Sunday, 25 January 2015

Relationships: Why it's OK to admit that you don't like saying goodbye

My husband went away this week and I must admit that I was relieved when he'd gone.

And as much as I'd love to be writing a post about that being because I was glad to have the house to myself, that I got a week off picking pants and socks off the floor, and that I spent the entire time listening to Magic FM, watching Coronation Street and surviving on a diet of crunchy peanut butter, hot chocolate and marshmallows, I'm afraid that's not what's on the cards (although, for the record, I did enjoy all of that very much).

No, it's because I hate saying goodbye. In fact, it makes me feel sick.

I've always been the same and not just with him. When I'm with my family at Christmas and we all eventually have to go our separate ways, when my best friend comes to stay and then she has to leave to go back to a whole different city, and when sport takes over ITV and makes me miss out on my favourite soap. I really don't like separation.

Absence does make the heart grow fonder, which doesn't do anybody any harm, but it also makes us vulnerable. It makes us admit that we miss people, that we wish we could be with them more, and that we have to be able to fend for ourselves without them (which, after having assessed my food choices, you're probably questioning whether I'm capable of doing).

You think you're done with being vulnerable when the early stages of a relationship are out of the way. You've been through the awkward parts, the nervous parts, the parts where you tell an anecdote about your brother finding you so annoying that he pushed a warm poached egg into your face and wonder whether they're ever going to call again. And then you settle into it and though you obviously have to keep making an effort, you're not afraid any more, you know where you stand (which, in my case, is absolutely nowhere near a cooked breakfast).

But then when one of you goes away, all your vulnerabilities come to pay you a visit. You stop caring so much about how terrible they are at turning the lights off in rooms they're no longer in (like, SO terrible), and how much better life would be if they could please remember to take one of your Bags for Life with them to Tesco instead of relentlessly bringing extra plastic ones home (AM I RIGHT, LADIES) and you just hope very much that they will come home safely and carry on their life with you. It gives you a little perspective.

I have written a lot before about how important it is to have time apart and I stand by that - it's very good for your collective health - but the bit when one of you actually has to leave is still hard. It suddenly makes you realise that the two of you are a little unit and that when one of you goes away, that unit becomes a little lop-sided. Of course you'll be fine - as discussed last week, you've got to have enough confidence to survive as a stand-alone human - but you're still allowed to acknowledge that farewells are not your favourite thing.

Sometimes you forget what a risk you take by investing everything in another person. You don't think about the power you have to shatter each other. But it's always there and goodbyes, even short term ones, can't help but remind you.

All you can do is crack on with your life and look forward to the next time you'll be together. The next family gathering, the next spa weekend with a chum, and the next opportunity to ask your other half whether he really thinks the bathroom floor is a suitable resting place for his undergarments.

Because, in your heart of hearts, you know you'd never want to say goodbye to that.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Where does your confidence come from?

So much of our confidence is informed by evidence. 

Every success, failure, romance, heartbreak, deliciously baked cake and inexplicably burnt fish finger contributes to our perception of our right to be deemed a worthwhile human being. 

But we're an unreliable witness to our own lives. It's very hard for us to see the bigger picture - that, actually, on balance, we're doing alright. OK, we're not nailing it in the removing-a-cake-from-the-tin-without-it-breaking-in-two department, and our sewing skills leave a lot to be desired, but we have friends and they don't care. A cake is still a cake, and they would very much like to eat it.

Our confidence is boosted and knocked down relentlessly - though often unintentionally - by all the people we interact with - friends, family, colleagues, that lady at the station who sometimes says she likes my hair and sometimes doesn't. On a daily basis we can leap from thinking we're the coolest kid on the block to the world's biggest moron as many times as we go to the bathroom (which in my case is quite a lot. It's important to keep hydrated). 

What we need more than evidence is belief; belief in ourselves as people that are worthy of good things - of kind treatment, nice times, and a second chance at proving that we can remember to grease the cake tin first. We need that base level of confidence so that if somebody does question our choice of jeans or job or fails to laugh at our joke in which we hilariously replaced the word 'awkward' with 'orchid', we know we're still alright. It needn't shake us too hard.

