Sunday, September 30, 2007

Whatever happened to platonic relationships?

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 25th September, 2007:

Platonic relationships are little talked about today. Whether they are between men and women, women and women or men and men they are likely to be seen as a sort of cover for a sexual relationship.

For many centuries, the non-sexual platonic relationship was quite accepted. But in the 20th Century, a growing scepticism about the possibility of passionate affection without sex has made such relationships unfashionable.

When the BBC’s Woman’s Hour recently broadcast two programmes on platonic relationships, the programme makers appeared to regard these as relationships in which one or the other partner either would not or could not have sex, though the other person in the equation still wanted it. (First programme is here. Second programme is here.)

Sometimes the decision not to have sex was made by the man, sometimes by the woman. Their partners said they missed the affection that went with sex.

In a sense the programmes were misnamed. A platonic relationship in the sense derived from philosophers such as Plato and Socrates involves a deep feeling, even a passion for the other person. It is non-sexual but the passion is there nevertheless.

When the American poet Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend Sue Gilbert in the 19th Century, “If you were here - and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine we would not ask for language... I try to bring you nearer...” she was expressing a platonic relationship. There is no reason to believe there was any sexual wish involved.

And when, three centuries earlier, Shakespeare wrote to his “Fair Lord” in one of 126 sonnets addressed to him,

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate."

this was not taken at the time to refer to homosexual love in the sexual sense.

So what is the state of the platonic relationship today? I have no doubt that such relationships are more likely to be found between men and women than between men and men or between women and women.

If your same-sex friend was to tell you, in the equivalent 21st Century language, that “we need not talk at all, our eyes will whisper for us” or “thou art more lovely and temperate than a summer’s day” you would be likely to assume that this person fancied you and wanted to get you into his or her bed. And that assumption, in most cases, would wreck the relationship.

For men and women to have a non-sexual, deep relationship on the other hand is not all that uncommon.

When two friends in the UK, Susie King and her friend Jeanne, set up a website called they found that half the people who joined up were men. The website describes itself as “celebrating celibate, platonic, non-physical or partly physical relationships, where you can meet other like-minded people, explore a holistic, integrated lifestyle and get ideas of where to look for support.”

Susie told Woman’s Hour that what people most miss in a sex-free relationship is the affection linked with sex, the cuddles and intimacy. I think this again is a new, 21st Century definition of the platonic friendship. In the old definition deep affection, though it might not be physical, would have been regarded as something without which the platonic relationship simply would not exist.

People who have seen sex leave their relationships for medical reasons also miss the physical affection, yet there is no particular reason why that level of affection should not continue. Again, it is a peculiarly 20th and 21st Century idea that physical affection is necessarily a prelude to sex.

If the concept of the platonic relationship has lasted so long I think it is because it meets a need in humans for a close relationship with another which doesn’t necessarily have to include sex.

So the next time you hear people sniggering about somebody having a platonic relationship with somebody else, remember that it might just be a more genuine and deep relationship than any currently experienced by the people doing the sniggering....

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Men, if you want more action, do more housework!

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 18th September, 2007:

Back when people lived in flats, a journalist colleague shared accommodation in Dublin with several other guys. Their procedure for dealing with the washing up was as follows.

They bought the cheapest cups and plates they could get. At the end of each meal, all used articles went into the sink. There they stayed. The question of washing them did not arise.

When everything had been used up, a couple of the lads went off to the environs of Moore Street and bought a new supply of chipped plates, saucers and cups for next to nothing. The old, unwashed items went into the bin and the cycle began again with the new set.

This is the sort of thing which men are capable of doing. It is also the sort of thing which women are incapable of understanding, let alone doing. Women are in the unfortunate position that their brains are wired up in a way which makes them better than men at noticing details. That’s why they are better at remembering the routes of car journeys, for instance. It is also why they will notice that a friend has altered her hair colouring by 0.001 per cent whereas men wouldn’t notice if she dyed it green.But this has its disadvantages too, for both genders. The man has no problem watching television, reading his paper or playing with his laptop until “later” even though the carpet needs hoovering and the dishes need putting into the dishwasher. These environmental details do not impinge on him.

