Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)
Happily Ever After?
I was never interested in Disney princesses as a child. My dolls didn’t get married, they got haircuts and amputations. When I was twelve, I was into marbles, gymnastics and the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb. I was unaware of romance, I was too busy running around. Then an injury forced me to sit down - I’d choreographed a cardigan-swinging dance that knocked all the ornaments off my babysitter’s mantelpiece. ‘The show must go on,’ I thought and continued my routine barefoot atop the debris. I couldn’t walk for a week after the operation to remove glass from my feet, and my career as a cardigan dancer was sadly over.
While I was recovering, my babysitter and I would watch TV together to distract ourselves from the newly empty mantelpiece. And it was on that sofa that I learned about love, from a daytime movie on Sky. It was about a young, beautiful woman who was seduced by this guy. She shouldn’t have had sex with him but he was too sexy and so she had to. And then she found out she was pregnant and he said he would marry her but he had to get some diamonds from the diamond mine first. And she said, ‘No it’s too dangerous,’ and he was like, ‘I have to, for you and the baby.’ So he went, and he never came back. And so the girl was looking for him all the time, and trusting that he would return. And everyone was like, ‘He abandoned you,’ and ‘He’s a loser,’ but she kept looking out and waiting by the road to the diamond mine for him. And she had her baby and it was a girl who grew up thinking her father didn’t want to see her, but her mum kept telling her he would come back if he could. But everyone else, like her nan, was saying, ‘Your dad was a naughty sex man and a user.’ And then time passed as it does, and the mum was an old lady and she died. She had never got married because she was waiting for her love. And after her funeral, a man came running down the road from the diamond mine. They had found a SKELETON down there, it was the father of the girl and it was holding a MASSIVE WHITE DIAMOND and they brought it to her, and her dad hadn’t run off or found a new woman, he had died when all the rocks fell on him. And now the mum would never know that she was right because she was completely dead.
It was very upsetting, it was so unfair. I cried and cried until my mum picked me up and then I continued to cry as I told her about the poor woman and the poor man and then she cried too because she is a very empathetic and passionate woman. And I never forgot the film. I have regularly thought about the story and what I had learned about love. That if love is true, if love is real, then you will get a diamond eventually so just believe in it, until you die.
I am in love at the moment. His name is John and the first thing I said to him when I met him was ‘You need to know I’ve seen your penis.’ It’s not a famous penis or anything; he is not a condom model. I was texted a naked photo of him as a joke. He was drunk in a flat at the Edinburgh Festival and had put Tom Craine’s new coat on to rub his bum on it or something, and Tom had taken a photo and sent it to Josh Widdicombe, who forwarded it to everyone else, including me. I looked at it and thought, ‘That guy is having a great old time laughing in that coat.’ And then a few days later I met John at a gig and I was very embarrassed. Eighteen months later we were in a relationship. We had fallen for each other while drinking heavily, just like in the movies.
John has an English degree from Oxford, which I am jealous of. He can quote Philip Larkin and T. S. Eliot and before sleep he relaxes by pretending he is Sherlock Holmes. When he is really drunk, he cries about Freddie Mercury while singing along to Queen on YouTube. He is pretty great AND YOU HAVE SIGNED A CONTRACT PROMISING NEVER TO KISS HIM so don’t get any ideas. I loved him quickly. It was sudden and thunderous like a waterslide. I walked to the station after my first night at his flat and searched myself for the negativity and loneliness that live in my crease and spider about when I’m sober. Gone. None left, blown away. I bought a packet of bagels and ate them on the Central line, stroking the world and its inhabitants with my eyes. I was calm and I existed and if I was a film I would’ve ended. John was the resolution, thank you, roll credits. I was happy for fifty-five minutes and it was really enjoyable and I will never forget it. And then the spiders scuttled back.
A couple of months into our relationship, I was falling asleep in John’s bed and I whispered, ‘Promise you’ll never leave me.’ He stayed silent, I lay there waiting. I asked, ‘Are you asleep?’ He said ‘No’ in a tight voice and I knew I was being creepy and needy. He told me, ‘People can’t promise each other things like that,’ and I knew he was right and I was ashamed. It was a weak moment, but sometimes, in all the rawness of loving, it would be nice to go to sleep wrapped safely in a comforting thought, even if it is a lie or the kind of thing you can’t really promise. Another time I asked him if he would consider being frozen if we broke up and unfortunately he thought I was joking. We went on dates where I’d slam down cocktails and say, ‘I don’t believe in marriage, let’s just have fun!’ and then I would weep because I didn’t believe in marriage and I didn’t believe in anything and I was asking him for reassurance that I couldn’t define. He finds me very confusing.
