Over the course of a few generations, the everyday possibilities for same-sex relationships in Western societies have altered in dramatic, but uneven, ways. In some contexts, it has become possible for same – sex couples and partners to live more mainstream lives than ever before. There are few contexts in which the mainstreaming of same-sex relationships is more evident than those in which same-sex couples now have access to the ‘rights’ and privileges associated with marriage. In this book, we have taken a generational view of the mainstreaming of same-sex relationships by focusing on the experiences of younger generations of women and men who have formalised their relationships by entering into civil partnerships, who mostly see themselves as married, and who model their relationships on the ordinary. In this conclusion, we revisit some of the core issues discussed in the preceding chapters to draw out further the theme of ordinariness and its implications for the sociology of (same-sex and heterosexual) relationships.
One of the striking findings of our research is the ways in which civil partnerships, along with the language and practices of ‘ordinary marriages’, have so quickly and easily been incorporated into the lives of some young same-sex couples (see Chapter 2). Given that civil partnerships were only introduced about half a decade before we conducted our interviews, the support and encouragement that many couples received for their marriages, from their families and personal communities, is also striking. This could be linked to the ways in which – among couples themselves, and their families and communities – civil partnership or marriage was seen as symbolising an existing cohabiting relationship that was often already implicitly recognised as akin to an informal marriage. Put another way, partners themselves and their close networks often already understood the same-sex couple to be an ‘ordinary’ relationship which was not so different from those of their (heterosexual) cohabiting peers. Thus, it is not the entry into legally recognised partnerships or ‘marriages’ that makes same-sex relationships ‘ordinary’. Rather, it is the already ordinary nature of same-sex relationships in some contexts that has enabled ‘gay marriage’ to be so easily incorporated into day-to-day life. At the same time, for some couples the sense of living an ordinary life was enhanced by the increased visibility and acceptability of same – sex relationships that came with the broader cultural recognition of ‘gay marriage’. The emphasis that many of our young couples put on the ordinariness and acceptability of their relationships points to how the ‘heterosexual panorama’, the ‘heterosexual assumption’ or ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ has weakened in some contexts.
Despite the fact that same-sex relationships, and ‘gay marriages’, are increasingly becoming a more visible aspect of the contemporary relational landscape (see Chapters 2-4), our interviews attest to the fact that same-sex couples and partners still experience instances of invalidation. While parents, families and personal communities mostly validated our couples’ formalised relationships, this was not always the case. For example, some family members did not make the effort to attend the civil partnership ceremony or the celebration, and (relatively few) others were openly hostile about the relationship and civil partnership. While partners mostly emphasised their acceptance over their marginalisation, some did recount instances of symbolic violence, where their relationships were explicitly deemed unworthy of recognition and respect. Also, while many of the partners we interviewed had had positive experiences of coming out, others recounted initially struggling with this because of the fear of rejection or hostility.
Where partners alluded to the impossibilities of living ‘fully’ ordinary relational lives, this was commonly linked to their multiple positioning in terms of sexuality combined with race and ethnicity, religion, disability and/or other axes of socio-cultural difference (see Chapter 2). In other words, it seemed that a sense of being fully ordinary was more easily achievable for same-sex couples on the basis of their being white, ablebodied and from religiously liberal or secular backgrounds. Economic resources could also facilitate a fuller sense of ordinariness. This was evident where depleted resources constrained the possibilities of achieving the ideals of a mature, financially self-sufficient and home-owning ‘married’ couple. Given that some couples were better placed than others to achieve a full sense of their ordinariness, ordinariness could be seen as a privilege that is not simply or automatically given by virtue of the legal recognition of relationships. The situated circumstances in which couples and partners live their day-to-day lives clearly influences the extent to which they can choose or achieve the ordinary ideals of relationships. This raises the reconfiguring links between ordinariness and difference. Despite the commonalities between contemporary experiences of same – sex and heterosexual relationships that we have highlighted in this book, differences still matter in shaping experiences of and claims about ordinariness. This becomes clear when we consider the links between ordinariness and difference as they emerged as significant in the book.
Among our young same-sex couples, ordinariness was a claim about difference and commonality. Ordinariness was valued by those who believed they had been afforded its privileges and by those who believed they had not. Ordinariness is not only the ideal of the privileged; it is also the ideal of the marginalised, although they may be less well positioned to fully achieve it. Thus, claims about the possibilities or impossibilities of living ordinary lives and relationships are political claims about the (in)validation of lives and relationships as they are lived. Claims about ordinariness are not neutral ones, as Savage et al. (2000) have illuminated with respect to class identities (see also Heaphy, 2011). But the ideals of ordinariness as they concern same-sex relationships cannot simply be equated with the ‘normalisation’ or ‘assimilation’ of these relationships. The issue is more complex than this. In some respects, ordinariness is about claiming recognition on the basis of respectability (Heaphy, 2011; Savage et al., 2000). In the case of new generations of same-sex partners, ordinariness could be a claim to recognition via respectability on the basis of not being at the top or the bottom of a social hierarchy: a claim about not being like those at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy who lived ‘shameful’ sexual lives (hence, the disparaging ways in which ‘gay culture’ and partners’ own ‘promiscuous’ pasts were sometimes spoken of ), and a claim about not being like perceived elites at the top of the sexual hierarchy who could simply ‘consume’ sexuality and relationships without taking responsibility (hence, partners’ refusals to describe themselves as sexual and relational innovators). Put another way, ordinariness could be a claim about commonality: to be like the mass of people (heterosexual and non-heterosexual) in ‘the middle’ who must work at creating ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’ relationships.
