Situating young same-sex marriages
Despite international interest, and the wealth of literature debating formalised same-sex relationships, relatively few detailed empirical studies of the actual experience of these relationships have been published (but see Badgett, 2009; Bates Deakin, 2006). This book is based on a qualitative study that sought to explore formalised same-sex relationships from the perspective of life on the ground. The study involved joint and individual interviews with 50 same-sex couples (in total 50 men and 50 women) who were aged up to 35 when they entered into civil partnership. It also involved group discussions with members of a LGBTI youth group, representatives of agencies involved in LGBTI lives and international academics who study minority sexualities and same – sex relationships. By focusing on the experiences of younger cohorts, we aimed to adopt a generationally situated view of formalised same-sex relationships, based on the belief that the historical period when one recognises one’s same-sex desires and becomes involved in same-sex relationships is likely to be a major influence on how one views and experiences them.
Within the age range, we sought to make our study as inclusive as possible of a diversity of experiences, contexts and backgrounds (see Appendices 1 and 2). With the help of registrars, we contacted couples across mainland UK in urban and rural areas. Our interviewees were drawn from diverse family, class, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, from different economic and occupational groups, and represented a diversity of age ranges between the early 20s and late 30s. Of our interviewees, 16 were parents and had come to parenthood in a range of ways. Some partners had had no or limited experience of previous relationships, while others had had experience of long, short, serial and/or multiple relationships. Many partners had only same-sex desires and relationships, while others had previously been in heterosexual relationships and some had had relationships with both women and men. The study therefore reflected a wide range of situated experiences. However, it is not a statistically representative study that makes claims about all younger civil partnerships, not least because it was not possible to access the contact details of all of those aged up to 35 who had entered into civil partnership for the purposes of sampling. Instead, we relied on the willingness of registrars to forward information about the study to couples on our behalf, and where we were given the details of couples the stringent nature of the ethical guidelines that we followed meant that only certain couples could be contacted. At this point, the couples could choose to ignore the information or signal that they were interested in taking part in the study. Even if a statistically representative sample were possible, we aimed for something else: an in-depth qualitative exploration that would generate personal narratives of formalised same-sex relationships to illuminate their influences and operation and the insights they generate for the links between gender, sexuality and marriage more generally.
The motivation for our qualitative study came from our sense that it was necessary and timely to explore the multi-dimensionality of formalised same-sex relationships in a situated way: to study meanings as well as everyday practices in a way that included the socio-culturally – shaped biographical contexts that influenced them. To do this, we developed an approach that was very loosely based on one of the few existing studies that grappled fully with the ordinariness, complexity and power of heterosexual marriage: Mansfield and Collard’s research on young married couples published in The Beginning of the Rest of Your Life (1988). Taking Mansfield and Collard’s ground-breaking research as our inspiration enabled us to make some direct comparisons between the meanings and practices of previous generations of young heterosexual marriages and contemporary young civil partnerships, but it also allowed us to make comparisons with research findings about previous cohorts of same-sex couples that had explicitly engaged with Mansfield and Collard’s work (Dunne, 1997; Weeks et al., 2001). We were especially convinced by Mansfield and Collard’s argument that strong efforts should be made to view marriage as anthropologically strange, and to eschew already established commonsense and sociological ‘givens’ about its significance.
Following Mansfield and Collard, we sought to understand what the experience of being formally partnered or ‘married’ was for the individual and the couple, but ‘without underestimating the influence of the public context of marriage’ (1988: 4). There were a number of specific questions that Mansfield and Collard (1988: 6) sought to explore that were central to our own concern to situate formalised same-sex relationships: What ideas about marriage and formalised relationships are absorbed from outside, in addition to personal and familial experience of marriage? How do young partners compare their partnerships and marriages to other marriages – favourably or problematically? How do young partners assert and practice difference and sameness, and to what other imagined partnerships and marriages? What external standards of marriage are evoked by young partners and what variety of images of formal partnerships are amalgamated? Preempting later theoretical debates, Mansfield and Collard noted that the moral pressure to conform with respect to marriage has weakened. However, instead of proposing the normative ideal of the pure or reflexive relationship (as Giddens, 1992, has done), they sought, as we did, to explore which is most frequently preferred in practice.
The young married people in Mansfield and Collard’s study showed a wide range of influences which had contributed to their image of marriage in general and their own marriage in particular. These included explicit and implicit definitions in law; general knowledge of other people’s marriages generated via gossip or media; views of marriage by experts; and the impression of marriages to which they were closest, which was usually their own parents’. The incorporation of these insights into our own study alerted us to the range of possible influences on younger couples’ civil partnerships. Thus, we were able to investigate the assumption that same-sex relationships are relatively uninfluenced by such sources, or primarily by counter-discourses generated by lesbian and gay communities (Blasius, 1994; Heaphy, 2008; Weeks, 1995; 2007).
A key finding of Mansfield and Collard’s study was that when an analytical shift is made from meanings to practices (e. g. with respect to finances, expressions of commitment and family-making), despite newly married couples’ ideals about equal marriage, their accounts of their day-to-day lives and plans for the future showed ‘clearly that social and economic structures are still highly influential in shaping the worlds of women and men and therefore in shaping the private relationships between husbands and wives’ (1988: 16). Marriages, they noted, were created by the individuals involved in the relationship, but married lives were worked out within the context of the wider society and there was continual interaction between their participants’ images of what marriage should be like, could be like and would probably be like. In portraying their marriages, their interviewees played with different images and interwove morality, idealism and reality (1988: 19). By keeping in mind these insights, our study aimed to move beyond the concern with ‘egalitarian ideals’ that are often of primary interest in studies of same-sex relating, and to explore more thoroughly how such ideals interweave with and/or contradict everyday realities, especially with reference to finances, sexuality, couple and broader commitments.
While Mansfield and Collard argued that the very ordinariness of married life could become a pitfall for those who wish to explore it (1988: 36), we thought that, in contrast, the often assumed ‘exceptionality’ of same-sex relationships could be a similar pitfall. Thus, we attempted to put some critical distance between our own approach to analysis and existing ones (see Chapter 1). By this we mean that we were careful not to simply follow any particular sociological script about same-sex relationships or marriage. Rather, following Plummer (1995), we treated the interview accounts in a pragmatic way as ‘narrative’ truth, asking what work these accounts did in terms of relational selves, relationships themselves and the broader social order. By bringing our findings and analysis into conversation with the findings of previous research, we were then able to identify continuities and differences between contemporary young same-sex ‘married’ couples, previous heterosexual married and non-formalised same-sex relationships. In doing this, we were able to address issues to do with socio-cultural change, but also to identify aspects and areas where existing frames for comprehending same-sex and heterosexual relationships (and the links between them) were less than insightful.