For all the couples, the best of times was when they were not working so they could be together; but, more importantly than this simple proximity, it was when the stresses or worries associated with work did not intrude on their time together. They made the point that the time should be ‘stress free’, without external commitments, and without the frazzle of the working week leaking into their consciousness. That couples want to have time together is not in itself a new finding. As Warren (2003) notes:
Sullivan (1996: 96) has shown that the most enjoyable time for couples is leisure time that is spent together. As a result, couples make efforts to ‘co-ordinate time’ to optimize their joint time. The couples interviewed by Hochschild (1997) also reported that they endeavoured to arrange their schedules so that they could have ‘intense periods of togetherness’. Opportunities for such synchronized family leisure are linked firmly to the location of that leisure time over the day and the week; the chronologic dimension.
Warren (2003: 735)
However, it was not simply time that our couples wanted; there had to be a quality of attentiveness to each other during these periods. The yearning for ‘us’ time (as one couple put it) was incredibly strong and it was during those periods that the couples felt that they could harmonise with each other again after the stresses of paid work, sometimes child care, and time apart.
What was also striking in these accounts were the stories about ‘bad’ days which seemed to be the ‘flip side’ of the good days. Again almost universally, bad days in these narratives came about as a result of the overflow of work and stress. Very few couples saw their interpersonal conflicts arising from factors internal to the couple. Rather, they saw conflict as arising directly from the intrusion of paid work into their home and personal space. Thus, the typical story was one where one member of the couple was worried about something at work and he or she brought that worry home with them and ‘took it out’ on their partner.
Brooklyn (121a): It’s when I come home stressing about work and
money […] and infect Sara with my stress.
Sara (121b): Your stress is contagious.
Brooklyn: Yeah I know.
In this context, days off work or holidays were vital repair time because they allowed the couple to retrieve their relationship from the
distorting effects of too much work, feeling harried (Southerton, 2003) or feeling tired (Widerberg, 2006).
A great deal has been written on the subject of time in the context of work/family balance and also in terms of the harmful effects of a long – work-hours culture (Brannen, 2005; Fagan, 2001; Hochschild, 1997). Yet what appears to be a different insight arising from our interviews is the way in which ‘unpolluted’ time together is perceived as an opportunity to restore a relationship which is vulnerable to the excessive demands of life outside the couple. Without time together, the couples would, it seems, lose their compatibility. Indeed, it was common for them to say they became irritated with each other at times when they had not had enough time together over the previous weeks or months. This pure time together was a way of forging companionship and reminding the couples why they liked each other. It was very much a part of Swidler’s practices of prosaic love.
This is why we refer in this section to capsule couples because, at this point in their relationships at least, they clearly felt a need to be alone. At these times the presence of others hindered the consolidation process. In remarking on this, the couples routinely pointed to how ordinary or mundane or simple their needs and pleasures were:
[Laughs] We went for a big walk; went to the supermarket [laughs].
Pam likes to go to the supermarket [laughter]. And then I cooked a nice tea.
And we watched a film.
Yeah. We’re the boringest people in the whole world [laughter]. It’s really disturbing. [Laughter]
The laughter which usually accompanied these ‘confessions’ of ordinariness is interesting and suggests that most couples were aware that there is a normative expectation that same-sex couples should be doing rather different, more exciting, things. But even the few who included trips to the theatre or museums were clear that the point of doing such things was to do them together. The sheer ordinariness of these weekend activities is difficult to align with the idea that same-sex couples shoulder the burden of creativeness and fluidity in their relationships. Indeed, it is possible to argue that these couples craved the mundane and the micro-personal rather than the fluid, the challenging and the macro-political canvas. They sounded similar to almost any young couple, and their desire just to be together seemed so common that, in this
dimension at least, it appears more important to acknowledge sameness rather than difference across the hetero/homosexual ‘divide’.
The second defining element of the capsule couple, namely talking, may also be more suggestive of sameness than difference. We found that the lesbian couples thrived on talking to each other, while for the male couples talking seemed to feature not as a pleasure in itself but as a requirement of relationship ‘repair work’. Hence:
If we’re out and we go for a walk around the lake and that, we just talk. I don’t know, I think four years, nearly four years married and we can still talk.
We can still talk.
We never really run out of things to talk about. I know, it’s strange isn’t it?
