In the last month four men have told me that they’ve started relationships with women in other countries. Well, it’s been five if you count the Surrey and Aberdeen twosome, but I’m not so concerned with just close countries (a Londoner with a Parisienne I can understand), but all four of these are seriously long haul. Two are wooing across the pond – one reporting a ‘serious affair’ with a woman in New Mexico, and another is emotionally entangled in Florida with someone he first met on holiday in France. One has taken up with a woman in Capetown, and the fourth tells me he’s in love with an old flame in Melbourne. All four in a single month and in a seriously small town with more than its fair share of attractive single women. One such relationship I could understand as isolated madness, but four feels strongly like a cluster. I realize that feelings and cluster analysis don’t usually go together, but seriously, what the statistics must look like for Britain as a whole I hate to think.
All these affairs have started with travel – men travelling over there for holidays or work, or women coming here for a brief visit to relatives, or to a conference. Travel and sex, of course. Sex and instant love, serious commitments they assure me. They’re seriously in love; I’m seriously confused. And a little irritated. What can lie behind these long-haul relationships?
Yes, I know distances have shrunk. When I was a young woman growing up in Sydney some of us, men and women, were said to be GI – geographically impossible. I was GI for several men as I lived in Cronulla, at the end of the railway line and so 20 miles from the centre. Even seven miles made it GI to think anything was going to be serious. In the early 90s I wrote an article for Company magazine on the commuter marriage, a new phenomenon where men or women worked away and came home for weekends and maybe once or twice a week. I had one myself and it seemed to work pretty well. Sex on Sundays was actually more enjoyable than tired sex during the week. But these somewhat distant love affairs were a rarity, something that surprised people.
Now of course things are different. You can fly to Sydney from London in 24 hours (but you could drive the 20 miles to Cronulla in 45 minutes) and you can keep in touch with Skype and by many other means (but we had a telephone). These men natter away by email all day to their new amours. It’s exciting. They plan trips to the other side of the world or ways to crisscross the Atlantic once or twice a year. The women are presumably doing the same and so they expect to meet up rarely but intensely, seeing each other only in holiday mood. This is definitely not like the commuter marriage – arriving home each Friday a little fractious and weary to exchange work stories, moans and tackle the chores. True, most of these ‘couples’ are in their fifties and sixties so there’s no children involved, just the odd grandchild who can be seen and handed back whenever they want.
I wonder if, rather than the new ease of superficial communication, what this signifies more is a desire for an extremely limited form of relationship: one that keeps them safe from anything difficult or messy in their home towns; one where arguments can be largely avoided, that demands little sexually; one where chores and roles need never be mentioned; a fantasy sort of relationship that can exist primarily in their minds rather than entertaining any of the mundaneness that inevitably affects a proportion of the lives of most of us. But part of being a bit mundane, or of the world, involves an enjoyable dollop of ordinary things: nattering about offspring and friends, cuddling in front of a good piece of TV, arguing about a shared book, walking the dog, cooking a curry – together. When one of you dies, as one of you usually does, it’s these ordinary activities that are missed the most by the partner that’s left. They provide comfort and happiness to the lives of real people in ways that fantasy relationships cannot ever match.
Individualism rose rapidly under Thatcher: there’s no such thing as society, we were told. Up came Me-Me-Me, because we were worth it. Perhaps the idea that you can have a committed relationship with someone 12000 miles away is part of that. Better to stay an individual far apart than to share a real life as a couple. Less risk for everyone, less chance of real loss, but more chance of loneliness – you and your iPad working out the time zones – and loneliness is a killer. Maybe this is yet another product of the global economy: we can get what we want from anywhere we choose. But look where the real global economy has got us. I’d rather see people sticking to local products – meat, vegetables and partners. Yes, it might sometimes seem excessively warts-and-all, but it’s real life, not a pretend relationship that takes place primarily in cyberspace. Am I wrong?