“Relationships are Hard Work”

“Relationships are hard work.”

How many times would you say you’ve heard that phrase in your life? People say it to each other all the time; over coffee, over cocktails, in the middle of long, exasperated venting sessions and at the end of despairing exclamations. I’ve said it, and I’ve heard it, and every time there’s a nod of understanding and agreement, because it’s just vague enough to sound accurate.

Recently though, I’ve come to realise that the phrase isn’t specific enough to be true.

It’s a bit like when people say, “Well, sure we fight, but all couples fight.”

I always nod. They both sound pretty straightforward, but the truth is that actually they’re blanket statements broad enough to cover a multitude of realities, and I think we sometimes don’t realise that until far too late.

I was once in a really unhealthy relationship.

I remember the feeling of being stuck in the Swamp of Sadness that was my life at that point, the feeling of our relationship being an endless slog. It would be okay, and then slowly it would be less okay, and then not okay at all, and then terrible, and then there would be an explosive argument with tears and shouting and accusations and apologies…

And then we would be back to the start of the cycle and things would be okay again for a short while. You know, before it all went south – again – like it did every time. Everything felt difficult. If I tried to fix things or communicate why I was so unhappy I was “picking a fight” or ruining everything with my “complaining.” If I kept quiet in an attempt to keep the peace, then I had to swallow down so much resentment I almost choked on it, and everything was tainted by the knowledge that it was fake. All of it. Our smiles were fake, because they were smiles papering over the fact that things weren’t okay. Our memories were fake, because the thread of misery was there running through them all like the long, lit fuse of a bomb leading to inevitable destruction. I loved him, but it hurt, and it was hard, and I felt like I was pouring myself into a pit with no bottom, losing myself in suffocating darkness.

Every time I burst into frustrated tears, mired in this misery, I would say these two phrases over and over to myself like a mantra:

“Relationships are hard work.”

“All couples fight.”

These two phrases reassured me, they consoled me, they made me feel less alone… but they were so undefined. They were elastic phrases that stretched and stretched until I felt they covered my experiences. I know for a fact that they cover many more. 

Since then, there’s been a lot of life happening. I’ve been careful to keep my eyes wide open, and I still hear those phrases but now, for me, they have definitions.

Relationships are hard work. They’re hard work because they involve being less selfish, and always taking someone else into consideration. They’re hard work because they involve thoughtfulness and respect and kindness towards somebody else and as human beings we don’t always feel that way inclined. Sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or we’ve had a bad day or we’re in pain and we want to snap at anyone who looks at us sideways, and on those days it’s work to rise above it. They’re hard work because you have to do things for someone else, and sometimes they’re things you don’t want to do. They’re hard work because maybe they have a habit that drives you up the wall and back down the other side but you love them, so you work to ignore it. They’re hard work because all of your time is no longer your own and you have to learn to compromise. They’re hard work because life is full of unforeseen bumps in the road and sometimes you will have to carry the slack, and sometimes they will have to do the same. They’re hard work, but they’re not slavery. It’s not supposed to be constant misery. It’s not supposed to be something you put your all into without getting anything back.

Relationships are hard work but if you have it right, they’re hard work that you enjoy and get paid well for. 

It’s hard work that’s worth the effort. Your payment comes in the form of receiving the same effort from your partner; you’re repaid in support and respect and love and kindness and thoughtfulness. You’re repaid in knowing that someone has your back, that you’ve got a teammate in this Life Race and that you guys meet in the middle.

Which brings us to the second phrase.

“All couples fight.”

This is such a strange phrase. Let’s change it to, ‘All couples disagree.’ I think that’s a fair statement. All couples disagree. I think it’s also fair to say that all couples can get pretty heated when they’re disagreeing about something important to them, so I guess you could call that a fight.

I think that the word ‘fight’ has something more aggressive to it though. The word ‘fight’ makes me think of shouting, name-calling, throwing things and losing control, and if that’s the definition then no, I don’t think all couples fight. All couples can have disagreements, discussions, even arguments… but fights? Fights that are verbal altercations that end with one or both people crying, or someone having to apologise for having said something purposely hurtful out of anger? If this is something that happens regularly in your relationship, that’s a problem. If that’s what you mean when you say, “We fight, but all couples fight,” then you need to reassess. Not all couples fight dirty. Not all couples fight like that. That kind of unhappiness should only happen extremely rarely, if ever. The basic respect that you have for each other as people shouldn’t slip just because you have strong feelings about opposing views. You can be frustrated and angry and upset and still mindful of what you’re saying. 

