You know, I’ve been kinda obsessed with character for a long time on this blog! However I have just read an article from a divorce lawyer who is developing an app to stop teenagers from getting married prematurely. There she focused on the importance of compatibility. For a long time I struggled to understand what “compatibility” really meant in everyday terms in a relationship. However, I think I now have a clearer idea:
Do the two of you have a similar outlook on life? Do you have shared values: eg values around money, use of time, life goals, bringing up children? Do you speak in the same sort of way – do you understand one another when you speak? Do you “get” and engage with one another’s sense of humour? This next one is extremely important for me: Do you share similar views when it comes to women’s potential in the work field, and also division of labour in the home? I’m sure that it can be very easy to say all the right things before marriage, but then after marriage, and especially after children, reality hits – as it has done for so many couples. Apparently it is often just too easy to revert to “traditional” roles of division of labour after children. I have read so many articles about this! In fact, this reminds me of something I was thinking about just earlier today. This following true story is actually not really, ultimately about a woman’s role in the home, it is more about communication…
Many years ago when I was still living in my parents’ house (but crucially everyone else had moved out? – I think, for this story to make sense…) my parents had a guest over from Nigeria, a long-standing family friend, a man, an age-mate to my parents.
Now here’s the thing: back in those days I was working away on my prayer/business dreams, it was so long ago that the internet had not been as strongly established as now; so I was very much still in a big state of mental confusion as to what exactly I was doing to make money, and how that tallied with my wider dreams of living for God. And I was doing all of this from my home. So I was spending all my time at home all day, but crucially I considered myself to be working.
And from what I remember, when this guest came, it was not as if things had really been communicated clearly. It was just as if this guest was just thrust upon the household. And I essentially shrugged: OK! Whatever.
And then the first morning this guest came downstairs and asked me what was for breakfast.
Back then I was thinking of it as a sexism thing so I was absolutely livid. However, with the benefit of hindset I can see that it was actually more of a communication issue, and he was the innocent party in all of it. This might not seem like a big deal but if you understand Nigerian hospitality, then you know that when guests come to your house then you really look after them, you pull out all the stops to make them feel welcome. So it is not about simply saying “there’s cereal over there, milk in the fridge” – the expectation is that you would cook every meal. And then it dawned on me that just because I happened to be female, based at home that almost by default it fell to me to be making the breakfasts and essentially waiting on this guest. My Mum really does not trust my cooking so she would always cook the main meal at night, always. Because he was the same age as my parents, and we have a very established culture of respecting our elders, I could not say what I was thinking, but what I was thinking was “Just because I happen to be at home does not mean that I am here to wait on you!” And it was not just him. Other house guests expected me to take them around London, to show them all the sights, spend all day at shopping centres with them etc until I started thinking of a way of diplomatically leaving the house early in the morning and only returning late at night.
However as I say this was more a communication failure, and the failure was between my parents and myself. None of it was discussed beforehand. Our family breakfast culture in the UK is very different from how we might live in Nigeria, in that in the UK each person fends for his or herself, so it literally had not occurred to me that this man would be expecting an exciting cooked breakfast. Perhaps it had not occurred to my parents either. I can see that this is exactly the kind of thing that might happen in a marriage, that a man would invite his friend over and unthinkingly drop this houseguest bomb on the household, then it would be the woman who actually has to run around, perhaps with little or no notice, to do the necessary shopping, wash bedsheets, actually do the cooking etc to make the guest feel welcome. It would be bad enough if the wife was not working in this scenario. However, what if she was working? Or even worse, working from home? I can see the potential for someone to be immensely annoyed that her work is not appreciated as “proper work”, and the expectation is that she can just drop everything “just like that” to [run after – make good, make work] her husband’s casually announced decisions.
I definitely know someone – yes it is a man – who had a habit of dropping houseguests on his family without discussing it with anyone – even his wife. And one of those houseguests stayed for a protracted length of time – months and months and months, if not over a year. You know what? Even if you are going to be the one single-handedly looking after this houseguest, and doing all the shopping, cooking and cleaning to look after them, it is simply courteous to at least discuss it with me as your wife – not merely mention it a couple of hours before said houseguest turns up. So how much more is this true if you simply take it for granted that I am the one who is going to actually be doing all the work to look after this houseguest?!
