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The gap that lovers must fill: What exactly is a 'conventional' relationship?

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This post also appears over on OpenLearn

For the next three weeks, the Radio 4 show Thinking Allowed will be examining cultural shifts and changes in the home. With the help of OU academics, Laurie Taylor will be speaking with people whose living situations reflect the increasing diversity of home-lives of people in the UK. This seems a very timely exploration given the number of commentators who blamed the recent rioting and violence in British towns on changes in the family, and called for families to be punished by eviction for the behaviours of their members. Similarly, recent reviews have called for for society to become more 'family friendly' as a way of addressing the 'sexualisation of culture'.

 

In my own work, on romantic relationships, I have been struck by the fact that we have a clear idea of what a 'proper' relationship should look like, and often imagine that this is how relationships have always been and how they will always be. We even talk about it as the 'traditional' or 'conventional' form of relationships. However, what we are referring to is a relatively new invention, which clearly differs from relationships at other points in history, and in other cultures around the world. Also, there is much evidence of diversity in such relationships in our own culture today. I have always suspected that the same is true of 'home' and of 'family' and look forward to hearing more about this on the programme.

 

The common idea of the conventional relationship is of a monogamous, long-term relationship between a man and a woman, based on them falling in love, and committed to through marriage. The conventional family is the so-called 'nuclear' family where such a couple has two or three children. And the conventional home is the house which this family owns and where they live out their private life, away from the gaze of other people.

 

Understandings of the conventional relationship has certainly changed a great deal over time. For a start, the current emphasis we have on love as the basis of a relationships is a relatively new thing. In the past, relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it in her book Marriage, a History 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. The current form of love relationships seemed to emerge in the 1950s, although, as I often point out, the TV series Mad Men, which has so caught the popular imagination, is a pretty accurate demonstration of some of the tensions that were in it right from the start.

 

Some have argued that the historical shift in emphasis to romantic love is related to the decline of religion, the precariousness of work situations, and the tendency of people to move about geographically rather than remaining in one place. Intimate relationships have become the new religion: the place people turn to get self-validation, a sense of meaning, and the belonging they may previously have gained from family or community. It certainly seems that marriages are a relatively recession-proof industry, and that there is a strong message – in popular culture – that people will meet The One with whom they will have a happily-ever-after.

 

However, there is an inevitable tension here because we are also living in a time which emphasises individuality, autonomy and reaching our personal goals. Increasing gender equality, and recognition of lesbian, gay and bisexual people's relationships, means that romantic couples are now generally made up of two people who want both togetherness and independence, both belonging and freedom. This means that old rules, around rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules available for how to manage these relationships. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.

 

These changes may be the reason why marriages, and romantic relationships, are relatively unstable, and why there is evidence of an increasing diversity of relationship forms. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Around 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not. Newspaper articles wonder whether Bridget Jones singledom, or Sex and The City serial monogamy, will replace long-term monogamous relationships as the new form of relating. Many people are engaging in forms of openly non-monogamous relationships, from the new monogamy (where couple relationships are, to some extent, open to other sexual and emotional connections), to swinging, open relationships and polyamory (where people form multiple emotional and/or sexual relationships).

 

There have been similar shifts in families and homes over the past century. Related to changes in relationships, are increases in single-person households (estimated at seven million in the UK, and particularly high in urban areas). There have also been changes in parenting (single-parenting, step parenting, and families with multiple parents), and at returns to the less-private, extended, forms of family (both biological families and families of choice) due to economic pressures and other reasons. Also interesting is the British love of home-ownership following the involvement of mortgages in recent financial crises.

Those who are interested in finding out more might like to listen into Thinking Allowed, follow the links in this piece, and check out the UK General Lifestyle Survey 2009 which charts how things have changed in recent decades.

 

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The Royal We

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:36

The Royal We

Also posted over on Society Matters

With the royal wedding fast approaching it is interesting to consider what advice could be given to Kate and William, or any other young couple marrying in the UK in 2011. If we bring together psychological, sociological and philosophical work on relationships, as well as the experiences of relationship therapists, what are the key things that we could offer to people on the point of tying the knot?

Relationships Today

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, whilst Kate and Williams' situation is rather an extreme one, it also illustrates very well some wider patterns that are present in relationships today. Many commentators have linked their wedding to the recession, and certainly marriage is often found to be an almost 'recession proof' industry. When things are bad economically, people still want to get hitched.

Also, the desire to wed remains despite our knowledge of the high chances of the marriage ending at some point. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Of course, there is probably even more pressure on in the case of the royal wedding, due to the high rates of separation in William's family (three out of four of the Queen's children having been divorced).

So what does it mean that people, Kate and William included, are choosing to marry despite all of this? Perhaps it speaks to a great deal of hope that is being placed on romantic love, to the extent that some have suggested that it is almost a new religion in its own right. At a time when work is precarious, and when many people do not have strong religious beliefs, relationships are often the place that they turn to seek out validation, meaning and belonging. This is quite a change from past times when relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian, Stephanie Coontz, puts it: 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. These days we do try to live in a love story, seeking out The One and hoping for a happily-ever-after despite all the evidence against this being the most likely outcome.

