Couples and convention
Same-sex couples have arguably been burdened with the requirement to be in the vanguard of radical political change with regard to their personal relationships. The expectation that gay men and lesbians can or should transform conventions for relating to one another has been a strong one (Auchmuthy, 2004; Hull, 2006; Stychin, 2003; Warner, 2000). Yet, as we have shown, most of our couples just wanted ‘ordinary’ things for their relationships. They modelled their relationships on a concept of the ordinary rather than on the radically different. So rather than expecting to find, in an empirical fashion, dramatic changes in everyday living, we suggest that studying same-sex relationships provides an opportunity to rethink some of the conventions of sociological thinking. As Heaphy (2008) has argued, there is an important difference between a sociology of reflexivity and a reflexive sociology. In a similar vein, we are arguing here that the lives of same-sex couples provide hints and prompts for sociology to rethink personal life, rather than assuming that these couples must fit into a preformed vision of what a radical personal life should be like. For example, understanding how men relate in same-sex couple relationships offers the opportunity to rethink the rigid and somewhat stereotyped idea that only women do emotion work in relationships. While the men in these relationships may have a degree of freedom from the highly gendered expectations that (still) rest upon heterosexual men, it is also the case that not assuming that gender difference is the difference that matters in couples allows the sociologist to see differently the interaction that is occurring. So the interaction may be slightly different, but significantly it becomes possible to develop a different sociological vision of what is happening. This shift allows us to understand ’emotionality as contingent, rather than ‘essential’, contexualising it within [various] environments’ (Robinson and Hockey, 2011: 160). This means that rather than being fixed on finding gender difference, a sociological perspective can begin to see emotion work as contextual. As Bondi et al. (2005) argue, emotions can be understood to be relational flows between people. These relational flows are necessarily open to change across the lifecourse and in different contexts; they may be influenced by gender but they need not be determined by gender any more than by class or ethnicity.
While it is clear that the relational ideals, meanings and practices of young men and women were often gendered, it also seems apparent that comprehending their relationships provides support for an understanding of gender as an interactional flow rather than just an acquired characteristic. The doing of gender in relationships is both subtle and complex as we demonstrated in Chapters 4-6. Same-sex couples can change the meanings of certain interactions and thus lift the overdetermination that can at times accompany the analysis of opposite-gender relationships. This means that what a same-sex couple ‘does’, does not have to be somehow intrinsically radical, but their ‘doing’ of it facilitates a different understanding of the meaning of the interaction. Thus, the desire to simply sit on a sofa watching DVDs may not fit into the imagined radically alternative lifestyle wishfully associated with ‘queer’ living, but the recognition that such practices and the forms of intimacy they are linked to are so highly regarded offers a challenge to sociological frameworks on personal relationships which see little significance in the everyday. It also offers insights into how prosaic love works on a day-to-day level and, as Weeks (2007) claims, the radical potential of claiming to be ordinary.