Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Christmas...

Christmas Eve... may I wish everyone a really happy Christmas festivities and a wonderful New Year in 2008. I shall be back blog-writing very shortly...


Monday, December 3, 2007

Permission to cry, please!

I've never been one - both in my columns and with my friends - to dismiss the helpfulness of medical support for emotional issues. Sometimes, you just need to take the tablets.

On the other hand, I've always maintained that tablets should take second place to the emotions themselves. Most times, it's much more helpful to cry, to sob, to grieve or to rage.

So I was delighted to see the publication of a new book, The Loss of Sorrow: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder (Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C Wakefield, Oxford University Press). It does exactly what it says on the cover - makes the point that society has pathologised normal sadness until experiencing it has become a cause for embarrassment, then shame, then treatment. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

To say - as some medical diagnostic tomes do - that a person who is still suffering more than two months after a bereavement are therefore clinically depressed is not only misguided, it is actually harmful. The same goes for smaller traumas - relationship breakup, job loss, illness. If one has a loss, one is meant to grieve. It is what nature intended us to do - not only to physically relieve stress, but also to enrol others in supporting you through that stress. Failing to do so means one gets stuck at the grieving stage, unable to move on, unable to start recovering.

Not realising this point underpins so many of the problems with which my readers write to me, readers who - six months after an unexpected breakup worry that they still miss their partner of twenty years, or twelve months after a vicious divorce feel guilty that they are still finding it difficult to form a relationship. Of course they are. Of course we all would be. This is Nature's way of helping one recover, lick wounds. One wouldn't deny a person with a broken leg a crutch to walk on until the leg was healed; emotions are the heart's crutch and should be fully felt until they are no longer needed.

Yes, some people get stuck in emotions - mostly because they are not getting support from those around, or because they are truly mentally ill; and then, of course, professional help may include medication. But most folk, given space and time and permission, will do what any normal two year old does - scream their heads off for a while, accept a cuddle from a nearby grown-up - and then toddle off again, mind and heart clear.

Instead of telling people to pull themselves together, therefore, I recommend that we actually allow them to completely to fall apart. If we did, then people might be a lot happier - and human beings would be a lot healthier - than they are now.

Monday, November 26, 2007

There but for the grace of God...

As a very innocent 19 year old, coming back from an evening with friends, I was once mauled by a stranger on a train. Nearly forty years later I can still remember the feeling as he leant over me and put his hand on my breast. I screamed and ran out of the compartment into the next carriage, asking for help.

Hardly anyone even looked up - those who did sniffed disapprovingly. When I pleaded for someone to go back into the compartment and fetch my bag and coat, one man - old enough to be my father - obliged, but grumbled as he did so. I slowly realised from the mutters around me that my fellow passengers thought that I was to blame for what had happened - though in my innocence, I actually couldn't understand why. I left the train weeping.

I tell this story not for sympathy, but to illustrate the fact that society forty years ago made completely unwarranted assumptions about sexual attack. I had not been drinking heavily (one glass of wine), nor was I outrageously dressed (perfectly decent shorts, in an age where everyone wore them). Yet the assumption of my fellow travellers was that I had 'asked' to have a total stranger come across and put his hand on my breast.

I also tell this story to point up the fact that forty years on, sadly not much has changed. The announcement this week that juries are to be given information packs to counter 'rape myths' highlights the fact that we still as a society believe those myths. The stories of female binge drinking, the media hype on promiscuous sex - all of these mean that as a society we think that women (and men, for the victims of sexual assault are not unilaterally female) are living wild irresponsible lives and that therefore they are to blame for anything that happens to them.

My own experience forty years ago - and my current knowledge of the young people I regularly mix with, and hear from through my columns - is the opposite. Yes, there are exceptions, yes youth is a time for pushing the boundaries. It was ever so. But in many ways, young people are more aware nowadays, if anything more responsible.

And in any case, that isn't the point. It was the man who crossed the train compartment and put his hand on my breast who was at fault, not the 19-year old me travelling home on the train. It is the predator, male or female who is at fault, not their prey. Attackers have a choice to do right or wrong, however vulnerable their victims are. By claiming that the victims 'invite' the attack we muddy the waters, offer excuses, let wrong-doers off the hook. We also insult the vast majority of normal, decent men by suggesting that any male who sees a short skirt is automatically and excusably inflamed to rape, that any male who sees an inebriated woman is inevitably and forgivably driven to abuse. The result? The conviction rate for rape in the UK is currently 6% and 40% of adults who are raped tell no one.

Which is why I am delighted that the legal system is in the process of pointing out all the above to those who make crucial decisions in court cases.

Now all we need to do is to convince the rest of society, and we will at last - forty years after my 'little scare' - be getting somewhere.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sorry, talking about sex again...

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm currently working hard down the salt mines rewriting a Classic Sex Book. My friends, tolerant as they are, have for the past few months accepted my heavy workload - but have never been able to resist responding to my alibi for not coming out to play with comments like "working on the sex book - is that theory, or practice???".

I know such comments are always underpinned by great good humour - but I'm also aware that even in our current society, it's a source of such humour to suggest that anyone over the age of 25 is actually doing more than just dreaming of sex. Passion, the media tells and shows us, is reserved for the young and beautiful. Which is why, a few weeks ago, one of my blog posts highlighted recent research showing that a high proportion of over 70s are still swinging from the chandeliers.

I'm delighted today to report some qualitative anecdotes to add to that quantitative evidence. A new book - Over the Hill and Betwen the Sheets: Sex, Love and Lust in Middle Age - is a collection of personal stories edited by Gail Belsky. And the book is a gem of tales both passionate and moving, not only of how lust was rediscovered through new relationships in midlife, but how it was regained in established couples for whom time, children and the daily grind had all but extinguished desire.

I deeply believe - through personal experience as well as professional expertise - that sex can both last and improve over time; but it's nice to see other accounts confirm thatin print. All the more ammunition for when my rewrite of The Sex Book is published and I find myself defending the right not only of twenty-somethings but also ninety-somethings to have a fulfilling and adventurous love life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Shopping better than sex? I don't think so...

No, it's a long way from academic research. But the latest 'reader survey' from a woman's magazine - in this case, First - still interests me.

Because it blows out of the water many of the more doom-laden ideas we currently have about relationships, and presents a much more optimistic view. Ninety-four per cent of wives said they were happily married, 72% of all women still fancied their partners, and only half said that their love lives had diminished after having children. For a Pollyanna like me, that's a nice result.

Where the survey wasn't so encouraging, however, was when it came to sex. Four in ten would rather go shopping than make love, and over a third said they would be happy in a sexless marriage. Which - while it gives the lie to the proposition that we are all sex-mad, and also supports the idea that love rather than passion is the key to a happy life - also seems rather sad to me. Sex is so wonderful that surely we should want it - and be putting energy into having it - throughout our lives.

No, sex is not compulsory and if a relationship doesn't include it, that doesn't mean that love is on the rocks. But sex is very wonderful - and absent it, we may well be missing out on a host of other benefits: affection, cuddles, physical proximity, eye contact and simply shared pleasure. If partners don't make love and don't want to, no problem; if they don't make love and want to, there is plenty of help available and actually, it works.

I don't usually include an advertising slot in this blog - but if you're reading this and your sex life is not what it could be, contact Relate right now...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Birth, contraception, bastardy...

Most of the end of last week was taken up with preparation for - and presentation at - a very nicely-put together conference run by the Journal of Hospital Medicine, who had decided they needed to inform their readers about family planning. High profile speakers like Profs James Trussell of Princeton and Kaye Wellings of the London School of Tropical Medicine sat alongside coalface presenters working at family planning organisations such as Brook.

The whole thing was utterly fascinating - hearing the latest updates on how women (and men) are making their choices, or failing to, as regards contraception, termination and sexual health. And I enjoyed making my own contribution - on the emotional underpinnings of contraceptive decisions and how these influence what people do. But what came across to me most, among all the medical-speak and pharma-slang, was just how concerned all the speakers and delegates were with the patients in their care. Throughout the whole conference there ran a real thread of warmth and compassion on every family planning issue; moving and heartwarming in the extreme.

There was also, for me, a curious juxtaposition. Only the previous evening I had gone to see the latest Royal Shakespeare King Lear, starring (and I do mean starring - despite the critical reviews it was a total tour de force) Ian McKellen. As I settled into my seat, my conference preparation at the forefront of my mind, one of the themes of the play totally hit the mark. Family love... parents... children... and yes, the issue of unwanted offspring that runs as a subplot to the whole play.