The woman cannot do this. The fluff on the carpet and the dishes in the sink stand out in stark relief. They squeak and gibber at her. They disturb her peace. She either has to deal with it or she has to harass her male partner into dealing with it – and that’s why the female eye for detail is a nuisance to both genders.

Mind you, if men realised their partners were more likely to have sex with them when they shared in the housework, they might be sticking on the apron and getting out the vacuum cleaner more often. I’ll come back to that later.

Housework is, I think, among the least favourite occupations of both men and women. And when it comes to the men, I think we have to admit that we’re a disgrace. Earlier this year, the Equal Opportunities Commission in Britain forecast that men will never do their fair share of housework. By contrast, it will only take 65 years for the number of women running FTSE 100 companies to equal the number of men at the top.

And this all seems to have something to do with marriage. Back in 1994, a researcher in the US found that married women did more housework than women who co-habit. Since then, nothing has changed. A new study of more than 17,000 people in 28 countries has found that co-habiting men do more housework than men who are married. So those 90,000+ Irish households in which people are co-habiting are probably a lot cleaner than the households of married couples.

There’s probably less tension in them too – fewer rows about housework -and more sex. Alright, here’s the sex thing:

When US author Neil Chethik interviewed more than 300 men for his book VoiceMale he found that wives who were happier with the amount of housework their husbands were doing had sex with them more often. Other experts on gender differences and marriage have reported the same thing.

The great thing is, Chethik found, the man doesn’t even have to do fifty per cent of the housework. So long as the woman feels the man is doing his fair share, she is more likely to turn up the romance.

Nobody is suggesting that there is a deliberate calculation going on in the woman’s head – it’s just further proof that we humans are unaware of our motivations at least half the time.

So, guys, if you want more action in the bedroom, forget the flowers and chocolates – get out the duster instead.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Older siblings - especially brothers, can stunt growth!

Sibling rivalry gets pretty intense in some families. But there's a new source of conflict - the finding that older siblings stunt the growth of younger siblings!

According to this story on the BBC, the condition of the womb after the first pregnancy may be a factor. The finding is based on a study of 14,000 families by David Lawson, of University College London.

His research also showed children in larger families were likely to be shorter than average.

While having older siblings of either sex affected a younger child's development, the effect of older sisters was more mild. One explanation put forward is that boys are more demanding to raise, and so stretch the resources of parents more than daughters.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Supreme Court appeal on High Court ruling on fathers' rights

The High Court ruling in favour of an unmarried father whose twins were removed to the UK without his consent is to be appealed to the Supreme Court, according to this story in the Irish Independent. While this development may disappoint - though hardly surprise - supporters of this and other fathers, the Supreme Court will provide a definitive clarification assuming one or the other party doesn't go to the European Court. And on the basis that the High Court doesn't engage in wild fantasies, the chances have to be in favour of victory there too.
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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dadcando: Top website for single and separated Dads

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 11th September, 2007:

Is it too early to talk about Christmas? No, it isn’t, not if you’re a separated Dad who needs to make arrangements to see his kids over the so-called festive season, especially if these arrangements are likely to be complicated.

Negotiating the arrangements early is really important. That’s the advice on an excellent website called which I highly recommend to men living apart from their children. The children’s mothers would benefit from looking at the website too.

What I particularly like about the website is that the author, Chris Barnardo, (above right) a single father of four, displays none of the hostility towards women that infects many websites on men’s issues.

For instance, on the question of holiday arrangements he writes: “Be fair and flexible; remember you and your ex-partner both have holiday needs. If your ex-partner has work commitments try to take some days leave to share out the holiday childcare.”

