When the busy season hits and we start working longer hours, weeks with no breaks and long stretches away from home not only are we physically drained but emotionally as well. Over the last few weeks I noticed that every time we have a few minutes of downtime during a job and I’m one on one with another artist they start talking about their love life and how its suffering. And I’m not talking about a passing sarcastic comment that has underlying issue attached, I’m talking about a genuine cry for help where the person in front of me stops, looks me dead in the eye and asks for advice.
Let me start off by saying that I don’t have my shit together. It may look like it but I really don’t. I’m a very private person when it comes to my family. Most business acquaintances that have worked with me for years don’t even know I’m married. However, having been with my wife for 7 years and gone through many ups and downs I thought I’d co-author this piece with my wife to help both artists and their significant others navigate their relationships. But if I’m being honest with myself, this is also an exercise for me to list out the things that work and remind myself to do them because god knows I fall short more often than I’d like to admit.
I think the first thing to understand is an artist’s mind set, which probably relates to entrepreneurs as well. Unlike an employee, an artist’s income is directly proportional to the work they produce. Paid leave doesn’t exist, we can’t call in sick or show up to work and check out mentally for a few hours. If we don’t get up in the morning, pitch for jobs, market ourselves and close deals, we don’t eat. If we want to take a break we need to have enough saved up to do that. That puts tremendous pressure on us to produce as much as possible during the busy season in order to weather the months where the rest of the population takes a break.
An artist I talked to recently said “We are married to our art, our significant others will always come second, and that’s a harsh reality for them to accept.” Whether you fully agree with that or not is up to you but there is a truth to it. If we have a job that falls on a loved one’s birthday, valentines day or our anniversary then we’re faced with an impossible choice. Especially if that job will feed you and your family for a few weeks or months.
A few years ago I realized that I was rejecting my wife’s requests to go out on dates because I would have jobs lined up. That turned her off from asking me at all and we spent a good few months not going out. Our relationship turned sour and we were disconnected. To remedy that we decided to share a google calendar. She would know when I have shoots and meetings and would schedule our dates according to my availability then just drop it in my calendar. So the next time I want to schedule a shoot I look at my calendar and try to avoid those dates where she had scheduled some time together. This reduced the number of rejections and made both of us feel wanted.
“Hi babe, how was your day?” I hate that question. Mainly because at the time she asks me all I’m mentally capable of saying is “good”. I just want to switch off for a bit and be a couch potato. Yes I’m passionate about what I do and I love every minute of it while I’m doing it but after its done I’m drained. My brain is dead. I would have spent all my mental capacity creating something and delivering my best work. Something else to note is that as a photographer the show stops if I stop, and my energy levels set the tone on a shoot. I need to be “on”, happy and enthusiastic on a shoot otherwise it reflects on my team and the imagery I produce.
In the early days she would feel like I didn’t care enough to share with her and we would be in a state of bitter silence when I’m home. To remedy that she asked me to send her videos behind the scenes videos throughout the day while on set. You might think that’s a lot of work but it really isn’t because at the time I’m in the zone and excited about what I’m doing anyway. So its mentally easier for me to show her that rather than verbally describe it after its all done. I don’t do that enough if I’m honest but I do notice a difference in our relationship when I do. Our silence when I come home is not bitter, but loving. I’m able to enjoy my couch potato moments while watching Seinfeld with my head in her lap while she’s stroking my hair.
Working at Home
This dangerous territory. I don’t have an office so when I’m home it’s a very grey area. Am I really at home or am I at work? It drives me up the wall when I’m working on something and she asks for my attention for household stuff like “can you take out the trash?” or “we need lightbulbs” or even “how does this outfit look”. Dude! Do I call you at the office and ask you where my black trousers are? Alright fine, I do sometimes, but you get the point. I’ve since set boundaries and changed up my workflow so its clearer to her when I’m at work and when I’m at home.
First, I try to finish everything I need to do before I step into the house. I edit onsite, charge my gear during shoots and outsource most of my retouching. So when I’m home I’m actually home.
Second, we agreed that when I’m sitting at my computer I’m in a “do not disturb” zone. Even if I take a break to go to the bathroom or make a cup of coffee I’m still in that zone and she pretends I’m not there.
These two small adjustments turned our time at home together into quality time where I’m fully present.
I recently realized an important distinction between my thing, our thing, and her thing. When she comes out with me to an artsy event its because she wants to spend time with me, but ultimately that’s my thing. Yeah its cool and all but she’s really not that into it. So it was important that we find “our” thing that has nothing to do with my thing. Because my thing involves greeting all my acquaintances and having business development conversations with whoever I meet at the event and that takes time and mental presence away from our relationship. In addition, I need to make the effort to go to “her” thing more often. I haven’t gotten that far yet, it feels like the path to becoming a Jedi but I’m working on it.
Talk to a Friend
When either of us isn’t feeling great about our relationship we would reach out to our closest friend. Just saying how we feel out loud can sometimes be enough to resolve any issues. Use your friends as a sounding board to what you feel and you’ll usually know what to do about it just by getting those thoughts out of your own head. However, be aware of biases. For example, we don’t talk to our families about our issues because we feel they will always be on our side no matter what, and will not call us out when its us that’s at fault. Plus, its hard to relate to this unconventional relationship in the first place when you’re part of a society that raises their kids to strive to keep a steady job.