The pressure is on relationships to fulfil us in every way throughout our – increasingly long – lives. However, we also know that relationships are a point of great potential struggle and pain. Living up close alongside somebody for many, many years may be one of the most difficult things that any of us do. Indeed, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson argue that romantic relationships are the most dangerous places to be because they are where we are forced to confront ourselves and to learn about how we are capable of behaving. It might be possible to keep up a shiny, happy veneer with our work colleagues, our neighbours, and even our families once we are no longer living with them, but our partner gets to see us when we are at our most tired, stressed and ill.

This is something that is well captured in the Christian wedding vows. It really will be for better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, and at the worse, poorer and sicker times we all (us and our loved ones) have the capacity for cruelty, coldness and cowardice. There will be times when we find ourselves frustrated, angry and bored with the love of our life and scared about what that may mean, as well as times when we see the loving gaze slip off their own faces to be replaced by something else. Such times can be terrifying if we have invested in this relationship the idea that it is a constant validation that we are okay and secure. It can be even harder if what we were expecting was some kind of constant perfection and happiness.

This may sound depressing and defeatist: an argument for not marrying at all, but it is not. Even if we didn't get married, or form romantic partnerships, we would still get intimate and connected to people, and these struggles would still arise. What I am arguing against are the industries that continue to sell us dangerous myths of perfect people and eternal happiness: the ever-smiling billboard, television and movie couples, and the self-help books and magazines that promise to reveal the secrets of 'successful' relationships which will lead to impossibly happy-ever-afters. This is what so many publishers, advertisers and film-makers sell, because they know that people want to hear it. But our constant saturation in these messages is the very thing that is leading to so much pain and struggle and heartache. And the image of the perfect love may well result in us leaving a relationship too quickly assuming that there must be something wrong with it, or staying in a tough relationship too long because we don't want to admit to 'failure'.

Perhaps instead of loading all these expectations and pressures onto Kate and William, and every other marrying couple, we could offer something different: a recognition that relationships will be tough at times and that there aren't any simple tricks to constant happiness. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have pointed out, along with wanting a great deal from relationships, relationships themselves have changed so much in the last few decades that we can feel lost and uncertain. Old rules, for example about rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules out there for us to follow either. As they put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.

If love is a blank then the thing that is, perhaps, most needed to fill in that blank is communication. The wedding gift that we might give to Kate and William, based on all the relationship therapy and research about relationships, would be communication.

A Wedding Gift: Communication

I'll use the wedding vows that Kate and William will be making to demonstrate both the importance of communication these days, and also the ways in which it might work. We make a lot of explicit, and implicit, promises to each other all the way through relationships, but we often fail to think much about what these promises mean, or to check whether they mean the same thing to both people. Research suggests that young couples actually often disagree quite strongly about the things that they thought they had both signed up to.

Kate and William's vows will be the ones from the Church of England 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This means that they will go something like this:

'I, William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor, take you, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, till death do us part; according to God's holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.' (and vice versa)

And later: 'With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.'

There are a lot of promises in there. To pick out some key ones, it seems that in marriage people are promising the following:

  • To stay together, through whatever happens, till death
  • To love each other throughout this time To have, or belong to, each other
  • To be sexual throughout the relationship (with my body I thee worship)
  • To share their worldly goods (usually understood as living together and sharing money)

In terms of the first promise, it might be useful – giving the statistics on separation – for couples to talk through this commitment. Would they want to stay together in exactly the same way, for example, if they found that they were fighting all the time in ways that hurt themselves and those close to them, or if one or both of them changed such that they found themselves with very different life goals. Some recognition that people and relationships change over time would be helpful here, and perhaps thinking about what they might do when such changes happen. Would the relationship staying in its current form be prioritised over their well-being? The idea that relationships can shift and change might take the pressure off a little as it offers something in between staying together exactly as we are, or completely ending the relationship.

In terms of loving each other throughout, it is worth talking through what love means to each person and how they express it, or like to have it expressed. People often feel very differently about this, for example, with one person liking regular declarations of love and big romantic gestures, whilst the other prefers practical signs that the other person has taken them into consideration (by doing the washing up, for example), or thinks about them during the day (the odd text message).

In terms of having and holding, it is very important to consider to what extent people belong to each other and to what extent they are free. This is at the root of so many big relationship conflicts. For example, one person might make a decision about their career which the other would have expected to be consulted upon, or one might think that they were free to be closer to certain friends than the other is happy with.

There is also often an expectation that marriages will stay sexual throughout, but there tends to be very little communication about what sex means to each person and what they actually enjoy. Research has found that people who have been in relationships for over a decade still haven't told their partners all of their sexual likes and dislikes, and of course these can change over time. It is useful to talk through what people want sex for, which actually differs quite a lot (e.g. from a release, to an affirmation of their attractiveness, to a reassurance about the relationship, to an expression of intimacy, to a sense of a physical need that requires regular fulfilment), and also recognise that this will fluctuate through the relationship too.

