Libby Purves: The tears I'll be shedding on Valentine's Day

Modern lovers stroll towards marriage, then hit turbulence

Share

In the innocence of my twenties I laughed at the Valentine messages from Hugga Bear, Hunky Monkey and the rest. On Tuesday I'll just snivel.

It's like crying at weddings. The young never understand why women over 50 dive for the Kleenex when the bride floats up the aisle. They think it must be disappointment or envy. It isn't. It's experience. We know too much about the bumpy road ahead, the pitfalls, the briars. We cry because they are so hopeful, and if we are reasonably happy ourselves, we wish them to reach that plateau too, and hope they recognise it when they get there.

But you'd be a fool to bet on it. Life is long, women are independent, expectations are high. Divorces end two in five UK marriages, nearly three-quarters being initiated by the wife. Cohabitation has only a 4 percent chance of lasting 10 years. A quarter of British children see their parents split. Divorce doesn't suit children: at best it is disruptive and saddening, at worst catastrophic. The next film to wring our withers is The Squid and the Whale. Based on the childhood of its creator, Noah Baumbach, it shows with rare and raw explicitness how boys of 12 and 16 suffer when their parents divorce. Sounds like a grand night out.

The course of true love never did run smooth: but nowadays the smooth bit comes first. Think of almost any classic love story from Romeo and Juliet on, and the lovers are beset by outside pressures. There are class or race divisions, social disapproval, religion, family feuds, war, poverty. In Jane Austen, the lovers' personal misunderstandings are generally compounded by social or financial pressure; their resolution involves a practical improvement like Captain Wentworth making his fortune at sea or some clerical Edward or Edmund getting a living. Thus when we reach the happy marital ending we tend to believe in it. They've come through a lot.

Today, however, almost nothing external is allowed to separate real or fictional Western lovers. Anyone can date anyone, even if they're married to someone else or of the same gender. Even Brokeback Mountain had to be set 40 years ago in Wyoming in order to make us believe that the cowboy lovers couldn't just make a life together.

Modern lovers stroll in a leisurely fashion towards marriage or cohabitation or just bed, and only then hit turbulence. Films and novels are now about people managing to make themselves miserable without external help.

It may be men who "won't commit" or women who "want more" . It may be disillusion with humdrum life after a starry wedding. How much, I wonder, does the divorce rate tie up with the fact that UK weddings cost, on average, £12,000, including a £3,000 honeymoon? It may be sexual boredom, casual infidelity or the shocking discovery that babies are hard work. Often the problem seems to be competition for status, or inequality of professional success.

No wonder the wartime generation throws up its hands in despair at the selfishness, the materialism, the childishness of it all. If you started out with domineering parents, five years of bomb-scarred separation, two nights in Margate and a few sticks of Utility furniture, it must be hard to see why sleek young newly-weds back from the Maldives can't seem to rub along.

Above it all hover two absurd illusions: the old romantic nonsense that love conquers all, and the new romantic nonsense that a man and a woman can be equal in everything and yet utterly sufficient to one another's every need, never having to say sorry.

But again, fiction comes to our aid with fables for our own time. A slew of chick-flicks offers women the escape clause of female bonding (both In Her Shoes and Rumour Has It... offer the message that men are all very well, but what a girl most needs is a hug with her sister and a tough granny played by Shirley MacLaine). Friends offers the puppyish security of a gang. Bridget Jones peddles the delusion that selfish, idle ignorance makes you so sweet you'll attract a handsome lawyer rich enough to keep you in Agas and girls' lunches.

It's a wonder that even three in five marriages turn out just fine.

Libby Purves's latest novel is 'Acting Up', published by Hodder

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?