Making features from our mistakes

18th January 2017 by Tania West

One of my all time favorite films is the animation “Up” – it is sensitive, poignant, funny and communicates so much about relationships in general and marriage in particular. One of the scenes I love is the opening one in which Carl (who has recently married Ellie) accidentally puts his paint covered hand on their newly decorated mail box. There is a moment when this could have morphed into the first marital dispute and then in a moment of decision fueled by the desire to connect, Ellie places her own painted hand on the mail box to leave an imprint of her hand next to his. And there it is – a mistake that could have resulted in disconnection is transformed in an act of generosity and grace and becomes the signature of their connection.

Why do I love this scene so much?  Perhaps because I am deeply aware of my own flaws, my own inadequacies, my own human frailty.  There are so many times that I often inadvertently ( and sometimes more intentionally)  place my metaphorically painted hand all over something pristine in our relationship.  Like the time I neglect to realize that my nearest and dearest needs to spend the first hour or so of the morning in quiet contemplation, and I barge in demanding attention or an answer to a question that needs answering NOW (in my humble opinion).  Or the many times that I offer advice even though I know that it is often thinly veiled criticism which leaves my spouse feeling somewhat disempowered.  And then there are the times that his painted hand leaves unwanted imprints like the time he sent a birthday card with the words “Happy Anniversary” and I reacted rather badly!!

The truth is we all leave imprints on one another with our painted hands – so how can we better respond like Ellie – and pursue connection?  Here are three ideas to contemplate.

Perhaps the first universal truth to acknowledge is that we will all mess up from time to time. We will get it wrong, mis-read the signs, annoy, cajole and irritate one another.  When we cease to view our spouse through a lens of our own imagined perfection, it becomes easier to be gracious.

Secondly, most couples we know (including ourselves) actually crave connection, and when this becomes our conscious intention, our minds and hearts naturally seek alignment.  What does intentional connection look like?  Perhaps the refusal to let the stuff of life clog up our communication, the commitment to seek resolution when it does, and the willingness to forgive when it all goes hopelessly wrong!

Thirdly, a sense of humor is well worth pursing in all our relationships and perhaps especially in marriage.  Catching sight of our own ridiculousness is a marvelous antidote to offense and irritation.  Having the humility to realize that at times I sound like my mother or a two year old having a tantrum helps me to stay grounded and yes laugh at myself.

I know I am bound to put my painted hands on the postbox of life and I am certain that my beloved will do the same, our aim is to leave an imprint that makes our mistakes into features, that makes us and others marvel and laugh and that leaves us more connected than if we had never erred in the first place!

 

 

Go fast, go alone, go far, go together

12th January 2017 by Tania West

Its been a while since I’ve written on the subject of relationships in general and marriage specifically.  Why? All sorts of reasons, from limiting beliefs “Have I really got anything significant to say?” to a feeling close to despair when I see dear friends struggling and “stuck” in their disconnection.  And yet, this summer I was privileged to witness the rather emotional wedding of our youngest son to the love of his life.  As I reflect on their tear-filled vows and contemplate their heartfelt commitment to one another, I conclude that we must offer more to one another in the way of phronesis – practical applied wisdom that makes the “ever after” part of the wedding vows, well, happy! And that’s where you come in, I’d love to hear your stories and experiences of how you have maintained and grown your marriages.  What have been your challenges and how have you overcome them?   What advice would you offer to a young couple just starting out?  And if you are that young couple just starting out, what have you got to teach the rest of us?  I love the phrase “To go fast, go alone, to go far, go together”. I believe that we all have something to contribute to the conversation, so let’s go far, together.  You can email me, text me or Facebook message me. I am keen to hear your stories, I will respect your anonymity  but  share your  wisdom and celebrate the hope and practical help that your stories will bring.  Going fast is over-rated; going far is my deepest hope for my own marriage and yours and for all the other young couples saying “I do” and “I will” in this generation and in the generations to come.

Saying what you mean and meaning what you say

16th February 2016 by Tania West

how-to-make-cup-of-coffeeAs I am a presenter, trainer, couple mentor and marriage weekend facilitator you could be forgiven for imagining that I’d be quite good at saying what I mean and meaning what I say.  I mean, surely with all this training and experience I must be the communication Queen right?

