Sociological Perspectives on Romance, Love and Modern Relationships

If a couple were to discuss honestly how a modern ‘pure relationship’ is likely to pan out then the conversation might go something like this….

Covers concepts such as reflexivity, the pure relationship and confluent love.


Late modern perspectives on the family

The pure relationship and the negotiated family become the new family norms. Choice but within structure.

Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck recognise that people have more choice in terms of their relationships and family arrangements,  but do not believe that people are as free as postmodernists suggest. There are still underlying patterns, and shared experiences of relationships that are a consequence of our living in a ‘late-modern’ society – rather than families just being diverse and random.

For example, people are less likely to get married because of structural changes: gender equality means that both partners have to work and spend longer building their careers, which means the average person has less time to spend making a relationship work, which means a decline in marriage, and an increase in divorce.

Ulrich Beck also argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.

This is not simply a matter of freedom of choice – people are ‘reflexive’ – they look at society, see the risk of marriage, and then choose not to get married – their personal decisions are informed by what they see going in society.

Beck also talks of individualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.

Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.

Giddens’ and Beck’s perspectives on the family are briefly summarised below.

Anthony Giddens: Choice and Equality

Giddens argues that in recent decades the family and marriage have been transformed by greater choice and a more equal relationship between men and women.  Giddens argues that relationships are now characterised by three general characteristics:

  1. The basis of marriage and family has changed into one in which the couple are free to define the relationship themselves rather than simply acting out roles that have been defined in advance by law or tradition. For example, couples today can chose to cohabit rather than marry.
  2. The typical relationship is the ‘pure relationship’….It exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than tradition a sense of duty or for the sake of the children.
  3. Relationships become part of the process of self-discovery or self-identity trying different relationships become part of establishing who we are part of our journey of self discovery.

However Giddens notes that with more choice, personal relationships inevitably become less stable and can be ended more or less at will by any partner! Joy! For example most teenagers (57%) think that their relationships will only last 1 year and only 2% of relationships at 18 will progress to marriage’

Ulrich Beck: The ‘Risk Society’ and The Negotiated Family

Ulrich Beck puts forward a similar view to that of Anthony Giddens. Beck argues that we now live in a ‘risk society’ where tradition has less influence and people have more choice. As a result we are more aware of risk (we have developed a ‘risk consciousness’) because having choice means we spend more time calculating the risks and rewards of different courses of action available.

Today’s risk society contrasts with the modern society of the past with its stable nuclear family and traditional gender roles. Beck argues that even though the traditional patriarchal family was unequal and oppressive, it did provide a stable and predictable basis for the family by defining each member’s role and responsibly. However the patriarchal family has been undermined by two trends.

  1. Greater Gender Equality – which has challenged male domination in all spheres of life.  Women now expect equality both at work and in marriage.
  2. Greater individualism – where people’s actions are influenced more by calculations of their own self-interest that by a sense of obligation to others.

These trends have led to the rise of the negotiated family. Negotiated families do not conform to the traditional family norm, but vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decided what is best for them by discussion. They enter the relationship on an equal basis.

However, the negotiated family may be more equal, but it is less stable, because it is characterised by greater equality.

Evaluating Late Modern Perspectives on the Family

There is a lot of sociological evidence that supports the view that there is still a social structure which shapes families, that people don’t have 100% freedom to make choices about families, and a lot of evidence that families require a lot of negotiation to work.

The dual earner household is the norm

There has been an increase in dual earner households. Between 2003 to 2013 the proportion of families with dependent children in which both parents worked full time rose from 26% to 31%, a significant increase in just 12 years. (1).

In 2022 95% of fathers were in work and 75% of mothers (either full or part time), both percentages have increased since the year 2002, especially working mothers, up 10% points in 20 years. This really does mean the dual-earner household has become the norm….

graph showing dual earner households from 2002 to 2022

Older people not wanting to get married….

60% of Britons aged 18-35 say they want to get married, but this figure has declined to just 11% for those aged over 55 (2). This implies that people start off wanting to get married, but that 30 to 40 years of life experience batters them into deciding that marriage is a bad idea, against their youthful optimism. This isn’t the same as simply ‘choosing to not get married’, something happens to change people’s attitudes over the life course…

bar charts showing proportions of people who want to get married in the UK in 2022: 60% of 18-34 year olds want to get married, but only 11% of 55s and over.

Young people feel social pressure to get married

Young people don’t themselves value traditional family structures such as marriage, but still feel under social pressure to get married according to a Relate Milestone Survey of 2000 people carried out in 2022.

Only 27% of Gen Z and 38% of millennials say that marriage is important to them, but 83% of Gen Z and 77% say the feel social pressure to reach life milestones such as getting married, having children and buying a house, with marriage being the number one milestone they feel under pressure to achieve.

This shows some support for both the Late Modern and Personal Life view that while people have diverse views of family life, they are not completely free of social norms when they make choices about their own personal relationships.

Negotiated families

A good example that supports the Late Modern perspective on relationships is this article in Psychology Today: How Much Time do you need to dedicate to your relationship? Part of the advice is to have a periodic check-in with each other about where the relationship is going – which means ‘negotiating’ the relationship!

NB that is just one article, there are SEVERAL like this on all sorts of websites.

The Scottish Government (3) has an advice site for how to involve young people more in decision making (based on U.N. guidelines). Part of this is advice to families, which suggests parents are spending time thinking about how to negotiate relationships with with children.

This Co-Parenting Guide is an interesting example of helping people to negotiate change in a relationship. It offers advice on how to include in-laws in children’s lives after a divorce. This kind of ‘expert advice’ online is very late modern.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This material is primarily relevant to the families and households module within A-level sociology, it is closely related to The Postmodern Perspective on The Family.


(1) 2018: The Modern Families Index UK

(2) YouGov (2022) Do Britons Still Want to Get Married?

(3) Scottish Government: Decision making and Young People’s Participation