Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: We've become experts at sex – but losers at love

There's no doubt sex is better for most Western men and women. With love, however, the news is bad
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The Independent Online

At the supermarket on Friday night, my beloved said a red, heart-shaped candle was tat and a total rip-off at £8.99. Guess he won't be buying me the latest big thing for Valentine's day then, made of a new metal amalgam, rubedo. Created by Tiffany, it's slightly pink and quite attractive. Hoop earrings cost £1,000 and a bangle seven times as much, and not even real gold as my mother would have said. But for someone called Edwina Ings-Chambers, an effusive connoisseur of high style, a piece of rubedo would be making, she wrote in a Sunday newspaper: "... that statement of statements – the 'will you love and cherish me forever' one..."

Love costs in these circles. And therefore is worth nothing. Real love is priceless. I went to see the disturbing and touching George Clooney film, The Descendents about grief, loss and marital betrayal. All the while I was thinking about how much my man and marriage mean to me, the strength and commitment of our mutual love, how lucky we are. I hated my body and face before I met him; I was lost, untrusting and wounded. Oh there have been terrible moments and phases since; we have shouted and said vile things; I have driven away, wanting out. But we never gave up on our promise and would not break the bond. More than 22 years on we are best friends and lovers. (Note to husband: now don't go off with some enticing young thing and make me rue these words.)

Love between couples should be about resilience, fidelity, trust, that steady entwining of hearts and minds, slow-cooked sexual intimacy, soul-to-soul murmurs. How archaic that sounds, except, perhaps, to the bonneted ladies of the Jane Austen Society. These days, it seems, relationships come and go like the colours of fashion. A big wedding, followed by a short marriage and the next big wedding, is how the story goes. Celebs like Katie Price, lead the way and humbles follow. In our age of break and take, the Beckhams, together still after 13 years, bless them, are oddballs or screwballs as they say in LA. UK divorce rates (though stabilising) remain excessively high. I have just finished a series on the devastating effect divorce has on individuals for BBC Radio 4, to be broadcast later this month.

Yet recent studies show the public is intensely relaxed about adultery, a pastime growing in popularity. Tomorrow is a day of brisk trade in romantic frivolities – kitsch, insistent candlelit dinners, overpriced bubbly. Lots of hot sex too. In his book on postmodernism, Ziauddin Sardar writes: "The sheer quantity of sex around us is unprecedented in history. We are the first generation ever to be constantly watching, listening to, thinking about, preparing for, engaging in and recovering from sex." Though its effects are short-lived there can be no doubt that sex is better today for most Western men and women than it was even half a century back. With love, however, the news is only bad.

Too many people are rubbish at it; it's causing chronic heartache and is now just another instant choice, a shopping opportunity, an off-the-shelf or online commodity. Eva Illouz, an Israeli sociologist explores the tragedy in a new book, Why Love Hurts. Though always blamed and shamed, feminism, she finds, is not responsible for the state we are in. The causes are found in the capitalist culture which has consumed us all. Also responsible are non-committal men who want it all – several partners, serial families, affairs, both freedom and cheap comfort. Now before chaps say it, let me. Such assertions are grossly unfair to all the constant men who love their women ardently and forever. And it is true that out there are also capricious women, greedy, selfish and incapable of long-term tenderness and devotion. But their numbers are still relatively small compared to the swell of self-centred males. We can all agree though, I hope, that the culture is toxic and killing off the one refuge we have to retreat from the vagaries of time and fate and to stay on in the memories of the one left behind. To lose faith in love is a seismic sign of total pessimism, and that can't be good for the psyche or sense of security. Not everybody finds the real thing, but we used to believe in the possibility.

That is why so many are now turning to more practical measures – IVF babies for women who have accepted a life without a partner, and arranged dating, no different really from Asian-arranged marriages, except you pay. It works for some and the unexpected can happen. One friend, after years of wretched failed relationships found a man friend online, and they clicked. They've been together a while and something, she says, is growing: "It's not like I hear bells and see rainbows or stars when he touches me. But I so look forward to him coming home. I want to hear his voice, feel him around me, in the house, in our bed. I feel cherished. But I haven't said anything to him." That's love I say. And she should tell him, though not on Valentine's day.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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