I loved Lear, and everything about it. But I became aware during the performance that I am very, very glad that I live in the present day and not the Shakespearean era. For nowadays we do have the choice of preventing unwanted conception. We do give women the right to choose. And if their choice is to give birth, then however much we may disagree with their decision or criticise the original conception, we do not now judge the offspring of non-wedlock birth as more - well, illegitimate - than those of in-wedlock birth. The care, support and compassion I experienced at the Family Planning Conference is the benchmark nowadays for health care - but it also reflects the lack of stigma in society around this whole issue.

In short, right thinking people nowadays do not call others 'bastards' because of the circumstances of their birth. Correctly and ethically, we judge them entirely on their merits.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sad, but true

Oh dear. My last blog post, about chlamydia, brought a sad and angry letter from a man who has had it. He seemed to think that I was being "sexist and ignorant" when I reported that one in ten men think that the condition is a flower.

But sorry, not my thoughts.

Instead the results of a study run by the British National Chlamydia Screening Programme; the research was published last week in a number of British national newspapers. I quoted this research not to attack men, but to highlight the whole issue and urge action.

And in this, I and my critic and I are utterly in agreement. What his post proves is absolutely true - that chlamydia is devastating on every level. We must all do all we can to improve the situation.

I'm sorry you are upset, sir, and I extend my sympathies for your illness.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Roses are red, violets are blue...

... but apparently 10% of men think that the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia is a flower. Oh dear. And this despite the fact that it can cause infertility in both genders.

Which is why I bounced with glee today on learning that a new initiative is to be launched to encourage chlamydia screening not only for women but also for men.

If you're a man reading this, check it out. If you're a woman, check it out and then tell your man.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Appearances can be deceptive...

I so love it when society's prejudices are undermined. As they surely were with today's report that a campaign to support licensed brothels has been launched by - wait for it - the Women's Institute.

We used to think that the WI was the breeding ground for traditional family values and conservative opinions. But actually, that organisation has always been at the forefront of supporting women - their website specifically mentions their mission as including "campaigning". And surely, surely, prostititutes need campaigning support from women worldwide and from all walks of life.

Well done the WI.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A very positive take on positive smears

As regular readers of my work will know, I'm a great supporter of cervical cancer issues. So at the end of last week I unhesitatingly trotted along to a charity gala run by Jo's Trust, the cervical cancer charity.

Now, in general, gala dinners per se can leave me cold; the business versions in particular can be stuffed full of cold fish of all kinds. Charity galas are always much better - full of good people willing to put their money where their mouths are.

But I have to say that the Jo's Trust gala took the biscuit for most fun event of the year if not the millenium-so-far. For a start, the guests were sparky - I sat next to (and tangoed with) one of the male contestants in this year's Strictly Come Dancing, while on my other side was a fascinating up and coming fashion designer. (I don't usually get overwhelmed by celeb-ness, but these people were genuinely nice.)

The entertainment too was sparky - some acrobats doing their stuff suspended from the ceiling, a troope of smiley carnival dancers, and a belting rock and roll singer. Touching too, especially consdering the gala focus, was the stunningly talented Capital Girls Choir - for we all realised that these were the women of the future, for whose cervical health we were raising money.

Most moving, however, was the after-dinner speech. Yes, I did say the after-dinner speech. Given by Jo's Trust organiser Pamela Morton, it literally brought tears to most people's eyes - including her own - as she talked about Jo's Trust women who were struggling with the disease, those who had won and those who, in the past year, had lost their fight.

Best of all, though, was the final point of Pamela's speech - where she described how only this week, the government has licensed for use with teenage girls the wonderful "cervical cancer vaccine" which protects against the HPV virus that triggers the cancer.

By attending and donating at the dinner we were, as Pamela pointed out, not only actively fighting fight for cervical health. Just as importantly, we were celebrating the most important breakthrough ever in that very fight.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Arranged or rearranged

I was fascinated to see a report in the Times on Monday that Arrange Me a Marriage, a new primetime show for BBC Two, aims to discover whether arranged marriages would work for British singletons. The presenter, a Glasgow matchmaker called Anella Rahman, aims to explore whether the principles of Asian marriage (match couples through background and life goals, provide prior vetting by family, tally expectations of marriage) will work better than the love criteria that most young Brits work to when choosing a mate.

I'm fascinated by the report for two reasons. First, this programme began conceptual life aiming to use a team of experts - and I was one of the people initially approached. I'm glad to say the producers changed their vision - glad because I genuinely believe that fielding use of just one Asian matchmaker creates a stronger and more interesting focus than the original scenario. So go, Aneela Rahman, go!

I'm fascinated secondly because I agree with the programme's premise. Of course I recognise the dangers of people marrying sight unseen, and of course everyone - including the most fervid supporters of arranged unions - would condemn forced or unwilling marriages.

But I also know, from the sharp end, that the traditional Western route to marriage has major drawbacks. For a start, it allows lust to massively dictate partner choice - and we know from research that the lust component of a union lasts a few years at most. But more, research also shows that the criteria that make for a long lasting and happy marriage are not the ones that many Western couples use to make their choice - but are the ones that inform the best arranged marriages. Common values, common opinions, common relationship expectations, common life aims - these are the things that recent studies show matter in love, not looks, or being 'cool', and certainly not the emotional neediness and dependency that motivate so many unions today.

I shall be watching Arrange Me a Marriage avidly, not only through enjoyment but also in the hope that it will hold love lessons for us all - and particularly for those of my readers who are currently in the process of choosing their life partners.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


For various reasons too complex (and medical) to explain, I am not a mother myself. But I do get thousands of letters every year from mothers who are struggling with some aspect of parenthood. I have no doubt that while it's the most rewarding role in life, it's also the hardest job in the world.

So I was unsurprised last week to read that a recent poll by Mother and Baby magazine suggests that the first 'baby year' in any new mother's life is the worst. Women approach motherhood - much as they often approach marriage - in a romantic haze, believing that while giving birth might be painful, what follows will be demanding but joyful. The reality can be very different.

New mothers, says the survey, are incredibly lonely. Once loving partner is back at work and supportive grandparents have gone back home, what remains is simply you and baby. Cut off from family, friend, work colleagues - trapped in a shiny house on a shiny and deserted estate - new mums can go stir crazy.

It didn't used to be like this, and to be frank, I don't think it should be like this. New Mums need regular, and nearby support - of the sort that was there when, 100 years ago, we lived next door to our own mothers and just across the road from our peer group who, like us, were busy giving birth. Now we mainly live hundreds of miles from our families, and are surrounded by neighbours who are gone for most of the week Overall, the average new mother spends only 90 minutes a day with other adults.

Yes, this too will pass. Babies grow and go to playschool. Children grow and go to big school. Mums go back to work and pretty soon are usually once more a happy part of society again. But during that first crucial year - when they deserve all the support society can offer - far too many women feel lonely and abandoned.

Two glimmers of hope here. First, Tesco supermarkets' latest scheme to get mothers and toddlers meeting up in their stores. Second, the Meet-a-Mum organisation Mama, which provides a befriending service for new, particularly postnatally depressed, mothers.

Great ideas both. But according to the Mother and Baby figures, just a drop in the ocean...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Call me Pollyanna...

I often get poo-pooed by both colleagues and peers for my optimistic attitude to life. I'm the one who thinks that, actually, yoof today is a darn sight more aware than I ever was as a teenager. I'm the one who believes that couples have much more successful relationships than they used to because people are now much more emotionally literate. I'm the one who holds that society is not actually going to the dogs but is slowly but surely becoming more evolved, intelligent and compassionate. A hundred years ago I and many other women like me would have been imprisoned in the home - that is if we weren't dead in childbirth. I count my blessings on a daily basis.

But when, over the weekend, I found that my bag had been stolen - complete with mobile phone,driving licence and credit card - my optimism was sorely tested. I was in Barcelona. I don't speak Spanish. And though I had followed all the advice about hanging on to my bag and keeping it in sight, it took just one distraction and it was gone from underneath the restaurant chair. Silly me.

But once again human nature, seemingly proven by the theft to be dishonest and nasty, stepped up positively to the plate. The Spaniards at the next table, who spoke no English, nevertheless saw my distress; then summoned the waiter and on my behalf demanded assistance. He sympathised, instigated a search, then when it proved fruitless, talked me through directions to the police station.

The police, who would have been totally justified in casting their eyes up to heaven and blaming the stupid foreign tourist, were patience itself - they had even installed a freephone directly connecting me to my credit card provider so that I could - even before filling in the police forms - cancel my card. The provider, in turn, calmly and coolly took action, offered to send me replacement card and cash, and equally uttered not a word of reproach.

Then there were the folk in the waiting room. We all huddled together sympathising, and when they heard that my companion and I had come to Barcelona to dance tango, they insisted on a demonstration. Applause all round, including from the police, who quickly and speedily processed my denuncio and sent me on my way.

