The marriages we grew up with
One striking aspect of our participants’ relational biographies was the extent to which their parents’ approaches to relating and marriages featured as central influences. For example, Daniel (202a) linked his previous ‘abusive’ relating tendencies to his father’s; Robert (202b) articulated his need to be in a relationship as one he had ‘inherited’ from his mother; and Callum (203b) linked the ‘active’ role he adopts in his relationship to a female tradition in his family. Hanna (108a) recounted that she shared the same relational values and practices as her parents; and Mark (203a) recounted the similarities between his relationship and his parents’. Meanwhile, Fredrick (209a) compared his loving relationship to his parents’ duty-based one; Louise (105b) contrasted her sharing relationship to her parents’ non-communicative one that was entered into out of necessity; and Kathryn (105a) wanted a partnership that, unlike her parents’, was not based on two different ‘roles’. Maria (104b) recounted how her relationship was based on a degree of free choice, unlike her mother’s that was based on force. Overall, these stories indicate how relational biographies – and by extension personal narratives of same-sex marriage – are often anchored in experiences and memories of the relationships and marriages that people are most familiar with: their parents’. This is unsurprising. As Mansfield and Collard recount:
Although young men and women may not explicitly follow the marriage styles of their parents, yet the experience of having lived alongside their marriages is bound to have profound effects on their own behaviour and attitudes as married men and women.
Mansfield and Collard (1988: 14-15)
However, the issue of how relational biographies and practices are anchored in experiences and memories of parents’ relationships is more complex than Mansfield and Collard seem to suggest. First, the matter of influence – of cause and effect – is a tricky one, especially when we consider that, despite growing up in a heterosexual family context, same-sex couples do not go along with the heterosexual assumption. Second, the narration of biographies – to oneself and others – depends on the tricky ways in which memory works. Third, and linked to the last point, the context in which biographies are narrated shapes the life-stories that are told. Overall, by their very nature, relational biographies are not ‘objective’, ‘neutral’ and ‘full’ accounts of selves and relationships. While they can be explored for the part they play in lives and relationships, and treated with caution they can reveal historical truths (Weeks et al., 2001), they can also be read as claims about selves and relationships. Thus they may be explored for the marriages and relationships that people ‘live by’ (Gillis, 1996) as opposed to the ‘real’ relationships and marriages that people grew up with. Some partners were highly attuned to the ways in which their relational biographies were based on a partial view of events:
the perception of family life that I have is that of being a child, but I’d imagine that my parents probably didn’t lead particularly different lives than what Jan and I do today.
I don’t even know if they’d ever had a partner before each other. They met on a blind date, so quite a traditional […] they both lived at home, both only children, met on a blind date, got together, got married, lived together, with my dad’s mum, she died, then they moved […] so quite a traditional.
Kathryn (105 a)
At the same time, it seemed that some relational biographies could be based on deep observation of parents’ relationships and an almost forensic analysis of relating selves. This was most commonly the case where partners felt they had grown up in especially troubled and personally damaging relationships. In such cases, partners recounted their intensive monitoring of their parents’ and their own relationships in an effort to learn from past mistakes. This points to the ways in which there is ongoing conversation between the relationships people grew up with, live with and live by (Gillis, 1996). As Frazer (215a) puts it:
You watch your parents [you] grow up and you watch your parents interact and you take that on board […]. I look at my parents and my step-parents how their relationships work out now, and how my parents worked out before they got divorced, and see where they went wrong […] also I take into consideration Todd’s family […] how they interact with one another, and […] I think together we ensure that we don’t have the same […] pitfalls as what they do. We make sure we talk about those pitfalls and try and clear them up before they happen. So I think it is the foundation of what we do.
The actual influences of parental marriages on partners’ own relating practices and orientations is, we would argue, impossible to measure. As the stories detailed above indicate, such influence does not work in any straightforward or unidirectional ways. For those who narrated direct similarities between their parents’ and their own approaches to relating, there are equal numbers who emphasised the differences. For those who seem to have ‘gone along’ with their parents’ ways of doing things, there are equal numbers who have rejected them. However, even those who rejected their parents’ marriage as a model could acknowledge the continuing influence of their ‘inheritance’. This was a strong theme in partners’ stories of unintentionally repeating their parents’ approaches to relating. It seems to be an anxiety that underpins Frazer’s account of his intensive monitoring of his parents’ and his own relationship. It is also one that underpins Rebecca’s (109b) anxiety about her parenting practices:
Dad had a lot of influence in our family […] it was quite strict my childhood growing up which might be some of the issues that come into our own parenting […]. I don’t think I am strict but it makes us wonder am I strict ’cause that’s the type of childhood I had […]. I do try and explore that but I try to do the best I can.
One important common feature of relational biographies that works against the measuring of parental influences, is that they weave together accounts of circumstance, choice and chance. While early life circumstances are influential, they do not determine relational orientations and practices. In this respect, participants like Kathryn, Louise and Fredrick (see Chapter 2) emphasised the decisions and efforts they made not to relate as their parents’ did. Similarly, partners like Hanna and Tammy (see Chapter 2) emphasised how they actively embraced their parents’ ways of relating, while Tim (see Chapter 2) saw nothing to reject. At the same time, most acknowledged that they were constrained in their choices. For example, Rebecca (quoted above) suggested that one could never be sure that inherited relating orientations were wholly undone. In Kathryn and Louise’s case there was also some tension between being drawn together on the basis of their shared middle-class upbringings and values, and at the same time rejecting the relating values of their parents who had ‘transmitted’ these values. While Maria (quoted in Chapter 2) rejected the cultural expectations about marriage that she had grown up with, she also recounted how her relating choices were constrained by heterosexism combined with racism. In Hanna and Tammy’s case, the emphasis was placed on different kinds of constraints linked to material resources and associated with class. Also, while some of these accounts stressed family continuities, there was a sense that such continuities implied familial expectations that actively constrained their choices.
As we shall see in the followings sections, relational circumstances and choices are not the opposite of each other. They operate in conversation, but also in tension, to influence the course that relationships and marriages take. Partners make choices in the context of these circumstances and such choices act back on their circumstances even if they did not wholly undo them. At the same time, personal choices were influenced by personal histories, which were in turn linked to partners’ socio-cultural locations. On the one hand, this latter point has been underacknowledged in discussions of the self and intimate relationships in theories of individualisation, where the emphasis is on the freedom to choose within relationships. On the other hand, it has been overemphasised in some discussions of the extent to which social location linked to class, gender, race and ethnicity and other factors more-or-less wholly determine relational choices (see Chapter 2). If the latter were true, relationships would be more-or-less wholly predictable. However, the ordinary vitality of same-sex relationships and marriages is linked to the ways in which this is not the case. In this respect we agree with Thomson (2009) who, on the basis of a ten-year longitudinal qualitative study of 100 young people between 1996 and 2006 in the UK (that in theory could have included our participants or their generational peers), argues that it is impossible to predict the route that a person’s life will take, even though in retrospect we may think we ‘see a logic – even a sense of inevitability’ (2009: 2).