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Our section on relationships is based on findings from a research project called Enduring Love? which was conducted by researchers at The Open University.
Enduring Love? explored how couples experience, understand and sustain their long-term relationships. Professor Jacqui Gabb led the project and here she explains a bit more about it and summarises what it uncovered.
We called our project Enduring Love? because we wanted to reflect that the relationships studied were long term, but also that duration is not everything. Relationships can be a good or a bad thing in people’s lives – and everything in between. So the word ‘enduring’ captures this: it has two possible meanings. Love can be positive because it ‘endures’ over time, but it can also sometimes, in some relationships, feel like something that has to be ‘endured’, especially when times get tough. Sometimes, relationships can even feel like an ‘endurance test’. So by focusing on long-term relationships here, we’re not suggesting that these are necessarily better than being single, for example, or more rewarding than successive shorter-term relationships.
Our findings don’t say that there is one right way of doing relationships – in fact, the contrary. There is a lot of talk, in the media and in relationship guidance materials, which suggests that certain kinds of relationships are more or less ‘successful’. There is, for example, an expectation that couples will live together at some point in their relationship. Maturity is associated with parenthood – indeed, ‘starting a family’ is often presented as the epitome of a person’s life and an ultimate goal for all relationships. Monogamy is recognised a sign of true love. And few seem to question the assertion that couples should regularly communicate with each other for things to be worked out – after all, those beyond the couple are just that, outside the relationship. Aren’t they? The presumption here, then, is that everybody knows what a successful relationship looks like, and that there is a known ‘recipe for success’.
What findings from the study showed, however, is that there are many different ways of doing a relationship, and what counts as good or successful for some may not work for others. Some people live together and some people don’t; younger couples, in particular, may not be able to choose where to live. Living in shared housing with friends or staying at home with parents may be a preferred option or it may be the only practical option available. Some choose to have children and others don’t; some have children that are not planned whilst others may not be able to have children. Some are with a partner of a different gender and some of the same gender. Some prefer monogamous relationships whilst others find open or non-monogamous relationships work better for them. For others, their relationships often fit something in between. Some people prioritise their partner above all everyone else whereas others see their partner-relationship as one amongst many others. Friends and family may be as important or more so.
It’s clear, therefore, that there are as many different ways of doing relationships as there are different people. All of these have their own challenges and rewards, their own possibilities and pitfalls. In our study we spoke to people of all different ages, classes and cultural backgrounds. So the information we provide here reflects many different kinds of relationships and families. You are, therefore, likely to find some examples here that seem very familiar to you and others that feel very different. As such it’s a bit like ‘pick and mix’. Some you’ll like some you won’t. Some may feel familiar whilst others feel quite alien. Hopefully you sift through them and can learn something from all of them. You may see something that you’ve never considered before and want to try this out in your own relationship. In the end, what’s important is that all these different people are finding their own ways towards long-lasting love, and that there are no right or wrong ways. As long as it works for you and your partner – then it works.
Jacqui Gabb is a Professor of Sociology at The Open University. She has worked as an academic for over 20 years and has published extensively over this time. Her research centres on intimacy and family life, with particular emphasis on the contemporary dynamics of policy, professional practice and personal relationships. She has completed ESRC-funded projects on lesbian parenthood, intimacy and sexuality in families, and, most recently, long-term couple relationships. In collaboration with colleagues in Australia and the US, her current research is interrogating how ideas of enduring coupledom cross different national, situational and biographical contexts. She is co-author with Janet Fink of Couple Relationships in the 21st Century (Palgrave, 2015). In collaboration with Meg John Barker, she has completed a self-help handbook, The Secrets of Enduring Love (Penguin, Random House, 2016).
Enduring Love? was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC RES-062-23-3056).
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