Love and other animals

Giving the right gift can make or break a union – just ask a spider

A gift can tell you everything – and nothing – about a relationship. It is a harbinger of future success and a measure of your similarities. There is a high social value attributed to the objects exchanged and, for some invertebrates, gifts serve a similar purpose. During mating season, a male nursery spider may deliver a nuptial gift to a female. At great personal risk from predators, he’ll capture an insect and carefully wrap it into a silken parcel for that special female. This male will have the greatest success in being accepted as a mate. No parcel means a slim chance of being selected. Those with poor gifts, say an inedible seed or empty insect husk, will receive mating privileges, but only until the female realises the gift is lacking, and storms off.

We aren’t hunting prey or building webs, but there is still a personal sacrifice in gift giving. Finding the perfect gift is stressful, especially for those people who are “difficult” to shop for. Aside from obvious financial implications, the process demands combing through every minute detail of the recipient’s life, braving the animals at department stores and producing the appropriate packaging (which unfortunately doesn’t spin right from our abdomens). However, receiving gifts can provide as much, if not more, anxiety.

A snip of tasteful ribbon, and the glittery wrappings fall away. Full of expectations, you open the box – insect husk. You ask yourself: “What were they thinking? Are they trying to tell me something? Does this person know me at all, will they ever?” Then you put on that fake smile, the ritualised expression of insincere gratefulness. A bad gift can be enough to tangle up all your holiday spirit.

For nursery spiders, gift giving proves male worth and helps propagate the species. Other types of spiders are not as lucky. A more common behaviour is sexual cannibalism, wherein the female spider eats the male after copulation. Some studies suggest nursery spiders evolved gift-giving behaviour as an alternative to this sexual suicide. However, if you have ever been on either side of a gift exchange gone wrong, you might wonder if the nursery spiders’ evolution was worth it.

We may not worry about our potential mates eating us, but there is still a lot of stock put in this obligatory gifting. Sometimes we forget we don’t have to “wrap” our whole relationship into a gift – it isn’t a measure of love. But what’s wrapped and bowed can force the mind to wonder if the connection between two people is hanging on nothing but a silken thread. Maybe it isn’t the shopping that is “difficult”. Maybe, like the nursery spider, some of us give in fear of what will happen if we don’t. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Dear Mariella: I am convinced that my new relationship will end soon. How can I stop feeling this sense of doom?

She’s met someone she likes, but is terrified it’s all going to end before it’s even started. Mariella Frostrup tells a single woman to tackle her irrational fears

The dilemma Like many of your readers, I’ve never written to an agony aunt, but I read your column and often think you get it spot on. You offer a sound and unbiased perspective and, at the age of 31, I’m at a bit of a loss with myself and could do with your advice. I have a good job, close friends and family, my own flat and an active social life. I am single, which I’d much rather than be in a relationship for the sake of it. The problem seems to be whenever I start “seeing” someone I feel attracted to and like being with – and we could still be at the texting and dinner stage – I have the overwhelming feeling it’s all going to go wrong. I become convinced it’s just a matter of time before it ends. It becomes sheer hell waiting for the next contact as deep down I’m convinced there won’t be one. I have met a lovely guy, we’ve been on four dates and there’s a spark both intellectually and physically. I should be enjoying this time and desperately want to, but I’m wracked with fear that it’s just a matter of time before it ends. How can I stop feeling like this? I want to be happy!

Mariella replies I’m a sucker for a compliment. Normally someone scuppering their dating chances because of their insecurities might struggle to fully engage my sympathy, but you’ve put your case so very nicely! Also, there’s a universality to your problem that I’m sure will chime with many people – and not just on the romantic front. Who doesn’t have an area in their lives where lack of confidence is the greatest impediment to achieving success? So often we cower at the vastness of mountains that exist mainly in our imaginations. Basically, we’re talking about the F-word here, aren’t we?

Fear is the great immobiliser in all our lives, whether it’s preventing us from making small changes or holding us back from embracing huge ones, jeopardising good relationships or keeping us trapped in bad ones. Being afraid holds more of us hostage than almost any other human emotion – apart, perhaps, from love. Both can be devastatingly destructive.

