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.