Marriage as a political act
Given that civil partnership was a relatively new possibility when our young partners entered into it, in principle there is no reason why it should be automatically seen as marriage or as a form of marriage. The fact that most of our interviewees saw it in this way, and entered into it in this spirit, suggests that it is not simply that civil unions and marriages themselves potentially ‘normalise’ younger generations’ same-sex relationships, but rather that firmly embedded meanings and practices associated with the couple as the ‘inevitable’ focus of mature adult relationships make the legal privileging of the couple seem natural. Most of the young same-sex couples that we studied did not fundamentally trouble this view, and in this sense it seems that they are indeed ‘ordinary’ relationships (but see Chapter 6). However, it is also the case that, while most couples tended to frame their decisions to marry as a ‘free’ choice that was based on love, there were also those who were prompted to marry so as to protect their couple and parenting relationships, and for more instrumental reasons. In this latter respect, new generations of same-sex relationships are not so completely different to previous generations’ heterosexual relationships, where romance and reason are factors that influence decisions to marry (cf. Mansfield and Collard, 1988). As well as this, our same-sex partners’ decisions to marry were often, like previous generations’ heterosexual marriages, linked to a sense of maturity and enhanced social status.
While we, as sociologists, may now be more sceptical than we once were of the notions of ‘life stages’ and key ‘life events’ that are linked to social status, partly because of their universalising connotations, it is clear that these notions hold sway in everyday lives. Previous generations’ same-sex relationships have been excluded from mainstream markers of maturity, life-stage progression, and key life events. They have been associated with denigrated, as opposed to enhanced, social status. In this respect, it is perhaps unsurprising that some members of new generations should so enthusiastically embrace the new options and opportunities they are offered. Formalising relationships provides some partners with the opportunity to invite the others they care about to become involved in the co-creation of their world. By the same token it symbolises a willingness among many of those others to take up this invitation. At the same time, where significant others refuse this invitation, the enduring nature of conceptions of same-sex relationships as ‘immature’, ‘inauthentic’ and ‘troubling’ is underscored. Whether we view it in negative or positive ways, the invitation to others to co-create same-sex relational realties (whether it is taken up or refused) can be seen as a two-sided political act: in that it shores up the idea of the couple as a naturally privileged relational from, while at the same time disrupting the heterosexual relational imaginary.