Life. Then Strategy

What I learned growing up in a singles club

My memory isn’t that accurate about a bunch of stuff that happened as I was growing up. I think my parents split up when I was 6-7. I’m not completely clear why – I think I’ve been told but I’m content letting sleeping dogs lie. I think I remember the day my dad left. I think I grabbed his leg and asked him why he was leaving. I think it all made sense at the time.

Then, in retrospect, I disappeared into a massive chasm that I only escaped 4 years ago (from this week actually) when my wife gave birth to our first-born. Nobody made me disappear. I did that. I’ve written a bit about those years in Why some men are so lost and Dealing with depression at Christmas.

Anyway, like many of us, I’m not great at relationships. My wife’s the strong one. But, perhaps ironically, a lot of my thoughts and values about relationships and life were formed watching my mum have to support her two children by running one of the very early singles clubs in Australia – in the 1980s. Before RSVP. Back when parents at my school pointed me out to others as being the one with divorced parents – in ear shot. Back when you could have counted the number of divorced kids in a school on one hand – maybe two.

The years my mum ran her singles operation I both cherished and despised. I cherished them because they brought out the best in her – entrepreneurial spirit, bringing people together, coming up with party themes. I despised them because they brought strangers I didn’t trust into our lives and apartment, these strangers distracted my mum from us with nights of phone calls, and when she wasn’t doing the parties she was unhappy and stuck.

All of this is just life. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without these experiences, so I thought I’d share with you what I took out of it. You may want to put on a bit of Black Box, C&C Music Factory or Tina Turner to get in the mood – these were the singles club anthems back then. Eek.

Nobody else will make it work for you

I published the first issue of my magazine when I was 21 (for more, read: 10 things about trying). I’m not sure I would have done this if I hadn’t watched a woman without a big network of support try and try again at creating a business to feed her family. In 6th grade, I used to buy packets of rugby league cards from the newsagent on my way to school, then mix and match the cards and re-sell them for a profit. It felt natural. I’m pretty sure this inclination came from watching my mum do her thing. And, from what I saw, a single mum in the 1980s had little choice but to fend for herself in only the most ingenious ways. Nobody was going to do it for her – and if you have a challenge or an idea, nobody else is going to do it for you either.

People value people who connect people

All of us have people in our lives who connect friends. They try to understand what we like and match us to people they think we’d like. They remove the risk from meeting new people; and we appreciate that they think about us. My mum built a business around this. Perhaps there’s a way you could improve your personal and professional life by doing more of this? I know I could.

People value confidence

A lot of these parties were hosted in our apartment. It wouldn’t have been more than 100sqm. Most of the parties happened while we were at dad’s – but enough happened for me to see mum in her prime… talking boisterously, circle of people around her, trying to connect people by introducing them and breaking the ice. Yes, she was louder than most – but people dug the fact that she was loud because they couldn’t be loud. They valued her confidence. It was part of the reason they paid to attend.

A good relationship is worth holding onto

My wife was born in South Korea. In South Korea, you try not to marry a child from a divorced family. Divorced kids divorce. Simple. I’ve held onto my wife since I was 19. Well, like I implied above, she held onto us more because she’s the strong one. But I have always had a personal value that’s committed to holding onto that special person. Unlike the Korean rule, this value is never simple. Anyway, it hit me one night – I may have been 12 or 13. I was cooking chicken schnitzel for a party in an open kitchen. I eaves-dropped, talked and watched. Even the loud people in the room looked uncomfortable – and why wouldnt they? Forty strangers were trying to work each other out; I’d suck at that. Watching that room that night and hearing some particularly awkward pick-up lines, I decided that I didn’t want to be part of the ‘meat market’ as my mum and her female friends called it. Ever since, the few relationships I’ve had were ‘long-term’ (well, as far as my age group at the time was concerned!). I really believe in this value but also realise it’s completely idealistic. The grass isn’t always greener.

Ladies, some men just won’t commit to you

I absorbed a lot of attitudes about men listening to my mum counsel, match-make and vet the men who came to her parties. There were ‘nice guys’ who’d make great art gallery escorts but not bedfellows. There were successful business types who were half-committed to other women – a wife they couldn’t divorce, for example. There were intelligent conversationalists – who weren’t much of a physical turn-on. And there were guys who would never commit and only came for sex. Well, not in our apartment… You know what I mean. I used to hear about guys cycling through these parties time and again – they’d attract a woman, something would happen, then they’d be back looking for someone else. Some were even after Australian residency. I have no idea how to pick these guys but they usually looked and acted the part but lowered expectations immediately – then disappeared. All I can say is a very general: keep an eye on it. Some people you just can’t change.

Self-obsession and relationships don’t mix

A lot of the people who came to these parties seemed really self-focused. I heard hundreds of hours of phone calls in these years, many of which sounded like ‘me me me me me’ but in adult tones. The people who seemed to me to be those ME people also seemed to be less likely to be in a relationship. Chicken or egg? Childhood generalisation? Is this a value you can even take on board from someone who writes a blog about his own experiences?

So, there you go: 7 things I learned from eaves-dropping on a middle-aged singles scene in the 1980s, all of which have led me to where I am today. Who would have thought it?

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Photo courtesy Thinkstock.

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