Some of you might know Anna as one third of the team behind Any Other Woman. She has a very serious, very important job, she can rock a yellow cape dress like nobody’s business, and had an actual owl at her wedding. So when she gave us this post, I expected it to be intelligent, thoughtful and a little bit fierce. What I didn’t expect was this kind of gut-wrenching honesty. As Anna herself admits, she’s British through and through, and as a nation we’re not exactly known for laying ourselves bare. We tend to smooth things over, keep the peace, smile grimly and carry on. But what if your partner ignores these carefully-constructed social boundaries? It’s hard to admit that our friends’ approval matters, and even harder to accept that sometimes they simply won’t agree with our choice of partner. Ultimately, though, that’s what it is: our choice. Ours. Not theirs. Here’s Anna.
—Kirsty, APW UK Guest Editor
I always wanted a partner who highlighted all my best bits in front of other people.
Looking at that written down, it sounds ludicrous. And selfish. But that’s what I wanted. I thought that’s what they were for, partners. I was twenty-three, and more than a little naive. I had vivid fantasies about being in a long-term relationship, spending time with my friends and someone, anyone, standing by my side, laughing at all my witty jokes, agreeing or (intelligently, but skilfully) disagreeing with my firmly-held political opinions. Someone whom my friends would see as an extension of myself, someone they would see as grown from the same roots as my own but with different branches, someone who matched me, complemented me, someone my friends loved as wholly as they did me.
That is not what I found. That is not at all who I married.
My husband does not tick any of the above boxes. He never has, and frankly, he doesn’t care. In the early stages of our relationship I would bring him to parties, hoping he would compliment my sparkling wit, or at the very least engage me in constructive debate so my friends could see how quick-footed we were, how politically aware. That’s what they knew I’d always wanted, that’s what they felt I deserved.
Again, he couldn’t have cared less. He doesn’t like small talk, that great British institution, or being amongst large groups of people. Instead of impressing my friends with tales of his (frankly incredible) life and story, as I’d hoped, he’d sit down on a sofa in the corner of the room and fiddle with his phone, talking to people as and when they came over. He wouldn’t ignore people. He just wouldn’t perform.
I could see my friends were confused. They could see I was frustrated. I had a brand to promote, my brand, what was supposed to be our brand, and he wasn’t playing his part.
Part of this is cultural. I’m British, through and through. I’ve travelled, I’ve lived and worked abroad, but England is where I belong, where I miss. Its hundred shades of green are what I call home. My husband has family from the Middle East and the Caucasus, and grew up all over the world: the Middle East, the Gulf, Europe. He doesn’t believe in cultural identity, because he’s never had one.
I’ve tried, believe me I have fought tooth and nail for it, but it’s very, very difficult to share roots with someone who does not share or understand your cultural background. A relationship can work, absolutely, in those circumstances, but it needs to work on different terms. You’ll never quite have the same foundation of humour, you’ll never be able to reminisce about being a kid in early 90s Britain, you’ll never have a shared history. Even things as fundamental as how you communicate and interpret each other’s behaviour will be different. They will have to be re-learnt. This can make you stronger as a couple, but I underestimated how much work it would be. And back then, eight years ago, that kind of thing wasn’t even on my radar.
We would be travelling with my friends on the Tube, and he would say something unusual, or provocative, in front of strangers. In Britain, you do not talk to strangers on the Tube. It’s a cardinal sin. Some of my friends laughed, some looked uneasy. He’d meet my childhood friends for the first time, and say something completely out of left field, so far away from gentle small talk it was preposterous. They’d laugh and look polite, because that’s what you do when you’re British, but I could see they were surprised, and not in a good way.
With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been far better if they’d called him on it, and explained why they felt he was rude. He’d have responded well to that, to that searing kind of honesty. But I didn’t understand that was what he needed, and of course he didn’t understand that with the British, there are a thousand things being felt under the surface, but my God they will never make it to the surface, not if the British can help it, not if we can keep this carefully-controlled, carefully-crafted social situation ticking along calmly, as it should.
It got worse. I was very overweight when I met my husband. He was matter-of-fact about it. Not “I don’t love you because you’re fat,” but “if you carry on eating this much, you’re going to have a heart attack.” Yet another example of the cultural divide. For many Brits, it’s rare to address a subject bluntly. My husband saw no problem in discussing the issue of my size, wherever we were, whoever we were with. To him, it was a fact. “She is overweight, therefore it is a problem to be resolved.” My friends seethed on my behalf. I didn’t want them seething, because I knew he was right, and because it prompted me to lose much of the weight and feel much healthier as a result. But they seethed.
The first four years of our relationship are peppered with examples such as this, of expectations not quite met, of cultural misunderstandings, of me trying to reconstruct a social situation that he had just elbowed his way through, clumsily. Of friends trying to understand, but not quite doing so. Of some friends accepting him, but the majority expressing reservations. Of me feeling torn, and on unsteady ground. I read about other people’s marriages, and how when they met they just knew. That’s never been our story. Not by a long way.
I have teachers for parents. I’ve never really stopped searching for an A. For someone who, eight years ago, sought validation from others like crack, and who still responds to praise like an overly-enthusiastic lapdog, learning that many of my friends didn’t particularly like or understand my partner was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to swallow. I deeply respect my friends’ opinions. I choose them to be part of my life because they are wise, sane and make my world a better place. So I struggled profoundly with the idea that I disagreed with them on this fundamental issue, on the person I wanted to marry.
But I ignored them, and listened to myself. I married him anyway.
And now, what do I feel? I wish I could say that I’ve learnt to navigate and manage the situation. I wish I could say that my friends now love my husband as much as they love me. I don’t think that’s true. I think my friends now love my husband because I love my husband. I have my wedding to thank for that. Anyone who had reservations about our future together put those to rest four years ago when they saw me unable to wait for the registrar to finish the vows, and start jumping up and down with excitement and throw myself on my husband. That kind of love has a way of burying misgivings.
He’s still rubbish at parties (true story, at my friend’s wedding, my husband spent the afternoon napping because he found a well-placed sofa. Try explaining that one to the mother of the bride). He’s still provocative in his views, and in how he expresses them. Trying to diplomatically engineer a social situation with him in it has become so tiring that now, I just let it go. It turns out that people can cope with the unusual and the unexpected, and if he makes a mistake, it’s his to clear up. We’ve both softened. He’s my equal and opposite. He’ll never be what I wanted him to be. I’ve learned to let it go.
I’ve also learned that if you listen to your friends and to their concerns, and you think about them long and hard, and you still disagree, then that’s okay. A single voice, your voice alone, can drown out a chorus of well-meaning friends and family. Ultimately it’s your life, your story, your mistake to have the right to make. Friends are your crew, but they do not steer that ship of yours. You crash it, it’s on you.
Photo: Lauren McGlynn