Is finding a wife like shopping for shoes?

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Are you looking for a wife? Or, are you happy being single?

That wasn’t quite the question put to me but it sums up the sentiment. That it is a choice. And that either I am happy being single or I should start shopping.

Because that seems to be the mentality. Looking for a spouse attracting the same approach as I might take to hunting down a new pair of shoes, or maybe to give it a little more seriousness, similar to buying a flat.

Maybe I should confess that I’m not very good at buying shoes. I don’t find the process difficult, it is not a particularly complex task to complete. I just don’t do it. I have a smart pair and a casual pair and wear them until their resemblance to footwear is solely a historic recollection. I also have sandals for the summer, slippers for the winter and climbing shoes for, well, climbing.

But last year I bought a flat and that was a big decision, it was a task I gave myself to. There were things to do, some time consuming but mundane, others swift but significant. Putting in an offer, signing for a mortgage, collecting keys. There were words spoken and written, the handover of a set of metallic objects. Yet it was much more than that, the simple acts were imbued with significance, they meant something because of what linked them together, where they came from and what that signalled.

So I wonder, is finding someone to spend the rest of your life with like buying a house, and stripping the complexities away to push the point, is it like shopping for any other item?

When I go shoe shopping it’s not for a luxury, but for something I urgently need. Therefore I refuse to let myself come home empty handed. And when I bought my flat I had decided I was going to do so, I took some time but eventually made a decision. It was a big decision but it was not an irrevocable one. I can sell, I can let. It is a material possession.

When we buy something we choose to get something over nothing. We decide that while there are better or worse options, having something is better than having nothing at all.

I don’t believe that getting married is more important than getting married to the right person.

I don’t think getting married is like buying shoes, or a flat. Finding someone to spend your life with is not a consumer experience. It is a dance of emotions and expectations and hopes and dreams. It is prospect that absence may take the place of something.

Maybe it is like Schrödinger’s cat. Until you open the box you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive, so by some ridiculous chain of logic which I cannot begin to fathom, the cat is both dead and alive. Maybe you can be both living life to the full as a single person and want to get married. And until something happens you are both.

If I’m in a relationship it’s not much good living life to the full in my singleness, I don’t think that relationship would last very long. But until that point I am living in a contested reality, there are alternative routes that my life can take and I need to be open to pursuing either while acknowledge one would close off the other.

And that can sometimes stop you from opening the box. Not wanting to close down options can prevent you from making a choice. Sometimes I can be paralysed by indecision, and the multitude of options, and potential future options can cast me in formaldehyde and root me to the spot. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t a choice.

But the choice is what gives it meaning. The choice to take a risk and do something you don’t essentially have to do. Doing something you could live without, doing something that will limit your further choices, doing something that will stop you from always thinking that something better could come along.

Because getting married isn’t a step in life improvement, it isn’t a way of becoming more complete. It isn’t an accessory to make you more glamorous, or an investment to make you more secure.

And it is neither mail order nor magic. It is not a formulaic process or the result of an abracadabra. Relationships do not just happen and we cannot script them.

But we live them and we love them, and in them we find life and we find love. And if that’s how you think about your shoes I recommend some therapy.

Quarter life crisis – relationships, romance and reality

One of the reasons I felt I needed a break from blogging over the summer was the intensity with which I had posted during June and July, both in terms of volume, and the topic. I’d often rise early write in my favourite spot for an hour or two and then head into work. I was often emotionally as well as physically exhausted. I’ve always tried to write with as much frankness as I can muster and it took its toll.

Which is why when I turned my mind to what I might write about upon my return relationships were further down than the bottom of my list. I was positively determined to steer clear.

Yet as I worked my way through the aspects of life that the phenomenon of the quarter life crisis affects I realised that avoiding talking about relationships would be doing exactly what I fear we do all too often. That is, push to one side the inconvenient and challenging topics and cling to what is safe, known and under our own control.

Emily Maynard wrote a cracking post a couple of days ago about the recurrence of inquiries about ‘why are you not married?’. I think it’s slightly different from a guy’s perspective, I don’t think it comes so frequently, but rather than the sympathy that is perhaps attached (but not always appreciated) when directed at women, for men there is built into the question an element of criticism. That’s because in the church one of the seemingly irrefutable facts is that women outnumber men. Also, as men and women age through their late twenties and beyond, it is women who see the biological countdown with greater clarity.

