MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
When you make a choice, you change the future.
Choosing a romantic partner is one of contemporary life’s biggest adventures. Embark on the quest and we may meet fascinating people as well as some who make us crazy; we may rise to emotional heights as well as sinking into fury, fear and depression; we may lose direction completely before at last we find our way to love.
The real challenge is that we grow. Partner choice is a self-development journey, driving us to learn more about ourselves, about other people, about life and the way we want to live it. Take all that on board and we start to realize just how big an adventure choosing a partner is.
What we may not realize is just how much bigger and more difficult that adventure is now more than ever before in history. For up to now, humankind has been sensible about partner choice. Of course lust and romance have had much to do with it – especially around affairs, liaisons or simple flings. But for serious lifetime pairing, people have historically leaned away from the romantic and towards the pragmatic. The rich have typically chosen a partner for honour, for fortune, for political expediency and to preserve the hereditary line. The less rich – with less to protect – have had more leeway to let hearts rule heads, but have still needed to guarantee financial security, secure practical support and bear children to provide for later years.
Even in the glorious Age of Chivalry, when a knight’s love for his lady was a key life aim, no one ever suggested that romance should lead to commitment; in the Court of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere’s real crime was not so much in adoring each other as in trying to make their adoration the basis for a 24/7 relationship. As historian Stephanie Coontz points out in Marriage, a History, while people have always enjoyed a love story, up until very recently ‘our ancestors didn’t live in one’.
An emotional revolution
Fast forward to the twentieth century and romance became an imperative. Claire Langhamer, in her book The English in Love, explains that this emotional revolution had been simmering for a while, but was fully triggered into being by many and varied social changes – though who knows which of these was cause and which effect. The introduction of the contraceptive Pill making partnerships less focussed on procreation and more on emotional connection? Women becoming more educated, more highly paid and therefore more able to exit loveless marriages? The slaughter of two World Wars encouraging us to seize the day and prioritize short-term intensity over long-term commitment? The rise of social liberalization, mass education, global communication? The fall in religious belief, the rise of individual entitlement, the passing of divorce laws?
Whatever the reasons, somewhere around the mid years of the last century, partnership became universally and inextricably linked with love. And that has tossed all the jigsaw-puzzle pieces into the air. For the first time, passion – sexual and emotional – has become the primary benchmark for relationship success. Think of the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Then compare that with the 1949 pronouncement by Rev. Herbert Gray, chair of the National Marriage Guidance Council, that ‘the only sufficient reason for marrying is that you … love somebody…’ Where matrimonial ads in the mid-1900s – when my own mother was making her partnership decisions – marketed prospective mates on their cleanliness, honesty and weekly wage, our contemporary equivalent, online dating sites, now trumpet the glories of ‘Chemistry’, ‘Encounters’ and being ‘Soulmates’.
All of which sounds enticing. But the reality’s more problematic. For we now approach partner choice with bigger expectations, deeper confusion and heavier pressure than ever before. Blending love into the relationship mix may have promised fulfilment but it’s created huge challenges.
The first issue is that we need to make more choices more often. Centre-staging love means we’re likely to want to walk away from a relationship if the romance dies, while less insistence on marriage plus more liberal divorce laws means we can do so far more easily. The result is that we now have not just one window of partner choice at biological maturity – with an additional window if a spouse dies – but on average five windows through a lifetime. We may choose in our teens for first love, in our twenties for first commitment, in our thirties for parenting partnership, in our forties for post-divorce companionship, with a final choice for relationship support to take us through to death. All that plus any additional liaisons.
Now set this increased need against decreased opportunity. We meet fewer partners because we are more globally mobile; as never before we move house, change jobs, relocate to new countries. We have less chance to create partnerships because we work long hours – then travel home, in different directions, to socially isolated conurbations. Plus, we’re less resourced to find and choose a partner because we’re less supported; we take the practical and emotional burden on our individual shoulders far more than when we only had to decide between marrying the boy/girl next door or the one further up the street. The final outcome of this blend of more demand and less supply? Meeting a mate has rarely been so challenging.
And rarely so important. As never before, loving coupledom is now regarded as the key task of the human lifetime, and even more vital because we live in a fractured and isolated society. Cue that wise verse in Genesis where God says ‘it is not good for man to be alone’.
Which leads us to another problem. For now, religion has less and less place in loving relationships, just as it has in the human psyche, to the point where not only is God absent from partnership but partnership has become more significant than God. Philosopher Simon May, in his book Love: A History, explains that where once we sought meaning in the divine, now that we can no longer find such meaning, we seek it elsewhere. Partnership is the source which is now expected to deliver all the hope and happiness that we originally expected to get from the deity.
Now, when we commit to someone, we’re seeking a God-substitute – which means they have to be perfect. Then we have to become perfect God-substitutes for them, offering unconditional, everlasting and utterly selfless love. Coupledom has become not only a matter of practical support, continuing the line or personal fulfilment; it’s now the route by which we gain sanctity and everlasting redemption.