During the holiday, “Promote contact,” Barnardo advises. “Encourage your child to phone, email or send a postcard to their mother. Help them to do this, especially younger children, but give them their privacy if they want to speak on the phone or write something in private, avoid the temptation to try and overhear what they are saying on the phone, and don’t question them about what was said after they have hung up unless they look distressed after the call.”

Some of his advice is of the “Why didn’t I think of that?” variety. For instance, in the vast majority of cases, the children will live mainly with the mother and the father is the partner who will move out. His new home will also be very important to the children. Involve them in the process, says Barnardo. Bring them with you to view your prospective apartment or house. Let them choose their own duvet covers and pillow cases. Have a set of toothbrushes, hair brushes and other necessities there for them to reduce the amount of stuff they have to bring on visits.

And here are three points which I think all children of separated parents would heartily endorse:

First, “don't ever tell your children that their mother is bad, or make nasty, snide or cynical comments about her to them. They won’t understand the irony of what you are saying and they unconditionally love their mother because she is their mother, just like they unconditionally love you because you are their father.”

Second, “however curious or desperate you are to know what is going on at their other home, with their mother, never ever try to find out information about your ex-partner from your children. Resist the temptation to use them for sending messages to your ex-partner. They didn't ask to be caught up in this and they are very sensitive to the fact that they have to go between their mum and dad and the last thing you want them to feel when they're with you is that is that they have to be on their guard.”

Third, “never discuss contentious issues on the doorstep when you come to pick the children up or drop them off. If a disagreement starts, as it often will when contentious issues are discussed, and this happens more than a couple of times, the children will begin to dread the hand-over, and soon will dread you coming to pick them up, or mummy dropping them off.”

Breakups are messy and people who are hurt can be at their worst for quite some time afterwards. Many separated parents are in emotional pain and I don’t want to suggest that there are easy answers – but Barnardo’s advice offers a way to respect the children’s well-being in the midst of conflict.

The website covers other issues which range from being involved in your children’s schooling, to cooking for them and having fun with them.

I’m not a separated father but this website ( was a breath of fresh air. If you are a separated parent, I urge you to spend some time on it. It could change your life and your children’s lives.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Irish High Court expands unmarried fathers' rights

On 11th September, the High Court in Dublin ruled in favour of an umarried father, Mr G, who had argued that his right had been breached by the removal to England, without his consent, of his twin children (see Irish case may force ruling on unmarried fathers' rights). The ruling seems to foreshadow the expansion of the rights of unmarried and separated fathers - so long as legislators are prepared to translate the ruling into legislation. The following is the text of my article on the topic, published in The Evening Herald on 12th September:

The ruling in the Mr G case, in which the High Court found that the removal of his twin boys to England without his consent was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights is a major boost for the rights of unmarried fathers and their children.

It also creates a situation in which fathers and mothers will look to the Oireachtas to clarify these rights and to lay them down as clearly as possible in law.

Unfortunately, the record of the Oireachtas in relation to difficult social issues makes it hard to believe that it will actually move on this issue. For many decades now, thorny decisions in this whole area have been left to the courts to the detriment of those who cannot afford to take the legal route.

Yet the involvement of lone fathers – I am using the word ‘lone’ here to refer to any fathers, married or unmarried, who are living apart from their children – has been shown time and again to benefit the children throughout their lives.

The grim days when the unmarried mother was shunned and her child put up for adoption whether she liked it or not are, thankfully, over. This attitude was at its height in the Sixties – for some girls in those grainy, black and white clips of people dancing to showbands, the party ended with a year in a mother and baby home and the removal of the baby to the United States.

Since then, society has changed enormously. Today approximately one third of births are outside marriage.

It is normal for parliaments to lag behind changes in society – very often these changes are not visible until after they happen.

Yet in 1994, the European Court of Human Rights signalled that marriage was not the only basis for family rights. In 1996, which is reasonably quickly as these things go, the Constitution Review Group recommended that the rights of all fathers in relation to their children be acknowledged so long as there was a stable relationship.

