The fiancé and I were once asked what we thought the secret to making a relationship work was. It seemed a slightly odd question since, while we are very much in love, we each have a divorce under our belts. We gave answers like it being about finding the right person and that honesty was essential but we didn’t know. We were simply choosing not to let a once broken heart stop us living lives in hope of what was possible. We picked ourselves up from the wrecks of our marriages and made the active decision not to let the failure define us but beyond that we were as clueless as anyone.

Yet, there are one or two clues that make me think I might get it right this time around. When we had just started dating we attended a housewarming party (incidentally at the home of the person who asked us the question) where I made a joke to the host’s mother about marriage. She laughed and asked a question about my husband. I was thrown, what was she on about? I asked her to repeat the question and she pointed at the fiancé. I explained that he wasn’t my husband and that we’d only been dating a few months. I found myself looking at him and wondering what impression we made as a couple. To her at least we seemed married.

I think one thing in particular marked us as a long term couple; we weren’t hanging off each other. We had each found someone we found interesting to talk about and assumed we’d exchange stories in the car on the way home. We had plenty of time to talk to each other after all. And yet we were clearly together; we would often make eye contact across the room and there was a touch on the arm if one of us passed the other. But that kind of thing tells you little. We were a secure couple (in appearances at least) from our first date. We’d been friends for ages and he knew how I’d struggled with a controlling husband and I knew how he’d struggled with a clingy wife. By comparison my friends who just got married are rarely apart in a group. I think they’re a really strong couple so from my current position I’m loathe to see one approach as right or wrong as I hope that we all stay together until we’re old. Independence within a relationship works for us but my friends don’t appear to need it. The key there is clearly compatibility.

Compatibility isn’t the answer though. Even with a healthy dose of passion thrown in, there is something else needed. And I think I know what it is.

Oh yes, this isn’t one of those blog entries that hints at an elusive answer but only describes the problem. This is one of those blog entries that gives the answer.

Disclaimer: The answer rather sucks because it’s really hard!

I think the secret to lasting love is wanting it more than you want anything else. That sounds easy but lovers are full of empty promises. It’s easy to imagine when things are great that you’d die for this person, give anything for this person but come the crunch point most of us back down. Furthermore most of us are in denial about this fact. We create excuses and reasons but ultimately we’re just not ready to give up the thing we want more whatever it may be.

It can be silly things or big things, it doesn’t really matter. Take my mother and my late stepfather. They were once at a party and she left to powder her nose. He was surprised at her return because he thought she’d got bored and left because this was something his ex-wife used to do. My mother said that her role that night wasn’t to have fun but to be his escort. Actually she was enjoying herself but that was secondary to being there and supporting him. A tiny detail but one my mum subconsciously taught me from a young age – sometimes your desires are not the most important thing to consider.

That is why once a month I host a family dinner for the fiancé’s family. I generally enjoy the meals but that is largely irrelevant to my motivation. The important thing is that everyone comes together and the fiancé and the stepkids enjoy it. I subvert my ego because I want their happiness above my own (I’d almost always prefer a meal for just the four of us). But parties and family meals are easy. You just dress up, throw some food in the oven and put your game face on knowing you just need to smile for a few hours to make everyone happy. It gets hard when it’s the long term stuff, the stuff without an end point.

I’m terrible at it. I find it really really difficult to give up the things I want. I think the fiancé is a naturally more generous person but he’s far from selfless. At times there are such undercurrents of tension between conflicting desires beneath a facade of mature negotiation that it becomes absurd. We make it through because ultimately we want to be together more than anything else. In particular I want to be with him more than I want to be right.

Oh but how I’d like both. Can’t I just be right all the time and be with him?

No.

Urgh!

I think it’s especially important to take requests on board and unless it really is unbearable to say no, to do your upmost to grant them. I really don’t want to cook dinner tonight. I also cooked last night by the way (not that that is important). But then, whenever I say I don’t want to cook, he does (or orders a takeaway). The hotel we stayed in on Monday had a really big shower and he wanted us to shower together on Tuesday morning. I was distracted by wanting to get my thesis submitted but I didn’t say no. It’d be so easy to stop doing the little things because I don’t feel like them but that is where the glue of a relationship is.