Being in a relationship can do wonders for your confidence. Regardless of the story you told them almost knocking yourself out on the way to a McFly concert because you were just SO. EXCITED, or using an aerosol can instead of a hammer to construct a bedside table, they think you're interesting enough to sometimes justify turning off the X-Box mid-game. And that feels good (though discovering that there's actually just been a power cut feels less good).

But the risk is that, if you'd not yet managed to come to the conclusion by yourself that you were a worthwhile human being before they came along and told you so, you might forget to make sure you actually believe it. You might let yourself think that it's that person who justifies you, instead of you.

Having somebody who loves you gives you some marvellous evidence to add to the case for your confidence - I recommend that you pin it to the wall and point at it daily. And you each have a huge role to play in giving the other a much needed boost every now and then (as discussed last week in my chat about the importance of pep talks), but for that to stick, you've got to have your own firm layer of confidence to start from. Otherwise, what are you going to do when they're out? Or when you socialise without them? Or when you're telling your orchid joke for the fifteenth time and people are STILL not laughing?

Oh yes, be buoyed, be supported, be delighted by their belief in you - hell, have a bloody massive grin about it for it is the greatest thing - but be sure to make time to take a strong dose of it for yourself too.

Because otherwise, in a fight between you and a broken cake or a burnt fish finger, it's going to be them that wins. And we both know that that you deserve better than that. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Relationships: How to give a good pep talk

Relationships don't generally come with a job description - and that is for the best as that would be weird. 

But in some ways one would be useful, to help you prepare for the unexpected tasks that'll come your way. Participation in daily games of 'have you seen my keys/phone/wallet?' is one example, as is negotiating Sock Mountain which mysteriously forms at the end of the bed each week, despite the ready availability and easy-to-lift lid of the laundry basket.

And another is always being available to give a pep talk.

Now, if you hold the same level of contempt for sport as I do (it's high, it's very high) then you won't have paid much attention to the pep talk element of films before. It's that bit where the coach tells the sports people that they're all champions whether they win or lose but *spoiler* they always then win because that's what happens when everybody wears matching jackets and makes speeches set to music, apparently.

But when you're in a relationship - your own personal team which you very much want to do well - it's you that has to give the motivational speeches. Because, as I've said before, you're in charge of holding each other up against whatever might happen to come your way. Jobs will be hard, people will be tricky and sometimes Tesco will run out of chocolate covered raisins and you're going to have to help each other through it.

Sometimes a person is just going to come right out and ask for one - they're going to say, hey, I'm struggling and I need you to talk me down. But that will only come from somebody who knows what they need which, in my case, took about five years to learn. In the run up to such knowledge came many tantrums, throwing around of the arms and expressions of "I AM VERY UPSET AND I DON'T KNOW WHY!" My arms were constantly flailing from approx 2005 - 10, FYI.

But then there are the other kind - the more common genre - the kind that you have to force upon a person, which will come about more regularly. You will notice that the other person is in need of a boost, probably before they've realised themselves. Perhaps confidence is lacking, or they're trying to conquer an age-old demon (fear of absolutely everybody in the world thinking I'm a total dickhead is a favourite of mine), or maybe they're just overtired and need to be reminded that everything will look much better in the morning.

And in any of these cases, what you need to do, is take it upon yourself to hit that person hard with the truth. Perhaps they are being over-sensitive but you understand why, or maybe they've taken on too much and they're getting stressed out, or perhaps their view of the world is being hampered by the poor performance of some rugby team they care an unhealthy amount about. Whatever it is, you've got to break it to them; it's your duty.

And after that come the niceties, the compliments, the reminders that they are in fact a super swell person who you have gone so far as to marry/move in with/go on a date with more than once. You get to tell them that they are actually a very decent/reasonable/rational human really, they just needed to be reminded. It's really a very nice part of the job.

In fact, it's one of the best parts - not just in marriage, but in other relationships too, with friends or family - it's a privilege to know somebody well enough to be able to have a conversation that makes them feel better, to reassure them that they're not doing life wrong. Because sometimes it's just very hard to tell, isn't it.

This is just another part of relationships that nobody warns you about and that nobody sees, but that actually quietly defines you.

Thankfully the same cannot be said for discussions about Sock Mountain.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Goal for 2015: Be less afraid

A very happy 2015 to one and all.

