When it comes down to it, what is the constant theme in our lives, the thing that we pursue in the belief that two hearts are better than one, the inspiration for so many people to open up and tell me – and you - stories on this blog, the noise that occupies songs, poems, books, films, advertising, your Facebook news feed and the reason that some of us exist in the first place? I’ll tell you. Its love, the discovery of…and hopefully its endurance.
Our intimate relationships are central to our daily lives. When I interviewed people who had ‘not found love’ for the Guardian several years ago, the stories and the resultant comments on the Guardian website were astonishing. Therefore, it is slightly ironic that I trotted down to the British Library last week to listen to the very first piece of government-funded research into that which affects us most meaningfully. It was titled Enduring Love? With a question mark thrown in at the end because as we all know, there are precious few guarantees when it comes to the big L.
And it is big, this idea of enduring love. It’s not just about love hearts and afternoons slumped on the sofa together. Its about society at large because the one thing that is well documented is that happier relationships produce happier children and happier children become more contented members of society and that works for all of us. This shit matters.
I love that principle investigator Jacqui Gabb was harangued with the request to ‘Just give me 3 tips..’ by a journalist writing a feature about the study results. As if two years of research into the intricacies of British love lives could be reduced to three tips and that love were ever even that straightforward in the first place.
Something was also made of the fact that it is hard to produce research, much less data about something as complicated as enduring love. Culture references the idea of love the whole time. Sociology not so much. To this end, as the research principles talked us through two years at the coal-face of our personal lives, we heard about the delicate rigor applied to the gathering of information. Research was ‘multi sensory’. It involved biographical interviews, ‘couple collage interviews’, diaries and emotion maps.
And of course the great big fat question, for me at least, is how do we even know we are all talking about the same thing when we talk about love? Maybe I’m nit picking but back in the 80’s, do you think my teenage boyfriend, the one who phoned my house in the middle of the night for weeks after we broke up making veiled threats to ‘end it all’ if we didn’t get back together know anything about what it really means to love another human being? He thought he did. Vociferously. See what I mean? It’s a tricky business trying to quantify love, let alone how we go about making it last. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. What counts is that the powers that be deem it important enough to pour time, expertise and of course love, into the production of a piece of work that is intended to make life better for upcoming generations. I was tempted to try and reduce what they told us down to three useful tips but instead, I am going to tell you a few things that stuck.
The younger amongst you might be comforted to know that it is the simple things that count. Those of you who have had a few trots around the block will nod your heads sagely. In no particular order….
Couples are islands in a way that older generations were not
Lots of us don’t have children and as a result, we are prone to put pressure on our shared coupledom to provide absolutely everything that we need: a best friend, a lover and a 24-7 sounding board. Being glued to someone’s side – anyone – is not healthy. Furthermore, this Western ideal of coupledom is not ubiquitous. People do togetherness in all sorts of ways so lets not believe that ours is the best or the most effective. Lots of cultures are integrated with extended family for example, therefore providing a buffer and different people to be interested in. To counter this, people spoke about, *gasp*, spending time apart pursuing individual interests. One woman just got straight down to it and said ‘keeping a distance is important’.
I particularly liked the case study of the woman who had what she called an ‘introverted’ partner. She recognized his need to retreat. She didn’t take it personally and by the same token, her partner was happy to allow her to draw him out when she deemed he’d had enough ‘cave time’. A true two-way-street. That’s a love that could endure right there. Which segues into this intriguing fact:
30-40% of couples sleep apart
And this wasn’t a biggie for the people concerned. It was just what works best for, as it turns out, quite a lot of us. We all like sleep and we don’t appreciate the oft-mentioned-in-research ‘duvet thieves’. The point being that whatever makes your relationship work, even if its not what some might consider ‘conventional’, sod them and good for you. As long as people weren’t using their nightly separation as a negative yardstick by which to measure their relationship, all was well. Which leads into another blatantly obvious but somewhat challenging meme…
Creating ‘mess’ and then tidying it up together is a good thing
Not physical mess but the mental spaghetti of life and the acceptance that mess is part and parcel of a relationship. Or, as one panellist put it, ‘if you want a harmonious life, go and live with a car battery’. We all say and do stupid things. It doesn’t mean the relationship is bad, doomed or hopeless. For conflict haters like myself, this is a tough one but in the end we are human beings and actually, the more we tussle, the more we realize that it is our ability and our willingness to navigate the tussle together that really counts. And finally…
The 3 big tips that I’m not giving you
The biggest theme of the day was a triumvirate of tea, ‘love bombing’ and the shared inclination to tear up the dance floor together from time to time, even if said dance floor was the living room carpet.
