Enduring Love?

Monday 16th January saw the launch of a new Open University research project called Enduring Love? Here I will introduce the project and also summarise the talks at the launch about current thinking on relationships, and the pressures they are under.

There has been plenty of research on break-up, divorce and separation. The team behind this project decided that it was time that we knew more about what makes people stay together as well as what makes them split up.

The plan is to get as many people as possible to fill out the online questionnaire so that the researchers can get a good idea of the diversity of ways in which people are experiencing long-term relationships, as well as anything that people who stay together have in common. At the same time, there will be much more in-depth research on sixty couples who will keep a diary of their relationship, take part in interviews together and separately, and explore the way they live and how they feel in their relationship. The detailed research will consider various aspects of the couple relationship such as emotions, sex, commitment, and the way that their partnership fits with other important relationships in their lives. You can already get an idea of the kinds of things people are saying about their relationships from the video clips and podcasts that the team has put together.

The project is called Enduring Love? with a question mark to give the title a double meaning. The researchers are keen to explore what makes relationships work for those who stay together long term and who find that a fulfilling way to live. At the same time it is clear that some couples feel pressured to stay together even when they are very unhappy. It is useful to know what makes an enduring love, as well as what the experience is like when love itself becomes something to be endured. Of course many relationships include elements of both these things: when times are hard the relationship feels like something to be endured, and when things are going well the ‘enduring’ nature of the relationship is something that may be celebrated. Enduring hard times can build intimacy as well as sometimes breaking it.

At the launch event we heard from a representative from the Department of Education who spoke about ways in which the research could feed into government strategies around relationships. For example, it could help to illuminate the diversity of relationship styles that people are currently engaged in, feeding into relationship education in school PSHE, developing relationship therapy training, and informing programmes which help couples to transition to different forms of relationships (for example, those who continue to co-parent or live together when they are no longer a couple).

After the talk from the DoE, author and journalist, Kate Figes, spoke about her book Couples: The Truth which was based on interviews with a range of couples. She found that people don’t tend to reflect on their relationships whilst things are going well – only when things go badly wrong. People also felt that their relationship had to be private and that it was disloyal to talk about what went on in their relationship to anybody outside of it. Finally, people were very concerned about whether their relationship was ‘normal’.

Of course when nobody speaks openly about the reality of relationships, it is easy for us all to assume that everybody else’s relationship is much better than our own (because that is what they look like from the outside), and to worry that something is wrong with us. One reason that I love the book Mistakes were made (but not by me) is that it argues that intimate relationships are actually one of the most challenging things we can possibly do, because letting someone in so close that they get to see all sides of you is exposing, and often confronts us with difficult truths.

Kate’s ideas resonated with my own thoughts on this topic as she highlighted key pressures that relationships are currently under, many of which I also explore in my book Rewriting the Rules, which is out later this year. She said that there is romantic pressure to find a soulmate who will provide us with our happily-ever-after; there is sexual pressure to have perfect exciting sex throughout a relationship; and there is pressure to be monogamous, with any kind of infidelity regarded as unacceptable. However, the first two pressures make it more, rather than less, likely that people will end up looking elsewhere because nobody can be everything to us, people change over time, and such insularity can leave us gasping for freedom.

Kate reckoned that important ways forward were for people to be more honest about the lows and highs of their relationships, to communicate better with each other, and to recognise the impact of our backgrounds, cultures, and family histories on how we understand relationships (which will inevitably be different to that of our partners). She also argued that the adversarial legal system is very bad for people who are trying to shift their relationship into a different form (co-parenting for example) and that mediation is a better alternative.

We also heard from academics Lynn Jamieson and Ann Phoenix who talked about their own research in this area and what their hopes were for the Enduring Love? project. Lynn spoke about the way our understandings of coupledom has changed over time. An older participant in her research spoke about the way marriage used to be just what people did at a certain age, whilst many now see love as a vital ingredient. Lynne, and others in the audience raised questions about who we count as a couple. For example, many couples now don’t live together some, or even all, of the time. There are also people who are in secret couples which others in their lives do not know about. And polyamorous people have relationships with more than one person so they may be in more than one couple, or in a triad/quad or family rather than a couple at all. In Rewriting the Rules I question the dividing rules that we have between romantic love and other kinds of relationship which are not always clearcut (what about a romantic relationship that has become more like a friendship over time, or a close friendship between people who live together and have intense rows and good times together?).

Lynn suggested that the Enduring Love? research could provide valuable insights into ‘practices of intimacy’: what are the building blocks of relationships that we may not be aware of but which we use everyday to connect with those we’re close to? What is the role of talking (and deciding not to talk about certain issues)? Other practices include practices of caring for each other, learning about each other, spending time together (physically present and digitally mediated), prioritising, and giving and receiving.

Lynn agreed with Kate about the ludicrous pressures of cultural ideas such as ‘The One’ and ‘Mr/Ms Right’, suggesting that we might move towards celebrating more pragmatic arrangements that people have in their relationships. Ann Phoenix went on to explore such ideas further in her talk which highlighted the roles of myths and stories that couples have about their relationships (which draw upon cultural myths as well as family backgrounds). Like Kate she highlighted the importance of recognising that all relationships have dissatisfactions and disharmonies as well as shared stories, even if these are more rarely spoken about with others.

Ann suggested that key areas to consider, when exploring relationships, include the diversity of experiences of those in transnational couples (who may be forced to live apart and/or have different backgrounds and privileges, for example), and same-sex couples. Like polyamorous people, such couples have the additional pressure of frequently having to explain their relationships to strangers, which is a very different experience to those whose relationship is take-for-granted and even celebrated by others and by wider culture.

Ann also discussed change, which is something that I focus on in Rewriting the Rules. She said that over time we are not the same people who we were back when we got together, never mind being the same couple. She also questioned the binary way in which we tend to see ‘enduring’ and ‘breaking up’. As I explore in my chapter on break-up, given the shifts that relationships go through over time we might begin to challenge what it means to ‘stay together’ and to ‘split up’ and what there might be between these two extremes. Perhaps ‘enduring love’ is a love that is flexible enough to shift and change over time as the situation demands it.

Hopefully the sociological approach taken by the Enduring Love? researchers will enable a continued exploration of the psychosocial nature of relationships. Our intimate relationships happen in a wider context of global, economic, political, and social change as well as within wider social networks which may support or constrain our relationships. We know, for example, that social policies influence whether people can live together or not, and economic situations and policies determine who can get married. Clearly cultural ideals about relationships impact our expectations and experiences. Relationships are not something we learn how to do once and for all, rather they are a work in progress operating within a world which is also changing all the time.

Find out more:

  • To take part in the Enduring Love? study go here. Please note that the project is aimed at people in couples. Hopefully there will be linked projects for single people and people in multiple relationships happening soon – I’ll keep you updated on this.
  • To find out more about the project go here.
  • For more on my Rewriting the Rules project go here. There will be regular updates until the book is published later in the year.
  • I will keep this blog updated with the findings of the Enduring Love? project.

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