Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why equality in a relationship is for adults only


Yesterday I came across this fabulous speech on equality by The Avengers’ director Jess Whedon for Equality Now, which made me have a yessss! moment of elation.

Whedon makes a joke of the fact that in every single media interview he has ever given the one question that he invariably gets asked is why he writes “these strong female characters”, as if the combination of strength and female was totally extraordinary. He gives the audience several variations of the same answer and concludes: “equality is like gravity: we need it to stand on this earth as men and women.”

Below are parts of the speech that made me smile particularly widely. See what he says about his mother:

“She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman. And that’s the kind of woman I’ve always surrounded myself with. It’s my friends, particularly my wife, who is not only smarter and stronger than I am, but occasionally, actually taller too.”

Then his father and step father:

“My father and my step-father [..] prized wit and resolve in the women they were with, above all things, and they were among the rare men who understood that recognising somebody else’s power does not diminish your own.”

Men who understand that recognising a woman’s power does not diminish their own – yes, where are they? Not the wimps, not the control freaks. Where are the men who are so confident in their own skin they are attracted to women with strength and substance? Men who are not afraid of sharing control and power, intelligent men who love being in the company of sophisticated, witty and well-articulated women.

Equals and equals
When we say “equality”, we tend to think about women’s rights: equal pay, equal chances of promotion, equal division of responsibilities, etc. But there’s another type of equality that is key to the happiness of any couple: the equality of power and the equality of intellect.

When my husband and I separated, he admitted “we were never equals”, and that pretty much describes our married life.

Turning into a ‘Stepford wife’
In my marriage, my husband was the one who wanted to keep control of every small aspect of our lives, even the manner in which my books should be displayed on MY bookcase, just because the bookcase had been placed in the living room, which was HIS as well as mine, therefore he claimed he had the right to make demands.

By the time we were bickering about book display, our marriage was on its last legs. In yet another fit of temper, he was shouting at the top of his lungs while violently shaking the bookcase I loved, threatening to show me how it could collapse unless I displayed the books exactly the way he had told me to.

Already as a child, I was fiercely independent and strong-willed. I never took well to taking orders from others, not my parents, not my teachers, not my bosses; why should I let a man tell me what to do?

Friends who had known me as a single woman said they had noticed the sparkle in my eyes and the feistiness I had been known for had faded away after I got married, that when I turned up anywhere with my husband, I was uncharacteristically quiet and reserved. I guess I always knew he did not like being upstaged, so I automatically played myself down, gradually turning into the horrific mutation of a ‘Stepford wife‘.

The control freak and the uncontrollable
This is inequality of power. When one partner wants to always control and have the last word, but the other is not willing to be controlled, the relationship is headed for disaster.

My husband suffered from an acute lack of self-confidence as well as low self-esteem, and could not tolerate feeling challenged by anyone, let alone a woman. He had a desperate need to feel superior to others as a way of exercising control. Every time he opened his mouth one of two things happened. He either congratulated himself because a colleague or customer had told him how wonderful he had been, or he put someone down, politicians, neighbours, celebrities, colleagues, friends, family in an acerbic tone. Sarcasm was his trademark style. It is the preferred style of those who always need to make others feel bad in order for them to feel good.

I, on the other hand, am for the most part confident and self-assured, although I too go through temporary periods of self-loathing. I love men (and women) who will challenge me, question my way of looking at things, open my eyes to a world I knew nothing about. I have enough humility to be able to accept any new lessons with gratefulness, but NOT if they are being imposed on me in a top-down manner.

Cat or dog personality?
This does not mean I desire to be the controller in the relationship either. Nothing’s more unappealing to me than men who behave like puppies, following me/a woman wagging their tails, doing everything I tell them to do. A yes-man. A puppet. Say no often, disagree with me, persuade me of the validity of your views, don’t let me win every single argument, and I’ll respect you forever. Behave like a puppy and I’ll be bored stiff.

Speaking of puppies, perhaps it was telling that my husband was a dog person, and I a cat one. He liked dogs because of their loyalty and unconditional love. He loved his dog because it followed him everywhere, obeyed his every command. I loved cats because of their spirit of independence, because I knew I could not and should not control them. Because I have a cat personality myself.

The intellectual and the bimbo couple
The other inequality is the inequality of intellect. I bet you know at least a few couples that seem so poorly matched, they make you wonder in astonishment: “what on earth is he/she doing with ‘that’ woman/man?!”. Friends may not approve, but they tolerate their mate’s partner out of courteousness.

Time and again I have met couples where the man is intelligent, well-educated, cultured, well-spoken, with a decent job, but whose girlfriend turns out to be superficial, vulgar, and, to be blunt, bordering on plain stupid. She does not seem to have a personality, and follows him around as if she was his shadow. Everything he says she agrees with; if he ‘likes’ a post on Facebook, she’ll hurriedly ‘like’ it as well to make sure he thinks their views are aligned. She may be secretly addicted to her tabloid, but she will pretend to be a Guardian reader because her man reads it, and she wants him to think she’s an intellectual too. In reality she is far more concerned with what’s happening in the latest reality TV show. She may be terribly opinionated and ranty; all her views of the world are anti-something, but she is unable to articulate an argument without peppering it with coarse expletives for dramatic effect.

The thick girlfriend
I kid you not; one of my good publishing friends, who, thankfully, is now married to a decent, unobnoxious woman, went through a phase of going out with a girlfriend of a similar description. At his 30th birthday party, to which many of his work colleagues had been invited, his very tipsy girlfriend, a petite and pretty brunette, who nannied wealthy people’s children for a living, told me he was now responsible for sales in Eastern Europe but… “Where the f**k is Eastern Yoo-rop? I don’t even know. He is sooo clevah. I’m sooo proud of ‘im. I told’im I’d make an honest man out of him.” She then went on to sit on his lap, to make the point he was hers, not mine.

I nearly projectile vomited. I wanted to kick my friend’s backside. What on earth was he thinking?! Wasn’t he embarrassed to be associated with a dizzy lass like that? At least get a woman of your own stature!

The his complex + her complex couple
From what I have observed, these tend to be couples where both suffer from some kind of inferiority complex. The man is unaware of his worth and not confident enough to pair himself up with a woman of his own intellectual level in case she overshadows him, therefore he chooses to be with someone he can feel confidently superior to.

The woman knows he is out of her league but being with a ‘clever’ man helps cover up her flaws. She doesn’t mind not having an identity of her own, as long as she can bask in the glory of his. But she’s also afraid of losing her prize, so she will use every trick in her book to try to keep her man: sex, flattery, pretence that she likes all the same things as him, emotional blackmailing, ‘accidental’ pregnancies, you name it.

The “bimbo” role may be the man’s of course, and the woman could be the intellectual, but I see those combinations less frequently. Maybe this means intelligent women are generally more confident than men and will rarely settle for ‘just a pretty face’ with no brains.

Remember: all that glitters is not gold. Just because a man and a woman are in a relationship, it does not mean they are happy or that the relationship has any future. Where there isn’t balance and equality, cracks eventually show.

Ultimately a well-balanced relationship between equals comes down to maturity and self-respect. A man and a woman who respect themselves will seek a partner who mirrors their strengths (and weaknesses) without perceiving that as a threat. Being able to engage with someone as a true equal partner, means you can always share without fearing judgement, you learn from each other, you grow together.

To me it sounds blissful, the richest form of connection two lovers can achieve…

Sadly, people often consciously opt to hide behind the security of a bad relationship for many years, rather than face the uncertainty of a new beginning. They will continue role playing, one the dominant, the other the subjugated; the stupid one may play clever, or the clever one may dumb down to pretend that that’s their level really…

A man and a woman can choose to be strong or weak together. Equality can’t be achieved without honesty.

As the late Lou Reed concludes in his beautiful Perfect Day, “You’re going to reap just what you sow.


Someone turn the lights back off

The title of this blog post is a slightly modified line from the lyrics of a wonderful Tom Wait’s song, I’m Still Here. That line resonates with how I feel right now. Read on to find out why.

“You haven’t looked at me that way in years
You dreamed me up and left me here
How long was I dreaming for
What was it you wanted me for

You haven’t looked at me that way in years
Your watch has stopped and the pond is clear
Someone turn the lights back on
I’ll love you till all time is gone

You haven’t looked at me that way in years
But I’m still here”

Nun or slut 
In the past six or seven months since I left my husband, I have been focussing on picking up the pieces, rebuilding my confidence and self-esteem, but I also built up some walls and temporarily shut the door to my heart to protect myself from being hurt.

After a separation, people tend to go towards one of two directions: they either shut down emotionally for a few years in order to heal, shunning involvement with the opposite sex, or they go completely wild, seeking comfort and a distorted form of self-confidence in indiscriminate or extreme sexual adventures.

I have done well in that I did not go for either extreme. I did not put up a sign outside my door saying, “No sex please, I am divorced”, although I do treasure my space and freedom right now and would like men to respect my boundaries and my need for solitude.

I did not choose the ‘slut’ route either. Because the idea of sleeping with random men for the sake of proving to myself I am still desirable feels like sad desperation. It is self-prostitution, let’s face it. It is selling yourself dead cheap in a flea market. I may be battered, but I know my value; I won’t settle for cheap.

Slow desire
Do I miss sex? Not the way I knew it. Forgive the coarse language, but anyone can have a ‘shag’ or a ‘wank’, where your biological needs get instantly satisfied on a practical level, but I am sick of feeling like an on-demand ‘pleasure hole’ for men.

I have had a ‘whore complex’ since my early 20s. There’s a long, sad story behind it, which I won’t go into today, but suffice it to say at some point in my life I got into my head sex was something a woman had to ‘suffer’ to keep her man, NOT something she should be enjoying herself.

Only as a much older adult did I discover I was an extremely sensual being, who gets turned on by slow seduction. There is nothing more sensual and powerful than a gentle and gradual awakening of desire.

I once had a boyfriend who was into aromatherapy massage, scented candles and bath oils. Almost a meterosexual, he was deeply in touch with his feminine side. We had many baths together, barely managing to squeeze into a tiny bathtub (he was very tall). We would sit opposite each other in our aromatic bath water, with candles lit all around the bathroom, just appreciating the sight of each other’s naked bodies in semi-darkness, or touching each other with our toes.

I loved this part of our ritual, as it was more sensual than sexual, a perfect long foreplay, but I discovered men with a strong feminine energy don’t really do it for me at the end of the day. His massages with wonderfully warm hands were amazing, but when we ‘got down to business’, he did not have nearly enough passion, nor imagination, to match my fire.

I guess what works for me, and probably many women out there, is a man who will seduce me gently, like a pussycat, then possess me with the appetite of a tiger.

Let’s go back to the seduction bit.

It is incredible what happens when I absorb the essence of a man with all my five senses: first I see him, his whole body, then I move on to the parts, my eyes looking for the parts I like the most, hands for example…I love a man with beautiful hands (maybe because subconsciously I like to fantasise about what those hands and fingers will feel like on or in my body); I hear his voice, his breath, and, as I get closer, the rhythm of his heartbeat; I smell the smell of his skin, a male scent, or perhaps the hint of an aftershave; I taste him when we kiss wet, hungry, exploratory kisses; I touch his hand, his face, his back, the nape of his neck and feel the warmth of his body, the aliveness underneath the skin. I take in all these things while the beast me in me slowly awakens.

Finally there’s the brain, the ultimate seduction tool. You thought size mattered? The size of a man’s brain does. An intelligent man, who can articulate well and without arrogance, is sexy, no matter what his appearance might be like. Take Alain de Botton, for instance. Bald, tall, average looks, perfectly pleasant. You would not necessarily fancy him if you saw him in the street. Yet, every intelligent woman I know, who has ever read any of his books or heard him talk, says they would like to f*** if not his body, at least his brains.

But enough of sexy talk. There’s something else I miss more than sex, as I have discovered, and that is intimacy, which is a totally separate thing.

In my view, it is perfectly possible to have sex without intimacy. It is the case when you have casual, no-strings-attached sex, but it can also happen to couples when the relationship becomes stale or sours for any reason. Sex can lead to intimacy, and intimacy can lead to sex, but I believe a man and a woman, as friends, can also achieve intimacy without a fusion of bodies, although that is a tricky line to draw.

The other day, a friend made a comment that got me thinking: “Very intimate communication can be almost indistinguishable from love.”

So intimacy can feel like love, but isn’t love always about intimate communication? Isn’t true love about being able to expose one’s vulnerabilities to another without fear of being judged? Isn’t it about feeling so comfortable and accepted when you are with someone, you can be yourself all of the time, warts and all? Isn’t it about being able to let the other peer into the deep, dark recesses of your mind, in the safe knowledge that their love for you won’t be tarnished by it?

Going by the definition above, I know many couples who are together without true intimacy. They would rather be imperfectly together than scarily on their own, but the communication is flawed, there are secrets they hide, and games being played.

I was thinking the other day how rarely I fall in love. In my entire lifetime I may have been in love with two, maybe three men at the most. My ex-husband wasn’t one of them. The men I went out with before him weren’t one of them. I did not entirely trust them, so I was guarded, or played the role that was expected of me.

Yet, from time to time, I a man crosses my path who disarms me with his own sincerity, or I can sense so much beauty in his soul, he makes me forget to put the lock on the door behind which I hide.

I nearly allowed a dishonest robber to steal my heart recently because I got distracted by his intelligent conversation. Because I was impressed that he managed to return an interesting comment to each and every topic I brought up. Because he had made me laugh, because I made him laugh too. Because his kisses were fiery and delicious. Because his hand felt so warm and comforting entwined with mine. Beautiful sinewy hands. Because, in an unguarded moment, he opened up and let slip his vulnerabilities, and I let slip mine.

Because it had been so long since I had experienced an intimate connection with anyone. Because I did not have to pretend I liked him for who he was, as I had been doing for the past 10 years, laughing politely at unfunny jokes, letting the men do all the talking while I nodded, as they could not relate to anything I had to say.

Lights on
The dreamy moment is now gone, shattered to pieces, but I cannot return to the past and erase what happened. A door in my heart that was shut before was left ajar, like a gaping wound, which now throbs during the day, while I try and fail to focus on work, and throbs at night, waking me at 3.30am in a flood of tears.

Someone turned the lights on when I was comfortable in the dark, alone. Now I can’t turn them back off because I am suddenly aware of what I missed and craved the most: not necessarily sex, not necessarily a relationship, only the closeness and warmth of another human being as imperfect as myself.

I cry at the realisation that I stopped believing in love about 10 years ago and have since been fooling myself into thinking there would be alternative ways of being happy with a man. There aren’t. I now know that. Everyday, I grieve over that knowledge.

Small hands
I will leave you with my favourite poem by e.e.cummings, which makes me shudder at its delicate yet powerful imagery: the rose, the snow, the fingers, the hand, the opening, the closing. This, indeed, is what intimacy feels like to me. What about you?

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

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