Academic journal article Communication Studies

Welsh Widows' Descriptions of Their Relationships: Themes of Relational Experience in Long-Term Marriage

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Welsh Widows' Descriptions of Their Relationships: Themes of Relational Experience in Long-Term Marriage

Article excerpt

Marriages that last many years provide a context in which researchers can explore how the experience of relationships changes across time and how social norms surrounding relationships influence relationships. Research indicates that the success of long-term relationships is related both to intrinsic aspects of the relationship, such as liking one's partner as a person (Bachand & Caron, 2001), and to factors that are extrinsic to the relationship, such as norms and values related to the sanctity of marriage (Laner, Lauer, & Kerr, 1990). There is also evidence that not all long-lasting marriages are happy or successful. For instance, Dickson (1995) found that some couples in long-lasting marriages experienced high levels of independence in their daily lives and reported high levels of dissatisfaction with their marriage. These couples remained married because they believed that social norms dictated that they should do so. Research that has compared younger and older couples in order to examine how life-stage influences relationships has revealed that older couples tend to be more formal in their interactions and more restrained in their expression of affection than younger couples (Sillars & Wilmot, 1989). Additionally, the conversations of older couples are typically marked by communal themes and by a more congenial interaction style (Sillars, Burggraf, Yost, & Zietlow, 1992). This growing body of research reveals the value of examining relationships at a variety of relational and life stages. However, this research has often focused on identifying factors related to relational satisfaction or on comparing the interactions of younger and older couples (Kaslow & Hammerschmidt, 1992; Lauer, Lauer, & Kerr, 1990; Sillars & Wilmot, 1989). As a result, it has not provided insight into the way that partners in long-term marriages understand their relationship or think about marital processes.

One way that we might better understand the experience of long-term marriages is by considering descriptions of past relationships. Harvey, Agostinelli, and Weber (1989) argue that accounts of past relationships help us see how individuals make sense of relationships; they found that explanations for why relationships failed were related to expectations individuals had for what was important in future relationships. Similarly, Surra and colleagues (Surra, Arizzi, & Amussen, 1988; Planalp & Surra, 1992) argue that accounts of past relationships can provide insight into the knowledge structures that influence how people understand general classes of relationships (e.g., friendship versus dating), how partners understand a particular relationship, or how they see their role in a relationship. Thus, it seems clear that reflections about past relationships could provide insight into people's experience of relationships and could reveal how relationship stories reflect social/historical expectations regarding relationships. Research by Weber, Harvey and Stanley (1987) examining the experience of widows and widowers following the loss of a spouse suggests that individual's reflections about their relationships may be an important source of insight for researchers wishing to learn not only about grieving but also about the nature of relationships.

This study seeks to expand our understanding of marriage by examining accounts of marriage by Welsh widows who had been married 25 years or more before the death of their spouse. In this paper, I seek to identify the folk-logics that individuals use to understand, and to represent in talk, their relationships. Talk about relationships can reveal the social norms that guide relational processes. The examination of accounts of marriage after relational loss provides an opportunity to see how relationships are understood by participants (Harvey, Flanary, & Morgan, 1986). The fact that these are reflections of a relationship that has ended makes them no less valuable as descriptions of the experience of marriage. …

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