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Down with fairy tales: love is wonderful, but love is also hard work

When it comes to romantic relationships, perhaps it's time to take off those rose-tinted glasses, say our writers

04 February 2018 - 00:01 By Michele Magwood, Yolisa Mkele, Paige Nick, Haji Mohamed Dawjee, Andile Ndlovu and Shanthini Naidoo
Set unrealistic #relationshipgoals and you'll set yourself up for disappointment.
Set unrealistic #relationshipgoals and you'll set yourself up for disappointment.
Image: 123/RFbubbers


The "gists" (sociolo, anthropolo, biolo, et cetera) would have us believe that it is nature for humans to pair-bond. At some point we evolved the ability to become emotionally attached to each other. It had nothing to do with love or gazing into limpid eyes. It was how we survived. We could not compete with the strength and speed of the animal kingdom; we bonded into families instead. Together we could defend, invent, co-operate and keep each other warm. We survived. Love had nothing to do with it.

Love had nothing to do with offspring being married off in ancient times, either, when one family needed the fields of the family next door and both would benefit from bigger harvests and more grain in the cellar. Marriages were an economic arrangement. You were lucky if your parents swiped right with their scythe and nabbed you a comely wench or a broad-shouldered bae along with the barley. The required coupling would be more bearable, at least. But love? None. Just duty.

Things began to change in the 19th century, when the world shifted from an agrarian economy to one dominated by industry and manufacturing. Survival was no longer tied to the land. People were free to travel to towns and cities to work, family connections became less important and as the ideas of the Enlightenment took root, notions of individualism and happiness bloomed.

And so the Age of Romance dawned. Epochally speaking, it was a New York minute from there to Celine Dion, red, red roses and that lacy, curly, heart-shaped piece of kitsch stuck on the fridge from last Valentine's Day.

We see [love] as a continuous state, instead of realising that 'love' is a verb. It must be exercised and applied, like a plough to a field

A couple of centuries ago the word "romantic" meant something like foolish or fanciful. The word originated, obviously, with the Romans, but actually referred to French poetry, stories and songs. Latin was reserved for serious stuff like politics and religion, while French was the language of love, quests and damsels in distress.

In the Age of Romance the new ideal was to marry for love, and the belief was that this blissful state would last, happily, ever after. We still fall for it, forgetting that after the wedding comes the marriage. We've forgotten that a marriage takes as much tending as a field of wheat. There are drudgery, setbacks, and storms to endure. We believe, foolishly, fancifully, that love will dissolve hardship and eradicate pain. We see it as a continuous state, instead of realising that "love" is a verb. It must be exercised and applied, like a plough to a field.

The modern myth of romantic love is pernicious. Many people are in love with love, not with each other. We should stand in love, not fall in love. Bonded, not possessed. Maybe then we can withstand the tsunami of dross heading our way on February 14. 


Relationships are going through a PR crisis. The way the modern dating game is set up, people are more interested in posting about relationship goals than they are in actually achieving them. We watch romantic comedies and believe in the happily-ever-after without seeing what that actually means. When confronted with the reality that humans are flawed and relationships are difficult in ways we had not expected, the modern lover starts looking for the exits. But nothing worth having comes easy and goals by their nature require hard work to achieve. That is why of all the couples in the world, Gail and Kwanele Mkele (aka Mom and Dad) are my #relationshipgoals.

Legend has it that the pair met in 1985. By the end of 1986 they were married and the next year they gave birth to the miniature terrorist writing this. They would go on to have two more children, a couple of dogs and many a disagreement over the course of 31 years and counting.

During that time things have run the gamut from good to bad and adorable and back, but what hasn't changed was a commitment to working together, building themselves and their family a better life and being quietly smitten with each other. It was never just for the kids. Sure, their kids meant the world to them, but they meant the world to each other.

My parents are not publicly hyper-affectionate. They blush when you mention
their names and love in the same sentence. They don't cuddle, nor do they hold hands. Their mutual fondness is most obvious in moments of absence. Prolonged separation from his wife makes my father taciturn and irritable; when she returns his demeanour does a 180. The prospect of a public event without her arm candy makes my mother nervous and jittery, not because of a lack of social skills, but because the duo have attended almost every party they've been invited to since the '80s together.

It is not unusual, even 30 years on, to find dad pottering in the garden looking for flowers to create a bouquet for his bae or for mother to unnecessarily dote on her man like a fussy hen.

As a couple they are an example that relationship goals are more than just grand gestures and a highlight reel of filtered pictures. Achieving a happily-ever-after goes deeper than an endless procession of giddy days.

Real relationship goals are about finding that lover who is just as much of a friend as they are a Romeo and building something beautiful over time. There will be days when it sucks and when you want to grumble under your breath, but no one said it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.


