On wishing-wells (and the irony of pessimistic idealism)

Recently, a wise friend of mine spoke to me openly about her own marriage. She has been married longer than Brett and I. It was SO refreshing to hear her voice her own struggles, to hear her speak about some of the things most of us married folk never even voice out loud cos “how could we even be thinking that!”, and to have some of it comfortingly resonate with what I have felt and struggled with. So thank you to honest, open, say-it-like-it-is, older and wiser, married folk who debunk the myths of marriage without degrading its worth!

One thing she spoke about which really struck me is how sometimes we look at our spouse and are so easily able to spot the flaws and the weaknesses and even wish a little that they were “more this” or “less that”.  She has learned over the years that some of the things she wishes her spouse was “more of” do not exist precisely because of some of the other things she loves and cherishes and values in him.

I like this cartoon about Elly the Elephant because, as much as the last two frames of it kind of kick marriage, I think it drives home a hugely valuable lesson that “looking for a partner”, “trying to decide whether to commit to a partner”, and “learning to love a partner better” people can (and SHOULD) all learn as quickly as possible. Sometimes the very things we love in our partners preclude some other things. That is, exactly because they are one way, they are not necessarily going to be some of those other things we may also want/like.  I love that Brett doesn’t care about what people think about him. But I struggle to do the same. And so sometimes I get embarrassed when he goes to the staff party dressed in purple tights, with purple gypsy pants, a Madiba shirt, a Marvin the Martian tie, and dreadlocks under a standy-up beanie (for example, d; ). And I secretly wish he’d just dressed “normal”. But all those crazy clothes are part of the package of him not caring about what people think, and being fun and spontaneous, and making me laugh every-day-every-day, and always finding the good in people, and hoping, and bringing life into a room, and vibing with strangers and just generally not taking things too seriously (in a good way). And so maybe if he dressed more “normal” he would be a little-less all those things. And I would hate that.

So Elly the Elephant wants someone who is sensitive, but doesn’t want him to be “needy”…and one of the two has to go. She wants him to be dependable….but he might not be if he also ticks the wish-list box as “adventurous”. We want our spouse/partner/boyfriend/girlfriend to be all things to us. See, it’s not a case of “simply learning to be happy with the few avocados we have” or “being happy with the crappy partner we have” (Stephan Pastis).  It’s about realizing that maybe we have some ideals that are just idealistic. That do not recognize that we are flawed and that any partner we end up with will be just as flawed. And that some characteristics which we highly value exist to the exclusion of others that we just slightly value. And that when we turn our attention to griping about the small-value things, we lose sight of the big-value things and devalue our partner. Or we sit alone.

Tim Keller and his wife, Kathy, have written a book which B and I are reading through and “studying” together. Here’s a little something about our expectations in potential (and actual) partners:

“Today we are looking for someone who accepts us as we are and fulfills our desires, and this creates an unrealistic set of expectations that frustrates both the searcher and the searched for…it would be wrong to pin the culture’s change in attitude toward marriage fully on the male quest for physical beauty. Women have been just as affected by our consumer culture. Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are all looking for a marriage partner who will “fulfill their emotional, sexual and spiritual desires”. And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry. This is the reason so many put off marriage and look right past great prospective spouses that simply are “not good enough.”… To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is – there is almost no one like that out there to marry!…In other words, some people in our culture want too much out of a marriage partner. They do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation.” (The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller, pp. 33-35)

I guess to paraphrase John Tierney, so often in our dating and marriages we are “determined to get more than we deserve – and to reject anyone remotely like ourselves”. The problem with all of this – the pessimistic idealism in terms of what we are looking for in a partner; and the wishing for something slightly different which just doesn’t fit with what we have – is that it makes it extremely hard to find a partner, to keep a partner, or to be partner.

As for me? I am seeking, trying (and many times failing), day-by-day, to embrace all the facets (even the hard ones and the wishing-well ones) that are integrally tied up with some of the wonderful and marvelous and highly valuable things which are intrinsically who Brett is. I’m learning that “the basket can’t hold all the avocados” and I’m pretty sure I’m not “all the avocados” myself!