Caroline (112a): We do spend a lot of time talking to each other you know?
But more rarely:
And – and we talk like – more than any other couple we’ve ever heard of.
The young female couples in our study emphasised the importance of talking for their relationships. Talking seemed to be pleasurable in itself and also a vital way to overcome differences and disagreements. While male couples stressed the importance of communication in relationships, talking during ‘couple time’ really only seemed to become important when they had misunderstandings. Ironically, they spoke more spontaneously about the absence of talk in their relationships while the lesbian couples spoke spontaneously about the presence of talk. This meant that with the male couples it was ‘not talking’ that carried a particular significance rather than actual talking. This meant that if one of the men in a couple was worried or annoyed about something he would actively not talk. Silence or shutting oneself away was a clear demonstration that something was wrong. Actively not talking was therefore quite different to companionable silence which seemed to be the preferred condition for most of the male couples. The female couples on
the one hand engaged in both active-talking and active-not-talking in equal measure; it was as if this was a simple continuum. The men, on the other hand, seemed to operate more on a different continuum from companionable silence through to active-not-talking.
Talk takes many shapes and forms, however, and there are pitfalls inherent in reconstructing the stereotype of strong, silent men versus chatty, garrulous women. Giddens (1992), for example, has suggested that it is (heterosexual) women who seek disclosing intimacy in relationships while (heterosexual) men avoid it. Mansfield and Collard’s (1988) study found the same phenomenon. So it might seem that the same-sex couples in our study are following the same gendered scripts of talking women and silent men. However, while gendered scripts may be powerful influences, what emerges from our interviews is a more complex picture of different sorts of talking and communicating. For example, ‘bickering’ between couples seemed to be a constant form of communicating and even bonding. Bickering is often seen as a sign of problems between couples, yet in our interviews it was reflected on quite positively as a safety valve and/or a form of humorous bonding.
Otto (212a): I think we bicker a lot.
Phil (212b): All right, we bicker. We’ve never had a major argu
ment, never, have we?
Ian (218a): I mean we bicker ’cause everybody bickers. You know,
it’s like ‘Why haven’t you done the dishes?’ ‘Well, ’cause I can’t be bothered and I’m tired’. And I’m like ‘Well, I cook the dinner, you do the dishes’. [To] me, that’s healthy bickering because it keeps you going.
Barbara (111a): And so sometimes, you know, one of us will say a ridiculous comment or be a bit grumpy and then that’ll start, like, a bickery kind of fight which might then escalate into kind of accusing, ‘Well, you didn’t do the washing up and you owe me twenty quid,’ all that kind of thing.
Nicole (111b): [Laughs]
For both male and female couples, too much bickering was a sign that they were out of kilter with each other because of a lack of ‘us’ time. It was also a common response to see bickering as a way of complaining about different expectations or standards around housework and tidiness. In these situations, bickering itself was not necessarily positive but it allowed individuals to voice the things that got on their nerves, the other could retaliate and a kind of set piece of dialogue would ensue. The couples mostly seemed to accept that bickering did not change anything, but it allowed them to express irritation without it escalating into anything too serious. What is more, when speaking about bickering (especially about household matters) the couples inevitably laughed and were able to reflect on the process of airing gripes. Interviews themselves can induce a degree of reflexivity on the part of interviewees and this self-awareness may not always be part of everyday interactions; but in these cases it was nearly always clear that the couples had a shared understanding of the purpose of bickering. This does not mean that bickering could not be harmful or negative in a relationship. For example, some couples said that their definition of a bad day was when they bickered the whole time and could not get out of the cycle of complaint. But the majority experienced bickering as something that could be overcome (by a hug or a smile) and that was not damaging in the way that full-scale rows could be.
