Archive for March, 2014

Daisy Buchanan, Writer @NotRollergirl

I don’€™t think men are the enemy. I think women are the enemy.

This is a quote from Lily Allen, speaking as the guest editor of the current issue of Shortlist, which is all about How To Be A Man, and it chills me. Lily has been hired to tell men how to be men. And she’s making a salient point about women and bitchiness, and (I hope) saying that women know men aren’t all natural misogynists, and feminism should lead to us all being cheerful buddies and pals -€“ although there’s another troubling bit where she claims we live in a post-feminist world. The thing about feminism and equality is that women are just as capable of being cruel to women as men are. But women should not be the enemy. We are allies and comrades. And we hear a lot about how the dialogue between the sexes should be negotiated, but what happens when we try to talk amongst ourselves.

There are infinite, dissenting, distressing opinions on What Is Wrong With Feminism And How To Fix It, but on International Women’s Day, or the Most Magical Day Of All Days Apart From The Last Friday Of The Month When Itsu Gives Out Free Teryiaki, I would like to talk about sisterhood.

In my younger years, it was the idea of sisterhood that made me want to give feminism a swerve. I have five sisters, and when I was little, I definitely didn’t want any more. Bloody hell. Imagine being bound to half the population, having to buy them all drinks and lend them tampons and tolerate their terrible boyfriends. Imagine billions of voices rising up to tell you that your new jumpsuit makes you look like an egg in a sock. During one family holiday, my sister Olivia (4/6) pooed herself. Every single sister was forced to relinquish one of the pieces of clothing that they were wearing, in order to craft a new, poo free outfit for Liv€“ – and there was every chance she would poo herself again. I am not Mother Theresa. I do not want to clothe all the scatty ladies of the world, because they are my metaphorical sister. There isn’t a dry cleaner near where I live.

The thing is that you do not choose your family. Depending on your circumstances, they’€™re a source of constant joy, laughter, anguish, irritation, food, comfort, love and hatred. Last time I saw Ellen (2/6) I hugged her so hard that the lace on my blouse got stuck to her coat and she nearly accidentally carried me to Shoreditch with her, on her boobs. It was the two year anniversary of the time when various things happened that led to me calling her a c*** and throwing a paper napkin at her in the questionable curry house opposite Clapham South tube station. We don’€™t always like our sisters -€“ but we love them. And it’s the same for the sisterhood.

You might look at the chick opposite you on the bus and think “Eughh, your perfume is giving me a headache and your stupid substandard Black Eyed Peas music is leaking out of your terrible cheap headphones and I know you’€™re giving me side-eye because my hair is still damp and scraped back, but I’m a busy woman. What’s your excuse, asshat?!”€ But the second you spot some guy giving them unwanted attention, you make eye contact. You ready yourself to do the imaginary long lost friend routine, or alert the bus driver, or pull the emergency cord. Because love is a weird compulsion that you can’€™t choose, and you know that you might not dream the same dreams and want the same things as Bus Girl, but this person, like you, is constantly surrounded by people saying “When will you have a baby? Are you a good enough mother? Perhaps you should do something about your hair? I know you set up this meeting, but are you going to make the tea? Your boyfriend is a lucky man! Don’€™t go out at night! Get a rape alarm! Be careful, be suspicious, be hot, but never too sexy, always apologise, always explain, there is no right way to ‘€˜flaunt your curves’€™.”€ And you can, and should, feel love and empathy for a vulnerable, frustrated stranger, and help them, because you have a duty of care to yourself and others.

It feels like lately, more than ever before, women are getting brilliant at telling each other how not to be. At snarking, pointing fingers, “calling out”. Creating a climate in which it’s better to stay silent rather than risk making a mistake. Shortlist magazine is telling its readers how to be a man in a feminist way. Last month the Telegraph claimed feminism is ruining chivalry. But if women act like sisters, and treat each other with a combination of love and chivalry, even if they don’t always like each other, everyone will have figurative and actual doors opened for them and the snarks will get bored and go home. Here’s how I think girl-on-girl behaviour should be. NO SPA BREAKS ARE INVOLVED.

