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.

On dating and daring: Part 1

I have been following Brett’s relationship blogs – and especially the comments on them – with interest and have been reminded of some of my pre-Brett dating vibes. Here are a couple of thoughts – disconnected, but hopefully useful.

I tell people I never dated anyone before Brett. Which is partially true. I never “went steady” (ha ha ha ha ha I just said that!) with a guy, dated for a prolonged period of time (i.e. more than two dates), “courted”, or kissed a guy. But I did go on dates with guys. Some of them were incredibly awkward – the sit at X coffee shop and play with the sugar packet until it please-God-ends kind of awkward. Some of them hurt so much that I wished I’d never gone or even met the guy – the “Hey, let’s go on a “date”  kind where “date” was his fun word for let’s hang out alone together, “I’ll pick you up at 7”, and talk about another girl the whole night – the please-God-let-the-floor-open-up kind of hurt. After some of them I couldn’t wait for the next one, the call, the sms – which never came. Nothing. One of them – an intimate movie and dinner where I felt the most special and wanted that I had ever felt up till that point – sent me into a 4 month crisis of faith and one of the darkest times of my spiritual life. I left church, pushed friends away, ranted and screamed at God for hours, cried, and rebelled. Because he wasn’t Christian. How could this most amazing guy – the first one to ever treat me like I was desirable, and special – be off-limits? The way I described it to friends at the time was that it was like I had seen this beautiful garden and been allowed to walk a few steps into it, and then beauty and happiness that awaited in it was suddenly ripped away and I had to turn on this hard, dark, path and trust a God I didn’t even really believe in any more that He had something better, something that exceeded this good thing I had tasted, down the road. He did. But wow that path was pretty hard at times.

I get it. I get the “being ignored by Christian guys” thing while non-Christian guys were taking the risk and treating me amazingly. I get the million guy friends, the sms’s that built emotional attachment but never amounted to anything, I get the mixed signals. I get the touching and flirting and hints and signals that are oh so exciting. And I’ve been there where the guy has turned around and said, “Oh that? No I was just kidding and playing with you. Oh, you thought I was into you? Nah, not so into you.” And I’ve seen it happen to girls I love – and it is NOT cool. Church-guys, listen up yo, I’m not saying the girls are innocent cos I’ve seen them play this one too, but it is NOT okay. Just as an aside. I also get the pain of seeing the “serial dater girl” – the really pretty one who is always in a relationship. I’ve seen her work her way through groups of my guy friends and I’ve struggled to understand why they would want her and be attracted to her and get into a relationship for 2 months only to have her going out with their best friend a few months later.

My “good” Christian guy friends told me I was cold and hard and my heart was frozen. I took those words and grabbed onto them and let them twist and turn within me and they made me cold and hard, they made me build up more walls, they froze my heart so that words like that couldn’t hurt me again.

Here’s the thing though. Not all the Christian guys in my sphere were ignoring me, playing the field, and playing with my heart. Just the ones I had my eyes set on. There were guys who asked me out, were genuinely interested, sent sms’s and tried to initiate friendship-relationship. But they weren’t the cool ones, the hot ones, the fun-loving dynamic personality ones. And I treated them like junk. I rejected them, I played hard to get, I gave mixed signals, I spoke about how wonderful other guys were around them, I ignored them, I trash-talked them, I built up “wonder-men heroes” in place of them, set the bar and told them inadvertently that they would never measure up to the spiritual guy (you know the one, cos there is one in your church – the upfront, leader, got it all together dude). When they asked me out I said no without giving them a chance. I effectively said, “I know enough about you to know that I will never like you enough to marry you”. Invariably I hadn’t even had a single conversation with them by the time I had weighed them, measured them, and found them severely lacking. Ah, this is all to my shame now! How dare I do to them the hundred things I was complaining, ranting at God about, that other guys were doing to me. I am sorry. To each and every one of those guys. Because I never gave you a chance to show me who you were. In doing so I not only ended up feeling lonely and unwanted, but I missed out on getting to know and become friends with some super quality guys just because they didn’t fit my mold.

Part 2 to follow: