On a train recently, I watched a young, attractive couple sitting opposite me. They looked happy enough dipping in and out of magazines, conversation and a packet of Digestives. Until he happened to mention that he might not attend her friend's birthday the following evening. A mini-strop and then a sulk ensued. It didn't seem like he had a legitimate excuse, he just wanted an early night. In her eyes, this was obviously not befitting behaviour of a dedicated partner.
Fallouts like this are one of the many examples of the exhausting demands intrinsic to modern relationships. In our culture, we are taught to aspire to a fairytale narrative: we will each meet a true love who will complete us. They will be so idyllically suited to us that they will share our beliefs, hobbies and social agenda. Anything less and it isn't a proper relationship. I hear colleagues in the pub after work talking of "sneaking a quick one in" lest they get home to their significant other too late. Why, is their boyfriend or girlfriend afraid of the dark? I know couples who influence the others choice of friends or who grumble that a hobby takes too much time away from them.
Last week, a prominent American academic addressed this phenomenon. Professor Eli Finkel presented his paper, Suffocation of Marriage, at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Prof Finkel warned that the modern demands of marriage had never been so great because we now seek emotional fulfilment from our partner rather than our basic survival needs, as has always been the case. He suggested that living separately, or allowing your partner to sleep with other people, could be the key to a successful marriage.
Media headlines ensued as though he had just suggested we drown our grandmothers. But Prof Finkel is absolutely right. I've been concerned by the taxing duties of conventional coupledom for my entire adult life. So much so that I've reached 36 with only one relationship beyond 18 months and have no plans whatsoever to give up my action-packed life of freedom and my starfish sleeping position again. But such is the pressure to find fulfilment through a soulmate, who will supposedly make all my dreams come true, that I became concerned that there was something wrong with me. A commitment-phobe I surely must be? Admittedly, there are times when I wish there were a ready-made wine buddy in my living room after a hard day but, on the whole, I've always felt that I thrive best being single with a reliable and meaningful lover whenever I can find one.
So two years ago, I set upon a quest to find out if there really was something wrong with me for not craving a life merger with a significant other. Am I really missing out, or am I actually quite rational to want to preserve my independence in a world kitted out for autonomy and convenience? After looking at the role of marriage thorough history, the science behind love and speaking with hundreds of couples, divorcees, lifelong singletons, asexuals, philanderers, swingers, sperm-donor mothers and married couples who live apart, I am confident it is the quite rational latter.
Let's start with the history. The idea that our Mr or Mrs Right will fulfil us emotionally, sexually, spiritually and everything else is new – 200 years new. Compared with the hundreds of thousands of years of civilisation, modern love-marriage looks like a social experiment. Before the end of the 19th century, tying the knot was done for inheritance, building important family ties and securing business connections. And not only within the noble classes. Even agricultural workers would be paired off according to the strategic location of their in-laws' fields.
Of course, people still fell in love but that was nothing to do with marriage. Among the aristocracy of the Middle Ages, the highest form of love was considered to be extramarital. In the 16th century, the essayist Montaigne wrote that any man in love with his wife was "a man so dull no one else could love him". Theologians considered loving one's spouse to be a sin – they called it idolatry – because it could interfere with the love of God.
Behind the seismic cultural change towards the love marriage were two things. First, the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s meant that young people earned a wage and had more control of their own destiny. Second, this was the period of Enlightenment. Young people started to view human relationships as organised by rationale and justice, rather than by force and birthright. Happiness became a legitimate goal. Then when Queen Victoria walked down the aisle in 1840 in an elaborate white gown and accompanied by music, the public was mesmerised. Fancy weddings became the rage. The fairytale had begun.
Commentators were worried about this new ideal. If marriage was based on something as fickle as romantic love, wouldn't such unions be unstable? And guess what? They were right. According to Elizabeth Gilbert in her marriage memoir Committed, whenever a culture turns its back on arranged marriages in favour of the love-marriage, divorce rates rocket. Of course, this isn't to say that arranged marriages are the formula for a robust marriage. Rather, it questions whether stringent, life-long unions are the formula for modern society.
For the first time in history, marriage and cohabitation are no longer a necessity. As recently as 100 years ago, it was impossible to live alone. There was no sliced bread, online deliveries or washer-dryers. You simply had to shack up. There are now 3.5 million people over 45 living alone in the UK, an increase of 25 per cent since the mid-1990s. More people are choosing to live alone because they can.
