Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Once upon a time, a girl met a boy. They fell madly in love, got married, bought a house with a white picket fence and lived happily ever after. The end.
Sounds just like your life? Nope. I thought not. Nor mine. If anything, there are far more relationships matching that description in fairy tales than there are in modern life. Somewhere between one third and one half of all marriages now end in divorce. And, to be fair to divorcees everywhere, the vow “till death do us part” became part of the marriage ceremony when the average life expectancy was 37 years of age…
So people have started to look differently at loving, monogamous relationships. Take a couple I know: we’ll call them Sarah and Geoff. Sarah and Geoff have been together for 15 years. They consider themselves to be in something equivalent to a marriage, but they are not married, even though she wears a wedding ring. They are monogamous, but they do not live together. They have no intention of ever living together but they see each other regularly. They have all the benefits of a supportive partner who they adore and fancy like mad, they live their own lives, have their own hobbies and careers and they are happy. But they are not “conventional” in terms of society’s expectations of a happy couple. Sarah does not refer to her “boyfriend” or her “husband” or her “partner”. She simply explains that she has an arrangement with a “gentleman caller”.
Similarly, Jim and Nadira have been in a loving relationship for almost 25 years but they also are not married. Their set-up is slightly different: they built a house in which they have lived for two decades. The house is divided into two apartments. Nadira lives on the ground floor, Jim lives upstairs. There is a connecting internal door, which they open or close according to their requirement for companionship / space / sex / quiet contemplation / snuggles / someone to do the washing up. They are very loving and soppy and would do anything for one another. They go on the most amazing day trips together as often as work will allow, to sit by the sea, eat fish and chips on the beach and take endless romantic photos of one another. Jim does not refer to Nadira as his “girlfriend” or “partner”. He simply talks about “my girly”.
Perhaps the evolution of relationships should be no surprise. After all, the days of a man going out to work and the woman getting up before him to powder her face and put on her lippy before making his breakfast are, for most people, long-gone.
For many people I know and respect, whether they have an arrangement like the ones above, or a fuck-buddy, or a friend-with-benefits, or they holiday separately, work in different countries, or have dreamed up a completely new form of relationship, it works better than a traditional marriage for them. Equally, I know plenty of people who co-exist with their husband or wife in a traditional marriage of scantily-repressed misery because either they think they should, it’s too hard to leave, they’re in it till the kids leave home, they can’t imagine anything better, etc. Some of those couples are openly unhappy, some are putting on a brave face, others are satisfying their need for love and affection by having extra-curricular affairs that fill them with guilt.
But we, as human beings, have such a strong desire to label everything. We long for the comfort of a convenient file or folder in which we can tuck away a concept, or a relationship, so that it somehow fits a “type”. Not surprisingly, the only existing files and folders in our heads relate to constructs and concepts that we have learned whilst growing up; from parents, religious teachings, fairy tales, television and movies. Relationships that don’t immediately fit into one of those folders are a little bit odd, a little bit scary, a little hard to label.
I have a label for the unconventional, monogamous, loving, satisfied, long-terms couple I know, based on the one aspect they all seem to share. They are “happy”. At the end of the day, is there any better label?