The first step, as in so many other situations that exist mainly in our own heads, is to identify what you’re actually afraid of. Mourning the potential loss of something you don’t even know you want is clearly not a rational way of approaching things. I know you know that, hence your letter, but I think it might serve you well to really digest it. It says so much for the power of the human imagination that despite all the evidence to the contrary, having been reared on a diet of romantic fairy tales and happy-ever-afters, we continue to judge our relationships on the longevity of their endurance rather than the quality of the interaction.

So few relationships will last a lifetime that it is a continual cause for bafflement that we haven’t adjusted the goalposts. As a species we often excel at making ourselves appear successful by lowering the expectation of what we can achieve. Yet when it comes to relationships we stick steadfastly to unrealisable dreams.

You’re in an enviable situation in so many ways – solvent, settled, working and enjoying life – that, I suppose, it’s out of the question for you to just sit back and revel in your good fortune. Yet you must admit that laid out like that it’s exactly what you should be doing! A long-term union on top of all your other blessings is just icing on the cake and in your situation I’d be tempted to adopt a much more laissez-faire attitude. It’s not as if you are desperate for a relationship, and an enjoyable dinner is as important for your emotional health as a decade with the wrong person.

So how about you start to look upon your relationship adventures as exactly that, forays into unpredictable terrain where one day you’ll find a den. In the interim, fun and quality human engagement should be your goal. You can’t magic up a good liaison on your own. Many pieces need to come together to create a dazzling union and only some of those are in your possession. It’s why a degree of fatalism is no bad thing, since so much of what will come, will come, no matter how hard we try to dodge it. Trying to be an auteur in our own lives is as frustrating, thankless and ultimately as doomed a venture as trying to stay young.

If you really want quality relationships it’s not the ebb and flow of text messages you should be focusing on but this irrational dread of losing what you haven’t got. Once you have banished fear, your dreams will invariably take flight.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to To have your say on this week’s column, go to Follow Mariella on Twitter @mariellaf1 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Dear Mariella

What can you do if your mother-in-law sends a large plastic toy half way round the world for your baby son? Mariella Frostrup tells a woman to count her blessings – and tell a white lie

The dilemma I live in Australia with my husband and seven-month-old baby boy. My mother-in-law in the UK has sent my son a particularly hideous, large, garish plastic gift that, according to the box, he can’t play with until he is three. I prefer more traditional-looking wooden toys – more sustainable and easier on the eye. Should I say something and risk hurting her feelings, or keep quiet and look forward to similar presents every birthday and Christmas from now on? We have a rather strained relationship as it is, due to her controlling personality and my refusal to take advice.

Mariella replies You don’t say? I’m thinking there’s a boxful of issues between you two that far outweighs the plastic fantastic monstrosity awaiting your son on Christmas Day. Once upon a time, I also imagined a future full of lovely wooden trains, bricks painted in non-toxic paints, Noah’s Ark in sustainable materials, recycled-felt sticky boards, wooden tool kits, cuddly toys handcrafted by Peruvian widows and washable nappies. My husband put a stop to my ordering the organic-cotton reusable nappies seconds before I pressed send and I’m grateful to him to this day. There was no way I was going back to the slave labour my mother was forcibly reduced to with money scarce and disposable nappies a luxury.

When I had my first child, I fantasised about a multi-sensory experience that also involved classical musical playing soothingly in the background, fresh fruit smoothies from the blender and Saturday mornings spent volunteering. Then my hormones sorted themselves out and I fell to earth with a thump.

I’m not against living by your principles, but you have to set realistic goals. As for Handel’s Water Music, it’s given way to a daily battle for the tuning dial between my choice of Radio 4 and my daughter desperately seeking Beyoncé hits on Capital Radio. The fruit shakes, meanwhile, come in biodegradable cartons from the supermarket shelf. I deliver this confessional just to put your aspirations in context and remind you that we are all just human. As the Booker-winning Irish novelist Anne Enright amusingly pointed out in Making Babies, her non-fiction manual about motherhood, with your first-born only the best will do. As a new mother you barely blink at £350 prams and organic-cotton romper suits; by baby number two you’re buying a £20 buggy from a discount warehouse and gratefully accepting hand-me-downs.