When the question comes there is always a hint of the underlying questions, either, ‘why haven’t you got your act together?’ or ‘why are you being so picky, there are lots of stunning girls at church?’. And yes I’m guilty of the first charge and I agree with at least the second clause of the latter critique.

What most often provokes the question is when I bake a cake, or brownies, or a pavlova, or decide on a whim to spend an entire Saturday creating a unique, never to be replicated dessert concoction. Then the question is a little different, it’s usually backed up with: ‘any woman would be grateful for a husband who can cook’. Ignoring for now the incredible gender stereotypes in such a statement, such a question places incredible pressure, am I supposed to use edible goods as my principle flirting mechanism?

The other prompt for the gentle prising open of my romantic commitments, or lack thereof, is when I’m in the company of either of my incredibly beautiful nieces. They’re 18 and 15 months old (each other’s cousin) and generally amazing. The occasional case of mistaken identity as their father is quite fun, but sometimes I manage to successfully pacify them, and then the observation comes once again…

Coming back to the quarter life crisis theme this comes into play because I have too many choices. My friends and colleagues, with their not always subtle critique, have a point. I am overwhelmed with choice. There are many incredible women who if in a different situation, with less choice, I may well view in a more romantic light.

But my hopes are built for that experience, that attraction, which transcends the normal. The defining feature of what makes life special seems to be that which lifts us from where we are and onto another plane. Relationships, and the romance within them, are heralded as the hosts of such achievement.

From a personal perspective, for most of my life I simply shrug it off and move on. But this makes me inoculated from the promise of relationships. It makes me view it as something that is even further away from my present state. It allows me to think in abstract concepts and not engage with what the challenge might actually be. I don’t have to become comfortable in my life outside of marriage if I don’t consider that an important part of me.

I respond to choice by running away. Scared of opting for an imperfect solution I prefer to delay resolution altogether. I let it linger in the air, I wait for too long to decide whether or not I – in that most infantile of phrases – fancy a particular person. I hang on to attraction even when I know that it is going nowhere, I hold it like a comfort blanket that doesn’t satisfy but constantly offers the promise that maybe one day it will.

During the frenzy of posts earlier in the summer Jennie Pollock wrote a guest post for me, Singleness is not a prelude, and it has attracted quite a lot of attention. It’s a really good call for contentment in where God has placed you. In it Jennie challenges our view of singleness: “our cultural attitude to singleness – particularly within the church – is similar to my attitude to my life in OM: it’s fun, but it’s not the real thing. It’s the phase you have to get through while waiting for your real life to start.”

The quarter life crisis is about wanting adventure and change, and a life that does not disappoint. But when the adventure carries the risk of disappointment we are pulled in different directions, some pursue the adventure and some avoid disappointment. Unfortunately the adventure is always a gamble.

What questions about relationships do you find hardest to handle? Do they cause you to question you place, identity and security?

What is this thing called love?

© Emily Martin

Love is a mystery, it is foreign, alien, far from understanding. But it is elemental, it is at the beginning and the end. Of what remains, the greatest is love. Mark Twain said: “when you go fishing for love, bait with your heart, not your brain”.

When we talk about romance, we talk about being in love. When we see someone who takes our breathe away, we fall in love. And when things don’t go so well we can now fall out of love with the one to whom we had given our all. After one of this week’s posts a friend sent me a link to an article about the reasons marriages split up, and all too frequently it is simply that they got bored with each other. And it lead me to wonder, do we put too much store by love, or is it that we just don’t understand it?

I can think of no better book on this topic than CS Lewis’s The Four Loves. Love is not always the same, it takes different forms in different relationships, from affection, through friendship, to the eros of romance and the all consuming unconditional agape love from God. I probably should have reread it before writing this post.

CS Lewis’s point, if I recall correctly, is that the other forms of love only work properly when subordinated to the unconditional love from God. We can love because we have already been loved. When we turn we find that he has already turned.

