For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until one of us decides that we should part

After a year’s break I’ve now got the time to start blogging again…. here goes…

Lots of useful ideas in this 30 minute Thinking Allowed podcast on Love, which focusses on the idea of lifelong love and its relationship to marriage…

Just a few of the key points made throughout the programme (NB this is from memory)…

While the feeling of being ‘in love’ might be the same in all socieities, our ideas and expectations surrounding this emotion, and especially its relationship to marriage are shaped by the society in which we live, so yes, even elements of love are socially constructed! To my mind the key point of the podcast is that we now have higher expectations of marriage than ever before in history – The norm today is to see marriage as primarily about love and passion, as a sort of constant high of mutual emotional fulfilment and not primarily about duty.

To illustrate this all we need do is go back a hundred years or so and look at Britain and France – Marriage was much more of a practical arrangement – It wasn’t based on choice, your family had much more of a say in who you got married to, it wasn’t based on finding a person you have a special emotional connection with,  it was based on financial necessity (for women especially) and carrying on the family name. Historically, in this context, people had very low expectations of marriage in terms of love – marriage was about duty, not about ‘passion’.

Today (obviously) most of us expect to have a choice over who we get married to, and the norm is that marriage is about an emotional-connection (love) at least as much as duty. The downside of this is that we expect more than ever of our marriage partners. The person we commit to as a life-long love partner is expected to be a superb lover, devoted parent, attentive counsellor… and there is an expectation that the passion is to be kept alive throughout the relationship. There is an incredible pressure put on ‘that one special person’ to meet the emotional needs of the other (and the children) in today’s marriages.

Of course these high expectations of marriage do not live up to the mundane-reality of married life, which goes some way towards explaining the high divorce rate (as well as the number of extra-marital affairs).

According to Giddens this is all just part and parcel of living in a late-modern society characterised by reflexivity and greater gender equality – Today the normal relationship is what Giddens calls a pure-relationship – a relationship which is ‘internally referential and therefore ‘exists solely for whatever rewards that relationship as such can deliver’ (Giddens, 1991). Unlike in the past, the point of a relationship is not something which roots us in our community, or embeds us into society, or connects us to our god, the point of a relationship is to further our own lives for our own sakes. The result of this is that relationships simply last as long as they work for both partners – unlike in the past there is no other reason to keep the relationship going once it has stopped being fulfilling for both partners. 

According to Giddens there is nothing wrong with having high expectations of marriage and then moving on – this is simply the way modern ‘pure relationships’ are –  we pair up with someone, maybe get married, it lasts a decade or so, and then we move onto the next person, it is all just part of the ‘democratisation of daily-life’, and part of what he calls ‘confluent love’ – which, unlike ‘romantic love’ in modern society is based on finding that special relationship, rather than finding that special person, and to assist in this relationship we have (probably thousands, I haven’t counted) relationship and sex guides, and various marriage and divorce counsellors/ lawyers which have emerged to help us navigate through these occassional transitions in our personal lives.

From Giddens’ point of view it seems as if most people going into a marriage for the long-term are kidding themselves, and that the correct attitude to marriage in late-modern society should not be ‘until death do us part’ it should be ‘until one of us simply decides that we should part’.

On a practical and moral level I’ve no problem with this scenario – I think Giddens is simply describing the most appropriate type of relationship/ marriage (described variously as the pure relationship/ confluent love/ serial monogamy) which fits in with a late-modern society characterised by dual-careerism, near gender-equality and the eroding of traditional norms of masculinity and feminity – but I do see two potential problems with Giddens’ easy acceptance of this type of relationship – Firstly, this would be all well and good if people were honest about it – I don’t think people think of themselves as  being in ‘confluent love’ or in a ‘pure relationship’, and I’m sure people don’t talk about their own relationships in these terms (of course Giddens would probably just say this needs to evolve), and secondly (which is pointed out in the podcast – this type of serially monogomous relationship-lifestyle seems wonderfully applicable to kid-free cosmpolitans, but maybe it’s not so great when kids are involved, and long-term relationships do have this strong tendency to end up with kids being produced.

There was more to the podcast than this, but I’ll leave it there for now…..

Love  and  marriage

Related texts

  • The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution Claire Langhamer by Claire Langhamer.

  • Love: An Unromantic Discussion by Mary Evans

  • The Transformation of Intimacy – Anthony Giddens

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