Sandra Dick: Whatever happened to the apples of our eyes?

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Television and technology are preventing us from committing to long-term, lasting, genuine relationships, finds Sandra Dick

ADAM and Eve got there first, eyes meeting over a juicy ripe apple, and lo! the courtship of boy meets girl did begin.

Down the centuries we’ve managed to love, marry and reproduce, most of that time without the aid of a smartphone, a Facebook account or a direct link to www.hot chicksdoingit.com on our homepage.

But tune into drama Downton Abbey to watch the slow burn romances flicker between downstairs pair Anna, the head housemaid, and Lord Grantham’s valet John Bates, or the simmering will-they-won’t-they romance between Lady Mary and Downton’s heir, Matthew Crawley, and the gulf between how our ancestors cultivated relationships and the fast and furious wham, bang, thank you ma’am of today couldn’t be more glaring.

Last week, actress Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, spoke of how acting in the series had made her more aware of how good manners and chivalry have faded in a modern society. “Those old manners – such as men standing when women arrive at the dinner table or opening doors for you – are lovely. But young men wouldn’t think about that for a second because it’s not the culture any more.”

She’s not, of course, alone in wondering if society has swung too far from the Downton Abbey days. Former Edinburgh family law and divorce solicitor and Advocate Mary Sharpe, for one, has just launched a string of workshops based on old-fashioned courting and believes we could all improve our love prospects by adopting the traditional approach to nurturing relationships.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing is that she believes many of those most keen to return to the good old days of fine romancing are young men.

“A lot of young guys in their 20s actually want to be courted and to court women. Lots of guys say they wish women would act like women, they say ‘we want to court women but women are acting more like men’. Guys want to act the hero and they want women to be the heroine – all of that plays to our evolutionary background.

“I believe courting is to dating what the slow food movement is to fast food,” she continues. “It’s about getting all the ingredients together so it’s nurturing, safe and secure and delicious.

“We need to get back to slow courting, the old-fashioned stuff. We need to get back to becoming compassionate and loving one another, not just this ‘more and more society’ and not ‘what will I get out of this person’. It’s about taking time with a relationship and overcoming fear of intimacy. It’s about trusting another person. Learning to trust takes time.”

Mary, who was so concerned by how failed relationships are often entwined with criminal behaviour that she left law to study the issue at Cambridge, says a complex modern range of factors – including unrealistic portrayals of modern relationships in television and film dramas, and rapidly declining social skills as we retreat to the PC – powerfully combine to sabotage our ability to form loving real-life, long-term bonds.

“A stable, loving relationship is vital for our long-term health and wellbeing, but people aren’t getting that because of modern technology,” she warns. “The changes brought about in the past five years because of the internet in particular means that our mind and brains are out of synch with what it’s being asked to handle.

“People are not falling in love any more, yet we are pair-bonding mammals and falling in love is our greatest asset.”

It might sound a bit heavy for anyone simply seeking some arm candy to get them through the Christmas party season. But when the time comes to seeking out a partner to stand by us through the ups and downs of life, Mary warns modern addictions to smartphones, internet websites – in particular graphic and easy-access porn sites – and a society that suggests we can all “have it all because we’re worth it”, means many of us are doomed to fail.

“One big worry is internet porn,” she adds. “It rewires the brain to make people obsessed with porn and synthetic love rather than real. It comes to a point when young men are not interested in sexual relationship with live women. So we are seeing high levels of erectile dysfunction in more and more young men. People have always engaged with porn but young lads and young women are engaging before their minds are mature so they end up unable to concentrate on work, they can’t do complex analysis of anything. They don’t learn at school and college and fall behind. In the workplace they are making quick decisions based on too little information.”

Last week, a report in a respected US journal, Psychology Today, supported her claims that easily accessible internet pornography is having a hugely detrimental impact on otherwise healthy young men, affecting their body chemistry and weakening the mind so when it comes to real-life sexual encounters, they simply can’t perform.

More concerning are the rare but devastating cases where minds numbed by porn tip into horrific violence – last week it emerged Vincent Tabak had viewed disturbing internet porn before attacking murder victim Jo Yeates.

Harrowing too, is Mary’s suggestion that while men turn on to internet kicks, women raise their game to compete. “Women are in despair because they can’t find long-term boyfriends, so they spend more and more money on cosmetic surgery and end up trying to behave like porn stars because they think that is what men want.

“Nature wants us to focus on sex and high-calorie foods, food to survive and sex to pass on our genes. But we are in a different environment now to that of our hunter-gatherer forbearers, yet our brains haven’t evolved at the same rate.

“Human beings are driven by balance: too much or too little of something is bad. Too much sex without love over-stimulates that very delicate part of the primitive brain.

“If you ate pasta three times a day you’d soon be sick of it, well you get sick of looking at soft-core porn, so to get the same arousal you need a higher dosage. It becomes more hardcore and more kinky. The novelty and intensity you need more and more of to stay ahead of the withdrawal symptoms linked to erectile dysfunction.”

While Downton’s matronly Dowager Countess of Grantham would be spluttering into her afternoon tea at such filthy talk, Mary takes a more modern approach and suggests that introducing internet porn advice in schools would help arm the next generation with vital knowledge on how to cope with its erotic lure so it doesn’t affect their own attitude to relationships and love.

“We need to learn how to court again,” Mary adds. “By understanding what is going on at a biological level we can change behaviour outcomes and our chances of having a good relationship.”

* Courting Disasters and How to Avoid Them workshops are at The Counting House, West Nicholson Street, on Sundays. See www.courting.disasters.co.uk