The Daily Mail ran an article recently titled "Rise of the Freemale". It heralded the increase in the number of single women in the UK as evidence of female liberation:
The number of single women has hit an all-time high, a study has shown - and most of them aren't looking for love.
They apparently choose to be alone, and rejoice in a life where they can spend their time and money as they wish.
This new breed of singleton has been dubbed a "freemale", because she chooses freedom over family ...
Paula Hall, a relationship psychotherapist with Relate, said many women had been put off relying on relationships for their happiness ...
"If you're busy and fulfilled with lots of close friends, then relationships may seem a bit irrelevant ...
"Basically, women feel comfortable doing whatever they want to do with their lives."
The article makes it sound as if the liberal theory is working out well in practice, and that there are growing numbers of single women happily liberated from serious relationships or motherhood.
But then the Daily Mail ran a follow-up article by Dr Pam Spurr, a relationships counsellor. She believes that many single women in their 30s are putting on a public act of being contented with their situation:
What's really going on behind the confident demeanour and fulfilled exterior is crushing loneliness and desperation.
Single women become adept at playing the isn't-life-grand game.
They have to do it around men so they don't appear desperate.
And they come to do it around other women, too, as I've discovered in the course of counselling hundreds of single women ...
She gives the example of Susie:
Susie, 38, a music industry lawyer, is a classic case of portraying the sunny single when inside she's utterly miserable ... Susie felt ashamed of living a lie - and finally confessed she always pretends to be cheerful about her single status.
"How would other people feel coming back to an empty flat after a long, hard day with no one to talk to or cuddle?
"They have no idea how good they've got it. Yet I've got too much pride to say: 'I desperately want to meet someone'".
Then there is the case of Jenny:
Take Jenny, 35, who e-mailed me about her profound regret over dumping a man she had dated at 29.
She said he had been a good and kind partner, but she'd felt there was something "more" to be had in a relationship, and also had wanted to focus on her TV production career while it was hurtling skywards.
Jenny's e-mail made pitiful reading. She blamed herself for her predicament: her damaging attitude towards her former boyfriend, her immaturity in wanting every aspect of her "needs" met and being blinkered about putting her career first.
She suffered insomnia as she fretted nights away about her choices.
So what went wrong? Dr Pam Spurr puts things this way:
Yes, outwardly women in 2008 are supposed to aspire to careers and self-fulfilment, but inwardly they also long to satisfy an urge that's been around as long as humankind: to connect with a partner - and if their biological clock is ticking - to fulfil it and produce children together.
It's absolute tosh to think it's any other way. The human species would die out if this weren't the case.
So autonomy can't always be the overriding aim. There are other important goods to consider as well if we wish to be fulfilled in life. If we always make autonomy the primary aim, we are likely to end up feeling alienated and disconnected rather than liberated and free.
Dr Pam Spurr tells us that the women she counsels:
come home to a sleek apartment, decorated to their taste, and surrounded by lots of lovely things - and they feel as empty as the rooms they paid so much for.
It's normal to want a period of independence from family commitments in our early adulthood. But to take autonomy as the main principle on which to build a life isn't likely to work in the longer run.