This book is concerned above all with how new generations of same-sex couples have responded to the opportunity to have their relationships legally recognised by creating meaningful ‘marriages’. Each chapter situates and explores different dimensions of the process of interweaving the ‘given’ and the ‘made’ that is the heart of creating same-sex marriages. Throughout, we draw parallels between our own findings and those from previous cohorts of heterosexual married couples and same-sex relationships, highlighting what is distinctive about younger cohorts’ ‘married’ same-sex relationships and what is not.
Chapter 1, ‘Ordinary lives, vital relationships’, analyses some of the international, socio-historical and political contexts that are the backdrop to young same-sex couples’ claims and practices of ordinary marriages. It situates these claims and practices in terms of developments in heterosexual and non-heterosexual cultures; political and academic debates about the significance of marriage; and the methodological approach we adopted to the study. Key to the latter was an interaction – ist focus on the work the personal stories do. From this perspective, personal accounts of ordinary and vital relationships can be explored for the work they do in people’s lives, relationships and social ordering.
Chapter 2, ‘Relationships, partnerships and marriages’, outlines the diverse ways in which partners narrated their formalised relationships as ‘marriage’, as akin to marriage or – more rarely – as different to marriage. It situates marriage within the broader context of couples’ relationships on the ground, and considers how same-sex marriages are linked to an enhanced sense of acceptance by personal communities. Socio-cultural positioning could influence the degree to which relationships were deemed to be accepted as ordinary, but the overall meanings and practices associated with marriage were not reducible to gender, class and the like in any straightforward way. The chapter illuminates how static institutional and structural frames cannot account for the diverse, situated and dynamic nature of marriages in practice.
Chapter 3, ‘Relational biographies’, considers the ways in which relational ideals and practices are embedded in, but are not wholly determined by, socio-culturally shaped personal histories, and the ways in which partners articulated their relating ideals and practices with reference to their parents’ relationships. This highlights continuities in assumptions about ‘good’ relationships. Partners shared their parents’ commitments to the couple as the focus of family life, although many conceived their own relationships to be more freely chosen than their parents’ relationships. However, there was only limited evidence of the kind of chosen or friendship families that have been documented among previous cohorts of lesbians and gay men. 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 and supported by personal communities rather than critical sexual communities.
Chapter 4, ‘Forming and formalising relationships’, focuses on the formation and development of commitments that lead to ‘marriage’, and on the ceremonialism that surrounds the formalisation of relationships. In line with romantic notions of love, many couples linked the formation of their relationships to chance and fate, while others emphasised reason and choice. For the majority, partnership choices were linked to romance and reason. Nevertheless, decisions to marry were most often cast in the language of love and confirming commitment, with legal rights often a secondary – or in some cases a relatively insignificant – consideration. While most couples emphasised that they married to confirm their mature commitments to each other, ceremonies themselves often represented a critical moment where familial and personal community inclusion and the reality of the marriage could be affirmed or negated.
Chapter 5, ‘Relationships, money and the self’, considers the relational significance of money. It situates young married couples in terms of their incomes, and suggests that money can be an important part of the story of becoming a couple and of the bonding process. It is also a significant aspect of relational biographies and linked to a mature sense of self. Money management is commonly linked to independence in the literature on same-sex relationships, where it has been argued that nonheterosexuals seem to be able to ‘write and enact their own financial "scripts"’. It is also an important element in theories about the egalitarian nature of same-sex relationships. However, among young same-sex couples, equal earnings were not linked to power-free relationships. Money, and especially debt, illustrate how same-sex couples, like all couples, are not free from cultural, social or biographical constraints.
Chapter 6, ‘Sex and security’, situates young couples’ sexual commitments with respect to partners’ previous sexual relationships and the meanings they attach to sex in their current relationships. Couples’ sexual commitments were often narrated with reference to partners’ previously immature ‘promiscuity’ or to serial monogamy. In modelling their relationships on the ordinary, most young couples assumed that their relationships would be monogamous from the outset. The chapter explores couples’ narratives of (non-)monogamy in some detail as well as changing meanings that partners give to sex over time. It considers the ways in which sexual practices and their meanings are linked to the temporal rhythms of couples’ day-to-day lives. Sex could also be experienced as a problematic issue for some partners, and the ways in which this undermined a sense of relational security goes some way to explaining why couples were so invested in sexual monogamy.
Chapter 7, ‘Couple worlds’, focuses on young civil partners’ day-today practices of love and commitment, and considers couple life as it involves children and plans for the future. It explicitly explores the difference that civil partnership and marriage makes to being a couple, and considers the extent to which ‘married’ same-sex couples might be viewed as being engaged in radical life experiments or not. While couples display a relatively heightened degree of reflexivity and agency compared to previous cohorts of heterosexual marriages, this seems to be focused on producing ‘convention’ as opposed to undermining it. In most cases, couples actively modelled their relationships on a concept of the ordinary rather than the radically different. In this respect, they refused the burden of being at the vanguard of radical innovation with respect to relationships. At the same time, by doing marriage in very ordinary ways, they trouble core tenets of an institution that has historically been intrinsic to modern gender, sexual and relational inequalities.
Finally, in the concluding chapter, ‘New experiences of ordinariness’, we revisit some of the core issues discussed in the book to draw out the themes of ordinariness and difference and their relational, political and sociological implications. In doing so, we highlight the implications of our analysis for thinking about same-sex and heterosexual relationships in the context of contemporary social change. By bringing the themes of ordinariness and difference into conversation, we suggest that ordinariness is a privilege that is not automatically given by virtue of the legal recognition of relationships. We also suggest that ordinariness is a political claim about difference and commonality that is about much more than assimilation. Rather, ordinariness concerns the ways in which relational experiences – same-sex and heterosexual – emerge through the interplay of embeddedness and agency.