Monthly Archives: November 2013

The coming out video: lessons on being straight (with oneself)

Last week I was so impressed by a TEDx talk by lesbian speaker Ash Beckham that I facebooked it, tweeted it, Google-plussed it and, to the few friends who “don’t do social media”, I sent an email saying, “you need to watch this”. Talk about enthusiasm: I am blogging about it now…!

You should watch the video yourself, but I will highlight the main points of her talk here, and put them in the context of our day-to-day relationships.

Ash uses the coming-out-of-the-closet theme to illustrate why we should not hide behind safe walls just because confronting people and having that difficult conversation we need to have is so hard to do.

“At some point in our lives we all live in closets, […] they make you safe,” she says.

Ash says her closet, as a homosexual woman, was rainbow-coloured, but straight people live in closets too, of different colours, terrified of stepping out.

We all have issues we cannot bring ourselves to discuss with our parents, our lovers, our children. Because they would force us to be totally honest with them. Because we cannot face the fear of letting them down, of making them angry, or sad, or both.

Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) recently tweeted this:

It is so true: we resent people we have hurt because facing them is like looking into an unforgiving mirror which reflects back the scummy shits that we were.

1) Hard is hard
Ash says no matter what the issue might be, there is no ranking ‘hard’. Telling someone you love that you have cancer, or that you have cheated on them, is not ‘harder’ than telling someone you are bankrupt. We are equal in that we all have ‘hard’ things to talk about.

“Hard is not relative. There’s no harder, just…hard.”

I guess this also means don’t use different measures of ‘hard’ as an excuse not to come out of that safety closet.

2) Come out or die

“When you do not have these hard conversations, you’re essentially holding a grenade. [And] if you do not throw that grenade it will kill you.”

This is so true. You may be holding a grenade yourself right now. That niggling issue you’ve been sweeping under the carpet because it may cause too many ripples if you bring it out…

Most relationships end up collapsing because a problem that could have been ironed out through a candid conversation in the early days end up not happening until it is too late to salvage them: the interfering mother-in-law, the financial responsibilities of each partner, the division of childcare or household duties, the tricky issue of long-term commitment versus let’s-see-what-happens, the devastating issue of I want kids but he doesn’t.

What is the conversation you are avoiding having with your partner right now? By holding back that overdue heart-to-heart, you are slowly poisoning yourself mentally and physically. Most critically, you are poisoning your own relationship.

3) The three coming-out rules
Ash sets three essential rules for coming out of any closet:

Rule #1: Be authentic – since you have decided to be real with someone, “take the armour off”, go into it with a bared soul. Don’t adopt the flight-or-flight response; face the facts and be prepared to for them to “be real” back to you.

Rule #2: Be direct – “say it with your Band-Aid off” – do not try to embellish your story or make it sound less serious than what it actually is. I take this as meaning, don’t be a coward, show some balls!

Rule #3: Be unapologetic – you should not have to apologise for speaking the truth. If you have hurt them through your actions, “apologise for what you have done but…

“Never apologise for who you are.”

Their disappointment is linked to their own expectations of who you are; it is “their story, not yours,” Ash says.

Accepting the leopard
When I first heard that, I found it rather selfish and thoughtless but, on reflection, Ash is right. No matter what you did, or what was done to you, people can’t change who they are anyway, unless they decide to do so themselves.

A leopard can’t change its spots.

For instance, a serial liar may apologise for the lies they told you, but often they cannot help themselves for being dishonest perhaps because, as children, they learned that lying was the most effective way of protecting themselves from hurt. Everyone carries obscure secrets from their past, which may have shaped their mental makeup and habits.

The commitment-phobic man may be letting down one woman after another by sweet talking them into being with him, but never wanting to take that step further, but that does not necessarily make him into a ‘bad’ person.

I know many women will disagree with me here. I have, in the past, met men who were essentially ‘free spirits’. Had I wanted to pin them down for a long-term commitment, they’d have run a mile. But I do not label them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ just because they would never consider marrying me. Because, to me, commitment, marriage, having children, etc are a matter of choice, not an obligation. They are not a pre-condition to having a relationship, although they may determine whether the couple will stay together for a long or short period of time.

I suppose the very young don’t care (yet), nor the elderly. But women of child-bearing age, seeking a partner to have a family with, tend to be the ones who are most unaccommodating.

Achieving healing
I am not condoning men and women who lie, cheat, deceive, seduce potential lovers and never take relationships seriously. But since coming out of our hiding places, to be exposed to the harsh light of truth, requires so much courage, the act of being honest with ourselves and others ought to be a liberating yet sobering experience for both parties.

Within a relationship coming out should, ultimately, be a healing process. ‘Healing’ does not imply the relationship will always survive. Sometimes truth brings two people closer together and sometimes it sets them apart. Either way, living with honesty is a much healthier and nurturing way of experiencing love. And the only way we can hope to achieve true intimacy.

“No matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to truly live.”

Engagement rings: the tricky commitment illusion

Engagement ring 1An article in Guardian’s Comment is Free (A man’s perspective on why engagement rings are a joke) by a male author, criticising our culture of using the size and price of an engagement ring as yardsticks for a man’s love and commitment, reminded me a diamond is not always a girl’s (not even a boy’s) best friend.

I once overheard a colleague discussing with other young ladies in my office that, according to tradition, a man was expected to spend the equivalent of three times his monthly salary on an engagement ring.  My own ring had cost less than my husband’s two days’ wages (at a relatively low-paid job), so I kept my head down and carefully avoided being dragged into the discussion. At the time of my engagement I had been unemployed for more than a year and was broker than broke. I had accepted the ring with gratefulness. What woman is not happy to be presented with a ring from her future partner?

I didn’t tell anyone that my husband had, on one occasion, even taken me to Argos to look at their rings. Buying an engagement ring at Argos sounds as naff as buying your wedding dress at Walmart, of course, but I am sure some low-income couples do it.

The serial cheater
This would not have been the case of Tracey, an American stage costume designer married to a Japanese rock musician, whom I met while living in Japan. (I used to be involved with an amateur theatre group formed by English-speaking expats and developed many friendships with thespians and other arty types during that time.)

Tracey wore a large stone on her finger and used to flaunt her husband’s gift to her whenever the opportunity arose, “Look at the size of this. Is this love or wot?!”

Her husband was on the road a lot, so most of our post-rehearsal parties ended up happening at her place, with wine flowing freely all night; some of us ended up staying over. It was common knowledge among us that Tracey had slept with a few of the actors, at least one director and the Japanese lighting designer. Despite her serial infidelity, she swore, hand to heart, she loved her husband. It was just to fill the gap in their sex drives, she said, shrugging her shoulders.

“I want it three times a day; he’s happy with once a month. What can I do?”

We all loved Tracey and none dared judge her, but I felt a bit sorry for her cuckolded husband. So much for trying to keep his woman with an expensive ring. And yet, who knows, what he was up to on tour?

Embrace the change
The author of the Guardian column is right in that, just as overpriced Valentine’s flowers are a shameless commercial exploitation of love, which we buy into, so are catchphrases like “Diamonds are forever”, making us believe diamond rings are THE ultimate proof of everlasting love.

Diamonds may be eternal, but love? And commitment?

Get over it. Anyone who thinks love and relationships never change with time has a lot of growing up to do. Love is not “set in stone” because relationships between two humans are fluid by nature. Shit happens, people change, love can change too. When things go belly-up, the most impressive of rings, along with that cheap Argos one, may end up collecting together in a gutter, or a pawn shop.

The price of love
We women are just as bad for playing the game the advertisers want us to play…assessing men’s love by how much money they were willing to part with for us.

There is something fundamentally wrong about putting a price tag on love. When women set minimum values to gifts they ought to receive, as if they were dowries, they perpetuate the myth that women can be objectified and purchased by men. When we go around bragging about the size of the stone on our rings in order to make our girlfriends, and any potential suitors, jealous, we are basically saying “this is my market value”.

Men who give too much
Meantime, men who buy too many presents for their lovers, or go overboard with the pricey stuff, can give the impression they are trying too hard and are up for being being taken for granted. Sometimes, a small, thoughtful but inexpensive gift of any kind can be far more romantic and effective in impressing a girl in the right way.

It is like the balance between prices, and supply and demand: if too much is available, the value drops, no one cares.

I am not saying an engagement, or a pre-engagement, should be not be celebrated with the gift of a ring. We don’t have to eat cake at our birthday, but formalising it by having cake with our friends makes it more sociable and memorable.

A ring is also symbolic and represents a private celebration of a commitment between two lovers. But having gone through a bitter separation, being surrounded by men and women with a history of broken relationships, I would say don’t let the shine of that stone fool you. The actual, hard stone that seals your love to him or her, needs polishing everyday.

Finding the gem
Train the eye of your heart to separate the good from the bad stones. The long-lasting, unbreakable gems, which are worthy of our emotional investment, often cross our paths when we least expect it.

Whether you will be able to spot it or not, will depend on how ready you are to ditch the cheap and easy, and be dazzled by the beauty of that one precious stone you deserve.