If you’re angry and you lash out and say something that’s hurtful – even if it’s untrue – you’re not only hurting them. Once you’ve said something, you can never unsay it. They can never unhear it. You can apologise, but that doesn’t erase it. I really think that’s something more people could keep in mind. Sharp words hurt both of you. They chip away at what’s between you until there’s nothing left.

When I think about Past Me, I feel both sympathetic and annoyed.

I feel sympathy because she was so confused, and so miserable, and trying so hard in such futile ways. I feel sympathy because she didn’t know any better, and she was so, so in love. I feel sympathy because I know she did her best, even if her best was a disastrous emotional mess.

I feel annoyed because it took her so long to read the writing on the wall. It took her so painfully long to dig up the last scrap of her confidence from wherever it had been buried. It took her so long to realise that their relationship wasn’t a winding path, but a closed loop that wouldn’t – couldn’t – go anywhere. It took her so long to stop believing the nonsense.

Nonsense like, “relationships are hard work.”

Nonsense like, “all couples fight.”

 

DISCLAIMER: This is what I’ve learned from personal experience and that is none of this is to say I have it all figured out, because I don’t. I wish I did. If I had it all figured out I would be living on a private island somewhere with a small herd of pet alpacas and maybe a beehive so I could have a continuous supply of honey. I would never have any unpleasantness in my life, everything would be easy, every day would be sunny, and I would never have to consider the pros and cons of having cereal for dinner for the third day in a row.

Ghost In The Cell(Phone)

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I may not be active on the dating scene, but I am aware that the times they are a-changing and these days it’s all about the swiping. I know that mirror selfies are a hard swipe left, and photos with dogs are a swipe right, and when I’m talking to friends who are users of Tinder, Bumble, or OKCupid, I’ve noticed something come up over and over and over (and over) again…

Ghosting.

I’m not talking about the Slow Fade. I’m not talking about slowly stretching out the time between unenthusiastic responses until they completely drop off into the void of forgettable connections. Last time I was single, the Slow Fade was considered the “kind” way to let people know you’d really rather not. The hint was subtle at first, but the process was drawn out and gradual and by the time the other person was taking four days to reply “Yeah lol,” you knew. You knew it wasn’t going anywhere. One last, “Okay let’s meet up soon!” (read: Never) and you were off the hook.

This ghosting business though, it’s different. It’s rough. The dates will go well, the texts will be promising, and then-

NOTHING.

One day they’ll be texting back within seconds, saying they see themselves with you and they’re a little worried they’re taking things too fast but they can’t help themselves, and the next they’ve vanished completely from this corporeal realm. Someone else will text deep into the night after your second date about how great a time they had with you, and how they can’t wait to see you again… and then they’re gone as if instantly vaporised by an alien weapon. Except that unfortunately, they haven’t vanished or been vaporised; thanks to the power of social media, you can see that they were last on Whatsapp two hours ago.

Three days later they’re sharing memes on Twitter like you never existed.

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Everything is so instant now. Push notifications on your phone tell you about likes and retweets and messages and statuses the minute they’re posted. Everything happens NOW.* Does the ghosting phenomenon mean that people are no longer willing to invest a little time in being kind to people they’re not interested in? Is it a case of, ‘Why bother?’ You’re not interested, it’s not going anywhere, why waste time writing back to them when you could be spending those valuable 30 seconds swiping right on someone you might actually connect with?

I don’t understand.

I’m trying to understand, but I’m failing miserably. I’ve tried to look at ghosting from the most sympathetic angle (they don’t want to hurt you by straight-up saying they’re not interested) but even that falls a bit flat. It is far more confusing and disorienting for someone to be unabashedly enthusiastic to the point of cringe and then drop off the face of the earth without so much as an adios, than it is to reply to a couple of questions with monosyllables before hitting them with a quick, ‘Hey, sorry but I’m just not feeling it. Was lovely to meet you though.’

In the first scenario, there are multiple things that can have happened. Maybe they were in some horrendous accident, or they dropped their phone in the toilet, or they were falsely accused of a heinous crime and are now in prison where they had to use their one phone call to ring their lawyer, or they’re in a monastic hut on a remote island somewhere with no reception, and they’ve been desperately trying to communicate with you via smoke signals, but since smoke signalling is a lost art you saw his, ‘I miss you and can’t wait to see you again, how about Friday?‘ wisps of smoke, and mistook them for nothing more than distant cloud.

I mean really, anything could have happened.

The second scenario is a lot more cut and dried. They’re just not that into you. It is what it is. It sucks, but there’s no ambiguity. There’s no need to expend valuable mental energy wondering what happened. It doesn’t feel like something potentially promising was cut short for reasons unknown. You just didn’t click and sometimes that happens.