On dating and daring: Part 2

So there I was: 23 and single. Which isn’t too bad. I know stacks of girls much much older who are single. 23 is just starting out. But it felt like the world to me. I was stuck in a place waiting for the guys I wanted to ask me out, and ignoring the ones I didn’t (but not even realising I was doing it at the time). I went to see my pastor (not about that, but it came up). He asked me what was on my list and I honestly told him I didn’t have one. He said something along the lines of “That’s not true. Of course you have a list. If you didn’t you would be dating someone right now. You have a list and it says what kind of guy you are looking for and makes you say no to those who don’t tick the boxes.” WOW! I had a list. I had a freaking LONG list! And many amazing guys just weren’t ticking the boxes. Gosh girls, maybe it’s time we threw those imaginary check-lists out hey. Cos NO guy is going to measure up to them and by holding it over their heads to see if they do measure up we are setting hoops and asking them to jump through before we deign them with our presence on a date. Arrogance and pride much? Just as an aside.

So I told John my pastor about my list – the things I was really looking for and hoping for in a guy. And they were all good, non-shallow stuff. I wasn’t looking for a guy who looked a certain way, just one who acted a certain way. My wise pastor told me to get rid of my list. He said, “Val, you need someone who loves God and is strong enough to lead you. Stop looking for those other things and if you know the guy has that first one waxed then say yes when he asks you out and find out if he is the second one. Start going on dates.” Ah, best advice ever! That’s when I started going on dates. They were awkward, and fun, and wierd, and some guys I would have been happy to date again and some I wasn’t. But that was okay. Because I had started risking, putting myself out there, putting myself in positions where I was able to get to know guys and they were given the freedom to show who they were. It was scary, it sometimes hurt, it was often awkward, and sometimes confusing. But gosh, the freedom of going on dates was incredible!

I’m not saying be the serial dater. I’m saying give guys a chance. Even guys you wouldn’t normally go for. Hey, Brett wasn’t the guy I would “normally” go for. Flip, he was about 5 years too old according to my normal and my checklist. But I gave him a chance. I risked. I put myself out there as did he. And look, it didn’t end so badly. Does my success story mean I got it hundred percent right and am the expert on dating and relationships? Not at all! There were huge measures of  learning and mistakes and grace and forgivenes involved all along the journey. If I had to be in that dating/single place again I hope I would get it a bit better, but I don’ think I would totally wax it. But there is truth in my journey. And maybe that can speak truth into other’s journeys.

How to love your man better – “Be Nice”

This is probably one of the simplest and most easily overlooked ways of loving anyone better: be NICE! Be polite; say “please”, “thank you”, and most importantly “I am sorry”.

Brett has made choices to serve me in two specific ways – by washing the dishes at night and by bringing me coffee in the morning. Everytime he does either of those I now make a point of showing him thanks (hugging him, squeezing his hand as I walk past him in the kitchen) AND saying my thanks. In doing so I not only show him that I appreciate him and am grateful for his service, but I also stop myself from taking it for granted. As soon as I start taking Brett’s choice of serving for granted it no longer becomes a gift to me but a duty which I expect him to perform! Never knowingly turn your spouse’s/partner’s gift of service into an act of duty! It undermines the choice to love, and sets the stage for resentment (i.e. when the “Duty” is not performed).

I generally wash the clothes. Everytime I do – even though in some ways this could be seen as my role/responsibility (as much as washing the dishes could be seen as Brett’s role/responsibility) – Brett thanks me. And if I’ve been tempted to wallow in self-pity because I am again washing the clothes, or if I have been getting upset because I would rather be sitting inside on the couch, Brett’s verbal “thanks” reminds me that I am valued and that my role/responsibility is not taken for granted. Several times I have come home from a long day out or work, and the clothes are already washed and on the line. I always thank Brett, even though I could so easily see it as my “right” that he did that because I was busy.

