January 1, 2020

The other night, I had a gentleman friend round for tea and when it came time for him to go, I gave him a hug, and then found that I actually couldn’t let go. I had been chilly all day; not only outside, but inside, as is often the case in wintertime in British flats that were once inhabited by Victorians. There was no doubt about it: I was being clingy. I’d have probably agreed to marry him on the spot if only to have secured myself a big beefy radiator for the coming cold nights — nothing warms and delights quite like a human hot water bottle. Eventually I dragged myself off him, said goodbye, and got under as many duvets as I could find with a cup of tea, but it wasn’t as good.

My yuletide impulse to latch on to the nearest warm body is, in fact, utterly par for the course. There is even a term for it: ‘cuffing’, defined by the Urban Dictionary as the season in which people look relationships, not just casual flings. The idea of cuffing isn’t rooted in empirical evidence, exactly, but it does capture a mood: according to Brand Watch, a social media monitoring firm, references to ‘cuffing season’ on social media sites begin to rocket as early as October.

The wintry urge to ‘cuff’ is partly associated with being actually cold, and wanting to stay in and cuddle rather than go out (see above). But just as important are the pressures of Christmas, and the dismal sense of failure that traipsing solo round festive parties and family events can bring. This, combined with the fear of facing a solitary and possibly dry January alone means dating sites are at their busiest between Boxing Day and Valentine’s Day, with 7 January — next Tuesday — said to be the busiest day of all. Match.com says 50 million messages are sent yielding 1 million dates during this peak season.

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The seasonal rush for intimacy gives pause for thought. What exactly are we doing? After all, we live in an age of plunging marriage and birth rates. Individualism and choice has taught us to pursue our own ends, making love hard and romantic relationships complex at best,  and often exhausting and disorienting. In their 1995 book The Normal Chaos of Love, the classic study of modern love in the West, the German sociologists Beck and Beck-Gernsheim captured this perfectly. “In the New Era, everything [is] a matter of choice…one of [modern life’s] main features is a collision of interest between love, family and personal freedom.”

As the Becks saw, the rise of choice in all aspects of life drastically reshaped the romantic plane. But if choice was already a way of life in 1995, today it has been encoded and enshrined in our intimate lives on a whole new scale. Being accustomed to rifling through thousands of faces, as dating apps allow, gives us the sense that we have infinite romantic and sexual options. But this has negated the very kinds of outcomes those caught up in cuffing season may think they want. Finding true connection and commitment in a sea of callous shopping is extremely hard.

But even if the governing effect of dating apps seems to be coldness, and a blithe sense of expendability, their popularity has normalised a kind of romantic quest and pointed to a big hole in the market for some kind of affection. There is the basic mammalian element to the search; the pleasure to be had in a familiar body who is also a companion.  But the Christmas scramble for relationships is the tip of an iceberg which it seems all the distractions and connections of digital life do not assuage: loneliness. Loneliness is not only unpleasant, it could be lethal: some studies suggest that those without long-term relationships are far more likely to die in middle age. Singleness is expensive, too: according to the Office for National Statistics, the 7.7 million people living alone in the UK spent on average £21 a week more than couples. There’s nobody to share the mortgage with, or the cost of holidays.

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There is nothing new about the loneliness of the modern single driven on to a frantic search for a partner. Indeed the solitary malaise of the modern and usually urban solo is a potent image that evolved along with the city itself after the Industrial Revolution. As cities became clearinghouses for an ever-widening assortment of people looking for work as typists, clerks, civil servants, railways workers and so on, they attracted those who — in seeking work — had moved away from their home towns and communities and wound up disconnected, untethered and alone.

In this way, the lonely partner-hunter became a symbol of an age of modernity and anatomisation. Commercial matchmaking, singleness and urban alienation have been linked since the nineteenth century. London had long been known as a lonely place; what WT Stead called ‘the city of dreadful solitude’. In 1890, General Booth, advocate of marriage bureaux, decried the impossibility of provincial courtship rituals in London, where “many hundreds, nay thousands, of young men and young women who are living in lodgings, are practically without any opportunity of making the acquaintance of each other, or of any one of the other sex!” But in the late 20th century loneliness, a ‘disease’ seen to face singles above all, extended far beyond the capital, sometimes even reaching a national platform. In the Crosby by-election of 1981, from an eclectic party mix, Donald Potter — the founder of a Young Conservatives lonely hearts group called Close Encounters — wanted to install a phone line for lonely people for The Humanitarian Party.

For the writer Jonathan Raban, the proliferation of dating services was a central image of the isolating experience of 1970s urban life. He noted that “coming out of the fog, making oneself visible and available, is prickly and difficult” but that “one can, if one is sufficiently bold or desperate, advertise one’s loneliness in the newspaper… Here loneliness has a solidarity, even a kind of respectability; fellow isolates are stacked neatly in columns of fine type.”

The launch and subsequent success of Singles Magazine (1977-1993), a lifestyle magazine for the unattached run by the owner of Dateline, the computer dating agency, testified to a new fascination with the psychological aspects of single life. The magazine was divided between the testimonies of people railing against what one called ‘couples’ society’ and attempting to bring about a kind of Singles’ Pride, and a more dominant strain concerned with the deprivations of going it alone.

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Isolation could be seen on the physical features of particularly unsuccessful singles such as case study Bernard. The magazine’s in-house psychologist wrote in 1977 that: “One only has to look at Bernard to see the disturbed nature of his body movements during communication to realize … Bernard has [never] been loved . . . he wants to be married, but seems to be an entirely sexless person.” The evidence of a lonely life was etched into his visage: “He takes no pride in his face. Only the mouth moves when he talks. The muscles at the side of his mouth are still and short of exercise. He does not gesture… His tone of voice is monotonous.”

The psychologist was clear that social isolation was bad, but romantic isolation could be even worse: the deprivation of intimacy had long-term and short-term consequences. “In the chronic cases sexuality can become so badly damaged by ill-use or lack of use that it is permanently destroyed, and the person has no will left to live socially,” he concluded.

All this sounds pretty grim and worrying in a rather 1970s way. But while ‘cuffing season’ has a jaunty ring to it, those who find themselves single at Christmas often feel like they’re the one left without a chair when the music stops and this can be very painful indeed. Though, I would wager, probably not bad enough to leave one’s sexuality ‘permanently destroyed’ — if there’s one thing the internet has done, it ensures nobody ever has to feel entirely, totally alone. The Bernards of 2019 can at least find people to chat to online and an array of therapists and therapies offering to help too.

A relaxing in expectations around marriage and family have also helped disperse some of the most concentrated aspects of singles’ suffering. And yet as cuffing season makes clear, along with the dating site frenzy around Christmas and the New Year, the well of loneliness continues to rises up and threatens to engulf. It seems there’s (still) no connection like a physical one.

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