Bickering as a form of engagement or communication was something that both male and female couples engaged in. It was not scripted in gendered ways as talk in the form of disclosing intimacy might be. Moreover, it seemed to be just as important in the process of sustaining prosaic love as did disclosing intimacy or companionable silence. If everyday loving requires hard work, then dealing with bickering must surely be part of this labour. This raises the issue of whether the concept of a gendered ’emotional asymmetry’ (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993: 224) is as useful as was once argued. The idea of a gendered division of emotional labour has clearly identified women as the ones who carry the burden of managing emotions within a relationship and in that sense carry the burden of prosaic love also. However, when we look at the interiority of same-sex relationships, we find broadly the same kinds of issues occurring for men as for women. Both the men and the women had to learn how to manage their partner’s moods, both had to learn how to deal with degrees of incompatibility and both had to work to maintain the relationship. In effect, both parties had to work out a choreography of emotions in order to deal with the moods and feelings of the other. Most of our couples knew what to do when one of them came home stressed or was engaged in active-not-talking, and this usually meant allowing the stressed partner time to relax rather than insisting on talk. Certainly, there were cases of considerable inequality in this choreography of emotion work. For example, one partner might have been seriously ill or trying to cope with unemployment which could give rise to additional emotional demands. However, the inequalities were not grounded directly in gender and, returning to Weeks et al. (2001), this does suggest an important degree of freedom from the conventions of heterosexual intimacy and relating. This suggests to us that it is a mistake to look for emotion work in only the obvious places and in the most conventional forms (e. g. in talk about feelings). Our interviews showed that men (in same-sex couples at least) were having to do the everyday work of prosaic love and they were having to work to accommodate the other just as much as the women were.
The concept of the capsule couple that we use derived from our analysis of what our same-sex couples had to say about good times and bad times. Because they expressed so clearly their desire to be alone together and to build their relationship through doing things together, they conjured up an image of a fairly tight and inward-looking capsule. But, as we have seen in Chapters 4 and 6 where the prioritisation of the couple above other relational form was discussed, the strength of the ideal of the couple was apparent elsewhere in our data. In addition, we asked the couples to respond independently to a series of questions on who they would turn to in different moments of need. We gave four scenarios: the first was about whom they would turn to if they needed emotional support; the second was who it would be if they were unhappy in their relationship; the third was who it would be if they were physically ill; and finally who it would be if they needed to borrow money. We gave them a range of possible people including the open category of ‘other’ and we also said they could choose as many of the categories as they wished. On the question of who they would turn to if they needed emotional support, 96 per cent of the women and 96 per cent of the men said it would be their partner. Only four of the men said that they would also turn to parents or friends as well as to their partners, while one man said it would just be his parents, and one man and two women said it would just be friends. Overwhelmingly, therefore, these individuals saw their partners, and only their partners, as a source of emotional support. The same was true for the question on illness, with 98 per cent of the women saying it would be their partner and 96 per cent of the men saying this. This finding is perhaps less surprising because it is most likely that one would look to the person one is living with at such times. Nonetheless, it shows that there were the same expectations placed on the men as the women to provide physical care in times of illness. In the other categories, the picture was a little less stark but still showed a prioritising of the couple ‘unit’. If they were unhappy in their relationship, 70 per cent of the women and 72 per cent of the men would turn to their partner with the remainder turning mainly to friends or occasionally sibling and/or parents. This finding suggests that there is a strong ethos of trying to sort out relationship problems together for these couples, which also fits closely with the practices of prosaic love discussed above. It also fits with ideas of disclosing intimacy because clearly the majority of couples felt they should deal collaboratively with the problems they might be having in their relationship rather than taking them to an ‘outside’ third party to discuss.
The final question about borrowing money revealed the significance of intergenerational ties and the importance of the family of origin. Although partners remained the largest category that individuals would turn to (44 per cent of women and 58 per cent of men) the next largest category were parents with 38 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men turning to parents and 4 per cent of each turning to siblings. It is striking that friends did not feature particularly significantly in any responses, with women mentioning friends only 11 times (across all four questions) and men only 16 times (see Chapter 3). Friends really only featured when relationship problems were the issue. But the overall impression gained by this exercise is that the couple was essentially striving to be self-reliant, rarely looking outwards for external support. McGlone et al. (2004) found essentially the same when they studied the results of different social attitude surveys in Britain from 1986 to 1995. The respondents to these surveys would have been predominantly heterosexuals. However, they replied to broadly similar questions on whom they would turn to in times of difficulty, and partners were found to be the main source of support when compared with other categories such as parents or friends. McGlone et al., though, found that at times of illness women were less likely to rely on their husbands and more likely to rely on family or friends than men, who relied on their wives at such times. They also found that families of origin became important at times of financial need more than at any other time of crisis. In this small domain of practices, it would seem that our young same-sex couples were rather typical or ‘ordinary’ and that they did operate as capsule couples, relying on themselves and seeking and finding companionship predominantly within their relationships.