It’s a fairly small thing for the fiancé to bring me a cup of tea in bed each morning and I confess that after eleven months living together I have started taking it for granted but it makes the start to every day as nice as it could be. It’s lovely and makes me feel loved. I want him to keep doing it. So I keep leaving this column to stir the chilli and garlic I’m frying. Silly little trade offs because receiving means more than giving. It only costs me a little to cook but he will really appreciate it. Taken as a sum, his appreciation will outweigh my grumbliness.

And that’s it in a nutshell. The secret to lasting love is taking into account both sets of wants and needs, not just your own. He just came downstairs and commented “something smells good.” I’m a fraction more tired but he’s happier. In the grand sum of both our feelings, me doing the cooking creates a bigger win for “us” than it does a loss.

It’s hard. A lot of the time it sucks. But it’s also great because I am very rarely denied anything. Can I say for sure I can keep it up for a lifetime with the same man? Of course not but if I can’t then it’s won’t be because I didn’t know how but because I didn’t feel it was worth the effort or because he didn’t feel it was worth the effort. So really, it’s down to us. If the answer is caring more about the “us” than the “me” then the key thing is the question; do you want lasting love or does it sound like too much work?


 
Yes, I’m very late this week but it has been very hectic!

Usually I write my column on a Thursday night after I get in from work having mused on it somewhat during the week. Sometimes I tear articles out of the Sunday paper but that is usually the extent of my planning. So when things crop up, I’m little prepared.

The deadline for my PhD thesis is Thursday 31st March so I was a week away but not only that, I had yesterday and today booked off work to head up to Durham to hand it in so my true deadline was the weekend. But one of my best friends was marrying another of my best friends on the Sunday so the deadline was really Saturday. Except that I’d agreed to make them their wedding cake...

On Thursday I realised that despite having spent 4½ years on the damn thing I was going to be pulling something of an all-nighter. It wasn’t quite that bad but between leaving work at 5pm on Thursday and arriving back in the office at 9am on Friday I put in 8 hours. Needless to say, the column didn’t happen. Friday night I was shattered and then I made a wedding cake on the Saturday morning before we had to drive to Chester.

The wedding came with a little extra stress. I saw my ex-husband for the first time in two years. I divorced him on the grounds of emotional abuse and was very aware of not wanting to slip back into my old patterns around him. I was torn between wanting to seem happy and successful and not wanting to care what he thought (what better would demonstrate his power over me than my wanting to appear amazing?). It was frustrating because prior to the run up to the wedding I’d gone months at a time without thinking about him. In fact the only reminder of him in my present was that I’d started my PhD while still with him.

As my deadline doomed and I began to worry about the standard of my work I found myself doubting myself in general as the huge amount of pressure I felt under seemed to push me back to the mental state I existed in during the years I was with him. The fiancé took the brunt of this as I faded before his eyes to being a brittle and bitchy creature wrecked with doubt and self-loathing. It was almost as though I went back to rock bottom and I wondered whether people can really change or whether the last few years of love and fulfilment had been an illusion.

But around midnight last Thursday I turned a corner; I suddenly saw how my thesis should conclude. I didn’t rush in but instead poured myself a whisky and walked a few laps of the living room, letting my ideas develop. I then sat and started to write. I got a few hours sleep before rising at six to read through everything. It worked. I’ve no idea how good it really is but everything fit together. My thesis was complete!

I felt exhausted but the fiancé insisted I was glowing. I put in a good day at work and returned shattered. But I had a boost that made me feel capable.

I’ve never made a wedding cake before and this was to be no ordinary cake. The groom had requested a bat. Yes, the small winged animal. So I had bought a large square plate to create a starry sky background and created a bat out of sponge covered in ganache and because I worry about under catering, I made a batch of cupcakes with a white chocolate ganache topping with a starry sky design. Thankfully they made the journey to Chester without incident.

