December 15, 2002,
Women flower with age while men wilt
Unveiling censored lives
Women flower with age while men wilt
REENA is 60. She looks 50 and feels more like 40. The mother of a 35-year-old son living in the USA, and a granny too, Reena runs a bustling boutique. Fortnightly, she visits a beauty parlour for things such as facials, pedicure, manicure, waxing, hairdo. And plays nine holes of golf, three times a week. Hers is a regulated diet, sparing in sugar, salt and fats. She has also chosen to go on estrogen/progesterone supplements since the last four years.
Healthwise, her husband isn’t doing too badly at 65. Yet the years have taken toll. After retirement from the Indian Administrative Service, he could only land a low-profile consultancy job while quite a few of his former colleagues hold on to prestigious positions.
Reena in contrast, stands transformed during the last 20 years — from a mere housewife into a business lady. She’s already earning three times more than what Mohan did. Her business and housework just leave her no time to feel dispirited, even if she had a cause.
Among upwardly-mobile middle class women in their 50s and 60s, Reena’s case is becoming more typical than an exception. This category has experienced dramatic changes in the last two decades, and more could be in the offing.
For ageing women, one traditional loss was that of youthful looks. Women as sex objects had to be young; whereas men matured, women got old. The fear of this loss is diminishing with women’s heightened self-worth through other accomplishments. Many now succeed in retaining a trim figure and an attractive appearance far into their middle years. Germaine Greer, the noted feminist writer, when complimented on her youthful appearance on her 60th birthday quipped, "That’s what a woman of sixty would look like". Some are even accepting their age with pride; a departure from the age-old pattern where women persistently, almost pathetically, lied about their age.
Yet the greatest gains in the last few decades have been in the area of psychological health. Earlier the incidence of impairment in mental health increased as women slid into their 30s and 40s. Psychiatrists mostly blamed it on women enjoying much less control over their lives than their male counterparts. Now this percentage is markedly down for educated middle-aged women; not only for those who combine outside jobs with housework, but also with full-time housewives.
It has been the accepted wisdom that menopause was a critical event in the life of a woman. The end of her reproductive life was deemed a major threat to her adjustment. Evidence is accumulating that a large majority of present-day women really suffer no psychological problems, and little physical discomfort except occasional hot flashes. Menopause is more of a bugbear than a stressful experience.
Some even report a positive improvement in their physical and emotional health, and the event no way affects their sexual activity. In fact, to a lot of women, the cessation of their fertility comes more as a relief.
Another presumed stress point for middle-aged women was the "empty nest" syndrome — when the last child left the parental home for good. Of late, several surveys on the subject have come up with the surprise finding that the syndrome was more a myth than reality. Women, especially home-centred women, did anticipate the event with a certain foreboding, but five to ten years later, hardly anyone admitted to stress on this score. Indeed, some expressed their "guilt" at "feeling better than ever" or "much freer and in charge of my own time". The "empty nest" did create conditions for change, but these were often utilised for taking up other self-fulfilling activities.
Contrary to expectations, quite a few men had reacted more acutely than their wives to the "empty nest" situation. These were mostly men at a stage where they were focussing much less on job success and sought intimacy with their children.
Widowhood is the ultimate tragedy; women often fear it more than their own death through illness. There is the loss of identity as someone’s wife, a horrid feeling of incompleteness and incompetence an ugly void in social life, and a host of other complications.
Yet some recent surveys have thrown up a different picture. An overwhelming majority of widows, after they got over the initial grief, became more independent and competent than while their husbands were living. They managed to develop more rounded personalities as a consequence of being left on their own.
New research reveals that older women "adjust" to the death of a spouse and, with whatever pain or grief, move on to new strengths afterward, with less apparent difficulty than younger women and than men at any age. If an older man’s wife died, he is more likely to become sick and die within the next two years, than other men of comparable age. The vulnerability disappears if he remarries or after he survives five years alone. No such drastic toll on women’s life takes place with widowhood.
Another traumatic event is retirement: The loss of identity, status, satisfying work, peer support, let alone reduced finances and increased hassles in everyday living. Previously women only coped with their husbands’ retirement. Now many themselves retire from jobs.
Men, compared to women, seemed more deficient in some basic strength to survive retirement. Women, of course, have this advantage; they never retire from housework. To that extent, retired women’s lives stay fuller than those of retired men.
Some psychologists make out that women develop a greater capacity to meet "discontinuities" than men, because they encounter more of these in their lives. From a girl-child playing freely with boys, she abruptly changes at puberty into one who is demure and self-protective. She takes a job or prepares herself for one, but often gives it up with marriage and children. And then suddenly at fortyfive this role is over: menopause, the "empty nest’. Women thus grow better accustomed to change and impermanence than men.
