Relating circumstances and ideals
One of the key themes to emerge in relational biographies is the dynamic nature of the circumstances in which partners relate and ‘do’ their relationships and marriages (see Chapter 2). Relational biographies also contained stories of how parents’ relationships and marriages had changed over time. Escalating conflict, abuse, alcoholism, affairs and the like could lead to divorce. Growing discontent could lead to ongoing hostility or to married parents living together as strangers. Illness, bereavement and similar experiences could bring parents closer together or further drive them apart. A history of doing things together, developing routines and mutual respect could allow the relationship to grow. Despite this, in reflecting on their parents’ relationships, partners tended to ‘fix’ them in accordance with three kinds of marriage: the ‘good’ marriage, the ‘unhappy’ marriage and the ‘ambivalent’ one. The good parental marriage most closely approximated that which Hanna described (see Chapter 2). It was based on love, and involved trying to work things out, being in it for the long run and standing by each other through thick and thin. Above all, it entailed mutual respect, communication and a high degree of stability. As Ellen (114a) recounts:
what I think I have inherited or brought from seeing them is a big thing about respect and communication. And that they’re both very important in the sense that my parents had a great deal of respect for each other, and that means that you take the time to understand the other person’s opinion […] my parents relationship was largely very stable
In contrast to the good marriage, the unhappy parental marriage, which most closely approximates the one that Kathryn described (see Chapter 2), was one that was not entered into for love but for the ‘wrong reasons’. Commonly, it involved little mutual respect and communication and limited sharing. It involved partners who had not ‘fully’ given themselves to the relationship, and was inherently unstable. As Garry (227a) recounts:
[T]hey […] may have formed their relationship […] over things which weren’t necessarily perfect. And so because of that, I think they developed, certainly on the part of my father, some resentment […] they argued, they fought all the time […]. My father was incredibly nasty to my mother and shouted at her all the time and I think it was because, certainly from his side and maybe too an element of her side, the relationship was initially founded on something which wasn’t necessarily love.
The ambivalent marriage, contained many characteristics of the unhappy marriage. It closely approximated the one that Fredrick described (see Chapter 2), and its primary foundation was not love but duty. It was distinct from the unhappy marriage in that couples tried to make the best of their lot and do the best they could. It was stable, but short on communication. As Todd (215b) puts it:
I haven’t tried to emulate their relationship (laughs) any way, shape or form and nor will I ever want to. I think my mother and father have struggled on and you know duty bound [. ] tried to work things out. It’s quite obvious that they, they probably need to […] or should separate and they’d probably lead happier lives, so that duty, that sense of duty [keeps them together]
While it might be unsurprising that partners held critical as well as positive views of their parents’ marriages, their stories are quite different to those recounted in previous studies of heterosexual marriage. In the 1980s, Mansfield and Collard’s study asked newly-weds to look back and recall any impressions they had of their parents’ marriages. In response, the majority ‘looked blank’. Most said that when growing up they had never thought about their parents as a married couple. A small minority who had experienced their parents’ divorce or the death of a parent ‘were most likely to have considered the marital experiences of their own parents’ (1988: 15). When their interviewees did reflect on their parents’ marriages, their comments ‘were positive though usually unspecific. Such marriages were considered ‘good’ because they had been secure and stable and had provided a good setting in which the children had grown up’ (ibid). They also note that very few newly-weds were able to articulate any specific aspects of marriage which they viewed as model. Those who could referred to ‘sharing and companionship and their fathers having shown respect for their wives’ (1988: 16). This raises four issues.
First, there are notable continuities in what is defined as a ‘good’ marriage. As we have seen, sharing and respect were key themes in our partners’ accounts of a good marriage. These were core benchmarks for assessing the success of a marriage. Among our partners, communication was seen as crucial to a sharing and respectful marriage, although it is notable that Mansfield and Collard do not specifically mention this. However, on the basis of their study, they do note that because of different gendered ways of relating, newly-weds often fairly soon ended up as ‘intimate strangers’. This resonates strongly with the ‘unhappy’ and ‘ambivalent’ parental marriages that many of our partners recounted.