Yes, it was horrid to be the target of pickpockets. Yes I could kick myself for falling for it. (And yes, I do know that much worse things happen to folk every day of the year, many times over - and that as a solvent, educated assertive woman I am wellplaced to cope with what was actually, something very trivial.)

But once again, what I am mainly left with is optimism - triggered by the little things done by ordinary people, who responded positively and supportively where they could have turned a blind eye, shrugged their shoulders, and roundly blamed...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Life is about Mobiles...

Worked on yet another ad campaign yesterday - this time talking about the place of mobile phones in our lives. The day started slightly comatose, as the car came at 4am to take me down to CNN for a 06:15 interview... but then we proceeded happily through BBC Asian network, BBC Technology and numerous other radio stations until well into the afternoon. Great fun!

The whole event was centred round a new study by the LSE in conjunction with The Carphone Warehouse - 5000 people interviewed in 5 European countries. The results made interesting reading for we Brits. We are (surprisingly) more likely to send erotic mateial by phone than any nationality other than the Swedes. We are (unsurprisingly) more likely to feel rejected if our phone doesn't ring than any other nationality than the Spanish. We also lie a lot by phone (though not as much as the French, mon Dieu) ...

The radios gobbled it up. They were particularly interested in the flirting, cheating and dumping that goes on by virtue of the new technology - which was excellent, because that's my area of expertise. I variously quoted, commented - and flirted - with presenters all round the country on the topic. It was a great campaign to do, sensible, well researched and adding to our understanding. What's not to like...

And, of course, life imitates advertising. In between the interviews, like a series of illustrative cameos to my voiceover, I kept seeing... the early morning taxi driver... the BBC technician... the nice lady from the recording studios... the ops room operator...and of course, all four of the clients I was working for... tapping, talking, listening and smiling - into their mobiles...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's good to talk - and it saves the nation money!

Just a quick blog entry today, to celebrate the announcement that £170m a year is to be set aside for 'talking treatments' on the NHS. The aim is to reduce the wait for counselling from 18 months to two weeks, and make sure that everyone who needs support gets it. The justification, says Health Secretary Alan Johnson, is that the country will save billions because mental health currently loses us 91 million working days a year.

Yes, yes, yes... thank heavens they've realised that providing support for emotional difficulties is not just liberal drivel - it works, and often better than throwing a pill at the problem. Well done Alan Johnson!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Real, please, not reality

At the start, I used to really like the Pop Idol/X Factor phenomenon. Yes, I was one of those who voted for Will Young, believing - rightly as it turned out - that Gareth Gates was too young to profit from the opportunity. Even last year, I was spellbound at Leona Lewis - surely the best voice ever to appear, let alone win, such a series.

But over the years, though, I've had my doubts. What started out as a simple talent contest was becoming far too scripted for my liking. And now, reports have it, my doubts have been confirmed; much of the seemingly spontaneous interactions may well have been plotted out beforehand or even re-run for the cameras.

From a psychologist's viewpoint, what particularly irks me is the way bad and good news is broken. Of course good television should build suspense. Of course it should show, and stir, emotion. But I object to the way the panel seemingly (for this may all, of course, be simply acting) plays with contestants when they are sending them home or putting them through to the next round.

"I hate to do this to you.... but you're through!"... "We have serious doubts about you... and you're going to the final"... "You've done so, so well... but now you're dumped." It's not just cruel, it's prime time cruel; the results are plain to see as the contestants sob their way through the ordeal. (Interestingly, I largely exonerate the infamous Simon Cowell from this - of all the judges he seems to tread the line of honest and clear feedback most ethically. If you're listening, Simon, try to persuade the producers to run the whole show to those standards...)

Actually, it's not the just the torture of contestants - some of them, this year, as young as 14 - that annoys me. It's the permission and approval that is given to such torture. In an age where school and workplace bullying is rife, this leading on and then pulling back is the worst kind of manipulation.

More, the contestants are expected to accept this, not to object to being manipulated, even to laugh at the joke (and at themselves`). And all this is horribly parallel to the way bullying victims are further tortured by their tormentors; the pain not only happens, one is told that it is not pain, and that one should simply bear it; "can't take a joke... sissy... what a wimp". If only one of the contestants, having been thus wound up, had the gall to object, to protest their treatment, to get angry instead of bursting into tears or hugging their oppressors.

If only, too, the producers had the courage to trust both judges and contestants to deliver compelling television without such manipulation. Real emotions - of the sort that human beings feel when something matters as much as X Factor success matters - would make good television on its own.

Genuine desire for success, genuine disappointment at failure, genuine commitment to their art and their own development - all of these unhyped - would surely make good television, as well as being a better role model for viewers.

More importantly, encouraging these genuine feelings in contestants would surely turn the winners into more mature and hence more successful stars.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Yes, boys too please!

You've probably gathered if you read this blog regularly that I'm a staunch supporter not only of treatments for cervical cancer, but also of prevention - that is, the new cervical cancer vaccine for preventing the HPV virus. And debate has been raging about whether, how and at what age this vaccine should be given out. To adults only? To teenagers? To pre-pubescents? Those newspapers that rant rather than write have been having a field day.

One thing that has been taken for granted by all the media, however, is that vaccinations should be given to girls. After all, it's girls wot get this cancer isn't it, so it's girls wot ought to be vaccinated! :)

So I was delighted to see my colleague Anne Szarewski speaking out in GP magazine this week in favour of vaccinating the boys. And - despite the commentators who worry that this would take the funding away from the female market, I agree with Anne.

It's not just that vaccinating boys will make it less likely that they will infect their partners. It's that by vaccinating boys too we send a clear message that it takes two to tango and that the lads as well as the girls who should be taking responsibility.

So yes, of course don't cut back on the female vaccination programme. Of course don't fail to get the message across to girls.

But when we're arguing about vaccinating boys as opposed to not vaccinating them, it seems like a nobrainer to me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Reasons to be cheerless... one... two.. three

What makes you happy is, apparently... what makes you unhappy. This very Zen thought comes, not inappropriately, from Japanese psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, who in the new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that people who have good things happen to them are, in the end, more miserable.

Say that again? The reason, apparently, is that if we have a good life, we end up taking 'good' for granted and are poleaxed if something bad happens. If we are used to - and even expect - the worst, then a cheerful event cheers us up enormously.

My gut reaction (and the fact that I once authored a book on Postive Thinking) is to balk at this. Surely pessimism is by definition a bad idea, meaning that we think depressed and depressing thoughts more and more often?

But logically, I have to admit that there is a grain of truth here. Letter after letter I receive from my readers show that we now expect so much out of life that - as my mother used to say when I had thrown a particular annoying temper tantrum "there's no pleasing you!". We expect the earth - from our jobs, our families, our relationships - and if we don't get it we not only feel bad about all those things but also about ourselves and our own validity.

No, we shouldn't settle for the worst and we shouldn't accept it as our lot. We particularly shouldn't accept it as someone else's lot, shouldn't simply put up with oppression, cruelty, poverty and war. But the relentless pursuit of happiness doesn't work either; philosophers have been telling us that for thousands of years and they are right.

Let's just hope that, now a psychologist is telling us, we will finally listen.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Partying Direct Dot Com

I am not a party animal, never have been. And usually, when I get an invitation to a press launch, or whatever, I mysteriously find I have to wash my hair, again.

But last night was different. Dating Direct, the website for which I'm a consultant psychologist - held its annual fest to celebrate National Dating Day. Of course, it involved a swish London club, lots of Very Beautiful People, acres of canapes and gallons of cocktails (thrown together by the Bar Wizards, who did an incredibly impressive choreography right there on the floor in front of us.)

But so far, so standard. What made this party unusual - and for me, truly enjoyable - was what underpinned the hype. Because I've worked with these people, know the focus and commitment they put into the DatingDirect site, know how good the product is, know how we've all worked and worked - particularly over the past six months - to add extra features, put in extra quality controls and relaunch the product in the service of all those single people out there who deserve love.

I don't mean to sound like an endorsement, but for once the champagne seemed absolutely appropriate. We deserved to party.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Having it all

Two studies hit the headlines today - and most papers have bundled them into one article. They both ring very true to me.

The first study, from Princeton University, suggests that compared to the Sixties women still do just as many jobs that they rate 'unpleasant' while men have cut back on such tasks - the gap between the genders' commitment to teeth-gritting has widened.

The second study, from the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that compared to the Seventies, men are happier while women's satisfaction has remained the same. Again the gap between the genders - this time when it comes to life fulfilment - has widened.

I'm not going to go off on a women's lib rant here - and I do think it's great that men are in general more contented. But it does make me sad that women are not. Compared to my mother, I have more opportunities, a better standard of living, a better chance to work at a job that fulfils me, the choice of whether to have children or not. Yet still my gender is no happier.

