Conceptualising the vitality relationships
In line with modernist frames for understanding relationships, existing empirical studies of heterosexual married relationships suggest they are highly gendered and support unequal relations between men and women (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993; Duncombe et al., 2004; 1999; Mansfield and Collard, 1988). Despite changes in the ideologies of gendered work, intimacy and democratic personal relations, research suggests the continuation of distinctively gendered relational cultures, especially with respect to finances, monogamy and family-making (child care, domestic work, emotion work and the like). Such studies indicate women and men’s continuing struggles for equal and mutually fulfilling personal relationships. In contrast, studies on same-sex relations generally suggest a smoother incorporation of egalitarian ideals into day-today relational practice. Research on same-sex couples has also explicitly focused on finances, monogamy and family-making, and suggests these are more-or-less ‘freely’ negotiated in accordance with egalitarian ideals, and that the struggles and disappointments documented in married heterosexual relationships are less prevalent in same-sex ones (Dunne, 1997; 1999; Heaphy et al., 1999; 2004; Sullivan, M. 2004). Gender sameness, as well as an egalitarian relational ethos (as discussed earlier), are often held to explain the more equal and mutually satisfying operation of same-sex relations.
Such interpretations of research data are relatively convincing when viewed through the lens of abstract theoretical debates about the resilience of gender structures, institutionalised heterosexuality and the possibilities that same-sex relations offer for reworking gender. They do not, however, account for or illuminate the vitality and complex workings of either contemporary heterosexual or same-sex relationships in sufficiently situated ways, and fail to fully illuminate the ordinary, but nevertheless complex, influences on expectations, meanings and practices at the level of day-to-day relating. This, we suggest, is partly because inherited (modernist) sociological models for understanding intimate relationships have tended to become congealed as fairly solidified normative frames that dominate research on personal life and interpretations of it (Heaphy, 2007; Smart, 2007). As a consequence of this, heterosexual married relationships tend to be interpreted through overarching structural (gender) frames that do not illuminate the range of influences on personal experiences, meanings, values and practices (such as those related to finances, monogamy and family-making), how these interact with and contradict each other, and how they become embedded and/or open to change. Same-sex relationships, in comparison, have tended to be interpreted through ‘liberationism (Blasius, 1994), ‘post-emancipatory’ (Giddens, 1991; 1992) or ‘queer’ (Roseneil, 2002) frames that often ignore the embeddedness of meanings, values and practices per se. This has resulted in an overemphasis on their creative and ‘freely’ agentic qualities that fails to fully account for the mundane influences and practices that constrain and shape such creativity and agency and enable it. It also fails to account fully for the multidimensionality of same-sex relationships (the expectations, tensions, contradictions, joys, disappointments and possibilities).
To capture a sense of this multi-dimensionality and develop a more situated understanding of the socio-cultural implications of civil partnership, the study discussed in this book set out to explore how civil partnerships are ‘made’ and experienced in practice; how ‘partnered’ or ‘married’ life is defined, constructed and linked to various areas of living (e. g. work, family, friendship, parenting, finances, sexuality, leisure and so on); and how personal and couple meanings and practices associated with civil partnership are influenced by biographical, social, cultural and temporal factors. This, we hoped, would generate insights into the meanings, experiences and practices associated with civil partnership in day-to-day life, and enable the exploration of the implications for change and continuity with respect to marriage.
