Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

Advertisements

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

The self-esteem and female body image problem

It’s no secret that women and girls often struggle with the way they look. Magazines, television, film, adverts, magazines, and any other kind of visual media always have a lot to say about how women look and what’s right and wrong. Even the places that you’d think would be supportive, like magazines aimed at women, tend to show perfect pictures or airbrushed women and then spend a lot of space and column inches telling you how to spend money so you can look the same. Most of the time, discussions of women’s insecurity focusses on being slim and losing weight, particularly as the fashion industry continue to use often unhealthily thin women to promote their often unwearable clothes. As someone who is more than averagely slim, I think people sometimes assume that I must not be so affected by this constant push for perfection. On the contrary. I have had issues with the way I look since I was eleven years old, and I’ve realised lately that even though I’m much more conscious of the social rules that have made me feel this way, that hasn’t actually helped me see myself in a more realistic light.

When I was growing up, people were always telling me I was too thin. I got called names: stick insect, twiglet, twiggy, and so on, and people would ask me in the lunch queue if I was anorexic. Whenever I went to the doctor they would ask me unsubtle questions to try and find out if I had an eating disorder –  I never did, not even close, I ate loads, but had my father’s fast metabolism and never put on any weight. My mum got used to doctor appointments always ending with me in tears because I was so tired of people looking at me and assuming I had a serious mental illness. Looking back, I do look unhealthily thin. I hated it but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Boys would snigger at me and make jokes behind their hands and friends were whispering between themselves about my eating habits right into university. To this day I hate eating in front of people because I think they’re judging how much I’m eating and whether I go straight to the bathroom when I’ve finished.

I remember when I was in my early teens I saw a quote from Jennifer Aniston in a magazine which I cut out and kept for years: “You’re damned if you’re thin and you’re damned if you’re too fat. It’s impossible to please everyone and I suggest we all stop trying.” It was one of the first times I saw someone acknowledge that this was a thing, that people who were considered too thin were ostracised too. As I grew up I kept hearing things that made me feel worse. That men only like curvy women, and that nobody finds models attractive because they’re too skinny. For me, it all focussed on one area in particular: breasts.

This is a topic I’ve felt such deep shame about that I’ve barely ever spoken to anybody about it: I don’t talk to friends about it, I never mentioned it to a therapist I saw for two years despite it being a huge source of low self-esteem. I always felt like people were laughing at me about it, but now I realise how much of the problem has been feeding and growing on its own in my head all this time.

Right from age ten or eleven, I could see how important big breasts were. My crush in primary school had pictures of Lara Croft pasted all over his workbooks, and he used to obsess over the curvy drawings like a man (boy) possessed. He also fancied my best friend, who developed far earlier than I did. Boys passed around magazines full of women with big breasts in RE, and men on buses were staring openly at page 3 models. Girls in teenage novels I read were constantly trying to improve their busts to attract boys, and everywhere I looked were films and TV programmes saying the bigger the boobs, the better. As I hit puberty and started to develop in some limited way, I looked around in vain for someone who looked the same as me. The only people who looked similar were models, and everyone had told me they weren’t attractive because they were too thin.

Keira Knightley was one of the first famous women I saw who had very small breasts, and who also gave very few fucks about the fact. Her producers did, and over the years I’ve read many interviews with her complaining about being “enhanced” in adverts and film posters and magazine covers. One great quote from her after a Chanel advert was: “I don’t know whose those are, but they aren’t mine.” When I was about seventeen she was voted the sexiest actress of the year by Empire, and I felt a bit more hopeful. But it was still a drop in a bucket against the constant comments and cultural references to the fact that only big breasts were sexy.

At my lowest points, I considered surgery. Even websites advertising clothes showed this perfect curvy silhouette you were meant to achieve, and all I could see was that I didn’t look like that. I watched some godawful daytime TV programme where a woman had a breast enhancement and she was grinning all over the shop. I felt miserable and alone. I was always too afraid to do anything about it but I did believe it would make me happier. Boyfriends had to deal with me constantly putting myself down: compliments rolled off me like water off a duck’s back. I realised recently that in over ten years of dating, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times men have complimented me on my breasts and I’ve genuinely believed them. 99% of them I’ve immediately discounted what they’ve said as them trying to make me feel better, firmly convinced that actually they would much rather I had bigger, bouncier breasts for them to- do I don’t really know what with. Use as a pillow maybe.

