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The current model of lifelong, cohabiting monogamous partnership has never been such an outdated ideal.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 The current model of lifelong, cohabiting monogamous partnership has never been such an outdated ideal.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

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.