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27. Researching the darker side of relationships


‘You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family’. Research at the Morgan Centre shows that ‘chosen’ relationships can be difficult and draining too.

The revival of sociological interest in relationships and personal life has been extended by Manchester sociologists to include aspects which are difficult, troubling or stressful. Carol Smart, Jennifer Mason, Brian Heaphy and Katherine Davies have all conducted research on the darker side of relationships.

Their focus is not so much on family violence – important though that is – but on those darker strands which, though less dramatic and less damaging, are important because they are a common experience in relationships with friends and kin. Their work on ‘difficult friendships’ challenges the assumption that friendships, by definition, are pleasurable and rewarding because they are a matter of choice.

They show that, although ‘chosen’ relationships, it can be very difficult to end a friendship which is no longer pleasurable or supportive, because breaking a friendship can reflect negatively on one’s own sense of self and moral worth.  Friendships entail moral imperatives, and so too do relationships with kin.

Carol Smart’s work on family secrets, especially secrets about sexuality and reproduction, shows their potency. In the stories which people tell about secrets, we can see how families construct their own personal and collective identities, and present themselves to the world.  All relationships are dynamic: sticking with someone through difficulties, concealing a secret or telling a story which makes sense of it, is intrinsic to negotiating and developing our closest relationships, in which our own identity and self worth is invested.

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