Tuesday 20 March 2018

Is monogamy dead? How Ireland's to sex has evolved

Our need for love never grows old

‘Some experts say the findings could be due to social media’. Photo: Getty Images
‘Some experts say the findings could be due to social media’. Photo: Getty Images
Relationships are all about communicating

Mary O'Conor

We may have new technology and more openness when dealing with marital strife, but some things never change, and the desire to find somebody to share your life with is as strongly felt today as ever, writes our relationship counsellor.

Relationships have always fascinated me, which is why I decided to train as a relationship counsellor, and subsequently as a psychosexual therapist, after I had been a stay- at-home mum while my children were small. What makes some relationships work, while others don't, and what influences people in their choice of partner was all part of the learning process, and along the way I discovered a lot about myself.

By far the biggest change in how relationships evolve has been the role that technology plays. We are part of a texting, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp race which expects rapid responses to almost everything. People get annoyed when an email hasn't been replied to within minutes and there seems to be a huge fear of missing out as phones and tablets are checked constantly. The amount of 'friends' or 'followers' people have are almost like badges of honour even though the 'friends' or 'followers' may be people that they don't even know and have never met. A new definition of the word 'friend' must be due in the English dictionary very soon!

People text instead of speaking and while this can be very handy it also carries the danger of de-­personalising relationships. A friend of minerecently took all the mobile phones from a group of her daughter's friends who were in her house for a sleepover, when she discovered all of them in the same room texting each other instead of talking!We are in danger of becoming an 'instant society' as we rely more and more on technology and less on interpersonal skills. Information can be accessed at the touch of a button, and likewise a possible partner.

Almost everybody by now knows somebody who met their partner online - and that is good. However, there are also lots of negative stories as well: of the person not turning out to be anything like they portrayed themselves online - either older, younger, fatter or smaller than their photographs - and in some cases people have entered into a kind of fantasy world where they have built up an idea of the person they are conversing with online into somebody that they really fancy. However, the chemistry that can spark between two people when they meet face to face is almost impossible to reproduce when they are both seated at computers, and when they eventually meet the reality is quite different and many hours have been wasted.

Dating as it used to be doesn't seem to exist - or at least not to the same extent. Guys and girls tend to hunt in packs - even when dancing in nightclubs there is very little one-to-one. The 'Ballroom of Romance' days when girls lined up on one side and the guys - having had a few beers for confidence before coming to the dance hall - had to walk across the floor to ask for a dance seem like total torture when explained to young people now.

But has it all got too casual? Hooking up and hanging out is what they do now - and that can be anything from meeting for a drink to casual sex. You only have to watch the wonderful Amy Schumer sketch One Night Stand to see what I mean. In the sketch, Amy is telling her girlfriends just how amazing it was the previous night when she met a new guy, how she knows he is 'the one' and she starts imagining how it will be when they are married, going so far as to try out different types of wedding cake. The guy, meanwhile, when asked by his mate what he did the night before, replies that he doesn't have a clue - he got hammered and the rest is a blank. She keeps texting him and eventually calls him. He says he is going to pass on seeing her again and asks if he wore a condom the previous night. She hangs up, totally disillusioned.

The availability of divorce has made a difference to relationships in Ireland as one in 10 marriages here end in either separation or divorce. While it takes a very long time to actually obtain a divorce, and costs can be high, it is wonderful that there is now a way out rather than suffering in silence. A Gay Byrne radio programme special many years ago on 'The Silence' - where letters were read out from listeners who had endured years and years of silence between themselves and their spouses with no way out - will always remain with me as an example of why divorce was so necessary here.

The pride that was palpable in Ireland when first civil partnership in 2010 and subsequently marriage of same-sex couples was declared legal in 2015 will long be remembered.This was truly a milestone for so many relationships that up until then were made to feel marginalised.

The influence of the Catholic Church is not as strong as it used to be more and more people are living together and not seeing marriage as the only option. This allows people to get to know whether the relationship will work long-term without the final legal commitment of marriage. The fact that there were 23,000 marriages in Ireland in 2014 and 1,500 civil partnerships shows that for many, marriage is still the ultimate goal.

With marriage very often comes children, and in this century we are seeing less clearly defined roles than in previous ones. Nowadays, very often, both spouses work outside of the home, which brings its own problems. Who looks after the children when they are sick? Who brings them to the extra-curricular activities such as sports, music and dance?And who goes to the parent/teacher meetings? Work in the home and with children is also much more equally divided. Dads are expected to be much more 'hands on' with regard to baby and child care, even if the mum is not working outside the home. I've had grandfathers boast to me that they never in their lives changed one of their baby's nappies and are bemused to see their sons do so.

Nowadays, women tend to have their career very well established before having children. As a result they are older when trying to become pregnant and the resultant decreased fertility may lead to problems with conceiving a baby. If they are successful, they find the change in lifestyle difficult to handle. Having been used to a lot of travel, frequent meals out and lie-ins at the weekend,the chaos that a new baby brings with it can take a lot of adjustment, no matter how much they wanted a baby.

In earlier years, it was very much the norm to have babies when the mother was in her early 20s, and 25 was considered almost 'on the shelf'! Another huge change with regard to children is the removal of the stigma of single parenthood. So many young mothers' lives in the last century were shattered when their pregnancy was discovered.They were sent to the unspeakably awful mother-and-baby homes, and in many cases never again had a good relationship with their own parents. This is, thankfully, no longer the case.

Relationships are all about communication and if that is missing, then the relationship is doomed. Thankfully, people now openly talk about having had counselling, whereas in the 1990s many couples coming to see me were absolutely terrified of being seen coming in the door of my counselling rooms in case anybody they knew might see them and know that their relationship was in trouble. This openness is a huge step forward and I don't think it will ever go back to the way things were.

People are living longer and are often still very active when their partner dies. This, together with the availability of separation and divorce, means that people are seeking a second chance with love. One widow recently said to me, 'women grieve, men remarry' and there is a certain amount of truth in that. Women are generally more self-sufficient, and have a stronger network of friends than men, which means that when men find themselves on their own they quickly seek out a new partner. Once again this is where technology comes to the fore - there are many sites for the more mature to find somebody new.

Despite what has been called the Sexual Revolution things haven't changed all that drastically and people are still looking for love. I took part in a very stimulating debate recently in the UCD Law Society speaking against the motion 'The House Wants Sex, Not Love'. I was really gratified that at the end of the debate, the predominantly youngvote was in our favour. So people are still looking for love, they are just doing it in a different way.

By far the biggest response in my Dear Mary column in this newspaper is when I publish a letter from a male or female saying that they are lonely, have not been successful in meeting somebody despite using the internet, dating agencies or apps and being, for instance, in a sports club. Inevitably, I get emails or letters asking to be put in touch with the writer as the readers are also going through the same thing. This shows me that almost everybody is looking for somebody to love and with whom to share their life.

'They all lived happily ever after' is what we all wish for. But no matter how good the relationship is, it takes work to keep it alive and vibrant. There will always be stresses but these should help to cement the relationship rather than cause it to fall apart.

Time must always be invested in the relationship, both time together and time for oneself because they are equally important, and this will always be true no matter what century we are living in.

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