“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.

Notes for a Younger Me

When I look at photographs of myself when I was younger, I experience a strange, out-of-body feeling. It doesn’t feel like I’m looking at myself. It feels like I’m looking at someone else. The child of someone I know, maybe, or a distant relative. It doesn’t feel like me.

Sometimes this slightly freaks me out, because it makes me wonder if this is how it will always be. In twenty years’ time will I look at photos of myself now and feel like a different person? Will I have changed that much? Will I feel like the experiences and memories and thoughts of Now Me are so removed and foreign that they might as well belong to somebody else?

*shudder*

I was sorting through old photographs a couple of days ago hunting for something in particular when I came across a number of photos of Baby Quinn. There I was meeting my godmother for the first time. There I was going to school. There I was building LEGO and jumping through a stream and walking around with a Pampers box on my head. I have chubby legs and big eyes and wild hair. I am wearing flowery hand-me-downs (which means the anti-feminine movement must not have been active until much later) from what must have been the set of Mary Poppins.

In many of these snaps I am looking at the camera head on. There is no expression on my face. I am just staring, wide-eyed, either straight down the lens or with my gaze turned slightly upwards at (presumably) the photographer. I look as if I might be waiting for something. Maybe waiting for someone to tell me something? Maybe waiting for the manual?

Since we all know the manual never made it, I thought I might tell her something now.

Baby Quinn,

You are a small, round little ball of pudge. Look at you! You weren’t always like that (I’ve seen the earlier photos where you look like an alien beamed down from another planet complete with tubes in your head; those photos are less than lovely), but from this stage forward you’ll basically look like this, only stretched.

Not stretched by much, mind you. We stay pretty low to the ground.

In case you’re wondering, that pouty bottom lip will never go away. Don’t worry, you kind of grow into it. Anyway, it will come in handy whenever you want to make your feelings known. For example, on your way to school…

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Yep, just like that.

You will have a brother. You get on very well except for a brief period during which he does nothing but scream for things at the top of his lungs and pinch you when your parents aren’t looking. Don’t worry, he improves.

Your first friend is a boy called Peter. You spend many hours flinging micro machines at walls of LEGO, and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is an age during which you frequently collect worms and put them in your pencil case to “save them” from lashing rain and the indiscriminate stomping of children’s shoes. Please do not do this. They die from dehydration and you feel absolutely terrible when you have to shake their desiccated, hardened corpses out of the pencil tin. It’s very grim.

You also stop eating around this age. Why? Who can say? You hate food. All food. You are not a picky eater, you are a non-eater. You just can’t stand the horror of having to taste and chew and swallow. You can’t bring yourself to eat. Every meal is a battlefield. The very idea of a future filled with the torture of breakfasts, lunches and dinners looms ahead of you every day for the rest of your life.

Luckily, as with the worm infirmary, this too shall pass. I am happy to relate that I now enjoy eating very much. VERY much! Food is amazing. So are drinks (although stay away from the fizzy ones; you can’t burp, so fizzy drinks make you feel like you have a chestburster from Alien struggling to get free). Wait until you try a White Russian for the first time.

You make a best friend. She is awesome. She likes Oasis when other people like Boyzone. You spend a lot of time thumping up and down the stairs of her house and playing on her road. There are many sleepovers and late night chats. Mind her, love her, be good to and for her. She’s still our best friend. She’s still awesome.

With the help of many books from the public library, you reach your teenage years with a wealth of information at your fingertips. You are ferociously outgoing and impulsive to the point of stupidity. You make decisions that are questionable at best, downright dangerous at worst. You skate along safely though, blithely unaware of the disastrous consequences you narrowly avoid along the way.

You fall in love.

The first year or so is amazing and then it’s just one long, drawn-out, awful descent into misery. You follow your heart and it leads you right into The Swamp of Sorrow. You’re not experienced enough to recognise or understand the lies or the gas-lighting. It’s a long three years of crying and fighting and crying and feeling like an idiot and crying and being manipulated and crying. Just… a lot of crying. Prepare yourself. Invest in tissues, even though you don’t use them. Your heart gets irreparably cracked (although you don’t realise it then) and over time, words and actions bluntly bash at it until the cracks grow wider.

The last, powerful, brick-breaking karate chop makes sure it’s properly smashed into glittering shards.

