Of Fish and Bicycles — why we do sometimes need a man in our lives

The single life’s not for everyone.

In 1996 Guinness released their iconic “Fish on a Bicycle” advert, playing on the feminist slogan that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Advertising of alcoholic beverages in the UK is complicated, because there are so many restrictions on what can and can’t be shown in marketing material. Guinness in particular has a reputation for strange and creative adverts that engage the viewer — even where the advertisement has seemingly little to do with the product.

The advert features women carrying out masculine-typed activities then ends with the slogan “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, followed by an extended shot of an empty maternity ward, and then a CGI scene of a fish riding a bicycle. I suppose that’s as profound as a one-minute commercial is going to get.

One of the more common pieces of advice about healthy relationships is that you don’t need to be in one; that it’s ok and sometimes preferable to be single. There is certainly some truth to this: if you’re desperate to be, or stay in, a relationship for its own sake — even a bad one, then there are issues that you need to work on. Relying on others for one’s emotional wellbeing is seen as a problematic behaviour, and given the appropriate context this is true in many cases. But there is plenty of evidence demonstrating that those in stable long-term relationships live happier and longer lives.

I’d been on my own for quite a long time until recently, and even accounting for the first flushes of a new love, my life has become noticeably better. I was struggling to cope with everyday things, let alone making the effort to write. My life was in disarray and I felt isolated and lonely. But on paper everything was fine. I have a great job doing what I love, I live in a fancy apartment in a vibrant city, I’m relatively young and capable, and I have no ties holding me back. But inside I was miserable and feeling that I lacked purpose.

I was once asked by a therapist “what is it that you want from a relationship that you can’t give yourself?”, and thinking in an objective and detached way, I was struggling to come up with much. But I settled on companionship, connection and support. Yes — many things like love, sexual pleasure, self-esteem and joy can be experienced as a single person. But there’s a special type of happiness to be found in sharing one’s life and planning for a combined future, as well as the fun to be had in the adventures and experiences enjoyed with somebody who really ‘gets’ you.

A lot of the worries I had about ‘doing’ life, and the problems I had with motivation and persistence have been lifted since I entered into a stable and loving relationship. There’s someone else to share those burdens, and in turn I lift a little of their loads (which also benefits me in the feeling that I am doing good for them). My days seem to have more meaning, and I have rediscovered many little joys and faced up to problems that I was scared to face alone.

We are social animals, and while we can exist just fine on our own, this isn’t our ‘natural’ state. Yet we are so often told not to worry about being single, even to embrace it and seek it out. “You don’t need to be in a relationship to be happy” but it certainly can bring you happiness, if it’s what you want. It might be phrased as “you don’t need a man to be happy”, hence the fish-and-bicycle reference. And it’s true — I don’t need the assistance of a man to help me live my life, but I’m a lot happier having one around.

“You shouldn’t rely on someone else for your own happiness” is right up there with “no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent” when it comes to dismissive aspirational quotes. Our feelings do not exist in a vacuum; we interact with our environment and other people and we are affected by both. Instructing us to rely only on our inner selves for emotional satisfaction is bordering on psychopathy. One of the greatest tragedies of this emotional self-reliance culture is that we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable so easily, or worse, we act like predators to avoid being hurt by those we interact with.

We are also encouraged to “work on ourselves” before entering into a romantic relationship, and to watch out for any signs that a potential partner could be unstable, rendering them unsuitable. But we all have our faults, and some of us have quite serious problems to deal with. Does that mean we are undeserving of love, or that others should construct boundaries to protect themselves from us? From another perspective, we might worry that a partner with problems will rely on us too much — but isn’t that part of being in a relationship — to support each other?

As well as stereotypes about men and women, as players and gold-diggers respectively, our society promotes an over-reliance on ourselves, so that we become more resilient and independent, yet also colder and hardened to the affections of others. It’s like we begin all interactions from a place of suspicion rather than with openness and good intent.

Maybe we don’t need to be in a relationship, but it can be desirable. There’s no shame in wanting to find a love that you do not yet experience, and wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge someone’s feelings of loneliness and melancholy, rather than feeding them empty platitudes about how strong and happy they could be if only they’d embrace the single life?

Life is often harsh, and there is more than enough misery to go around. But instead of glossing over it, and convincing ourselves that it will all be ok if we just accept our lot and stop whining, we could choose to recognise those feelings of emptiness and deal with them. We could also accept that actually it is better for most of us to be in stable relationships, or near to other humans. Proximity itself is a type of support — just knowing that there are other people to interact with insulates us from certain stresses and fears.

But most of all, the insistence that you can be perfectly happy living a life of solitude comes from people whose lives are pretty good. They’re not dealing with the same feelings and practicalities as you, and so they offer this aspirational view of singledom as a sort of commiseration. Not happy being single? Never mind, try some empty positive thinking! Some people are living fulfilling single lives, yet they aren’t the ones on the receiving end of this advice. Their lifestyle choice isn’t a consolation prize, yet those who don’t want to be single are encouraged not to dwell on their own, genuine feelings, but to conform to someone else’s ideal of how they should behave.

Not everyone’s happy being single. Being in a relationship can improve one’s life. You can be independent and strong in some areas of your life, and interdependent and exposed in others. You could also be one or the other, and if it works for you, then fine. But the desire for a satisfying relationship is frequently portrayed as a bad thing. This notion comes from a good place, assuring people that they do not need to stay in unhappy relationships, or that if they’re not ready it’s absolutely fine. And this concept has freed many from domestic servitude, family pressure and years of unhappiness.

But it seems to have morphed into something else — that if one is dissatisfied with their lack of a romantic partner, that it’s no big deal, and why would they even want that so badly anyway? It’s ok to want to not do this all alone, and no matter what your feelings are it’s better to respect and manage them, not sweep them under the carpet. Self-reliance is a popular theme at the moment, but we risk neglecting the part of ourselves that craves touch and connection.

Companionship is a basic human need, and a deeper connection is something that can make us feel whole. If romantic relationships weren’t such a big deal, then why should they concern us so much? We need to know that it’s ok to feel lonely, sad, and like we’d be better off as part of a couple — just as it’s ok to be determined, independent and satisfied with one’s life, single or not. We like people to conform to our expectations, yet we don’t often question these expectations, especially the ones we have just because it’s ‘normal’ in our culture. Who are we to tell the fish it doesn’t need a bicycle?