Glances that unemployed men receive part-pitying, part-censorious testify that admiration, these days, is reserved for elders who successfully challenge their biological clock with prodigious feats of energy and accomplishment. That’s another pressure point with ageing men, but nowhere so evident with ageing women.
From adolescence through their forties, women become increasingly feminine and men increasingly masculine. But by fifty, each is seen allowing qualities conventionally assigned to the opposite sex to emerge. Women become more assertive with age and men more giving. Women who had been constricted by the conventional values to attract and please men begin to express their feelings in all sorts of new and different ways; they grow more self-confident. At midlife, there possibly occurs a male-female crossover".
And the same finds
reflection in the sexual sphere. The husband’s sexual drive
diminishes (a biological phenomenon related to age) whilst the wife’s
remains unchanged or may even increase (there’s no such direct link
with age). Indeed, women usually ceased sexual activity mainly as a
result of their mate’s lack of libido or his demise.
Unveiling censored lives
AS one listens to Anees Jung, the writer who has written about women’s lives for more than 30 years in her books and columns, there is no mistaking the intensity of felt experience. Not only does she document women’s lives with a rare sensitivity, she also writes about the joys and pains of being a woman and how there is a commonality of experience across cultures. It is this impassioned quest to seek that has driven her to travel the length and breadth of the world and India to research for her writings. Recently in Chandigarh, after a tour of Fatehgarh Sahib, which has the lowest male-female ratio, Anees is researching for her new book Censored Lives, a sequel to Unveiling India, a book that portrayed myriad shades of lives of women across the country. It is, as if, life has come full circle for this woman who mirrored the hopes and dreams of youth as editor Youth Times. Asked by the UNO to do this sequel, in Censored Lives Anees will focus on the younger generation of women and detail how growing up in India has been for them.
She believes that India’s traditions and culture have only been preserved due to the effort of the women of this land who are resilient. Women preserve the traditions because they are carriers of customs and social practices that they keep vibrant and reinforce for successive generations. Anees feels had it not been for their effort, all that is sacred and beautiful would have been lost.
For Anees, to break out of the mould of her conservative, aristocratic upbringing as the daughter of the Prime Minister in the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, was tough. Very different from her four sisters and two brothers, she thinks of herself almost like a balladeer who travels and sings of her experiences. She says: "I have learnt so much from the world. All these experiences I weave into my writings... like a river flowing..." May be it is her love for music that makes her quest akin to the soul’s search for harmony. Effortlessly, she straddles the two worlds, one in which she was born and the other she opted for.
She has travelled so much because of her job as the UNESCO’s adviser. "A lot of issues that were not of significance when I wrote Unveiling India have surfaced now and I am travelling to research them. I am fascinated by the lives of young women." Rape, female foeticide and increasing rate of crime against women and the manner in which terrorism has impacted women’s lives are some of the issues that are of concern now. As she puts it, a woman shares pride, love and even hunger. "Aurat bahut kuchch sahti hai, gurbat se lekar bhookh tak." As far has terrorism is concerned, the face of the demon has changed. All her life, a woman faces demons. She is born to be a victim of demons. The evil of terrorism is a visible terrorism. What about the internal terrorism, within our own homes?" Even when she asks an animated question, her tone is philosophical.
She remembers going to the village of Bakarpur in Bihar during the days of the Total Revolution with JP and how moving it was to meet a potter’s wife and mother. The old woman had asked her, "Why have you come? What can we give you? All we have is clay cups. "She recounts how she felt the fragrance of the earth, as she held the clay cups in her hands. It strikes one that Anees is not a rabid feminist but has a philosophical and wholistic world view. As she says, the writer’s role is to awaken the truth that is sleeping. The writer should never distort or sensationalise.
Anees does not have any problems while striking a rapport with the people she meets and her writing reflects the nuances and cadence of the spoken word.
Like the marwari woman whom she met on a train. As Anees says, "She told me: battis saal mein bhi ek pyar ki baat nahin ki mujhse, referring to her husband. The woman had no friends because the marwaris in her town were Aggarwals, therefore not from her caste." A woman is shackled not only by her gender but also her class and caste. Women also do not connect because they are so afraid of being mocked at. Within their hearts lie so many secrets locked.
Despite the fact that she is happy with her single status and has a very stimulating life, she says it is society that makes a woman aware that if she has not married and had children, it is an aberration. Men are attracted to her because of her personality and vivaciouness but she says, "A man can not take charge of a woman who has assumed herself to be internally free." And it is difficult to have a relationship.
