Christina Patterson: We can't be together - or remain apart

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The Independent Online

It's not you, it's me. You're gorgeous, you're fun, you're kind, and anyone on earth would be lucky to have you. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I'm just not ready for this. I need some head space. But, really, let's stay friends.

Phew! You were feeling a bit sick about saying it, but now you feel so much better. It had been building up for quite a while. You just had this horrible feeling in your chest when you thought this is all very nice, but is it enough? You got on fine, you had a good time. The sex, quite frankly, was pretty damn good. You were tempted to keep things going just for that. But you didn't want to lead anyone up the garden path and you'd started to feel like an executioner.

And now you've done it and it went surprisingly well. You almost felt like suggesting dinner to celebrate, but you stopped yourself just in time. Instead, you cracked open a bottle with a friend.

But freedom is weirdly disappointing. And, on the sexual front at least, the world doesn't feel quite as "incorrigibly plural" (to use Louis MacNeice's phrase) as it did when you were attached. Yes, there are possibilities, but you're not sure you can be bothered. It's not like you can just leap into bed and do a runner. You have to have breakfast. You have to make small talk. And, if you're honest, you miss the texting and the jokes. It was relaxing. And now it all feels like hard work.

And then you bump into each other at a party. Bloody hell! You're sure they didn't look quite as good as that when you were together. And everyone else seems to think so, too. You sort of end up in the same group and so you have to talk to each other. And of course you have a drink. And one thing leads to another. And, to be honest, it's fantastic. But you both know that it doesn't mean anything. It's just an aberration. But my God, you can't wait for the next one.

Welcome to the world of 21st-century romance, a world where what you have is never quite good enough - or not until you've lost it. This is a world in which we can choose between 38 types of milk and 154 types of jam and 500 types of women and 100 types of men. (Well, OK, make that three: handsome-but-stupid, bright-but-no-oil-painting and, er, married.) If someone said you could only have semi-skimmed milk for the foreseeable future, you'd probably cope. But just the one woman? Even if they do have the long limbs and locks and animal glow of a Kate Middleton or a Jemima Khan?

Heaven knows (and perhaps the Queen) if Prince William is back with his student sweetheart. If so, perhaps their two-minute holiday from the media will have helped calm things down. It's hard enough to make a commitment when no one, except your parents, could give a monkey's. No picnic, presumably, when it's the most scrutinised marriage in the Western world. Heaven also knows (and may not care) about the on-off-romance between have-a-go-Heinz-hero Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan. My guess is that Hugh is about as willing to commit to marriage as Jemima is to adopt the burka, but who knows?

History is littered with examples of people who couldn't stay together, or apart. The romantic view of this wearying wavering is of a fatal attraction. The less romantic one would be of a kind of laziness, a desire for the pleasures of a relationship without the burden of a commitment. It's the ultimate symbol, in fact, of our age of ambivalence. It was Marx, of course, who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. Sadly, relationships can, too.

Grace under pressure

Thank goodness for professionals. First, we must praise Suleiman al-Daya, one of Gaza's most influential clerics, who played a key role in the release of Alan Johnston.

Summoned by Abu Abed, the right-hand man of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, to find a face-saving way of getting the Army of Islam to release him, he informed their leaders that what they were doing was "against Islamic teaching".

Confronted with the shocking news that seizing an innocent man was not necessarily going to pave their path to paradise, the kidnappers let him go. Clearly a man Johnston's Health Secretary near-namesake should bring into the NHS.

The other professional, as yet unnamed, who deserves our praise is the barber summoned after Johnston's breakfast with Hamas. Unlike Paris Hilton, who completed her great walk to freedom by extending her already lengthy locks, Johnston requested the hairdresser's equivalent of a tabula rasa. And quite right, too. Johnston is a man of great dignity who knows there's nothing as distracting in a man as weird hair. For the follically challenged, less is always more.

* "It is quite as though no one at all were interested in Vanuatu," wrote the bestselling Belgian novelist Amelie Nothombe in her fictional memoir, The Life of Hunger, published last year. Well, not any longer. The people of the Pacific archipelago have just been named the happiest on the planet. In the same "happy planet index", published by the New Economics Foundation, the UK languishes at 108th, below Libya, Iran and Palestine.

"Poor but happy" is a cliché that has served colonial powers well, but here it seems to be true. Even those who haven't got two pig tusks to rub together (the preferred unit of currency) can stuff their faces on coconuts and luscious fruits. Favourite hobbies include bungie jumping from vines and vigorous dancing. Healthy food, plenty of exercise and minimal disparities in wealth. Everything, in fact, that the happiness experts prescribe.