In the UK, there was at some point a TV series called The Undateable which aimed to pair up people who find it hard to date. I haven’t watched it, but I remember seeing an advert with a most adorable young man with Tourette who, if Tourette is his only “flaw”, is much less undateable than a lot of single Catholic men populating the dating sphere. My own experiences before my husband were not great in many ways (often, I joke that the Catholic men I met in my single years were the reason I married an Anglican and made him a Catholic), and I still count myself lucky compared to what some girls have to deal with according to Twitter’s new favourite account Catholic Dating Nightmares.
When I was a teenager, I met a slightly older guy in a wheelchair. At the time, I had no idea that asexuality was a thing, but sex was something pushed on me by others that could have just as easily not had for the rest of my life if it wasn’t expected of me by the person I was with. When he suggested I would obviously break up with him if we couldn’t have sex so there was no point in even trying to be together, I was hurt. Even as a staunch atheist, I was deeply a humanist, and my pro-life ethos was the same as it is now. It would be years before I would experience living with a disability for myself, so it wasn’t out of sympathy or the fact that if I gave up on someone what right would I have to expect others not to give up on me? It was simply that I liked him, we had a lot in common, we were of a perfectly legal age difference and it made no difference whatsoever to me that he couldn’t walk.
Before getting married (heck, before getting engaged, I like to cover my bases and be prepared…) I have read everything I could find on having a successful relationship. I know all about the way to handle conflict respectfully, but it just wouldn’t work. I am feisty and fiery and can scream a building down. It’s when I give the silent treatment that one should begin to worry. I really struggled to put into practice what seemed to be the consensus. Don’t use “you” sentences, but tell the other person how their actions make you feel etc. I was at the point of just packing up my tent and give up on the prospect of ever succeeding at maintaining a relationship when I read Dr Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work“.
I have been toying about making this about Reylo and how I am disappointed at the ending of the Rise of Skywalker for not giving me the happy ending I wanted, even though it was a beautiful ending and Reylo fans got something they’ve wanted for ages, but I have decided to stick to the nostalgia-fest that started with the Growth post and go back to a teenage classic, One Tree Hill.
One Tree Hill is the most Christian of secular TV, as it accidentally taught a whole generation about redemption, selfless love, dealing with an unjust world and sticking around when times are hard. It’s 9 seasons of over 20 episodes each, so if you’ve never watched it prepare for a long period of catching up, and also to have you heart broken in season 3.
My parents are a really bad example of marriage, so I have always approached my vocation with an attitude that goes like “God is having a laugh”. Aside from seeing a partner as a way to soothe my insecurities for a long time, only to eventually get so comfortable in being single I can’t believe I am giving it up for the privilege of someone taking up 2/3 of the bed whenever I get up for the loo in the middle of the night. Anyway, the biggest baggage I brought with me is not having a clue what demarcates a normal relationship issue from something you should be worried about, all the way up to an actual red flag. It doesn’t help either how shy we all are about discussing relationship issues, and how it feels like there is something wrong if you aren’t 100% on the same page 100% of the time. So I read a lot of books, and I got to the diocesan marriage preparation day effectively ready to stand up and do the presentation myself, in fact (thanks to the advice of a wise faithful woman a few years into the whole marriage thing) I even felt I could have done an even better one. Still, here are 3 things I have learnt:
You need to address self-doubt and self-esteem issues
I have been there. Heck, I am still firmly there. I used to think everything would go away and be perfect once I had someone who liked me, that it would make all the years of bullying and abuse go away because at last I, too, could say that someone liked me as I am. Not a chance: he liked and put a ring on it, but I still look at myself in the mirror and cry. But this isn’t the only self-esteem issue that comes up in a relationship. Any argument can send you into a spiral of wondering if you just are wrong, which can go from something small to the moments of unfounded doubt from this article. One thing that I found helpful when looking at triggers was to first identify whether they were reasonable issues or potential red flags, then ask myself whether those things have bothered me all along; if they hadn’t, then look at what changed; if they had, then look at what could change; and, finally, to be completely honest with myself about whether I was scared of being alone, or of what people would say. These questions all helped to build on a foundation of self-assurance: I chose freely to be in this relationship, no issue was something that couldn’t be solved either through working on myself or us working together on us through honest and committed dialogue. It also helped me to individuate how past gaslighting and emotional abuse has made it difficult for me to see what is a healthy conflict, so I assume it also works the other way: people need to be wary of unhealthy patterns as early as possible.
Sex is a greater marker of a healthy marriage than Catholics are comfortable to admit
For a Church that has been fighting the Gnostic heresy since pretty much day one, we are really quite bad at the whole holistic view of mind, soul and body. From observation of a very awkward exchange between the people running our marriage preparation as well as what was written between the line of that section of the presentation and workbook, sex affects a relationship in more ways than whether it’s actually there and a total gift of self. I can’t really speak much for what people can do in practice since I have no idea, but it seems that communication is key (as touted by the NFP adverts promising all the intimacy), and what’s key to communication is, once again, not letting self-esteem get in the way and create a pre-emptive view of what the other person needs, wants or is trying to say. Also, for me there is no shame in speaking to a sex and relationship counsellorto see where the problem could be, and have professional knowledge to support you while solving it (the one in the link even offers free initial consultations to see if that’s right for you).
You have to be willing to admit you’re wrong and ask for forgiveness
No one ever finds it easy to admit they’re wrong. Especially not me, or my mother. I’m rewatching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries wondering what it would be like if I had a Youtubeshow that largely revolves around me making impressions of my mother, who by the way is always right. I was raised really unable to show any weakness, especially towards men, which makes it oh so easy to fall into seeing relationships as a power play. However, that was not what St Paul meant when talking about wifely submission. Admitting I’m wrong doesn’t make me a doormat. By the same token, if my partner admits he is wrong (as he often is), it doesn’t give me any power to lord over him. Still, what I learnt from marriage prep is that not only admitting one’s wrongs and being sorry is a mark of a healthy grown up relationships. You need to ask for forgiveness too. This requires something of the other person: if you only say sorry, resentment can grow. If you ask for forgiveness, you ask the other person to meet you in the middle and be open to letting go of the negative feelings for the sake of the relationship.
Relationships are never going to be easy, but being equipped for dealing with the difficulties makes me feel much less inadequate than I was before, and with a big dollop of God’s grace we’ll be just fine.