Photograph by Jonathan Ellis
A week ago I was in Marbella, on the southern coast of Spain. I was there to celebrate the wedding of a close friend, and by all accounts the wedding was as perfect as you would hope a wedding would be. From the mix of guests, to the abundance of food, to the sun filtering through the palm trees; at so many points I felt like shouting to whoever was closest, “This wedding is amazing!! Isn’t it just amazing?!”
Anyone observing the occasion could conclude that this couple is very lucky. The wedding went off without any visible hitch, the drinks flowed, and love between the couple, between the families, between all their friends who had flown in from the UK, the States, and various African countries, was so heavy in the air it felt like you could smell its lush and welcoming aroma. During the wedding speeches, the couple and their nearest and dearest readily admitted that the newlyweds were indeed extremely blessed, but they also acknowledged that the journey to get to that beautiful day required a lot more than simple good fortune.
One of the most important parts of any wedding is the speeches. That’s the moment where we, the guests, get a true sense of the love that we are celebrating. Even if you already know both of the couple well, hearing the speeches puts everything into perspective. Real love stories don’t work like the movies. There is no guarantee of a second act plot twist that will lead to an exciting but ultimately satisfying conclusion. The wedding day is just a peak in a relationship journey that has its twists and turns, false starts and tough storms. The road to and from that momentous day is varied and unpredictable. As any couple knows, there will be moments when the perfection of a wedding day will seem impossibly out of reach. So yes, there is luck and good fortune and the feeling of being incredibly blessed, but there is also the work and unrelenting dedication that makes any union a reality.
“It’s alright for you, you’re married!”
The amount of times I’ve been told this after I’ve been asked to give a cautious opinion on a romantic situation that doesn’t seem promising means I don’t really talk or give advice about relationships anymore. Perhaps I talk too bluntly for some, but the way this is said, as if I’m selfishly trying to keep the ecstasies of marriage all to myself, is slightly insulting. Maybe they think I don’t want them to be happy, or that I don’t understand the desire that they have to “find love”. Really, I’m trying to help them understand that the only problems that a relationship or marriage will solve are the external ones: the pressure to be married by a certain age, the perceived stigma of singleness, the need to look happy and content. Marriage can be great and glorious when you’re married to the right person, but when you’re stuck with the wrong one it can be hell.
I’ve spoken to other married people and they have said the same, they have stopped talking with unmarried friends about romance and relationships, because they cannot accommodate the fairytale expectations of marriage that most of us have been conditioned to have. Some single friends want married folk to be complicit in the façade of marital perfection, because to be anything else – to be unflinchingly honest – is to suggest that this idea of romantic completion that they have become emotionally staked in, sometimes building their entire future around, is a sham.
And there are times when I am not honest. Or, perhaps the correct term is “transparent” – there are times when I am not as transparent as I could be. There is a line that I feel myself occasionally walking, I don’t want to be someone who is part of the plastic parade that upholds the myth of the simple “happily ever after”, but I also have to protect my marriage from unnecessary inquisition and voyeuristic scrutiny. I think people should know the realities of married life before jumping feet first into an unpredictable situation, but my own relationship is not public property.
After Tiwa Savage, one of Nigeria’s most successful music artists, spoke about the breakdown of her marriage after her husband posted a number of concerning messages to social media, some suggested she should have kept her mouth shut. Many were shocked when her husband shattered the perfect perception commonly held of their marriage with a series of troubled posts and slanderous accusations about his wife, and even though he was the instigator in their marital issues becoming public, some accused her of dishonouring their union by breaking her silence to state her side of things. When Beyoncé released her latest album with songs alluding to a possible affair her husband may have had, jokes were made about Bey putting Jay on blast, but very little was said about Jay slinging his genitals about indiscriminately.
There is a term that has been popularised by hip hop: as women we are meant to “hold down” our men, our families and our relationships at all costs. We are meant to protect them, uphold them, and care for them, even at the expense of ourselves. It can be exhausting in every way when the gesture is not reciprocated, when your man is not “holding you down”, but running around doing whoever, whatever, whenever, but expecting you to be holding everything else together. At that point do you owe him, or the relationship that he doesn’t care to protect himself, anything at all? When does your silence become passive acceptance of the terms defined by one party?
In their individual worlds of celebrity, Tiwa, Beyoncé and their respective marriages have been seen as “#goals”. Under the scrutiny of the media and their fans there is the pressure to play into ideas of perfection, for the sake of pride as well as career. Cultural expectations of what it means to be a loving, loyal and dutiful wife can feel like an emotional straight jacket, albeit one that is often idolised and richly rewarded in some superficial ways. Tiwa and Beyoncé’s choice to break the silence is important on many levels. First and foremost it’s personally important for their own sanity as intelligent women with agency and the ability to define and redefine themselves in and out of marriage. Second, as cultural icons in their respective communities, both women have sparked conversations that no matter how brief, are still important.
Some have chosen to reflect on the immense pressure to marry that is put on women in Nigerian cultures – a pressure that Tiwa pointed to as part of the reason she overlooked warning signs flashing around her husband-to-be. Just as important are the handful of conversations I saw about patriarchy, Nigerian masculinity, gender roles and expectations in marriage. Beyoncé’s album title, ‘LEMONADE’, was inspired by the adage, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade”, and the stories her songs have told have inspired musings on the nature of imperfect love, infidelity, female anger and agency, as well as forgiveness.
While the conversations have been brief and ignorance still abounds, it is still encouraging to see public discussions of marriage widen beyond tired debates about the cost of engagement rings and whether women should propose or not. While we breathe, there is hope.
Before marriage, you’ve got to look at your partner and ask yourself if you’re down to deal with whatever BS they may bring into your life.
— Jendella Benson (@JENDELLA) January 14, 2016
Marriage in so many ways is a leap of faith. Before I got married I had been in a relationship for four years, and known my then-fiancé for five. We had been through all manner of drama, arguments, accusations, outside opinions, and ultimatums by the time we got to the altar. At that point I knew my husband well, some would say well enough to know not to marry him – “haha!” – but signing that marriage certificate was essentially putting my life in the hands of someone else, having no idea what the future would hold, but still saying I was down regardless, and his own signature was him saying the same of me. In the three and half years since we made those vows, we have experienced, perhaps, a bit more drama than most. There have been moments when I have said to myself, “I did not sign up for this!”, but in reality I did. While I had no idea what we were in for, I still said with my own mouth, in front of God, our family, our friends, and a legally appointed officiant, “for better, for worse” and I meant it.
“If it’s not perfect, it’s not worth it” is a sentiment I see expressed in various forms amongst my peers, even if they don’t explicitly say it. I have a strange mixture of sadness, amusement and frustration when I see Twitter philosophers with hypothetical situations, half-baked opinions and limited life experience discussing and dismissing the distorted reality of celebrity relationships that gossip blogs and reality TV constantly drip feed to us. I’m not one of those Christians who believes that divorce can never be an option, but whatever the circumstances, most divorces are quietly tragic in some way or another. I don’t think the junk food diet of fast and fickle “love” is conducive to building lasting and meaningful relationships, and I’m no sociologist, but I’m sure that popular culture has something to answer for when it comes to high rates of failed marriages all around.
As I got married nearly six years ahead of the average age for women in the UK, a strange question I’ve often been asked is if I would recommend marriage. My answer depends on the person asking, but generally I can only tell you want I know to be true: if you want gold you must dig for it.
Each married couple must fight to create their own happily ever after, and though for some the odds they face feel higher than others, each couple will encounter their own trials and tribulations which will make them ask “is all this work worth it?” Due to the nature of humanity, marriage always has and always will be work. The trick is to find yourself with someone who you truly believe to be worth the effort, but it will only work if they believe the same about you.
N.B. This is a sequel of sorts to this post that appeared on my old blog three years ago.