It’s understandable that as you are still in the first flush of parenthood your principles remain intact. That doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to abide by your dictates. I’m not even convinced you expect them to. Instead, I think your relationship with your mother-in-law is fraught, punctuated by mini victories and losses and this time you feel you’ve got her cornered. In this modern eco-aspiring world nobody is going to criticise you for taking exception to some garish plastic product. You can count on sympathy from your contemporaries and an easy victory in this latest skirmish with your nemesis. But, as always, we forget to count our blessings. Your mother-in-law is thousands of miles away so if her worst impact on your lives is posting presents you don’t approve of it’s hardly a disaster.

Your baby is seven months old, has no idea what anyone is giving him and will be none the wiser about whether or not his grandma has fulfilled her present-buying obligations. If you loathe the present that much, pass it on. There will be plenty of less-fortunate kids in your vicinity absolutely delighted with it.

I suggest you pop a recent photo of your son in an envelope with a charming note thanking your mother-in-law for her generous gift. Tell her that her grandson will be thrilled, even more so since from next year you’d prefer that, in lieu of a present, she makes a donation to a charity for children, as you are worried about your carbon footprint and the world your boy will inherit. That way not only do you look gracious and grateful, you also score a moral victory by displaying your ethics peacock-style, thereby highlighting her lack of them.

If, on the other hand, you would like to end this silly jostling for position between you I suggest you just say thanks. She has her taste in toys, you have yours and your son is lucky to have both of you showering him with gifts.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to To have your say on this week’s column, go to Follow Mariella on Twitter @mariellaf1 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Good luck to Caroline Flack. She’ll need it | Barbara Ellen

So far as I dimly remember, I wasn’t particularly keen on 17-year-old boys even when I was a 17-year-old girl, so this situation is mystifying

Television presenter Caroline Flack has been in the news for supposedly dating Harry Styles from One Direction.

Well, “in the news” is one way of putting it. Hounded and bullied is another, and not just by One Direction fans.

I keep expecting to look out of my window to see Flack being dragged through the streets, shaven-headed, and tarred and feathered. All because Styles is 17, while Flack is 32. Which seems to mark her out as a criminal, except in the eyes of the law.

Harry Styles turns 18 in a couple of months; does this make it any better? How about the fact that this is the same sweet innocent, tousle-headed Harry who, exactly a year ago, whispered excitedly into X Factor winner, Matt Cardle’s ear, onstage, in front of millions of viewers: “Think of all the pussy you’re going to get”? Styles’s comment was lip-read, and he later “explained” to Alan Carr that he was telling Cardle that he would be able to buy some cats for his mum.

If you say so, Harry.

So, this is the young chap we’re all supposed to be worrying about – the tender boy-flesh being sullied and exploited by the predatory Ms Flack?

Hardly a sheltered Little Lord Fauntleroy-type, is he? Perhaps not the kind of young man who would need much luring into a sophisticated lady-cougar’s boudoir?

Indeed, it would seem that Master Styles is, as they say, game, which in fairness marks him out as no different to the vast majority of music industry males. The wish for better luck with the ladies, to put it delicately, is the main reason – along with money – why such a disproportionately high number of sweaty-palmed crooners, twirlers and pluckers, are mysteriously attracted to a career in music.

All of which makes a nonsense of the recurring cry of double standards If this were a 17-year-old girl and a 32-year-old man there would be uproar. First, these kinds of male-female age gaps are not uncommon, and usually garner few objections. Second, it just wouldn’t happen in the same way.

As a rule, young females do not become performers in order to get sex. Young girls have their problems, their unmet needs are varied and many, but not in this department. It would be unlikely that a girl-version of Styles would feel driven to whisper excitedly into an X Factor winner’s ear, in front of millions of viewers… well, you fill in the blanks.