‘There is something peculiarly important about a cup of tea in our culture’ said Jacqui Gibb which is no surprise to anyone has have ever lived in the UK but I love the fact that it featured so prominently in research. Time and again it was ‘the cup of tea that he/she makes for me every morning without me asking for it’ that kept things ticking over. But dig a little deeper and it was those who were able to perform acts of kindness even when deeply irritated by their partners who were the real game changers. ‘Love bombing’ is an iffy term but the idea behind it is not. If you want a different result, i.e. a happier partner, change your own behaviour. Those who could think beyond the latest humdinger of an argument and still hold out the white flag and say something nice were the ones who stayed the course. And then there was the dancing.
This took me right back to an extraordinary set of stories that I titled ‘the happy ending’ and placed, unsurprisingly, at the end of my book, ‘Losing It: How we popped our cherry over the last 80 years’. All the interviews I did for my book were told from one person’s perspective. Except for Peter and Susie who I interviewed one after the other about an experience that they had shared over 40 years ago.
Peter and Suzie danced together when they were teenagers, ‘we still do in fact, if we get the chance and we can stay upright!’ I will say no more except to say that this is an epic tale of enduring love that gets me every time I read it…with a twist. Lets twist again. Like we did last summer. I give you Peter and Suzie.
Peter. Born 1942. Lost virginity aged approximately seventeen
'It’s hard to imagine, when one of the problems today is superfluity of everything, that after the Second World War there was absolutely nothing. It was very stark, there were frequent electricity cuts and it was cold.
Everybody spent their holidays at eight, nine years old, doing things which would today be considered anti-social behaviour. The staple diet for reading was escape stories and there were a tremendous amount of guns around. But the biggest difference was that you were turned out of the house at nine o’clock in the morning and you didn’t see an adult again until six o’clock in the evening. Totally free roaming, on bicycles, everywhere, because there was nothing else to do.
There was no formal sex education in schools but then you can tell people a lot of stuff and draw them diagrams but they’ve still got to actually experiment and get feedback and change the way they behave so it doesn’t really matter. The watershed was learning to dance. Dancing was the basis of night-time entertainment. All the kids went. So you had a hundred people, a band, a ballroom and that was it. That was where you started and if you were good, then girls wanted to dance with you.
The jive was the dance of the time and you very soon got to know what people were like, because it’s extremely physical. It’s very rhythmic and if you’re embarrassed or can’t throw yourself into it with somebody, you just can’t do it. And it’s the most surprising thing. You can have all sorts of very elegant and interesting-looking people, and then you’d try to jive with them and they were hopeless, they hadn’t got a clue. So if you found somebody that you can do it with, it’s almost a model of sexual activity, which is what made it so popular.
I met Suzie when she was fourteen and I was sixteen. She was extremely outgoing and anti-authoritarian and one thing quickly led to another. Suzie and I jived together a lot, still do in fact, if we get the chance and we can stay upright! She could pass for sixteen and seventeen at any time from her fourteenth birthday. And did. Later on, we’d go to London for a dance and we were meant to be staying with friends but we would go and stay in hotels and get away with it. I didn’t realise how ridiculous it must have looked, walking into a smart hotel and announcing that we were Mr and Mrs. Totally absurd. But we got away with it.