The psychological block on my own breasts was so strong that for a few years I wore totally the wrong size bra. Bra shopping was always a mental torment, usually utterly dispiriting and frequently also ended in tears (and no purchases). I was a 32A for years and then they became uncomfortable in my early 20’s. Convinced I couldn’t be anything other than an A, I switched to a 34A for a few more years before finally becoming too irritated with none of them bloody fitting and getting someone to measure me. Turned out I needed a 32C. I was amazed and overjoyed; emotions immediately punctured by my mother when I told her what the woman had said: “Don’t be ridiculous! You can’t possibly be a C.” I felt two inches tall, and never completely recovered that joyful feeling, despite the evidence clearly showing me that my mother was wrong and I was (and am) a 32C, based on the fact that they fucking fit (well, as well as one size ever fits, am I right ladies? It’s never a certainty, like sizes in jeans. That’s why bra and jeans shopping are THE ABSOLUTE WORST).

Despite my new size and the small increase in confidence it brought, I still felt like I wasn’t good enough. This was reinforced every time I went bra shopping, a) by the pictures of stunningly curvy (yet slim) women plastered over the walls and b) by the fact that half the bras are extra padded and many of them scream things like “INCREASES BREAST SIZE BY UP TO THREE CUP SIZES!!” I once tried on one of these apparently magic bras only to discover that there was no room for any breast tissue. Literally, none. I actually got horribly embarrassed and triple checked the label, thinking I’d picked up a bra for women who’d had a mastectomy by mistake. Although I thought that one was a bit extreme, I still believed that wearing bras that showed me au naturel were not attractive, not pleasing to the eye, and that people would be judging me for it. I kept looking worriedly at the “BOOST YOUR BOOBS!!” bras until very recently, when my partner and I were browsing bras and I pointed out one of these bras saying that it looked pretty uncomfortable because there was no room for you. He said: “Well yeah, plus if you’re wearing something like that, I can’t feel you- I’m just feeling this padding.” He said it softly, almost delicately, and it suddenly dawned on me that I might have been totally misjudging the whole thing for years. I have always been going on looks, big equalling good, because that’s what I’ve been taught. But just as important, perhaps, is feel. I had barely even considered this from the man’s perspective like that, assuming that seeing massive boobs and lots of cleavage was the one and only important thing.

This reminded me of a moment in Sex and the City, when the topic of the episode is whether honesty is the best policy. A guy says: “My wife’s recently had a boob job. They look fantastic – they feel like shit. I keep that information to myself.” And of course it’s not just feel for your partner – it’s feel for you too. One of the reasons I never got beyond fretful worrying about having a breast enhancement was because you lose the sensitivity in your breasts and nipples. I was deeply saddened to hear recently that many girls not yet out of their teens are having breast surgery: their breasts haven’t even stopped growing, and they’ll never get a chance to fully appreciate how sexually sensitive their breasts might be. Another reason this is so sad is because a study I read about recently showed that women with low self-esteem who have boob jobs generally do not feel an increase in their self-esteem afterwards. They have had serious surgery, and will need more in years to come so that the implants don’t cause serious issues as the plastic starts to decay, and they still have the same mental issues that they had before. This all goes to prove for me: it’s all in my head. Especially as another study said that self-esteem is lower in women with big breasts than small ones. I was absolutely astonished when I read that. Here was I assuming that if I had some other size boobs then everything would be glorious, and there are these women wishing to god they didn’t have what I thought I wanted. What I’d never really thought about were the cultural perceptions there are of women with large breasts – that they’re easy, or stupid, or something else equally ridiculous.