The Constitution Review Group may as well have spent the day at the races for all the notice Government took of this recommendation. But the report should be taken out of whatever dust-laded shelf it occupies and looked at by lawmakers at the highest level.

The fact is that everybody has an interest in this case. I would suggest that the vast majority of lone mothers promote contact between their children and the fathers of these childen. However, there will always be the minority who will allow their own feelings about the father to get in the way of that contact. Similarly there will always be a minority of fathers who will fail to honour their children’s need to be involved with them.

This judgement means that the onus is on the Oireachtas to provide for the rights of that majority of lone fathers who want to be involved with their children. And research by Barnardos and others has shown that children will do better at school and in their adult relationships if there is such involvement.

At the same time, mothers have a right to be worried about the prospect of a biological father who couldn't care less about his children coming in later and throwing his weight around.

But both the High Court and the Constitution Review Group have suggested strongly that it is the unmarried father who is genuinely involved with his children who has rights that cannot be taken away.

We need the Oireachtas now to step up to the plate and clarify these rights. Fathers and mothers need clarity on this issue.

But most of all clarity, and contact from fathers who care about them, is needed by the really important parties in this debate - the children.....

Friday, September 7, 2007

Men and the mid-life crisis

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 4th September, 2007:

There have been arguments for a long time as to whether such a thing as a mid-life crisis exists for men. The latest research from the UK suggests that it does.

The research was done for Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Why Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is interested in such matters I have absolutely no idea.

What they found, though, was a pattern: men’s levels of happiness tend to dip in their mid-thirties and forties and then to rise again when they get older. The fact that levels of happiness rise again in later life means that there is actually light at the end of the tunnel. Handling a mid-life crisis is a matter of getting through the tunnel, though sometimes it can be pretty dark in there.

There can be many reasons for this fall in happiness in middle age. Perhaps you have failed to realise your ambition of making your first million by the time you’re thirty. Perhaps you are in the job you always wanted to be in but it no longer interests you. Perhaps you are trying to cope with so many demands – work, mortgage, family – that you feel your life is somewhat out of your control. The research also shows that people’s sense of being able to influence their own lives actually falls from their mid-twenties until their mid-fifties when it rises again.

Sometimes the crisis seems to hit without any clear explanation. Everything in the garden is rosy but the man feels lost and cut adrift.

Sometimes what’s going on is as profound as the realisation that you are actually going to die one day. It can take quite a long time for this realisation to hit with its full impact and when it does, it produces a crisis for the individual. That crisis generally ends with a determination to get on with the things that you need to get on with and to make the best of the rest of your life. But while you’re in the middle of the crisis it’s an unpleasant one.

Some men in the middle of a mid-life crisis feel that the answer is a complete change – a change of partner, a change of job or a change of country. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. You need to be careful that your expectations from change are not totally unrealistic. You also need to consider who is going to get hurt along the way.

In the last century, a psychologist called Erik Erikson proposed that we go through eight psychological stages with conflicting possibilities built into each. In young adulthood, for example, we may move towards intimacy as in the early years of marriage and parenting or we may become isolated.

In middle age, he suggests, we may go outwards towards a concern with the sort of society we are living in, and towards making the world better for ourselves, others and future generations. Alternatively we may fall into self-absorption, interested mainly in ourselves alone and in what we can get out of life, which means out of other people. But the world does not, and will not even if you live to the end of time, revolve around you – therefore self-absorption can be a recipe for depression, though it can also be a recipe for ruthlessness and selfishness.

So middle age presents a choice: take a creative, generous, outward-looking attitude or become wrapped up in yourself. If you’re feeling gloomy about middle age, consider those choices. And you can console yourself by remembering that research which suggests that as we get older we tend to get happier. While satisfaction with one’s health declines from about the mid-twenties onwards and keeps on declining, even that doesn’t seem to dent the higher satisfaction levels of older people.