I was so grateful I had met John. I was thirty-two, it was sixteen years since I had loved Colin when I was sixteen. I tried to read something meaningful into the numbers. I felt very excited and joyous but the positivity of those emotions was cancelled out by my fear that this happiness would disappear. My elation sat hand in hand with doom. Every wonderful moment reminded me of love’s finiteness - this too will pass. All of my previous relationships had finished, so why not this one? That’s what relationships do, they end. And you shouldn’t worry about the ending at the beginning, it’s illogical and it ruins everything, it’s like giving birth to a baby dressed as the Grim Reaper. It’s like turning up at a job interview and saying, ‘Oh what’s the point? If you don’t sack me, I’ll quit.’ It’s like going to your job interview and just before the boss falls asleep, begging him to promise he’ll employ you forever.
I don’t even believe in forever but I don’t feel safe without forever and this is problematic.
I ruined the beginning. We moved in together and I cried all day. I got hysterical in Ikea imagining all that assembling in reverse when we broke up. Everything we created together, every contentment I autopsied immediately, predicting how I would feel when it was over and all these happy moments were added to my collection of regretted memories.
I blame my parents, which is unfair but quicker than self-examination. It’s their fault I don’t have an example of a healthy, committed relationship to emulate. My parents met when they were teenagers. My dad was in a pop band and my mum had seen him on TV when she was thirteen. We were told the story a lot when we were young. We had scrapbooks of my dad’s pictures in magazines. When my mum saw him on TV she had an epiphany, a physiological reaction: she was flooded with certainty that this was the man she was going to marry. She just knew it, she knew it! And then to ensure that happened she stalked him for four years, attending concerts and recordings and sitting out on his lawn with other teenage girls. She insisted. She threatened suicide and attempted suicide and she mugged him with her love and eventually she wore him down. They got pregnant with me, something I will always feel guilty about, then Cheryl. Then they got married, then Mum got pregnant with Kristyna, then Dad left for jazz and other ladies.
I should be grateful to my mum for her persistence. I wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t succeeded in seducing my father and learning nothing about contraception. She told me that when she saw my dad that first time, the epiphany she felt was me wanting to be born, insisting on it. And that is exactly the kind of thing I’d do; vibrate through a teenager telling her to make me.
So John and I are living together and I’m attempting to control my angst. I become obsessed with historical couples; I have this idea that if I can find a great example of a pair who got it ‘right’ then I can copy them and learn from them and everything will be fine. I started with Adam and Eve, the original pairing. And they’re very typical, sure, at the beginning it’s all magical and staying up late counting each other’s ribs and laughing. But you can’t sustain that. The magic fades, he’s boring, she’s off talking to wildlife and comfort eating - then their landlord kicks them out and one of their kids kills the other one. If they can’t make it work in Paradise, what chance have I got in Lewisham?
I researched all the great love stories: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Victoria and Albert, and what I found was: suicide, infidelity, cousins. They were all entirely tragic. My friend Vanessa recommended I read Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine, said they were the most romantic things ever written, and so I did. And they are beautiful, I admit it. He is this powerful man, in charge of most of Europe, and he just misses his wife madly and wants to kiss her on the heart and ‘much lower’. Historical swoon. Then I found out he later divorced her because she couldn’t have children and married somebody else, the little French bastard.
Every love story I found wasn’t. They were all tragic and imperfect. Everyone got hurt, everyone died. This wasn’t helping.
Then John and I set off on a walking tour in Bloomsbury and we stand outside the house where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes spent their wedding night. I want to press my hands all over the bricks and rub myself on this magical place but decorum and John’s arm prevent me.
‘Sylvia Plath didn’t mean to commit suicide,’ the tour guide says. ‘She put her head in the oven, yes, and she turned the gas on, yes—’
‘She also put milk and biscuits in the kids’ room,’ I whisper helpfully into John’s ear. He looks at me and mouths, ‘Shut up please.’ The guide is telling us that Plath’s downstairs neighbour was due to come up to clean and do chores. Had she arrived on time, she could have saved Sylvia, but she didn’t, because the oven gas had seeped through the floorboards and she’d passed out too.* The tour guide pauses and shrugs.
I think he’s trying to persuade us that Sylvia Plath’s death is even sadder than we’d realised, because maybe she didn’t mean to die. I’m trying to absorb this when the idiot moves on to the next building and a funny story about advertising slogans. ‘Ha ha ha,’ laughs everyone as tension is dispelled. And this is my epiphany. I grab John’s hand and in a loud voice explain, ‘I’ve just worked out that Plath and Hughes is NOT a love story at all. I’d always thought that they were the most romantic framework: meet tall intelligent guy; bite his cheek at a party; poems, passion and Ouija boards ensue; he deserts you so you kill yourself - I thought that’s what love was, that pain is how you prove your devotion and if it’s not so extreme that you would die for it then it’s not worth living for and—’ John’s eyes beg me to stop talking, so I do. He continues to listen to the stupid old tour guide but my mind is too noisy now. Maybe it’s the story that’s the problem. The way our minds collect information into a narrative.