With all the festive excitement out of the way, my mind has turned to plans for the year ahead and, inevitably, to resolutions. And after much thought I have realised that all of mine fall under one heading: Be Less Afraid. 

Although in some cases a spot of fear helps to keep you safe (for example, when I was offered the opportunity to get into an enclosure at a reptile park in Bali with a crocodile for a photograph, I politely declined on account of my fear of being eaten alive), it can also be rather restricting.

A fear of pitching will massively reduce my chances of getting more writing work and I'd very much like some; a fear of judgement means I may never speak to anybody again and I LOVE a good chat; and a fear of making bad decisions means I may have to opt out of making any decisions whatsoever, which in itself feels like a bad decision. I also haven't been to the dentist for six years because I'm scared, but I do rather like having teeth so I'm just going to have to grin and bear it (and maybe ask my mum to come with me). These fears will only hold me back when I'd really rather be moving forward. 

A fear of what people think is the trickiest of all to shake. My aim this year is to remember that it is not something that anybody can control (and also that most people spend most of their time thinking about themselves and when they will next get to eat or go to bed. I know I do). Of course there are ways to influence it - be nice and people will most likely think that you're nice; behave like a tool and people will probably just stop texting you back - but beyond that, we can only waste time wondering. All that thinking might make us miss a nap or a meal and that just won't do.

I had a big sort through my tights and socks drawer yesterday (just like every out of control party girl does on a Saturday afternoon) and I adopted a policy to help me decide what to bin - does this bring me joy? When working through a collection of tights so laddered it's a wonder I haven't yet been arrested for indecent exposure, it's quite easy to answer that question, but I'd like to try and apply it to other parts of my life (or at least everything over which I have a choice/control. Emptying the dishwasher definitely does not bring me joy but eating cheese from each and every clean plate in it certainly does. You've got to take the rough with the smooth). I will give it a go and if the answer is no then, where possible, I just won't do it.

It looks and sounds very bold and clear when written out but this sh*t is very hard to crack. But writing it down is a start, as is realising that doing the opposite will only keep you awake at night (which is no good for me as I'm also afraid of the dark).

So yes, less fear, fewer pointless attempts at mind reading and more joy will make for a lovely 2015. Because what is the point of doing anything else? If it's not going to get me eaten by a reptile or make me miss out on too many meals, I reckon it's worth the risk. 

And you?

Sunday, 28 December 2014

2014 in review: 21 useful things I learnt this year

There's a reason every single person on the internet is busy writing a 2014 round-up: because we all love to have an annual look-back on our lives.

We don't make enough time for it. The most we allocate is a few seconds each day to realising that the tweet we wrote that morning wasn't funny, or to regretting wearing that pair of tights that always falls down. It's not really reflection, just instant short term regret.

So at this time of year when we've nothing to do but sit down, eat and watch Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em re-runs, we have the perfect opportunity to take a little glance over our shoulder at the year gone by and think about what we've done - for better or for worse.

I'm currently mentally preparing a strong list of resolutions (another ground-breaking blog post in the making) but I can't do that until I've benefited from a little retrospect. So here it is - a few of the things I learnt in 2014. I hope you'll find at least one or two of them useful.

1. Rhubarb is a delicious addition to a cocktail. 'Tis super sweet, mind, but glorious if you don't prioritise the health of your teeth. 2. There's no better tune to dance around your house to than Does Your Mother Know by ABBA. Try it, I'm not wrong. 3. Japan is a marvellous place. The people are oh so friendly, the food is lush, and you don't have to be a child to get into Disneyland Tokyo, thank GOODNESS. The only downside is that when your holiday's over, you have to go home. 4. Kitchen refurbishments take longer than you think. It turns out that the novelty of ordering take-away can wear off. Who knew? 5. Writing in the morning is the nuts. You're surprisingly awake and productive after a big night's sleep. Well, DUH.