So a PhD thesis written. A wedding cake designed, baked and delivered. So far so Charlie Sheen.* Just the ex-husband to face.

As it happens, he is trying to make it as a photographer and was doing the photos for the wedding. My friend didn’t have bridesmaids in the official sense but myself and another friend of hers did the hen weekend, travelled in the car with her to the ceremony and had pre-wedding pictures so it felt quite a bridesmaidy day for me.

I walked into the room as he was taking pictures of my best friend and welled up. She looked so beautiful! Oh yeah he was in the room but my heart just ached. I’ve known Samantha for five years and have known her as a single girl, I introduced her to her husband and saw them fall in love, move in together, get engaged and now she was standing in a corset and floor length skirt, a fur wrap about her shoulders and looking like a 1940s film star. My friend was getting married!

When I saw my ex-husband two years ago (when he showed up unannounced with the intention of upsetting me) he still had a fair amount of influence over me and I hadn’t appreciated what two years can achieve. In that time I have started a career, I have moved in with the fiancé and become a stepmother and look to the future that thrills and excites me. It was easy to be pleasant to my ex husband. He could have been anyone. It was a little surreal actually; rather like my past life was a film I had seen rather than something real. I suppose that is what moving on is.

Not that I’m totally serene. He made a disparaging comment about the cake which pissed me off but rather than take it to heart, from my table I made a gesture at his back which made my table companions laugh. I’m far from perfect but I delighted in realising it didn’t matter. He was wrong. He is a not terribly nice person who builds his self-esteem by putting others down. I have known this in an intellectual sense for years but suddenly I was viewing him with the same eyes as my fiancé, fellow non-bridesmaid and her partner. There was no offence to be taken, he was just a bit sad and trying to build rapport with the people he was trying to photograph. Meh!

I had a fantastic time at the wedding (and cried throughout the ceremony). The two non-bridesmaids and our partners even got to spend a couple of hours with the bride and groom walking around Chester Zoo. We were all dressed to the nines and drinking white wine as we looked at the animals. It was memorable for all the right reasons. The six of us get on well and plan to meet up again.

Early the next morning the fiancé and I drove up to Durham to submit my thesis. There was no end of drama as two print companies’ printers had broken, I then dropped the printed copies at the binders only to discover my supervisor was having a minor crisis that meant he’d had to go home. We drove to his house so he could sign off my paperwork only to return to find that the binders had closed early! We had to book a hotel room and collect them this morning (we might have been a little bit cross about this!) before driving South again.

But it is concluded. I’m not really a student any more but more than that, I’m not the person I used to be any more. I have the benefit of my experiences and will never forget but all is forgiven. I guess I just don’t have anything to be angry about. The fiancé has been a pillar of strength and all I can think about is where I am now and where I am going.

For the first time I can honestly say I wish my ex-husband well. For a long time I found the song Bittersweet by Eva Avila helpful; sitting here today, it sounds like the closing credits.

* Winning, not coke and hookers obviously!


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Ah the blank page...

Not that’s it’s ever blank for me. There were 10,361 words in this document before I typed a title that will change and then the date. Similarly at work a press release has a template with logos and contact details and even a new advert will begin with corporate colours. Still, it’s a familiar situation.

I do not want to write this column. I’m not feeling particularly well and I want to go to bed early and read or take a bath or watch an episode of CSI (blood and gore relaxes me) but that is not the point of the column. Much as I try to write content that will be interesting, really it’s all about me. It’s about a discipline and proving to myself that writer’s block is self indulgence.

It’s a self indulgence because with writer’s block you give yourself an out, an excuse not to work. By giving it a name you make it a symptom you are experiencing and you take it outside yourself. You evade a degree of responsibility and as so many people experience this it becomes an acceptable fact of life and is certainly not your fault.

The thing is of course is that there is generally an underlying reason and I think the one that affects me most is probably very common. I struggle to write because I fear criticism. After all, if I don’t say anything, I can’t be told I’m stupid/boring/inept. I hold back from writing because I want to wait until I have something good to say. I know this is absurd because writing improves with practice and the best way to go about it is to practise. Hence the commitment to 1,000 words a week. It’s far less about the content than it is about the process.

