand for? What your values are? How did you get into this situation? How have you been contributing to sustain and enable this kind of situation? So the first thing is the U-turn. Check in with yourself. Then comes a point of clarity and you realise what the actual issue is. In most cases (in fact I would say all), the marriage will function as long as the woman is willing to play the role of a pretty woman. No brain, but just deliver the role she is given - such marriages work, they might not be happy, but they work. But, when the woman wakes up to her individuality, to her femininity, to her power to her authentic existence - that is when the marriage starts cracking. So this is a very frightening thing. But that inherent strength is so powerful, it will come to the fore. You can’t put a lid on it and contain it. Part of the process is to help women to see who that emergent woman is and in what ways can she navigate this relationship to see how it can be helped - in a more awake, honourable and inclusive way and not by sacrificing this for that but rather including. In some cases, this isn’t possible, the husband is like ‘who the hell are you?’ And sometimes the woman is like: ‘I want out.’ She realises she’s lived a lie and just wants out. Then we come to the transition. So to transition powerfully is a continual process. You discover how much disrespect, degradation and mortgaging of the soul you put yourself through and that is hard to deal with and recover from.
You have to build yourself from scratch. This is hard. You are actually building a new persona and a new being who is true inside and outside without a facade. That interestingly, does not require that much external support. It is an inherent power that we all have. It is a unique process, a long process and it requires psycho-spiritual stamina to really walk through but such people emerge so strong and powerful on the other side, that the process becomes worth it. It is humbling and gratifying to see that.”
What About Men?
At the start of this article, Sujata pointed pointed out that men are as affected with women when it comes to patriarchy. While the world is moving towards empowering women and giving them a voice, we’re completely neglecting men, their emotions and finding a balance between genders. Men need as much (if not more) emotional and mental support to deal with an ever changing society. In the same way that conditioning is ingrained in a woman’s DNA, men suffer from conditioning, too. They’re raised to believe that emotions are messy and being vulnerable is ‘girly’ and as a result their way of dealing with difficult emotions is to become completely aggressive or completely withdrawn. “This is the flipside of the whole equality game. We are trying to empower women and educate them but what about the men? So women are turning into super women but men feel left behind. We don’t even pay attention to them. There needs to be balance. Women are so capable but nobody talks or addresses a man’s emotional issues. So these men get either aggressive or withdraw, there is apathy or violence. It’s what they know because they don’t know better or haven’t been told better. For relationships to thrive and feel healthy, both partners also have to be healthy. I see all these corporate workshops now, where men are taught emotional empowerment but most people delivering these lectures are also mean (laughs). Men are so poorly equipped to deal with these changes and the rise of the empowered woman. They need support, too, and I ensure this support is provided when I am dealing with any couple. Change is slow but it is happening,” says Sujata.
Love and Spirituality
To conclude, Sujata encourages men and women to turn to profound Indian wisdom for guidance. “Just reading our Puranas, the Mahabharata or Bhagavad Gita can bring such joy to our lives and there is so much to learn from them - in terms of spirituality and relationships. All the lessons are there!” Says Sujata. “Cultivate a spiritual practice as this can help you to understand yourself and find love for yourself so you stop looking for it in your partner. Once you know yourself and love yourself, you recognise love and all spiritual practices help a lot whether it is asana, Bhakti, or Raja yoga. Don’t seek in another but rather complement your partner and ask for the same. No human being can fulfil you. You have to fulfil yourself and find a partner who wants to live life with a shared vision, a shared goal and life that is beautiful and filled with joy. That is happiness in love.”