Here’s another example: I use the word “could” in a polite way. So often instead of saying “Please bring my book when you come down”, I say, “Could you bring my book when you come down”. The “Please” is implicit when I use “could” in this way. But Brett didn’t used to hear the silent please. So I told him. And now he gets it. BUT, I have also decided to try and remember to use Please in place of Could because even though he knows it’s there, when he hears me ask he has to work twice as hard to hear the politeness, the gratitude, the appreciation. And I don’t want it to ever be any struggle for him to feel appreciated and not taken for granted.

So say the polite words; and mean them. Don’t treat your partner’s service as duty.

How to love your man better – “Respond to his character”

So here’s one I am really learning to do better – because when B says  or does stuff that hurts me/makes me angry/annoys me, my first instinct is to respond directly to that stuff.

This post was inspired by something that was reported in the news recently: remember that comment by Bono about how it’s okay to sing the song “Shoot the Boer”? Well, here’s the thing; he never said that. Some journalist took what he had said out of context, put a provocative headline to it which further mislead the public and instigated a negative response in people before they had even read the full article. In fact, I’m pretty sure most people only read the headline. Some people got super upset about it, ranting against Bono, even going so far as to throw tickets to the U2 concert into a river. But here’s what most people didn’t do: they didn’t read that headline  and say, “What do I know about Bono and his character? What do I know about what he stands for, his political views, his views on justice and peace? Does what I am reading about him in this article gel with all the other stuff I know about him?” I’m pretty sure if they had done that – as B and I did – their first thoughts wouldn’t have been anger and outrage. Rather, they would have gone and read the full article and perhaps even a couple of other articles on the incident and realised that what he was really saying was not what that journalist portrayed him to be saying.

Here’s the point then: so often in reacting to our boyfriends/girlfriends/friends/family/husbands/wives we respond to the thing they have said or the thing they have done instead of responding to their character and who we know them to be. Somehow we separate who they are, from what they do – and we only respond to the latter. We take instant offense to the words they have said instead of stepping back for a minute and asking: “Who is Brett? Who do I know him to be and what is his character? I know that he loves me; I know that he would never intentionally do or say anything that would knowingly hurt me.” Here’s two ways it can go:

Brett: [Says hurtful thing]

Me: [Get’s hurt][Responds in anger][How can you say that? You always…You never][Says hurtful things back]

Brett and Me: [Fight]


Brett: [Says hurtful thing]

Me: [I know Brett loves me. Would he purposefully say something to hurt me? No. So he didn’t mean what he said or I am misinterpreting what he said, or I am taking offense when none was intended, or I haven’t heard what he is really saying or how he is feeling]

My response then is, “Hey, B, that thing you just said really hurt me. This is what I heard when you said that. I know that you love me and wouldn’t intentionally say something to hurt me. What’s going on?”

This isn’t the clearest blog I’ve written; in fact it might be downright confusing. But I guess my final point is this: respond to the person’s character, not what they have said. Always always think the best of the other person. Assume that they would not intentionally hurt you or do stuff to frustrate you. Take as your starting point that they love you. And then measure your response and don’t react out of a place of offense.

How to love your man better – “Just love him…”

A couple of years ago Brett ran a blog series called “how to love your woman better” and recently resurrected it on his blog (because it’s that good). To check them out go to Irresistibly Fish and explore or you can see the first one here. I contributed to some of the posts – which are as much lessons in how to love your boyfriend, husband, friend, sister, mother – but someone suggested I write some stuff on how to specifically love your man better (which will also probably apply to any relationship in your life). So here goes…

When Brett and I started going out and even for many months into our marriage there was one thing that he used to do that made me pretty darn mad. If we were having a fight or an argument or I had raised something that he had done to upset me, he would respond with three simple words: “Just love me.” Now this is what I heard when he said that:

1. Val, you don’t love me.

2. If you loved me you wouldn’t argue or fight with me.

3. Can’t we just ignore this stuff and “be in love”.

4. What you are saying is not valid. Just stop and say that you love me.

When he said those words I would get even more angry and say something like, “This has got nothing to do with love. This is just an argument.” Meaning, me being angry/upset or hurt by him was something completely seperate to the issue of my loving him. For me, the loving of him never changed. It was just held off to the side while I dealt with the issue at hand. It wasn’t till many months after we had got married and this “Just love me” thing was really messing with the way we did conflict, that I eventually understood what Brett was saying:

1. Val, I love you.

2. Val, this stuff is important and we will address it.

3. Val, in this moment of fighting I do not feel secure and safe in your love. I feel like your love has lessened or is conditional or is secondary to this issue.