What do I know about love? How am I supposed to write about it?" I whined to my partner, after being invited to write this column, and accepting immediately, with enough fake confidence to run an ANC national executive committee meeting. My partner rolled his eyes as I grabbed a pair of tweezers and plucked a stray bristle I discovered on my chin. I'm 40-something, if I've learnt anything during my time here, it's that you have to blast them the second you find them. He ignored me and offered to make tea.

Wait, maybe I know something about love after all. Not crazy Hollywood-movie love, but the more simple, understated, can-I-make-you-a-cup-of-tea, kind.

I mentally catalogued the couples I know, and could only think of two Hollywood-type loves. One involved an extravagant marriage proposal. He, head honcho at Musica, produced a 60-second video, cut to a rocking track, outlining the odds of finding his soul mate on a planet with billions of people. At the end it named her and proposed. He bought ad space at the cinema and took her to the movie. As the ad finished he got down on one knee. But they live in Australia now, so see where that got them.

The only other real-life Hollywood love story I could think of are Emma and Warren. Party-girl Emma was here from the UK to celebrate the millennium. Not wanting to leave when her visa ran out, she looked around half-jokingly to see if any of her new local mates would marry her so she could stay. Warren, who she'd been on a few dates with, offered. They tied the knot with plastic rings and flowers from the petrol station, at home affairs in the Airport Industrial Estate (opposite Frozen Fairy ice-cream factory). Seventeen years and an amazing daughter later, they're about as soul-matey as couples get.

The rest of the couples I know are regular - met at school, or through a mate, at work, online, after a divorce. Fell pregnant, fell married. Or 35 and clock ticking. Ordinary non-Hollywood, no fireworks, no mistaken identities, or love at first sights. No family feuds, romantic gestures, or running through the airport reunion scenes.

[Love] is just finding someone who wants to be next to you while you're on your laptop in bed every night

Because generally there's not much spectacular about love. It's just finding someone who wants to be next to you while you're on your laptop in bed every night, and doesn't mind you always insist on the aisle seat because you're unreasonably claustrophobic, and isn't bothered that you don't like red peppers or Star Wars.

It's love after four years, eight months and six days, not the kind that makes your heart race when you see them.

Am I settling for less being with someone who will just scratch my back on demand, but may never write me poetry? By not wanting a grand Hollywood love, are my expectations too low? But then perhaps being in ordinary love is about keeping one's expectations low, because it goes both ways. When you inadvertently pluck your chin in front of them for the first time, you're only disappointing yourself. Anyway, big Hollywood gestures are all good and well, but where to from there? Romcom sequels are never as good as the original.


Is your relationship Facebook official? If you know the answer to this, you know what I am taking about. The question was born from one of the social media site's first features: the relationship status. For a while, becoming Facebook Official was as big a milestone in a relationship as a first kiss or meeting the parents. MySpace disappeared into the ether and so there we all were, on Facebook, announcing our romantic standing to the world.
Showing off our personal lives to other friends, exes and well, strangers, who could potentially ask us who we were seeing (if said status was "In a relationship") or what was wrong (if said relationship status was "It's complicated").

The term invaded dating culture so much that in 2007 "it's complicated" was added to Urban Dictionary. The entry reads: "Refers to a couple in an ambiguous state between 'friends' and 'in a relationship'. May also be used to indicate dissatisfaction with an existing relationship."

Urban Dictionary provides this example to illustrate the meaning: if someone changes their status from "In a relationship" to "It's complicated", expect them to be single soon, and looking for "random play".

Then everything changed, and no one wanted to declare his or her commitment to a significant other on the internet anymore. Dating didn't die. It's just that the Facebook relationship died, and it was replaced by the influencer. And as the rise of the Instagram influencer continues, so too does the invisibility of said influencer's partner.

But one thing remains the same ... "It's complicated" - or is it?

The Urban Dictionary example is not so different from dating an influencer. The only difference is that while they aren't truly single or looking for random play, they are maintaining that image with the help of their significant other.

Who is on the other side of the camera? And what sad thing happened in this person's life that they chose to be romantically involved with someone who has little time for them because they are so romantically involved with themselves?

Take 10 minutes out of your day on a weekend when these influencer people are spending time out on romantic dates, drinking champagne, cooking delicious meals or sneaking off on charming staycations. There are two glasses in the picture, I can see them! But there's one person in the picture. Their pout is perfectly undisturbed by the "ugly existence" of the one who loves them enough to condone this behaviour.

Why is it so important to perpetuate this notion of "I am available and ready to play"? Are we supposed to believe that the other glass of champagne is for us, the viewers? Are people actually thinking this?

To the partners of influencers (I know you're out there without ever seeing you mentioned in even a caption on Instagram), it is time to take tips from the one you're always taking pictures of and practise what they preach: #Selflove.

Maybe you don't want to be in the picture, maybe you're just not the kind of person who is desperate for likes and comments and that's more than OK, too. Not every human needs "love" from a stranger.