The 'why' could well, of course, be precisely because we have so many more opportunities in life. I'm absolutely not saying that women shouldn't work... or shouldn't have children... or shouldn't travel - quite the opposite. But while the above-quoted studies show that men have kicked back a little in life and are not demanding quite so much of themselves, we women are working just as hard if not harder in order to have it all and do it all.

I wouldn't swap my life - or the benefits I have compared to previous generations of women. But I long for the time when we can have it all without having to do it all - career development, childrearing, housework, eldercare - 24/7 and with a smile.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Seven year folly...

Just looking at the story today from Berlin, where controversial German politician Gabriele Pauli is suggesting a seven year limit on civil marriages to allow couples to renew their commitment round about the time of the fabled seven year itch.

Ms Pauli seems to present a coherent argument for allowing couples a natural break where they could choose to stay together or part amicably. And certainly from the biological viewpoint, it makes every sense. We humans are programmed to fall in love - ie, to make babies - in the initial stages of a relationship; but thereafter our hormones shift to create a more stable, less exciting, set of emotional connections. Seven years into an affair is one of the times where we might be tempted to break away, to seek excitement once more and wander off to pastures new.

Which is exactly why, of all the bad ideas I have ever heard politicians make, this leads the field! Tying in a renewal of commitment to the very point in a marriage where the bonds are most frail and partners are feeling most disillusioned seems to me the height of folly. Divorce is always traumatic, always a crisis life event that changes lives - for the partners involved, and for their innocent children. What we ought to be promoting at that point is not breakup but extra resources - increased support as partnerships struggle to survive, society's backing for partners to help them stay together and make it work.

For actually, couples can make it work. My work as an agony aunt in general - and my work with Relate in particular - tells me that time and again, if partners hunker down and get through that seven year watershed, they have a great chance of weathering the storm and ending up with a solid, loving and lifelong commitment.

By encouraging them not to hunker down, but to cut and run, Ms Pauli does her constitutents - and their families - no favours at all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Birds, Bees and embarrassed Dads...

First, major apologies... a whole slew of deadline work has kept me away from my blog this week. But I just had to come back to it when I read the headlines yesterday about the new research from Parentline Plus about why Dads don't talk to their children about sex.

Yes, I totally understand that the fathers deeply believe that the reason they don't is because it would ruin the time they spend with their kids. Particularly if parents are separated and visits to children are limited, it makes perfect sense that Dads don't want to start talking about the birds and the bees on Saturday afternoon access visits. Besides, sex talk - Dads apparently feel - deals with tricky subjects, ones that could lead to defensiveness or argument.

Oh dear. Here's a chance for fathers not only to be of use to children - children who talk to their parents about sex are significantly more likely to have sex later and less likely to get pregant. It's also a chance to strengthen the bond, to talk about real stuff, not just whether Liverpool should have slaughtered Portsmouth or whether Kylie is going to be any good on the Christmas Dr Who special.

How to handle emotions, how to build relationships, how to have enjoyable and responsible sex lives - these are the things that Dads should be talking to their kids about. The fact that they are scared of doing so - for I do believe that's what underpins these fathers' views, whether they realise it or not - is deeply, deeply sad.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sex and the pill (no, not the one you think I mean)

Yesterday I took part in Radio 4's Case Notes, a half-hour's digest presented by the thinking girl's doc, Mark Porter. This week's programme was all about sex problems (part of the Radio 4 The Sex Lives of Us season) and Mark, sexual physician John Dean and I batted about several topics including erectile dysfunction (for him), anorgasmia (for her) and loss of desire (for both).

Despite the fact that I was the only non-medic present, Mark gave me a deal of leeway to argue against medication for sexual problems - and he and John happily agreed with my stance. Yes, medication is a wonderful way forward for some problems; you only have to look at the eye-watering alternative treatments for ED (pumps, injections, surgery) to acknowledge that sometimes medication is by far the best option. But I am still wary.

For a start, pill-popping may hide an underlying physical issue. During a recent pilot scheme to dole out the little blue pill through Boots the Chemist, 9 out of every ten men who turned up tested positive for diabetes or heart disease and needed to be referred to a consultant rather than simply prescribed the pill.

Secondly, however, many sexual problems are not physically caused. The woman with low sexual desire may be tempted by the upcoming range of testosterone patches - whilst ignoring the fact that she's exhausted, depressed, in an abusive relationship, and with two under-fives to look after. Sort that lot out and she not only would be less likely to need the patches, but more likely to live a fulfilled and happy life.

John Bancroft, head of the famed Kinsey Institute, once famously said that the traditional role of the penis has been to tell its owner the truth... whether or not he wants to hear it. And whilst I don't wish to underplay the role of physical issues, I suspect many sexual problems serve the same function for both men and women.

So let's not medicalise or medicate where inappropriate. Instead, let's regard any sexual disorder as carrying a message that both its sufferer and their physician needs to hear...

Sunday, September 9, 2007

And now for something completely different...

On Thursday and Friday of this week, yet another of those projects that make me feel that I have the best job in the world. A whole two days spent explaining to interested journalists the real truth behind the little known disease of rheumatoid arthritis.

Fact: it's an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself, destroying and deforming the joints. Fact: it's not just a disease of the elderly but can strike three month old babies - the classic RA sufferer is a woman in her mid-thirties. Fact: it's an irreversible and lifelong condition that can render the sufferer disabled and in constant pain. Fact: it can shatter self esteem, end careers, destroy marriages, tear apart family life. Fact: There are 400,000 sufferers in the UK alone.

So, you may ask, what's the joy there? Where's the fun in talking about that?

The fun is in giving those facts - plus the additional fact that new treatments, practical aids and emotional support can now give an RA sufferer back their life - to dozen of journalists who, at first neutral, then became fascinated, then actively fired-up to cover the condition in health features across a wide range of magazines.

Result - not only a good job well done (by myself, by Sue Oliver the arthritis nurse consultant with whom I was working and by the PR company who hired us). But also a result for the issue of arthritis care.

If you want to know more about rheumatoid arthritis, click here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What is a saint?

As you may have gathered, I've been up to my eyes in work over the past five days - so the blog has suffered. But I'm back now, the big piece of work for Dating Direct done and dusted.

In between the work, however, I had time to notice the coverage in today's Daily Mail of new 'discoveries' about nursing heroine Florence Nightingale. Seems that rather than silently ministering to the sick with a weak smile, she was much more likely to be demanding extra resources, stroppily complaining about conditions and generally making a nuisance of herself.

The thing that fascinated me about all this was the constant implication - in the Mail and in other papers - that because she demonstrated this behaviour, Nightingale was therefore, by definition, not as saintly as she has been painted by history. Excuse me? Does being assertive and demanding in the cause of good - for noone is suggesting that she saved any fewer lives or achieved any less in her lifetime because of her manner - render one less deserving of sainthood?

In my opinion, saints are not necessarily quiet mice. They're robustly human, with human energy for getting things done - be that by nursing, praying, or by assertively throwing money lenders out of temples.

Or as George Bernard Shaw wrote. "“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man"

Let's hear it for unreasonable men and women....

Friday, August 31, 2007

Yes, still working happily away on the Dating Direct job - so fascinating! But I broke out of my purdah yesterday to do a piece for BBC News 24. The news broke yesterday that the divorce rate is down - lowest since 1984 - and so of course everyone is clamouring to know why.

My own take on it is that in some ways this is significant and in some ways it simply isn't. The insignificant bit is that the divorce rate is down because the marriage rate is down: less marriage mean less marriage-breakups.

But the significant bit - which all the experts seem to be supporting - is that I do believe there is a sea change on the way. People are thinking more carefully before they marry. They are making better choices. They are marrying later in life and further down the road in their relationship. They have more realistic expectations and they are more knowledgeable about what to do when those expectations aren't met. I do believe that counselling - as well as other support mechanisms such as self-help books and agony aunt columns - are making us more emotionally literate.

Let's hope the trend continues. I for one would be thrilled to bits to have nothing to do because everyone in the world was happy, fulfilled and content in their relationships!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dating Developed...

Not trying to get the sympathy vote here, but while the rest of you were enjoying the sunshine over the weekend, I was working. Not my usual round of agony and broadcasting, but a rush job with online relationships site Dating Direct, for whom I'm the Relationships Spokesperson.

Which led me on to thinking about the whole issue of internet dating and the way it's matured over the past decade. At the start, when it was all very new, it was seen as sad - and if people did it, they certainly didn't 'fess up. Then a few years ago, around the time I got involved with Dating Direct, there was a flurry of press coverage: a few reporting with amusement stories of Sarah from Chelmsford marrying Simon from Chicago because they had - gasp - met on the web, plus many more stories pointing the finger with horror at all those Sarahs or Simons whose Internet loves had proved to be someone completely other than they had claimed to be online, or to be after something completely other than marriage...

