Lifestyle, Manchester, News

Vanilla Shakes – Are We a Normal Couple?

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DSC_0028By Helen Clarke

Last week, Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) welcomed Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Jenny Van Hoof and Professor Jacqui Gabb  from The Open University to talk about couples and their relationship dynamics. The event, entitled ‘Vanilla Shakes? Exploring Sexual Coupledom and the Everyday’, formed part of the Humanities in Public festival’s ‘SEX’ strand.

At the event, Jacqui talked about her Enduring Love? Couple Relationships in the 21st century project which works with couples across the UK in long term relationships and aims to find out what it is that makes couples stay together. Attendees were told that in the face of the 42% divorce rate in the UK, 70% of households were still headed by a couple, the study, therefore, looking to find out how such relationships functioned and exploring how different couples from all walks of life experience, sustain and understand long term relationships. Jacqui looked at five key relationship measures:

  • Relationship Quality (How fulfilled they feel)
  • Relationship With Partner (Communication, appreciation etc)
  • Relationship Maintenance (How one builds on and analyses their own relationship)
  • Happiness With Partner
  • Happiness With Life (In general)

Interviews were held with participants alone and with their partner to get a more in-depth look into a relationship and surveys were also taken to collect statistics. Some of the results referred to in the presentation showed that, of the sample group of 5445 people, men and women without children had better relationship maintenance, meaning they took more time to work on their relationship. As well as this, men and women without children said that they had better relationship quality compared to mothers and fathers. However, mothers were statistically more likely to be satisfied with life overall than any other group including fathers, childless women and childless men. This led Jacqui to believe that the reason mothers feel more fulfilled in life in general is because of their children and the maternal bond.

Some of the questions raised at a Q&A session at the event included whether having children means a relationship is neglected and whether, in between school runs, making lunches, dressing and bathing your child, doing home work and putting them to bed, there is just not enough time to work on a relationship. The answer was simple: “Every couple is different”. While this seemed frustrating at first, it became clear that Jacqui’s research and stance on relationships showed exactly that. While there were trends, every couple was and is different, and this concept became more of a reassurance than a frustration for the audience by the end of the evening as they realised that all relationships work differently.

Jacqui also asked her participants what made them feel most appreciated in their relationship. Among some typical responses about physical intimacy, there were some anecdotes that really stood out. For example, “He always puts toothpaste on my toothbrush if he goes in the bathroom before me” or “She always makes me perfect buttered toast in the morning.” These responses made it clear that it wasn’t the grand gestures that people remembered, it was the little things. It was the routine actions that we may not think make a big impact but really do. Jacqui wanted to get the point across that small thoughtful gestures do count. She told Humanity Hallows that her research showed her that “It’s about finding that small thing in a relationship that your partner appreciates. That’s what we see often in long term relationships.”

It was this kind of thinking that made Jacqui approach The Department for Education in order to promote better sex and relationship education in schools. She told us that getting this kind of education into schools at an early age is vital because young people should know that, “Just because your relationship isn’t the same as everyone else’s, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Relationships change.”

One attendee of the event told Humanity Hallows, “The presentation was very informative and I think it is good for kids to have a more realistic version of relationships rather than a Disney version. The media’s portrayal of relationships is too extreme. Relationships are about having experiences with people, not having the perfect relationship.” This was a comment on Jacqui’s vocalisation of how important it is to her to get Sexual & Relationship Education (SRE) into schools so that young people can see what makes a relationship work. Jacqui also told us she has had some difficulty with the Conservative government understanding how vital these messages are.

For more details about upcoming events in the Humanities in Public festival, see the festival’s webpage.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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