And that really hit me hard – I suddenly realised that the way I was doing conflict made Brett unsure (even if for only a second) of my love for him! In that moment he sat wondering if we would get through this, if I loved him, if I wanted to be with him, if this issue was too big for my love. And the crunch was when he said, “I don’t feel secure in your love.”  When I realised this I knew that in any argument or fight or disagreement or issue, my first call is to make sure that Brett is resting secure in the fact that I love him. I need to do this with words – sometimes even saying it directly, “I love you and this thing you have done does not change my love for you”. I also need to do this with action – Brett is a pretty physical person and so just the act of reaching over and holding his hand, or sitting next to him, or making sure our legs or arms are touching while we talk it out maintains the physical connection and assures him that I am not going anywhere and haven’t rescinded my love.

If for even a moment your man (or woman) doesn’t feel secure in your love during an argument or disagreement then you have to look at the way you do conflict and change some stuff. Believe me, we have definitely not got this right yet. This blog was sparked by an issue we had just last night and I began to think again as we were lying in bed, “Is Brett secure in my love right now?” I thought of that verse from 1 John 4: 18 “Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” And that song based on Psalm 36 “The steadfast love of the lord never changes.” Am I showing steadfast love? Is my love unchanging and does Brett know it to be so? Can he rest without fear, in such love? Then I thought about “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4: 15) – yes, things must be addressed, and frustration and anger and hurt needs to be talked through. But first it must be the truth being spoken. Secondly, it must be spoken “in love” – with words and actions and attitude that affirm love.

on the honeymoon phase

I hate the idea of the “honeymoon phase” in any relationship. It is one of the things that grates me most when people talk about marriage – especially people who have been married for many years. I especially hate it when people look at Brett and I – how much we like each other, love each other, laugh, touch, talk – and say, “ah, that’s cute, you’re still in the honeymoon phase…” and the dot dot dot they leave hanging at the end implies that it will all come crashing down and reality will set in and we will soon see what its really like. We will fall out of love and into “marriage”. I hate it.

That said. I wish people had talked a little more honestly about how hard marriage is and how much daily work it takes, in the months leading up to our wedding. They were very quick to tell us about sex, but not much beyond that.

I also hate it how people don’t speak honestly and truthfully about marriage and their marriages now. Especially people who have been married for years. I don’t like how there is no space for honesty, truth, for saying “it really is tough. so worth it but tough” or “we’re having a hard week and really need your guy’s support” or “B and I are struggling to find time to fit in all the people in our lives and we’re taking a hit” or the myriad other things that are never said, but should be.

B and I are doing marriage prep counselling with a couple in our church. As we were talking the guy used an analogy – he said, “Marriage is like a movie. You can tell us what it’s like and recommend it to us, but we have to go and watch the movie and experience it for ourselves.” Which is cool. And reminded me of another analogy.

Recently B and I went and watched a fun hip-hop/streetdance style play at the Barnyard Theatre. It was great fun and we really dug it, but there were one or two things that detracted from the greatness. So when we recommended the show to our friends we said, “It’s great, especially the purple crew dancing in the second act, but watch out for the narrator. We found him very annoying and mis-cast.” They went and watched the show and loved it, but thanked us for warning them about the narrator.

This is like marriage. We need people to highly recommend it, to rave about it, to build-it-up, to love it – but we also need those people to tell us “the narrator sucks, watch out”.

