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Is Your Coupledom Obsession Killing Romance This Valentine's Day?

14/02/2014 12:51 GMT | Updated 15/04/2014 10:59 BST

When I see the Valentine's Day offers and memorabilia competing for our attention this week, I look at the pristine couples in the adverts and it reminds me of the allure of a hammock on the front of a holiday brochure. There it is, swaying in the breeze beside the azure sea, waves lapping. We're led to believe that gently rocking in one transports you to the most peaceful, happy, carefree resting place.

But in fact it often takes 20 minutes to clamber into it, the netting is inevitably mouldy and if you do find a remotely tolerable position, you can't reach your drink or your sunglasses.

I think the dream of happy coupledom and domestic bliss has been sold to us in much the same way. We're led to believe a lifelong partnership - ideally with a few well-behaved children thrown in - equals a happy, successful and respectable life. We've all been brainwashed by what I call The Fairytale Narrative: The belief that our ultimate destination in life is skipping into the sunset with our 'soulmate'. Those of us who haven't done so yet are presumed to have failed (and still trying). Yet it's obvious that the most exciting thing about fairytales - or indeed any Hollywood love story - is the bit when the Prince and Princess get together. Once they've kissed, the story becomes so dull it ends.

I'm not saying it isn't a wonderful happy ending: falling passionately in love with someone for the rest of your life, someone who'll forever support you and of whom you'll never tire. But it's the journey which appeals to our imagination, not the destination. The fact 39 per cent of marriages end in divorce provides further evidence for that.

We are lucky that we are of an era and culture where relationships are no longer a necessity but a bonus, should we be lucky enough to find a good one. It is only in the last 60 years that social stigma has allowed for alternatives to the nuclear family model. As recent as the 1950s a woman pregnant out of wedlock would be ushered to a mother and baby home or in some cases a mental asylum. It is only in the last 40 years that women have had financial independence, relieving them of the obligation to marry even if she was maltreated. Until the 1970s in some parts of the western world a woman couldn't take out a loan or start a business without the consent of a husband. It is only the last 100 years that we have had the means to live alone. Vacuum cleaners, sliced bread and my best friend the washing machine make solo dwelling a nifty lifestyle for many. 3.4 million people over the age of 45 now live alone - an increase of 50% since the 1990's.

I find it anachronistic that in a world where we champion individuality, strive for convenience and encouraged to be independent, that we still consider a 24-7 cohabiting, life-long relationship to be our Nirvana.

We should be mindful of this when we celebrate Valentine's Day. But sadly we have commercialised coupledom at the expense of romance - the best legal natural human high there is in my opinion! New couples are obsessed with destination despite there no longer being any pressing need for marriage anymore. Many tonight will be staring at each other across a candle lit table for two giggling over their Kir Royal. But before they know it, they'll be sharing a fridge, attending family functions with gritted teeth, they'll stop seeing the friends that their partner doesn't like and the giggling will give way to nagging about trimming toenails in front of the TV. We're so intent on 'moving things on' that we forget to enjoy the beautiful, fleeting stages of new love.

I'm not saying that we should do away with commitment and loyalty and instead engage in an endless flow of dalliances. In reality, civilised society would be unsustainable if the majority of us went through life like an 18-30s holiday. Every parent would have the CSA child maintenance hotline saved to speed dial and Tinder would crash under demand.

But we should adopt a more grown-up approach to relationships. In my research for my book, Screw The Fairytale, I set about finding a more realistic approach to love for the modern world. I've never been the settling down type myself but that doesn't mean that I don't want to fall hopelessly in love. In a world where we can hail taxis through smart phones, order sushi at 4am and sign up for commercial space travel, there must surely be a way to have love without having to share a bed for the rest of my sleeping nights?

I tracked down those who like me, seeking to redefine the fairytale ideal of everlasting love. Some had chosen open marriages: I was surprised at the number of middle-class professionals from affluent British towns who admitted going swinging at weekends. Other spouses chose to live separately to maintain a sense of self. (known as LAT couples, short for Living Apart Together). Some wives allowed their husbands to take a mistress as long as he could still honour his role at home as a doting dad. Then there were the asexuals who defined their commitment by emotional rather than physical closeness. I call them love rebels because they were all seeking to find a solution to the fundamental dilemma of modern relationships - that the intimacy we crave is often the very thing which destroys the spark.

They had each chosen a model of love appropriate to their own needs and desires. What they had in common was that they didn't place responsibility for life fulfilment on finding and keeping a life partner. The fairytale tells us we can, but we've moved on since the days of castles and men who ride horses in unsexy metal armoury. While love and romance are wonderful things to be celebrated on Valentine's Day, they should be treated as such - celebrations not props.

Based on research from Screw The Fairytale: A Modern Girl's Guide to Sex and Love by Helen Croydon, published by John Blake, £7.99