I’ll say it again. We don’t have our shit together. We are not gurus. This is merely an account of how we feel and what we’ve done to alleviate some of our stresses. We still have our downs, and we have a lot of them. So we constantly remind each other of what was working before and try to get back to doing the little things that helped.
Here’s my wife’s perspective
Every relationship has its ups and downs, its highs and lows – days where you feel like you’re over the moon and others when you ask yourself “is this for me and am I truly happy?”
My partner, is not only an artist, but an entrepreneur who’s art is his livelihood.
Often people think that being an entrepreneur gives that individual so much freedom and control over their time – and yes that’s true. But what that means for an overachieving ambitious artist, is that how they use their time directly impacts how much money they make.
Yes Waleed is a photographer, but he’s also a strategist, marketeer, accountant, creative director, technician, driver, mentor, and everything else in between. Having to think about every detail, and execute it himself takes time and mental energy – which can ultimately leave him completely drained and exhausted for anything else.
As a partner, who supports your artist partner and believes in them – this life can make you feel like you’ve fallen down their priority list and can leave you feeling like you’re being taken for granted, especially if you’ve been doing it for a long time.
What I’ve come to learn, and often the hard way, that whilst yes these feelings are valid – it’s important to communicate with your partner and share how you feel. And yes that’s the rule for every relationship – but how do you do that when you barely see or spend time with your partner, or even if they’re there – their mind is somewhere else or they’re totally brain dead?
If in your heart you believe that your partner is the right one for you, together you can find (often unconventional) tactics that will help you overcome these challenges.
Here are some things that we’ve discovered along our journey that work for us
Due to the nature of their work, he/she will often miss important social events. I’m talking family gatherings, birthdays, weddings, Eid / Christmas, etc.
This was very hard for me at first, because it’s completely unconventional and goes against the norm. Not only are you feeling lonely, missing your partner, but you also get comments from family and friends that serve as a constant reminder that they’re not there.
Over the years, and with Waleed’s help, I’ve learned to manage this by asking myself two questions:
A) how important is this occasion or event to me?
B) how important is it for him to be here? And if it is, how will he feel?
Do I want him to endure hours of misery, or will he have a good time?
The start of Waleed’s entrepreneurial journey, coincided with my break from corporate life. When we first got married, I was in a job working 60 hours a week, and at the time Waleed was an oil & gas guy working from home. So when I resigned, I was psyched! We were finally going to spend time with each other. That same month, Waleed and his friends started White Cube – and he disappeared… literally. That was a very difficult time and this was all new to both of us. It was especially challenging because during the one year we were dating then engaged – I lived in another city and we only saw each other on weekends, but it was fantastic. Now as a married couple, living under the same roof, we were barely spending time together. To me it felt as though he tricked me. He got me to fall madly in love with him hard and fast, and now that he got me – didn’t have to put much effort anymore, and something else was more important.
One of my personality traits (I’m trying to avoid labeling them as a strength or weakness) is that I bottle things up. I tell myself that it’s just a phase, or that as a supportive wife I need to be more patient. Again the hard way, I discovered that this only makes things worse. Although Waleed knows me even better than I know myself, he’s not much of a talker – and I am! That’s how I express my feelings or let someone know I’m going through something. So with Waleed not around much, and when he is actually there – he’s consumed by something work-related or is brain dead, so it took me three years to tell him how I was feeling. That I missed him, didn’t feel connected and was hanging by a thread.
Waleed, being the tech geek he is, suggested we share our calendars and use that to find time that works for both of us and plan to do something together.
Waleed’s not a phone calls kinda guy, and his texts are typically one of these three options: “K”, “Cool”, or “Me too”. He also spends a lot of nights away from home, either in Dubai 2-3 nights a week or traveling for a few weeks in the summer. For the past 3 years, Waleed has been using the low season during the summer to travel to another country for 3-4 weeks, live there and explore that country as a photographer.
This is how it started, a few years ago he was in Vietnam for a month. So we started sending each other a couple of videos a day, saying good morning, telling each other about our day, and wishing each other good night.
Doing this made me see his face, hear his voice and feel like I was there with him as he told me about something cool that happened that day.
Two years ago, our friends told us about this and shared that it really helps them recognize any feelings or emotions they were experiencing and address issues right away. Unfortunately, we didn’t really adopt it then – again when we were feeling like something wasn’t right we both fell into: “it’s not the right time”, “just a phase”, “I need to be more patient and supportive”.
But recently, we’ve been really good at this and also remind each other about it when we feel like something is going on but the other person doesn’t want to talk about it.. We recognize that we have to talk about it, and that it will only get worse if we don’t. I think we’re blessed with each other, and are both grateful that our reactions are usually pretty good because we both want to work on it, and want each other to be happy.
Ultimately, I think that’s what it boils down to. Wanting to make it work, and knowing deep in your heart that your partner cares – even when there are days when you don’t feel like they do.
It’s important to communicate early and often, and find what works for you.
Being in a relationship with an artist is challenging, especially because it’s different. And you will often feel like the black sheep amongst your social circle.
Often your relationship won’t feel normal, your timelines will differ from those around you, the way you experience and enjoy love won’t be typically defined.
But that’s because all of this is true. It isn’t typical, it isn’t normal, it is different and unique – and when you ask yourself honestly, you’ll realize and remember that is exactly what drew you to your partner and attracted you to him/her in the first place.
LIVE. LOVE. LAUGH.
Please share this with your artist friends and their significant others and reach out to us with any other tips on how to date an artist.