‘Fast sex, slow love’: How Irish relationships have changed

Photograph: Jena Ardell/Moment/Getty

The architecture of our intimate lives is changing. Irish couples have more choice than ever about how they want to design their relationships, and they’re exercising those choices in all kinds of ways.

More than one in three children are born to parents who are not married. People of the same sex are marrying and raising families. Others are committing themselves to the single life; to a second marriage; to serial monogamy. Young people, in particular, are experimenting with what one anthropologist calls “fast sex, slow love” – a prolonged pre-courtship phase before they commit to any kind of relationship.

After they commit, more people are choosing to remain child-free. In many families, both men and women earn incomes outside the home. Within the home, traditional notions of who does what are being challenged and renegotiated – though that renegotiation is not always smooth or successful.

As traditional social and religious norms loosen their hold – and with them, the ubiquity of the one-size-fits-all, married, opposite-sex parents with 2.4 kids – more of us are happy to choose for ourselves how we want to live. At least in theory.

How does a slow-burn love affair survive in a world where we can get everything we want, from movies to rental cars to sex, on demand?

In practice, do all these choices make the day-to-day demands of maintaining a long-term relationship easier? In an era with so much focus on individual happiness and personal freedom, have we come to expect too much of our relationships? How does a slow-burn love affair survive in a world where we can get everything we want – from movies to rental cars to sex – on demand?

Louise Crowley has been lecturing in family law at UCC for 20 years. If you were to look back at her lecture notes from that time, you’d be surprised at how far Irish society has come, she suggests. “I talk to my students about how if I was lecturing them back in the year 2000, I’d be telling them there was no regulation of cohabitation; no acknowledgement of any kind of non-heterosexual relationship. Single mothers were still quite isolated, and unmarried fathers had minimum status.” Until 1996, there was no divorce; until 1998, unmarried fathers had to apply to the courts for guardianship of their own children.

The pace of social change in Ireland over those two decades has been dizzying. At various times over those past 20 years, there have been warnings that the concept of marriage is under assault. But “Hello Divorce; Goodbye Daddy” never happened, and Ireland still has the lowest divorce rate in Europe. The number taking the plunge into marriage has hardly changed either. There were 21,000 marriages in 2018; roughly the same as in 2009, and the same again as 1980.

“Marriage is still very much the cornerstone of relationships in Ireland. It’s ingrained in the Irish psyche. No matter how progressive we are, as a society, we still like the concept of marriage,” says Allison Keating, a psychologist and author of The Secret Lives of Adults.

One thing that has changed is that marriage is no longer the first step towards adulthood that it once represented – it’s often now among the last. According to the CSO, the average age of a bride in Ireland is 34.4 years; grooms are 36.4.

The anthropologist Helen Fisher coined the phrase ‘fast sex, slow love’ to describe the contrast between the fast pace of the hook-up culture and the fact that people are waiting longer to commit

The anthropologist Helen Fisher, a consultant with the dating site Match.com, coined the phrase “fast sex, slow love” to describe the contrast between the fast pace of the hook-up culture, and the fact that people are waiting longer to commit. “The pre-commitment stage of the courtship process is expanding . . . Where marriage used to be the beginning of a partnership, today it’s the finale,” she writes.

There are pros and cons to the extended precommitment stage of relationship, says the psychologist Joanna Fortune. “It gives lots more freedom; you can date multiple partners; you don’t have to commit before you’re ready; sexuality is more open. But it can also lead to people feeling that it’s hard to find that one person.” In her practice, she hears from both men and women “that it’s difficult now to feel that you’re in a committed relationship – it’s all very transient, very casual”.

Sexual empowerment can be a double-edged sword, says Keating. “Yes, you can go out and have sex tonight if you want to, but it doesn’t necessarily satisfy the need for connection. What I see is both men and women feeling the lack of intimacy, the lack of connection.”

Aidan Healy, a psychologist with the organisation Unplug, says millennials “grow up in a world where everything has been given to them quickly. It’s the on-demand economy.”

Apps like Tinder streamline the dating process and give the illusion of allowing you to circumvent the “vulnerable, messy bits” of human relationships. “What I hear a lot from people is that technology gives them a feeling of safety. But by taking away the discomfort it also limits the opportunities for a deeper connection and to grow. You can’t fast-track intimacy.”

