Vanilla Shakes? – Sexual Couple-dom and the Everyday

The penultimate event of Humanities in Public’s Sex strand explored sexual couple-dom and the everyday.

Dr Jacqui Gabb and Dr Jenny van Hooff

Dr Jacqui Gabb and Dr Jenny van Hooff

The modern perception is that finding love is perhaps the most important thing in life, and we will stop at nothing to find our happily-ever-after.

Little girls are surrounded with stories of finding their prince charming, and as we get older the pressures do not subside. Teenage boys are encouraged to have sex earlier and lots of it, whilst the girls they are doing it with are chastised. Going into adult life, millions of self-help books, articles, magazines, and even advertisements are telling us just how much sex we should be having and what constitutes and signifies a happy and working relationship, from children, to money, to the next must-have product.

Relationships are where we find most of our love, validation and comfort, whether that’s a heart to heart with your mother, a drink with your best friends, or a romantic dinner with your partner. And as we get older and the happily-ever-after we were promised is proving elusive, it’s no wonder self-help books are a $10 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone.

Many books have focussed on the ‘what not to do’s, looking at the various reasons relationships breakdown, from spending enough time together to how much sex a week you should be having.

However, in Dr Jacqui Gabb and Dr Meg John Barker’s book The Secrets of Enduring Love it says “it’s clear that there’s obviously no one-size-fits-all set of rules for doing relationships”. There’s no ‘the one’ and it’s not all happily-ever-after. Instead this book encourages readers to “find their own way” and find an answer tailored to their partner and their relationship.

Dr Jacqui Gabb, Professor of Sociology at the Open University, wanted to understand how couples last, because too many self-help books focus on what goes wrong. In her study Enduring Love Jacqui invited couples to come forward and answer questions about their relationships. Couples were asked to rank their relationship quality, level of maintenance the relationship needed, their happiness with the relationship, and their happiness in life more generally. Dr Gabb presented her findings at Humanities in Public’s Vanilla Shakes? event, convened by Dr Jenni van Hooff, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

A key finding of the study was that it is the everyday and mundane things that help relationships to survive: “so many answers included a cup of tea!”. Couples were asked what their partner does to make them feel appreciated and answers included “takes the bins out and clears up after dinner”, saying thank you, and “makes me a cup of tea” in recurring numbers. Maybe it’s not about how much sex you should have, but how many cups of tea you should make (we are British after all).

As relationships endured into the long term, these small gestures became more important than sexual intimacy, particularly for couples with children. These routine actions allowed couples to really share their lives together.

The important thing to note is that whilst these couples may have given very negative answers in some areas of the survey, they all considered their relationship to be working on some level, whether this was because of children, friends, family, or work. Jacqui described this as the “third leg on the stool” keeping couples standing.

Many couples made their relationships work whilst still leading very individual lives, and hardly seeing each other. And although this may not appear the ideal model of a relationship we have been persuaded to expect, who are we to judge what is a good, fulfilling and working relationship?

Jacqui believes that it is vital to teach not only sex education in schools but relationship education too, so that from a young age children begin to learn that: “Just because your relationship isn’t the same as everyone else’s, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Relationships change”.

The take-home message from this event was that relationships, like cups of tea, come in many different forms. It’s about finding what works for you, whether that’s two sugars or none.

Humanities in Public continue their events with a strand all about World. For more information go to: 

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