Finally, it is well worth communicating about what will be shared and what will be separate. Does sharing worldly goods mean having joint finances, for example, or keeping some separate? Do we expect to spend all our time together, or to have periods of separation? What are the limits on what would be acceptable (e.g. can we go on holiday with other people, or work apart for a while)? And what about space? Are we planning to live together, sleep together? Will there be any separate space? Who will be responsible for keeping shared space clean and tidy (and to what extent)? Or for caring for children, pets or plants? Will we have any things we keep private (e.g. certain activities or information)?

It is likely that with all these kinds of questions and more, there will be some aspects that both people agree on, some where they disagree but are able to reach a compromise which meets each other's requirements as well as possible, and some where they simply can't agree. These last ones occur in every relationship. They are points of tension which are likely to crop up every now and again, but can be a lot easier to cope with if there is awareness of them and respect for difference (rather than each person trying to force the other into their way of thinking). It can be very hard to respect that, while you would like to share everything, the other person really values keeping some things to themselves, or while you like lots of public displays of affection and 'I love you's', the other person prefers more private intimacy. Also, of course, both people will change over time, so it is worth revisiting these promises and seeing whether things have altered and any renegotiation is necessary, rather than 'you've changed' being a fatal accusation.

Hopefully a grounding of mutual commitment to communication, to respect for difference and change, and to understanding and forgiveness for behaviour when things get tough, will be a better basis for the rough and the smooth to come, than the expectation of perfection (in oneself and one's partner) and a fairytale happily-ever-after.

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Monogamies/Non-monogamies

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:37

Monogamies/Non-monogamies

This morning I have been writing a response piece for Sexual and Relationship Therapy about monogamy, so I thought I'd blog about it too. The original article and my response will hopefully appear in the August edition of that journal.

Basically the author of the original paper is arguing that sex and relationship therapists should be actively addressing monogamy with their clients because lots of sexual and relationship problems are rooted in monogamy. Thinking about it she has a good point. Obviously relationship conflicts and break-ups about infidelity are about monogamy. But from my own experience working with clients, I think that many other relationship conflicts and tensions are related to this broad issue as well. People often find themselves in different places in their relationships, over how free versus how together they want to be: how much they want to share and how much they want to be private and independent. Often one person is feeling more constrained and striving for more independence whilst another is feeling more insecure and striving for more of a sense of safety. And this frequently plays out around relationships with other people (is it okay to want more friends outside the relationship? Or to be a bit flirty with a colleague?)

Also, common sexual difficulties are often related to monogamy. A lot of people who have painful or unsatisfying sex continue to do so because they are scared of losing their partner to somebody else (and this tends to make it worse). A lot of people feel that they must continue to have 'great sex' throughout their relationship in order to affirm it, which creates the kind of pressure which can make it difficult to relax and tune in to what they really enjoy. The idea of being a 'sex addict' is sometimes linked to struggling with being monogamous.

The author of the paper pointed out that we generally get the message that monogamy is easy and 'natural', and that our partners will provide everything for us (emotionally and sexually). That idea can leave people feeling like a failure when it doesn't work out like that in their relationship. Actually very few people seem to manage monogamy across a life-time. As many as 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not.

So maybe it would be more useful (in therapy and in general) for people to have open conversations about how they want to manage their relationships: how monogamous they want to be.

I came up with the idea of two continua of monogamy for the book I'm writing on relationships. The emotional continuum goes from having all your emotional needs met by one person, to having multiple loving relationships. The sexual continuum goes from complete sexual fidelity to having multiple sex partners. I think it's useful for people to think about where they are on those continua and whether partners are in similar, or different places.

For example, on the emotional continuum we might consider relationships where it isn't acceptable to have any other close friendships, or to stay in touch with ex-partners, or where it is acceptable to stay up all night talking with someone you've just met, or to have several people in your life who are equally important to your partner. On the sexual continuum we might consider relationships where any form of sexual thought about someone other than the partner is considered wrong, ones where it is okay to look at pornography online but not to interact with someone sexually, ones where certain sexual activities with other people are considered okay, or ones that are completely open to sex with others. Obviously there is overlap between the two continua too.

At the end of my response I concluded that the following things would be useful for therapists, but also more generally:

  • Challenging the assumption that we all have the same rules about monogamy and being open to others being in a different place to ourselves
  • Recognising that relationships of all kinds are difficult and most people struggle around those tensions of freedom and togetherness
  • Communicating about where we are at currently on those continua, recognising that this might change over time and in different relationships, and that we might end up agreeing, compromising, or respectfully agree to disagree
  • Being aware of the variety of different relationship styles that are available , including different styles of monogamy, the new monogamy, open relationships, swinging, and polyamory

There's a lot more about open non-monogamy in the paper Darren Langdridge and I wrote on this topic last year.

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