Wrong.

I never cease to be amazed at how I successfully manage to be obscure, unclear, or downright misleading in my own communication with my nearest and dearest.

Let’s take the fairly simple desire to stop on the way back from travelling on the M5 and have a cup of coffee.  The stakes aren’t particularly high, its a fairly straightforward request, there is no emotional baggage or unhelpful history to make the communication process fraught.  What could possibly go wrong?

I start the conversation with a question: “Would you like to stop for a coffee?”

My nearest and dearest thinks for a nano second and then simply replies “No”.  As far as he is concerned he has answered a simple question.

Wrong.

The question was not simple, it was loaded.  Loaded with my own expectations, needs and now intense frustration.  How could he be so insensitive?  How could he not realise that I would love a drink?  Does he really love me at all?

For the rest of the journey I nurse my disappointment, I feed it with other examples of felt neglect.  I even manage a “passive aggressive response”: “Just so long as you’re okay”.  A response he puts down to hormones!  By the time we reach home I am fuming and successfully orchestrate an argument over something quite un related.

So why can’t I just say what I mean? and if I can’t manage to ask to stop for a coffee, how on earth am I going to manage the more knotty issues which are all part of this adventure called marriage?

Perhaps there is more to saying what you mean than I had realised.  I suggest in reality  it requires letting go of  a cherished relationship fantasy.

Love means never having to be explicit because real love always knows what you really want and need.

The truth I suggest is much more practical:

Love means  always having to be honest because real love doesn’t always know what you really want and need.

Armed with my new realisation, and on my way back from a recent journey, I once again found myself saying “would you like to stop for a coffee” my husband said “No”, then thought for a nano second and then said “but would you like to”?

So am I any closer to my goal of saying what I mean and meaning what I say?  Perhaps not.  But I have discovered a deeper truth about communication.

Love means always trying to be honest, sharing your failings, because real love will always exercise Grace which is what we all really want and need.

Me especially.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

50 Shades of Doubt

12th February 2015 by Tania West

fifty-shades-darker-pdfNo doubt there will be many this Valentines day that consider the ultimate romantic gesture may be a meal followed by a viewing of the much acclaimed “50 shades of grey”.  Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s romantic parade, but permit me to offer 50 shades of doubt as to why this may not, in fact, be quite the romance infused gesture you had perhaps thought.

Firstly lets consider the context in which the romance between the two lead characters blossoms. Christian Grey was abused sexually, physically and emotionally as a child as a result of which he has an inability to have genuinely intimate encounters, finding it difficult to even sleep the night next to a woman and having multiple fears about being touched (I know the irony isn’t lost on me either).  In order to compensate for his horrendous upbringing he develops a taste for “unorthodox” sexual pleasures which involve dominating and controlling his “mate” in a variety of ways and in a custom built “play room”.

His relationship with Anastasia Steele, a sexually in-experienced and shy young woman, has all the hallmarks of control and abuse which is masked by Anna’s “inner Goddess” whose craving for multiple orgasms creates a smokescreen over the worse excesses of Mr Grey’s behaviour.   In any other context, his control of her finances, friends, job prospects, who she sits next to on a plane, where she travels, what car she drives, the computer she uses,  and the phone she texts on, how much she eats, the type of birth control she uses and control of her exercise regime would be considered abhorrent in the extreme but in this orgasmic haven, these behaviours can be tolerated, even welcomed (she has after all signed his “contract”)

Anything goes in Mr Grey’s distorted relational world and anything is tolerated in Anna’s submissive “I’ll go at your pace because I can’t think straight”  fog.  Severe beatings threaten to end the relationship, but then as Mr Grey patiently points out – the “safe word” is there for a reason (so her failure to use it, is of course her fault which he, of course, cannot be held accountable for).

The turbulent relationship continues and Mr Grey discovers he may have something resembling “romantic feelings” for Anna, he even helpfully draws on his torso where she may be permitted to touch him and offers to sleep next to her at night (sometimes).  And then the ultimate romantic gesture: he marries her and then proceeds to rape her and beat her (well she was told not to look at other men) and when did rape become such well… fun?

