Jacqui and I are also producing some short YouTube vids with our wonderful colleagues the Open University pulling out some of the main themes from the book. I’ll be posting those up here as they become available, starting on Valentine’s Day of course.
Meanwhile here’s a Q&A with me about the book.
How did The Secrets of Enduring Love happen?
Jacqui and her OU colleagues did the Enduring Love? project over the last few years. They studied how long-term relationships work with a major survey and in-depth interviews.
I was involved in the project in a small way, particularly in relation to public engagement. As part of that we decided to look into the possibility of a self-help style book based on the research findings. Penguin RandomHouse got interested, and that’s how the idea for the book came about.
Jacqui and her co-author Janet Fink published an academic book about the project Couple Relationships in the 21st Century last year. At the same time, I started work on pulling together some of the ideas from that book – and from the various reports of the study – into a book for the general public, including lots of extra quotes from the people who were involved in the research. Jacqui and I bounced this back and forth between us till we were both happy. Then our editors at the publishers helped us to polish it up into the final book, with all of their expertise about what readers are looking for.
What’s the book all about?
I guess the big idea is that the experts on long-term relationships are the people who’re in them. The Enduring Love? study wanted to find out what folk actually did, on an everyday level, to sustain their relationships.
A lot of relationship self-help books don’t really draw on the research evidence about relationships, so we wanted to put that at the heart of our book: both the Enduring Love? study, and other research that has been conducted on relationships, from across psychology and sociology. However research findings can be a little dry so we also wanted to bring them to life with loads of real-world examples from the people who took part in the study, as well as activities for readers to try themselves – if they wanted to. I particularly enjoyed creating a few magazine-style quizzes for the book (mostly A, mostly B kind of thing)!
We divided the book up into chapters about the main themes that came out of the research. So we start with everyday kindness and the role of thoughtful gestures in sustaining relationships. Then we cover different living situations and how they impact people’s experiences. After that we look at communication and how things like laughter, silence, and bickering are important in people’s relationships. Then we consider the role of sex and physical affection. Following that we cover how our relationships are supported and sustained by ‘third elements’ like other people, religious beliefs, pets, and leisure pursuits. Finally we finish the book by thinking about how we tell the stories of our relationships to ourselves and to others, and the role of different kinds of love.
What are the key messages in the book?
Perhaps the main one is that different things work for different people, and at different times in their relationships. Again we try to challenge the common relationship self-help message that there are any ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions to making relationships work. Instead we spend a lot of time exploring the diversity of ways in which people manage their relationships, and helping readers to figure out what works for them.
Another big message is that it’s often the small stuff that’s important. People put a lot of emphasis on everyday messages of affection, cuddles in front of the TV, or having a laugh together. There was far less emphasis on grand romantic gestures, big declarations of love, or swinging from the chandeliers style sex.
Are you saying that people should try to make relationships last in this book?
Definitely not. We make it clear in the introduction that the common idea that ‘successful’ relationships are those who last a long time is problematic and pressurising. Many successful relationships are more fleeting, or are those in which the people involved recognise when it’s time to end – or change – the relationship.
Also, of course, many people choose not to have relationships in the way we often understand them: romantic partners who live together and share large parts of their lives. There’s a lot in the book about how people are doing their relationships in increasingly diverse ways and how helpful that can be in lifting the pressure to fit a limited model of what a relationship looks like.
We like the idea that ‘enduring love’ has a double meaning: it can mean love that lasts, and it can also mean surviving – or enduring – the ups and downs of love relationships. We try to make it clear that relationships of all kinds are immensely challenging at times, and to help readers to explore different ways of navigating the inevitable changes and fluctuations in relationships over time.
Is this book just for people in fairly normative long-term relationships?
I hope that anybody could pick up this book and find it helpful. The Enduring Love? study focused on people in long-term partner relationships, but there was a lot of diversity in what they meant by ‘long-term’, and also in the kind of relationships that they had. Jacqui and her colleagues deliberately included relationships that were monogamous and non-monogamous, same-sex and different-sex, sexual and non-sexual, living apart and living together, as well as people across different ages, generations, classes, and cultural backgrounds.
We were also mindful, when writing, of readers who might currently be single, or in relationships with more than one person, or who might never want a partner in the conventional sense. We tried to make all of the activities applicable to everyone. And pretty much all of the ideas we cover are equally applicable to close friendships, family, and other kinds of relationships. I’d love it if readers didn’t stop with applying the ideas – like everyday kindness, physical intimacy, and open communication – to their partner relationships, but also reflected on how they might apply to all of their relationships.
How is this book different to your other relationship book – Rewriting the Rules?
