Real People: Love and success: can you have both?

Cher, Madonna and Agassi all saw their fortunes flourish when they gave up relationships. Is it impossible to have it all?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Last Sunday's French Open final would have made tennis fans of the least sports-literate Mills & Boon writers. A clash between a player inspired by love - Andrei Medvedev who described himself as "the happiest man on earth" after getting back with his girlfriend, fellow tennis player Anke Huber - and Andre Agassi, freshly separated from his wife Brooke Shields. What could be more symbolic or more romantic? The love-struck outsider versus the near-divorced has-been.

Except that it was Agassi who executed the stunning turnaround; Agassi who reached into his soul and found the strength and inspiration to come back from two sets down to win. He sobbed as he lifted the cup. "It is without doubt the greatest moment of my life," he said.

I'm sorry? What about the important things in life? What about marriage, love - what about Brooke? After years in the professional wilderness there was only one conclusion that the sports writers could come to - that Agassi was a better player without her.

If this is true, he wouldn't be alone. Throughout history ambition and creativity have grappled uncomfortably with the more prosaic considerations of everyday life - relationships, children, home - and it's a conflict that's still going on. Last week Geri Halliwell announced that she'd given up sex because it "drains my creativity" - she wanted to concentrate on her new album. Cher, too, admitted that it had been six years since she'd had a relationship or even got laid - years that just happen to have been among the most successful of her career.

There are practical reasons why love and ambition don't mix, of course. Success puts unique pressures on a relationship. It brings the sort of temptations that most of us can only dream of (as Jerry Hall knows only too well), and it brings distraction. "If you're doing something that requires real commitment and enormous amounts of time and effort," says agony aunt Suzie Hayman, "where does the relationship fit in?"

You don't need to be famous to relate to that sentiment. Anyone who is striving to be something and manage a relationship at the same time - particularly with a partner who is striving to be something as well - will be too familiar with the pressures. And the situation is getting worse. "These days it's particularly difficult to juggle a full-time creative career and a relationship," says Lucy Selleck of Relate. "Whether we want to be a tennis player or do a course at university that we want to lead to a career, we have higher expectations than we used to, and that puts pressure on a relationship."

We are under pressure to be very successful at work, very happy in our relationships, to live in a very beautiful house, have well-behaved children, to get enough sleep so we stay very very beautiful and so we're not cranky with our very perfect partners who also have very fantastic jobs ... and, of course, the strain of all that perfection is unsustainable. There just aren't enough hours in the day. And you don't need to be super-ambitious or successful to be affected. More and more ordinary people are finding that they're making a choice that they never expected - between career and love.

Josie, a writer in her thirties, has finally given up on men because, she says, relationships just didn't allow her the space she needed to work. "My boyfriends all loved the idea of it - that I was doing something interesting - but none of them could deal with the reality of what that meant. I'm not some obsessed artistic type but sometimes, if I'm on a roll or I'm in the middle of a project, I'll work through the weekend, and they'd whine and start putting pressure on me. I used to feel guilty but now I'm just cynical, and I think it's about more than just time. I think they resented the fact that when I was writing I didn't need them and I didn't pay them attention.

"Writing isn't my life but it is a very important part of me. When I talk to friends who have children and who adore them, it's a similar feeling. And when they talk about how their husbands get all childish about the love they give to their children, I know what they're talking about. I've experienced the same thing.

"It doesn't make me bitter - I've made my choices and I'm okay on my own - but I didn't expect this. I grew up in a generation that took for granted the idea that we'd have fulfilling relationships and fulfilling careers. I still believe it's possible but now I think it's very rare."

Her story has a familiar ring, and yet I can't help thinking it will be more familiar to women than men. One of the great surprises for me about life in my thirties has been the way men who spent their twenties talking about how they wanted a relationship with an independent, successful woman have settled down with one who is focused on the relationship and family, and that the women who are ambitious are settling for life on their own.

Aric Sigman, a consultant psychologist, agrees that there is a gender angle. "Men who are ambitious tend to be very selfish - it's a prerequisite of success. They take advantage of the fact that women tend to be more giving. And these people tend to be strong personalities - they're capable of manipulating caring women to get the support they need. Women who are creative tend to have to do so at the expense of a relationship."

But the successful man who chooses to go it alone is, says Ms Hayman, going to become more common. "For decades men have been absent in relationships, either emotionally or physically. They've left it to women to run the soppy stuff. Now they're taking more responsibility for the emotional side of things and they're realising that they can't do both career and relationship well, so they're choosing only one."

Julian, an ambitious lawyer in his late thirties, has been single for five years since his marriage broke up, and has enjoyed focusing on work and keeping his life simple. Last year he fell passionately in love with a married colleague - but he's not likely to do so again for some time.

"It was amazing," he says. "And absolutely awful. I was obsessed - and my career went to pot. When it became clear that she wasn't going to leave her husband, I went mad and quit. Luckily my boss was understanding when I rescinded my resignation but I can tell that he still thinks I'm a bit unstable. It was an amazing experience but it was a huge relief to return to my celibate existence."

Do you really have to make a choice between love and success? Well ... no, say the experts - but if you want both, forget any notion of an equal relationship. Take your example from the stars - the idea of two creative, delicate egos is a complete no-no. Think Liz and Richard and you'll get the picture - what every successful person needs is a "wife", someone who is prepared to nurture their star.

"Ambitious people need relationships but not with people who are competing for space," says Ms Selleck. "They need a rock; the partner will need to be super-supportive. They need to take a back seat and people who can do that are very secure in themselves."

But in fact the inspiration for our futures may come not from the sort of relationships that stars should have, but the reality of their lives - which, according to Mr Sigman, is often about being on their own. "Contrary to what Hollywood tries to tell us, the evidence we have suggests that very creative people by and large have no meaningful relationship," he says. "People who are creative do it because it's the only area of their lives where they can create resonance, unity, order."

But there's no need to pity them, says Mr Sigman, because the standards by which we judge fulfilment are not necessarily the only ones. "The reality for very ambitious, creative people is that they often get the same things from their art," says Sigman. "They're not necessarily more miserable."

And, let's be realistic, choices don't come without sacrifices. I've never quite believed Madonna when she sings poignantly about the pact she made with the devil fame, her "substitute for love", as she calls it, on the album Ray of Light - I just can't quite buy the notion that in a parallel universe she was cut out for marriage and kids. I think she was having a bad day. But her words still stand as a caution:

I traded fame for love

Without a second thought ...

But now I find

That I've changed my mind.