Podium: Carla Willig: Love, ideology and the capitalist work ethic

From a speech given by a senior lecturer at City University to the British Psychological Society's London conference

I WOULD like to talk about the way that individuals account for the break-up of an intimate relationship, and focus upon the role of agency.

Sixteen participants who had recently experienced such a break-up in their relationship were interviewed. Individuals who had recently experienced such break-ups provided accounts of "what went wrong", which were examined using narrative analysis and discourse analysis. A number of diverse and sometimes conflicting constructions of agency in the causes of the break- ups were identified.

A tendency to consider intimate relationships as an achievement was evident in most of the interviews. Such a view echoes the beliefs and practices contained within the Protestant work ethic.

This talk examines the participants' endorsement of such a work ethic and traces its implications for attributions of responsibility and/or blame within the context of relationship maintenance. It proposes that the Protestant work ethic as an ideological construct may be more pervasive than previously thought and that it may be implicated in people's most intimate experiences.

Existing research into how partners attribute causality for events in their relationships has identified the operation of an actor-observer bias, whereby partners explained the other person's behaviour dispositionally, whereas they judged their own behaviour as more situationally determined. More recently, researchers have emphasised the moral dimension of accounts of agency in relationships, whereby blame rather than mere causal agency is at stake.

In addition, there has been an acknowledgement of people's inclination to string together multiple attributions into stories about events; in other words, the focus has shifted from singular attributions towards a focus on account-making in relationship research.

The aim of the analysis was to identify constructions of agency within the break-up narratives and to explore their implications for attributions of responsibility for the break-up and its aftermath.

Several conflicting interpretations of break-ups were identified in the transcripts of interviews with people from broken relationships. They included "passive" and "active" constructions. A construction of intimate relationships as an achievement was taken up by most, but not all, of the participants. In such a construction, the success of a relationship is seen as conditional upon the partners' preparedness to "work hard at it" and to invest resources such as time and energy. Such a construction resonates with the beliefs and practices associated with the Protestant work ethic, whereby the individual's efforts are expected to be rewarded with success.

One woman said that she treated her relationships just like her job: "I find with relationships that I just can't give up on them, and I try to keep them going at any cost."

Another woman said that when her last relationship broke up she was worried "that her family would see her as failing once again" and that she kept her relationship going much longer than she should have done.

Only one man interviewed in the study said that he had split up with his girlfriend because they had grown apart and were no longer compatible. He had been with her for two years but felt no anger or hatred towards her; indeed he still cared for her. That was in strong contrast with all the other people who took part in the study. It seems that people who adopt such an attitude recover from break-ups much more easily than those who do not, and on the whole see breaking up as a less negative experience.

When people split up there is always an element of self-blame. But what we found is that people do not consider that they may simply be incompatible but tend to blame the fact that they did not spend enough time or put enough effort into the relationship.

What is worrying is that such an ethic has filtered through from capitalist working environments into intimate relationships. The significance of that is that many people may stay in relationships that are either abusive or destructive simply because they feel that they should "work harder" at the relationship. When marriage guidance counsellors encourage couples to stay together and work through their problems, they may not necessarily be doing the right thing.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable