I recently attended a get-together held at the home of a friend who had just moved to Bengaluru. Most of the people present had never met before. Among the couples, there was one in which the husband, let’s call him Viraj, had clearly had one too many. He began to raise his voice and drown others out, talk rudely to the help, and joke in graphic detail about things that were neither relevant nor appropriate.

All Night Long (1963-64). There are probably some cringing spouses tucked away, in this triptych of a party by the British artist Michael Andrews. (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

Our hosts, my friend and his wife, apologised over and over. People started to roll their eyes and whisper. The only person who seemed completely unfazed was Viraj’s wife. Let’s call her Ria. Through the afternoon, she did not react to his behaviour at all. There was no glaring or nudging, no attempt to take him aside and admonish him.

It was clearly not the first time she had been in this situation. She had seemingly opted for a path of dissociation. I almost respected her for the way she was able to pull it off.

His flaws are certainly his.

But here’s the thing: In every couple’s journey, there will be times when one feels embarrassed by something the other person has done in public. It may be a tendency to tell off-colour jokes or pick fights when drunk (or sober). Perhaps it is a personal habit such as picking one’s nose.

The mistake most people make in such situations is to let it slide. Then it happens again, and one hesitates. A third time, and one says something mild… and wonders how to make an issue of it when it is clearly a deep-rooted and personal habit. In this way, the cycle of dissociation forms. It is a cycle that does no one any good.

When you love someone, it is now part of your role to handhold them through realisations. And there are few realisations as delicate but essential as the realisation that something one has been doing is simply not acceptable.

Now, this is not an invitation for bullying spouses to harangue or gaslight their partner into behaving “a certain way”. True love means saying: “I think you’re wrong.” But only when there is no doubt that this is true.

The first step is to have this discussion as early as possible. Ensure that, during this conversation, the person does not feel targeted, humiliated or rejected. Use statements that are supportive: “Perhaps you didn’t realise that the way you spoke, or behaved, appeared to make people around us a bit uncomfortable.”

Suggest a mutual warning sign that could serve as a gentle reminder, and be prepared to be at the receiving end of these signals too. My husband and I squeeze each other’s hands. If we are not next to each other, we make our way to each other to do this.

I know a number of couples who use this approach, with varying codes. One couple uses the word “Sweetheart”. Another uses a flying kiss. All of which are reminders of two things, really: “I love you. But maybe you’re too close to the line right now?”

And that is all it is. Not rejection, not judgement. Just two people looking out for each other.

Perhaps Ria tried these tactics, and having come up against a wall, decided that she had no choice but to step away from it all when Viraj became inebriated and unruly.

It’s a sad sign if things come to such a point. It signals, to me, a breakdown in trust and in communication. What happens when the problem they face is one they cannot ignore, and one that affects not the people around them, but them alone?

(Simran Mangharam is a dating and relationship coach and can be reached on [email protected])

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