Comment: We all want love, but can we afford it?

Like goods in a shop, love, parenthood and marriage have a shelf- life and a price tag
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WHEN IT comes to sexual and other personal relationships, most people are, it seems, all screwed up with nowhere to go. We never stop talking about the subject but, if anything, we are getting worse at creating and maintaining a fulfilling partnership and a stable, loving family environment. Things are apparently getting so desperate that some City firms are about to start including dating agency subscriptions in their employee benefits.

We want love madly but we do love badly. Perhaps one reason is that we no longer understand or accept that obligations are central to social attachments. Love, parenthood, marriage, are all "choices" which we may or may not stay with depending on how we feel. And, like goods in a shop, they have a shelf-life and a price tag.

Just look at the disgraceful case this week of a company director, William Parker. He reached a settlement in a court case whereby he would be repaid for every item that he bought his lover during their affair (including pounds 1.75 for a bedroom door bolt), in spite of the fact that she now has a child which he admits may be his. The cad has a string of properties and an expensive car, and has not paid a penny of formal maintenance. Like thousands of others who go around breaking hearts, Parker cannot understand what is so wrong with his actions. He says: "I was in there for a bit of sex but I was also there to help someone in need. She agreed we would put it on a tab and she said she would pay me a lump sum. I don't see a moral issue here."

We know all too well the figures about high divorce rates and lone parenthood, but so far we have little understanding of the widespread personal unhappiness that now defines society.

At a dinner this week to mark the indispensable work of the Samaritans I was told by volunteers that by far the biggest cause of suicidal distress is not poverty, unemployment or low esteem, but relationship problems. Some are driven to despair by what is happening to them within relationships and others by the absence of that meaningful other. Human beings are social creatures and strong human connections are a defining characteristic of our species.

But this is a need we are increasingly failing to meet in the West. We are getting richer and more miserable. There are now even physical indicators that show this. A growing consensus is emerging among psychiatric researchers that depression in this country has gone up since the Second World War and that levels of serotonin, the chemical which we need at high enough levels to be mentally healthy, have been going down.

The clinical psychologist Oliver James, who highlighted this in his impressive book, Britain on the Couch, is convinced that most of these problems stem from the fact that many people no longer know how to sustain relationships while society now puts a "wholly new valuation on personal relationships as a fount of happiness". The gap between desire and reality can never then be closed and acute disappointment is the only outcome. We need to examine our expectations and understand how they are raised and determined by a stream of magazine articles, television programmes and fat-cat pundits who fill our heads with fantasy images of faultless partners, parents, lovers and friends. Nothing, then, is left to our own instincts and circumstances. We have allowed our private lives to be nationalised, just as nationalised industries have been privatised.

There is no perfect relationship. Things change within relationships as they do with our bodies. We need to learn to love these changes, not panic and run away from them. Instead of dreaming of perfection, if only we could teach ourselves to be grateful for having a good enough life, a quietly satisfying marriage or relationship and a family that somehow holds together. Such self-knowledge will mean confronting some difficult issues.

Feminism may have given us much, but, by stressing the importance of independence, it has diminished the value of dependence, an essential part of any relationship. To refuse dependency, weakness or vulnerability is to make machines of us all. We cannot make families without depending on others and allowing them to depend on us. We cannot nurture children unless we are prepared to give up some of our own desires and to take on difficult, ongoing responsibilities. Most of us are now too immersed in the idea that we have an absolute duty to pamper ourselves. Such hyper- individualism kills off possibilities of personal bonds. If we are dying of depression because we cannot find that true love, it is time to consider whether the way we are has put this love altogether beyond reach.