Making sense of ourselves
Making sense of ourselves

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Making sense of ourselves

2.1 Enduring love?

This activity probes some of the traditional understandings that underpin key psychological theories about personal relationships. It focuses on the findings of Enduring Love? – a research project conducted by Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb of The Open University – which asked people about their experience of relationships.

Activity 3 How much do I love thee?

Timing: This activity will take about an hour.

Take a look at this video, which features Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb talking about the Enduring Love? project. Start by watching the whole film without interruption and try to follow the main discussion.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1 Interview with Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb
Skip transcript: Video 1 Interview with Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb

Transcript: Video 1 Interview with Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb

What comes to mind when you think of enduring love? Do you hear a celebration of a relationship that has endured? Or is it more a case of surviving under endurance? In looking at couples who have stood the test of time, researchers at The Open University sought to explore these relationships and what contributes to their longevity.
Through the Enduring Love? project, Dr Jacqui Gabb and Dr Janet Fink had over 5000 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 65, answer questionnaires on the intricacies of their relationships. Fifty couples then participated in follow-up interviews, completed diaries, and filled in emotion maps, giving us an insight into what happens behind closed doors.
The Enduring Love? project was designed to look at how couples sustain their long-term relationships. So the title itself is trying to start probing that. The enduring love has a question mark at the end of it. It’s saying that relationships that sustained are endured sometimes as much as they’re enduring.
They’re not all good. It’s not all roses around the door. And isn’t just actually peaks and troughs that everyone goes through, ups and downs. Some relationships are just good enough. And actually, that might be fine. Because who’s to say the couple relationship is the primary or most important relationship in a person’s life?
What’s interesting is there’s actually very little research around how people sustain long-term relationships. We know you how couples are working through the problems that they encounter. Having a first child put strains on a relationship. We know that unemployment puts strains on a relationship.
We certainly have lots of examples of couples talking about stresses in their relationship. And we have been quite astonished by the number of stresses that couples experience over the course of a year. And some couples experience two or three of those, which you would think, goodness, that’s a huge impact on a relationship. But actually, they seemed to take those stresses as a moment to consolidate their relationship and to look to the future.
So the focus we wanted to do was how do couples manage to sustain their relationships? How do those relationships endure? So it isn’t presupposing that all long-term relationships and relationships that endure are all good. Because good is a relative term. What do we mean by good?
So we wanted to do something which focused on how those people in those relationships were managing to work through the ups and downs. Because all relationships have ups and downs. So that’s what we were focusing on, but with a keen eye on the everyday Because it’s through those everyday small things, the routines, the practices, sort of ‘the daily’ which relationships last.
In a study focusing on relationships, one of the surprises that emerged was how couples see love or define love.
Some couples don’t mention the L word. Love is not mentioned at all. So that tells us something about how couples experience love. And that’s very interesting to us. Because we presumed that they would talk about love.
So what they were then saying when we asked them directly - you know, you’ve not mentioned love, where does it fit in your relationship? - is they actually reflect on that with great insight about, what does it mean? What does love actually mean in a long-term relationship?
We don’t need, I don’t need, a bunch of roses or flowers. We are kind of allergic of all these kind of superficial things.
Certainly the idea of romantic love wasn’t very present. So I think love as the being treasured and respected and valued runs through most of the data, but romantic love much less so. So our couples were quite critical of the ways in which romantic love was portrayed in the media.
Once you got over the sort of cultural tropes - so the Valentine’s Day card and the big hearts and all of that - how is love done? How is it practiced? How is it experienced? And importantly, how is it expressed and how does it feel?
And what couples were talking to us about and individuals were talking to us about was, it’s just there. And we’ve got the analogy of it - it’s like the fish in the water. The water’s just there. It’s the small gestures that count. The big things that are associated out there with love actually don’t feel meaningful internally and personally to that relationship.
Another area the study explored was the relationship between love and friendship and how couples especially define these connections.
A lot of the literature suggests that friendship is so different from a sexual couple relationship, that it’s built on very different foundations. We didn’t quite find that at all. Because so many of our couples, both in the online survey and in qualitative research, talked about their partner being their best friend.
And I think that one of the reasons why it overlaps is that a lot of what’s valued about being in a partnership, in a relationship are the communication strategies that couples develop between each other so that they’re open and transparent and they talk to and listen with each other. And that’s what friends do. I don’t think we can distinguish between love and friendship very easily at all.
We start thinking about what friendship means, and actually, are we meaning by friendship people who are non-intimate? Well, is that what friendship is? Do we not have hugs with friends? Where are the boundaries between friendship and partners? Is it actually sex? Is actually what we’re talking the baseline is sex?