  1. We need to open doors for each other, and help each other with packages. Let’€™s be mindful of our neighbours, the people behind and in front of us on trains and buses. We smile, we help, we don’€™t push.
  2. We praise and share each other’s good work. That means we retweet it, more often than we favourite it. I SEE YOU, SERIAL FAVOURITERS, I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING.
  3. We don’t comment on each other’s bodies. Ever, ever, ever, unless invited. If you’€™re about to congratulate someone for losing weight, imagine them telling you it’s because they nearly died from tapeworm. Yeah, you’re not enforcing anything good. Famouses STILL COUNT.
  4. We share opportunities with our pals. We close the pay gap by our deeds, and by wanting our friends to have maximum professional success, and knowing that when they succeed, we all win! Their triumphs don’€™t take anything away from you.
  5. We do not ask each other to spend £500 drinking tepid blue cocktails in Faliraki the weekend before our weddings. Hen nights are bollocks. You can get drunk anywhere. I’m sure all the bitchy lady-hate in the Western world stems from the fact that every year we resentfully spend thousands of pounds on other people’€™s princess complexes.
  6. We don’€™t do compound bitching. If someone has wronged you, it’s fine to slag them off -€“ but don’t repeat someone else’s slagging off to a third party. It’s destructive and pointless.
  7. We are open and generous with money. We do not go all ‘Connecticut’€™ and whispery about our finances, because this whispering is contributing to the fact that we, on average, get paid 18% less than men. And, not always, but when we can afford it, we insist on paying for dinner and we buy each other flowers and gifts and the tiny, lavish things that amorous suitors bought their ladies in the early twentieth century. Because we love each other!
  8. We don’€™t assume that our problems are harder or worse than anyone else’€™s. We don’€™t decide, without asking, that anyone’s wealth, family or life experience has sheltered them from the horrible things we have to put up with. Women are socialised to grin and bear a lot, and put a brave face on. Never dismiss someone because you think they’ve had it easy -€“ they could just be coping brilliantly.
  9. We admit that we don’t have to like all the women – we don’t have to labour any points about how much we dislike the ones we really hate. It is enormously unlikely that they are existing purely to derail you. I hated Quantum Of Solace, but I’m fairly sure it wasn’t made just to spite me.
  10. We listen to each other. Much is made of the fact that women find it easier to talk about their mental health because they have fabulous, built-in support networks. Well, be a pal. Empathise, don’t rationalise. If the person with the problem has ever held down a job and managed to put shoes on and arrive at your pre-arranged meeting place, they’€™re probably smart enough to have run through all the solutions you’re offering. Focus on what they’€™re saying, and don’€™t just wait for their lips to stop moving so you can jump in with all your stuff. And buy them a bloody big beer.

I’€™m sad the Lily thinks women are the enemy. Let’s spend Women’s Day 2014, and the rest of the year, and THE REST OF ALL TIME, proving her wrong.


Happily Ever After?

Posted: March 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

We all know deep down that the Hollywood picture of marriage does not portray reality. But why, asks Ruth Mawhinney, do we find that so hard to admit?

I was sitting in the end carriage on the Piccadilly tube line, with my coat zipped up around my chin on a mild May evening, praying that no one would recognise me.


Because my fiancé was also on that tube – in a different carriage, and, I’m sure at that moment, was wishing he could put even more distance between himself and his future wife.

We’d just done the ‘money week’ at the Marriage Preparation Course at Holy Trinity Brompton and it hadn’t gone well. On the table next to ours, two perfect-looking whippersnappers who couldn’t have been more than 23 had hung off the leaders’ every word (and each other). I remember feeling utterly hopeless as I looked at them. Not for the first time in that six-week period, I found myself asking what on earth we had got ourselves into.

Our ideas about budgeting, it turned out, were quite different and our ‘discussion’ descended into the only sort of row – hissing, lack of eye contact – that you can have in the company of 200 others. It lasted for the rest of the session, the walk to the
tube, and the ten stops home.

So why was I praying not to be spotted on the tube (other than not being in the mood for small talk)? I was terrified of bumping into someone from the course and them working out that we weren’t speaking. I was terrified of what they might think.

We resolved that particular argument eventually, but the first four months of marriage have seen many other conflicts as we’ve navigated setting up a home together, communication, how we spend our time, who gets custody of the TV remote…

And, for a natural oversharer, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to confess any of this to anyone. It’s partly out of a sense of wanting to protect my husband’s privacy. But I think it’s also because everyone has assumed that, as newlyweds, we’d be nothing other than deliriously happy.

