There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s classic comedy ‘Annie Hall’ where Alvi (Allen’s stock, self-sabotaging New York Jew) and Annie (Diane Keaton at her nervy, witty, creative best) are on a plane, agreeing to end their relationship. Alvi describes relationships as being “like a shark – they have to keep moving to stay alive”.

Although in the movie there’s some irony in this definition, not least because of the prior behaviour of both parties, it’s nonetheless a solid truth about the nature of partnership.

There’s a relationship phenomenon in mid-life, particularly common among those who have recently divorced or separated and are now ‘dating’, that might be called Shark-Free Love. This occurs when single men and women enter into a serious, loving relationship without building too much in the way of concrete connections.

They ‘go out’ with each other, but don’t live together; they have no plans to marry, don’t share ownership of property, and don’t have children together. They are ‘committed’ to each other, but to a limited degree. Their role in relation to the other’s children, if there are any, is minimised as far as possible. Links with any extended family are kept simple.

Typically couples in a Shark-Free relationship meet at weekends and holidays, and spend much of their working time apart, each in their own home. They consciously tend to avoid the nitty-gritty realities of each other’s everyday life.

This kind of Shark-Free Love temporarily satisfies three main desires:

  • continued independence
  • a sense of not being alone
  • plenty of opportunity for fun

In other words both parties feel safe, because mutual responsibilities are limited. There seem to be few of the love-sharks that can beset cohabitees: repetition, niggling arguments, work-day drudgery, sexual boredom, illness, the messy side of our natures…… The dangers that beset them in their previous love affairs have been avoided (and that’s the point of course). In this way Shark-Free Love can sustain for months, even years.

In many respects Shark-Free Love has a lot going for it. I know many people who have experienced great happiness and satisfaction this way, sometimes over an extended period. I’ve done it myself, more than once.

However Shark-Free Love should come with a health warning: Woody Allen’s ‘shark rule’ applies. If a relationship is to survive long-term there must be shared goals, shared and agreed plans for the future.There must be shared risk.

In a conventional marriage, there are a number of key staging posts which in themselves act as joint objectives: the wedding, having children, buying a house, extended family events, career moves etc. Each of these represents some kind of personal commitment. As a result each carries a measure of risk. It’s the risk that helps bond the couple– they need each other to help each other through – and it’s the successes that provide the rewards and help strengthen the bonds between the couple.

In the Shark-Free relationship where risks seem to be minimal, rewards can in turn become superficial. Eventually, a silent, unseen threat starts to loom ahead, perhaps the biggest emotional predator of all: restlessness.

Ultimately, most Shark-free Love affairs will collapse. Any sense of permanence will be shown to be an illusion: a bubble that will burst eventually.

Love can’t be kept at a safe distance from real life. For any relationship to survive it needs forward momentum, which it gets from incorporating risk.

A loving relationship has to maintain a sense of forward momentum in order to flourish. It also, like the shark, has to carry a sense of danger, of risk.

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