What the Tinder generation can learn from Grandma
Long-term relationships, sex and dating - why a whole generation is making a hash of it
In 1950, my grandparents were introduced at a garden party in Wimbledon. Refugees from Nazi Germany, they had experienced enough tumult and tragedy to last several lifetimes, and were keen to establish a sense of security.
Within three weeks they were engaged, and a few months later began a married life that lasted until my grandmother died, 60 years on.
My grandpa had liked the look of my grandmother, and thought she’d be a good person to be with “if the roof fell in”, as he put it. But was their marriage happy? Not by modern standards. They were certainly not “soulmates”; Grandpa (who I adored and vice versa) had a patriarchal temper and Grandma, who bore him four children, never really got over having to abandon a career as a research chemist for housewifery.
And yet, in light of the hash we’re currently making of dating and relationships – and, quite honestly, in light of the desolation I face in evaluating my own romantic options – I admit I envy aspects of their marriage.
Especially the clarity. In those days, you committed and then you got on with it, through ups and downs. Today, that approach is not only considered antiquated, it’s also seen as desperately oppressive. We moderns prefer to explore our options – in perpetuity – rather than give anything up or limit ourselves. We like relationships, but only the ups.
Sure, in theory it’s good to suffer less and enjoy more, especially in the domain of lurve. But our attempts to have it all in matters of the heart, from the infinite-seeming options of online dating apps to the vogue for open relationships, are yielding ... well, chaos.
Last week saw the release of the trailer for the HBO documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, in which yours truly happens to be a talking head. I was called upon to bring my dating research to bear on a truly grisly, disorientating and dehumanising landscape of dating apps.
I emphasise how the swiping format is particularly harmful to women, since it flattens us into vital stats and flatters the male predilection for snap judgments based on looks. With its reams of interviews with the top brass at Tinder, Bumble and OkCupid, as well as dozens of millennial Internet daters, this is a pretty thorough indictment of the technologies enabling the pursuit of endless romantic choice.
We learn how daters list desired attributes in a partner with all the humanity of a time-pressed executive telling their assistant what takeaway to order for the next meeting. Being made to feel like fast food has not, needless to say, been good for anyone’s self-esteem.
It’s not just online dating. Our addiction to having choice without ever having to actually choose is already changing how people approach committed relationships. Witness the rise of “ethical non-monogamy”, the ludicrous label for people (usually men) trying to pretend that having several relationships at once is somehow morally enlightened.
I wrote last week about how I keep finding men on dating apps (usually scientists, oddly) who say they’re non-monogamists or polyamorists, as well as Marxists, feminists and lovers of gourmet pizza. I know quite a few women who are into feminism and gourmet pizza, but none who think that being one of a roster of girlfriends is the path to happiness.
Our fascination with that increasingly unbearable tension between what you have and what you could have explains why the BBC’s new drama, Wanderlust, is already causing such a stir in the UK. I’ve had a sneak preview and, God, is it brilliant. As well as providing its female lead, Joy, played by Toni Collette, with what the actress claims is the first female orgasm on BBC One, it’s also a painfully good portrait of a middle-class couple who, after years of marriage, no longer want to have sex with each other.
After a chalkboard-scratchingly awful up-close of a failed attempt, (spoiler alert) both decide to grasp low-hanging fruit elsewhere; a sexy young colleague for him, a man from aqua aerobics for her. They come clean almost immediately about their indiscretions, a conversation that leads them to admit they’d like to keep the good bits, and get rid of the bad bits in their marriage.
“I’d like to enjoy having sex and ideally I’d like to have more of it,” says Joy. To which husband Alan (played by Steven Mackintosh) responds: “When you say you want to have more sex, do you mean more sex with me, or ... ?”
The answer, of course, is “or”. And on one level, this all seems very progressive, and surely conducive to greater happiness than simply sucking it up and having bad or no sex. But we shall have to see if the grass really is greener on the side of unlimited romps. For as the characters in Wanderlust may soon find out – along with their growing number of counterparts in real life – sometimes trying to have everything lands you up, in the final account, with nothing.
– © The Sunday Telegraph