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Health, Sports & Psychology

The gap that lovers must fill: What exactly is a 'conventional' relationship?

Updated Wednesday 24th August 2011

As Thinking Allowed explores home life, does our idea of what a proper relationship is like match up to the way we really live?

For the next three weeks, the Radio 4 show Thinking Allowed will be examining cultural shifts and changes in the home.

With the help of OU academics, Laurie Taylor will be speaking with people whose living situations reflect the increasing diversity of home-lives of people in the UK. This seems a very timely exploration given the number of commentators who blamed the recent rioting and violence in British towns on changes in the family, and called for families to be punished by eviction for the behaviours of their members.

Similarly, recent reviews have called for for society to become more 'family friendly' as a way of addressing the 'sexualisation of culture'. In my own work, on romantic relationships, I have been struck by the fact that we have a clear idea of what a 'proper' relationship should look like, and often imagine that this is how relationships have always been and how they will always be.

Two people struggling with their relationship Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Steven Pepple | Two people struggling with their relationship Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Steven Pepple | We even talk about it as the 'traditional' or 'conventional' form of relationships. However, what we are referring to is a relatively new invention, which clearly differs from relationships at other points in history, and in other cultures around the world.

Also, there is much evidence of diversity in such relationships in our own culture today. I have always suspected that the same is true of 'home' and of 'family' and look forward to hearing more about this on the programme.

The common idea of the conventional relationship is of a monogamous, long-term relationship between a man and a woman, based on them falling in love, and committed to through marriage.

The conventional family is the so-called 'nuclear' family where such a couple has two or three children. And the conventional home is the house which this family owns and where they live out their private life, away from the gaze of other people.

Understandings of the conventional relationship has certainly changed a great deal over time.

For a start, the current emphasis we have on love as the basis of a relationships is a relatively new thing. In the past, relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children.

As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it in her book Marriage, a History:

"people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one."

The current form of love relationships seemed to emerge in the 1950s, although, as I often point out, the TV series Mad Men, which has so caught the popular imagination, is a pretty accurate demonstration of some of the tensions that were in it right from the start.

Some have argued that the historical shift in emphasis to romantic love is related to the decline of religion; the precariousness of work situations; and the tendency of people to move about geographically rather than remaining in one place.

Intimate relationships have become the new religion: the place people turn to get self-validation, a sense of meaning, and the belonging they may previously have gained from family or community. It certainly seems that marriages are a relatively recession-proof industry, and that there is a strong message – in popular culture – that people will meet The One with whom they will have a happily-ever-after.

However, there is an inevitable tension here because we are also living in a time which emphasises individuality, autonomy and reaching our personal goals. Increasing gender equality, and recognition of lesbian, gay and bisexual people's relationships, means that romantic couples are now generally made up of two people who want both togetherness and independence, both belonging and freedom.

This means that old rules, around rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules available for how to manage these relationships. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim put it:

"love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves."

These changes may be the reason why marriages, and romantic relationships, are relatively unstable, and why there is evidence of an increasing diversity of relationship forms.

In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations).

Around 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not.

Newspaper articles wonder whether Bridget Jones singledom, or Sex and The City serial monogamy, will replace long-term monogamous relationships as the new form of relating. Many people are engaging in forms of openly non-monogamous relationships, from the new monogamy (where couple relationships are, to some extent, open to other sexual and emotional connections), to swinging, open relationships and polyamory (where people form multiple emotional and/or sexual relationships).

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