Fast forward to today and spot the shift. Yes,there are still horror stories in the press - and of course I am in no way condoning Internet exploitation. But contacting potential partners over the web is now so normal that it doesn't merit even the middle pages of the Daily Whatever, and the amount of outrage over Internet dating scandals is noticeably down too.

What's happened? I venture to suggest that we're learning. We've realised, as we use the Internet more and more, that - like real life dating - it has its customs, its rules, its ups and its downs, but what we need to do is to work that. Outraged of Worthing is no longer throwing a wobblie because the man she chatted to online doesn't propose to her the minute they meet up, because she's realised that it's unrealistic to expect him to do so. Broken-hearted of Wallasey is no longer writing devastated letters to me because the woman he chatted up online has suddenly decided that he's not the one for her, because he now knows that, well, these things happen.

We - or almost all of us bar the very young and the very inexperienced - now understand that the Internet creates an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation that can undermine our realism. We now understand that going to meet someone we have met online may feel like getting together with an old friend but that - as with any sight-unseen blind date - it is in reality getting to know a stranger. We aregrowing up, learning the ropes, exploring the boundaries - and as we get the hang of the system, we are making fewer and fewer mistakes and gaining more and more appreciation of what Internet dating has to offer; a huge range of possibilities; the chance to get to know someone much more deeply than normal pubbing or clubbing would allow; a clear statement on both sides of what the agenda is. In our fragmented society, where all the traditional methods of meeting, falling for and pairing up with partners are increasingly impossible, the Internet is a wonderful solution. Despite the early press coverage, Simon from Chicago and Sarah from Chelmsford were not an aberration - but the way forward.

In short, considering how very recently Internet dating was born and has grown up, I am delighted to see how quickly and how rewardingly it's come of age. And no, I'm not just saying that because I work for them...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Age shall not wither....

At last statistics have proved what I've known professionally for decades and am increasingly coming to know on a personal level... sexual desire does not fade with age. The myth that sex stops at 40, or with the twentieth wrinkle, whichever comes sooner, is just that - a myth.

A survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine
, and covered in almost all the national newspapers today with varying degrees of seriousness, shows that older people still want, need and love sex - and most of them, despite the occasional erectile or lubricative glitch, are still getting it. The majority of those under 74 are making love regularly and happily.

The flipside - for sadly, there is a flipside - is that they may well be making love unsafely. For after all, these nasty STDs don't affect anyone but the young, do they? (Of course they do, one of the biggest rises in infection occurs among the older cohort, who think that anyone they sleep with has been celibate or at least faithful for the past several decades. Dream on.)

But safe sex warnings apart, I'm delighted that at last those of us in our middle years are finally being appreciated for who we are. We are not ony warm blooded and passionate, - but also knowledgeable about our own bodies, about how to turn a partner on, about how to make sex not only loving but also lustful. What's not to like?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Good to talk...

I was asked to do a nice piece for Radio Cambridge today on the Antonia Brickell Show. Apparently writer and philosopher Theodore Zeldin, coming up to his 74th birthday, has decided to celebrate not by asking to a party all his friends but... a group of strangers.

His point, apparently, is that in today's world we get isolated... never talk at any deep level... let friendships lapse (indeed, lose friends at the rate of just over one a year)... and that we need to redress the balance. Talking to strangers, he reckons, is a way to do this, to break down our differences, and get us Connected.

I'm all for it. I totally agree that we should widen our social contacts - if only because we as a society are so wary of strangers, so paranoid that we fear simply chatting to someone we don't know will put us in danger of being mugged, literally or emotionally.

My own personal celebration of Professor Zeldin's birthday will, therefore, be to talk to at least one stranger in the next few days - at a bus-stop, on a rail station, in a shop.... I'll let you know how I get on.

And, if Professor Zeldin reads this and hasn't yet had his birthday party... can I have an invitation please?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Regretting the regrets

At age 26, a few months after my mother died of cancer, I found a lump in my breast. And in the three days between that and my GP's reassurance that the lump was benign, I did a lot of thinking. The result was that I made up my mind to do three things - and no, I'm not going to tell you what they were, but the most innocent was to move to London, which I did a short while later.

The lesson I learned in those three thoughtful days was that I rarely regret what I have done, but I often regret what I haven't done. And it seems I'm not alone. A recent survey, albeit not a scientifically researched one, suggests that we all have something we regret - and many of those regrets are about not doing things. We wish we'd saved more, we wish we'd travelled more, we wish we'd gone into a different career...

No, of course sometimes we simply don't have the strength or the skill; I will never climb Everest or play solo piano with the London Philharmonic. (Though I have three times fulfilled my dream of dancing on the West End Stage - through sweat and tears, not through talent.)

But sometimes we say no to things not because we can't, but because we believe we can't, or shouldn't, or mustn't. My postbag is littered with such beliefs, with readers telling me that they are "too old" for A, "too fat" for B, or that C would disapprove if they dared to do D.

So while I don't wish to go all happy-clappy in this blog, I do want to reaffirm my own resolution - and call on you to reaffirm yours - to take note when you want something and to do it if you possibly can.

In short I wouldn't want to be either Edith Piaf or Frank Sinatra. But if I had to choose between their respective anthems, I'd rather bypass "Regrets, I've had a few..." and sign up to "Je ne regrette rien".

Friday, August 17, 2007

Depression - reality not myth

After yesterday's rather light and lively entry, I was brought back to earth with a bump this morning by reading the latest media reports of comments from Professor Gordon Parker of the University of South Wales.

In short, Professor Parker - with every good intention - has been quoted as saying that depression is overdiagnosed in the world today and that it is normal to feel down in the dumps from time to time. He also adds a warning about overmedicalisation.

On the one hand, I agree with what he says - we can be told to pop a pill when what we need is support to face our problems.

But notice I say "support". For what worries me about Professor Parker's statement is that, as reported in the media, it can seem to play down depression in a way that will deny sufferers support. Headlines such as "The myth of depression" just add to an already existing attitude that views depressive illness as trivial, all in the mind and something that you can simply 'get over' - and deprioritises mental health charities as a result.

Clinical depression is to a down mood as a raging migraine is to a slight headache. It is a real, painful, mind-altering condition that can drive its sufferers to the point of suicide - and beyond.

So yes, by all means let's ride with - and learn from - a dip in happiness that lasts a day or so in the wake of a real-life disappointment or setback.

But let's not demean the condition of depression - or its sufferers - by labelling it a myth.

For help with depression, see your GP or contact Depression Alliance.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The wall

On the opposite side of the road that lies below my office window there is a wall, grey stone,and about three feet high.

Small children run towards it screaming with joy and demand that their grandfathers lift them up so they can walk along it.

Students just arrived at the University, freed of parental inhibition stagger along beside the wall, lean on it, and then slowly fall backwards and disappear behind it.

Groups of young people hang out at the wall, chatting, flirting, mock-fighting and generally eyeing each other up and down.

Students about to leave the University and head off to adult life, perch on the wall in academic gowns with bottles of postgraduation champagne.

Young lovers snuggle up on the wall together, gaze into each other's eyes and steer a fine line between passion and public indecency.

Lunchtime office workers sit on the wall and eat their sandwiches or smoke that forbidden cigarette, staring into space and - presumably - mulling over their lives.

Proud parents pushing prams pause at the wall, take a moment to lean in and gaze at their new offspring, smile at each other and then walk on.

And... yes... small children run towards it screaming with joy and demand that their grandfathers lift them up so they can walk along it...

I sit and watch from my window and love what I see.

Much better than television.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Intimations of mortality...

I was sad to see reported in the weekend's news that comedienne Dawn French, 49, is convinced that she will die when she is 50, and has retired to the country to prepare for death.

But my guess is that Dawn herself is not sad at all. On the contrary, she seems calm, collected and at peace with her own mortality. All round her, I guess, family, friends and fans are weeping and wailing, trying to convince her that what she believes is misguided, morbid, or a little mad. She, however, has believed since she was a child that she will die young and so has come to terms with it.

I very much hope, for everyone's sake - not least her husband and daughter's - that Dawn is just plain wrong about this one. But if I had to make my choice between her accepting and positive approach to dying and the terror that the rest of us feel when faced with our inevitable mortality, I know exactly which I would choose.

Making the world a happy bunny

No, I admit it, not my headline but the current hook for the latest in neat campaigns to sell sex toys.

As you probably know, new recycling regs mean that all electrical equipment must be disposed of at a "designated electrical waste collection centre". Which is fine if your throw-out is a toaster, a cooker or a hairdryer. But not so good if what you're taking to the tip is a collection of vibrators.

