You haven’t experienced the fullness of a Nigerian wedding if you haven’t left with at least one souvenir. These souvenirs can be anything from a dish-drainer or bottle-opener, to slightly more prestige tote bags and faux-leather covered notebooks. They will often have pictures of the happy couple printed on the object, or at the very least their names: ‘Chinwe bags Ife’, ‘Olamide snags Chukwu’.
The way Nigerians talk about marriage can make it seem like a blood sport. Women “secure”, “snag”, or “bag” their life partners and the lengths to which love rivals may go is the often the stuff of Nollywood films. Once upon a time your potential spouse might be the the difference between prosperity and oblivion, so then such a ruthless approach to romantic relationships may have made sense, but in a modern society, what is the point of a long-term romantic relationship?
To be honest, I think that for most of us, subconsciously at least, long-term relationships act as validation of our worthiness. While we know our flaws and shortcomings intimately, as long as someone sees us as good enough to commit to long-term, we must be doing something right. It’s not something that many of us will openly admit, but so much of how we talk about relationships and singleness reflects this. “One day I’ll find someone who will see/understand my true value”, “They won’t know what they’ve got until it’s gone,” “I know I’m amazing, why am I still single?” – this way of talking centres outside perceptions of us. We talk in ways that suggest we’re just trying to ease our anxiety while we wait for the final test results to come back.
This perspective also reveals why the death of a relationship can utterly destroy us. Relationship break ups are often sad regardless, but when so much of our sense of self is riding on its success, the end of a relationship is not just about the relationship. It can make us question who we thought we were, and who we actually are in the face of something that is the most personal of personal rejections. We know in theory that we should not be defined by romantic relationships, or lack thereof, but do we really believe it? We may easily be able to rattle off empowerment rhetoric when one of our friends is heartbroken or questioning themselves after an unfortunate romantic encounter, but when it comes to thoughts about ourselves and long-term relationships does the encouragement sound hollow?
As simplistic as it sounds, I believe the antidote to such cognitive dissonance is to move
towards a deeper realisation of self-love. The idea of ‘self-care’ is a hot topic at the moment, and I am one of its biggest fans, but I believe that self-love goes beyond the affection we show ourselves physically and otherwise, and is more about a profound shift in mindset that will permanently change how we think about ourselves. We need to translate the “head” knowledge of “wokeness” into the kind of belief that changes the way that our very synapses fire.
I’m not a psychologist, and I have no suggestions of ways to go about this other than plain old self-discipline and repetition. For me personally, this involves reigning in unhelpful thought processes and replacing them with personal affirmations and liberation theory. For example: “I am not defined by other people’s perceptions of me and my situation and free from their judgement. Respectability politics are a tool of white supremacy to get oppressed people to police themselves.” (I’m sure you can think of something catchier!) Another underrated tactic is avoiding the often enjoyable but problematic media that we ingest uncritically, and allow to soak in our subconscious. I’m sure this isn’t a popular suggestion as people don’t want to feel policed or judged by their private choices, but we cannot deny the power of the media we consume, even on those of us that profess “wokeness”.
This could all sound a bit dry and rigid, and much like the fairytale of romantic love, self-
love sounds like it should involve cartoon hearts, and feelings akin to fluffy clouds and rose-tinted glasses. But the reality is that love of any kind is a choice, and when the choice to love flies in the face of ideologies and hierarchies designed to oppress, that choice to love becomes a micro revolution in itself. And revolutions are never going to be easy.
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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.
You’re Doing It Wrong is a bi-monthly column by Jendella Benson on parenting, relationships, and the kaleidoscope of small victories, anxiety and unsolicited advice that is modern family life.