Hello, lovely readers. This isn’t a proper post, as I am, after several promises to the effect, winding the blog down. Not because I’ve given up - more because I’ve run out of stories to tell, and because the new posts were taking ages to research and write, and weren’t exactly generating floods of offers of work. I’ll leave the site up for a few months in case anyone still hasn’t worked their way through all the posts, then let it die.
So I’d just like to say ta for sticking with me over the last three years, for all the feedback and constructive debate, for the ideas and the compliments. It was genuinely fun in places, and led to me meeting some really fun and interesting folk, with whom I hope to stay in touch.
If you’re interested in what I’m up to next, well, I’ll be having one last bash at writing a sitcom, and I’m toying with doing a podcast, which will basically be me ranting about stuff. I’ve uploaded my first effort (29 minutes, but still about 10 minutes too long) – an entirely fair and balanced appreciation of the novels of Dan Brown - here, if you fancy a listen.
“When we are understood and responded to, we feel more whole within ourselves and the world.” Luise Eichenbaum & Susie Orbach, What Do Women Want?
“Of course you don’t like her. You have a problem with strong women.”
Such was one of the more bruising comments delivered by a lovely but frank friend during a recent discussion about my romantic prospects, and in particular about a person she thought I should have dated. Naturally, I was scandalised. “Don’t be ridiculous. Strong women are funny, great company … Why would I have a problem with strong women?”
But it got me thinking.
A quick trip down memory lane yielded some uncomfortable truths. I do, genuinely, like independent-minded women; most of my female friends fit squarely into that category. And I’ve certainly fancied a few. My first serious girlfriend, for example, was no wallflower. But when it came to true love – to that singular mix of affection and lust and intoxication and connection that makes you want to spend the rest of your life with someone – I came up blank.
It’s a tricky thing to quantify, but by my reckoning, there have been four great loves in my life (three of them unrequited). And while they were all very much their own people, they did share a few qualities:
Shorter than me. White (albeit from all corners of Europe). Middle class. A little younger (11½ years in one case, but otherwise 1-6 years). Attractive, but not intimidatingly so – more girl-next-door pretty. Brown hair. Slim. Compact boobs. Great bum. Laughs at my jokes. Intelligent; can hold her own at dinner parties, and stands at least a fighting chance against me at Scrabble. Faint hint of a naughty side. And nice. Not pliable; not weak; not pathetic; nice. Sweet, thoughtful, caring.
The other thing they had in common was an Achilles’ heel. That’s not to say that any of them were in any sense meek or pathetic or damaged; none of them needed constant protection and provision, and all were quite capable of offering support, which is important, because I sure as hell can’t handle all the shit life throws at me alone. But they all had a chink in their armour. Whether it was slight neuroticism, insecurity about looks or intermittent depression, they all had something I felt I could help with. Something that made me feel needed.
I’m just one man, of course. I can’t speak for the entire male race. But then I thought of those strong female friends. Lovely people all, bright, witty, creative, thoughtful and ferociously attractive, 40 or thereabouts – and alone. Some of this, of course, is down to paucity of options; there just aren’t that many hugely desirable 40+ men out there. But choice is a two-way thing. Is it a coincidence that it’s my most single-minded friends who are single?
My lovely-but-frank friend is younger, but she’s another case in point. Full of force and character and her own pesky ideas. She recently confided that her latest relationship was foundering – until she started playing the part of the meek, supportive girlfriend. And how many times have you heard the complaint, “Men can’t handle strong women”?
But these are still just anecdotes. Are there any hard statistics to back this up?
I’ve devoted most of my energies until now to figuring out what women want in a man. I’ve barely touched on the question of what men look for in women, because … well, why should I care? And it turns out that science has been similarly remiss. One of the core assumptions of evolutionary psychology is that men’s choice is so restricted, they’ll take anything they can get; and that when they are able to exercise choice, all they’re really worried about is youth and beauty.
But there’s obviously more to it than that. Yes, if we’re talking about a one-night stand, face and figure may indeed be the only things on our checklist. But when it comes to life partners, we’re a bit choosier. And as far as I can see, there has been criminally little scientific research into the personality traits that men value in women.
There have been a metric fuckton of surveys. Not to mention millions of male internet dating profiles, where men state what they’re after. I’ve waded through a lot of these, and while I didn’t keep rigorous count, strength barely registered at all. Neither did independence, or ambition, or self-sufficiency. (True, confidence got a look-in here and there, but it’s not the same thing.)
The terms that crop up most frequently are intelligence, sense of humour, fun-loving nature, good conversationalist, passion, empathy and agreeableness. Not many of these traits preclude strength as such … but the one at the top of this list – moderate neuroticism – does. This survey is even more depressing for feisty females, especially dark-haired ones with green eyes.
Let’s turn the tables for a moment. There have been a number of articles and blogposts in recent years bemoaning the “new scarcity” of decent men. Since women started catching up with men, and in many cases overtaking them, in academic ability and earning power, the number of guys who tick their boxes has plummeted.
Some women, at least, are panicking that wealthy, high-status men, manly men, alpha males, classical “protector-providers”, are suddenly in short supply. Female voices were among those jeering loudest at the New Man and the Metrosexual, with their vulnerability and their sensitivity and their emotions. And when I read through 2,000-plus female dating profiles, the phrases that came up most often were “strong”, “ambitious”, “good with his hands”, “can fix things”, “a real man”, “a manly man” and “I like a man to be a man” (along with, incidentally, “not afraid of a strong woman”).
Never mind that these desires are completely incompatible with an egalitarian society: if every woman finds a guy who earns more than she does, how can there ever be pay parity? If every woman expects her man to be a leader, how many leadership slots will be left for women? Desire isn’t rational. Women can’t help what they want.
Well … maybe men can’t help what they want either. While some rail about “toxic notions of masculinity”, many women seem still to be drawn to exactly those traits (or at least, traits that are inseparable from them). Could it be that men, while rationally willing to engage with assertive, high-achieving women, just aren’t feeling it? Do we secretly yearn for “traditionally feminine” qualities – for girly girls?
Think of the physical attributes that straight men and women get most excited about; they are, almost without exception, the characteristics unique to that sex.
Broad shoulders (shoulder-to-waist-ratio)
Slim (hip-to-waist ratio)
Physically, we prize the traits that are most different from our own. And I’ve mentioned before the role that sense of smell plays in human attraction; experiments indicate that we are attracted to people with complementary immunities to our own. Why shouldn’t the same be true emotionally and psychologically? Do opposites attract?
Of course, if we wanted our polar opposites in every respect, toddlers would be marrying pensioners and anorexics would only date the obese. There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that one of the main governing principles of attraction is similarity, in characteristics ranging from age to height, race, religion, intelligence, values and earlobe length. That’s because it’s important to have a life partner who shares your goals.
But when it comes to achieving those goals, it’s useful to have someone who brings something different to the table.
One of the main factors in the rise of humanity has been our ability to specialise. (Many other outstandingly successful species on the planet, such as bees, ants and termites, do it too.) As Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, the division of labour – assigning different tasks to different people – makes groups of individuals far more efficient. Imagine how much harder your life would be if you had to kill your own food, make and repair your own clothes, build your own houses and roads, heal your own illnesses … And the original division of labour took place between men and women. Men hunted, women gathered. Men built, women nurtured. It’s almost certainly from that first cooperative pact that society, with its complex systems of trade, of tax and spend, of welfare and charity and lottery funding, sprang.
A male-female pairing is a team. And just as you wouldn’t field a football team with 11 goalkeepers, in a relationship, you don’t want a couple with identical skills. Your ideal partner is someone whose strengths offset your weaknesses, and vice versa. And that’s how things were, in most societies across the world, for most of history. Men brought one set of aptitudes to a pairing, women another. But now things are changing.
Apologies for the crude Microsoft Paint effort, but this is my attempt at representing men and women as they used to be:
Essentially, regardless of the form we were born in, older societies tried to bash all men, and all women, into similar “shapes”, such that all men were prepared to carry out certain functions, and all women to carry out others. So men became the breadwinners, the warriors and the inventors, while women became the carers, the lovers and the negotiators. As a result, most men fitted – more or less – with most women.
But since equality of rights and opportunity came along, the template has been shattered. Everyone can take any shape they want. Men cook and get frightened of spiders; women tell jokes and cut people up at traffic lights. This is of course a Good Thing, and I wouldn’t for a second dream of returning to the old days. It has, however, had a powerful impact on the Date-o-sphere.
Someone’s gender is no longer a guarantee of their capabilities or qualities. So we can no longer just pick someone at random from the opposite sex and have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be a good match. Because we’re all different shapes now, we have to work our way through lots of potential partners in an effort to find someone who fits. (Good job Plenty of Fish and Tinder came along at just the right time, huh?) And in the process, we’re likely to come up against an awful lot of people who don’t.