I think the main difference is that this book has lots more examples in it, so that you can actually read about how other people are navigating their relationships and doing these things in their lives. Also we explore some things in this book in a lot more depth than I did in Rewriting the Rules, like how people decide about their living situations, or the role of other people and interests in their relationships.
That said, there are definitely some themes here that will be familiar to folks who’ve read Rewriting the Rules, particularly the idea of different things working for different people, and the tension between being together and being separate. I liked the fact that we got to explore communication in a lot more depth in this book, which follows on quite nicely from the conflict chapter in Rewriting the Rules, and it was good to be able to bring in some of the most recent research about sex as well.
I guess the chapter with the most overlap with Rewriting the Rules would be the last chapter about love – which is where I got to bring in those ideas about cultural ideals of relationships and how they can be so damaging and limiting. But it was great to have the opportunity there to explore how people are already challenging those ideals in their day-to-day relationships.
What does this book mean to you personally?
After my long struggle to get Rewriting the Rules published I had a big goal of getting a book published by a non-academic publisher. Routledge, who published Rewriting the Rules, do publish non-academic books, but their focus is more on the academic. So it meant a huge amount to me to get a contract with Penguin Randomhouse. And it seems like non-academic publishers are a bit like buses because, at the same time as we agreed The Secrets of Enduring Love I also got contracts with Icon books to publish my next two books, and Routledge asked if I’d be interested in writing another book for them!
Another great thing for me in this book is that I got to do a lot of the illustrations myself. As people who read this blog will know, I’m a big comics fan and have plans for (very very slowly) writing my own graphic books in future. So I really enjoyed making the cartoon of the relationship escalator, and producing versions of some of the research participant’s drawings.
You wrote Rewriting the Rules on your own. What’s it like writing collaboratively instead?
I love it. In a lot of ways this book is a conversation between me (and my ideas and knowledge from my relationship therapy work) and Jacqui (and the Enduring Love? study and the participants in that). I think those kinds of conversations produce something rich that’s often greater than the sum of the parts.
I’ve written academic and therapy books collaboratively in the past, like the edited collections I’ve done with Darren Langdridge, and the books on gender and sexuality with Christina Richards. I’m really enjoying bringing that approach to non-academic work now. I’m meeting once a week with sex educator Justin Hancock to produce our sex advice book, and I’m learning so much from that process. Also there’s something very pleasant about sitting in a cafe chatting and writing compared to the sometimes painful process of sitting on your own at home with writer’s block. I also loved putting together the comic editions of Asylum magazine last year with my colleagues Caroline Walters and Joseph de Lappe. And I’m really looking forward to more writing collaborations with Alex Iantaffi later this year.
Published by Penguin RandomHouse and serialised in the Daily Mail – isn’t that a pretty different audience for you?
Yes the Daily Mail was quite a surprise! They serialised the book over the course of four days with big full-page spreads every day. The headlines didn’t always quite capture our approach (they often focused on married couples, for example), but I thought they did a really good job of bringing what we’d written to their readers.
Something that has always been important to me is to reach as broad an audience as possible. Given the focus of my work on GSRD (Gender, Sexually and Relationship Diverse) communities, it’s obviously important to me to reach people in these worlds: LGBTQ+, kinky, and openly non-monogamous people for example. However, there are a lot of people who are GSRD but don’t feel able to be open about it, and suffer a great deal trying to hide important parts of themselves. Many of those folk would be unlikely to engage with GSRD communities or to stumble across my work, but they might be more likely to come across the Daily Mail articles, or spot The Secrets of Enduring Love in a bookshop or on Amazon. Or their friends or families might do – and reading such things might make them feel more able to be supportive.
Also, a lot of the ideas in my books are already fairly well known about in GSRD communities: the idea that you don’t have to have sex in a relationship, for example, or that the relationship escalator puts relationships under pressure, or that meta-communication is helpful. It feels very important to me to make these kinds of ideas available to everybody.
This is the year of books for me: all of the writing that I did last year is coming out! The next one (in Autumn) is the graphic book about queer which I wrote last summer and Julia Scheele is currently illustrating for Icon books. It felt like a nice balance to The Secrets of Enduring Love because it’s more explicitly aimed at queer folk – and people who want to know more about queer. It also involved delving into a lot more theory and activism, which I hope I’ve explained in an accessible and engaging way.
After that it’s all about sex, with a sex advice book and a book on the psychology of sex. These books expand on many of the things that Jacqui and I touch on in the sex chapter of The Secrets of Enduring Love. There’s also a collaborative academic book on sex advice, and an edited book on non-binary gender coming soon.
I think that all of these books this year may have finally convinced me that I’m a legit writer of this kind of book! So I’m looking forward to hopefully writing many more books and zines in the near future, particularly developing the social mindfulness and non-binary ideas that I’ve been exploring here, and applying them to relationships of all kinds.