Pre-marriage counselling is great and highly recommended. But I think we would have benefitted a whole lot more from a monthly catch-up and re-cap with Mr Basson in the months following our wedding.  You see, the thing is, what happened with me is I got into this marriage thing and suddenly it was hard and tough and I thought I was doing something wrong, I wasn’t good enough, I was failing. At times I thought there must be something fundamentally wrong with our relationship. That’s lies. There isn’t. But if someone had been there and told us and shared their vulnerability and their falling and their learnings, it would have all made a lot more sense and been easier to get through.

So, marriage is wonderful, I love it, I love B and am always always glad and confident in the choice I have made. I highly recommend it. But let’s face it, sometimes “the narrator sucks”. Anyone for a little honesty?

on catching rides on dark nights

and other stuff.

I generally don’t stop for hitchhikers. Brett and I picked up a guy on our way back from J-Bay to Knysna one night on our honeymoon. His name was Ray and flip he had a hectic story… just the week before, while driving home from Grahamstown festival he was hijacked by some guys asking for directions, tried to escape and ran his car off the road and lost control, had a gun put to his head, and ended up literally running for his life! Turns out he used to go to a church in Knysna and knew the pastor who brett knew also. We prayed with him and he offered us a place to stay anytime we are next in the area.

So as a rule I don’t often stop for hitchhikers, but I have recently started stopping when I see a girl walking along the road at night alone. This happens a lot in Stellenbosch and while none of them have taken me up on offer for a lift yet, I will keep asking.

Last night at 11pm I was driving along Tokai Main Road on my way home to Stell. I saw four young girls (all under sixteen) running along the side of the road. They were dressed pretty scantily. I pulled over and asked them where they were going and when they said “just down the road”, I told them to cross the road and get in the car and I would drive them. Which they did. We drove a way down, took a right, and into a dark hardly lit neighborhood, passing a lonely park, and then down to some house. I dropped them off and waited, surprised that they didn’t ring the bell. One girl came back to say they were fine and I could leave since their parents were coming in 15 minutes. I said I would wait. I ended up following them as they walked to the next party, where I handed them over to the mother in charge there. I also told them they were incredibly stupid.

The point is this: I think more people need to take more responsibility for the wellbeing and safety of other people. Those four girls were in an incredibly stupid and dangerous situation and I cannot imagine if I had driven past them and read in the papers this morning that they had gone missing or something had happened to them. So i took the time out of my night, went out of my way, and made sure they were safe – way beyond what it was even reasonably my “responsibility” to do.

I generally don’t give lifts to men ever. Except for one night after theatresports in kalk bay where I offered the car guard a lift back to retreat. He works everynight in Kalk Bay, taking hours to walk to work and back in the early hours of the morning. He earns, on a good night, 50rand. Giving him a lift was a tiny thing I was able to do for him.

I know a lot of people will think this is stupid. Maybe it is. I have a couple of rules about offering people lifts – little things that I think minimise the risk of things going bad. 1. I generally don’t give men a lift at any time of the day or night. 2. I generally don’t give more than 1 person a lift at a time so that there isn’t someone sitting behind me where I can’t see them and where I have no control and am outnumbered. 3. I generally don’t give lifts on lonely roads, at night, or to areas I don’t know. 4. I always let Brett know when I am thinking of giving someone a lift or if someone is in my car. I tell him what kind of person it is, where I am, where we are going and how long it will take approximately. I think calling him is a good idea so that the person hears that I am telling someone who knows where I am.

It’s a really little thing to be able to do for someone. Whether it’s someone desperately trying to get to work on time when the trains are on strike so that they don’t lose their job. Or four stupid little girls who are completely naive and oblivious to how unwise they are being. Or some guy who works longer hours than you do earning what you probably earn in an hour. Or a mother walking with her kids in the rain back from school. Cos yes, there are bad folk out there but there are a lot more good folk who are genuinely just in need of a lift or someone to be watching their back. So take the precautions, definitely. Don’t be unwise. If you are christian, be extra sensitive to the Spirit. Tell someone what you are doing. Pray. But let’s start looking out for people more….