Well, some relationships include third parties. Some people have sex with their friends. And that’s open and acknowledged within the relationship. And that’s fine. It works for that particular couple.
And we have to be careful that we don’t separate - there is the couple relationship on one hand, then there is friendship on the other - because quite often, they’re quite embedded. And friendships are part of wider networks of intimacy, which sustain the couple relationships.
Psychological theories have often distinguish between different kinds of love. And within relationships, there is often a belief that love is either passionate or companionate. The Enduring Love? project also explored this question, with some surprising results.
There’s been quite a lot written in popular literature and also academic literature about the differences between companionate and passionate love. And they’re seen as separate things. And I think in long-term relationships, especially, those distinctions start to break down.
So it isn’t that as relationships endure over the course of time, over 10, 20, 30, 40 years, relationships lose their passion. It’s actually that saying, well, what do we mean by companionate? Some relationships aren’t companionate at all. And they last 30 years.
So it’s saying those things might be embodied in one relationship. They may be distinctive. So we’ve thought about the companionate relationship as being non-sexual and the passionate relationships being about intimacy. But when we talk about relationships, I think it’s more productive to think about intensity of feeling rather than putting so much weight on the sexual.
Yeah, we are still in love. We still love each other. We have made a decision not to be comfortable with anybody else. And that embraces the whole of one’s character and personality.
The line between companionate and passionate is much more blurry in the same way that friendship and couple relationships are. So couples very clearly valued the companionship that they enjoyed with their partner, but at the same time, were able to sustain a very passionate relationship.
So I think what our data does is allow us to shift the emphasis away from the sexual as a defining feature of how we categorise relationships and start to think about, what are the everyday things that make relationships work over time?
It’s certainly something that we’d want to return to with our data and to think in more depth about, how do couples talk about those differences? And did they? Did they think that there was a distinction between being passionate and being companionate? I’m not sure they did.
It’s thought in individualistic cultures that many see love in terms of personal growth, by exploring and nurturing the self, the idea being that you can’t have a successful relationship until you’re happy with yourself. In exploring the nature of enduring relationships, the researchers decided to tackle the question directly.
So we asked a particular question of who’s the most important person in your life. And there were various options. That was partner, child, mother, father, siblings, friends, pets, and the self.
And we did have some people who ticked self. And their answers weren’t about being selfish. They were about explaining, you can’t be happy in a relationship until you’re happy with yourself.
But the vast majority ticked children or partner. If a relationship is embedded in wider kin networks, which they may be in different cultural contexts, then the self has no meaning whatsoever. In some of the qualitative material that we’ve got, we’ve got Asian couples who are talking about, the couple has no meaning. It’s the family.
So we have to be very particular about the cultural context we’re talking about. The individual is premised on a Western belief of the individual, that, the sort of the integrity of self. So it’s there in popular culture. It’s there as narratives of how we understand the person. Especially in psychology, it’s there very clearly as there is this sort of the self as individual. What we were finding is it’s much more complicated than that, because the self has leaky edges.
In looking at enduring love, what is it that we say helps sustain our relationships?
You’ve got to have a sense of humour. You’ve got to trust each other. And you’ve got to communicate. There’s got to be huge communication.
And apart from communicating, you’ve got to be able to listen, haven’t you?
Yes, dear.
I’ve been asked so many times about how do relationships work. And it’s like the holy grail. Everyone wants to know. The answer is not 42. There is no meaning of life here.
We can say there are certain qualities and things that people do which we especially know from the survey are likely to be important. But if what we’re talking about, what makes a relationship endure, it is being attentive to particularities of that relationship. So I suppose the project, in a way, is setup to say, how do we become more attentive to those small things and notice them?
So if you partner, for example, brings you a cup of tea every day, do you notice? Not necessarily. Do you notice if it stops? Yes. And that’s the crisis point. Why did the cup of tea stop?
So it’s trying to notice, to pick up and be attentive to what’s going on in ordinary practice. And that is what love is in those long-term relationships. It’s those everyday small things that are being done which express the intensity of that feeling.
End transcript: Video 1 Interview with Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb
Video 1 Interview with Janet Fink and Jacqui Gabb
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Now that you have seen the film once, read through the questions below and watch the film again with these specific issues in mind. Feel free to stop and rewind the film whenever you like, and note down some of the key points.

  1. Hazan and Shaver’s (1987) described romantic love as ‘a biological process designed by evolution to facilitate attachment between adult sexual partners who, at the time love evolved, were likely to become parents of an infant who would need their reliable care’. How does this compare with the findings of the Enduring Love? project?
  2. What did the Enduring Love? research have to say about the relationship between love and friendship?
  3. Were the researchers able to establish characteristics that potentially make love enduring?
  4. Spend a few minutes thinking about your perspective on this project. Where you surprised by any of the findings? What do you think was the key contribution?

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