I hear every day from somewhere that you need to accept the way you look if you ever want to be happy.  For a long time I thought I felt better about my breasts because I realised that never wanting to take your top off because you’re too shy is definitely not sexy. I tried to fake confidence to get over the problem, and quite often it works. But it’s still not quite the same as genuine confidence. Blimey, if they sold that stuff by the bottle, I’d set up a subscription. But the problem can only really be solved by less faking. Less fake bras, fake boobs, faked pictures. Stop making everyone assume that they have to make whatever they have bigger. And that’s just for my particular bugbear, I’m sure other people have different ones: thighs, stomach, legs, whatever it is. It’s exhausting constantly comparing yourself to other people, real or elsewhere, and finding yourself wanting. It’s every day, so many times a day, and all the time I have to remind myself that I have a set of deeply ingrained standards in my head that are not real. I’m quite sure I have a body dysmorphia issue where most of the time I look in the mirror I don’t see what’s really there. Maybe I still see myself as I was when I was a teenager, and my brain hasn’t refreshed the image properly.

We need help not getting into these mental traps to begin with, by not being given the same repeated message over and over again about what is and isn’t attractive. Websites like Beauty Redefined are doing amazing work in this area, challenging full stop the notion that women should be judged first and foremost on how they look – which is, sadly, still the case a large proportion of the time. It needs to change as soon as can be, as so many girls and young women these days are going on diets, or considering surgery, and generally building up a bank of negative self-esteem to make them feel shit about themselves well into their twenties, and beyond. There is a great quote from Tina Fey on body image, showing how utterly impossible it is for anyone to ever achieve “perfection”: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.” As Jennifer Aniston said all those years ago: it’s impossible to please everyone. We need to stop trying, and stop being told to try.

I’ve focussed on female body image in this post, because that’s what I know best, but it should be noted that men can really struggle with this too. The media push the idea that men need to be incredibly muscular to be attractive to women, which is patently untrue. Although it is easier for men in some ways in that there are plenty of examples in the news and popular culture of less attractive males being with beautiful women, it is still a big issue that prompts many men to develop eating disorders or take ridiculous numbers of protein shakes. It’s odd that although I was well aware of this when I was growing up, and whenever a male friend mentioned it to me I assured him that women wanting men to look like an Action Man was a myth, I never turned it around to think that the standards women were aspiring to were possibly false too. It goes to show how internalised these messages are, that we apply these standards to ourselves when we don’t push them on to other people.

 

Jealousy

I watched this TED talk today on jealousy and envy, a topic I find fascinating. Parul Sehgal argues that although jealousy is an emotion which is pervasive throughout the human and animal world, she has never read a scientific paper which explains it as well as various novelists have managed to do. I’ve never attempted to read a scientific paper about jealousy and how it affects us, but I’ve certainly read novels which have included or confronted it, and which have explained it in ways that made me think YES! I know that feeling. Sehgal suggests that jealousy exposes us to ourselves in a way that few other emotions do, uncovering our aggression, our ambition, and our entitlement. I have certainly had times when feeling jealous has made me fear my own strength, or made me realise how much I want something, or how much I think I should have something, and I can’t think of another emotion that brings that range of feelings quite so sharply to the fore.

I find it bewildering when people say they are not jealous. I always think it must be so wonderful and calm. My first long-term boyfriend was chronically jealous, and I know for a fact he made me a lot worse. We used to wind each other up with it, sending each other on those awful bitter spirals of pain and irritation, dwelling incessantly on tiny insignificant details. He would get jealous about things that I didn’t think he would be bothered about, but I feel like he told me things on purpose that he knew I would pick over. As Sehgal says, jealousy loves information. That awful feeling you have when you’re feeling shitty but you want something to feed it, even though you know you’re going to be miserable afterwards. In a novel I just read, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, it’s explained as that feeling when you really want to pick a scab even though it will make you bleed.

Facebook is the absolute worst for this. You are open to a whole wealth of information you do not need and would never normally have access to, especially photographs. We have a visual history of our current and former partners and it can be a royal pain in the arse. Photographs are so difficult because they are so immediate – you look at a picture and even though you know it was taken a month or a year or a decade ago it feels like it’s happening right now. And nobody takes a picture when they’re in the middle of a blazing row with a partner or when they’ve gone out for a sad and sulky dinner. We are always happy in our facebook pictures, always smiling, presenting the life we want others to think we are leading (Sehgal says the currency of social media is envy, because we are all so busy trying to make ourselves look perfect and make others jealous of the amazing times we’re having).