Stories are how humans comprehend things they don’t understand, like all the ancient creation myths trying to explain away what’s scary: ‘Oh, that river is there because some god ejaculated,’ and ‘Oh, the sun just hides at night because the moon is her ex and she doesn’t want to bump into him.’ And even with all our modern knowledge, the feeling of love, the too-big HUGENESS of how it feels, reduces us all to mystics. We idealise the relationships of celebrities, we fetishise the lovers in films and novels and we rationalise the chaotic explosions of feeling that happen to us.
The human mind does not allow events that affect us to remain mysterious; our consciousness requires the firmest relationship between cause and effect in order to function. When our conscious mind does not ‘know’ why or how something has happened, it guesses. It predicts or assumes based on previous learning and WE DO NOT EVEN KNOW THAT THIS IS TAKING PLACE. The process is called ‘confabulation’, it’s when your mind takes over, provides an answer, and you, the person thinking, feel it like truth. There is a wonderful example that illustrates how this works: in the nineteenth century the German psychiatrist Albert Moll instructed a hypnotised patient to put a book back on the shelf when she awoke. The lady woke up, took a book from the table by her side and placed it on the shelf. Moll asked her why she’d done that and she replied, ‘I do not like to see things untidy. The shelf is the correct place for a book and that is why I put it there.’ Her conscious mind was unaware of the instruction she had received and confabulated an explanation that made sense to her; she was a tidy woman, this was the kind of thing she would do.
More recent experiments have involved injecting participants with adrenaline. This naturally occurring hormone stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. You’ll have experienced its effects yourself when you’ve been nervous or very excited - it can be unnerving. It makes your heart beat faster and causes skin to flush and heat. It’s a strong physiological reaction that we interpret as emotional. In tests, when people don’t know they’re being injected with the drug, they attribute the physiological symptoms to something that has happened, some stimulus. ‘That man made me angry’, ‘That film was really funny’, ‘Certain situations stress me out.’ When participants know what they’re being injected with and its effects, they tend to understand: ‘My body was reacting to adrenaline.’ This is huge, isn’t it? When people didn’t realise they’d been reacting to a chemical, they accepted the effects without question. They owned them, ‘Yep that’s me, that’s how I feel because I’m feeling it.’ They even reasoned with events and their environment to work out what they were reacting to. They confabulated and it seemed so logical that none of them knew it. This highlights the greatest weakness in our personal psychology: when our body causes us to feel a certain way we rationalise why we have those feelings, we attribute causes to the effects. We can never separate ourselves - ‘Oh, I feel this way because a gland inside me is releasing molecules into my bloodstream.’
This is relevant to our topic because what we call ‘love’ is really a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters swishing around our body. These chemicals induce behaviours and stimulate strong emotional reactions. But when we experience it we aren’t in a lab, there isn’t a scientist waving a syringe and getting us to fill out response forms, so we’re unaware of the chemicals, they’re invisible. It’s left to our conscious mind to justify how and why we feel the way we do. We confabulate, we justify; star signs and toned arms and ‘I’ve always liked a bad boy’ - but, you know, we’re subconsciously making it up. We create a story.
Thinking about my own body as a responsive meat machine reacting to chemical stimuli makes me feel disassociated and mad, but I’m not going to stop. We’ve already spent some time with dopamine; now I’d like to introduce you to my favourite hormone, come here -
Oxytocin, this is reader; reader, this is oxytocin. Every book I’ve read about hormones, and you should be aware that is over two books, refers to oxytocin as ‘the cuddle hormone’, which makes me think about blankets and middle age and a huge cushion with a face. Oxytocin deserves a sharper name to reflect its function: ‘the satisfaction after orgasm hormone’ or ‘the not abandoning your kids hormone’. I don’t want oxytocin sounding tame when its effects are so gargantuan.† Oxytocin is released by affectionate touching, stroking and massaging, holding hands, nipple stimulation and coming. It is what bonds mothers to their babies after birth and via lactation and it is a vital part of romantic attachment. It creates blissful, contented feelings towards the object of your affection, it works to decrease stress and, I think, it’s addictive. Being completely subjective now, I’ve always felt like a cat who wants to be petted all day, circling legs, begging for more attention. I get irritated with my boyfriend because he needs space away from me and refuses to play when I want to sit on him or squash him or wrestle. Yes, I’m very annoying. Apparently a person’s relationship with oxytocin is set in childhood. People with very physically affectionate parents and carers can become adults with a ‘skin hunger’ who need to be touched a lot, while children who were held less can feel uncomfortable with touching. But I also know people who are the opposite, they come from physically reserved families and are desperate for contact as adults, or my friend who has a really really affectionate mum and any kind of hugging makes her feel smothered and suffocated, so … I dunno. We don’t have definitive answers.