You end it, too damaged and much too late. For three long years you’ve been told that this is what love is, that your idea of love – with respect, and honesty, and common decency – is straight out of the storybooks and that this is as good as it gets… but you (finally!) realise that anything at all is better than this war of attrition you’ve been losing.

There’s more crying, because your heart is still broken after all.

Let’s just speed through that part.

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If I could warn you about all of this… I wouldn’t. Yes, it SUCKS. It sucks. It’s honestly brutal. The lessons you learn are emotionally beaten into you with what feels like a sledgehammer.

But after all that, you do learn.

You’ve learned what you need to be happy, and so you go do that for a while. You spend time with nice people who love you and you slowly put yourself, your sanity and your heart back together. You become a real person, not just a tangled mess of emotions  and frustration strung together in human form. You make good decisions, or at least decisions that are good for you. You take your time.

You fall in love again, and it’s pretty great. Better than expected.

Better than the storybooks.

So here are a couple of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way, Baby Quinn. The things that should have come in your manual. Here are the lessons you learn along the way:

Stay creative.

It doesn’t matter what you do or how it turns out. Some part of you is always waiting to create something. You’ve drawn, painted, cut, carved. You’ve burned names into chopping boards and made cakes that lean like drunken towers and sliced paper into slivers. You are happiest making things with your hands, and the end result is not always delightful but it is always satisfying.

Play with gouache, with watercolours, with acrylic. Play with clay, and candle wax. Crafting is the one area in which you’re never afraid to fail, so keep trying. Keep failing! Every so often you’ll find something that you’re good at that makes people happy.

Do that. It makes you happy to see other people happy.

Fall in love.

You are an affectionate child. You love hard. Keep that with you.

As you grow up, you grow less willing to be open about how much people mean to you. You close yourself off. You still care, but you hide it. You get shy.

Fight that!

It’s nonsense. You still think about people you haven’t seen in years, and cry for people you don’t even know; the least you can do is reach out to the people you love and care about now, today. I know that it makes you feel vulnerable and you hate feeling vulnerable, but the alternative is letting them think you don’t care, and that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Fall in love, and not just with people. Let yourself fall in love with places, with animals, with experiences. Fall in love with lessons learned and dreams that dissipate five minutes after waking up. Fall in love with food (Italy will help), with adventure, with strangers. Fall in love with all of it.

Be excited about the future.

Sometimes things are really rubbish. Sometimes life feels endlessly terrifying and you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going. You look ahead and all you see is an expanse of hopelessness. There are panic attacks and weeks of dull numbness.

DON’T WORRY.

I mean, worry – by all means worry; you’re going to do it anyway – but as Sunscreen says, know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. In the midst of all that worrying, be excited for the future! Even when things look grim and you can’t imagine what there might be to be excited about… be excited about the unknown, because great things happen.

Great things happen to you, I promise. You, I, we have fed pelicans at a zoo! We’ve played with a tiger cub! We’ve bumped around Goa on a scooter, and gone swimming with sea turtles in Gili Air, and seen Mayan ruins in Tulum, and eaten ramen in Tokyo, and galloped around the pyramids of Giza, and sat drinking mint tea in Marrakech, and had gelato in Rome, and lived in Heidelberg, and gone skiing in Bansko, and seen a fever of rays in San Diego, and, and, and…

… And we’ve had hot chocolates on snow days. We’ve read great books. We’ve had long conversations with our grandfather. We’ve had hugs when we most needed them. We’ve danced in the apartment alone, and talked with friends over cups of tea. We’ve discovered maltesers in salted popcorn (the only decent way to watch a movie), and combed the beach for seaglass after a storm. We’ve had quiet, happy slices of time where everything was just right, just for a moment.

Those moments are all you need.

We’ve had good times so far, Baby Quinn. We’ll continue to have them. In the darkest times you couldn’t even have imagined any of those moments ever happening, but they did. They continue to happen. Right now I’m sitting here typing this to you under a barrage of raindrops with a cup of tea next to me and a cat curled up at my feet. I’m more than okay. We’re more than okay.

You’ll be okay.

 

Life Skills Unlocked: Proper Etiquette

eating utensil etiquette american european

Something happened last weekend that blew my mind:

I realised that I have been eating incorrectly my entire life.

But Quinn, I hear you say, if you have been managing to successfully manoeuvre food from your plate to your mouth for the past three decades, how can you possibly say you have been eating incorrectly?