The final piece of the trilogy ends with their new baby growing peacefully inside her whip lashed stomach – one can only wonder how Mr Grey will fare as a father to his own daughter!

And so to my questions and my doubts.  How did abuse, control, manipulation, and domination become equated with romance?  How have so many of us become duped?  When did we decide that so long as our “inner Goddess” was happy anything goes?  Why are we not horrified by the power imbalance in Grey’s relationship?  Is it right that as long as we have consent and a safe word we can demean even torture a loved one?

This valentine’s day can we really not find something more genuinely romantic with which to delight our partner?

7 steps to creating a more mindful marriage

27th April 2014 by Tania West

bigstock-Happy-Young-Couple-outdoor-12572609After reading an article in the Sunday Times recently on “Mindfulness” in marriage, I have been reflecting on  how the art of living in the present and taking responsibility for our own thoughts, reactions, and feelings “in the moment” has a beneficial effect on marriage.  Here is a synthesis of the article’s conclusions and my reflections  in a seven step straightforward process:

1.  Know your triggers.  We all have situations that trigger particular emotional responses.  One of mine is being asked to go to B and Q to buy something DIY related by my husband only to find that I don’t have all the information I need and when I am asked a fairly straightforward question by the pleasant man in orange, I am left feeling a complete idiot.  I am aware that I quickly become flooded with feelings of inadequacy and even shame which have their roots in being teased as a child when I made a mistake or didn’t know something.  The unmindful approach to this situation has me blaming my husband for putting me in this awkward situation in the first place and in the past has resulted in tension and even the odd argument or three!  The mindful approach has me admitting this particular vulnerability and sharing with him how I feel in situations like this, which has the effect of lessening their “hold” as well as promoting a new level of intimacy in our relationship.

2. Take response ability.  One of my favourite quotes is this: “In between the stimulus and the response is a space.  In that space lies your freedom to choose.  In your choice lies your future growth and happiness” .  Cultivating a more mindful marriage means using that space wisely to choose the response that is going to result in greater closeness.  

3. Learn how to diffuse your own emotions.  At a recent gathering of newly married couples, one woman commented that she tends to “fast forward” in her own mind where her emotions will lead and the likely results that will ensue thereby gaining a sense of perspective and self control.  I was impressed by this “diffusion” technique (one that I clearly need to practice myself!) Others find it helpful to literally give themselves some space to calm down, or even distract themselves by doing something else (like watching TV) which enables them to calm down sufficiently to have a more “honouring” conversation.

4. Deal with issues in bite size pieces.  The art of “chunking” something down into manageable pieces not only works for our physical digestive processes, but also our emotional ones.  If the conversation about your mission and purpose for your relationship is a little daunting, try having a conversation about what matters to you as a couple and then go from there!

5. Acknowledge your own feelings.  Being honest about how we feel requires taking a risk.  It requires exposing our vulnerabilities rather than defending them through attacking our partner.  I found it much easier to blame Guy for giving me incomplete information in the B and Q example than I did to admit that to “not know” made me feel vulnerable and even ashamed.

6. Use negative experiences as springboards to new growth.  Its ironic that we all have a tendency to sometimes avoid the difficult or challenging conversations, but that these are the very conversations that can lead to real growth in our relationships. 

7. Remember you are a team. It’s remarkably easy to view our partner as the “opposition” and end up indadvertedly scoring an “own goal”.  Being a team means that however the game is played we are working towards a common goal.  Being “mindful” of this particular key gives a context for the other six and keeps us focused on the “right” goal!

We can all create a more “mindful” marriage by minding more about how we manage ourselves, minding more about how we communicate, and minding more about the kind of relationship we want to create.

 

Is “conscious un-coupling” the new covenant?