Because of typical gender roles it might be slightly easier in Nigerian culture if the houseguest in question was female, as to a certain extent women are expected to join in in looking after the household, perhaps doing a bit of the cooking, the cleaning, babysitting children (depending on the age of the woman, ie if she was younger than the wife). But if it was a lone man of eg 30 years old and above, then in traditional “well brought-up” Nigerian homes, he would just expect to be waited on hand and foot.
You see, this is why I need my own money. If my husband was Nigerian and he casually dropped this kind of thing on me, a Nigerian male houseguest staying for an indeterminate length of time, I would just move out of that house for all those months, move into a hotel, and leave hubby to look after his houseguest by himself. I think that sometimes when you are not the person responsible for dealing with these things on a daily basis, it can be really easy to take them for granted, without appreciating what kind of effort they require, time, thought, preparation. And I would just want to feel prepared.
So let’s say my husband had innocently/unthinkingly made this mistake of inviting someone else over, without really thinking through how much work it would entail and just who in practice would realistically be doing all that work. This then is where compatibility/listening to one another really comes in: if instead of temporarily moving out as threatened above, I have endured and gritted my teeth through weeks or even months of the houseguest’s stay (and having to do all the work). Then afterwards, when houseguest is safely back in his own home/in Nigeria, I have tried to discuss it with hubby, tried to be patient with him, tried to explain to him how frustrating I found his behaviour, of just throwing me into the deep end without consultation: would hubby actually listen? Would he take my complaints onboard? Or would he just fob me off with a smile, then casually go and make the same “mistake” a few months later? I am already boiling at this possibility!
Have you ever been in a situation when you tried to calmly express one of your frustrations – and the person responsible tried to fob you off by laughing at you?! Why yes, yes I have! Actually this to me is not so much compatibility as character. However there are some women who can take this; in fact some Nigerian women almost take it as a challenge, even make it a sport, to be able to deal expertly with all their husband’s requests which people like me would consider unreasonable; they just see it as “being women of excellence”. So many Nigerian women are apparently ecstatic to prove themselves worthy by obeying societal norms that to me they appear to practically revel in the unreasonableness of their husbands’ requests just to show that they can outperform societal expectations. These are the women who make things difficult for the rest of us. I don’t think I want to be a “woman of excellence” on their terms! I would be far more likely to challenge the norms: “Why do I “have” to do that? Who said?! Is it God?! If it is not God then why do I have to listen to whatever they might think?! OK, show me where it is written in the Bible!”
So you see we’re all competitive, we just compete in different ways!
Christian: Even after all I have seen and experienced in the church, I still sometimes fall into the mental trap of thinking that I am more likely to be compatible with someone just because he identifies as a Christian. That is not true. Let me say that again for my own benefit, if no-one else’s: THAT IS NOT TRUE! It is definitely true that my husband does have to share my faith, and that is well established on this blog, and it is as non-negotiable now as it has always been. However, it does not follow that I will be compatible with just anyone who identifies as a Christian and lives a life that is generally recognisable as “Christian”: that is someone who reads the Bible, goes to church on Sundays. There have been countless Christians I have met where in trying to interact with them it has been like speaking two different languages. With so many Christians I have had to acknowledge that I have absolutely nothing in common with them. I cannot even think of them as “brothers and sisters” in Christ. Like for instance, Christians who adamantly support Trump. Yeah, I’m going to go there. I am reluctant to over-politicise this and I know that among Trump supporters there will be many many people who are not only decent and sincere but who also share many many values with me. However, for many of his supporters who also identify as Christians there might be people who are truly sincere but I simply cannot think of myself as sharing anything in common with them. They will interpret Bible verses differently from me, they will emphasise different parts of the Bible; to twist the common phrase, we would be separated not by a common language, but rather by a common faith. Clearly I cannot marry someone like that.
[Commitment: I need to think of this more – How do you know if the two of you will be committed to one another? Is this someone who makes and breaks commitments lightly? It’s one thing, of course, to be friends when it is all lighthearted, when it is not a big deal, and nothing of note has happened to threaten your commitment to one another. However, what happens when you start living together as woman and husband, and start dealing with real life nitty gritty issues, when for the first time you have the real capacity to annoy or frustrate one another? ]