Singular girls

We can no longer put the blame on feckless men for relationships going wrong, says Sheila Gillooly. In fact, it's Nineties woman's secret fear of commitment that explains why she may be single, the American author tells Emma Daly

Do not be put off by the plug on the front of Sheila Gillooly's book Venus in Spurs - The Secret Female Fear of Commitment, in which self- help relationship guru John Gray (he who made untold millions writing Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) lauds the "stunning, original and empowering" insights of the book. The author's view is a little less pompous: "This is an important emotional issue, but it's not curing cancer - not by a long shot."

Ms Gillooly says happily that she has "no credentials" to write a textbook of the kind favoured by recent feminist writers: "I'm just a worker bee who's been on a lot of bad dates." She is a jolly thirtysomething who confesses to over-sleeping that morning for a photo-session, demands multiple Pepsis ("I need caffeine and sugar. Badly") and smokes enthusiastically. She is the kind of woman who bought the text-books - Backlash, The Beauty Myth et al - but never got around to finishing them.

So Venus in Spurs is much more fun than Gray suggests, refreshingly free of the earnest victimology that renders so much of the American personal awareness movement so repellent. "I am the Queen of Banality," Ms Gillooly announces with a laugh. She knows it's not true, but she prides herself on the fact that her book draws on no academic research but is limited to the lives of her friends and the popular culture she consumes with a passion.

"I think of the book as a humorous memoir as opposed to strictly self- help; I hate self-help books," she says. "I think of it as an antithesis to The Rules." This last is a guide for sad women to ensnare a husband through childish manipulation (eg, always ending phone calls first to keep him keen). "This book is more about how to snare yourself."

It does contain a serious message: that women in their late twenties and early thirties who are economically successful, career-minded and unhappily single, can no longer put all the blame on feckless men. It is true that many men have seized happily on the label "commitment phobic" to justify "a rather extended rite of passage that ensures a free and unencumbered youth", she writes in the book. But, girls, your singledom is not all their fault (not always, anyway).

Ms Gillooly says that many women (her former self included) seek the unavailable man because they are ambivalent about the reality of a genuine, serious relationship. Having worked to achieve independence, they fear its loss is inevitable once they are shackled to a man. But instead of acknowledging such feelings, many women suppress them, go for the losers and then bemoan their terrible romantic luck.

"In a relatively simple way I see it coming as a result of the economic independence women now have, which makes marriage an option as opposed to a necessity," she says, acknowledging that her book is targeted at a relatively small section of the population. "It's definitely aimed at someone privileged, intelligent, ambitious, not necessarily well off ... people who feel that their options are really open and who have a hard time with what they see as potential limitations imposed upon them, especially in terms of settling down to one relationship."

Her own history includes dating three English men - "I don't know that I'll date another" - whose charm at the time included their reserve. "They took the notion of privacy to a new level," she says, freely admitting, with a laugh, that the British stereotype of Americans as emotional gushers "would be accurate if they were speaking about me".

But, she adds, "I don't think it was an accident that I went through a period of just going out with English guys. I liked that reserve ... at the time it felt safe to me." Safe, that is, from the danger of a real depth of feeling.

Her luck in love changed when she met "the beau", who helped her to confront her fears and, in time, to edit the book. It was her first serious relationship - "it felt more like a partnership than a chase" - but still Ms Gillooly was uneasy. "I realised there were a lot of things required of me by that relationship, like re-imagining myself as part of a couple," she says, a need to compromise on her privacy, her freedom, her independence. "I found that I was really uncomfortable."

So, "thinking I was insane", she began to examine the lives of her female friends and concluded that women were the ones who had difficulties adapting to coupledom. Until then, bad luck in love had been "pretty much our single topic of conversation"; she wondered if the bad luck had not been self- inflicted, and wrote a magazine article on the subject. "Then a bunch of publishers began calling." At one stage 12 companies were interested in the book - of course, all the editors involved were women. "Those who react to the book seem to do so in a heavily identifying way," she notes.

This comment, I realise to my shame, comes after we have spent at least 15 minutes discussing my love life. Ms Gillooly likes it, she's interested, which is a good thing seeing as all the other journalists interviewing her in London have done the same. They, too, were all women - though on the PR circuit in the US, half those sent to meet her were men.

With no surprise at all, I learnt that all but a handful of the male reporters approached Ms Gillooly hell-bent on confrontation, hard as it might seem to stir up a really good fight over a fluffy, amusing oeuvre of this sort.

"There were some who tried to be confrontational, making it an argument, which I didn't like, being a girl," she says with a giggle. "The men who were trying to make it a joke were pretty derisive. I don't think they were bored by the book, they preferred to think that women were after them.'' Another jolly laugh.

"One of the reasons I really like women is sometimes they have a little more perspective," she says. I mention Robert Bly, he of the sense-of- humour-failure school of personal growth for men. "I don't want to read Robert Bly," she agrees. "Hello? White male oppression?" She absolutely does not want any boyfriend to read him either, adding: "I have no patience for the men's movement", before concluding, a little guiltily, "perhaps I should have more".

But she is extremely decent to her ex-boyfriend in discussing the sad ending to her last love story - after seven years she and her beau split up, a fact not unrelated, she feels, to the success of her book in the US and to her confidence now as a writer.

"It ended ... very bitterly,'' she says, laughing. "No, don't write that." She does not blame him for the break-up - or, rather, she refuses to vilify him for going off with a younger actress. "It was such a cliche, but there you go." And she seems to have survived, seems happy and confident, and has just finished her first novel, a coming-of- age story that of course includes relationships - but also the Nuremberg trials.

"I immediately reverted to my old self - Must Find Boyfriend Now. It was incredible, but it only lasted for about a month. I was shell-shocked and that was my instinct," she says. "Now, in a weird way - this sounds like a cheesy romance novel - I do actually feel for the first time perfectly OK being single."

Not that this is how she plans to end up. "I don't suggest that I or the women I profile don't want relationships, just that we have conflicting feelings about having them or staying in them," she says. Her parents stayed married, and all but one of her siblings is, she says, "very happily married". So, although life-long monogamy is not easy, "I don't think it's impossible."

For the moment, though, she is keen to get home to the partner she is most committed to: her dog

`Venus in Spurs' by Sheila Gillooly is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price pounds 9.99.

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