Gender equality has further pushed marriage into the non-essentials category. Just 40 years ago, in some US states, a woman couldn't take out a loan or start a business without her husband's signature. Another study this week, by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, found that more people are choosing spouses with similar educational backgrounds. Nearly half of graduate men married other graduates in 2005, compared with just a quarter in 1960. Gone, it seems, is the boss-secretary marriage, or surgeons marrying nurses.
There is a proper word for marrying up the social ladder. It's called hypergamy. Historically, this abounded in times and cultures where one sex had fewer rights. Now that gender roles are blurring, emotional fulfilment usurps social status in the selection of a life partner. But the problem is that emotional fulfilment is fickle and variable.
Even when it comes to starting a family, it is now socially acceptable and financially viable to do so sans spouse. In the 1950s, women who fell pregnant outside wedlock were ushered to mother-and-baby homes and, in some cases, mental asylums. In just 60 years, attitudes have changed so much that there are now two million single parents in the UK and 23 per cent of 14-year-olds grow up in single-parent households. We now have co-parent matchmaking sites and sperm-donor networks, providing a platform for independent men and women to set the maternity or paternity process in motion, without the hassle of romantic entanglement.
When I tell people that I don't fancy the marriage-house-and-kids lifestyle, I'm often asked if I worry about growing old alone. But I believe that loneliness will soon be a malaise consigned to the history books. Social networking means that we can, with the click of a mouse, make contact with local, niche communities and meet-up groups. Plus, with the number of married and never-married women predicted to be equal by 2031, there will be plenty of people like me flying solo in our dotage. Given such facilitation to remain free from domestic drudgery, it is anachronistic to believe that cohabiting, monogamous, lifelong marriage should be our ultimatum of life.
In my single observatory tower, I see newlyweds hurtle into their new duo routines without acknowledging the magnitude of what they are doing. Commitment is a bigger deal today than it ever has been. Today's 20 and 30-year-olds are likely to have lived away from home, travelled, been to college and experimented with multiple sexual partners before they cede to marriage. Western society encourages individualism, entrepreneurship and self-improvement. We go through adolescence choosing our own friends, careers and pursuits based on our individual needs. Then, boom, we get hitched and all our decisions, right down to how we load the dishwasher, suddenly have to be made jointly. No wonder so many relationships buckle under the pressures.
More research from America this week claims to have found a region inside the brain called the anterior insular, which plays a role in who we select to fall in love with. It is separate to the posterior insular, which makes decisions about who we lust and desire. This tallies with other, more established research that we have two separate drives for love – the fervent butterflies-in-your-tummy feelings of romantic love and the long-term affectionate feelings of attachment. The fairytale narrative has us seeking both in one person. But I'm sorry to report that science increasingly proves that they are separate.
One of the leading anthropologists in this field of research, Dr Helen Fisher, has examined brain scans of couples in romantic love and those in attachment. For those in romantic love – which could include an unshakeable crush – their systems are flooded with the feel-good chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. Their addiction centres are activated in the same way as addicts craving crack cocaine. It is this delusional state in which we make outlandish promises – such as "till death do us part". For those in deeper love or "attachment", they emit the hormone oxytocin when they see their partner. This makes them feel love, trust and affection but, alas, the urge to rip their clothes off fades along with the dopamine.
Don't shoot the messenger. Like everyone else, I, too, wish I could find a handsome prince who I can lust after and love simultaneously, who will prove to be my inspiration, fireworks in the bedroom, my social prop, career support and DIY enactor all in one. But it is this expectation for such conflicting roles that leads to relationship failure.
Part of my research took me undercover on a marital affair website. Donning a fake wedding ring, I met men who were deliberately seeking affairs. I loathed their deceitfulness but I learned a lot. Without exception, every man made it clear that he still loved his wife and valued the security of family life but needed an outlet for a romantic frisson. It wasn't sex they were seeking. They described wanting to "feel excited about seeing someone again", wanting to "get to know someone" and "have a conversation that's not about the house and kids".
None of the evidence above provides an excuse for such blatant deceit, but it does give us cause to rethink the needless demands we place on long-term relationships. Surely we can now afford to relax the 24/7 clause in the commitment contract? We are lucky to live in an era that allows us to enjoy romantic relationships rather than lean on them. The only way we can achieve enduring love in our self-focused, opportunistic society is to adapt our relationship values accordingly, not stubbornly cling to a fairytale ideal that belongs once upon a time.µ
'Screw The Fairytale: A Modern Girl's Guide to Sex and Love' by Helen Croydon is out now (John Blake, £7.99)Reuse content