Romantic relationships in a time of ‘cold intimacies’: a one day conference

Report by Lauren Palmer, Sociology Graduand.

This British Sociological Association Early Career workshop and networking event took place on 17th July 2017 at Canterbury Christ Church University. It focused on bringing together both newer and more established scholars who are currently working on research concerned with romantic couple relationships. The workshop included topics such as marriage and intimacy, risk, choice, generations, traditions and cold intimacies. The day included three keynote speakers; Professor Ann Berrington from the University of Southampton, Dr Rachel Thwaites from the University of Lincoln and Dr Jenny van Hooff from Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as a number of panel speakers.

Professor Ann Berrington opened the conference with a talk titled ‘Understanding changing partnership dynamics in the UK – a mixed method demographic approach’, which focused on changes in intimate relationship patterns, specifically focusing on educational attainment in women and the effect this has on couple differences. It was concluded that partnership dissolution was more likely in couples in which the woman has lower levels of education, than those with higher levels of education. Likewise, women with higher education levels were more likely to expect child-bearing to follow marriage, whereas whilst women with lower levels of education may want to marry, there were a number of challenges which got in the way of this, including unplanned pregnancy.

Marriage was a reccurring theme within the workshop: Shuang Qiu, for example, studied the concept and role of “study mothers” in China, who privileged motherhood over wifehood and would move away from their husbands to ensure their child had access to a better education.

As the second keynote speaker, Dr Rachel Thwaites’ talk titled ‘Names, Heterosexuality, and the Myth of “Free Choice”‘ followed on from the theme of marriage to explore the idea of choice when a women changes her surname after marriage. Through analysing a feminist feed online about the topic of name changing it was found that choice within the discussions shut down critical thinking around the patriarchal history of name changing, allowing no critical discussion of choice. There was no sense of individualised choice, as free choice became a product of emotion work, norms of gender and heterosexuality, respectability and power and thus became a subtle way in which gender inequality is maintained.

This idea of choice was also explored by Katherine Twamley who focused on the relationship between feminism and intimacy in research with heterosexual parents on their leave choice after the birth of a child. Twamley argued that the challenges between care and gender egalitarian goals were due to the gendered nature of care and the characterisation of the women’s liberation movement as ‘selfish’ or joyless.

The concept of choice was also explored by the third keynote speaker Dr Jenny van Hooff in ‘Coupled space: the spatial naturalisation of the monogamous couple relationship’. In this talk, Dr van Hooff explored how space was heterosexualised and how monogamous relationships are the assumed practice which forms the centre of intimate lives. Through an exploration of women’s attitudes and experiences of infidelity, the secret of an affair can change the meaning of space. In her second study, van Hooff explored friendship networks when relationships broke down, for those participants coping with the transition to singleness, the spatial privileging of the couple in terms of emotional and domestic space causes participants to struggle with their newly marginalised status. Thus, whilst personal life is seen to be marked by choice and fluidity in a time of cold intimacies, this study demonstrated the continuing centrality of the monogamous couple relationship.

Throughout the workshop speakers explored romantic relationships in a number of different ways. Euisol Jeong explored dating habits of South Korean young people in a period of neoliberal restructuring and the changing context of gendered hierarchy in ‘Romance with Competitor: weighing and calculating of intimacy among South Korean Couples’. Tom Witney, in ‘Looking beyond risk: Framing an enquiry into serodiscordant intimacy in the era of “treatment as prevention”‘, focused on the concept of risk, focusing particularly on serodiscordant relationships, where one partner has received a positive HIV diagnosis. The focus of this talk was around risky sexual behaviour and the challenges partners face in balancing intimacy with managing risk. Finally, Jennie Bristow in ‘Generations, gender and the intimate politics of reproduction’ focused on the intimate relations between generations and how knowledge on marriage, pregnancy and parenting is reproduced through generations, thus exploring the extent to which rationalisation between generations creates a cultural cooling.

The idea of cold intimacies was both explored and critiqued throughout the workshop and the concept of easy intimacy within this era of liquid modernity (Bauman, 2003; Illouz, 2007) was called into question. Instead, value was placed on continuity of traditional practices within romantic relationships and marriage, alongside changes in patterns of relationship formation. It was clear, for example, from a number of the papers that gender differences were still present within the area of romantic relationships. The workshop explored a vast array of topics relating to romantic relationships, posing different questions and discussions, which displayed a more complex picture of the processes of change and continuity within intimate relationships.

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