This week I was interviewing long-term happy bachelors for a women's magazine on the rise of singledom. When I say long-term, I mean willingly long-term. Not the spluttering, nervous, perspiring ones who hang around speed dating events desperate to find a girlfriend.
I mean the relationship-refuseniks. The domesticity-dodgers. The never-marrieds. The ones who think a ring is a tune you download for your phone. The ones who have never had more than one toothbrush in their toothbrush holders nor ever permanently housed a woman's pot of face cream. The ones who have consciously and boldly accepted that their own company is far better than someone who does less than inspire them.
How delightfully refreshing it was. I trust a man far more for choosing to be alone rather than settling for the person who managed to tick the most boxes by the time he reached 40.
As a long-term, happy singleton myself, I've never been able to understand how some people never stay single. I have friends who go through break-up and then, after two weeks of sufficient weeping, mourning, dissecting, drinking, I see them pop up on Facebook with an 'in a relationship' update. Then follows an album of happy photos, showing them paired up with their new mate, as if glued by the cheekbone. The album gets 57 likes. Everyone's happy. They've been fixed. They've found the answer - they've found another. Phew. Then there are people like me, who in seven years, didn't come across anyone whose voice box I didn't secretly will to shut down after 24 hours in their company.
I can't help but suspect that for many it's the relationship they want, not the person. There is a vacancy for a lover. They want the right candidate of course but they'll fill it with temps and part-timers if they have to. It's probably not even conscious. Once enough boxes are ticked, the dopamine of our romantic love systems roar into action and we convince ourselves we've met our latest soul mate.
This is why I don't trust serial monogamists. I'd always suspect it was the company they were after, not me. Give me a commitment-phobe any day. Give me a philanderer. Give me a player and a wooer, who knows his mind. Give me someone with a checkered past. The bolder the better! Because at least I would know it's me he's interested in. I don't want a man who needs me, I want one who wants me, as I do them.
Alain de Botton's new book, How to Think More About Sex: The School of Life is released today. In it he encourages us to think of adultery not as the monster that we are conditioned to think it is, but as something that is natural, given the scope of the human wants and imagination. "Seeing marriage as the perfect answer to all our hopes for love, sex and family is naive and misguided," he writes.
Another book out this week also exemplifies how we pin our nirvanic dreams on relationships. Fellow journalist and colleague Sarah Bridge's memoir, First Catch your Husband, is a funny and touching tale of her determined quest to find a husband.
But why do we all have such an objective goal? Shouldn't it be the person we chase, not the relationship? Shouldn't a relationship be the cherry on our cake of contentment, not the thing that binds it all together? I am fascinated by people who can't be alone - because I absolutely cannot relate to it. I crave it. During a TV appearance recently, I overheard the presenter chatting in the make-up room. This is a successful, established, highly confident, high profile figure. She said when she gets home and turns the key in the lock, if she senses no one is there, she'll go straight out again. I was aghast. So much do I value alone-time, that even on a recent solitary, meditating, fasting, seaweed munching retreat in Thailand, I couldn't even bear someone making small talk in the queue for the daily coconut rations.
In researching my first book, Sugar Daddy Diaries, I came across many time-poor but cash rich men who wanted female company so much, they resorted to paying for it. Most, it seemed, were they types that couldn't be alone. One, whose wife had recently died, admitted he had never loved her, but leaving was never an option. "Being married was just neater." He had said. "For travelling, for socializing, for legal things." He fell to pieces when she was gone, not from heartbreak he said, but because "She kept my life in order."
Next time we accuse the eternal bachelors of being selfish commitment-phobes, or we worry that the thirty something single woman is at home popping Prozac, or we wag a disapproving finger at women who claim they don't want children - like the recent media furore when historian Dr Lucy Worsley declared she didn't want to reproduce, perhaps we should pause and accept that not everyone's framework for contentment can be judged by our own.
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