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.
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).