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Real love beyond 'smoke and mirrors' of romance

Couples: The Truth

Kate Figes

Virago, €19.50

MY son was 18 months old when I read Kate Figes' landmark work Life After Birth. I was horrified -- not at the content, but at the fact that nobody had told me about it before. Life After Birth should be mandatory reading for all women of childbearing years. Figes not only reveals the realities of pregnancy, childbirth and dealing with a new baby, but busts a lot of the myths that plague modern motherhood.

In Couples: The Truth Figes attempts to do for relationships what she did for childbirth. Like giving birth, each person's experience of coupledom is unique -- there is no set template of how relationships work and as Figes says early on, we are all fascinated by the hidden dynamics of others' relationships. For this book, Figes interviewed sociologists, psychologists and more than 120 individuals about their own relationships; their candid responses make for extremely interesting, if somewhat voyeuristic, reading. However, her findings are neither shocking nor startling. Unlike her earlier work, Figes doesn't reveal anything that most of us didn't know already, or could read in any advice column. "All couples, even happy ones, argue about the same things -- money, children ... , housework ... , the in-laws and sex."

Figes tells us that "romance" and marrying for love is a relatively modern idea, as is that of the soulmate, a person whom will fulfil every single spiritual, emotional and sexual need. The twin notions of romance and a soulmate are both recipes for disaster and as Figes says, "real love grows when the real person emerges from the smoke and mirrors of romance".

Figes also examines the role of children in relationships, and concludes that the arrival of children will put the healthiest of relationships under huge strain. While she doesn't use the old saying "marry in haste, repent at leisure", that's more or less what her conclusions are. "People," she says, "can spend more time extricating themselves from bad marriages and long-term relationships than they spend together."

OK, so that all sounds a bit hopeless and depressing -- but Figes does reveal some positives in modern relationships, which are slowly becoming more equal and therefore happier. People in good relationships tend to be physically healthier than those who are single (however, people who are single tend to be healthier and happier than those in bad relationships). Figes also shatters the myth that sex becomes less frequent or stops entirely once the ring is on the finger.

Another myth Figes tackles is the one constantly perpetuated by certain politicians and church figures: that family life is currently under attack by divorce and single parents -- and we are therefore on the brink of chaos. "Family life is not collapsing," she says, "the structure of the nuclear family is changing. We are not going through an age of moral decay ... merely one of transition." In fact, Figes argues that divorce need not necessarily be bad for children if their parents handle things in a mature way.

One of Figes' greatest talents is that she can take vast chunks of dry information and statistics and make them palatable to the ordinary reader. She is able to incorporate facts and figures seamlessly with the anecdotal evidence of the couples she interviewed.

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The most unfortunate thing about Couples is that I fear she is preaching to the converted -- it will be mostly read by people who are, or have been, in a long-term relationship, people who know that "romance" is fleeting and love thrives on emptied bins and replaced toilet rolls. The romantics will probably shun it in favour of the latest bridal magazine.

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