They sell oxytocin sprays on the internet, they’re expensive. I have no idea if they work. I’d thought they were for people like me who feel affection-starved and don’t get enough sex but in fact they are for people like me who worry about their partners cheating. There was a study on infidelity where men had a spray of oxytocin up their nose before being let loose in a room full of women. They scientists studied where the men looked, who they spoke to and for how long (welcome to my life) and asked them questions afterwards, and found that those men who’d had the spray flirted, looked and leered a lot less than those who’d had a placebo spray. The oxytocin-sprayed men seemed to notice attractive women a lot less, although I STILL wouldn’t recommend you buy one. I think they’re taking advantage of paranoid partners and the product feedback on Amazon is a list of one-star ‘the bastard still didn’t come home for two days’ customer reviews.
Also, guess what? Oxytocin makes you forgetful. It’s instrumental in blotting out the pain of childbirth, so women don’t remember how awful it was and are willing to go through it all again, and it’s why we behave foolishly when we are falling in love. If you’re going crazy on each other, hands everywhere, PDAs, tons of sex and massive orgasms, your body will be flooded with oxytocin. You’ll be drunk on it, making you less sharp. You might ignore the odd warning sign of bad behaviour; it won’t seem so important that he stole from your purse or made a pass at your sister. But as the relationship goes on, those early hormones recede and it can feel like waking up to reality. Understanding the science of this should stop us disparaging ourselves for our loved-up decisions. Your body was behaving very cleverly by making you a bit stupid. Falling in love is irrational and we have to forgive ourselves for it - but if you’re gonna keep seeing him, maybe invest in a safe and don’t take him to family gatherings?
Oxytocin plays a massive role in falling in love, as sex and touching promote bonding, but it is also relevant to falling out of love. When you’ve been with someone for a long time, there is less incentive to connect physically; you may take each other’s body for granted. But the less you touch, the less bonded you feel, and the less bonded you feel the less you want to touch, and it’s an unfortunate cycle. But knowing about it can help. If you’re having a row with your bae, ask if you can hold hands while you shout, and you’ll find oxytocin makes you conciliatory and less angry. Vice versa, if you’re trying to break up with someone STOP SLEEPING WITH THEM as you’re making it more difficult for yourself to leave. Some very mumsy advice there, you’re welcome.
So far we’ve tasted a mere spoonful of the hormones that affect us. But as they fluctuate, rise and plummet, our emotions are powered and shifted and, like the people in adrenaline experiments, we attach reasons to our altered states. When I skateboarded around as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I placed a ‘love potion’ on the eyelids of sleepers, who woke up and loved the first person they saw. In real life it is dopamine, oxytocin and other chemicals that drug us and we are equally unaware that they’ve taken over. We feel crazy with emotions and intentions and we can only make sense of all that with story.
Here is a story: Once upon a time in 2001 I worked in a hotel in Nottingham and I had no money, I got paid £100 a week into a bank account where I was so far over my overdraft that I couldn’t take any out. It all went on fees and fines and I was stuck. I wanted to go home but didn’t have the train fare. I’d usually have borrowed it from my mum, but she’d lent me money to get up there and I still hadn’t paid her back so we weren’t talking. I got free food and a room at the hotel, which was good, and I used Rizla papers to make cigarettes from the fag ends left in ashtrays in the bar. For entertainment I had books that guests left when they’d finished with them. It was a generous system, but the fruits were a poor quality. The hotel was aimed at the over-fifties, it was supposed to be ‘cruise-style’ holidaying for people who hated boats, and I don’t know if it was that demographic or maybe something that happens to the brain after menopause, but Jesus, those women read shit books. The men read hardback sports biographies but never relinquished them, so the Book Swap Box was refilled weekly with the same story, in varying lengths, countries and costume. It could be ballerinas in Russia or camel farmers in Egypt, it might be set in the ancient past or in deepest space, but the plot was always:
Woman very poor and has very thin waist and wrists and long silky hair, she has some talent but who cares? She so poor. Bad rich man notice her and then good man rescue her. Good man marry her, he turn out to be even richer than bad man, ending.