If the first phase of the digital sexual revolution brought us streaming porn and online dating, what will the next phase bring? “Not to get too dystopian, but as the technology evolves, will some of us make the choice to get rid of the messiness altogether?” Healy wonders. “If there was a virtual reality or a sensory experience that could stimulate a great relationship or an amazing sexual experience, would we still make all the time and effort to get dressed up, negotiate all the difficult stuff, or would we go hey ‘let’s plug in?’”

The one thing most of us still crave is a feeling of connection; the simple, subtle reassurance from each other that we matter; that we are heard

The one thing most of us still crave is a feeling of connection; the simple, subtle reassurance from each other that we matter; that we are heard. Researchers Dr John and Dr Julie Gottman built an apartment in the University of Washington and invited newlywed couples to stay there for 24 hours under observation. They found the minutiae of the couple’s smallest exchanges – “the turn of a head, a mumbled monosyllable, a focused eye gaze” – could determine with 90 per cent accuracy whether a couple would stay together. “The newlyweds who remained happily married six years later turned towards each other’s bids an average of 86 per cent of the time, compared with 33 per cent of the time for those destined to divorce,” the Gottmans write.

“Most of the people I see in front of me are people who have disconnected, mentally checked out from their relationship,” says the psychotherapist Helen Vaughan of Maynooth Counselling. But she notes that couples are no longer waiting until the relationship is at crisis point to seek professional help – a positive trend, and one that she expects to see become even more normalised into the future.

One of the other challenges Vaughan identifies is heightened expectations. “The shift away from religion means that people expect more from their partner. They want their partner to be almost this divine being,” Vaughan says.

It’s worth remembering that “marriage was not always about the relationship between the man and the woman”, writes Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History. Centuries ago, it was an entirely practical business, “a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances, and expanding the family labour force”. These days, we don’t need marriage to be about creating a miniature army of farm workers.

But perhaps it’s no coincidence that, as society has evolved, so has what it takes to make a marriage work. Research shows that our calculations in these matters are still at least partly pragmatic – egalitarian couples who share work and home responsibilities are happier and healthier, and have better sex.

In Ireland, the brunt of domestic work still falls to women. Almost 90 per cent of Irish women do housework compared to less than 50 per cent of men, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality.

Relationships are under strain in one other important way. Joanna Fortune puts it like this: “If the first thing you touch in the morning and the last thing you touch at night is your phone and not your partner, there is a question there” about your priorities, she says.

Consciously or otherwise, people can use their phones to escape the demands of intimacy

Consciously or otherwise, people use their phones to escape the demands of intimacy, says Healy. In workshops run by his organisation, Unplug, people say how they feel their partner is always on their phone “and you’d see the pain in their faces – they’d say I feel like my partner has exited the relationship”.

A healthy, functioning relationship means one learning to tolerate discomfort “and periods where you don’t like each other”, says Keating. But sometimes, too, it means accepting that the relationship is over.

The Gottmans claim to be able to tell in seconds if a couple will stay together. Keating’s version of that test is to ask a couple why they fell in love with each other, “What are the things you admired about each other? If they can go back to that easy enough,” that’s a good sign. “If they can’t, if the softening doesn’t happen, that doesn’t bode well,” she says.

Divorce has been an option for those couples in Ireland since 1997. One of the things we did get right as a society, says Crowley, was the introduction of no-fault divorce. “That’s surprising for a state that was so regulated with Catholic teaching and guilt. From a social policy perspective, it was a very grown-up and mature approach to ending a marriage. Except,” she says, we added a clause that “you had to be separated four out of the preceding five years. So what that meant is divorce is out there, but you’ve got to really deserve it.”

That requirement is due to be addressed in the upcoming referendum on May 24th, which will propose reducing the waiting period to two years after separation.

So what does the future hold? In a legal context, Crowley points out that a hierarchy of relationships still exists in Irish law, which society has so far been largely silent on, despite the sweeping changes of the past two decades.

“Marriage equality was, of course, a wonderful victory in 2015. But all it did actually was slightly extend the gang that is the married family. It continues to exclude from constitutional status any other form of family.” Crowley is in favour of removing the reference to the family based on marriage altogether from the Constitution, because it excludes the 36.5 per cent of children who are born to relationships where the parents are not married.