Bad enough to see the smirk on the face of the Customs official as they rifle through your carry on-luggage and find a rampant rabbit (who, me, talking from personal experience... nooooo!) But to have to produce and then dispose of said sex toys at your local disposal centre? Not a good idea.

Now sex toy website Love Honey has launched an "amnesty" campaign to make the whole thing easier. You send them your vibrator. They recycle it. They donate £1 to charity. They send you a new vibrator for half price.

I'm not on Love Honey's payroll, but I do approve. Good idea, well marketed, subtly pushes the safe sex message and very green. What's not to like?

Friday, August 10, 2007

The demanding art of agony aunting

In this morning's email, a note from Lianne, a sixth form student who as part of her A Level dissertation, is researching the role of the agony aunt in modern society. Nicely done - the questionnaire I was asked to fill in was thoughtful and well written, and I was glad she'd asked...

... I was particularly glad she'd asked because her survey led me to think through and write down in black and white just what I do as an agony aunt. Many people presuppose that we advice columists simply, well, give advice to the person who writes to us. But I find our job is actually far more mentally demanding and emotionally draining than that.

To begin with, an agony aunt's role, remember, is not simply to respond to the letter that is written. When I answer the heartfelt problem from Desperate of Dorking, I am also answering the similar current problem of Desperate of Dungeness, the similar future problem of Desperate of Dublin - and increasingly, given the worldwide web, the similar but culturally disparate problem of Desperate of Dallas, Dubai or Dharamsala. None of these people will ever write to me, but all them, along with my million other interested readers, will read and benefit from my column every single week.

Remember too that the best agony aunts do far more than simply give advice. We not only try to write an answer which offers emotional normalisation, which suggests that the presented problem is not insurmountable, which reassures that a person who suffers from that problem is not a monster. We also try to write an answer that helps readers see things differently, find different solutions, find better strategies for dealing. Plus, perhaps most importantly, we attempt to write an answer that gives more generalised and transferrable guidance, that reflects society's best practice in order to help readers to manifest their own best behaviour.

And we do all this in - on average - 150 words, on a one-shot-try, with no interaction with our 'clients'. We feel with our readers, we reach out to our readers, we respond to them from the heart - and then, every day, we worry about not being able to do more for them.

No wonder, sometimes, that the adjective "agony" in our job title can be applied almost as much to what we experience as to what our readers endure...

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

In praise of the non-babe

All over Britain, sensitive caring men are currently breathing a sigh of relief. Dr Lynda Bothroyd of St Andrews' and Durham universities has determined that when asked to choose between 'carers' and hunks, women choose the former. David Hasselhof eat your heart out - Johnny Depp's the one for me.

Jokes aside, though, there's an interesting point to be made here for both genders. Because the myth is that only the drop-dead gorgeous men and women get partners and the rest of us might as well cash in our chips. Sadly, a lot of the research also seems to suggest that women will go for muscles and men will go for boobs and bums. Which has surely contributed to the current fascination with appearance, this belief that if we aren't fit, we'll never get a partner - and hence that we need to have cosmetic surgery on all points south.

The reality is that attraction is a lot more complex than that. The research that suggests people only go for hunks and babes may be accurate in its own terms. But these studies are always about initial attraction - to be blunt, they test only who we want to make babies with, not who we want to form a loving relationship with.

In fact, we are far more sensible than that. For a long term relationship, as Bothroyd's study shows, and other research supports, what we want in a partner is not looks but character. Being drop dead gorgeous is no guarantee of finding love nor of making a happy relationship. The key to success is much more around the personality and experience we bring to a relationship.

So let's hear it for those of us who don't look like Catherine Zeta Jones or Orlando Bloom...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The ugh factor

I spent Friday consulting to a pharma company that is trying to gain more acceptance for its vaginal atrophy product.

Its what? Let me explain. The pharma has produced a pessary to help women who, usually because they're postmenopausal, suffer difficulty with... how shall I put this... thinning of the skin... loss of lubrication... discomfort while...

I can almost hear you wincing.

Actually, that was the whole point of the consultancy - to find a way to present the topic in a way that anyone will listen to. Because say the words "vaginal atrophy" and people's first response is incomprehension and their second response is a wrinkled nose and an "ugh" noise. Even women don't want to talk about it, while men simply turn white and start talking football.

But it's a real problem - I know because I get letters about it from my readers. After a certain age, with the shift in hormone levels, many women start to suffer. Itching, dryness, urinary incontinence and yes, pain and in particular pain during intercourse. It's not a trivial issue. "It hurts" say my readers - and they don't just mean the physical discomfort. They mean the horror of having one's most pleasurable and intimate part start to let you down... the strain and stress that puts on your relationship... and the intimation if not of mortality then at least of ageing.

This is not a plug for the pharma product. But help of various kinds is available - and many women don't seek it both because they don't know about it and because if they do, they're embarrassed to even admit they need it.

So it would be great if we started to take this one seriously. If the media gritted their teeth and covered it. If the health profession started asking pertinent and sympathetic questions of menopausal patients. And if ordinary men and women worldwide stopped wincing and started talking...

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Regular readers may remember my piece of a last week roundly endorsing the showing of a death on prime time television. It now turns out that the programme doesn't show Malcolm Pointon's moment of death, but the moment of his passing into unconsciousness three days earlier.

I'm not criticising his wife - she didn't issue the press releases giving the impression that death was what was being filmed, though at the same time she didn't deny them. I do blame the production company for allowing the story to run in the press and for capitalising on the ensuing debate to raise interest in the documentary.

But most of all, I'm sad that everyone bottled. I totally understand that Barbara Pointon might not want this private moment filmed - but the point I made in my earlier post still stands. This very privacy around death means that we as a society do not know the reality of it. If we did, we would both take death more seriously and live life more fully.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Just going down the (computer) garden, dear

One of the biggest topics in my postbag right now - and for the past three or four years - is from women complaining that they have lost their partners to the Internet. I'm not talking about online cheating here, but the simple fact that many men are retreating to their computer screens more or less 24/7,leaving their women lonely and resentful.

On the surface it's a no-brainer. Anyone, male or female, who withdraws from relationship contact so decisively is surely making a statement about their commitment - and so the pages of outraged protest from abandoned partners has always left me sympathetic and supportive.

But I've suspected for a while that it's not quite as simple as that. Relationships are systems - what one partner does not only affects the other, but is a direct result of the other's actions. The outraged women who write to me are not simply victims; the situation almost always has two sides.

Plus, while - as I've commented on this blog before - women tend to react to stress by talking it through, men react by withdrawing. If a relationship is under strain, a man seeks solace on his keyboard - just at the very time when a woman needs the reassurance of interaction.

So I was pleased to see, in Saturday's Times, a piece making just this point. Such dynamics, writer Naomi Shragai quite rightly suggests, are not the cause of relationship problems, but the result of both partners' solutions-of-choice.

The piece not only posits a fresh - and in my mind entirely accurate - view of the Internet problem, but also offers some helpful hints. If you're suffering at either edge of this particular sword, I'd advise you to read it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Morbid - no, necessary

Nice piece by Bel Mooney in the Mail this morning on the upcoming ITV documentary which shows, on primetime television, the last moments of a life. There's been a lot of controversy about this programme - as there was a decade ago when the BBC showed a death on The Human Body. Like Bel, however, I'm absolutely in favour.

Of course if a 'real death' is shown disrespectfully, humorously or violently, we should condemn it. But actually, we see 'pretend death'shown in all these ways, many times a week on the media, and barely an eyebrow is raised. This showing of real death in a serious, reverent - and above all, honest - way is to me a huge step forward.

I saw my father die. He was 78 years old, and he died of terminal lung cancer in a hospital bed with me and my uncle at his side. It was an unbearably upsetting moment - but nevetheless I am glad I was there. I had not been there when my mother died and I had always felt somehow cheated at that. We need to witness the moment of death.

But surely we only need to witness when the dying person is close to us? Surely when they are a stranger, as is the case on the upcoming documentary, our interest is morbid and voyeuristic. Not at all. Death, like sex, is something we rarely see in person - yet it is one of the defining elements that makes us human. We will all die, will all lose loved ones to death. We all want to know - and arguably deserve to know - what it looks like.

Seeing my father die has not removed my fear of being dead, because I don't know what follows. But it has removed my fear of dying - and thus made me far more able to live fully. If the upcoming documentary does that for even a handful of its viewers, then it will be worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Be Prepared - take a condom!

Where did you learn about sex? If you're of a certain age, probably from an embarrassed parent... a giggling friend... or round the back of the bike sheds. Today's youngsters, on the other hand, are much more likely to get their facts about the birds and the bees attending a Girl Guide Jamboree.

