Together at any price

Forget adultery. Nothing tests a relationship more than shopping together. Stewart Hennessy gathers the evidence
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Brecknell's hat shop in Birmingham city centre on a Saturday afternoon. Suzanne has been trying on hats for 15 minutes. It takes Jason two minutes to glaze over. Each time she tries on another hat he smiles. She hums and haws. "I'm not sure. What do you think?'' she asks. "Definitely, that one is you,'' he says. "What about this?'' she inquires. "Oh, that's the one,'' he declares. You suspect that he would nod agreeably if she put a potty on her head.

It is a classic Saturday afternoon scenario: men and women putting their relationship in peril by shopping together. It is a mysterious ritual and critical to the modern mating game.

The first time a couple goes clothes-shopping it is fun; an exciting affirmation. The city centre has never seemed so romantic. How that bliss withers.

"I've never understood why women take men shopping,'' says Jason, 24, happy to chat while Suzanne, 23, tries on more hats. "I reach a point where I just say `Yeah, buy that', so we can get going. About five minutes after we get out of the car, actually.

"Men know what they want and get it. Last week she took over two hours in about eight shops to buy jeans. Then I bought mine in five minutes in the first shop. Typical.''

"It's a bit of a `just-divorced' hat, like in the car advert,'' muses Suzanne. "It suits you,'' Jason says, but she has rumbled him. She knows she is on her own. She deliberates. Jason watches attentively. Yes! She's bought it! In River Island, Steve, 33, is having no such luck with Deb, 27. "Two days we have been shopping,'' says Steve. "Two days. And you know what we've bought? Some wrapping paper.''

Steve, like most men, is not exasperated by shopping. But he is exasperated when nothing or very little is purchased. Men like a result, whether it's 2-1 to United or one jacket in the bag.

"Women have taste, they discriminate,'' says June, 26, browsing in Top Shop: "Men are tense. Women are relaxed. They enjoy looking, anticipating, seeing what's new. God knows why we ask men along.''

"Well, don't then,'' interjects Simon, 25, June's boyfriend. "I hate it, especially shopping for underwear. It's so unsexy. Some things you are just not meant to do together. Shopping is one.''

According to Martin, 23, standing outside Marks and Spencer, women want something from men which men simply do not have: interest. "I just come because there's nothing else to do,'' says Martin. "Women are never grateful.''

"I am grateful,'' smiles Nicky, 20, handing Martin another bag, along with the five he already has.

Katie, 18, feels so pressurised by having a mopey boyfriend along that she shops with her ex-boyfriend, Martin, 18. "He says if something doesn't suit, not just `Oh yeah, buy it'.''

Sandra, 39, a shop manager, believes that shopping is a subtle test of a relationship. "I had this blazing row once when I went shopping with an ex-boyfriend,'' she says. "We were shouting at each other. I started to cry. Then I felt great. I realised I didn't want him. We broke up soon after.''

In the cafe of Pavilions centre, Paul, 35, confirms the deep significance of shopping. "Things come out. I remember my ex trying on a dress and saying it would be nice for my sister's wedding, which wasn't for a year. I knew the relationship had to end.''

The clock says 6pm. Laden couples walk home, looking relieved. They are probably thinking about plans for the evening. Or maybe not. As they trudge through the winter rain, maybe some are wondering about a future beyond today, wondering if some far distant tomorrow will see them still together, still shopping.