I was as poor as the peasants and slave girls the stories described but with added stinky ashtray hands. Every day my books told me that as long as you are very very beautiful a man will save you eventually. Beauty is your only escape plan. The ideal beauty is a contradictory sensual/virginal look and you can literally exchange that shit for a rich man’s money. I didn’t believe that I was beautiful, or that I’d ever meet a man at the over-fifties Warner Holidays hotel, but I brushed my teeth and plucked my chin just in case … and then one day, just when I had given up hope, I did meet a man, Terence Peterson. We would walk together in the grounds, pushing his ageing mother in her wheelchair. He would describe the scenery for her decrepit eyes, adding in kingfishers and raccoons that weren’t really there as his mother laughed and I hoped she’d never die. But she did, on a Tuesday, and Terence had to leave. ‘Come with me,’ he said. It should have been a question, but he was insistent and used to getting what he wanted. ‘I’ll never touch you,’ he added, although my thin wrists were desperate for him to grab them and wave them around. ‘We’ll just be best friends,’ Terence explained to me, ‘unless … but no, but maybe? My mother has left me two million pounds in her will on one condition - that I MARRY YOU.’ I was shocked and surprised and virginal and sensual and I turned to him and swooned while I replied, ‘No thank you, I will not marry you, because I’m suspicious about this new will and the circumstances of your mother’s death and also, more importantly, because you don’t exist.’
If this was a musical I would sing a solo called ‘The White Diamond Was Inside Myself’ now and you would clap and clap and think, ‘That is so meaningful,’ and, ‘She’s a better singer than I was expecting.’
We’re not stupid, are we? We’re astute and self-aware, we know that the men depicted by rom-coms and chick-lit are invented for amusement and dreaminess. But I worry that being bombarded with these fictional men all the time has caused my disappointment with real ones. It’s emotional porn. Even taking good looks and money out of the equation, the men in films and books and television are BRAVE. Even in comedies or when romance is a B-plot, the central male characters are emotionally heroic: they pick one woman who they really like or love and then they risk rejection and humiliation and they don’t give up and they fight for her and become better men for her and - it’s literary Photoshop. No matter what our ideal, fiction feeds it to us and tells us to wait for it. With actual sex pornography, the flip is created. The majority of porn depicts a reality where women are always horny and willing for sex, easily aroused and loud to orgasm from penetration. We should all be fretting about how the repeated consumption of those lies is affecting people, but there is also this other, more common lie being shouted about what we should expect from love. This is the modern world; women lied about by pornography and men lied about everywhere else.
So many romance stories involve a saving, a redemption, a woman floundering until a man steps in and takes control. But dependency on a man is not freedom, it’s a rubber ring that could deflate. There are evolutionary reasons why resources are attractive in a mate, so it’s appealing to celebrate wealthy men in our fantasies, but I would like to put a warning sticker on every Mills and Boon or Bridget Jones’s Diary: ‘SEEKING FINANCIAL SECURITY IN A PARTNERSHIP IS DANGEROUS!’ Yes, dangerous I say; when someone leaves you, they should only be able to take their love with them, not your house or your stuff. Vice versa, you should never be imprisoned in an unhappy relationship because you can’t afford to leave. Economics underwrite love - any human who cannot support herself is vulnerable to others, and if we romanticise that vulnerability, if we continue to idealise it, we’re permitting the infantilisation of women and maybe even creating victims. Now I would love to brag about how I saved myself from the self-dug debt pit of 2001 but I was actually rescued by Mr Student Loans Company and his non-credit-checked lending policy. And then at university I got into more debt and eventually had to do Mr Voluntary Bankruptcy in 2005, so I am definitely the sort of wise and clever person you should absolutely be listening to.
The idea of ‘The One’, this belief I’ve absorbed that there is ONE person who will make me happier than any other, is itself a fairy tale. It is a story format. It has a beginning: the search for The One; a middle: some investigations of authenticity to check if he’s The One; and an end: ta-da, a crowning ceremony and a booming voice, ‘He hath passed the test and is indeed THE ONE.’ It’s how we communicate our romances to each other and ourselves and it’s an antiquated ideal. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes explains that in the olden times humans were round like balls and had two faces, four arms and four legs each. And they had double genitals: some had two willies and others had two vulvas, and some had one of each. And they floated and bounced around happily, feeling very content but also super-powerful and making attempts to take over heaven. And the gods were really threatened and decided to split all humans in two, dividing and diminishing their strength.
And now human beings only had one face and a mere two arms and two legs each and one willy or vulva. And Zeus said, ‘You guys better behave now or we will split you again and you will only have half a face and you’ll be hopping around on one leg,’ and the new bipedal humans promised to do their best. But now they missed their other halves and could not feel whole without them. They had lost their soulmates, and would spend their lives looking for them. For some women their soulmate was another woman and for some it was a man, but either way they would only feel happy when they found them again and pushed their genitals together and were complete. THE END.
I don’t know if the ancient Greeks took Aristophanes’ story literally or if they just enjoyed the poetry of the metaphor. It’s a wonderful explanation for how it feels to fall in love - an attachment so powerful that it seems like destiny. The olden Greeks didn’t know that hormones and neurotransmitters are the real gods that rule us. They needed myths for explanation; this was how they confabulated. But for modern me, being told that I’m not whole on my own, that I need another very specific person to complete me, is unhelpful. The idea that there’s only one correct answer among the millions of wrong ones - doesn’t this make us fussy and overly critical? It’s the relationship equivalent of spending New Year’s Eve travelling between addresses, miserable and imagining everyone else is at some amazing party you can’t locate, when in reality they too are in taxis and on night buses wondering where they will ever find happiness.
I’ve spent my adult life believing that some partner, some relationship, some sort of sex would make everything better. My sadness would leave me, and that’s how I’d know I was with the ‘right’ person. I recognise the dissatisfied, incomplete, half-souled being Aristophanes describes and when I’ve met a guy and those feelings haven’t gone away—
It’s the wrong set of limbs. He was NOT the answer!
Oh, I don’t know what the answer is, by the way, or even why we have such troublesome questions. This is not a self-help book and I worry I’ve given too many of my own opinions already. Like that stuff about not relying on men for money - do what you like, of course, it’s your life. And maybe you have brilliant New Year’s Eves and the observation was not universal, perhaps you’re grounded and content and all these words seem like the overthinking of a woman with too much time and not enough hard labour on her hands? If that’s true, why don’t you write a self-help book and I’ll read it during breaks at the gravel pit/heavy-lifting factory.
In my wonderings and efforts to be open-minded I remind myself that western world assumptions could be wrong. Maybe Aristophanes was on the right track but human beings actually used to be in big conjoined blobs of four and you have to find three other people to be happy. Or six? What if the happiest and most fulfilling relationships available to our species contain the same number of participants as a basketball team? Our closed minds restrict our decisions - are they cheating us of contentment? Why is it one person we’re supposed to be seeking? Oh no, here comes a strict old scientist, all white hair and stern face:
You’re being very silly.
I’m not! I’m trying to shake off cultural conditioning—
We bond in twos because that’s how many people it takes to make a child.
Not if you don’t know that—
But we do know that—
There is this tribe of Native Americans, the Bari, and they believe that every man a woman has sex with adds to the child she makes, that all the sperm works together to build the baby and they all have joint paternity.
And you brought me in just to tell me that?
I AM TRYING TO UNDERMINE THE CONCEPT OF COUPLES—
That I will never have a relationship that lasts forever, I’ll never find the stupid ‘One’ and I’ll always feel like a failure.
Pause. SCIENTIST looks smug.
Okay, I heard myself, I get it, you can go now.
SCIENTIST does thumbs up like she’s the Fonz and exits. Yeah, the SCIENTIST was a woman all along and if you pictured a man you’re a sexist conditioned to expect males in positions of authority (as are we all).
Why should I feel this pressure for a love that’s endless when virtually no one achieves it? When I researched historical lovers the only technically successful relationship was Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. They got married and stayed together for the rest of their lives - about thirty-six hours, until they took cyanide in a bunker (drops mic and leaves stage).
I used to be really judgemental of my mum. After my dad left, she would drink wine, listen to terrible music and wail, ‘No one wants a woman with three kids, I’ll never meet anyone.’ But she did meet men, and I hated them. A new one would be introduced and she’d joke that I was ‘the protective one’ while I tried to set him on fire with my eyes. And then eventually the man would stop coming round, and I knew that it was our fault, because they didn’t want to be part of our awful family. Because me and my sisters were too much to take on. Because we were naughty and never went to bed, because we spilled things and didn’t clean them up, because we existed. I hated the boyfriends because they stole, they sucked up any happiness my mum was capable of, and when it was all gone they left and abandoned us to clean up the emotional oil spill.
I wished my mum would stop looking and that we would be enough for her. She would cry and say she had no one to talk to and I didn’t understand because she was talking to me right now. The music would go on and the wine would be opened and we would hug her and try to make it better or dance and try to make her laugh. But the crying only ended when she met someone new, and she’d ask me to be nice to this one please and Cheryl would sit on his lap and cuddle him and I would stare from across the room and refuse to go to bed so I could keep an eye on things.‡ When I was little I blamed the bad men for coming into our lives and hurting us, but when I reached twelve or thirteen I started to blame my mum for inflicting them upon me.
