The capsule couple
Weeks et al. (2001: 107) argue, on the basis of research with a very different group of lesbian, gay and bisexually identified women and men in the 1990s, that same-sex relationships contained the potential for creativity and choice. This argument was founded upon the core idea that same-sex relationships had no institutional framework and thus gay and lesbian couples had a freedom to take their relationships into uncharted areas. The couples in our study, however, did have something of an institutional framework based on vows of commitment, legal obligations, and state recognition. This does not mean that our couples necessarily felt these frameworks to be constraining and a few of the couples in our study felt they could still be ‘unconventional’. One example was Trevor (2226a) and Wayne (226b):
Trevor: And actually one of the nicest things about being a
lesbian couple or a gay couple is that you can make it [overlapping]
Wayne: You can make it up as you go along –
Trevor: – as you go along.
In this passage, Trevor and Wayne were talking about the choice of whether to double-barrel a surname on getting married, or whether
to defy convention by opting for the surname of one partner in the couple. So for them, the unconventional choice of adopting a ‘family name’ was understood to be a freedom of expression which still had the power to shock. Such actions alert us to the importance of active meaning-making in everyday life, because although in a heterosexual context the convention is of ‘man and wife’ taking one surname (his), for same-sex couples the practice is not a passive acceptance of convention but an assertion of a new sexual citizenship.
The couples in our study did seem to have different priorities to those in the Weeks et al. study, however, and few seemed to be committed to the idea that their lives were an experiment. This can be explained by the fact that the two research projects took place in different eras, in which the cultural and political contexts for the formation of same-sex relationships were different (Weeks, 2007, see Chapter 1). Moreover, our couples were, by definition, in favour of legal recognition for their relationship while there was a more mixed and often more reluctant view among the earlier sample. It follows then that the young couples in our study shared a strong desire to consolidate themselves as couples and they were less concerned about differentiating themselves from heterosexual couples and practices. The strong motif apparent in Weeks et al. (and also Dunne, 1997; 1999) whereby same-sex couples not only saw their relationship as different to that of heterosexuals but as better (in terms of equality, freedom, communication etc.) is a much weaker theme in our interviews. As we noted in Chapter 3, our couples tended to take as their reference point their parents’ relationships rather than heterosexual couples in general. Clearly, these were heterosexual relationships; however, our couples did not tend to generalise from these specific biographical experiences in order to construct a stereotype of heterosexual coupledom against which they set themselves. Often they borrowed readily from their parents’ practices, sometimes they chose to avoid some aspects, but where they saw their parents as happily married they tended to want to achieve the same quality of relationship regardless of its heterosexual nature.
This focus on the quality of their relationship, rather than specific practices, manifested itself most clearly in the interviews when we asked the couples (together) to reflect on what would make a ‘good’ day in their relationship and what would make a ‘bad’ day. This question unexpectedly tapped into Swidler’s ideas about prosaic love and about the need for ongoing relationship-building. With the possible exception of two couples (one lesbian couple whose relationship seemed quite fragile, and one gay couple who were work-obsessed), all of the couples responded to the question about what a good day would be by offering a mixture of the following ingredients:
1. A day off work (typically a Saturday or Sunday)
2. Being alone together
3. Chilling, walking, watching a DVD or reading
4. Talking/ communicating/ cuddling.
It was as if they were all reading from the same script, and to that extent their responses were quite surprising. These two accounts are typical:
Holly (114b): Just getting to spend all day together and getting to
share experiences together that we enjoy. So whether that’s walking or if we’re at home it might be talking to each other, playing board games, we don’t do that very much right now, but we do enjoy it.
Ellen (114a): We sort of go through phases. Just curling up on the
sofa and reading.
Jeremy (206a): But I mean I just like, I like weekends where we can
both actually, where we’re not working or doing anything and it’s just me and Stewart and we can you know, buy the Sunday paper and just do normal things and do a bit of DIY together or, you know, make Sunday lunch together and just do normal, that’s me as a good day and you?
Stewart (206b): Yeah.
The couples almost universally preferred to spend the day in their own company doing (what they referred to as) simple or ordinary things. They embraced the idea of just being together in a companionable way. Walking together was very high on the list of desirable things to do. Sometimes this would be with the dog, but the main attraction seemed to be the allure of experiencing things (even very little things) together. The togetherness made the mundane activity (e. g. making lunch, playing Scrabble) become infused with meaning and purpose. But there were two other vital ingredients in addition to togetherness. The first was uninterrupted time and second was talking.