Today is a mix of the above and exhaustion so there is a degree of physical excuse but here I am typing away so clearly I wasn’t that exhausted. It might be gibberish (and frankly I don’t care – I think I’ll go for watching CSI in the bath and sit the laptop on the toilet lid) but I’m proving to myself that no matter how arduous, it is always possible to write.

376 words *sigh*

One thing that can be challenging about this blog (but which is the greatest joy for me about it) is that there is no topic. With so much possibility, it can be difficult to know where to start. The opposite is true for work where I often write within exceedingly narrow parameters. So I’m rather excited about a new writing project I’ve just got involved with. I am to be a new blogger for a special interest website!

It’s a subject close to my heart and something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m going to be adopting some ex-battery chickens and charting the journey on Poultry Keeper! I’m far from an expert so the blog will include my digestion of the information out there and how I applied it to my own birds.

I really love chickens. (Shall I nominate this sentence now for 2011’s low point?)

My mum kept bantams when I was growing up. Bantams are a small breed and produce dinky little eggs. If we had a fry up it was not uncommon to have three apiece and I owe much to my mum in becoming the cook I am today. So often in baking recipes you’re told that measuring is important but while she followed them for the most part, the quantity of egg was mostly guesswork and while I’m sure she had her failures I mostly just remember fabulous rock cakes warm from the oven when I got in from school. Just writing that brings back so many memories that I know I’ve a wealth of stories to fall back on in the new blog.

Since then I’ve had a small amount of contact with chickens at work. The Dean Heritage Centre has a fantastic recreated Forester’s Cottage with a vegetable garden (with an Anderson shelter) and animals; Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Ferrets that get taken for walks by our visitors and two lots of chickens. When I’m duty manager it’s my job to put the chickens to bed. One set are really good, the other have had me standing in the drizzle tossing grains into the coop and pretending I’m cheery as hell and not pining for a hot bath. I don’t love it but I don’t mind it. I actually find it quite entertaining the way the hens go by the mood of the cockerel and that he wants to go to bed anyway but is just putting on a bit of a show.

I’m certainly not idealistic about what keeping chickens will be like but I can’t wait. There’ll be a run attached to the coop but I like the idea of them being allowed the run of the garden now and again. I look forward to eggs (once they settle in and start laying) but I also look forward to the sound they make and their little routines. I’m excited about blogging because it’ll give me an excuse to take lots of pictures of them and it gives the whole thing a delightfully project like feel.

887 words (I’m getting there).

The end is in sight, I’m on the final stretch here and it wasn’t actually so bad. Sometimes we build tasks up in our mind so that they seem much bigger than they need to be. It is just 1,000 words after all and they don’t have to be brilliant or insightful or world altering, they just need to happen. Week on week. To prove that it is always possible to write and the key is to not give in to the excuse of writer’s block. After all, while this blog gets little in the way of editing, everything else I do gets lots of it and the most important thing is to have plenty of copy to begin with!


 
I’m eternally fascinated by social conditioning. Despite being so struck by the notion of religion being the opiate of the masses that I sought out a social sciences degree that combined sociology with philosophy and developing a nihilistic outlook following my father’s premature death (for the record, I’m a happy nihilist), I am as guilty of the next person of limiting my dreams due to rules I can neither pin down nor defend.

It’s not that I’m an anarchist but I do think a great many things get given undue importance. Unfortunately my beliefs are often at odds with my practise; I have always coloured within the lines (although should I slip up I seek destruction*). This means that I while I boast of a philosophy of a life less ordinary, I generally do as is expected of me. When I read my friend Trev’s Facebook status that ‘Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate’ I found myself defending the notion of meetings, blaming his idiocy on over two years of travelling.