Am I a reprobate romantic to say that love can conquer all? That our problem is not that we put too much trust in love, but that we give it too little. We hedge our bets, and we take our chances, we mitigate against things going wrong. We build structures of reliance that defend our cause and protect our pet projects. We don’t want anything to fail so too often we just do not try.

We think that if love is the answer it will solve our problems. We think that such a wonderful thing will make life easy.

I was at a wedding yesterday and the during the address the pastor said, “I hope this is the worst day of your married life.” It was a cute point, a good way of saying that marriage is not summed up by the celebrations on the wedding day but of a life lived growing together, that there are far better days to come.

But was it too saccharine? Because marriage will not always be defined by happiness and joy. Because while the wedding day is hopefully not as good as it gets, it is also unlikely to be the worst. There will be sadness and troubles, there will be heartache and agony; maybe that wasn’t a message for the wedding day. I’m sure that if I’m married I’ll wake up on some mornings and wonder what I’m doing there, I may regret falling in love, I may regret trusting in love. Wherever I am, whomever I am with, there will be crappy days.

And on these days, like when I’ve had enough of my friends or my family annoy me, is the answer is to walk away or to recommit? Last year I read McCloud & Townsend’s book Safe People, and one of the most challenging things was the need at times to draw a line under some relationships, and to walk away rather than to expend all your energy on trying to redeem and rescue the other person, or your relationship. I found this hard because I often operate as though the love I am supposed to have for all people is translated into a one-size-fits-all relationship.

But love does not mean I try and have the same relationship with everyone I know, and by extension, everyone I don’t know. It means that I love them in whatever relationship we have. So I love my friends in a way that is different to my family, and one day I hope to love my wife in one way and my children in another.

At my church we’re coming to the end of a series called ‘Love is a Verb’. And for a series titled so there’s been remarkably little discussion of love, with the focus instead on the relationships that provide the context for love to be demonstrated. Love is a thing, it is an emotion, it is a state that we abide in. But it is also a verb, it is something that we do, and must do over. It is something that we cannot ever complete. We cannot be done with love and we cannot do without it. It remains.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor 13v13

Love is all around us. It is in the papers, on the screens. It is in our hearts, and on our mind. It lets us dream and it stops us sleeping. And too often it is sequestered in pursuit of happiness. Love becomes the thing which gets us what we want. We love because we want relationship. We love because we want sex. We love because we want company, or status, or security.

How rarely do we let ourselves love and beloved for the sake of nothing but that one thing which remains.

Too often we view marriage as the end point of a road of love, but surely it should be the other way round? Should not marriage open the door to a path that is paved with love both given and received, both the end and the means? Love comes in and flows from the relationship as much if not more than being the force which brought it to life. Love is not the answer to all of your or my problems. But maybe it is what helps us live without the answers.

What do you think? Am I getting carried away with my hopes and dreams for love? Is love enough?

Married to wanting more

One of the things about writing in public is I’ve got to be careful what I say. Careful so I don’t offend those who I know as well as those I don’t. But also careful I don’t get the sack by saying controversial things or in any other way bringing my employer into disrepute.

And this might tread the line pretty tightly. Sometimes at work I get bored.

I was thinking about this following a post from Ally Vesterfelt about how the idea of a perfect day is perhaps so because of its very scarcity. The same thing, if we had to do it every day would become mundane.

So I love my work, it’s interesting, challenging and most of all for me, it is varied. But occasionally I get bored of it. I look at the things that I need to do and turn and think something else would make my life more exciting. I imagine a roller-coaster adventure where no day is every the same, and when the challenges are just hard enough to tax me but not too hard to give me nausea at the stress I sometimes feel on a Sunday morning.

My mum used to teach me that boredom was a state of the mind. That something was only boring if you let it be so. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean exciting things won’t become normal and the exhilarating mundane. It’s the adrenaline rush affect of life, it’s the incremental desire for more. For something that will lift us out of the situation we are in and onto a better plane.

And as I reflect on this I’m reminded of a few words from this week’s talk on marriage and family as part of ChristChurch London’s Love is a Verb sermon series. I wasn’t intending on writing a piece specifically on it but a few things stood out and resonate as I ponder this idea of something exciting becoming mundane.

