As discussed in Chapter 1, one strong sociological narrative that has emerged from previous studies of same-sex relationships is that partners must ‘invent’ their relationships from scratch. This has been linked to the lack of cultural guidelines and social supports for lesbian and gay identities and relationships, and implies the possibility (or even necessity) of undoing deeply habituated practices of the self and relating. This narrative suggests that how same-sex relationships are ‘done’ is linked to a more-or-less complete break from inherited mores, values and practices and a more-or-less complete reworking of the self and relating orientations. This involves a kind of radical self and relational reflexivity that stems from a social distancing from families and communities of origin that is often focused on creating alternative family forms (Heaphy, 2008). A rather different story emerged from our own study of young same-sex couples and partners: of enduring as well as disrupted practices of the self and relating; of connections to, as well as breaks from, inherited mores, values and practices of relating; of continuities in relating orientations as well as their reworking; and of self and relational reflexivity that can be as focused on maintaining ‘given’ personal bonds as it is on creating alternatives.
This latter story is partly linked to the biographical approach we adopted in the individual interviews, which was focused on generating relational biographies (see Appendix 1), but also to the specific generational contexts in which these biographies emerged and were narrated. This chapter discusses same-sex partners’ relational biographies in three ways: by focusing on the relationships and marriages they grew up with (their parents’); the implications that coming out had (or did not have) for an altered sense of connectedness to their familial and personal networks; and the part that friendships played as a biographical anchor. As we shall see, young partners were as likely to emphasise the continuities between their own and their parents’ relationships as they were the differences. They shared the marriage ideals of their parents’ generation, but believed they were better placed to achieve them in practice. They were more critically reflexive than previous cohorts of heterosexual married partners about their parents’ ‘failures’ to fully meet marriage ideals. However, their critical reflexiv – ity seemed relatively uninfluenced by an engagement with feminist or sexual critical communities. Rather, it was deployed to suggest the need to work hard at making relationships and marriages successful. Along with this, young couples recounted very limited involvements with alternative, chosen or friendship families. While socialising with friends was valued, the couple was almost universally seen as the most important relationship, with parents’ supports generally valued over friendship supports. This is partly linked to the ways coming out tended not to fundamentally disrupt ‘given’ relationships with kin, and the ways in which same-sex relational ideals and practices were embedded in relational biographies. This highlights one of the ways in which younger same-sex partners’ life experiences were distinctive compared to previous generations: their identities and relationships did not always and automatically imply a distancing from their families of origin or from the relational ideals and practices they grew up with. Because of this, they did not necessarily see themselves or their relationships as intrinsically different to their heterosexual generational peers. At the same time, it is also clear that their distinctive positioning as sexual minorities was not wholly erased.
From the outset, we were interested in the links between our study participants’ relationships and their biographies. By focusing on these we sought to explore how partners ‘relating selves’, and their ideals, practices and ‘orientations’, developed over time. Biographies, like self-identities, are narratives that people tell to themselves and others. They are fundamentally relational in that they are formed, rehearsed and reshaped in interactions with (real and imagined) others over time. Their form and content is shaped by the contexts in which they are narrated, and they can be examined for the part they play in the life of the person, relationships and the social order (for discussion of different approaches, see Atkinson and Delamont, 2006; Gubrium and Holstein, 2009; Plummer, 1995; Riessman, 2008). By focusing on relational biographies, our aim was to avoid conflating relating selves with social identities: we sought not to assume an automatic link between people’s approaches to relating and their gender or sexual identity. Such an assumption would risk falling foul of the ‘hazards of rigidifying aspects of identity into a misleading categorical entity’ (Somers, 1994: 606). Put another way, by focusing on relational biographies and relating selves, we sought to avoid the temptation to assume a straightforward link between the gender or sexuality of partners and their relating practices. As Somers (1994: 606) argues, the focus on relationality can be categorically destabilising. For us, it brings personal and social connectedness to the fore in a way that analyses of relationships that foreground social identities (linked to class, gender, sexuality and so on) can sometimes lose sight of. At the same time, the focus on relational biographies also troubles the idea that individualised selves are disconnected from the socio-cultural contexts and from the families, communities and relational conventions in which they were formed. By adopting a relational view of biographies, we aimed to forego the idea that society today should be seen as ‘a society of individuals’ and that the individual has superseded families, close relationships and communities as the unit of social reproduction. Our approach shows how young same-sex partners’ relating orientations and practices remain connected to the contexts in which they were formed and developed, even if they are not determined by them.