On love: For the odd couples and the free spirits and the ones who never thought they’d make it

lucy love

My husband and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary this month, after some four and a half years, and one child, together. To the average person, this isn’t a big deal. To a commitment-phobe like me, it’s a lifetime—and it’s also a milestone I never thought we’d reach.

I don’t write about us very often, partly because I think it’s tempting fate—I’ve seen too many couples express their undying love on social media only to break up a short while later—and partly because I still remember what it was like to be single and lonely, (which wasn’t all my singledom, but a good chunk of it), and how smug PDAs can seem when you’re in that place. But the fact we’ve survived for as long as we have—and grown closer together rather than apart—amazes me as much as it must amaze those around us.

The truth is this: My husband, though a wonderful, kind and very attractive human being, is probably the last person in the world I expected to celebrate this milestone with. We are, in every sense of the word, an odd couple. There is a considerable age difference to begin with—he is significantly younger (I won’t say how much, but it’s in the double digits). We come from different cultures—I am British Indian and he is Egyptian. We are different religions—I am a lapsed Catholic—he is Muslim. His first language is Arabic; mine is English.

And we are also vastly different human beings. He is a personal trainer (which is actually how we met, but that’s another story), a generally upbeat man-of-the-body who can’t stay still for long, who loves his action movies, a man of few words in social settings, who likes silly comedies and sweet cartoons, rarely reads a book, loves house music, will eat pretty much anything, and can’t handle what he would call ‘depressing’—and I would label ‘thought-provoking’—movies. (We once watched a relatively anodyne Hollywood flick at home, which ended on a bit of a downer; he had to go to his favourite club immediately after to dance, just to get it out of his system).

I, in stark contrast, am a coffee-drinking, wine-loving writer and editor, a former journalist and smoker (he has never enjoyed either wine, caffeine or nicotine), who has always loved reading and poetry and film of all kinds (I studied film and literature at university). I love a diverse selection of music (but not house), follow current affairs keenly, relish history and deep conversations with friends, would secretly consider myself a bit of a foodie, and am probably happiest, at this point in my life, curled up on the couch with a good book, or watching a film I love—in essence, being still. I also have a penchant for melancholy and a tendency to cry at sad stories and films.

These differences have been the source of much agony and soul-searching over the years—predominantly on my part, since I have a tendency to over-think everything—as well as long searching conversations with close friends. At particularly troubled times, when I’ve convinced myself that two such different people couldn’t possibly have a future together, I‘ve also done what every other angst-ridden person in love probably does these days and consulted Google: Can relationships with younger men from profoundly opposing backgrounds, and with almost comically varied tastes, actually work?

The answer has nearly always been a big fat resounding ‘no.’

But I’m here now to tell you otherwise. I’ve learnt a lot about love over the last few years. One of the things I’ve learnt, for example, is that what you long for on paper may not actually be right for you. When we met, I’d reached a point in my life where I was happy to be single. If you’d asked me what I was looking for in a possible partner, I was fairly sure I knew. It would have been an older man, smart and funny, perhaps an intellectual, not necessarily conventionally attractive but someone well travelled with plenty of life experience, who was also fairly settled in life in terms of his career and life choices, as I am.

For the longest time after my husband and I got together—after he’d wooed me, incidentally, in the sweetest, gentlest way—I still held on to that ideal. I looked with envy at other couples that seemed on paper to be perfectly matched, who talked of coup de foudres and undying love and the certainty of a lifetime together. They had joint friends and joint bank accounts and joint interests, so the practicalities of making a life together seemed simple. Choosing a film to watch on the couch together of an evening, for example, didn’t result in tense negotiations or stand-offs, and an inevitable compromise–usually by me, since I do actually like action movies, while my husband simply couldn’t stomach the latest depressing French art house flick.

(On the plus side, I have a whole new appreciation for The Fast and the Furious movies, Vin Diesel, and the Rock : )

We, on the other hand, had few things that held us together. I couldn’t share a favourite poem with him, or my more maudlin music, or a great cup of coffee, or my political musings, or my peculiarly British sense of irony—though I did it anyway. I didn’t always feel connected, or like he was my soul mate, or my other half, or all the other things you’re supposed to feel. What I did find, however, was that he made me laugh—a lot. He was remarkably easy to live with. We communicated about the things that bothered us. He came home every evening with the biggest smile on his face. And he gave me the best and sweetest cuddles.

I told myself—and him—one thing: I would stay in the relationship for as long as it made me happy, since I’d fought too hard to give up my freedom for anything less. And from the very beginning, he did make me happy—in ways I didn’t expect and that slowly melted my cynical, lovelorn heart. When I fell asleep on the couch, exhausted, he’d pick me up and carry me gently to bed. When I had a pancake evening for friends, he spent most of the evening in the kitchen making the pancakes. When my freezer was iced up, he spent most of another evening diligently de-icing it. When we had a squabble, I came home to find a fruit salad in my fridge topped with yogurt and a heart shaped out of nuts. At other times, he’d say nothing but just lie next to me and squeeze me extra hard, as if he’d never let me go.

My husband didn’t over promise and under deliver. The biggest advantage of dating a non-verbal man, I discovered, is that it isn’t about what he says, but about what he does. We didn’t spend hours—much time at all, in fact—either dissecting our relationship or discussing our future. We just went with the flow. It helped too that my closest friends and family loved him straight away—and they loved him for me especially. They saw past our differences to the essence of our relationship—that we were good for each other, and that his solidity and kindness would temper me and curb my existential malaise.

What I’ve learnt now is that you can overcome any number of practical differences if you have the basics sorted. If you still like and fancy each other, after all the time you’ve spent together. If you can make each other laugh—which comes in handy when you’re wiping up your child’s explosive poops in the wee hours of the morning. If you respect each other and don’t try to change, diminish or possess the other. If, and this is especially important, you can fight fair. If you’re kind and respectful with each other’s friends and family. If he holds you when you’re sad and gives you one of his extra-special tight hugs when he senses you need it. If he can cope with you at your worst. And if the two of you make time for each other, so you continue to grow together, rather than apart.

Those are the things that count, not your income levels or ages or interests, or even that you speak the same language.

We are not a perfect couple but I’ve learnt that perfection—especially in relationships—doesn’t exist. Your feelings will ebb and flow, and that’s ok. You will never see eye to eye on everything. You will drive each other crazy at times. You will wonder what the hell you’re doing with each other at others. Longstanding issues will continue to rear their ugly head. Unexpected life events—like an unplanned pregnancy, for example—will test you to your core, and force you to redefine and renegotiate the parameters of your relationship and your future together. There will be tears and arguments and petty quarrels.

But you will also discover that love isn’t in the flowers and the poetry and the love songs and sweet nothings you whisper late at night. Love is in the cracks and the corners, in the places where the light doesn’t reach, in the things that aren’t said, the tiny gestures, the banality and mess of daily life, the pull of forces beyond your control that keep you together, despite the voices that tell you ‘this cannot work’ – ‘give up.’ It’s when you wake up one day and realise that you can’t imagine your life without the person lying next to you, and that this crazy, coincidental relationship—where both of you were just going with the flow—has suddenly become more serious and stronger than you ever imagined.

This is our love story, and I am grateful for it. Happy anniversary, my love.

Advertisements

15 things I learnt from Facebook

 

facebook

 

As an expat and freelance editor and writer working mainly from home, battling procrastination on a daily basis, I’m on Facebook a lot. It’s the virtual equivalent of people watching in a favourite café – with the added benefit that you actually know the people and can interact with their lives. Which can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on my mood – and has also made me especially aware of the things I like and dislike about it. At the risk of sounding like someone who mostly inhabits a sad virtual world instead of the real one, these are some of the things I’ve learnt from Facebook:

 

1.If citizen journalism is taking over the world, citizen PR, which Facebook pioneered, comes a close second. It’s the perfect opportunity to present your best self to the world – edited highlights only.

2. Which should come with a disclaimer: it can be bad for your health. I can’t count the number of times I’ve depressed myself looking at the perfect, activity-filled lives of my friends – until I realize they’re probably thinking the same of my life.

3. You can never have too many ‘likes.’ A post without likes is rather like seeing someone standing all alone at a party. Liking someone else’s post is also a wonderfully simple way to show you care.

4. The number of friends you have means nothing. I have more than 700. Despite that, I can go a day or two without speaking to a real person. It’s like cable TV – you can have 500 channels and there’s still nothing you feel like watching.

5. There’s a virtual voyeur in all of us. It’s incredible how easy it is to find yourself perusing some random person’s profile in a ‘brief’ break from the job at hand.

6. It’s possible to learn stuff. Good stuff. Interesting/quirky/funny posts that I’d never have come across otherwise (unless I was on Twitter, in which case I’d be completely overwhelmed and vow never to venture online again).

7. It’s also possible to deepen your relationships. Some of my favourite Facebook friends are people I’ve met briefly but really got to appreciate online, when I discovered we shared similar values/senses of humour/political beliefs.

8. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.

9. Pithy, inspirational quotes are over-rated. I appreciate the sentiment – I’m a sucker for a good Rumi quote myself – but the best ones have done the rounds too often.

10. Humour is definitely subjective.

11. People like good news. And they like to ‘like’ good news. I’ve come to the conclusion that affirming someone else’s good fortune makes us all feel like better human beings. Which also reaffirms my faith in human nature.

12. I get a buzz every time I see the red number – because I have no idea who’s trying to contact me or has just done or said something relevant, and it’s happening in real time. The potential for pleasant (and unpleasant) surprises is infinite.

13. The majority of people want to be nice. I’ve bared my soul on more than a few occasions and I’ve been genuinely touched by the responses I’ve received.

14. It’s addictive –  partly because it taps into our baser instincts:  the need for control, instant gratification, gossip. But it also satisfies a deeper human urge – the need to connect, to find commonality, to share.

15. There’s no such a thing as a typical Facebook user. My friends comprise all ages, nationalities, political beliefs, sexualities, religions and taste levels, which makes my newsfeed a pretty interesting place.

 

There’s an argument you hear a lot these days that the Internet has increased the quantity, but reduced the quality, of our communications with each other. I’m not sure I buy into that – I think it’s entirely possible to have both, and to deepen your relationships in simple and surprising ways.

Because the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to connect and stay connected to people, and Facebook’s helped me do that in a way that was impossible just five years ago. For that, I’m grateful.

On the challenges of keeping an open heart

When I was much younger, I read an interview with Debra Winger – an actress I adored growing up – talking about a meeting she’d once had with Kathleen Turner, another strong, sensual 1980s heroine who’s sadly fallen off the radar today.

I can’t remember the specifics but Winger said she’d met Turner briefly at a party – or perhaps on a film set – and the latter had been friendly enough, but a little aloof. To paraphrase Winger, she said she got the impression that Turner had made all the friends she wanted in life and wasn’t interested in acquiring any more.

I must have been in my late teens or early twenties at this point and I remember thinking: Why would anyone do that?  There was something very disconcerting about it to me – this idea that you could suddenly reach a point where you’d made all the friends you needed in life and you weren’t interested in reaching out anymore, in meeting new people, in being challenged. It seemed to me to be the ultimate sign of a closed heart.  And a closed heart was exactly what I wanted to avoid.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve had two major, but very contradictory, realisations.  The first was a sudden and profound understanding of exactly what E.M. Forster – a writer I read a lot of in my youth – meant when he said ‘Only connect’ – an achingly simple phrase that was only very loosely penetrable to me in my teen years. (That connecting with your fellow human beings, whether by seeking out ‘kindred spirits,’ or by having a brief but uplifting exchange, was actually the very essence of life.) Living as I do here in Cairo, far away from family and friends, those words have often echoed in my head. People can make you miserable, no doubt, but they can also make you blissfully happy.

But running alongside that realization was the slow dawning that age and experience, and perhaps also my life as an expat, had terribly coloured my view of my fellow humans. I realized that I was no longer as willing as I once had been to give everyone a chance. No longer did I repeat to myself fervently that everyone had good and bad points; nor was I willing to be as open as I’d been before. I had better instincts now and I was more willing and able to follow those instincts. To put it another way, as I told friends, I had become smarter, and thus fussier, about who I spent my time with.

Perhaps that, in itself, is no bad thing – it seems to make sense that you should surround yourself with good people, as hundreds of positivity books will tell you.  There is the undeniable fact also that we understand ourselves better as we get older and become more comfortable with who we are, which then influences the choices we make. And yet, it still seems to me a fundamental fallacy, somehow – this idea that age and wisdom make you more discerning about people and your circle will narrow but strengthen as a result.

I think the truth is more prosaic – life and age can harden your heart, and sometimes you never even realize that it’s happening.  An accumulation of hurts, big and small, a multitude of let-downs – as is bound to happen in life – a cacophony of so-called ‘a-ha’ moments (I was an idiot to trust that person/ I was wrong about this one/ this person is going to let me down) and a few rejections move you further and further away from the open-hearted generous soul you once were, or may have aspired to be.

Once upon a time, I chose to trust and to accept that a bruised heart and ego might be an acceptable consequence of that choice, the price I would pay for having an open heart. Somewhere along the line though, I’ve lost that ability, to the extent that my life has now become littered with people who haven’t quite ‘made the grade,’ while the number of people who do make the cut become smaller and smaller.

At the end, it is always a choice. Living like this means a life lived from fear – a fear of rejection and hurt – a life lived from our lower rather than higher selves.  Better, I think, to force open our hearts once again, to live with courage and conviction and love, to remain open to life and to new people and all the challenges they may bring. If the heart is a muscle, as they say, only practice and exposure will strengthen it.

Overprotect it and it will wither away and slowly die.