Why do we love pets so much? Because they need us. (By the by, pet ownership in the UK is at an all-time high and rising, which is another sign that more and more of us are having to look beyond people for our emotional needs.) Why do we love children so much? Because they need us.
And why did men and women use to stay together? Because they needed each other. Each was privy to secrets of which the other was hopelessly ignorant. They were mutually dependent. And because courtship was so long and costly, and non-virgins deemed less valuable, it was at best a huge pain in the ass and at worst impossible to repeat the process.
Now, as most strong, independent women won’t hesitate to remind you, they don’t need money. They don’t need looking after. They don’t need emotional support. They don’t particularly need companionship, as they can get that from their huge and diverse circle of friends. They probably want sex now and then, but they can get that at the swipe of a thumb. In short, they don’t need a man. (They’d just quite like one.)
Well, I’m going to let you in on one of our most closely guarded secrets, ladies: men like to feel needed. I would go so far as to say need to feel needed. I’ll come out and admit it now: I have been put off by strong women. Put off sufficiently, at least, that I haven’t pursued them as doggedly as I have some of their more vulnerable peers. It’s not been a conscious decision; more a gut feeling. Because when I meet someone who comes across as completely sorted, as totally together, as bulletproof, only one question fills my head: “What on earth could I add to your life?”
You can build a relationship based on attraction, and compatibility. But you can only build a lasting relationship with dependency; by finding someone whose skills and needs complement your own. And now that we’re all so damned independent, we just don’t have the incentive to stick with anyone.
As I said before, this is just a hypothesis. It might be a bunch of crap. Even if it is a problem, it’s probably a surmountable one. In a generation or so, perhaps sooner, men will have grown used to the idea of strong women, women to the idea of vulnerable men, and we’ll have better techniques for tracking down suitable partners.
But in the meantime, to my single, lovely friends, and anyone else out there who’s single and lovely, I would say this: I love your strength. You wear it well. But don’t be afraid to show weakness from time to time. Don’t be afraid to need someone.
“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” Katharine Hepburn
Across the western world, the bonds between men and women are weakening. The age of first marriage in the UK is rising precipitously, from 24.9 for men and 22.9 for women in 1972 to 32.4 and 30.3 in 2012. The divorce rate has doubled in that time, from 6 per thousand per year in 1971 to 11 in 2012. While the number of sexual partners we can expect in our lifetimes is rising (9 for men and 4 for women in 1991 as opposed to 12 and 8 in 2012*), the frequency with which we are having sex is falling, from five times a month in the 1990s to three times a month today.
The number of single people is at an all-time high. The number of people living alone has almost doubled, from nine per cent in 1973 to 16 per cent by 2011. Similarly, the number of single-parent households is at a record level. Twenty-six per cent of children are now raised in single-parent households, compared with 8% in 1971.
Even within couples, the old markers of fidelity and exclusivity are eroding. Open relationships, swinging, and other forms of polyamory are enjoying an unprecedented boom, especially among younger people.
The institution of marriage is falling out of favour, too. There were 426,000 marriages in 1972, but just 262,000 in 2009, in a population 10% larger. The concept of one man, one woman, together for ever, seems to be crumbling.
Why does this matter?
I’m not going to get all Daily Telegraph on you and gnash my teeth about the breakdown of the nuclear family, the evils of homosexuality and the utter dreadfulness of any form of change. I don’t dispute, for example, that the relaxation of the divorce laws is great news for people trapped in unhappy marriages. It may even be that these changes will, in the long run, benefit society. Maybe the bonds of family and love are a necessary sacrifice on the altar of social cohesion. Maybe we can’t develop deeper tolerance and understanding of the wider world until we annihilate our tribal, us-against-them instincts. Maybe this mass drifting apart is a necessary growing pain for mankind.
But maybe it’s not. And even if it is, this upheaval is undoubtedly having some deleterious short-term effects.
Children of single-parent households are nearly twice as likely as children of two-parent households to live in relative poverty. They also experience worse life outcomes (albeit better than those from two-parent families with high levels of conflict). They do worse at school, get less skilled jobs, are less happy, are more likely to commit crimes, more likely to be ill … Similarly, boys lacking good male role models (parents, teachers and other older male relatives) have been shown to do less well in life.
Living in a couple (or threesome, or moresome) is more cost-effective. If more of us are single, more of us are financially worse off.
Touch is essential to the healthy development of children – babies deprived of human contact fail to thrive and often die – and an important factor in adult wellbeing. Lack of touch leads to increased anxiety, higher blood pressure, and adversely affects our feelings of connectedness.