As noted in the Preface and Introduction, we interviewed 50 same – sex couples where partners were aged up to 35 when they entered into civil partnership. We interviewed them together and apart to generate three relationship stories about each relationship: a couple one and two individual ones. It was not our primary intention to look for contradictions between the stories partners tell in different interview contexts, although they do exist and can be sociologically interesting. Rather, our aim was to explore the conarrated (and emergent) couple story of the relationship via the joint interview, and to link this to partners’ socially shaped relational orientations and habituated practices that were explored via the personal narratives generated in individual interviews (see Appendix 1). Central to our approach to interviewing couples and to analysis was an interactionist understanding of scripting (see Atkinson and Housley, 2003; Kimmel, 2007; Plummer, 1983; Simon and Gagnon, 2004), and an exploration of its potential value in generating ‘new’ stories of couple relationships. This allowed us to conceptualise young couples’ civil partnerships as vital relational projects that involve multi-dimensional dynamics of scripting and power. Scripting here refers to the stories that are told about relationships, but it is also a metaphor for how relationships are ‘done’ in practice. We adopted a pragmatic approach to conceptualising the link between the stories that our interviewees told and their actual lives. This was based on Plummer’s (1995) argument that personal stories can be explored less for their literal truth or aesthetic qualities than for the part they play in the life of the person, social relationships and the social order. From this perspective, partners’ narratives could be viewed as a ‘cite’ (Gubrium and Holstein, 2009) for exploring how relational practices are shaped by the culture (cultural scripts), how cultural scenarios are taken up, negotiated, reworked or contested between partners (interpersonal scripts) and how partners process interpersonal experience and cultural scenarios (intrapsychic scripts) (Jackson and Scott, 2010a, 2010b; Simon and Gagnon, 2004).
More specifically, we deployed scripting as an analytical tool for thinking about how young couples’ civil partnerships are linked to mainstream and marginal, queer, personal community and other relational discourse at a cultural level (cultural scripts), involve the socially shaped relating orientations and practices that people bring to their relationships (personal scripts), and how through interaction in relationships couple stories and practices emerge (couple scripts). These discourses, orientations, stories and practices can be conceptualised as interlinked orders of relational scripting that are involved in young same-sex couples’ marriages. Generating couple and individual interview stories enabled us to explore how personal and couple relating scripts are influenced by cultural scripts, but also how interlinked personal, couple and cultural scripts are reaffirmed, altered and generated through interactions. To explore young same-sex marriages as scripted is to acknowledge that they are neither wholly predictable nor wholly creative, but are vital in how they are socially shaped and dynamic. This vitality is partly linked to different partners’ sense of how their relationships should, could and might be like; to the interplay of constraints and possibilities that partners encounter; and to the range of responses (cognitive and affective) that they (and others) have to such constraints and possibilities. In the past, scripting has been associated with a kind of symbolic interactionism that was concerned with how social actions and interaction follow scripts. This is an impoverished view of scripting theory, as Plummer argues about sexual scripting theory:
In the hands of some researchers, it [scripting theory] has become a wooden mechanical tool for identifying uniformities in […] conduct: the script determines activity, rather than emerging through activity. What is actually required is to show the nature of […] scripts as they emerge in encounters.
Plummer, quoted in Knapp et al. (2004: 132)
The interplay of embeddedness and openness is important in understanding same-sex partners’ emergent stories and scripts. Personal stories of same-sex marriage are linked to family discourse at a sociocultural level, and this is itself composed of multiple and often contradictory discourses. Such discourses are historically embedded but also underscore the diverse possibilities for relating. In line with the notion of ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1977), people bring their biographically rooted and socially shaped orientations – their embedded ‘naturalised’ meanings, values and practices – to their relationships. But also in line with the notion of habitus which, as Bourdieu acknowledges, is to some degree open, people’s relating orientations are subject to modification over the lifecourse. While changing cultural norms and values influence relating orientations, personal relationships are likely to be a key site of interaction through which ‘new’ relationship scripts emerge and feed back into the culture. It would be naive to ignore the significance and power of relational scripting at the levels of culture and habituated practice (Bourdieu, 1977). Personal stories always reference such scripting. However, it would be equally naive to ignore how new relational scripts (at the level of culture, and social and personal practice) emerge through interpersonal interaction. Thus, it is crucial to acknowledge continuities and changes in how same-sex relationships and marriages are done, and that the flow of power with respect to marriage is not uni-directional: same-sex marriages are not simply conventional or creative, they are both. In the following chapters we explore how same-sex partners put convention and creativity to work in narrating and doing their relationships and marriages.