Enduring Love? Couple Relationships in the 21st Century – part 2

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WHAT MAKES a couple relationship happy and lasting? It helps if you’re gay, have no children, and like a nice cup of tea…

Last month, The Open University published the finding of research project called Enduring Love? Couple Relationships in the 21st Century into how couples experience, understand and sustain long-term relationships in Britain today. It revealed that:

• Same sex couples are more positive about and happier with their partner and the quality of their relationship than heterosexual couples.

• Childless couples are happier with their relationship and their partner than parents.

• Same sex couples most likely to practice good ‘relationship maintenance’: to be there for each other, to make ‘couple time’, to pursue shared interests, to say ‘I love you’ and to talk openly to one another.

• Participants who had had previous long-term relationships scored higher on relationship maintenance than those who had not had such relationships.

• Relationship satisfaction is positively linked with the number of stressors that participants have experienced in the previous two years, suggesting that couples are pulling together in difficult times.

What makes a partner feel most appreciated?

• Saying ‘thank you’ and thoughtful gestures, recognising time and effort required to complete everyday mundane tasks which underpin relationships and the smooth running of a household.

• Good communication, open conversations as a means to both ‘touch base’ with one another and unburden the stresses and strains of the day.

• Surprise gifts and small acts of kindness, e.g. ‘a cup of tea’ as a significant sign of a partner’s appreciation. Bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates were less important than the thoughtfulness behind the gesture.

• Saying ‘I love you’ symbolises the closeness of the couple relationship and provide individual affirmation and reassurance.

What do couples like best and least in their relationship?

• Sharing values, a faith, beliefs, tastes, ambitions and interests with a partner was very highly regarded. Holding things in common is a key ‘connector’ in a couple relationship.

• The pleasures of being in a relationship, often expressed through shared humour and laughter.

• Talking and listening are one of the most effective means by which couples came to understand, reassure and comfort each other.

• Being ‘best friends’ with your partner signifies emotional closeness. Respect, encouragement and kindness were valued features of such relationships, together with a confidence that concerns and problems could be shared.

Who took part?

A quantitative survey of 5445 people focused on relationship qualities, relationship with partner and relationship maintenance, trends in behaviour and factors which signal relationship satisfaction.

A qualitative sample of fifty couples aged between 18 and 65, of which

  • 70% were heterosexual
  • 30% were lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer (LGBQ)
  • 50% were couples with children
  • 50% were couples without children

My partner and I were one of the fifty couples studied. He completed an online questionnaire early last year and we were selected from more than 5000 people who completed the questionnaire to be one of 50 couples to take part in more in-depth study, which included:

Diaries: We each kept a personal diary for one week, writing down the events and everyday activities relating to our relationship. The diaries also provided space for personal reflections on media representations of ‘couples’, other relationships we experience during this week and our individual responses to them.

Emotion maps: We provided a floor plan of our home as the basis of an ’emotion map’, to chart how we interacted with one another over the same one week period as the personal diary. We placed ‘emoticon’ stickers on the plan to indicate where different kinds of interactions took place, between us, and with others we interact with, like the examples shown here: Emotion maps

Joint interview: We were interviewed together and asked to talk about eight collages of images on different aspects of long-term relationships, to respond to the images and reflect on how these connect with or differ from our own personal experiences and opinions on the meanings of enduring relationships.

Individual interviews: We were also interviewed individually, starting with a discussion of the emotion maps and diaries, moving on to our own stories, exploring personal experience of relationships and how we understand this in the context of our wider networks of family and friends, sources of support and advice that we may turn to in troubled times.

It was an interesting and odd experience. The diary and emotion map were intended to help us record our everyday routines, our interactions and how we felt about them. I am unsure of the reliability of this as a research method, since knowing we were recording and sharing a glimpse of our lives over these few days meant that I paid more attention to what was going on between us than I might in an average busy week , so knowing we were being studied may have altered the behaviour being studied.

What did the diary include?

  • Time spent together: kinds of activity, times of day and duration
  • Time spent apart: kinds of activity, times of day and duration
  • Anything, inside or outside the home, that made us think about or affected our relationship
  • Any conversations or contact with people that made us think about or affected our relationship
  • Anything my partner or I did (gestures, actions, words) for each other
  • Anything I did for myself
  • One good moment in each day
  • One challenging moment in each day.

What affected our relationship this week?

We were asked to reflect on media portrayals of couple relationships and how they impact on us. We could not have known when we chose the week to write the diaries that this would be the week that the Church of England rejected blessings for same sex couples. As the first same sex couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, this is an issue we feel strongly about. Media coverage of this news affected my partner in particular since, as an employee of the local diocese, he felt unable to express publicly his disapproval of the tone of the debate, in case it had consequences on his employment.

Why did we agree to take part?

We volunteered so we could help to ensure that a diverse range of relationships are included, so we could add to the debate about the quality of modern committed adult relationships, and not be defined by those with political or religious authority who claim to know the value of our relationships and make judgments about them.

Based on the research findings, it looks like our openness and participation paid off. Those who still think same sex couples are, at best, ‘pretended family relationships’ are increasingly less convincing as the stories of ordinary couples like us reveal that we are not so different after all. In fact, the historical lack of support for same sex couples, which is thankfully decreasing, may mean that we need to try that little bit harder to make an enduring relationship work.

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