Today's report that Girl Guides (as they used to be called) are scrapping their goody-goody image and demanding lessons on safe sex comes hot on the heels of July's survey from the British Youth Parliament suggesting that young people are campaigning for better sex education.

Now tthis is probably raising hackles in middle England, with worried parents seeing this as proof that the yoof of today is more debauched than ever before. I beg to differ.

I grew up in the Sixties, when we believed, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, that sex had just been invented. We acted accordingly. But we acted with very little responsibility, no awareness whatsoever of sexually transmitted infection, and a total presupposition that if you didn't want sex you were weird. The pressure from the lads to make a girl 'put out' would horrify today's confident young women. The irresponsibility of the girls to put out without contraception would horrify today's young men.

Yes, of course we live in a more sexualised society today than in the past. That's not down to teens however, who take their lead from the adults around them and the media which is controlled by said adults.

No, in my opinion, teens today are far more aware, sensible and responible than we ever were - and the proof of that pudding is in their asking for more sex education, to help them cope with a more sexualised society. Good on the Guides, I say, for following up on their motto...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

You're not fat!

Coincidence is a funny thing. On the train this morning I sat opposite two boys and a girl, delightful teenagers of about 14 or 15. No, really, they were lovely - chatting among themselves about school, homework, friends, and what they'd done over the weekend.

But trains being what they are, I caught most of what they were saying, and when the girl started talking about a classmate, whom she eulogised for her face and figure, my attention homed in on the phrase "She's so skinny... whereas I'm fat."

I glanced across to see a sylphlike creature, with a waist you could have circled in both hands. And I winced. But I wasn't the only one - her male friends immediately took up the challenge. "You're not fat... come on... you look great."

The Sylph was having none of it. She protested, argued, pushed back. But worryingly, this wasn't out of false modesty; there were no flirty giggles as she asserted that she really ought to lose the fat on her stomach (what stomach?). She was deadly serious in her belief that she was overweight and needed to lose half a stone. I winced again.

As we reached London and all got up to leave the train, my wincing turned into an active discomfort - and suddenly I abandoned that English rule about never talking to strangers. I tapped the Sylph on the shoulder and gently made my point... that she wasn't fat but slim, slim, slim... that I received countless letters from women with eating disorders... and that she desperately needed to rethink her body image.

The Sylph was shyly polite. Her male friends were fabulous "we keep telling her that... maybe now she'll listen...". We parted with mutual smiles.

But I did wonder, as I walked away, whether if she didn't listen to her mates she would listen to that strange woman who had accosted her on a train. And I also wondered whether, if she didn't listen, how she would end up.

I began this blog entry with the words "Coincidence is a funny thing." - and you're probably wondering where the coincidence in this tale lies. Well here we go. This morning's press covered a study by the Schools Health Education Unit which revealed that over half the teenage girls in Britain believe they need to lose weight, while 40% typically miss breakfast - and sometimes lunch - in an attempt to emulate the sticklike status of their celebrity idols.

I strongly suspect that one of that 40% travelled opposite me on the London train this morning....

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Money can't buy you love

Today's reports that Sir Paul McArtney has offered Heather Mills £70 million as a divorce settlement will doubtless spark a flurry of editorial or feature comment on greed and avarice in general and the financial battlegrounds of divorce payoffs in particular.

As a psychologist, I see it differently. Post-divorce fights about money (like all relationship fights about money) are never only about the finances. They're about a whole host of much more emotional issues - power, control, self-esteem, jealousy, revenge, guilt. It is no coincidence that a Relate survey identified money as the top issue in marital conflict. And when marital conlict peaks in divorce, and the currency of love has disappeared, what can ever replace it? The answer is all too often hard cash.

We fight over the money side of a breakup because that is the only power we still have left over our beloved, or because we want to punish them for the end of the relationship. We shrink from fighting over the money side of a breakup because it is the only way we know how to make amends for having stopped loving them, or because we still treasure hopes of their loving us again.

So what I as a psychologist see behind Paul's offer and Heather's counteroffer is not avarice or greed. At bottom, I see the deep pain of two people who thought they were loved and realise that they are not.

Tell us more...

It feels so good when what you've written hits a chord with your readers.

It feels even better when what you've written hits such a big chord that a national newspaper asks you to write a much longer think-piece on it. So nice to be wanted.

My blog of earlier this week about co-rumination entranced the Daily Mail so much that they asked me to tell them more. The expanded piece can be found on p65 of this morning's Mail - or click on this link.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

You are what they say you are!

I've always thought that the recent smoking ban is good news - what's not to like unless you're addicted? But I didn't predict that it would also give me a wonderful real life example of what I've always held to be true; people live up (or down) to the expectations that others have of them. So punish somebody for something they haven't done, and they'll more than likely go ahead and do it.

Here's the psychology. If you tell someone that they are a certain type of person, they automatically shift their behaviour somewhat towards being that kind of person. So tell a child they are naughty and their behaviour deteriorates; tell them they are good and their behaviour improves. It's not an overnight shift, but a refocussing of the child's attention onto certain elements of their personality, plus a reinforcing and rewarding of those elements. Result - the behaviour you prophecied, whether bad or good, becomes self-fulfilling.

Here's the linked smoking ban anecdote, reported in The Sun last week. Council warden hands out a £50 fine to a couple who looked as if they were about to drop their cigarette butts but hadn't yet done so. Couple immediately drop cigarettes. Couples' later comment "We thought if we were going to get fined, we might as well get our money's worth." Living up to expectations - you bet!

Sure, some people's behaviour needs a short sharp shock. But punishing someone - child, lover, team, or an entire society - for something they're not actually doing, and you're inviting them to do it anyway.

Call me Polyanna. But I reckon that council warden would get more results if he actively thanked people who are good in binning their butts, rather than fining people who he suspects might possibly be considering naughtiness...

Monday, July 16, 2007

Talk to me

Personally, I've always relied on friends to help me through the bad times. Professionally, I've always advocated the support of friendship as a way of getting through the bad times. But a recent study in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, suggests that friendship may not be the solution of choice when one has problems - at least, if one is a girl.

The study, which involved 813 American girls and boys aged 9 to 15, got them revealing how much - and how effectively - they discussed their problems with friends. As expected, girls did it more. As expected, both boys and girls felt closer to friends after doing it. But, not as expected, girls felt more anxious and depressed as a result. Boys simply chatted things through and then let them go, but female teens ended up reinforcing each other's negative thoughts, feeling worse and worse about themselves - and then talking about it all even more as proof of friendship!

This study was done on adolescents but I strongly suspect this theory holds true across the board. Women like to talk things through and we tend to think that in and of itself is the solution. But actually, we may have a lot to learn from the boys. They don't get bogged down in the negatives. Their strategy - define the problem, find a solution, but avoid overthinking and overtalking - leaves them feeling more positive and more resourced. Perhaps, just perhaps, we should take a leaf out of their book and use some of the Mars approach rather than being unilaterally Venus.

Let me be clear. I'm not arguing against talking. Properly done, it supports, clarifies, and inspires. The problem is what the Developmental Psychology study calls "co-rumination" - going over and over negative issues, and so spiralling into ever more negative states.

And, let me be even clearer, I'm not arguing either against talking therapies. Well-done, counselling isn't co-rumination - any therapist worth their salt will slash straight through a client's descent into that kind of unhelpful thinking, and encourage them to find solutions to their problems.

No, the message of this study for me is not to drop our friends - or flee the counselling room. It's to learn just when, where and above all *how* it's good to talk - and when you need to simply take action and move on.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday snippets

Three pre-weekend stories.

Firstly, Radio Cambridge called me in to do a comment piece for their Drivetime Programme. Apparently a new text flirting service has just been launched, specifically aimed at people stuck in traffic jams who want to chat each other up! Light and lively little piece, but it turned serious when the presenter, Antonia Brickell, asked whether I approved of all this new technology; surely texting, chat rooms and internet dating sites were dangerous?

Lovely contentious question, Antonia - and great radio. Because I was then able to counter that actually I'm the Internet's biggest fan. It's not just the increased communication that I love. It's not just that research suggests people are *more* honest on the web because they're wary of being found out because they have to put things down in black white. I also love the Internet because folk who have formerly been marginalised in society now have a much bigger chance of getting involved and accepted. Example? My quadraplegic reader who ten years ago had no mates, and now has hundreds of friends who adore his lovely mind and personality as revealed in his emails - and don't care in the least that he can't move.

Secondly, though I try never to stray into the political arena, this week Gordon Brown has delighted me by coming down heavily against the supercasino plans. Yes, I do understand the regeneration argument. But if the casino-supporters were at the receiving end of the agony mailbag that I get from desperate wives and husbands who see their lives trashed by a gambling-addicted spouse, they would think twice about doing anything at all that supported the 'sport'. (Breaking news: Nokia has now banned gambling ads from its mobile ad network... considering how much revenue that will lose them, I think that's an incredibly brave move!)