Suzie will tell you that at one point her grandfather’s chauffeur used to drive her backwards and forwards to assignations. We’re talking parents being out all day, maids cleaning the house and the place being empty. I had a whole floor of the house for my records and books and stuff. And so we would go up there during the day for hours, no trouble at all without any interruption. Nobody thought for a moment what we were doing. They’d have been horrified if they’d known.
It was a big deal to risk getting pregnant and managing the risk was very, very important. I remember when a girl arrived from California with the first contraceptive pills, and thinking, oh my god, you know, after all this hoo-ha, there they are, just this round pack with all these pills in and that’s that. If you were intelligent, you knew the anatomy, you knew the biology, but we courted disaster all the time.
I never, ever, conceived of a man as having virginity. Because there was no definition of, ‘this is sex’. I remember it as a process more than one point in time when you could say, OK, yes, I’ve done that. We did all kinds of things which fell short of full intercourse and I wouldn’t know at what time it actually passed from one to the other. I think virginity is more about naïveté. There’s a certain point that you’re no longer innocent, and we lost innocence very early on, at boarding school. So it did happen, but not with any sort of medievalism about it, no red sheets and all that sort of thing.
We went out for a couple of years and then my family moved to Cornwall. My parents were keen on splitting from Sheffield and putting everything into this new life and so we saw each other once in Oxford and then Suzie went abroad. You know, it was ultimately my responsibility, but they did break it up, my parents, by not supporting us. We drifted apart and she got married very soon afterwards and so did I.
There’s no doubt at all that if you have a very satisfactory first full sexual experience with somebody and you allow that to drift off and then go off with other people, they’ve not got a cat in hell’s chance. It just doesn’t work. Unless by miraculous coincidence it’s even the better than the first one. But I think that’s asking too much. No, it was disastrous. There’s the awful, awful realisation that actually, that is quite rare'.
Suzie. Born 1945. Lost virginity aged approximately fourteen
'I think I was encouraged to grow up. I remember my father, when I was twelve years old, looking at me and saying, ‘You look awfully dull. Go and buy yourself a lipstick! You really ought to make an effort.’ And that was at twelve. I was definitely encouraged to make myself look more attractive.
I was born ten days before the end of the war, so I’m officially a war baby. I can remember rationing being over because Mother was so thrilled that you could suddenly get golden syrup again, and of course you were not given articles to play with and toys the way children are today.
The first thing I can remember, how old would I have been? Perhaps seven years old, was getting a scratch on my very undeserved breast and being so depressed in case anybody saw it. That’s a huge, I suppose you’d say, sexual awareness because I fancied the boy next door, we used to go climbing trees together, and I fantasised that he would have seen this scratch. Which is rather a strange thing to remember, but it must have been so vivid because that’s the first real sexual awareness that I recall.
I was very interested in sex myself, presumably because I didn’t have anybody who’d made me feel self-conscious, my parents certainly didn’t. My parents were not disciplinarians at all. They allowed you to develop in your own way. But although they were very open-minded, they didn’t tell me anything about sex. Not a whisper. Things were only ever implied as in, if you’re going get up to any mischief, you be careful what you’re doing. I think it would have been difficult to stop, in my instance. Not because of the boys, but because of the way I felt. You know, I actually wanted physical contact with them, and I found it.
I met Peter when I was fourteen and three months. My sister had asked me to fill in the numbers for a theatre party. So off I went and walked into this private house. I was very shy. Extremely shy, but you wouldn’t have known it because I had a sort of bravado. Peter was in the kitchen; I can see him now, this little thing by the Aga. A very good-looking boy, Peter was. And still is, in my opinion, so there! And he came over to me like a bee to a honeypot and then we went to the theatre, he sat down next to me and took my hand and started tickling my palm. We were drawn to each other very immediately and very sexually. The following evening he arranged to meet me again, I can’t remember where but we stopped in the lanes and that was where Peter and I had a good old tussle in the undergrowth and that was very nice!
I think we saw each other as frequently as we could in those days and it became the chauffeur’s job to take me over in the car, sitting in the back, he in the front with his cap on, to Peter’s house to drop me off. Peter lived in a three-storey house with a room at the top; I suppose it was called a den in those days. We would be left alone all afternoon to explore and the chauffeur would arrive at the appointed time to pick me up again and take me home.