I am a whole lot better at all this than I used to be. When I was 17 with that first boyfriend I felt crap about myself, so of course it was easy for negative jealous emotions to come in and stir up every other awful thing I’d ever thought. I have a vivid imagination and as Sehgal says, we tell ourselves stories about other people’s lives when we feel jealous, and as both author and audience, we put in all the crap that makes us feel worst about ourselves. We construct elaborate tales of people popping back into our partner’s lives and convincing them that we’re a waste of space, because we didn’t do so well in that presentation and we STILL haven’t used that effing gym membership and really, they shouldn’t be with us because don’t you think she’s been looking a bit too thin/fat lately?

Of course, it’s not just in relationships that we feel jealous. There are a lot of things I don’t get jealous about at all, but if someone gets a better essay mark than me, I’m jealous. If someone is a better dancer than me and hasn’t been dancing as long as I have, I’m jealous. These emotions generally pass quite quickly, but they show me what the things are in my life that I care about and want to be the best at. Even if I’ve got a really good grade, or feel like I’ve been dancing well, it’s easy to suddenly feel like crap when you compare yourself to somebody else.

I still have bad days now and again, because feeling jealous is a habit as much as anything else and it’s a tough one to crack. It preys on days when you’re feeling insecure about yourself, especially if you’re also bored or at a loose end, and can take over every thought in your head if you let it. Another point from the TED talk that I thought was very true was that when you’re in one of these spirals, the line between what is real and what could be real can be pierced so easily. The worst thing about that is, if you tell yourself this long and involved story where your partner ends up telling you you’re shit and to take a hike, your brain and body react in the same way as they would if it was real. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between the emotion being in your imagination and it happening in real life. If I imagine having an angry and upsetting conversation with someone, I’m going to get almost as tense and irritable as I would if it was actually happening. If I sit and brood on awful and deeply unlikely scenarios for ten minutes, I’m going to come round feeling miserable. And pathetic, because I know I’ve inflicted it on myself for that grim thrill of pulling the scab off, even though I regret it the instant the blood runs down my skin.

As I’ve got older I’ve got a lot better at telling jealous, putting myself down type thoughts to take a seat, especially in the last year or so when I’ve been on my own and pretty much doing what the hell I like and working on feeling good about myself. I used to not be able to bear hearing about a partner’s previous relationships without wanting to hit something or vomit, but I’m okay about it most of the time now. I no longer take all those details down as things to fret about later, but just acknowledge that this is part of this person’s life, I want to know about them so I want to hear it, and they’re with me now so who cares?

It’s all about having that security in myself to not worry about things that I don’t need to worry about, and in the case of relationships, to trust people. Sehgal’s solution to jealousy is to step outside it and align ourselves with the person we’re jealous of, which makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been jealous of people before and then when I’ve got to know them found that they weren’t the pictures of perfection I’d drawn in my head, but were a lot like me and had their own things that they worried about. When I’m feeling insecure or prone to feeling jealous, I try to remember that everyone feels like this sometimes, and it’s no reason to go ticking off lists of things I’ve done wrong or start dwelling on possible but entirely improbable things that I would hate to happen. It seems a whole lot healthier just to think ‘nope, you don’t need to worry about this’ and think about something else. Or do a search for golden retriever puppies.

What have you put up with in a relationship that you really shouldn’t have?

I started putting this blog post together a few weeks ago, and was called back to it by reading this article about a girl who still believed her boyfriend was faithful even after seeing pictures of his wedding on facebook. The comments underneath show that many intelligent people put up with a lot of bullshit in relationships, even though maybe they know they should pack their bags and walk, and then afterwards feel serious guilt and shame for not leaving sooner.

