Love, power and order
In their classic essay on marriage in modern Western societies, Berger and Kellner (1964) link marriage to ontological or biographical order, stating that it creates for the individual a ‘sort of order’ in which they ‘can experience his life as making sense’ (1964: 1). They suggest that individuals invest in the ‘private world’ because of their sense of agency in shaping it in contrast to the ‘powerful alien world’ of public institutions. They argue that this sense of agency stems from ongoing ‘conversations’ between partners through which they redefine themselves and the ‘little world’ around them and construct a shared vision of the future (ibid). Berger and Kellner also acknowledge that agency is socially framed, noting that people ‘choose’ marriage from ‘within similar socio-economic backgrounds’ (1964: 20) and the range of ideological supports that legitimate marriage as an obvious and natural choice: ‘familialism, romantic love, sexual expression, maturity and social adjustment, with the pervasive psychologistic anthropology that underlies them all’ (1964: 18). They suggest that such supports ensure that ‘[t]he marital adventure can be relied upon to absorb a large amount of energy that might otherwise be expended more dangerously’ (ibid). Thus they link marriage to the broader social order. While marriage in Western societies is no longer the unproblematic focus of lifelong commitment as Berger and Kellner assumed it to be in the 1960s, some of their core arguments are still relevant to understanding contemporary couple-centred relational lives where, as discussed in Chapter 3, the committed couple is linked to a sense of (ontological) security, where self and couple projects are enmeshed, and where dialogical intimacy rules as a relational ideal.
Many commentators have criticised Berger and Kellner’s male – centred version of marriage, and their analysis does not address the links between marriage, institutional heterosexuality, gender and power. In terms of these links, some analysts have seen romance, love and marriage in ideological terms. The feminist philosopher Adrienne Rich (1983), for example, argued that heterosexuality was a system imposed on women throughout history that regulated women’s experience, history, culture and values which are distinct from the dominant patriarchal heterosexual culture. Romance and marriage were devices through which women were subordinated and ideologies of romantic love led women into unequal relationships with men, naturalised gender roles and unequal labour, and privileged men’s pleasure above that of women.
Developing this point, Dunne (1997: 13) and others suggest romantic and gender ideologies are wholly entwined: they construct men and women as unfulfilled opposites that can only be complete through a heterosexual union. Institutional heterosexuality therefore provides ‘the logic underpinning marriage […] as a commonsense "normal adult goal"’ (Dunne, 1997: 16). Yet, for many feminist theorists, institutional heterosexuality, and the notion of a reciprocal state of dependency between men and women that underpins it, also ‘shapes and is shaped by relations of production’ (Dunne, 1997: 16). In this sense, institutional heterosexuality naturalises gendered differences and inequalities in relation to domestic and paid work. Ideologies of sexual difference, especially as they relate to heterosexual romance and family life, constitute men and women as different economic actors, and reinforce men’s dominant economic position over women.
Despite these arguments, traces of Berger and Kellner’s analysis have come to the fore in ‘new’ analysis of late modern marriage, albeit with a ‘gloss’ of economic and feminist thinking. This is especially the case in Giddens’s (1992) argument about how marriage is being transformed under the auspices of the ‘pure relationship’ which he sees as part of a generic restructuring of intimacy. For Giddens, pure relationships are sought and entered into only for what the relationship can bring to the contracting partners. The guiding justification of the pure relationship is that it should survive only as long as the commitment survives, or until a more promising relationship offers itself. For women, this is only truly possible where they are not economically dependent on male partners. Women’s economic autonomy in late modernity, he argues, is a key factor in the increased pressure for a wholly equal and reciprocal relationship – as economic independence implies the freedom to leave. This freedom is central to Giddens’s notion of confluent love:
Romantic love has long had an egalitarian strain […]. However, [it] is skewed in terms of power. For women, dreams of romantic love have all too often led to domestic subjugation. Confluent love presumes equality in emotional give and take, the more so the more
any particular love tie approximates closely to the prototype of the pure relationship. Love here only develops to the degree to which intimacy does, to the degree to which each partner is prepared to reveal concerns and need to the other.
Giddens (1992: 61)
Confluent love and the pure relationship involve a high degree of instability, and a new contingency in personal relationships. Once taken-for-granted roles, behaviours and commitments must be continually negotiated, with couples being explicit about how they want things to be. As each partner is engaged in the process of developing a self, there is a distinct possibility that different agendas will emerge over time – and the relationship cannot be presumed to continue. Hence, partners must constantly assert, reassert, and negotiate their commitment and what they want. In short, Giddens is arguing that intimacy today assumes that the individual is the maker of his or her own life and that there is equality between partners. The drive to find a satisfactory relationship is personal affirmation, and marriage and couple relationships are sustained only for as long as they provide emotional satisfaction through close contact with others, from intimacy (Giddens, 1992). Marriage becomes less of a status transition, more a symbol of commitment, as potent as that which lies at the heart of many other forms of relationship, including non-heterosexual forms.
Part of the attraction of Giddens’s analysis is that it seems, on the surface at least, to address feminist concerns by factoring in the real changes in women’s economic conditions. Also, it seems to be as applicable to same-sex commitments as it is to heterosexual married and unmarried ones. Thus, it appears to incorporate key elements of interactionist analyses of marriage like Berger and Kellner’s while simultaneously linking this to larger-scale economic and social changes. However, Giddens’s arguments are far from unproblematic and have been the subject of trenchant criticism on the basis of their normative thrust (their vision of how things should be) and their lack of empirical support. Berger and Kellner recognised social constraint and convention as well as individual agency, by stating that the while the individual encounters the socially ordered world ‘as a ready-made world that is simply there for him to go ahead and live in, he modifies it continually in the process of living it’ (1964: 4). In contrast, through his emphasis on detraditionalisation and individualisation Giddens effectively uncouples the individual from the ready-made world. In doing so, he argues that individual agency has to a large extent been set free from social constraints, and posits a reflexive ‘relating self’ that is liberated from its biographical contexts. As we shall see, young same-sex partners’ accounts of romance, love, commitments and affirmation suggest a much more complex relationship between choice, constraint and convention when it comes to couple-life and marriage. This becomes clear when we examine young same-sex couples’ marriage stories as part of a broader personal and cultural privileging of the couple.