Ordinariness is about relational embeddedness and agency. This came to the fore in Chapter 3 where we discussed in detail the idea of relational biographies which, in turn, were an explicit or implicit feature of all the subsequent chapters. In these respects, claims about ordinariness could be viewed as an ‘intuitive’ recognition that ‘who’ people (heterosexual and non-heterosexual) are and ‘what people do’ in relationships are linked to the relational circumstances and imagi – naries they grew up with, the changing circumstances in which their relating orientations developed over time, and the specific interactional contexts in which they now relate. On the one hand, partners emphasised the continuities between their parents’ relationships and their own relationships. They shared the core marriage ideals that their parents’ generation subscribed to: love, stability and equality. They also subscribed to the belief that all ‘good’ and ‘successful’ relationships and marriages (be they their own or their parents’, homosexual or heterosexual) required a joint commitment to making relationships work. This could involve the joint monitoring of relationships as well as fairly constant (explicit or implicit) communication and making time to simply be together. On the other hand, partners often believed that their relationships were different to their parents’ by virtue of the ‘fact’ that they, like their heterosexual generational peers, were better positioned than their parents’ generation to realise these ideals in practice. Underpinning this was a belief that their own generation was less constrained by social circumstances than was their parents’ generation. In this respect, partners often believed that, compared to previous generations, they had more freedom to choose their partners and the kinds of relationships they wanted. For the majority, this implied a greater degree of individual agency, and they saw it as ‘natural’ that they (like their peers, heterosexual and otherwise) should invest such agency in creating and maintaining stable couple relationships that would be at the heart of their relational lives and connections with others.
Drawing on the previous points, claims to ordinariness are linked to practices of ordinariness, and this raises the issues of convention and innovation. As far as relationships are concerned, convention and innovation only make sense if we accept the idea that there are hegemonic models and scripts for relating that circulate in the culture and that we are all familiar with. For the sake of argument, we provisionally accept this proposition. The links between practices of ordinariness and conventional practices were a central theme that emerged in Chapters 4-7. Not all couples adopted conventional approaches to their relationships, but that many did was evident in the ways in which they ceremonialised their commitments, tended to ‘choose’ partners from broadly similar backgrounds, assumed and were committed to sexual monogamy, and were focused on couple-centred relational lives. However, as opposed to seeing this as evidence of how younger generations of same-sex relationships are more likely than previous same-sex generations to simply or blindly follow relating scripts, we argue that it highlights the extent to which partners and couples today (same-sex and heterosexual) can be actively invested in convention. From this perspective, married couples are not ‘unreflexive’ followers of conventional scripts, but are active (and sometimes highly reflexive) scriptors of convention. Put another way, they are not without agency. Rather, reflexivity and agency can be focused on the production of convention rather than its undoing. In this regard, the majority (but not all) of the same-sex couples we interviewed actively refused to be at the vanguard of the kind of relational innovation and experimentation that have been associated with previous generations’ same-sex relationships. This, we suggest, is linked to the ways in which their biographies are anchored or embedded in the relational worlds in which they grew up.
The active investment in convention and embeddedness underscores the work or labour entailed in practices, ‘performances’ and claims of ordinariness. There were several dynamics unpinning this. As these were young couples who, for the most part, were in their first legally committed relationship, there was undoubtedly a pressure to be seen to have a successful relationship and to be doing it ‘right’. As we have seen, couples also linked their current relationships and marriages to their development as mature relational actors, and the capacity to competently perform convention could be read as indicative of maturity. Also, these were couples who had only relatively recently formalised their relationships and the intensity with which they approached their (mostly monogamous) relationships was undoubtedly linked to the afterglow of having formalised their commitment (often in very public ways). Along with this, they were narrating their relationships to an interviewer, and via her to a public audience, and this will have shaped the form and content of their personal stories. Many of these dynamics, combined with the culturally and biographically embedded nature of relational ideals and practices, are likely to have influenced the conventional stories they told, as well as the conventional lives they lived. Yet, the intense labour involved in doing, performing and claiming ordinariness via the production of convention underscores the ways in which convention itself is actively made. Partners also seemed to engage in a notable degree of work in smoothing the tensions between their subscription to the conventions that support the ‘naturalness’ of couple and married relationships and their implicit recognition of other possible realities (for example, they could in principle, but did not in practice, choose non-monogamy, to be single, to prioritise rationality over the discourse of romantic love in accounting for their choice of a partner and to acknowledge the ‘naivety’ of their faith in lifelong commitments in the face of the well-documented contingent nature of ordinary relationships).
This provides a perspective on the work or labour that contemporary relationships involve that is somewhat different to the ways in which these issues have tended to be framed in existing sociological studies of heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Put briefly, the emphasis in previous studies of conventional heterosexual relationships has been on the burden of physical and emotional work that falls to women in marriage and relationships with men. In studies of innovative same-sex relationships, the emphasis has been on the more equal sharing of the physical and emotional work that relationships involve. Our study does not necessarily contradict these findings but also suggests something else: that by shifting away from a reductive conception of gender we can begin to grasp the other kinds of work that relationships involve, and develop a vital conception of relational power that is perhaps more suitable for comprehending new, generationally situated, relational possibilities. In this book, we hope to have illustrated the value of this with respect to the new generational experiences of same-sex couples, but we also believe it has value in examining the reconfiguring possibilities open for heterosexual relationships.