Who says a leopard can’t change its spots?

Entrepreneur Timothy Tiah grew up in a household where his father was the one wearing the pants. His dad always had the final say, and his mother, juggling both work and family, stood by his side and offered her unwavering support.

When Tiah and blogger Audrey Ooi got married some six years ago, he worked along the same lines – or more accurately, he tried to.

“I come from a rather traditional family and based on what I saw growing up, I thought that was how marriages work. At home, my dad’s word was law and when I got married, I emulated him in many ways. It annoyed my wife to no end,” shares Tiah at the #HeForShe panel session at The Star Women’s Fiesta last weekend, held in conjunction with WOW-Women Do Wonders campaign.

It was only after a few years and lots of self-reflection that he realised the formula that his parents adopted was not working its magic on his marriage. He knew something had to change.

“I used to be very hot tempered, but in recent years I have been trying to change that. Today, I do not shout at people anymore. But I know that I need to give time to my wife to adjust and overcome the resentment she felt from my actions in the past,” he says.

Tiah learned that he can’t expect to have the final say for his marriage to succeed.

The #HeForShe session, moderated by radio host and fitness personality Linora Low, zoomed in on the stories of two couples: Tiah and Ooi, and actress Kavita Sidhu and her husband, geologist Roberto Guiati, who were present that morning at MBO, Starling Mall in Selangor.

They spoke openly and candidly about how they work together to understand each other, overcome challenges and make their relationship work. What do they think is the secret to a successful relationship? We have heard it all before, but it bears repeating that the importance of trust, communication, patience and respect cannot be overemphasised.

Both couples stressed on how crucial it is to make time for each other, despite – or perhaps especially because of – their busy schedules.

“Tim and I have totally different interests and on weekdays we are often kept busy with work. But we set aside weekends for each other and our kids. That’s how we do it, that is how we prioritise family,” says Ooi.

Guiati, who works in the oil and gas industry and co-owns a restaurant, says that both he and Kavita are very much career-oriented at this point in their lives. However, he points out that even brief connections can strengthen a relationship.

“Sometimes it is just about finding time to have a quick lunch, or when we talk in the evenings about what we got up to at work…we might be very busy, but we try to spend time together, even if it is somehow work related. I ask her if she would like to have dinner with me…but in my restaurant,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Kavita and Guiati value communication in their relationship.

Guiati adds that they are not “the clingy type” and are perfectly fine with giving each other plenty of space. But such rapport would not be possible without trust from both sides, he muses.

“We are mindful about always respecting each other, and we never raise our voices when talking. I am also never afraid to say sorry and work together on defusing the situation,” says Kavita.

For Tiah and Ooi, who have recently started working together on co-working space Colony, they realised after a bumpy start in the early stages of the project that it was best for them to have their roles clearly defined.

“We had a few disagreements when we first started working together, but we sorted it out by deciding that I will be the one making the major decisions when it comes to our home and our kids, while he will take on that role at work. This means we no longer step on each other’s toes,” says Ooi.

Communication is key, she adds. While arguments are an inevitable part of any relationship, talking it out works for them. “We don’t play games, we don’t give each other the silent treatment. I believe it puts cracks in the relationship when you do things like that. When we have disagreements, we talk it out,” she says.

Arguments arise in all relationships, but Ooi feels it is imperative to talk things out.

Tiah agrees wholeheartedly, saying that whenever he gets emotional, he takes a step back and listens to what Ooi has to say about the situation.

When one comes to realise that what is at stake is bigger than yourself or the other person, things take on a different perspective. When a relationship becomes more than just the man or the woman alone, but instead shifts its focus to the kids and the family as a whole, things take a different turn, he says.

At one point in the discussion, Low turns to Tiah and asks, “So how long have the both of you been together? – only to be met with a pregnant pause in response. “Oh, I don’t think he remembers,” Ooi deadpans, to laughter from the audience.

A slightly sheepish Tiah finally says that they have been together for 10 years and married for six, with Ooi confirming that he got it right. Not always, but today he did, she smiles.

So relationships might not always be perfect, but what is? Perhaps what matters at the end of the day is knowing that we are doing the best we can – and that we are in it together.

AirAsia and Mah Sing were the main partners of The Star Women’s Fiesta, in conjunction with WOW-Women Do Wonders, and SASA was a co-sponsor.