But the fiancé has been reading Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-hour Work Week and this week I picked it up. Trev has been banging on about it for a while and it’s been vaguely on my to-read list but not a high priority compared to say the historical novel my brother’s girlfriend gave me for Christmas. You see while I have an interest in self-help type stuff** I’m the kind of consumer that reads and fails to take action. I loved How Proust can change your life but read de Botton largely for comfort not inspiration and while I think James with his Affluenza theory is spot on, I nevertheless am guilty at times of being sincere (as opposed to authentic), hyperactive (as opposed to vivacious) and playing games (as opposed to being playful). In short, I figured that while I would probably like the book, it would join my list of things I meant to do something about at some point and not change me.

How ordinary.

Because that’s what we do isn’t it? We read an inspirational book but nevertheless get pulled back into everyday life. This has its benefits of course (my mortgage has been approved and I am now cautiously optimistic that I will shortly be writing to a gorgeous Victorian townhouse from a 70s folly - there really is no other way to explain the heating and electrics) but in a conversation with Trev recently I put a happy face on my stresses to be met with the assertion that holidays were not everything.

This hit home. Not because of the profundity of the statement but because this was Trev talking to me. A couple of years ago we were in hammocks in Siem Reap with me asking him to mix my rum and coke because I was too drunk to find my way out of the fabric. Back then we were equally bad influences on each other and now I’m getting advice on the meaning of life. When did I forget? I knew it back in Cambodia when we watched the sun set and talked into the night.

I made a promise back then. I made a promise to the fiancé that we’d live a life less ordinary.

We’ve had some successes. In January he quit his job with nothing else lined up (yet before the day had a job offer). I was incredibly proud of his courage in doing this and was inspired by his confidence in the ideal we had set for ourselves. And yet it’s all to easy to start thinking of amazing lives as being for other people, to read The 4-hour Work Week and think ‘wow’ but then ‘not for the likes of me.’ This despite me moving to Malaysia and having demonstrated to myself that I absolutely can live an exciting life. When a work colleague quit to move to Australia I found myself thinking ‘lucky her’ and had to force myself to acknowledge that I wasn’t doing the same because I didn’t want to and not because I couldn’t.

This to me is the essence of social conditioning. Without effort, we revert to toeing the line like elastic bands snapping back into shape. There’s good reason for this as given my fondness for bins being collected, food being delivered, fuel at the petrol station and so forth, I wish for the continuance of this trend. The quest for a life less ordinary becomes egotistical then or, worse, a seeming avoidance strategy for the reality of growing up. Those that buck the trend require castigating as being irresponsible, immature and deviant.

But that isn’t really true. In quitting his unfulfilling job the fiancé demonstrated responsibility for his mental health, maturity in facing up to a deeply unsatisfactory situation and was actually exceedingly ordinary in wanting happiness (although perhaps a little rare in getting off his backside and doing something about it).

Really it comes down to being clear in your mind about what you want and not letting a rule book you didn’t write dictate to you. Kudos to Ferriss.

* When I was about 9 we took a school trip to Brimham Rocks and upon our return did an art project where we mixed poster paint with pva glue to create textured rock paintings. Mine went wrong so I needed to destroy the painting and my teacher (damn you Mr McNally!) wouldn’t let me. I tried to explain that it hurt but lacked the words. Today I think of it as sunburn on the inside of my skin (sometimes more the warm of ant bites when you sit on a nest) but fortunately have a diagnosis most people have heard of.

** If I’m tense and need an outlet, a Chicken Soup for the Soul inspired sob session works bloody wonders (this freaks the fiancé out no end: ‘But you hate people, why are you crying about their sacchariny story?’).

 
Following a comment on my column on Ownership by fellow blogger Rachel Cotterill, I have been thinking about taking things personally and was amused this week to find a compliment where an insult was intended. For a long time I have aspired to qualifying those that pass judgement on me as it seems daft to take to heart those I don’t respect the opinion of. As such, while my supervisor, my boss and my family can cut me down in an instant, I found myself delighted at someone who slated my column this week. You see, I’ve never had a critic before and it was good to read something in a dispassionate way. Unfortunately this individual limited his feedback to ‘truly awful’ so it wasn’t very constructive, although it did see my readership soar to this sites busiest Wednesday.