The punishment for my adolescent scorn has been to repeat what I’d seen Mum do from the inside. Like Freaky Friday, I became her. All the phrases I loathed - ‘this time it’s different’, ‘he’s the one I’ve been waiting for’, ‘I really think this is it’ - now fly from my mouth. And my poor friend Katie, she has to listen to me and she will kindly and occasionally say, ‘Do you remember you said this about Mark/Tom/Steve?’ and I say, ‘NO I HAVE NEVER FELT LIKE THIS, IT IS A NEW FEELING ALL THOSE OTHER FEELINGS WERE INCONSEQUENTIAL.’ As a teenager I despised my mum for needing a man to feel complete, for seeking a happy ending that made sense of all that had been before. Now I’m that way myself and it’s me I can’t bear. ‘Oh this one is The One,’ I say, and then it doesn’t work out so I go, ‘Oh no, he wasn’t,’ or sometimes ‘He was and I ruined it,’ and then I meet someone else and say, ‘Hooray, this is it, The One,’ and then it doesn’t work out and I think, ‘Oh I was wrong again,’ and then I meet a new One and I am an idiot. Or I’m an animal. I’m an animal desperate as I begin the end of my fertility and my body is crazy for making babies while my mind is full of romance stories and hope. If there was a switch I could press and not fancy boys any more I would. I wonder what I could have achieved in my life if my thoughts weren’t consumed with longing and insecurity. Should I get spayed like a cat, to stop my yowling and nighttime wanderings? I’d be a bit shy after the operation, but I’d soon heal and then I would curl up on a soft chair and whatever was near would be enough. I’m completely projecting onto cats now - maybe being spayed is really depressing? People don’t tend to be thrilled about their hysterectomies. Oh cats, tell us your secrets.
If you read articles about divorce rates - always described as ‘shockingly high’ or ‘on the rise’ - blame is laid at choice’s door. ‘Not enough commitment nowadays,’ says an old lady on a porch. ‘These young people quit too easily,’ says an old man in B & Q. Are we romanticising this ‘staying and working at it’ mentality? The divorce rates are never celebrated. This would be my article about it if I had a newspaper column:
New statistics from the Department of Knowing Things show that nearly fifty per cent of marriages are ending in divorce rather than the cold, honest death promised in front of God/loved ones/a registrar. These figures indicate that many human beings are free and self-loving enough to alter situations in which they have become unhappy. An increasing number of the world’s women are no longer trapped by economic dependency on husbands whom they do not love. Historically women could not own property, lease in their own name, borrow money from banks or retain ownership of wealth or assets they inherited. It is only within the last century that British women have gained rights to vote, to work in all professions, control their own finances and be considered ‘persons’ in their own right. As recently as the 1970s women in the UK could not get a mortgage without a male counter-signature and could be sacked if they got pregnant. Perhaps a proportion of these modern divorces are instigated by women whose great-grandmothers would have been trapped with fewer options? Just saying. Now over to outside with the weather.
Thanks for reading my column. If there was an accompanying picture it would be me and a Labrador, I’m shrugging and he’s raising an eyebrow, so the tone would be like ‘What a world’ but also ‘Let’s try and stay cheerful’.
I’ve never been married. No one has ever asked me except the fictional Terence Peterson in a story I wrote sarcastically. I have bountiful respect for those who wed. My past incarnations, old Saras of different ages, feel like different people to me; Sara who got herself into debt or Sara who loved Colin. I wouldn’t want to spend the present stuck in irreversible situations I created in the past. Although actually I can’t get a mortgage or an overdraft or one of those bank cards that you press on the thing and it zaps money - a contactless card - and that’s past me’s fault. Imagine if she’d also chosen me a life partner? If I’d married my year 2001 love, I’d be Mrs Amateur DJ with a Substance Abuse Problem.
Agreeing to marry is an overcoming of logic, a pledge: ‘I don’t care if I change, I’m prepared to stand by the decisions I make today.’ Or, or it’s more that when you’re really deeply in love you can’t imagine it will ever recede. Love wouldn’t be doing its job properly if it was sane, if you could see through it and make rational assessments. But the loving feelings do diminish. The evidence is all around you and in the list of previous sex partners you keep hidden in an unused teapot. I thought I would love my first boyfriend, Colin, forever. I checked myself periodically, through university and jobs and living abroad, and, yep, I still loved him. And then I saw him, we met up, six or seven years later. We went to Brighton for a drink and I felt nothing. It was so odd. He talked and I stared at his face thinking, ‘How did I ever kiss you?’ I was a sane woman reflecting on insanity. He’d changed his surname and found God and got married and had children. And I politely chatted, wondering if I’d got much more intelligent or just been blind to his clichéd talk. And then we left and he sent me a text about wanting to fuck me and I stared at it wishing it felt like a victory. All the chemicals that go crazy gluing us to someone by loving them, when they’re reabsorbed or redistributed or go wherever they go it’s like being left beached by the sea. The previous state makes no sense.