But love yourself enough to influence your own life and your own relationship. You deserve that drink on the other side of the camera after all that hard work. You also probably deserve free carpal tunnel surgery from all the clicking your finger is doing all day.


Valentine's Day is said to be about being loved. Being loved is about being heard. I wish to be heard so that I can be understood better. Only someone who understands you better can love you better. But perhaps being loved better doesn't only mean this in the romantic sense. Maybe it means meeting someone - or certain people - capable of reminding you how you want to be loved. I want to be loved, first and foremost, by being listened to. In recent memory only two men have afforded me an ear - strangely, when it was the last thing I expected or wanted. But in hindsight, each was an opportunity I desperately needed. These two were meant to be Tinder and Grindr hook-ups, which turned out otherwise.

Once, I was on study leave with an exam two days away. He was on lunch and had driven about 20km to get to me. He also brought me lunch. After we'd stuffed our faces, the urge to make out slowly waned. We just talked. We talked until he realised he had been on a two-hour lunch break.

He told me he had not been in a relationship since the last man he was with, who turned out to be some sort of mercenary - the guy had lost his job and had used him to get back on his feet, and as soon as he had, he left. Then he told me why, despite the signs, he'd remained with that man: just like me, he had lost his mother a year back, so he'd grasped his self-interested boyfriend longer than he should have because he had lost his pivot. He wanted to be able to call on someone and feel important to someone, and to believe that he was still worthy of being loved as close to unconditionally as humanly possible.

It had been five months since I had lost my mother to cancer, and until then, very few people had been able to draw me out and allow me the time to vent. Very few people could empathise. I never saw or heard from him again.

Don't underestimate the importance of self-love.
Don't underestimate the importance of self-love.
Image: 123RF/bubbers

What did happen was another hook-up. On this occasion, I had woken up unnecessarily early and horny. Usually, I'm happy being a self-pleasure advocate, but there are mornings when you feel for an extra pair of hands on you, and hot breath on your neck, and so I trawled my black book and packed my work clothes and got into the car. What followed the deed was a conversation that lasted far longer, but one that felt equally enjoyable.

I realised that while it had been quite a while since I had enjoyed sex, it had been a while, too, since I had enjoyed a simple yet heartfelt and heart-full conversation without my dick being the centre of attention.

I want, more than I realised, to be endowed with words of affirmation once in a while. I'm a man who wants more for himself in all spheres of his life, but I'm also a man who struggles to believe he deserves it. But I realised that, while I have tried to open myself up to other men and their divergent interests, nobody has been diligent enough to learn about mine, and that until that happens, I'm setting myself up for failure should I accept any less. I'll be spending Valentine's Day with the man that matters most right now: me.


It happened on a Tuesday evening in winter. There were seven vessels on the burners, I counted. Seven. I took a photo and sent it to a friend in New York. Caption: Insanity. Why was I planning menus for today, tomorrow, the day after? To have an evening off from what love has become - two little girls and a 10-year-old husband. He's actually 36, but we are 10 this year.The plan for the day off was to study, feed my brain and attend a writing workshop without worrying that someone would not have their favourite and an alternative in case she changed her mind.Insane.

That is amazing! Is that creamed spinach [in dish #5]. But ... why don't they just get a pizza? Leftovers for lunch? came the reply. I scoffed. As if I'd allow it!

That is when it happened. A thought about doing it all, without doing it all.

How I'd love a wife!

It's a joke, but it isn't.

It is not about men or women.

It is not about feeding people but feeding love relationships.

Because love is wonderful, but love is work, darling.

It doesn't just happen. It needs care, moulding, nutrition, of course, and fuel for its fire.

For love to survive, you need wives.

The traditional, gender-stereotypical, fantasy idealist version of a wife, the supporter, the do-it-all-er so that everyone else can get on with things.

I don't mean two females, nor one female, but at least two "wives" ... three or more if pan- or poly-relationships are your thing, sharing the "wife" time.

Because wives hold things together. They support, nourish and nurture on many levels, which pleases them and everyone else.

But the gatherers have evolved. Hunters must evolve. Then, we can have fun.

One of the fiercely relevant and enduring pieces from the premiere issue of Gloria Steinem's Ms. magazine was "I Want a Wife" by Judy Syfers. It may be from the 1970s but it rings truer than ever before. Ask Sheryl Sanders. Ask Chrissy Teigen. Ask me. But also ask men.

Ms Syfers wrote. "Why do I want a wife? I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and, if need be, support those dependent upon me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school, I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children's doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children's clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me."

The essay is about us all, and it is about what makes love work, especially for traditionalists like me who don't do UberEats driving home from the office, or audio storybooks.

To thrive, grow and carry on, love needs to work, hard.

I want someone to take care of me, share the lifting of the elephant that is the mental load. Hell, to arrange the therapy sessions.

Just to share.

Love is everyone having the benefit of a "wife".