The current model of lifelong, cohabiting monogamous partnership has never been such an outdated ideal.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 The current model of lifelong, cohabiting monogamous partnership has never been such an outdated ideal.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