31st March 2014 by Tania West

200782223341_FNo more acrimonious divorces, or endless waits for therapists or counsellors, we are living in the dawn of a new type of covenant  – “conscious  un-coupling”  – the new “no fault” parting of the ways which simply acknowledges the passage of time and the re-appearance of past wounds as “just cause”.    Now, I know that celebrities lead the way in fashion, but is this to become the new relationship trend?  What will be next “conscious un-parenting?  After all children are now living much much longer than in the era of “Call the Midwife”, and they do bear the emotional scars of all our fumbling attempts to parent them wisely.  (actually I think my youngest 22 year old son already thinks he has been consciously un-parented especially when at the weekend when he asked “what are we doing for lunch” in a rather plaintive tone, I informed him that I had already had mine- and he wailed pitifully “but what about me”?)

Are we to really believe that we “un-couple” a marriage rather like we “un-couple” railway carriages (actually that is more stressful than you might think, especially if you find yourself sitting in the wrong half of the train!)

I can’t help feeling that Paltrow and Martin have been badly advised, and we would do well to acknowledge it.  I understand the drive to make life easier- I have a cordless hoover, a self clean oven, a microwave…..but there are some things that require hard work- like giving birth, bringing up children, relationships in general, marriage in particular.  

I’m glad that people are now living longer and that we are afforded the opportunity to work through the wounds of the past in a way that can bring real healing and release.  Let’s not be seduced into thinking we can just avoid the “work” by consciously un-coupling our relationships, because far from heralding a new form of covenant,  we are in danger of subscribing to a new form of deception….consciously or unconsciously!

 

 

Hanging by a thread?

29th March 2014 by Tania West

woven-heart-basket-valentines-day-craft-step4-photo-150-FF0204CLICKA09The overworked joke of marriage is the metaphor of the ball and chain that speaks of restriction, captivity, loss of freedom… and yet as I reflect on the last 30 years of marriage, I think its less about constriction and more about connection.  However the connecting is not the cold steal of a chain but rather the rather fragile sense of a thread, hundreds and hundreds of threads, that together create a web of connection which has incredible strength.

What are these threads?  The time when that “blue line” appeared that changed our lives, the months of sickness, the turbulence of childbirth (four times), the career moves, the exams, the cups of tea (made just the way we like it),  the shared jokes, the shared tears, the worry over family illnesses, bereavement, the chaos of having a puppy and kitten at the same time as four children under 10 and a house extension taboo!  the arguments resolved…eventually, the misunderstandings, the hurt, the making up, the holidays.  Those “table manner” rules we tried to enforce but ended up breaking ourselves, our repeated attempts to hammer out a “family mission statement” without the children cottoning on (I think we managed it eventually).  The time we stayed up until the early hours making a batman outfit for one of the children just because we knew how much it would mean (and the frustration when we couldn’t get the logo right).  The time we tried to broaden our children’s educational experience by taking them to a classical concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and it all went horribly wrong as we ended up with four resentful children (one of whom was missing a friends party to come), all those birthday parties that we somehow endured and then as they got older the clearing up of the beer bottles and washing of sticky floors, the famous party that involved the local police (just two days before I joined them as staff),  the list goes on.

 

Maybe at times you may feel that your marriage is “hanging by a thread”, but just pause to consider just how many threads there are, how many connections have been forged, and then consider the possibility that these threads create connections of a different kind, they still have the fragility of a thread, but they also have the strength and capacity of  something much more intricate and enduring.

 

Your marriage is a message

13th March 2014 by Miranda Heathcote

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A chap called Lewis Smedes once said that our greatest task is to live “the sort of life that makes people say, Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”

These days we might say right-living, or uprightness instead of righteousness. I like to think of it as that sort of godly goodness that leads to a flourishing of relationships and of community. Would any of us – especially us self-deprecating Brits – dare to stick our necks out and lift up our own lives as the type that make others take notice? It does seem rather presumptuous, but bear with me.

When we were living in Mozambique, our community was a rural one. Like our neighbours, we had built our own home using traditional wattle and daub. Our team mates, working with us in the community development project we were part of, had a home right next door. Instead of glass in our simple window frames, we had wire mesh to protect us from the ferocious mosquitos and other less harmful but equally irritating bugs. 

The lack of glass meant that sound travelled. (Not the sort of place you wanted to have a full-blown row with your spouse, let me tell you!) In addition, much of life took place outdoors, under the shade of the trees in the garden, or around the well. And of course, being the only caucasians in town, we were of great interest to the local gossip mill!