Surely that’s impossible? Well, of course it is. Even in theory we can’t reach the ideal expressed by philosopher Friedrich Schlegel: ‘through love, humanity returns to its original state of divinity’. And in practice we have regular proof of how implausible that aim is. Proof in our own imperfect relationships, proof in the daily media coverage of failed celebrity partnerships, proof in the divorce figures that over recent years have reached 70 per cent in some European countries – and that doesn’t include the endings of unmarried, therefore undocumented, relationships.
Is it any wonder we panic about commitment? Traditional ‘one time’ selection limited our freedom, but once paired off we had the possibility of lifelong security, and a near-guarantee that if we stayed the course, society would call it a win. Now we fear that if we choose wrong, we will end up not only alone but condemned – even damned – for our failure to make love work.
If we ask older relatives what partner choice was like for their generation, and what contentment, as well as what constraints, they felt, we may be in for a surprise. Our ancestors may not have lived in a love story, but with lower expectations – both their own and their partner’s – they may well have had more happy endings than we do.
All that said, I’m hugely grateful to be living and loving today. For new order brings new benefits. Our partnerships are now our own, rather than those imposed on us by family or proscribed by community. More dating ‘windows’ throughout life means more go-rounds to discover which relationship decisions help us thrive. More arenas from which to choose mean more ways to find partnership outside traditional boundaries – across culture, belief, class and age range. More freedom to walk away if we pick wrongly means not being trapped for life in an unfulfilling half-death.
And the current challenges are gradually finding solutions. Increased need and decreased opportunity are being met by a battery of ways to meet potential partners. My mother and her generation didn’t imagine using dating agencies or matchmakers, but nowadays they often represent the elite level of the partner-choice range. My grandmother and her generation had never heard of the now ubiquitous speed dating – though I suspect she would have found it all great fun.
Then there’s new technology. In the past two decades the internet has extended choice from the few in one’s ‘village’ to millions worldwide; has given us a plethora of extra ways to reach out to partners through websites, apps and social media; has transformed the courtship process – albeit with the downsides that any newly born innovation brings. The landscape of relationship decision-making has changed for ever; where in the early 1990s, 1 per cent of couples met through technology, now an estimated 33 per cent do and there are claims that by 2040 this number will reach an astonishing 70 per cent.
This enormous social shift is being supported by the development of new knowledge, new insights, new resources. My mother – who was a school teacher as well as an incredibly wise woman – often bemoaned the fact that ‘how to love’ was not on any classroom timetable; her wish is now reality, with the growing crop of relationship courses, workshops, coaching and counselling that has sprung up to meet the need. Love may never in history have been so challenging, but perhaps never before have we been so resourced to meet that challenge.
Starting the adventure
Which leads us neatly to this book. I come to write it not only through my experiences as a teacher, coach and writer on relationship issues – as well, of course, as what I’ve learned through my own partnership decisions – but in particular through my association with the School of Life. Over the years I’ve worked with them, we’ve become more and more aware of a huge iceberg of concern around relationship choice, a concern that reaches across all genders, ages and nationalities.
How to Choose a Partner is a guide to finding the right partner for you – though be warned, it’s not a map, not a tip-list, not an action manual. Instead, it is a series of reflections drawing on psychology, philosophy, culture and ordinary human experience. The book’s wisdom is the wisdom not only of the many professionals who have considered the decisions that we make about love, but also of the class participants I have taught and the coaching clients I have worked with.
The aim is to inform, enhance and support your own thoughts, feelings and insights. Each chapter offers a different perspective on the issues, encouraging you to look not only at where you are now, but also at how your past has informed your present, how your criteria for a relationship can be clarified and refined, and how to explore whether you and a particular partner could be right for each other. In particular, the exercises and tasks that are scattered through the book invite you to consider the route you are taking on your journey and, if necessary, adjust it – to find, recognize and commit to a relationship in which you will thrive.
Here is the first task, an initial question for you to consider. How do you fit into this contemporary relationship landscape? Where do you stand as regards the ‘new deal’ of partner choice? Do you see it as an exciting challenge or a hopeless task, a complex puzzle or a terrifying trial? You might want to complete the following sentence. ‘When I think about choosing a partner, I feel/realize/wonder…’ This simple exercise will tell you a great deal about your hopes, your fears, your attitudes, your feelings.
As you read on, a final optimistic thought. You are not alone. There are literally many millions of people out there who, like you, are looking for a deep connection. Like you, they have previously made the best decisions they could, given their circumstances and resources. Like you, they have sometimes suffered regrets and disappointment but are now once again wanting to love and to be loved. There are many options out there when you are ready.
And, as the quotation at the head of this chapter suggests, by exploring these options you create a whole new set of possibilities for yourself. By taking on the adventure of choosing a partner, you have the opportunity of changing your future for ever. Starting now.
Copyright © 2016 by The School of Life