Peter is absolutely right when he says that there was no defining moment of virginity loss. I remember the house painter – and I would be sitting on Peter’s knee and he’d be actually inside me, because you had big voluminous skirts covering everything up – coming to the window and sort of smiling at me. But I absolutely can’t pinpoint one moment. Peter would say, ‘Oh, well let’s just try inside a little,’ so it was actually going inside the vagina but certainly no ejaculation or anything. You had to be terribly careful. Lots of little handkerchiefs that could probably have stood up on their own all over the room. It was very funny.
I was lucky because Peter is extremely bright. It wasn’t as if I was being bonked by some local yokel who didn’t know anything about sex. Peter had gone off to his textbooks to discover the anatomy of a woman, so he knew where all the bits were. We were extremely careful. Otherwise we would really have had a problem because he was going off to university and his parents then decided that they were going to sell the family business and move to Cornwall. It was awful. I was sixteen by this point and we’d been together two years, but his mother was determined to get away from the area and he just said, ‘Oh, we’re going to Cornwall, it’s going to be lovely.’ I didn’t say a thing. I just said, ‘Yes, that’s lovely,’ and nearly died inside. I never told him. Mmm.
Peter actually says now that if I had expressed the way I felt, he would have reacted differently. But I didn’t. I can tell you exactly why; because I was so traumatised by boarding school that I had got into a frame of mind of thinking that I had to tolerate everything. I had this artificial armour of coping. So when he said he was going, I just told myself that this was another thing I’d got to put up with.
So off he went. But we still wrote to each other and I was pretty bloody-minded. I can remember him writing and saying, ‘You must come to Cornwall in the summer,’ and me writing back and saying, ‘No, it’s the same distance for you to come to Yorkshire if you want to see me.’ I was blowed if I was going to trot after him. I wanted to be padded after and chased by men, because you didn’t chase after people in those days.
The last time I heard from Peter was just after I had my first car and his letter came through the post. My sister came running and said, ‘Oh, Peter’s written to you, Peter’s written to you!’ and I opened it up and it was to say he was getting married. I nearly died. I had to swallow that one. And that was the last time I heard from him until he rang 32 years later.
He always knew where I was. He had a cousin in the area and he would ask the cousin how I was, and she would always say I was very happily married. Which in a way I was, you know? So he stayed away. But he’d always promised himself that when he was 50 he would get in touch with me come hell or high water. So he went to stay with his daughter in the South of France and went on a diet – although he’s never admitted it – and got himself all bronzed up and then he rang.
The odd thing was, he rang and he said, ‘Oh, hello, this is ...’ you know, giving his name. And I said, ‘Do you know, I haven’t spoken to you for 32 years?’ That was absolutely off the cuff. I’d never even thought about how many years it was but it was true, it was 32 years. So subconsciously, somewhere, it was on my mind.
When I went to the station to pick him up, the first thing he said was, ‘You haven’t changed much,’ which I have, so that’s a lie! We went back to my home and we sat very staidly in the kitchen and I cooked an omelette and talked in a very stodgy sort of way. Literally, you know. And then he said, ‘Well, I’ve got to get the train.’ He was actually going to some conference. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll run you up to the station. I’ll just go into the loo and I’ll be out in a minute.’
He was in the hallway when I came out and I looked across and I suddenly saw the person from years ago. I literally said, ‘Oh, Peter.’ And I ran across to him and we were completely back to square one. It was very weird. We got in the car and I have never driven up a motorway at 40 miles an hour before. I was emotionally blasted, as was he. We sat in the car, hand in hand all the way to the station. Anyway, he was back again the next day and now we are married.
I do believe that your first experiences are very influential, but it could be badly influential, couldn’t it. Actually it could scar you, as opposed to enhance your life or your ideas about men, or women, or sex. So I was just very lucky but we were also extremely compatible and sex was an incredible experience. Absolutely extraordinary. Yes.'