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Friends and companions: Aspects of romantic love in Australian marriage


The decline of marriage in the West has been extensively researched over the last three decades (Carmichael and Whittaker; de Vaus; Coontz; Beck-Gernshein). Indeed, it was fears that the institution would be further eroded by the legalisation of same sex unions internationally that provided the impetus for the Australian government to amend the Marriage Act (1961). These amendments in 2004 sought to strengthen marriage by explicitly defining, for the first time, marriage as a legal partnership between one man and one woman. The subsequent heated debates over the discriminatory nature of this definition have been illuminating, particularly in the way they have highlighted the ongoing social significance of marriage, even at a time it is seen to be in decline.

Demographic research about partnering practices (Carmichael and Whittaker; Simons; Parker; Penman) indicates that contemporary marriages are more temporary, fragile and uncertain than in previous generations. Modern marriages are now less about a permanent and “inescapable” union between a dominant man and a submissive female for the purposes of authorised sex, legal progeny and financial security, and more about a commitment between two social equals for the mutual exchange of affection and companionship (Croome). Less research is available, however, about how couples themselves reconcile the inherited constructions of romantic love as selfless and unending, with trends that clearly indicate that romantic love is not forever, ideal or exclusive.

Civil marriage ceremonies provide one source of data about representations of love. Civil unions constituted almost 70 per cent of all marriages in Australia in 2010, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The civil marriage ceremony has both a legal and symbolic role. It is a legal contract insofar as it prescribes a legal arrangement with certain rights and responsibilities between two consenting adults and outlines an expectation that marriage is voluntarily entered into for life. The ceremony is also a public ritual that requires couples to take what are usually private feelings for each other and turn them into a public performance as a way of legitimating their relationship. Consistent with the conventions of performance, couples generally customise the rest of the ceremony by telling the story of their courtship, and in so doing they often draw upon the language and imagery of the Western Romantic tradition to convey the personal meaning and social significance of their decision.

This paper explores how couples construct the idea of love in their relationship, first by examining the western history of romantic love and then by looking at how this discourse is invoked by Australians in the course of developing civil marriage ceremonies in collaboration with the author.



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