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Maybe it’s because I don’t use Tinder or Bumble (unless I’m using them on the behalf of close friends, which is great fun and highly recommended), but it really bothers me that ghosting is so common. I heard the other day that ghosting is “common after the second date.” What? Why are people putting the effort into pretending to be interested, rather than putting that same amount of effort into slowly stepping back in a gentle way?

Absorb the fact that at least one person out there thinks it’s a reasonable move to text someone about having kids… and then never text again. Just sit with that for a moment. What is that about? Am I the only one that feels like the leap between those two actions (the text about kids and the ghosting) is a bit like the leap between two four-storey buildings? Like, sure, you can do it, but I wouldn’t advise it and I definitely don’t think it’s healthy.

I think certain things are getting lost in our instantaneous culture; I think some kindness is slipping through the cracks in communication.

Have you ghosted or been ghosted before? Can you explain the thought process? I’m feeling very old and out of the loop here. There’s enough to be confused and worried about in the world than why your Tinder date hasn’t whatsapped you back even though they’re online and you know they’re online and they know you know they’re online…

Can’t we just bring back the Slow Fade? Is it retro enough yet to be cool again?

*I’ve disabled pretty much all push notifications on my phone for the last while. Other than Whatsapp and Snapchat, nothing gets through instantly anymore. It’s actually been pretty great! If you have a lot of social media accounts I definitely recommend trying it for a week.

 

Settling Down

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There’s something about the term ‘settling down’ that makes me panic. What kind of a term is that? “Settle down.” It’s the kind of thing you say to people when they’re acting hysterically and won’t listen to reason. It’s what you say to a spooked horse, or a hyperactive child. Even on their own, neither of the words are particularly positive; ‘settling’ gives the impression that you begrudgingly wound up in a situation you’re not entirely happy with, and ‘down’ has a negative sort of connotation all of its own. Why can’t you ‘settle up’? It can be a bit frightening to think about spending a lifetime with one person. I definitely think that’s true.

That horrible phrase doesn’t help though.

Neither do the jokes guys make about ‘the ball and chain’ or being forced into marriage reluctantly. Who wants to be a ball and chain? What a miserable description. When I hear grown men joke about it I honestly come out in hives. Over the weekend I listened to this one guy “joke” about how he didn’t even want to get married every time his fiancee’s back was turned. She would come over to join the conversation every so often and tell some charming, amusing anecdote about some element of their relationship, and as soon as she wandered away he would be miming slitting his own throat and making faces to make his friends laugh.

I mean… What the hell?

It baffles me that this is somehow considered hilarious banter. I can promise you now that if that guy ever had that situation reversed on him, he would absolutely hit the roof. Never have I heard those kinds of words come from the mouth of a guy who would take the converse in stride. In fact, if any one of these guys overheard their girlfriend or fiancee make fun of him to her friends while his back was turned, they would have a meltdown so massive their ego might never recover.

Some people can be such prats, honestly.

Anyway, back to settling down.

I can get pretty spooked about it. Every so often I’ll think about it and feel a wave of uncertainty. At first, when I examine my fears, they have a very particular form to them. I can practically turn them over in my mind. What if I get sick of them? What if they start to irritate me all the time? What if I fall out of love?

Once I scoop my way past that shallow layer though, I realise that the real fear comes from the underbelly of my superficial thoughts. What if they get sick of me? What if I start to irritate them all the time? What if they fall out of love?

It all sounds so easy – you ‘settle down’, you make a home, you go out, you have friends over, you live happily ever after… But what about all the what ifs? What if you start to feel trapped? What if you feel lonely, or unheard, or unconsidered? What if you forget all the things about the person that you fell in love with? What if you don’t take the time to remember how you felt the first time you met them? What if you start to resent them? What if small issues snowball into unbreakable barriers between you?

There are six things that I’ve learned from experience are vital for a healthy relationship:

  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Gratitude
  • Respect
  • Love
  • Communication

Without any one of these, the whole house of cards can come fluttering down in a depressing cascade of emotions. I’ve been in a rotten relationship before, and I think it really opened my eyes to how rare it is to be in a good relationship. It’s so, so much better to be single than to hang onto something that’s missing any of the above.

Maybe I’ll never ‘settle down.’ Maybe I’ll just refuse to ever use those words unless I’m one day in a situation where I’m patting a nervous horse on the nose. Maybe I’ll settle UP, and the ‘settling’ won’t be the begrudging sort, but instead the comfortable type; like the way you settle into your favourite armchair with a good book.

And when I think about it that way, it really doesn’t sound scary at all.

 

*Header image is obviously an image of my dream reading armchair. I will share with the pupper. We will squidge. It will be perfect.