A 30-year-old advertising executive rushed home from work, bursting with news. She found her husband, an attorney, sitting in the backyard, reading the paper, "I’d just got a big promotion and was dying to tell him all about it," she says. But as usual, he didn’t want to talk or listen. He smiled, congratulated her, then walked into the house while she was still talking. When she followed him he paid no attention.
Later, she wondered for the umpteenth time why she and her husband seldom talk. "Why didn’t he want to know more about my promotion?" She asks, "I know he cares, he brags about me to our friends. I’ve asked him if anything’s wrong, and he always says, ‘No, everything is fine’. But it’s not fine. "In fact, his silence is seriously affecting our relationship. When he ignores me, then comes to bed, I don’t feel passionate," she says, adding "I feel hurt, angry and confused." She has plenty of company.
Therapists say the silent treatment may affect 50 to 70 per cent of the marriages. Most women say that their husbands won’t talk or listen to them. They talk to friends and co-workers, but not to them. In a book You just don’t understand, the author Deborah Tannen writes, "The way men and women develop over time in a relationship is different. In the beginning, the man will talk more to win her; then conversation tapers off. Women talk more once they’re comfortable with a man."
Husbands and wives have trouble communicating because they have different notions of what talk is all about. This is evident from the frequent complaints marriage therapists hear. Some women say that their husband won’t talk when they are upset or depressed. This silence is excruciating for their wives, who wonder what is wrong. Psychologists say this typically occurs because boys and girls are raised to express emotions differently. Girls are encouraged to be open. Boys are taught that sharing feelings is effeminate and unproductive. So men tend to withdraw, thinking they should have the resources to deal with problems.
A women’s type of freewheeling conversation often triggers a tuning-out mechanism in men. "Women tend to be more interested in personal details — who said what, what it means, how they looked," writes Deborah Tannen. "They expect their husbands to engage in this type of conversation, but most men don’t know how to". To a man, an intimate talk has nothing to do with feelings or personal details. Men like to discuss task-oriented issues such as the cost of sending kids to school, tax increases etc. They can see much point in discussing something they can’t influence.
Some wives complain that when their husbands come from work, they say they are too tired to talk. But if a friend calls or drops by the house, they’ll suddenly find a lot to talk about.
According to Deborah Tannen, "To a woman, a discussion shows involvement, interest and caring." For men, conversation is work because they use it to impress and relay factual information. At home, they feel free to relax and don’t necessarily want to start a discussion.
Despite differing points of view, husbands and wives can work through their communication difficulties. To get your husband to open up, pick the right moment when you start an important conversation.
"Sometimes a man’s silence makes a woman feel frustrated and angry, so she repeats herself and then he calls her a nag," says Nikky Kalia who was married four years ago and has a baby of 14 months. To avoid that situation, don’t fill in the silence when he doesn’t respond. Instead, "look at him calmly and count silently so you don’t grow uneasy," writes Robert Bramson author of the book Coping with difficult people. Then, if he doesn’t answer, don’t gloss over his silence. "Tell him you’d like to talk about this tomorrow. Let him know you expect an answer," writes Bramson and suggests: "Ask open-ended questions". Don’t ask, "How was work today"? He can reply ‘fine’ ‘lousy’. Try something with the more specific question, the more likely he is to answer in detail. It’s easy for your husband to remain quiet if you’re flipping through a catalogue while you talk. To promote conversation, keep your arms uncrossed, your expression neutral and your body relaxed. Talk in a pleasant tone of voice.
Couples who focus all their attention on children or work often find they have little else to talk about. By participating in new and different activities hiking, travelling, gardening, volunteer work — you’ll have a lot more to talk about. Listen carefully, while your husband is talking and pay more attention towards his attitudes. Don’t think about your response or let your mind wander. When he talks, rephrase whatever he says. Don’t disagree or contribute information. Active listening can help in the beginning.
Many men try to avoid arguments altogether. To diminish your husband’s fear, learn to argue constructively. Avoid negative language, guilt, dredging up past mistakes and sentences that start with ‘you never.....’ or ‘you always.....’. Talk about how you feel and indicate your role in the problem. Don’t put all the blame on him, even if you think it is his fault.
For instance, say he’s angry because the two of you went to a party that he didn’t want to attend. Acknowledge his feelings and say, "I can understand why you’re upset." Then give him your point of view and try to reach a compromise; "That party was important to me because I made a lot of work contacts. But the next time, we’ll leave earlier." It takes enormous self-control but it’s highly effective.
If you’ve tried these techniques but still have a problem consider marriage counselling. Therapy can help with serious issues that may contribute to the silent treatment, such as alcoholism, sexual dysfunction or a traumatic childhood event.
After a year of counselling, the advertising executive and her husband were talking more than they had in years. "We’ll always have to work at this," says the wife, "but our relationship is much better now. This is one marital problem you can do something about."