Loneliness kills. Social isolation has a wide variety of effects, including sleep disruption, higher blood pressure, lower immunity, increased stress and depression, and lower overall subjective wellbeing. Lonely people are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely as those who feel wanted; the effect is about the same as smoking 20 cigarettes a day, and worse than obesity.
Why is this happening? All sorts of theories have put forward.
Further education and changes in the workplace
Because more of us are going to university, our careers are starting later, which in turn has pushed back the time at which we are ready to start a family. And there are now many more working women, who often rightly prefer to establish themselves in their careers before taking time out to have children.
The collapse of religion
Christianity, Islam and most other major religions promote the family as the prime, sacrosanct social unit. As religious influence wanes, the pressure to sustain these units has decreased, and people feel freer to pursue the lifestyles they wish rather than the ones foisted on them by tradition.
Related to the above point. It’s now a lot easier for people to escape from loveless or abusive marriages, which can only be a good thing.
Greater prosperity and safety
In cultures where life is fragile, where infant mortality is high, and war and disease take many lives, it is common – and common sense – for women to have many babies. That doesn’t apply in the largely safe and sanitised west. Besides, in adversity, people tend to pull together. In prosperous societies, there’s less need for collective action, and less need for tight social bonds.
Falling sex drives
Our readiness to make whoopee seems to be on the wane – particularly in men. A 2013 survey for online pharmacy ukmedix.com found that 62% of men were turning down sex more frequently than their female partner, with a third admitting they had lost their sex drive. Explanations put forward for this change include increased pressure on men to work hard and be attentive dads, rising obesity levels, the greater average age of men in relationships (libido declines with age), and greater quantities of the hormone oestrogen and chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates in the environment.
Stimulating audiovisual representations of fantastic-looking people having adventurous sex are more accessible than ever before. This means that a) men are less likely to go out and seek sex when a cheap, easy substitute is available, and b) that when they do get the chance of real sex, it’s less likely to live up to the expectations created by porn.
Women are no longer the helpless daughters waiting for a suitor to ask Daddy for their hand. With increased independence, they have more power than ever in the domain of relationships, and they’re exercising it – by holding out for the best partner they can get.
We’re busier than ever before (or at least, we’re filling our time more effectively than ever before), and as a result have less time to commit to long-term relationships.
We have more connections
Some have theorised that humans only have a limited amount of “stickiness”; that we are capable of making only a finite number of connections. If we are meeting and keeping in touch with more people, by virtue of living in cities and using phones and social media, it stands to reason that we have less time and effort to devote to each of them.
I’ve written elsewhere about the way that choice, the holy grail and central principle of consumerism, may be a double-edged sword; that the bewildering array of tempting options open to us may be preventing us from committing to anything. When films, TV, billboards and the internet are constantly reminding us of the perfection we haven’t yet attained, we become less satisfied with what we’ve got. And now that alternative mates are, thanks to Tinder and internet dating, more accessible than ever – at least in theory – we have less incentive to stay in imperfect relationships.
The juvenilisation of culture
We’re growing up much later than we used to. While the age of puberty is falling (from 16.6 for girls in 1860 to 10.5 today), the end of adolescence, for men at least, seems to have been pushed back to about 45. We stay in education until 21, 22, and in many cases far beyond. Whereas playing games, eating sweets, watching superhero movies, pursuing unrealistic dreams, wearing jeans, putting off career decisions and sleeping around were once the exclusive preserve of the young, now we’re all at it for as long as we can get away with it (me included).
Ever since, some time in the 80s, some 41-year-old baby-boomer magazine editor ordered a junior reporter to go out and write a feature entitled “40 is the new 30″, growing up has been portrayed as undesirable. The cult of youth in the media is now all-powerful – our pop stars, our TV presenters, our politicians, and even our Doctor Whos (Peter Capaldi, thankfully, apart) are getting younger, and there’s a near-complete absence of positive portrayals of happy, older people. The message is that adulthood, along with all its trappings, such as commitment, stability and responsibility, is the last stop on the line before decrepitude and death, and as such something to be put off as long as possible.
All these factors have probably played a part in the breaking of love’s spell to a greater or lesser extent (except for the surname thing, which, as I’ve said, is clearly a humongous pile of horseshit). To this list, I’d like to add a controversial suggestion of my own, which has not, to my knowledge, been widely discussed. I’ll cover that in my next post.