In this way, Styles should not be judged for wanting the same perks as innumerable comely hip-wriggling young crooners before him. Nor should Ms Flack be judged for taking him on. Far from it.

Personally, I am extremely concerned about this coupling, but only because I can’t imagine how any 32-year-old woman with a working brain could tolerate the irritation and the general lack of gorm of an average 17-18 year old. So far as I dimly remember, I wasn’t particularly keen on 17-year-old boys even when I was a 17-year-old girl, so this situation is mystifying.

Somebody mentioned “energy levels” to me, but let’s try to keep it clean. No offence to Harry in particular, who might be the most mature and fascinating of teenagers (and is just determined to keep it hidden).

However, just the thought of waking up, to find some Xbox-ing berk on the next pillow, asking if he can use the phone to tell his mum where he is, is surely enough to make the most voracious cougar want to retire quietly to the next room and hang herself with her support tights.

Ms Flack does not share my view, obviously.

But when I say, good luck to her, it’s because I think she really needs it. But then, it’s wee Harry Styles who seems to be getting all the luck.

Nick is king of the Christmas cards

It is time to judge the party political leader Christmas card competition. Ed Miliband has gone for the jolly family gathering, with his wife and children. No brother though. Ed has on a lovely jumper, and such a beautiful smile. No truly, it’s a heartbreaker. The jumper, that is. This card says: “I’m just a dangerous socialist at work. At home it’s all fresh pasta, and catching up on Rev.”

David Cameron’s card is more formal and, let’s be frank, a poor effort. Taken at a royal wedding street party, Samantha looks glamorous as always, but Dave looks as though he’s just emerged sloshed from the actual wedding, where he’d had his ear bent by some mutton-chopped bore raging about the Countryside Alliance.

The Camerons are laughing at something out of shot, which could be Danny Alexander playing the spoons on his knees. There is a young boy (not Cameron’s son) with a Union flag painted on his face, which has the unfortunate effect of making him and the prime minister look as though they’re itching to get away and join the other hoolies at Millwall. Who took this picture – This Is England‘s Shane Meadowscorrect, in an attempt to discredit Cameron?

So far, all this proves is that the trick of a successful political Christmas card is to hide behind your spouse and children (any children, apparently) as much as possible, shamelessly using them as human shields to deflect unkind press comments. So it pains me to admit that Nick Clegg has done best of all, having managed to dodge the “awkward family photo” altogether, and just have a cutesie drawing of snowmen by his sons. Well played, Nick, very crafty, and not just in the home-made card kind of way. But I still love Ed’s jumper.

Trolls are very bad medicine for GPs

Health secretary Andrew Lansley wants the NHS to become more like the holiday website TripAdvisor, where patients get to rate GPs and surgeries.

Is he serious? Do we really want the aggrieved, resentful, and plain spiteful sitting in their dimly-lit back bedrooms “trolling” GPs? I can see an entry on “GPAdvisor” now. “The receptionist failed to treat me as if I were a visiting royal dignitary, and the People’s Friend magazines were weeks out of date. The haughty GP seemed unimpressed by my vague inconsistent symptoms, and refused to give me a sick note. (Epic Fail!) I returned home in disgust, eager to sit in my favourite onesie at my computer, and spew unwarranted venom and misspelt bile – all the time, relishing the power trip I can’t seem to access anywhere else in my squalid impotent little life.”

Well, something like that anyway.

Everybody is entitled to complain, but what is wrong with doing it directly? What is “wrong” is that this would require the righteously aggrieved to come out of the web-shadows, as their real selves, and deal face-to-face with the people they’re criticising. All of which seems beyond certain types who enjoy “reviewing” on the internet.

On a wider level, if GPAdvisor became as popular as TripAdvisor, it could divide surgeries into “good” and “bad”, presumably giving powers that be the excuse they need to close local services down.

A site dealing with patient complaints could be a great thing, but only if all who used it gave their real names, and were prepared to back up their claims in person. Trolls are everywhere, and not without a certain dark charm, but they should not be allowed to anonymously denigrate NHS employees, or put local services at risk.

Just say no to patient-trolls. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds