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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.