I’ve felt that if I corrected that assumption at all, I’d somehow be letting everyone down.

It’s total nonsense of course, which is why I’ve decided to write this piece. Marriage, it turns out, is great – but it’s hard. And we’re not always that honest about that.

We live in a culture where we are almost compelled to present a slightly better-than-reality version of ourselves. A polished ‘Sunday best’ version of how we really are. We do it with our jobs, our holidays, with how happy we are. And yes, we do it
in churches too.

‘It’s difficult for couples to admit to problems, and sometimes that can be exacerbated in the church community. Everyone tries to put on the perfect front,’ says Nicky Lee, founder with his wife Sila of the Marriage Preparation Course and The Marriage Course at HTB.

‘In churches we don’t always foster an environment of vulnerability,’ agrees Sarah Abell, author of Inside Out: How to have
authentic relationships with everyone in your life
(Hodder & Stoughton). ‘We can suffer from what I call the “Colgate Kid Syndrome” – too many bright white smiles which mask what is really going on inside. We bump into people after the service and even though we’ve had the worst week ever, we still reply “I’m fine” to the question, “How are you?”’

And the trouble with this strange culture is that we say we’re fine, and so everyone else feels they have to say it too. ‘Other people who are hurting or struggling start to believe that they are the only ones with issues, and they can feel reluctant to ask for help or support,’ says Abell.

‘We all bring our Sunday best to church,’ says Mark Molden, CEO of Marriage Care. ‘That plays into a wider issue…What we see in front of us is that people might have a fantastic marriage. Behind closed doors, nobody knows.’

Perhaps once we recognise the need for this vulnerability, people will find it easier to say ‘my marriage is hard work’. Because it is. I can guarantee that every single married couple you know will have had some struggles, but the trouble is this very often goes unacknowledged.

‘Every marriage is going to face tough times,’ says Nicky Lee. ‘These are the great challenges – miscarriage, inability to
have children, unemployment, bereavement, work pressures…’ ‘A big, big one is when a child comes along,’ adds Sila. ‘This is the time when most people [struggle]. It’s the shock, especially for husbands, of having this new person who’s utterly dependent; suddenly their wife has been taken away from them. Men can feel very isolated and left out. There’s a sort of Hollywood, unrealistic “it will all be wonderful” view to having children. The reality is a lot harder.’

Even if couples aren’t facing a particular ‘issue’, it is much more realistic to say that marriage is both a joy and a struggle.

‘If you are to believe the media, of course your sex life is going to be fantastic and fireworks all the time – perfect family, perfect kids. The reality is a bit more gritty than that,’ says Molden. ‘There are seasons in marriage – some are long and cold. You have to hang in there through winter. I think we forget about that. We’re in a culture that says if it’s not summer all the time, it’s not real. That’s nonsense.

‘Some churches even have a theology which says it should be summer all the time,’ he adds. ‘My reading of the Bible tells me that there are seasons. There are some very depressing seasons in the Bible.’

This reality check is not just about making everyone feel better. It’s about making sure that marriages last. The disappointment with reality, coupled perhaps with the belief that all other married people are blissfully happy, treads a well-worn path to communication breakdown, temptation and affairs.

No marriage is bulletproof. We all know couples with what seemed like rock-solid relationships who have split up. ‘Them?’ we say. ‘I actually can’t believe it. They were the pillars of the church. Has she really left him?’

Divorce and separation are issues on an epidemic scale. Statistics tell us that 48% of children under five will see the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. The most common reason for marriage breakdown is an affair.

‘We live in a disposable society. If your phone breaks, you go to Carphone Warehouse and get a new one. That has crept into our relationships as well,’ says Katharine Hill, UK director of Care for the Family. ‘There’s this whole idea that you swap your relationship for another one without working at it.’

In the Lees’ experience, one of the most common reasons for marriage breakdown is that couples hit conflict and believe they can’t resolve it. ‘They think, “I’ve married the wrong person, we’re incompatible”, and it’s so unnecessary,’ says Sila. ‘Lots of people come on the Marriage Course to invest, but lots of others come who are really struggling – couples who are very close to separating. They’ve started to argue, lead separate lives and didn’t know what to do about it. They haven’t realised it’s ok to be different, that conflict is inevitable; it’s having the tools to resolve the conflict. Instead of our differences being problematic, they can complement each other. It’s really exciting when people realise they can change.’

So how do we start to break through the ‘I’m fine’ culture? There is an argument to suggest that accountability for single people is a bit more straightforward. You can be as confessional as you like when it’s just you and you don’t have to consider the consequences your disclosure might have on anyone else.

But there is a line to be drawn between battening down the hatches once married, never telling anyone anything that’s going on, and daily passive aggressive Facebook posts implying trouble at home.

Different approaches work for different people, but everyone I spoke to for this piece recommends married people find one or two trusted confidantes, with whom the real issues can be shared, and doing so on a regular basis.

‘We have a couple who we meet once a fortnight,’ says Hill. ‘I don’t want to sound like we have this whole marriage thing sussed – we haven’t – but doing this has been a lifeline for us. The deal is we are accountable to each other. We have a meal together, pray together, and they are allowed to ask questions…Over the meal, if one of us is a bit scratchy, you can pick it up when you know people well. They are allowed to ask, “What’s going on? Have you been too busy? Are you spending enough time together?” I would really recommend it to people. As we model that to others we can start to change the culture.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the message from the marriage experts was to get support, get it regularly and get it early, rather than waiting for a crisis to strike.

‘Counselling is seen as something you do in a crisis, says Molden. ‘We’re encouraging couples to see you don’t have to be on the edge; it’s a way of enhancing your relationship.’

‘I think when it comes to talking about struggles in marriage there is a balance to be struck,’ adds Abell. ‘We need discernment to know who to talk to and when. Ideally, it helps to agree with our partner who we are going to ask for help, support and prayer, whether that is on our own or as a couple. Choose people who can be trusted and who are “for” your relationship. If your partner won’t discuss the issues with you, seek one or two wise people who you can trust and who will support you and help you think clearly through your options rather than give you advice or tell you what to do. Tell your partner that you need help and suggest these people as the ones that you want to approach.

‘I think the important thing is to decide as a couple what you are going to tell people who aren’t in your immediate group of confidantes. Some couples might be comfortable saying, “We are going through a tricky time at the moment. We are getting help and support but we would value your prayers”, but others might not. You need to decide what is ok for you both.’

The practice of a marriage preparation, mandatory if you get married in a Catholic church, is becoming more common across other denominations too. There is a very positive role which all churches can play here, in directing people to the services available, and also in de-stigmatising the idea of going on a course or seeking guidance.

‘Marriage preparation is growing,’ says Molden. ‘But there is a reticence. Most people don’t know what marriage prep means. Thoughts turn to counselling and then difficulty. There’s a barrier because couples think “We’re not in difficulty, so why would we need to do it?”, worrying about admitting there’s failure.’

‘In our culture, it’s still not a normal thing to do to go on a relationship course,’ agrees Hill. ‘But actually we are beginning to see some culture change.’

‘The key is to get a message out that it’s normal for every couple to invest in their relationship, and not to have the situation where people stay isolated and not get help until it’s so bad,’ agrees Sila Lee. ‘We believe we as a Church can do so much to change the culture. That’s why we’re creating a culture where everyone comes and does it.’

There are hundreds of books and courses available, not to mention lots of married people, who will be willing to bestow advice on how to preserve marriage. Couples can learn their spouse’s love language, they can do Myers-Briggs and work out their personality types. They can pray together every day. They can make time for a date night each week, and learn how to argue effectively. Courses and books and accountability partners are certainly not the stuff of great Hollywood romances. But they are the things which help in real life.

‘When my husband and I teach on relationships or marriage, we find that people respond most when we share our weaknesses and failures,’ says Abell. ‘It gives them a sense of “me too” and helps them to see that not everyone has the perfect relationship. I think it helps everyone in church, whether single or married, to see that relationships go through ups and downs, that we need to work at them, and as a church we need to support and pray for them.

‘If we can share something [of our struggles], even if it is after things have improved, we give other people permission to be vulnerable too and that is a great gift. It is particularly powerful when church leaders talk about struggles they have been through in their own family life, or how they have sought support, help, or overcome [issues] in their own marriage.’

So let’s be honest. And no, that doesn’t mean we should be telling anyone who will listen over coffee after church about the intimate details of bank balances, sex lives or differences of opinion about whether or when to have children. But we do need to find a way of presenting a more true-to-life version of ourselves. It might just save our marriages.

Got a comment about this article? Email or tweet her @ruthmawhinney