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Relationships: Mutual trust and individual fulfilment

Sat 15 Jan 2005 In: Books

From Freyberg by Bill Edginton National Pacific Press Hard on the heels of the civil unions debate Wellington author Bill Edginton discusses the exploration of relationships, drawing on the context of his just-published novel, From Freyberg. The exploration of relationships is seen by some as a contemporary phase in the lesbian and gay movement. In the 1960s 70s and 80s, gay men were preoccupied with asserting identity and discovering the causes and location of their oppression. To quote a recent UK book by Jeffrey Weeks and others, we were concerned with answering the questions who are we and who are we against? With significant legal gains over the past twenty years, however, this focus has shifted towards a societal goal. This might be expressed as answering the question what are we for? My novel, From Freyberg, is about two men in a long-term relationship who experience the disruption of an affair. It examines their responses and the impact on their relationship. One of the men, Craig, reviews the nature of the bond he has with his partner, Paul. He considers how it might be changed in terms of significant relationships with others. The pair encounter a younger couple who provide an alternative model for them to consider. Craig and Paul have lived together during the earlier phases of the gay and lesbian movement. Craig compares that experience with the different situation in which younger men find themselves today. The man with whom Craig has an affair, Neil, has begun his career at a time when open same-sex relationships in the armed services were not possible, although decriminalisation had already taken place. His experience reflects persisting inequalities. The campaign for civil union in New Zealand is part and parcel of the continuing need to challenge entrenched forms of social and sexual exclusion. In claiming recognition of our relationships, we are defining the qualities of different ways of being. Recognition of same-sex relationships subverts the traditional family's exclusive hold on family values. Such activity is also part of a much wider change in intimate life, in which questions of what constitute family values are central. In 1998, a leading Church of England charity redefined the family as ‘an emotionally supportive network of adults and children, some of whom live together or have lived together'. Sociologists Pahl and Spencer have gone further in seeing the growth of ‘friend-like relationships' as characteristic of the late twentieth century. The flexible patterns of friendship can provide more adaptable structures both for private life and for the labour market. They are voluntary and developed over time, not given. Some of this change is reflected in From Freyberg. John's close friends support him at the time of his partner Harry's suicide and assert a friend-like relationship in the face of kinship assumptions made by Harry's boss. Craig's friends show family concern when he has his affair with Neil. Craig and Paul become more reflexive about their coupledom in the light of Craig's affair and the model of multiple friendship provided by the younger gay men, Sean and Rick and Michael. Changes of this kind are challenging to put into practice. I think it requires a high level of maturity to negotiate and accept multiple, friend-like relationships. There is the problem of jealousy. This is a central issue in From Freyberg. Craig is jealous, early on, of Paul's friendship with a man he met at an international conference. He reflects on this when the boot is on the other foot, when he is considering the implications of sharing time and attention between Paul and Neil. Weeks and Co argue that a transformation of the meanings of intimate life is leading to a new balance between the desire for individual freedom and the possibilities of commitment. They say that the new narratives of intimate life represent a reorganisation of family commitments and responsibilities in new circumstances. Anthony Giddens has suggested that there has been a long-term drift towards the ideal of the democratic egalitarian relationship between men and women, men and men, women and women. At the centre of this ideal is the fundamental belief that love relationships and partnerships should be a matter of personal choice and not of arrangement or tradition. People stay together only so long as the relationship fulfils the needs of the partners. This is what Giddens terms the ‘pure relationship': based less on romantic, and more on pragmatic notions of love, it implies an openness to the other which is dependent on equality and mutual trust, but also on a willingness to up and go when things go wrong. Weeks and Co consider this suggests an attitude to relationships which sees them as both over-calculating and fragile, based on implied (and sometimes explicit) contract rather than the delights and vicissitudes of love and romance. They say the reality is that choice is shaped constantly both negatively and positively, by complex relationships. Even so, the egalitarian relationship has become a measure by which people seek to judge their individual lives. This model of how we should live may be seen as an expression of a new norm, the quest for individual fulfilment in the context of freely chosen egalitarian relationships. The relationship between Craig and Paul is a romantic one in origin. Personal attraction and sexual desire bring them together. They develop mutual trust and discover their compatibility. They survive the threat of a third party when Craig experiences the force of jealousy, and then the much more real threat of another third party well on in their relationship. Neither Paul nor Craig up and go. They accommodate to new situations and allow each other individual freedoms. Craig's experience with Neil and the relationship model presented by some younger gay men prompts them to adjust their relationship in a fundamental way. They see the value of developing close, but open friendships which are not threatening to their relationship. Thus they keep their mutual trust intact but make more room for individual fulfilment. Craig and Paul have been pioneers in demonstrating the possibility of long-term gay relationships. While, like others of their generation, they have been preoccupied with the assertion of identity and the struggle with heterosexism, they have had to work out a way of being as a same-sex couple and then, at a time of crisis find themselves doing some radical thinking on how they might modify the pattern they have developed. Along with others of their generation, they usher in the contemporary political period in the gay and lesbian movement in which attempts are being made to change dominant institutional patterns so that relationships like theirs are recognised. They observe the possibilities which younger gay men, having the advantage of legal progress and growing awareness of multiple belongings and potential ways of being, are exploring. Bill Edginton - 15th January 2005    

Credit: Bill Edginton

First published: Saturday, 15th January 2005 - 12:00pm

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