Well I’m glad you asked.

When I was a small child, mealtimes were incredibly stressful affairs. There were a few reasons for this – including the fact that I went on a self-imposed hunger-strike for about two years at the age of six for reasons unknown – but one of the main reasons was that my mother was an absolute stickler for etiquette. The rules for eating were harsh and exacting, and failure to comply led to frequent explosions of anger (on her part) and tears (on ours). Fork in left hand, knife in right. Cut your food. Swap hands. Turn the fork over and bring your food to your mouth with your right hand, tines pointing up. Do not pick up your food until you have put down your knife. Do not ever lift your fork from the plate with the tines pointing down. Hold it like a spoon when you move it from plate to mouth. I mean sure, it sounds simple now but when you’re a tiny child, all that fork-fiddling is very tricky to master.

…Skip along to last weekend, when I absent-mindedly asked Scrubs why he eats with the tines pointing down when it’s 1. wrong and 2. clearly more difficult.

He blinked at me.

“It’s proper etiquette.”

No. No, I said. You’re supposed to do this whole fork-knife-swapping rigmarole. Those are the rules.

He leaned back in his chair and tilted his head. “No, that’s wrong,” he said. “Proper etiquette dictates you eat with your fork pointing downwards.”

I grumbled, and then – as with all bones of contention – I turned to Google to assure me that I had not suffered through gruelling lessons in table manners for nothing, and this is when I learned two galling and frankly disturbing truths:

  1. There is no globally-accepted etiquette for the use of eating utensils.
  2. I have been eating incorrectly for my entire life.

For those of you thinking, “But that’s how I learned to use my knife and fork!” Well, yes. Let me explain. Back in the day, when the British were still enjoying being an empire, this was the proper way to eat using a knife and fork. Some of them sailed to America, settled there, and brought their old-timey etiquette with them to their high society functions in the New World.

Then, for reasons unknown, back in Europe etiquette changed. Someone, somewhere, decided it was too easy to scoop food up with the tines pointing upward and they were wasting too much time swapping hands, so they changed things. Suddenly the polite thing to do was to eat with your fork in your left hand at all times, tines facing down.

Bounce along a few generations, and you have my grandfather, piloting a Boeing across the ocean to New York, where he evidently picked up some new-fangled ideas about proper eating-utensil protocol and then rigorously enforced them at home, bringing us to my mother, who in turn taught us the table manners she had learned as a child.

And here I thought everyone else was just doing it wrong.

When I think about it now, it all makes sense to me. My grandfather – my Yayo – was born in a tiny village riddled with small, crooked houses on unpaved, dusty streets. When I visited as a child, the houses were still small and crooked, and the streets were still unpaved and dusty. It always seemed trapped in a time warp. Women sat outside their front doors on wooden stools dressed entirely in black, as if in mourning for a life that had passed them by. Their faces were nut-brown from the sun and deeply lined. I didn’t know this then but many of those lines were testaments to hardship. Many of those lines were evidence of unimaginable grief.

My Yayo signed up for the military as soon as he was able, and eventually worked his way up from dogsbody to mechanic to air force pilot. Later, he became a commercial pilot, at a time when flying was new and exotic. Short-haul flights became long-haul flights, and before long he was flying from Madrid to New York City.

Imagine the impression New York City’s glitziest five-star hotels must have made on a man who had come from a village in which traveling by donkey was the norm. He probably soaked up the etiquette there as gospel. After all, where would he learn more about high society than New York in the 1950s? At a time when pilots were highly admired and airline travel was considered a glamorous luxury, he learned a lot and he learned it fast. Then he traveled home, arms laden with clothes and jewellery and trinkets, and taught his growing family everything he knew.

And now here I am, with excellent training in American knife and fork etiquette.

… In Europe.

While I admire his efforts, I do wish somebody had mentioned it to me sooner. It is somewhat startling to realise that I have been eating ‘wrong’ at multiple formal occasions for my entire life so far. I suppose I should probably relearn my table manners; I imagine it will be a little easier now that I have adult levels of dexterity in my hands.

Still, after thinking about it, my foreign table manners make me feel very proud of my Yayo and his ambition for a better life. Maybe I’ll still use American etiquette every so often; a private, silent tribute to one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

grandfather yayo airline pilot when do i get the manual