I cannot begin to speak for couples who are barely back from their honeymoon, never mind those who have worked through decades of marriage. But I hear the excitement of being together lasts eighteen months to two years. Considering plenty of couples are together that long before they tie the knot it means marriage will quickly drift into normal rather than novelty.

If we are always after novelty we will never be content. If we allow our boredom with how things are to provoke us to change tack we will always be on the move. Sometimes settling down is the hard thing to do. Sticking to a course regardless of the obstacles in your way.

So sometimes I get bored at work. Sometimes I get bored with the friends around me. If I was in a relationship I guess I’d get bored with the person I was going out with, if I was married I’d probably get bored then too.

Maybe boredom is a state of the mind, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Our default response to boredom is change, whereas if I dare suggest, recommitting and accepting that things will never be picture perfect is a more productive way forward. It allows us to step off the hamster wheel that promises something better, but that better thing always ends up disappointing.

Whether it is marriage, a job, or the need for excitement, if we change at the whim of our needs we are within a hairline of turning that desire into an idol. If we think that marriage will answer our problems we place it in a position it cannot retain. If we think a job will satisfy all of our demands it will always let us down. If we put the very experience of adrenaline rushing through our veins as our goal we will never have enough.

What do you think? Should boredom provoke us to change or encourage us to dig deeper? Have you ever tried so hard to get something you think will make you happy and it let you down?

Let’s talk about sex

Romance Academy are running a series of road shows over the next couple of months called ‘Let’s talk about sex’ which are aimed at equipping adults to talk about sex with teens.

I wonder if we need a parallel series to help adults talk to each other about sex. Because it’s not really something we do particularly well. Maybe it is just because I am single and therefore not privy to the conversations of married couples who talk among themselves about the permitted relationships that I am not to know of. Maybe it is out of fear that we will corrupt one another with talk of illicit liaisons. I don’t know, I just know it’s considered off limits for polite conversation.

Even a very brief conversation in the office which flirted with the topic seemed awkward and hedged, and out of place. The hesitancy of asking someone who is married to write a guest post marked the inbuilt challenges of the topic.

It is not that I want to know the intimate details of people’s personal lives, or that I think it is essential to be fully informed about how each and every aspect of married life works out behind closed doors. But maybe it would be helpful if we knew a bit more, and if we were willing to talk about it with a bit of openness that might help those of us this side of the Rubicon know what lies ahead.

There’s two aspects to this, one for those who are soon to get married, and the other for those for whom it seems a distant concept not really related to our everyday lives. In terms of marriage prep I’m assured that for some it is talked about and discussed well, but for others leaves gaping holes that become problematic after the glitz and glamour of the wedding day has faded away. This is not something I’m going to delve into but if you’ve got either a good or bad experience of marriage prep and are willing to write about it please get in touch, I’d be happy to feature something along these lines.

One day I hope to get married. I don’t know when that day will be, and it is possible it will never come. And it will change my life. Admittedly probably not as dramatically as having kids, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. So many parts of my life which I like the way they are will have to change: I will no longer have sole charge of my destiny (and my delusions that I do now will be even more abruptly shattered). I can visualise what it might be like to live in permanent commitment to another person, I can toy in my mind with the concept of a brutal crushing of the ego as the focus of my attention turns from me to another.

But then there is something else. Something that I have been told not to do. Something that I have reacted so strongly against in adherence to the creed that it is sinful and wrong. That thing which for so many years has been wrong suddenly becomes right.

And that is the problem. I’m not arguing for leniency or encouraging sex before marriage, in fact I think a more brutal openness about sex could lead to less sex outside marriage. At the moment it is so hushed up and secured in a lead-lined box of secrecy that it ferments activity in private that betrays the values we hold to in public. We’re told not to think about sex because it will lead to lust, and therefore are aided and abetted in covering over the temptations we face. We do not talk about it, we remain British, we are stoic and polite and proper and pretend that sex is something that only ever happens between married couples.

I’ve heard stories about couples who struggle to have sex after they get married, who are paralysed by fear that they are doing something wrong. The doctrine of sex as sin has been etched so deeply that the sanctity of marriage does not erase it.

How should we go about talking about sex in a more open and honest manner? How do we educate and inform each other about the joys and the frustrations, the license and the limits? How do we understand the love that sex is part of, and the lust that remains despite it?