One July, our team mates were travelling overseas for the entire month. Not wanting their house to remain empty, they asked a local couple to housesit for them. Carlos and Celina gladly moved in and became our neighbours for the month. We enjoyed chatting with them over cool drinks under the trees, every so often we happened to be hanging out freshly washed laundry at the same time and a couple of times they came over to eat supper with us. The rest of the time, we got on with our everyday lives and didn’t give our new neighbours much thought. 

As it turns out, those very ordinary moments can be the ones that define us.

Some time after Carlos and Celina had returned to their own home, we heard through the grapevine that living next door to us had made a lasting impression on them. “You won’t believe it!” they had relayed to their friends, “Tim gets up in the morning and heats water for his wife to bathe! And while she is still in bed, he takes her a cup of tea!” (I hate to think how they knew I was actually in bed, but still.)

In a culture where the women are the ones who serve the men, Tim’s small acts of everyday kindness sent a radical message about what marriage could be like. Carlos later claimed that this small but far-reaching revelation had changed how he related to Celina, his young wife. Our lives were on display and sending out a message to the people around us, whether we recognised it or not.

Back to the West, then, and our more solid homes where the windows are double-glazed and the curtains amply lined! It is easy for us to think that our more private lives mean that the way we choose to live makes little impact on those around us.

Don’t kid yourself.

Your verbal exchange in the queue at the supermarket? The way you call out to your wife as she parks the car on the driveway? The way you look at one another across the table in the restaurant? All of these give a message to the people around you. And it’s about more than being liked by your neighbours, or being thought well of by your community. 

Your marriage is not just for you; it’s not even just for you, your spouse and your kids. This might be a new thought, but honestly … the choices you make in your most ordinary moments are an opportunity to give hope to a watching world that so desperately needs to believe in a better tomorrow.

And we each get to be part of that, if we will.

Take a moment to think about your marriage in light of the message it sends to those ‘invisible observers’ all around you. What kind of message do you want that to be? You (yes, you!) can be a person of influence just by living your ordinary life in an extraordinary way.

Of plants and marriage….

7th March 2014 by Tania West

air-cleaning-plant-gerberaI have a bit of a reputation (okay well a lot of a reputation) for being characteristically bad with house plants.  Don’t get me wrong I love plants.  I love the colours, I love the shape, I love what a great plant can add to a general ambiance.  Its just that I’m really bad at taking care of them.  That great vivacious, colourful plant that once adorned that bookcase somehow seems to morph into a dry, flaky, parched looking twig that adds nothing in terms of ambiance but rather communicates a forlorn neglect.  My tendency is to  hastily remove the offending article and replace it with another vibrant plant that speaks of life, vitality, and generates optimism just by being there.  That is until it begins to resemble a dry, flaky twig… and then the whole cycle begins again.

Looking after our marriages are a lot like looking after a house plant.  At the start, they (for the most part) look great!  Colourful, vibrant and add zest to life just be being there.  But if we treat them like I treat my houseplants, they very quickly become dry and flaky, somewhat of an embarrassment in our lives.  Its astonishing how quickly we can come to resemble “those” couples in pubs and restaurants that seem to gaze vacantly past one another, having lost a lot more that the art or will to converse.

Now, I am no horticulturalist and I know very little about how to care for houseplants.  But, this much I  do know.  You have to “do something” with them if you want them to continue to add colour and vibrancy to your life.  They need all sorts of things: water, the right environment, attention, the right sized pot, the right amount of sunlight and warmth, nutrients in their soil, sometimes they even need extra support as they grow and develop.

Rather like our houseplants our marriages need  us to “do something” to ensure they flourish.  It is not good enough to have good intentions (I’ve tried looking after my houseplants on good intentions and they still degenerate into dry, flaky looking sticks!), Its not good enough to know that I have baby bio in my cupboard that will feed the soil and enable my houseplant to flourish and grow if I don’t actually use it.  You see we would if we could and we know that we should, but life sometimes has a habit of taking over doesn’t it, and we don’t quite get around to it.  I mean, its not rocket science is it?  Its pretty much common sense to look after a houseplant, its just that we often just don’t get round to it.  After all  we know plenty of people who just bin the dead one and buy a new one right?