So handle the mid-life slump well and it doesn’t have to be a slump at all. And remember this: we guys don’t have to go through the menopause – now there’s something to feel happy about.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The dark world of lads' mags according to Kira Cochrane

I've never been a reader of so-called lads' mags like Loaded, not for high moral reasons but because I don't see the point.

Now it appears lads' mags are in decline - and Kira Cochrane (above right) in this article in New Statesman gloats accordingly. She blames Loaded, FHM and the rest for turning men away from respect for women and towards laddism. Kira's a good writer so have a read and see what you think.....
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Off Topic: Residents call a halt to assisted suicide in Swiss housing block

I'm in favour of making assisted suicide available to people who are suffering great pain in terminal illnesses. In Europe, many people go to Dignitas in Zurich to die. But what if you lived in the same apartment block in which Dignitas, er, facilitates suicide? Read this remarkable article from The Guardian to get a flavour of what it's like.....
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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Forget misery: gratitude is best, even for your health

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 28th August, 2007:

Are you a miserable sod? Do people always let you down? Are you fed up with a world which takes more than it gives?

If so, you will not be surprised to learn that I have bad news for you.

You sound to me like someone who does not know the meaning of the word gratitude. The bad news lies in research which shows that people who cultivate gratitude feel better and more alive and get on better than their begrudging cousins. Typical, isn’t it?

But what’s all this rubbish, you ask, about gratitude and research? Well, the research into gratitude has been spurred by the positive psychology movement founded by Dr Martin Seligman. This movement focuses on what can help people to feel good rather than why people feel bad.

In one of the latest pieces of research, reported to the annual conference of the American Psychological Association, sixteen people who had received transplants were given daily tasks to do.

One group was asked to note such matters as medication, how they felt about their day, how they were getting on with other people and so on. The other group was asked to do something extra: this was to note five things they were grateful for and why they were grateful for them.

After twenty one days of this, both the mental health and the general health of the gratitude group, as they were called, had improved. But the mental and general health of those who did not do the gratitude exercise had actually fallen. That group also had experienced a decline in vitality. By contrast, the gratitude group experienced no such decline.

The explanation offered by the researchers was that cultivating a sense of gratitude protected the mental health of the people in the gratitude group. This in turn improved their general sense of well-being and protected their sense of vitality.

Earlier research by Dr Seligman found that people who cultivate gratitude, perhaps through keeping a daily gratitude journal, are less likely to become depressed than those who do not. In people who are already depressed cultivating gratitude reduces the intensity of the depression.

In general, he has found that people who cultivate gratitude feel happier than those who do not and tend to get on better in life.

All this could be dismissed as psychobabble and mumbo-jumbo but for Seligman’s insistence on backing up his claims with research.

Research aside, look around you at your place of work. Have you ever noticed that there are people who cultivate a sort of begrudging misery which nothing can penetrate? Wouldn’t it be fair to say that these people have absolutely no sense of gratitude whatsoever?

Now look at the people who have a sense of gratitude. Have you ever noticed that they don’t just feel better than the ungrateful ones – they tend to do better as well? If there is a promotion or transfer they want they are far more likely to apply for it and to give the application their best shot.

Meanwhile, your miserable, ungrateful git stews and stays exactly where he or she already is.

Buddhist psychology has another take on the value of gratitude. Buddhism aims to dethrone the self, on the basis that the self is a fake. It’s a set of behaviours we cobble together as a defence against trouble and pain and then go on to guard for the rest of our lives. Gratitude reminds us that everything we have involves other people both dead and living. This awareness helps to dissolve the obsession with the self. It also helps us to avoid becoming what George Bernard Shaw called “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Gratitude also takes some of the focus off ourselves and puts it onto those who have helped us. Putting the focus outside ourselves is also protective against depression.

So cultivating gratitude, through a gratitude journal or in other ways, pays dividends. And it will stop you being a miserable git for the rest of your life.