“As it stands, our Constitution is hugely discriminatory and is an insult to people in positive, functioning, happy families, which are demoted in terms of status. In principle, that is wrong, but also when you look to the social norms and the way in which society has evolved, the legislature is failing the people.”

The data suggests marriage will continue to be the ultimate prize for many. But as we live longer, it’s possible we’ll move towards a serial-monogamy model

Continuing conversations about consent – now happening on university campuses and in other pockets – will have to take place right across society, and encompass all forms of relationship. And the ongoing inequalities facing unmarried fathers, “the most put-upon parent in terms of law in Irish society”, are a battle waiting to be fought.

Beyond that, at a more emotional level, the data suggests marriage will continue to be the ultimate prize for many. But as we live longer, it’s possible we’ll move towards a “serial monogamy” type model, where we have two or three significant relationships throughout our lives.

We’ll all have to get better at balancing our need for intimacy and human connection with the distractions of the digital world, says Healy. “Fundamentally as humans, we’re vulnerable, we want connections, we want love, we want intimacy. Relationships are messy. They need work. The appeal of technology [which suggests] all of that can be streamlined is a trap. And it’s trap we have to be careful of.”

Six people on their relationships

‘It doesn’t bother me doing make-up. I would do anything that Mona needs’
Mona and Des Manahan on a long marriage
“When they said ‘you’ve gone viral’, in my innocence I thought that was a medical condition,” says 84-year-old Des Manahan who, after a lifetime in theatre and music, had a brush with internet fame last year after someone took a photo of him getting a make-up tutorial in Debenhams in Waterford.

“I wasn’t trying to become a make-up artist. I just wanted to help Mona.” Mona, his wife of nearly 58 years, was losing her sight due to macular degeneration, and was no longer able to do her own make-up.

“I couldn’t do my eyes,” she interjects, now in their kitchen overlooking the countryside in Co Waterford. “I could do this [her right eye], because I can see with my left, but I couldn’t do the left.”

Mona and Des Manahan. Photograph: Jennifer O’Connell
Mona and Des Manahan. Photograph: Jennifer O’Connell

After the photo went viral, they were invited on The Late Late Show, and then Mario Dedivanovic, “the famous Kardashian make-up guy”, asked them along to a make-up masterclass last year. Their story has since featured in an ad on Brazilian TV.

They’re not sure what the fuss is all about. “We’re no different, I think, than every other old couple who have been married a long time. It doesn’t bother me doing make-up. I would do anything that Mona needs.”

“What makes the marriage work? It’s very hard to know,” Mona says. “You get married and you just go into it. Probably I’ve become old-fashioned over the years, but I think when marriages start off with a sexual relationship already established it’s more difficult. When you get married and you start from scratch, there can be nothing more joyful than that.”

How do you deal with conflict, I ask. “We don’t have any,” Des says.

“We do,” Mona says. “We disagree. We argue. My voice gets louder than his. You cannot agree with somebody all of the time. But we’re not unusual. When we go into town, we see couples of our age having coffee together, and they’re every bit as devoted to each other as we are. The only difference is that it’s usually the man who sits down and it’s the woman who has to get the coffee.”

Their relationship is more equal. “Des can cook, he can clean.” Interests in common matter too: when Des was spending long hours rehearsing in theatre, she joined the costume department.

And then, they make sure to keep the connection alive. “Every single night without fail, Mona will be sitting on the edge of the bed reading with the light down low. And every night I’ll come in, and we’ll have a hug and a kiss and I’ll sit down beside her and we’ll have a chat about nothing.”

‘I didn’t want to be anybody’s wife; for me it’s a very loaded term’
Danielle Clarke and Róisín Collins
“In 2007, we were able to avail of civil partnership, and we did it in the glorious environment of the passport desk in the British embassy,” says Danielle Clarke, professor of Renaissance Language and Literature, UCD, of her relationship with Róisín Collins.

Afterwards, they went for a simple lunch in Mermaid café on Dame Street. “Róisín would have hated anything that was making a big fuss.”

