Being a couple: Does civil partnership make a difference?
As we noted in Chapter 4, almost all of our couples were living together before they married. The only exceptions arose from the complications of having different nationalities where it was impossible for some couples to live together for long because of immigration legislation. This meant that some had had to return home because visas had expired and the process of prenuptial cohabitation was either truncated or not possible. For most, however, getting married did not entail moving home or even starting a home together as this had been accomplished before the civil partnership ceremony took place. Thus, the question we asked about what difference civil partnership had made to them inevitably focused the couples’ attention on the issue of changes to affect rather than on material or behavioural changes.
A common response was to proclaim that the civil partnership made no difference at all to their relationship (see Chapter 4). This response seemed to be a way of establishing that the relationship prior to the civil partnership was already strong, close and loving, and that the civil partnership itself did not alter or improve upon this. Thus, in stating that the civil partnership made no difference, the couples seemed to be affirming that relationships outside ‘marriage’ could be just as valid and committed as those that were legally recognised. But no one sustained for long the argument that civil partnership had made absolutely no difference and typically they went on to assert that it made them feel more secure. This concept of greater security (sometimes coupled with notions of seriousness, commitment and stability) ran through the majority of replies:
Oliver (210b): Yeah. I mean it did feel a bit different, I did feel you know, afterwards that – that – the way I – I saw my – myself and my relationship with Ben and the way I – we – I saw ourselves – you know, that, that, having done that then it does feel more Ben (210a): Secure.
Oliver: And serious.
Victor (216b): I think it feels more secure to me. Um, because it’s,
you know, it’s’, we have that legal bond. I think it’s given more stability, you know, it’s not given more stability, but it’s given a sense, a feeling of stability. You know, because it’s more formal.
Peter (216a): For me, none whatsoever; [it] does not make any
The couples often referred to an intangible feeling that they had experienced (Mason, 2008). They suggested that something felt different but they could not put a finger on exactly what it was. This intangibility is not entirely surprising because many of these couples had not been married for long enough to have really concrete evidence that their relationships had become more secure or stable. It is possible to understand these assertions in the light of Swidler’s analysis of mythic and prosaic love. Our question about what difference the civil partnership made seemed to provoke responses based on mythic rather than prosaic love; that is to say it seemed to tap into the kind of certainties that attend upon ‘knowing’ one has made the right choice of partner. There was a magical quality to the ‘difference’ they identified rather than a mundane or solid element.
A second response to this question was to express pride. This feeling could be based on a loosely political idea that being married is a way of making a stand in a predominantly heterosexual lifeworld (cf. Hull, 2006; Shipman and Smart, 2007). Two couples, one female and one male, were quite fierce about using the terms ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ whenever they could. Four male couples and one female couple had opted to take the same surname as a way of publicly proclaiming their married status (and an additional female couple opted for a doublebarrelled name). Others wore rings and found themselves drawing attention to them in public.
And we get to wear wedding rings [laughter].
Yes, which we play with endlessly. […]
But it’s nice to wear a wedding ring [laughter].
I thought, you know, if I was wearing a wedding ring then I’d feel, if people asked me, then I’d feel embarrassed about explaining that I actually, you know, that I share a civil partnership with a man. No, it’s the opposite; it makes me feel more confident about the relationship. It makes me feel –
Umberto: More empowered, would you say so?
Garry: Yes, exactly. It’s, just because it’s a symbol of what we’ve done,
I think the whole getting married aspect was something which does empower you; makes you stronger in expressing the facts in an environment which might be sometimes difficult; expressing the fact that you are in a relationship with someone of the same-sex. […] I think that feeling of empowerment is somewhat symbolised by the ring.
Others expressed this feeling as getting more respect for their relationship which they also saw in terms of taking a stand (Smart, 2008). As Phoebe (123b) puts it:
And you know in terms of equalities and rights and so on we always feel that in a same-sex relationship you’re not given the same level of respect as you were [when] you’re in a heterosexual relationship. So it gave a bit of, you know, oh I don’t want to say the word standing but you know it.
These accounts reflect the extent to which a civil partnership can be a political act and not solely a matter of personal choice. This is not to say that any of the couples married for political reasons, but having decided to have a civil partnership there could follow moments of clear political consciousness in which couples felt they had a right to demonstrate their equal citizenship.
Finally, among those who felt the civil partnership had made a difference, there was the feeling that it was a signal that they had ‘grown up’ (see Chapters 4-6). The civil partnership marked a transition for some from being a person who could be impulsive, or who could move on if things were not working out, to becoming a person with responsibilities who needed to start planning a future:
Thinking of more grown up things, now that we’re married, and not just because we’ve got a house but I’m constantly thinking ahead of our future. Where are we going to be in ten years time? We’re thinking so much more about our careers now. [. ] after the ceremony I remember my mother talking to me about it and saying, ‘You’re not my little boy any more now, you know you’re on your own, you’ve got your family now’. And that sort of, was quite – what’s the word I’m looking for – quite woke me up.
As noted in earlier chapters, the idea of being a ‘grown up’ also featured in references to life stages which infused so much of the couples’ narratives. Weeks et al. (2001: 39) argue that ‘there are many strong parallels in the meaning of family practices across the heterosexual – homosexual divide’ and we suggest that one such parallel is the way in which young couples construct the biography of their relationship in terms of stages. Within this framework, the civil partnership becomes an acknowledgement that the relationship has moved into a different ‘phase’ which gives rise to a sense of satisfaction and also an ability to look forward. The couples all felt they had someone to rely upon which in turn meant that plans could be made for living somewhere else, for a new career, for having children and generally moving on. By contrast, staying single was seen as less desirable and a much harder option:
It’s nice to come home to somebody. I certainly wouldn’t want to be single, certainly wouldn’t want to be gay and single […] because I don’t see it as being really much of a life, do you?