This is a list of things that I or friends of mine have put up with in relationships. They happen to be female experiences in straight relationships, just because that’s who I’ve happened to talk to most about it. I’m pretty sure all of you will have stories like these, regardless of gender and orientation, and feel free to send them over and I’ll add them to the list. It’s strange to see what we all will endure, especially when we are very young and unsure of ourselves. I hope this is comforting to some of you to know that you are not alone in having gone out with some total morons J It’s difficult to say why exactly people put up with behaviour which is, to an outside observer, completely unacceptable. For me I think a lot of it is to do with self esteem. And sometimes you blank out from yourself how awful something is and it’s only when you see the expression on a friend’s face when you tell them about it that you realise how bad it is.

Warning: some of these are mostly funny and silly, some definitely are not and may be upsetting.

  • An hour-long argument before going out because they thought what you were wearing was “too slutty”
  • I dated a guy who thought the withdrawal method was valid for preventing STIs. After we broke up I got tested, and checked with the doctor about it, who looked at me pityingly. I texted the guy to tell him that was not a reliable method of preventing infection, and if he’d been doing that with other people he should get tested. He said I was the only person he’d done that with. Well, thanks for only putting me at risk, that’s sweet
  • On saying “send them my love” when they are on the phone to their family, being accused of flirting with his brother
  • Being guilt-tripped into sex. Which was usually mutually unsatisfactory (unsatisfactory for you because you weren’t in the mood, and for them because they felt too guilty afterwards)
  • Enduring a 1-2 hour sulk because they were jealous that you got upset when Cedric Diggory died in the film Goblet of Fire
  • I was dating a guy who didn’t want to have sex with a condom. It was either no condom, or no sex.
  • His friends having a running joke that one of them wants to rape you. To the point that they recorded a video of him threatening you. Then your boyfriend remembered that he “loved” you and deleted it
  • Being told that he would prefer it if I didn’t wear short skirts as he had just spent a year in Africa and women don’t show their legs there and it makes him uncomfortable
  • Eyes rolling whenever you make a valid argument because he thinks you’re being an irrational/ hysterical woman
  • Cancelling on your friends to be with them, on the phone and saying “I’m so sorry I can’t come” getting off the phone and them having a go about the word sorry and are you sorry that you are with them and how dare you.
  • Them not bothering to get up after sex when you’ve gone round for the evening, and suggesting that you “let yourself out”
  • I’m sorry this is awful, but – being weed on in the shower and then after saying that you would rather they didn’t as it’s a bit strange and disrespectful, them having a full on shout about how unreasonable you are
  • Sleeping on the floor because you are afraid they are going to hurt you but that area at night is more dangerous.
  • Not letting you have a facebook account because that was apparently an intimation you wanted to sleep around
  • Knowing that the guy I was dating kept chatting with some other girl, but pretending it was just a friend. A week after he broke it off with me they are together on FB. I knew it, but I just didn’t want to know it…
  • Them pulling your hair when they think you aren’t paying enough attention
  • My ex asked me what I’d do if someone flirted with me in a pub. I told them I’d say I was in a relationship, so no thank you. Then we had an argument because I didn’t say no because no, but because I was with someone, so if I wasn’t, would I go out with them? I tried to explain I was just trying to be polite but apparently I was being a whore

What are your stories?

Dos and Don’ts of Online Dating

Dos and Don’ts of Online Dating

My apologies to those of you who really couldn’t give a damn about dating websites for writing another post on this, but honestly, it’s an absolute goldmine. This stuff just writes itself.

Don’t send someone a message that’s impossible for them to respond to. It’s all well and good being a bit cheeky and flirty, but I just couldn’t think of a response to: “I could teach you Portuguese J” other than ‘Oh haha… I’d really rather you didn’t though.’

Do put in enough quirky or interesting details on your profile so people will have something to write to you about. Everyone loves travelling and going to the pub. Put up something that will be an easy hook for someone to start a conversation with.

Don’t send someone a message saying: ‘I didn’t like X film you’ve put on your profile. Why did you like it?’ It feels instantly judgemental and puts me on the back foot. I don’t have a problem with you not liking it (although if you didn’t like The Lives of Others, I don’t know how to talk to you) but at least tell me why you weren’t sure about it so we can have a discussion, without me immediately feeling defensive.

Do reply quickly to people that you like. Obviously it doesn’t have to be within 30 seconds, but don’t leave them hanging, especially if they’ve asked you if you want to meet up. To leave it four days, then say ‘Oh sorry I was busy, I’d love to meet you’ doesn’t really make someone feel wanted.

Don’t wait a few days to respond to someone, and then use your batch of new rodents as the excuse for why you haven’t had time to write a message. By all means mention your new cute rodents if you really want to, but don’t say you couldn’t write because you were “spending time with them,” give a detailed description of their cage, toys, what they like and don’t like in said cage, and then round it off by asking where the other person lives and what is their favourite animal. STAY AWAY, RODENT MAN.

Do give another person space if they stop replying to you. It’s a fairly clear message, even if you’ve already had a date and you thought it went well. I’m in one awkward situation, because the reason I’ve stopped replying to one particular person is because this person made a subtle-as-a-brick attempt to get me back to theirs on the second date. So after giving it some thought I decided we weren’t well-matched, because he seemed like a bit of a twat. But I don’t want to tell him I’ve stopped replying because I thought his message was selfish, presumptuous and more than a little offensive, because I can be fairly certain of getting the: “Oh calm down dear, I didn’t mean it like that, obviously you wouldn’t have had to come back to mine if you didn’t want to, in fact it’s a bit arrogant of you to think that’s what I was saying, I just know a lovely reasonably-priced bistro there” kind of bullshit that makes me feel like it’s my fault that I felt disappointed and pissed off, not theirs. And I can’t be bothered with it. I’ve had it before and it sucks. I hate that this is the world we live in, where I’m the one that has to appear rude by no longer replying, but I don’t want to lie and I don’t want to get talked down to. So, if someone stops replying, respect their space even if it doesn’t make absolute sense to you.

Don’t be afraid of being a bit more specific about what you’re looking for. It’s very difficult because of course you don’t want to put people off, like one person did for me when their sole criteria for what they wanted was ‘someone with a bike.’ I mean, technically, I do have a bike, but I am the world’s worst cyclist. The last time I tried to ride a bike I rode into a tree, in my back garden, and the tree is well out of the way, behind a fence. He might be my perfect person but we’ll never know. On the other hand, maybe there’s someone who would also be great for him, but who also knows how to ride a bike properly. On balance, that person is probably the better match. There isn’t going to be only one person who’s a good fit. Don’t worry about being a little bit prescriptive.

Do double check what you’ve put on your profile. I looked back at mine and realised I’d put bowling as one of my favourite interests. I’ve been bowling once and it was about ten years ago. Thank goodness I haven’t had a bowling enthusiast try and talk to me thinking they’d found their dream partner.

Don’t use words so long in your profile that people have to reach for a dictionary. Don’t start by talking about beginners art classes, focal points, verisimilitude, and ‘coaxing out a portrait in the mental periphery.’ Eh? It’s profiles like this that have started making me use the website as a fun ‘spot the pretentious crap’ game where I just click on the most ridiculous profile names and see what nonsense is on their pages. This is probably not going to find me love.

Do get enthusiastic about the people who seem like they could be your new best friend. I have a habit of getting massively over-excited about people too quickly, and I think it makes people worry for me because the crash is difficult if things go wrong. But I don’t want to be turned into a cynical old stick by people. If I didn’t get stupidly keen over the people who seem nice, then I would be changing my own personality, and I might miss out on all the fun when things do go right. I’m sure I’ll get better at picking myself up when people disappoint me even if I carry on the way I am – and anyway, my Mum has developed a habit of sending me a little pair of earrings in the post to cheer me up whenever a guy turns out to be a waste of space. It makes it almost worth it.

What I’ve Learnt… About Online Dating

In a mood of boredom and boldness I joined a dating website the other week. Here are a few things I’ve noticed:

People don’t always know how to react when you tell them you’ve joined one of these things, even if they were telling you before to go for it. It seems that they don’t want to offend by saying: ‘Oh good idea!!’ but instead want to reassure you that you’re fine on your own and don’t need to bother. Make your mind up, people.

Very few people have a decent picture of themselves to hand when they’re setting up their profile. An awful lot of selfies going on.

It’s damn near impossible to write a profile that doesn’t make you sound a) like a pretentious arsehole, b) like a braindead moron who only watches TV box sets, or c) like the most boring person alive. I’ve rewritten mine four or five times and I’m still not happy with it.

People come up with absolutely atrocious usernames. I’d take the slightly dull firstname_yearofbirth any day over gems like ‘MrAlwaysRight’ (true story). It’s amazing how just the profile name can make you write people off.

Most of the people who you have conversations with that seem nice and normal will fade away without you knowing why.

Some men (and maybe women too, I don’t know) think it’s okay to take you out on a first date and seem like a normal person, and then when planning the second date try and get you to go to a place that is in the middle of nowhere, but is right by their flat. And because you know there’s nothing else there, it’s just a horribly blatant move to take you for a drink and then be able to say: ‘my flat’s just round the corner, and otherwise you’re looking at an hour to hour and a half journey home.’ Smooth. Slick like oil. People, this is not cool. It’s a) fundamentally selfish, b) extremely presumptuous, and c) borderline coercive. And only on the second date? Really? Come on, guys. It’s a shame that it would look a little crazy if you put on your profile: ‘If you’re lying on here to try and bed a woman, à la Barney on How I Met Your Mother, you can sod right off.’ Tempting, though.

It’s very difficult when a throwaway comment someone says on their profile reminds you of some complete tool you went out with, even though the comment on its own may not be irretrievable evidence of dickishness. I’m struggling to overcome my gag reflex for people saying they ‘never want to stop learning.’

It’s never appropriate to send someone a picture of yourself in swimwear after one date, even if they’ve JOKINGLY mentioned one in the middle of an already bewildering exchange about what other pictures they should put up on the website (um, I don’t care?). It doesn’t make any sense and sets you up for extremely rude comments to take down what is clearly an ego the size of a house. I was so confused by this happening that, as his brother was also in the picture, I just said: ‘well I wouldn’t put that up on the website, you might get more requests for your brother!’ Oh yes. I’m a real catch.

Some people really know how to offend women in ten syllables or less. Some particular favourites are: ‘I have a vacancy (!!!!!!!!) for someone marvellous.’ Well, good for you. Do I apply with a CV and covering letter, or do you have one of those interminable online application forms? ‘I’m looking for a woman who isn’t overly influenced by her vagina’ – WOW – this one got so ridiculous it MUST be a joke, set up by someone who is willing to spend £25-odd a month to persuade women the end of the world has arrived, because someone this consciously offensive must not be able to exist in ordinary circumstances. One that wasn’t offensive but was RIDICULOUS started with: ‘To whom this may concern’ and in the ‘who I’m looking for’ said they’d be ‘strangely attracted’ to a woman who ‘wears flowers in her hair.’ It’s extremely difficult to wear flowers in your hair, actually. I’ve only ever tried tucking a daisy behind my ear when I was very small but the bastards fall out surprisingly easily. Or the wind blows and they either blow away or your hair tangles round them so you’re left with petals sitting about for days. Anyway, he sounds like an idiot.

You will be tempted to overlook some of this nonsense because they look beautiful in their profile picture. If this happens, get a good friend to read out their profile to you. Sometimes hearing it aloud will make you realise that you’ve skimmed the worst bits, and you really can’t let yourself go on a date with someone who says that they ‘think thinky thoughts.’

People can look totally different in different photographs. Some profiles have five or six pictures, and it genuinely looks like a different person in each picture. It’s extremely confusing.

Most of the people who ‘like’ you will be at least five to ten years above your specified age range. And/or illiterate.

On good days, it’s fun, an ego boost, and a brilliant procrastination tool. But on bad days, it can make you feel like giving up trying to find someone entirely. Especially when people who seem nice turn out to utter tools, or just disappear as soon as you tentatively suggest meeting up. It is, as a friend said, ‘a total minefield’ with a ‘lack of respect and humility. There must be some decent people out there but they seem few and far between.’ I will keep looking as I have two weeks left that I’ve already paid for – but the jury is out on whether I’ll keep dodging bullets after that or whether I’ll have given up hope of ever finding anyone normal, bright, and with an ounce of respect for women.