One area where you could perhaps be forgiven for taking things personally is in reading the Daily Mail. I am friends with two sisters on Facebook who post anti-feminist articles by the publication on each other’s walls and it generally amuses me when the recipient sister pulls out the most absurd statement. It is a given that the Daily Mail is a misogynistic engine seeking to salve the frustrations of life through blaming women.

This week’s article announced that Three-quarters of all important household decisions are made by women and what stood out to me was the notion that men are no longer the domineering head of the family as demonstrated by women making decisions such as what a couple ate and how they spent their money. My issue with this is that I wonder when this golden era was. Take my grandparents; Grandad went out to work and Nana stayed at home. She had a household allowance and with this purchased the food that she then cooked, dressed my mother and uncle and basically dictated their everyday lives. Compared with my own relationship, my Grandad had less influence over their day to day lives than the fiancé does over ours. The fiancé and I both work so he does more about the house; he orders our food online and as he cooks some of our meals, by default he gets to influence what we eat.

So what is at play here? I’m not arguing with the research, I just don’t think women running homes is anything new. While I am definitely one of the three-quarters who decides where we go on holiday I’d argue that is mostly due to conversations going as follows...

Me: I’d like a trip away.

The fiancé: Ok.

Me: Do you have any preferences?

The fiancé: Um...

Me: Let’s go to Barcelona.

The fiancé: Ooh that sounds good!

And then I look at dates and tell him when to request annual leave and book flights and accommodation because otherwise we’d never go. And he’s excited about going away but left to it he could go years without planning a holiday and did, when he was with his ex-wife who didn’t have much interest in holidays. I’ve said if he ever wants to do something or go somewhere to please let me know. After two years I got a suggestion last week that he’d like to go to Ireland. I’ll give him 2011 and then start looking at flights next year when he hasn’t booked anything.

I think it comes down to men being rather content to just go to work and I think a significant part of the appeal of being in a relationship for the fiancé is that I plan stuff for us. Left to his own devices he’d most likely rot in front of his Xbox in his pants surrounded by takeaway boxes and such activity is far more desirable as weekends when I go away than as a permanent state of things. I know he enjoys his weekends alone but he always seems thrilled when I return.

My more militant feminist friends see the description of the situation by the Daily Mail as one that women must fight; a situation that allows for assertiveness to be called nagging. I’m a bit reluctant to take that view as I don’t think it’s constructive. I think rising against those that are anti-women fuels the situation when those people are in a pretty clear minority.

Ultimately I don’t feel there’s much to defend; I see little that’s being restricted for me. In fact I’d go so far as to say that with articles such as this, the Daily Mail sounds as though it’s pleading a lost cause. I mean, women running households and men being ok with being looked after? It’s hardly the stuff of revolutions now is it?

The real issue I think is women not wanting true equality. The EU rulings on gender are a case in point. I was lean more towards statistics based policies but I think these need overhauling to ensure they are accurate. However, I’m happy to accept that this could make me worse off in areas of insurance beyond that of driving. It seems that a great many women don’t follow this logic unfortunately and I think there lies the real challenge of feminism.

There are plenty of women who want it all without repercussions or responsibility. They totally fail to see that everything requires a trade off, a compromise. They are so caught up in the notion of being wronged that they lose all grasp of what is fair or reasonable. There is plenty on the path to equality that is a zero sum game and not every gain can come at a cost to men, some must come at a cost to women. This seems to be a radical notion and that is where the challenge to feminism lies, not the Daily Mail.

The key thing about equality is that it isn’t personal. One of my favourite quotes comes from Fight Club; ‘You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else.’ Ultimately, I break a golden rule of the militant feminists, I ask men what they think is fair. A general consensus this week seems to suggest support for the EU ruling and as such I’m rethinking my position. Because it’s not personal; I’m pretty sure the men I’ve spoken to don’t hold their position out of a dislike of women and a desire to bring them down.

So embrace criticism. My critic has little to teach the world beyond the fact he’s quite a cross person but criticism of a desire for asymmetric equality by certain feminists saw my views attacked as being of that nature. They weren’t but I adjusted my views nonetheless on the basis of other aspects of the argument. It wasn’t personal you see.