There is a brilliant woman called Helen Fisher and I’d really recommend watching her TED talk about love if you haven’t already. She’s also written about theories of serial pair bonding; she studied divorce rates from countries across the world and found that the median duration for marriage was seven years. ‘Seven-year itch is proved real by science,’ cried crappy newspaper journalists who are never pictured with wry Labradors. The median time for divorce has to fall somewhere, as is the nature of averages, so the seven-year timespan may not be significant of anything. Also ‘seven-year itch’ sounds like an old-person cliché, from back in the olden days when they were happy to do things for seven years. If ‘itch’ refers to a discontentment that makes you reassess your life and want to make changes I have one every thirty-five seconds. I blame mobile phones that can go on the internet #attentionspa—
Fisher’s studies found that while the median was seven years, the mode - most common - length of time to stay married was four years. This is more illuminating, considering what we have discovered about parental investment and bonding. A four-year-old child is mobile, communicative and, in our culture, ready to go to school. In hunter-gatherer societies four is the age when children tend to start being cared for by older siblings or outside the immediate family, and on average women give birth about once every four years. The conclusion drawn by Fisher and others is that we’ve evolved to closely bond with a mate for the period of time that ensures the greatest survival odds for any offspring. After this mating cycle it is natural to detach and move on to a new partner, so that women can have genetically varied children. Fisher’s stats also showed that there were higher divorce rates among younger people, which she argued had little to do with modern dissatisfaction and everything to do with their peak of fertility and ability to have a second or third cycle of childrearing with a new partner.
That is the kind of thing I read and go THERE IT IS, THAT’S THE ANSWER: humans have a cyclical bonding tendency of around four years, we intermingle deeply and massively and painfully, and then we recover and start fancying other people again. It explains me and my relationships, how difficult the end is, how my feelings change. How hurtful it is to snap away from someone in the early stages, before the cycle is complete. How impossible I find it to like someone I have spent a few years with. But this might not resonate with your experience. I am so keen to find an answer that explains me that I will grasp at anything - not a euphemism.
I think it’s worth contemplating the serial bonding theory seriously. I’m not saying that the numbers are exactly right or that the explanation doesn’t have flaws and contradictions BUT imagine if, culturally, we expected relationships to finish. If rather than this venerated concept of eternity overshadowing our pairings, we all loved and loved and then moved on when necessary or timely. In that society, anyone who stayed with the same person for too long would be mocked and ridiculed - if you knew an old couple down the road who’d been high-school sweethearts, you’d tell me and we’d go egg their house and shout up at their windows: ‘Get dressed! We’re taking you speed dating!’ We’d march them there ourselves. Maybe you’d get off with the old man to prove a point? I wish you hadn’t, that’s a bit out of order actually. But imagine if the people who ended up being together for fifty years were like, ‘How weird, it was just a fling that went wrong!’ If we admired the people who created and kept lifelong partnerships, but considered them a wonderful anomaly, while the lists in our teapots got longer and longer and we judged our loves on our hearts rather than the calendar. Hmm?
I’m imagining myself giving this speech to Sylvia Plath and she is smiling through her tears and getting back into bed. Simone de Beauvoir is texting Sartre that it’s over. Queen Victoria is removing her widow’s weeds and now she’s nude and making a pass at Simone. Eve walks in with a bowl of fruit and we all laugh. Ha ha ha ha ha. The musical finishes with a brilliant finale, I’m singing ‘Endings Aren’t Failures’ and when I get to the rap bit, all the women in the world do the robot dance and we all feel okay about everything. We all agree that pair bonding is the most powerful influence that affects our bodies. Doing it multiple times is an evolutionary strength, we’re the winners! We throw our diamonds into the air because we don’t need them any more! Terence Peterson tries to propose to all of us and we beat him to death with hardback copies of A Room of One’s Own!
And then we go home.
We have learnt a little bit so far, I understand some things slightly better - or I have more ideas to ponder. But there is so much about my body and its behaviours that I still want to comprehend. The female preoccupation with looks and youth and body weight; women assessing other women’s attractiveness; a beauty industry that grows rich on female insecurity and a society that celebrates a woman’s sexiness as her most valuable achievement. I’d always believed these were contemporary challenges caused by commercialism and women’s magazines, but it’s truer to say they are the residual concerns of ancient mating tactics sent haywire by modern living.
If this were a film there’d now be a close-up on a mouse in a cage. She is grooming her whiskers over and over again. She is agitated and gnawing at her own fur and she doesn’t know how to stop. And you’d tut and understand that the director was, quite heavy-handedly, telling you she is you.
* I have looked this up - it’s not quite true. Sylvia had left a note asking a (male) neighbour to call a doctor, but he didn’t see it on his way to work as planned, because the gas had knocked him out.
† I utilised the thesaurus function of my computer here because I worry I’ve used the word ‘huge’ too much.
‡ An eye I was training to START FIRES.