In 2011, they became civil partners in Ireland, which “made a massive difference to our legal and financial security as a couple”, especially once their two children had come into the picture. But when marriage equality was legalised, they decided against getting married, despite Clarke having campaigned for it. “We both felt very strongly that marriage came with such patriarchal and heterosexual baggage” that it wasn’t for them. “I didn’t want to be anybody’s wife; for me it’s a very loaded term.”

Danielle Clarke: ‘There still isn’t really a roadmap for being in a long-lived same-sex couple’
Danielle Clarke: ‘There still isn’t really a roadmap for being in a long-lived same-sex couple’

“One of the interesting things that being in a long-lived same-sex couple is that there still isn’t really a roadmap for it. When things get difficult – which they inevitably do over a 23-year relationship – there’s a whole set of structures, arguments and unspoken assumptions about the importance of an opposite sex couple staying together. And I don’t think those same forces apply” to same sex couples. You have to make your own road map, she says.

What makes their relationship successful? “I have a lovely partner who is incredibly tolerant of me and my workaholic tendencies. The key thing for me is the acceptance of change in each other,” especially as you get older. “At the end of the day, I think who will I call when I have a problem? It’s always Róisín. I trust her absolutely.”

‘You lose friends. People worry that if it can happen to you, it can happen to them’
Caroline Collins on divorce
“When you realise your marriage is over, it’s like a bereavement,” says Caroline Collins, who divorced two years ago.

Her own parents divorced and growing up, Collins wasn’t sure if marriage was for her. “I would have been of the view that you didn’t need the piece of paper if you were happy and it was working. But when you meet the right person, that can change.”

Caroline Collins
Caroline Collins

I first met Collins in 2012, when she was recently married and in her early 30s, and I interviewed her about her decision not to have children. Back then, I was struck by her determination not to be bound by others’ expectations of what her life and relationship should be. Now 39, she remains both child-free and mostly regret-free, but “if I had been in different relationship, maybe I would have thought about children. The outcome might have been the same, but every part of my life is so different to how I could even have imagined, my perspective has softened on most things in life, including having kids.”

Not having children simplified the process of divorcing, but “people minimised it because there were no kids involved. It’s almost as if it doesn’t hurt as much, or the life you wanted didn’t matter.”

Financial circumstances meant that she and her ex had to live together throughout much of the four-year separation. They had to prove they had separate bedrooms, didn’t do each others’ laundry, and were apart in the legal sense. Somehow, they emerged as friends. “It is heartbreaking enough, but we decided that we got into this as friends, and if we do it well, we can get it out of this as friends. And we have. That’s something we’re both proud of.”

“Having got divorced, you lose friends. It’s almost as if people worry that if it can happen to you, it can happen to them. You challenge their worldview and become a threat. And obviously you become the one who’s after their husband. I remember one friend saying, ‘That’ll be really tough for you. I hope you’ll have someone who’s there for you, but it won’t be me’.”

Collins is talking about her divorce, she says, because “more conversation about it needs to happen. People are terrified of it.”

‘The fear of suffocation within the confines of a marriage is bigger than the fear of loneliness’
Holly O’Reilly on serial monogamy
Holly O’Reilly defines herself as “a serial monogamist; a person whose relationship history is made up of a succession of committed monogamous relationships.”

“I’ve been in committed relationships in the past, which in hindsight were doomed from the outset, due to basic incompatibilities.” She has an open mind about the future. “It might be interesting to explore the paradox of freedom within confinement.”

Holly O’Reilly
Holly O’Reilly

She isn’t opposed to marriage – she just objects to the way it is glorified as a route to fulfilment, at the expense of other “deviating paths”, through everything from media portrayals of relationships, to tax breaks. She welcomes how women’s “economic and reproductive independence has paved the way for a loosening of the hold of some overly restrictive and somewhat outdated concepts, but it’s a long process”.

“For some people, marriage and parenthood is absolutely the right thing to do, but I hope we are collectively moving towards more nuanced and inclusive attitudes towards the myriad ways in which peoples’ lives can turn out. For me, the fear of suffocation within the confines of a marriage is bigger than the fear of loneliness that the single life conjures up for more ‘partnership-oriented’ folk. Human beings are programmed to crave security, but I also deeply cherish my freedom.”