Key messages from research
Couples in our project told us they felt like 'ordinary married' couples. What does this mean, and what can we learn from it?
On this page we outline some of the key messages that we can draw from analysing our data:
- Civil partnerships and marriage: what's the difference?
- Civil partnerships: 'ordinary' relationships
- How do couples in CP deal with money, sex and family?
- What does our research say about changes in society?
You can find more detail on our findings in our publications and outputs page.
We have illustrated some of the points here with quotations from our interviewees, but all real names have been changed.
Civil partnerships and marriage: what’s the difference?
Marriage for heterosexual couples is a long-standing institution. It is an idea that feels familiar to us: we have a shared sense of why people get married; what makes a ‘good’ marriage; what happens at weddings; and how married people behave.
Civil partnerships have existed in England for just seven years. We were interested to see whether this meant that they would be a different type of relationship, especially as previous research has suggested key differences between heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
The overwhelming message from our interviewees was that their relationships were very similar to those of married couples. In the words of one of our interviewees, Diego:
‘I felt that being in a civil partnership, or being married – I don’t necessarily distinguish between the two. I don’t really see the point'
Why do people enter civil partnership?
Most of the couples we interviewed decided to enter into civil partnership to express their love for one another and the committed nature of their relationship. One of our interviewees, Barbara, said:
‘I just hadn’t really ever thought about kind of getting married until… I think it was evident that obviously we were gonna be together sort of forever, so wanted to make it official. And so I asked Nicole to marry me’
Other reasons for entering civil partnership were to do with legal rights, as well as love and romance. Six couples decided to get civilly partnered so that they could share joint parenting recognition for their children. For eight couples, the decision to enter civil partnership was prompted by the immigration status of one partner.
Civil partnerships: ‘ordinary’ relationships
Many of our interviewees described themselves as ‘ordinary married couples’. Sara illustrated this when she said:
‘I just think we were both raised with parents who were married and we’ve been around people who are married and we consider we have a marriage’
The couples we spoke to felt their relationships had a lot in common with their parents’ marriages, at least where their parents had a good marriage! They saw themselves as fitting into many of the expectations and hopes that are commonly held about heterosexual marriage. Ellen expressed this by saying, of her parents’ marriage:
‘what I think I have inherited from them is a big thing about respect and communication. My parents had a great deal of respect for each other, and that means you take the time to understand the other person’s opinion’
Sometimes, couples gave examples of married relationships that they did not want to emulate. Maria described some negative aspects of marriage such as an unequal power dynamic within the couple ‘they had very clear defined roles, mother does the cooking, cleaning, childcare, father earns the money’. What is interesting about this is that Maria sees this as a problem with some marriages from previous generations, and not generally a problem with contemporary marriages. This was a common theme in our interviews.
In fact, civil partnerships felt so ‘ordinary’ and so similar to marriage that only eight couples mentioned wanting formal marriage for same-sex couples, rather than civil partnership.
How do couples in civil partnership deal with money, sex and family?
We were interested to see how civil partners operated in three 'core' relationship areas: would relationships follow gendered 'norms' or would they have a distinctive same-sex pattern? We found neither to be the case.
Previous research has suggested that same-sex relationships may have a different approach to dealing with money, partly because both partners are more likely than heterosexual married couples to have similar incomes. We found that couples in civil partnerships had a similar approach to money management as many young married couples.
Most of our interviewees had a joint account for shared costs (mortgage/rent, bills etc) with separate accounts for independent spending. People's attitude to money was a fundamental element in their relationship, with attitudes to debt being especially important. But we did not find a distinctive approach to money management in civil partnerships as opposed to marriages.
Previous research has pointed to higher levels of non-monogamy in same-sex relationships, but we did not find this in our study. Forty five out of 50 couples were sexually monogamous and the majority assumed that a committed relationship would sexually exclusive. Just as in heterosexual marriages, both lesbian and gay couples could see unequal sex drive as a potential threat to their relationship. This was a source of worry for several partners.
Family and children
Earlier research has demonstrated the importance of what sociologists call ‘family of choice’ for lesbians and gay men. This term was coined to describe the strong friendship networks of lesbians and gay men, which, for them, provided the personal, social and material supports that heterosexuals typically associate with ‘family of origin’ (that is, the family people are born into). Relationships with ‘family of origin’ could be more problematic for gay men and lesbians, for example, if they felt that they were less accepted or understood by their heterosexual relations, because of their sexuality.
In contrast, couples in our study tended to have good relationships with their ‘family of origin’ with little evidence of ‘friendship families’. We think this is partly because many couples who chose to enter civil partnership have grown up with a sense of the ordinariness and acceptability of same sex relationships. Because their parents, siblings and friends were supportive and accepting, they may have had less need to form alternative ‘families of choice’.
Seven couples, all female, had children. Fewer male couples than female couples planned to have children together in the future.
What does our research say about changes in society?
Our research found lots of similarities between young same-sex couples in civil partnerships and their contemporaries in heterosexual marriages. The fact that the couples we interviewed were both female, or both male, made little difference to the stories they told us about their relationships, their experiences, and their expectations for the future. They shared many of the same ideals about couple relationships as heterosexuals and did not feel they had a different kind of relationship because they were lesbian or gay.
The ‘ordinariness’ of the couples we interviewed is interesting because it suggests that they feel their relationships are accepted in their day to day lives, by family and friends, as well as in law and policy. On the one hand, his could be seen as a positive indicator that society is becoming more accepting of same-sex relationships. On the other hand, some people would view this as a negative indicator that same sex relationships are less critical of heterosexual norms than they used to be.
Of course, this does not mean that people (including our interviewees) have never, and will never, experience discrimination because of their sexuality. We also need to remember that our interviewees all felt able to be open about their sexuality in order to get civilly partnered, and many people will not be in this position, so we can’t draw the conclusion that discrimination has disappeared.
We can, however, use our research to point towards some of the implications that changes in society’s acceptance and understanding of public same-sex relationships have, at least in some sectors. Above all, our study highlights the ways in which some younger same sex couples do not see themselves or their relationships as fundamentally different to heterosexual ones.