They have happy, full, successful lives - but no one to share them with. Beverley Hopwood on the growing ranks of relationship virgins
ccording to popular prejudice, Louisa should live with her ageing mother, have a penchant for pop socks and enjoy hanging out in the reading room of her local library. Instead, she is a successful writer and an intrepid traveller with a large circle of friends. But, at 32, she has never had a lover.

"I was always positive I'd meet someone and it didn't really bother me until I got to 29. Then I started to think 'Why me?'," she explains. "Friends have told me I'm too independent but then I think, 'Which came first?' Sometimes they say, 'Oh, you just haven't met the right guy'. One friend told me in a this-just-doesn't-happen way 'You're unique'."

Louisa is not unique. According to the British Association of Psychotherapists, women who reach 30 and have not had what they would classify as a relationship are one of the biggest categories in therapy. And it's not just a women's problem. The British Association of Counsellors has also reported that men and women in their late twenties and early thirties who have yet to experience a long-term relationship are more common than supposed. Nor are they all the anorak kings and queens of popular imagination.

"I've seen TV producers, bankers, lawyers ... people not short of cash," explains Gladeana McMahon, a counsellor since 1978. "They've often got lots of friends and a lifestyle many people would envy. But their relationships rarely last longer than three months."

Therapists and counsellors tend to look for reasons in their client's childhood which might explain their absent love lives. But for 29-year- old David this doesn't make sense. His childhood was happy and he insists his parents' marriage was both long-lasting and loving. But even with such a good example so close to home, his own relationships don't make the grade. "I am always falling in love, or thinking that I have fallen in love, but I have never felt totally relaxed or comfortable. It is as if I am always waiting for disaster to strike," he says. "I suppose there's been an element of thinking, if someone likes me, 'What's wrong with her?' "

Such a lack of self-confidence is often at the heart of people's difficulties in getting a relationship off the ground. Some people experience a surge in confidence when they reach their thirties because other areas of their lives are stable. But this can leave them with a lot of catching up to do. As McMahon puts it, they have never learned how to flex their "emotional muscles". They have "skipped an era".

This is what Rachel, a 29-year-old advertising copywriter from Leeds, believes happened to her. She's spent almost all her adult years without a partner and her longest relationship lasted two months.

"When I was a teenager I was terribly shy with boys," she explains. "At 13 my two best friends got boyfriends and slept with them at 14. They left me behind really. At 18 and 19 I met a couple of boys I really fancied but to my eternal regret I was so shy I couldn't, or didn't, encourage them. Then for years, although I had offers, I didn't meet anyone else I liked. It was agony. I felt so unwomanly." At 25, Rachel met a 31- year-old musician she was attracted to. "I lost my virginity to him - a huge relief, I felt like I was part of the human race at last - but although I enjoyed the sex I also felt gauche, like an awkward 16-year- old. We had some pleasant times but we finished after a few weeks. I've had a couple of boyfriends since, both decent blokes, but not right for me. I suppose I must be unlucky."

Jill Curtis, a psychotherapist of 20 years, doesn't believe in luck. "As long as someone continues to blame the lack of a partner on fate, then the situation will not, can not, change," she says. "If you're in this position you need to recognise that on an unconscious level you've chosen to be on your own. I had someone with me recently who was saying, 'I'm so afraid I'm going to be left'. He found himself becoming like a hedgehog, very prickly. The thing people most want is the thing they sometimes sabotage.

"I do see people who've never had a relationship at all. For them it's like being on a diving board - the longer it goes on the higher the diving board becomes and the further they have to jump in."

Louisa can count on one hand the number of men she has been physically attracted to and still speaks warmly of the James Stewart-type she met more than a decade ago during a summer job. "We gelled instantly," she says. When he asked her out for a drink she leapt at the chance. But as she sat by him in the pub it went downhill fast. "I'd had no problem talking to him before but it was like it was suddenly being put into a different frame. There were lots of silences with me just saying 'yes' or 'no'. I just cut off. It's like there's this world I don't know the parameters of. Maybe it's a fear of intimacy, I don't know."

Or maybe she simply hasn't met someone who makes a relationship seem like a good idea. Culturally we live by numbers - a "right" age to first have sex, to first fall in love, to first make a serious commitment. If you haven't clocked up at least a couple of serious relationships by the time you're 30 people assume there's something wrong with you. But what if you just don't want to go out with anyone?

Simon, a 31-year-old travel agent, has never had a relationship that lasted longer than six months. "I take the attitude that it isn't a problem unless I think it is and, frankly, it isn't," he says. "But I'm aware that people might think I'm a bit odd.

"Personally I'm pretty content. Maybe I was just born to be single, flitting from girl to girl. I miss sex if I have to go without for a few weeks but I don't have a real yearning to know there's someone permanent in my life. I do enjoy my own company and I can't say I ever feel especially lonely. When I look around at friends' marriages or live-in relationships I don't think they're that much cop."

The poet Fiona Pitt Kethley embarked on her first long-term relationship at the age of 39 and now, at the age of 41, finds herself married to the man and pregnant with her first child. "Looking back I don't remember ever feeling relationship-starved, only sex-starved sometimes because prostitution for women doesn't exist in the same way it does for men," she says.

"For some years I was struggling as a writer and I didn't see the necessity for a relationship. I wanted to devote my energy to my writing and I certainly didn't want to be tied down with a child. I always said I would have a baby at 40 but no one believed me. There was this idea you either did it early or you didn't do it at all."

Her much-publicised desire to be woman's answer to Don Juan did, she believes, help her avoid some of the stigma which goes hand in hand with never having a "proper" relationship. She admits there was surprise at her unorthodox approach to romance but the negative pressure really came from men. "I remember one man coming up to me and saying, 'You don't want to leave it too late'. I think it was a way for these unattractive men to latch on to me, really."

"It's as if you're a social outcast, you're unlovable, no one picked you," says Louisa. "Sometimes I feel like Rapunzel in her tower. Unless I find a guy who's been a hermit all his life, where is the man who's going to want a virginal type?"

And David says single men aren't always seen as Jack the Lads living out wild sex lives to the envy of "settled" friends. "Some of my married friends, the ones who maybe married at 21, probably think I'm having a whale of a time. But some are embarrassed. They wonder why you don't want a relationship when that isn't the case. But it's hard to explain when you can't explain it yourself. I had one friend ask me not so long ago if I was gay.

"But another friend told me I'd probably meet someone and that would be it, I'd get married after six months and be happy-ever-after and I think that's what will happen. It'll just be a case of sorting out my crappy self-esteem problems and meeting the right person."