So what exactly do we need to do to give our marriages the optimum chance for growth and flourishing?  Here are just 3 ideas to get us going.

1.  Be intentional: deliberately, on purpose, do the things that you know count for something with your spouse- whether its planning a surprise, emptying the bin, tidying away your stuff (that’s a tough one!),  cooking an extra special meal or servicing the car without being asked

2. “Water” your relationship: Mark Twain said that he could last for over a month on one good compliment- there must be something your spouse is doing right that you can affirm!

3. Ensure your relationship gets the right amount of sunlight: Do the things that energise your relationship whether thats a stroll along a windswept beach, eating chips from a paper back drenched in salt and vinegar (yum!), cycling, walking, surfing, making love, watching a great film…..

Great house plants generate a lot of colour and even joy.  Your marriage can achieve the same.

Can giving really be better than receiving?

15th February 2014 by Emma West

 

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Acts 20:35 states that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’.

I’ve always known that giving to others is better than thinking about ourselves and was told from a young age that ‘I want doesn’t get’ in order to stop me becoming overly selfish or spoilt. But whilst I always understood that giving was good because it blessed others, I never fully comprehended how much giving blesses the giver.

In our family Christmas is a time of giving and receiving. When we were younger it was all about getting the presents we wanted, but as we got older, my brothers and I became more excited about giving each other presents we had taken the time to choose. Instead of us all sitting around waiting to be the first to get a present, we wanted to be the first to give a present and to watch the reaction of the person we gave it to once they opened it. However, whilst this sounds like a scene from the Waltons or family Von Trapp, the downside was that the more time, effort and money you had spent on your presents to others, the more of a letdown it was when it wasn’t reciprocated in other people’s presents to you. In other words, the more effort you’d put into your giving, the bigger the feeling of self-entitlement, and the greater the disappointment when the gifts you received weren’t exactly what you wanted.

Giving in this sense was tainted by the future expectation of receiving. But that isn’t what true giving is about. True giving is about putting effort, time, and sometimes money into blessing another, without an expectation of anything in return. A concept that I only fully learnt yesterday.

Yesterday was Valentines Day. A day loved by some and hated by many. Whilst Valentines Day may be a massive gimmick and a completely manufactured over-hyped day of partially forced romantic gestures, it is a day that I believe represents a natural human desire for appreciation. Valentines Day isn’t actually about who gets the biggest teddy bear or the largest bunch of roses, it’s about who is made to feel special and appreciated; because after all, who doesn’t want to be appreciated?! 

My theory is that because Valentines Day is centred around romantic love, the kind between boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife, single people often dread it because it not only highlights their single status, but the fact that they do not have anyone to appreciate them. No wonder it’s a crappy day for so many.

 

I completely disagree with the idea that people should only be made to feel special and appreciated on one day of the year. That is so wrong and ridiculous. But, what’s the point in being overly cynical and refusing to take part? Surely any excuse to appreciate someone is a brilliant excuse! 

For the last couple of years I have tried to use Valentines Day as an excuse to bless others. I have made Moonpig cards for housemates, written cards to couples I know that I think are fantastic, and bought little gifts for single friends. This year though, was the best. I made some home-made cards (which really weren’t anything special as I seem to have lost all the creative flair I once had from GCSE Art). I dropped them off at friends houses, met friends for coffee and surprised them with a card, and bought a box of my housemate’s favourite cupcakes as a surprise. 

So what did I learn?

 I learnt that blessing others is SO MUCH FUN. I was so excited to give my housemate those cupcakes and it made me so happy to see the happy faces of my friends when they opened their cards. The people I love and value felt loved and valued, and that in turn made me feel amazing! And because I was so busy spending my day with others and looking outwards, I didn’t have any time to mope around or think about what I was (or wasn’t) getting or receiving. I went to bed last night with a huge smile on my face, not because I had a boyfriend or husband, or my postbox had been overflowing with cards or flowers, but because I had used Valentines Day to give, and had received far more than I had ever expected.