6. Good friends really come into their own in times of crisis. And for that I will always be grateful. 7. Some prawns contain histamine, which explains why I often get an itchy nose after a stir fry. I KNOW RIGHT. 8. Even highly successful, famous people feel like a bit of a dick sometimesas I found out at this year's Mumsnet Blogfest. So either suck it up or quit forever. That thick skin will keep you lovely and warm during the winter months. 9. Don't forget to celebrate your achievements. I bought two pairs of boots with my first freelance monies and sing "These boots were paid by working" to the tune of "These boots were made for walking" whenever I wear them (even though it doesn't really make sense). I didn't get paid for being good at puns, OK? 10. Don't be afraid to admit when you are struggling. There will always be somebody out there who can help you. Always.

11. Homemade fish and chips are delicious. However, deep frying them in a pan of oil without the use of a thermometer will set the smoke alarm off at least three times and make my husband - the most patient man in the world - completely lose his sh*t. 12. Tina Fey's autobiography 'Bossypants' is the greatest thing that has ever happened. Seriously. 13. You're never too old to just start crying because you're too tired. All you can hope for is the wisdom to know that that is what's the matter with you. Either that or a very patient spouse/friend who will work it out for you. 14. Mindfulness is the answer to so many of the world's problems. If you haven't tried it yet then I strongly recommend that you do. It's hard work but wonderfully calming. 15. Drinking a whole bottle of champagne before cooking chicken satay will add an extra element of danger to proceedings (and possibly a little more chilli than you'd originally planned.) 16. Dyeing your hair a completely different colour is like putting on an invisibility cloak. My closest family and friends still struggle to recognise me. Shall I use my new powers for good or for evil?

17. Avocado is the greatest thing ever to happen to breakfast. That may be the most middle class thing I've ever said and I stand by it. 18. If you want to run a successful blog, you need a plan. It may have been the hottest weekend of the year but the time I spent at Blogcademy was unbelievably useful. Being a grown-up means being delighted to pay money to learn loads more stuff. 19. No longer reading The Metro and cutting down on my use of Facebook are two of the best decisions I have made all year. I now read more books and feel less bad about my social life. I believe they call that WINNING. 20. Never underestimate the power of the gift of a bag of sweets. Pure joy costs no more than £1.49. 21. Marriage is about holding each other up - sometimes physically - against whichever troubles, stresses or incompetent kitchen fitters happen to come your way. You must always be ready to put your arms out.

And you?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Relationships: 4 benefits of spending Christmas apart

In every other way we're pretty conventional.

We live together, we eat together, we have regular arguments about whose turn it is to take the bin out... we're everything you'd expect a married couple to be. Except at Christmas.

Because despite our vows and our rings and that little Mr and Mrs ornament we've got above our bed (the Mr of which keeps mysteriously falling down, which I'm hoping is not an omen), we don't spend Christmas together.

But don't worry, it's a good thing. And here's why:

1. Christmas is a logistical nightmare
Christmas is the only time of year when we get to spend proper time with our families. And so, for just a few precious days, we choose to do that instead of being together. Of course if we had come from the same family we would get to spend Christmas in the same place, but they wouldn't have let us get married if that were the case, would they? And because our parents rudely didn't foresee that their son/daughter would inevitably marry each other in 2013, they didn't buy houses in the same street. In fact, they're a good couple of hours apart so in the absence of a car, our only options for a Christmas mash up between families is either walking, or a taxi fare we could only pay for if we remortgaged our house. So instead we opt for sending each other off with presents and good wishes for our respective in-laws and the promise of a post-festive season meet up to help take the edge off the January blues. As far as I'm concerned, everyone's a winner (and we'll see what everybody else thinks after they've opened their gifts).

2. We get to have a bonus Christmas before the main event
But just because we don't spend the big day together, it doesn't mean we don't get to have our own dose of festive fun. Today, in fact, is our Christmas Day which we have renamed BINGE FEST as we're spending most of the day eating (and because we're exceptional at naming things). It's very similar to a normal Christmas - we have presents, we drink booze and we might even throw in a quick argument about who is or is not sufficiently pulling their weight in cooking the dinner, in the name of tradition. The festive spirit is very much alive and well in this house.

3. Telephones exist
This blog is nothing if not way ahead of the times. So I am here to tell you that telephones exist and enable you to talk to people who are in different towns. And we use those very things to stay in touch whilst we're apart. It's so nice to have a phone conversation that's about what we've been up to and how we are, rather than just what we want for tea or to ask if we've got any peanut butter in the house. Sometimes we even dabble in a little Skype too if we're feeling ambitious and want to take a gander at the presents we've each been given. It's nice to have an early glance at the socks I'm going to inevitably end up picking up off the floor at home.

4. It makes New Year worth looking forward to 
If Atomic Kitten, Five and Eternal have taught us anything, it's that big reunions are a very good idea. And we get to have our very own one every year. We cry, we catch up, and we perform all our original hits in front of a live audience (OK, one of those is a lie. He's never been much of a crier). And it's nice to have something to look forward to after Christmas. We reunite in time for New Year with just enough time to unpack and eat a few chocolate coins before heading out to be mutually disappointed by whatever we do to celebrate December 31st.

And so we go on with our lives. I'm sure we will have to change our ways at some point, but not before we've had children, bought a car, or our parents have seen the error of their ways and become next door neighbours.

But for now I must get back to eating all the cheese, crisps, sweets and mince pies we bought for binge fest. Nobody is going anywhere until this lot is gone.

Perhaps we won't be going home for Christmas after all.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

How to buy Christmas presents for your other half

Your approach to Christmas shopping changes when you're in a long term relationship.

When you first start dating it's like a contest to see who can buy the other the most stuff. Spending all your cash feels like the perfect way to demonstrate your joy at being coupled up at Christmas time - and nothing says 'I love you' better than a giant pile of wrapping paper and a bankruptcy notice.

But then things get serious. And the festive season stops being about proving how much you adore your other half by buying them a different cuddly toy for each of the 12 days of Christmas. You've got other priorities now so you need a strategy to ensure it doesn't swallow all your money, take over your home, and leave you queuing outside the divorce courts on Boxing Day morning. And I suggest that strategy looks something like this:

1. The budget 
A strong mantra to live by when Christmas shopping is: Let's not do anything we're going to regret in January. Sure, that 75 inch television would bring a huge smile to his face, but not when you announce upon opening that as a result of this purchase, you will not be able to go on holiday again until the turn of the next millennium. (Also, if you want to have any actual conversations in 2015, I suggest you leave that thing in the shop). Nope, there comes a time when you need a firm and agreed budget to prevent everybody from going so crazy that you have to live on dry pasta until the next yuletide comes around. But it doesn't take all the fun out of it - quite the opposite - with a successfully on-budget set of gifts comes the perfect opportunity for a Christmas high-five, and what could be better than that?

NB: In the end, happiness in long term relationships is predominantly demonstrated through high fives. If you don't like them, I suggest you get out now.

2. The smaller the better 
I haven't looked at the stats but I am pretty confident that 'clutter' is the most common reason marriages end in divorce. Not adultery, not fundamentally disagreeing about the validity of Love Actually as a film (though I must admit, we have come close), but all that stuff that couples own but can't figure out where to put. So when it comes to Christmas shopping your first thought (after deciding whether they'll actually like the thing, of course) is how much space it will take up in your house. Because you're going to have to live with it and you don't want there to come a day when you're shouting at your other half for owning something that you bought them. I'm pretty sure that 'proving to be a bit of a dick' is an available option on divorce papers too.

3. The bargain present 
A close friend of number 2 is the gift which has been purchased on the proviso that it replaces a current offending belonging. It might be a t-shirt to replace the one with 'FBI: Female Body Inspector' written across it from his hilarious acronym phase, or perhaps it's a pair of boxer shorts with a warning that if he doesn't throw away the pair with so many holes in them that they're nothing short of obscene, you're going to call the police. These presents say 'I love you but enough is enough'.

4. One for you, one for me
When you live in the same house, apart from going to the toilet, shaving your legs and stomping off upstairs because the other person has been SO UNREASONABLE as to fail to telepathically work out that you'd have liked them to dust the skirting boards while you were out, you do most things together. And you soon realise that if there's a present you can buy them which can be enjoyed by more than one person at once, that person is most likely going to be you. And so you start to get clever. Tickets to plays you would both enjoy start finding their way onto your shopping list and subscriptions to TV packages that just happen to host your favourite shows as well as theirs suddenly look like ideal presents. You're not being selfish, you've just found a way to both give and receive at exactly the same time and I think Father Christmas would be proud of you.