Finally, on a more personal note, I've spent a good deal of time over the past few days being gobsmacked (as they say oop North where I come from) by the positive response to this website and this blog. Big thanks to all those people who have written to tell me they love it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

But what do you actually dooooo?

As I've mentioned earlier, my working life has no clear pattern - any two days are usually utterly different. But Mondays and Thursdays have something in common - on both I write and submit agony columns. Today, it's my column for That's Life, a woman's weekly for whom I've written for over a decade now.

My postbag always moves me. A few sentences on lined paper torn from a notebook and hand-scribbled in a guy's coffee break. Several paragraphs inside a pink card with kittens on the front carefully printed by a fourteen-year-old, probably during a maths lesson. Fourteen pages of stream of consciousness, almost certainly written at the dead of night and downstairs, while the hated and feared spouse sleeps on upstairs.

How do I respond? Always from the gut. Yes of course I research around the problems presented, of course I refer on to an appropriate organisation. But the core of my answer is always instinctive, a reaching out to the letter writer, to make them feel understood and to give them a way forward.

I haven't got the answers. But what I can do - what my expertise and experience enables me to do - is to help my readers see their problems differently. The guy writing in his coffee break needs to realise that ending his affair will be hard but not impossible. The schoolgirl writing at her desk needs to realise that she doesn't need to sleep with the boy in order to get the love she craves. The spouse writing in the dead of night needs to realise that leaving the violent partner is the best thing for everyone.

Of course, I'm not just addressing those people. Yes, I originally write person-to-peson, but I'm published to an audience of millions, who buy the magazines and websites that run my columns. What I say needs to help them too see their problems differently - needs to give them permission to stay, to leave, to say yes, to say no.

Above all, my agony aunt columns need to give people the message that when times get tough, they're not alone - and that they deserve not to be alone. If not from friends and family, then from advisors, counsellors, therapists - and from agony aunts - people should feel able to reach out and get the help and support they need.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eat your heart out, Corrie!

As well as covering "drugs, sex and rock and roll" for the mass media, I'm also heavily involved in the more academic side of things - most particularly sexual health. Yesterday, for example, I attended the quarterly meeting of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health, a cute little mag that belies its rather ponderous name to give coverage of a range of topics from menstruation to the menopause by way of contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and cervical cancer - anything to do with women's and men's bits, basically.

Of course it's a serious journal - the list of contributors always reads like a Who's Who of key world figures in sexual health. But what always amazes me during our meetings is the fact that in addition it's so much about real life, real stories of patients who have had to make difficult choices, real concerns of health professionals who have had to face difficult challenges. Granted, unless you have a medical interest in the topic, you won't keep a copy on your bedside table; but beneath the long Latin words and the carefully correlated statistics, there lie so many human stories - stories that frankly, I find much more interesting and inspiring than any TV soap.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

I can't believe I just did that!

Psychologists at Exeter University have made a neat discovery. Apparently they've tracked down a brain mechanism that alerts us, in the present, to mistakes we've made in the past. So volunteers who messed up on a set task experienced a sort of instinctive mental flinch when they were about to repeat that mess-up. Useful, say the psychologists, because it provides us with an early warning system in skills such as driving.

My thought was this. If we have such a mine detector for physical competencies, what about emotional competencies? Wouldn't it be great if we could learn not to date the partners who make us miserable, or not to run the addictive behaviours that cause us heartbreak? Wouldn't it be great if we could learn to avoid mistakes in our relationships?

Well actually, we do learn. We develop emotional mine detectors from the day we are born - and many of them stand us in very good stead. Problem is, we also overlearn. We learn, too quickly for our own good sometimes, that we need to flinch and run away from certain situations. And then, because of our past mistakes we can end up emotionally paralysed, scared of ourselves, scared of other people, scared of living our lives.

The vast majority of my agony aunt correspondents - and the vast majority of people worldwide who turn up in therapy - are folks who have a wired-in early warning system that leaves them believing that they can do nothing, be nothing, love no-one - for fear of making the same mistakes again.

Note to Exeter, then. Once you've tracked down not only our physical but also our emotional early warning system, can you please work out a way that - when we need and want to - we can also put that system on hold for a moment, relax, and start trusting the world and trusting ourselves

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Equality equals happiness - proof at last

Yessssss.... finally, some backing for what has always seemed to me to be a no-brainer. The Pew Research Center in Washington has surveyed 2000 couples about marital satisfaction and has concluded that sharing household chores is one of the most important factors.

This isn't a trivial issue. Not equalising housework was all very well when housework was what women did and out-of-housework was what men did. But all change - now everyone has a job and yet women still do the bulk of the childrearing and home-cleaning. For a partner to help isn't just easier all round - it's a sign of respect, concern and love.

Lads, I totally understand that you don't want to do the ironing because you find it boring and unfulfiling. But the hidden message in opting out of that stuff that you think it's OK for us to be bored and unfulfilled.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Sex, drugs and rock n' roll!

I spent the weekend catching up on a backlog of work. It's never the same day twice. Yes there are regular commitments - Monday column for AOL, Tuesday phone-in for Heart Radio, Thursday page for That's Life. But otherwise... what do I do, what have you got?

This weekend it was a mixture of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Sex? I've been working for a while on a rewrite of a (rather famous) sex book, and we've just reached a new phase of firming up on what needs to be done: working through tens of thousands of words of research on such disparate topics as vibrators... orgasms... oral sex and pompoir (don't ask), I caught myself wondering happily how on earth I had, by some miracle, ended up doing as an enjoyable career what most people do just for enjoyment.

Drugs? I'm deeply involved - for personal as well as professional reasons - in cervical cancer campaigning; so on Saturday I spent some time looking over the news clips covering the latest vaccine. Lots of debate about whether 12-year-old girls should be injected, or whether the very act of vaccinating would make them more likely to have early sex. For me it's a no-brainer. If a 12-year-old girl is aware enough to be having the vaccine, then she's probably aware enough to know not to have sex for a while. It's the kids who don't have the vaccine that I worry about - they're much more likely to get caught not taught.

Rock and roll? Well, no, not really... but I did write a comment for a weekly glossy on the Spice Girls Reunion. I love serving up serious psychology that can teach people how to best live their lives... in the guise of a celeb news story. Sneaky, I know, but... such fun!

Friday, June 29, 2007

End of civilisation?

I love the Office of National Statistics. When all around are losing their heads and writing beefed-up stories about Paris Hilton's jail release - which is great fun, but hardly earth-shattering - good old ONS quietly releases accurate and groundbreaking figures that always make me stop and think, professionally and personally.

Today was a particularly good day for exposing significant social trends: apparently the annual number of marriages is at an all-time low. Which might make the more conservative amongst us panic - surely this means the breakdown of civilisation as we know it.

Well, not according to my postbag - where letter after letter tells me that people are marrying less because they are taking the institution much more seriously. When I left school 35 years ago, I was one of the few who weren't engaged or at least pressuring their boyfriends to propose... now, according to ONS, teenage marriages are absolutely the exception.

Yes, the divorce rate is high. Yes, we see relationship breakups at every turn. But I do believe that as a society we are more informed, more responsible, more thoughtful than ever before. If we fail to marry, it's because we realise just what a terrifyingly serious commitment marriage is.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Welcome to my world

It happens all the time. I'm at a party, or a press launch, or even just a plain straightforward business meeting. I start chatting to someone, introduce myself, conversation turns to what we do, and I admit I'm a relationships psychologist... a media commentator... an agony aunt. Then the questions start. What does that involve? Do you analyse everyone you meet? How many letters do you get? Do you ever make stories up? What's the saddest letter you've ever received? Above all, above all, above all... what do you actually dooooo?

That's what this blog is for - to offer a glimpse into what I actually do, and how I do it.

I'm not used to that - it's usually me being allowed a glimpse into other's lives. As a psychologist regularly I delve into people's minds... as a media commentator I analyse news and celebrity stories every day... on my radio programme I get dozens of calls every week... and as an agony aunt I get anything up to 25,000 letters and emails a year.

And yes, sometimes the whole thing is funny or silly - which is fine. But most of what I do means getting involved with desperate issues that touch people's hearts. I find myself becoming sometimes tearful, often angry - but always involved and fascinated.

In this blog, I absolutely won't break any confidences and I won't expose the details of those who write to me. But I will regularly write about what it's like to do what I do, regularly explore what it means to be a psychologist, a commentator, an agony aunt - and regularly discuss what's happening in society through my own psychological viewpoint.

I will open the door and let you into my world.