Living apart together is becoming so commons, the ONS has had to create a statistical category for it. Photo: cart_wheels on Flicker, via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Screw the fairy tale, it’s time to rethink monogamy

The current model of lifelong, cohabiting monogamous partnership has never been such an outdated ideal.

Cameron Diaz may be more prophetic than we give her credit for. Last week she theorised that “having more than one lover is better than trying to stick to one”. It was most likely a provocative remark, with a wry acknowledgement of the impassioned debate that comments on monogamy can stir. But it’s an accurate premonition for the future of romantic relationships. The current model of lifelong, cohabiting monogamous partnership has never been such an outdated ideal.
We are living longer, for a start. One third of babies born today are now expected to live to 100, according to the National Office of Statistics. A woman born in 1850 could expect her marriage to last 29 years. Now couples can expect to take tea breaks together for 30 years after the kids leave home – an inordinate sentence if you don’t like the way they slurp.
Then there’s the little-noted fact that today’s social milieu doesn’t lend itself to the co-ordination and compromises demanded of traditional coupledom. We champion individuality and convenience yet we expect our partners to share living space and a good chunk of our social life. Until early adulthood we are encouraged to forge our own career, friendships and interests. Young people usually live away from home, with flatmates, at college or through travelling before they entertain marriage. They are used to varied and transient love affairs. The expectations of commitment, when it arrives, require a stark disciplinarian jolt, that previous generations did not have to struggle with.
Last week researchers at the University of New Mexico warned that girls rely too much on romantic relationships for their self-identity. The study found that girls are at greater risk of depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts the more their relationships diverged from their ideal. There was no evidence that such romantic disappointments affect boys, who were shown to gain their self worth from sport or other achievements.
For these girls, Cameron Diaz is a good role-model. It is a great shame that these American teenagers are fortunate enough to live in an era where their future no longer relies on meeting a prince, yet they fail to utilise this. Perhaps they should be enlightened to the fact that just fifty years ago in some states of their country, women couldn’t take out a loan or a mortgage without the signature of a husband. Perhaps they should be reminded that in the 1970s a woman could be sacked simply for losing her looks and no one would bat an eyelid. It’s no good having all these victories in the battle for emancipation of women if we still send out a message that finding Mr Right is the only route to utopia.
I’m all for mushy love and rewarding relationships. I’m quite a romantic, in fact. But my recipe for self-fulfilment doesn’t feature a mystical “soul mate”, a prince or even someone bearing the glitzier title of “The One”. Like Diaz, I too would rather retain my single status with a few rewarding lovers to fulfil different needs at different times of my life. Relationships can be a nice addition to contentment but they no longer have to be the main ingredient.
Liberal social attitudes mean monogamy for the sake of it is but a moral trinket. Fine if you’re in the early throes of romantic love and only have eyes for each other. I’ve been there many times and what a wonderful feeling it is. But it’s no secret that romantic infatuation doesn’t last. In fact anthropologists now distinguish between different states of attraction. There is romantic love, where you are flooded with dopamine, get the butterflies and want to spend every moment together. Then there is attachment, where you are flooded with the hormone oxytocin and feel a deep sense of trust, familiarity and love for your partner but little passion. In the former you probably find monogamy agreeable. I certainly do. By the time you’ve been together for long enough to not close the bathroom door to trim your toenails, you’re likely to find your eyes and fantasies wander occasionally. But of course you will rein them in because the modern conventions of relationships dictate that’s what you should do.
There are other assumed rules of commitment applied blindly. What, for example, is the obsession with living under the same roof? In my last committed relationship the most common question I encountered was: “Do you have plans to move in together?’ Why anyone would voluntarily give up a peaceful breakfast with John Humphrys, happily drinking anything in the fridge direct from the carton, and trade it for morning dramas of lost shirts and a daily telephone conference about meal-planning is something I can never understand.
There are now 3.5 million people over the age of 45 living alone in the UK, an increase of more than 50 per cent since the mid-1990s. Domestic conveniences like vacuum cleaners, modern compact apartments and supermarket deliveries make it all very easy. In researching my book I interviewed married couples who live apart. One couple were on the verge of separating when they rented the house next door as a trial separation. Without the domestic minutiae overshadowing their “romantic” relationship, they thrived, so they made it permanent. The wife told me in glee: “I can invite people back and have parties. I could never do that before because he’s such a miserable anti-social thing.” So common is this new trend that the Office for National Statistics has created a term for it – LAT (living apart together). It estimates there are currently two million LAT couples in the UK. More people choose to live alone because they can.
If you think life-long commitment is still needed to start a family, a replacement for that has been found too. Earlier this month it was reported that the number of single women seeking artificial insemination with a sperm donor has doubled in five years. This is more significant if you consider that as late as the 1950s single motherhood was deplored so much that they could be locked away in a mental asylum.
I’m obviously not suggesting that we treat life like one big Club 18-30’s holiday with a new lover for every change of bed linen. Life would be anarchical, board meetings would be in danger of turning into orgies and women would have the Child Maintenance Association saved to speed dial. We will continue to fall in love and to believe the feeling will last forever. But it is time to modernise the rules and expectations. That means casting away the fairytale and facing up to the fact that a life partner – should we choose to have one – fulfils only one corner of our emotional, romantic and sexual needs. The belief that we can find one person to meet all of them is one which is very likely to be considered radical in the future.
Helen Croydon is author of Screw The Fairytale: A Modern Guide to Sex and Love (John Blake Publishing, £7.99) She is also the founder of the dating website

Show Hide image

How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.