Sometimes the best compliments are the ones you least expect. Mine came out of the blue about 4:30 on a rainy Saturday afternoon, while we were having a massive argument. Well, not exactly. We were fuming in the silent aftermath of a massive argument – each getting on with our own thing and wondering if we could pull this shit together before the evening began and we realised we wanted to be friends again.
The argument began, as so many do, with DIY. The problem with DIY is that both of us want to be an expert. We love building things together, but sometimes our love of building things spills over into an awkward competitiveness. I don’t mind that my shelves are wonky or my painting is patchy, as long as he recognises that my contribution is – sometimes – superior to his. I’ve had more experience at this particular thing, or my knowledge of that technique has been honed for longer.
He wants exactly the same.
We are both so convinced we are right that there is no room for compromise: only digging ourselves further into a ditch of bitchiness until one of us shrugs and fucks off.
He is putting up some shelves, and they are proving tricky. The walls, you see, are much more solid than anticipated, and he can’t get the screws in without a lot of grunting, ‘fuck’ing and at least three ‘shit’s.
I am sitting in the living room, planning my next project – working out how I can do everything on my own just to prove I don’t need his help. I’ve heard stories of parents who, hyped on adrenaline, could lift a fridge off the foot of their three-year-old if the circumstances called for it, and I find myself wondering if sheer determination to be independent could fill my veins with enough rage that it would enable me to shift a double wardrobe.
He’s finishing his shelves, and I am fuming with indignation that he is exercising the same ‘I can do it’ stubbornness that I’m guilty of myself when…
A longer pause.
“No, FUCK THIS.”
I hear him storm out down the hallway.
“Can I help?” I singsong smugly.
“It’s just NOT POSSIBLE,” he shouts. “Don’t bother! I’ll just do it another way!”
And I go into the kitchen to survey the damage. He’s standing in front of the sink, running his hand under the tap and hissing in pain. I tend to him, check what’s up, and find an angry-looking blister in the palm of his hand. I give him a hug, and he softens a bit. I ask if I can help, and again he tells me not to worry.
“I’m trying to get the screws in, and they’re just NOT GOING,” he explains. “There’s something wrong with them. Or the wall. Or something.”
He nods, defeated.
And I wander into the room he was working in, pick up the screwdriver, and set to work.
I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it didn’t end in my victory: there’s no point running your own blog if you can’t selectively tell stories so they make it look like you’re really good at DIY. So needless to say: I put up the shelves. They were tricky, tedious bastards but I got those fuckers on the wall, and the possessions they now support have remained steadfastly above ground for a good month now.
But the point of this story is not that I ‘won’ and he ‘lost’ – he didn’t lose. Displaying far more compassion and character than I ever could, he nursed his injured hand then came and looked at the shelves I’d so proudly wall-mounted and he did something I’d be too small a person to do: he congratulated me.
He hugged me and said ‘thank you.’
And then he gave me the best compliment I have ever had.
“You’re so strong,” he said, with a hint of surprise and wonder. “I sometimes forget that you’re strong. Thank you for being my hero.”
As I say, there’s no point having your own blog if you can’t make yourself look competent every now and then, so that’s at least part of the reason I’m telling you this story. More importantly, though, is the point that the best compliments don’t always come from the places you’d expect.
I’ve been trained from a young age to angle for ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’, or even ‘sexy’ if a guy will follow through on it. But as a consequence these compliments don’t mean that much to me: they’re easy for guys to reach for, and therefore simple for me to brush away.
The compliments that really hit the mark are those I’ve been hoping for without really knowing it. The skills I’m proud of that haven’t been noticed yet. The projects I’ve put work into, and the characteristics I’ve sweated over.
You know you’re meant to say ‘you look pretty’ if I’ve slapped on a bit of make-up and a swishy dress, so saying it aloud – while nice – feels scripted.
But the unscripted compliment has a much deeper effect. In the weeks after this incident, even when we’re having other rows, I’ve retreated to my own mental world and bathed in those words again and again. The compliment that he never knew would mean so much to me:
I am strong. I am mighty. I am his hero.