Second, same-sex married partners seem to be more critical and self-reflexive with respect to parental marriages than Mansfield and Collard’s newly-weds: they present a far less uniformly rosy picture of parents’ marriages as the bedrock of family stability. What underpins this critical consciousness? Mansfield and Collard’s observation that the minority who had previously reflected on their parents’ marriages were those who had experienced their parents’ divorce or death provides a clue to this. Divorce and death can be viewed as moments of ‘biographical disruption’ (cf. Bury, 1997) which raise existential anxiety and in turn imply that what was taken for granted has to be revisited and rethought anew. Such disruption and its consequences for a critical take on the order of things and heightened self-reflexivity have been discussed in a number of contexts (see Adam and Sears, 1996 on temporal reorientation; Berger, 1990 on marginal situations; Giddens, 1991 on fateful moments; Heaphy, 2001 on self-disruption; and Thomson et al., 2002 on critical moments). Developing this point we might ask if the perceived realities of the unhappy and ambivalent parental marriages that many partners grew up with are so deeply at odds with ‘taken-for – granted’ cultural stories about what contemporary marriages should be like (based on communication, sharing, respect, equality, love and the like) that they can promote a heightened sense of narrative disjuncture and chronic critical reflexivity with respect to relationships. This would partly explain stories of the intensive monitoring of parents’ relationships and one’s own relationship that the earlier quotation from Frazer described as the ‘foundation’ of his relationship.
Third, the newly-weds whom Mansfield and Collard studied were the generational peers of many of our interviewees’ parents, and the marriages of intimate strangers they describe are closely akin to our i nterviewees’ descriptions of unhappy and ambivalent parental marriages. In describing these, our partners explicitly deployed the language of generation, along with ‘tradition’, to account for the differences between their own ‘good’ marriages and their parents’ ones. The following quotations from female partners, for example, indicate how, while heterosexually gendered differences and expectations were clearly the subtext underpinning accounts of parents’ unhappy and ambivalent marriages, such differences and expectations were rarely explicitly named as gender or heterosexuality as such. Rather, the interpretative emphasis was placed on ‘generation’ and ‘tradition’:
I think my parents’ generation and my parents in particular just took the idea that you get married and you’re in a relationship and that’s it […] I think they just lived in the same house and also they had very clear definite defined roles, mother does the cooking, cleaning, child care, father earns the money […] I think also my parents’ generation saw ending a relationship as a disaster.
They got married in a totally different era [. ] it was much more an expected thing for them […] and I think that my mum she had decided that she was giving up things to get married. She never went to university although she was more than capable of getting there […]. She kind of moulded her life round my father’s.
because of the way they were raised, you know, you marry somebody and you stay married and that’s just the way it is, so it’s almost like they just took it for granted that they would be together [.] they just do things the way they do and the way they always have.
I remember, Dad being in a temper […] he was married to someone he didn’t love, but I guess it’s a different generation isn’t it and that generation when they’re not in touch with your thoughts and feelings actually, that became everybody else’s problem as opposed to his problem to deal with.
By implication, these accounts link the opportunities for ‘good’ marriages to changing historical circumstances. They suggest that traditional demands, expectations, norms and sanctions that led to ‘unhappy’ and ‘ambivalent’ marriages no longer hold the sway they once did. This leaves the door wide open for mutual marriages that partners can work at as equals. This has clear resonances with arguments about detraditionalised ‘pure relationships’ that are entered into on the basis of mutuality and dialogical intimacy, and that are unsullied by socio-cultural constraints and power (Giddens, 1991; 1992). In other words, it could be argued that partners were recounting the possibilities for ‘post-emancipatory’ marriages and relationships. However, it is worth interrogating the critical interpretative frames that our partners deployed. What is especially striking in the above quotations, as was noted earlier, is how tradition and generation are deployed to account for the gendering of parents’ marriages and relationships. In narrating their parents’ marriages, partners’ very often referred to their mothers’ and fathers’ different relational power, as the following examples illustrate:
I think it was quite a traditional, sort of stereotypical relationship in that he, you know, my Dad made the decisions I mean he probably would discuss them with her but ultimately he’d make the decision I think.
I think my dad was like kind of patriarch […] worked a lot, never home but at the end of it, he decided the important things my mum was just a house [wife] look after the kids, she worked as well but it was not fairly balanced.
I just knew that the situation in the family was sometimes really bad […] there was lots of alcohol involved […]. And patronising. I know my mum, she wasn’t happy in the relationship. I believe if she had a chance she would have run away. […] If she didn’t have us. She had responsibilities of three children. She couldn’t just run away. She had to stay there and get along with all the bullying and harassment she got.
This raises the fourth point. While stories about parents’ marriages were embedded in narratives of generational and traditional circumstances, and while parents’ different relational ‘roles’ and power were very often referred to, partners rarely deployed a critical discourse of gender, heterosexuality and power in an explicit way. This is worth noting, because it contrasts sharply with the findings of previous studies of same-sex r elationships, where personal narratives and relational biographies seemed much more explicitly grounded in critical interpretations of gender and its links to heteronormativity (Dunne, 1997; Weeks et al., 2001). In this respect, our partners’ narratives suggest one new direction in how same-sex partners’ critical relational reflexivity is being framed: in terms of tradition and generation and away from gendered heterosexuality.