As Valentine's day nears, Alison Utley reports on a disturbing trend: men working at relationships
Everyone knows that women want love and men want sex. It is also plainly obvious that women are the experts on relationships, endlessly analysing the minutiae of their lover's behaviour, obsessing with other women over each twist and turn of emotion while the men go down the pub.
Men are, of course, emotional illiterates who fear intimacy and vulnerability. They prefer to put themselves and their careers above concerns for their partner and family. Indeed, their very identity is constructed from their achievements within the Protestant work ethic.
But, according to psychologist Angie Burns, this popular stereotype of male attitudes towards love is being challenged. Rather, a new attitude is emerging among men in love. Ms Burns's research shows that men seem to be constructing relationships as opportunities to "do work". Male love is becoming professionalised, de-romanticised and, above all, controlled.
"What I call the work discourse of relationships privileges head over heart, is rational, economic and hard-headed but at the same time allows some men to position themselves as serious about intimate relationships," says Burns, a lecturer at Staffordshire University. A neat compromise perhaps. But for Burns, whose research has just been awarded the prestigious Walter Perry award by the Open University, the shift raises some worrying questions.
For professionalised love - love that is expressed through the language and attitudes of the workplace - offers men a way of asserting their authority within a previously feminine domain. This reclaiming of territory may, suggests Burns, be a backlash against feminism, a way of undermining feminist interpretations of heterosexual love.
"I want to ask, should we be happy that some men are talking seriously about intimate heterosexual relationships or should we be concerned about the consequences of their claiming expert status?" Burns's interviews with teachers, academics, social workers, professionals and students, aged between 18 and nearly 60, threw up dozens of examples of work-oriented talk to explain how men conduct their intimate relationships.
"Working at relationships may sound a common expression and I had not considered it to be gendered before conducting my analysis," she says. "Yet it was the men in my study who used these words, not the women."
She was surprised by how often men tended to draw on examples of their own work practices and professional expertise to explain their behaviour in relationships.
Some made the work connection even more explicit. Ian, for instance, described "a kind of training relationship", which Burns assumed described the relationship not only as work, but also as temporary. Once it was over, he did not talk about missing the relationship because "we'd completed what we had to learn from each other". What seemed to be important to Ian was personal growth.
Nor was Ian the only man interviewed who offered an instrumental and "productive" view of emotion. "Typically they construct themselves in terms of the gains they make, such as useful learning and successful practice, rather than any losses," says Burns.
Communication was high on men's list of useful love skills. A number of men referred to the importance of partners communicating with each other to make a relationship work.
But the final recurring theme was the notion that relationships have to fit in with life, rather than the other way round. Frequently this approach left women behind when it suited the men, who took for granted their own centrality in the world of paid work.
And this really is the big giveaway. Burns has concluded that, just like the romantic discourse of love, the work discourse tends to disguise power relations and ultimately reproduces a gender status quo. It is a convenient device and a way of obscuring imbalances between the sexes.
The professionalisation of love also reveals much about the way our understanding of the world has been skewed by notions of work. The expression "profession of love" may get a new meaning but, as an attempt to emancipate heterosexual love, Burns believes it has a long way to go.
MEN ON LOVE
Tim "I think love is part and parcel of a relationship, and it's something that you have to keep working at and you can't assume that it's going to be there all the time. You can't take people for granted."
Ian "In a strange way I almost viewed it as a training relationship. At the beginning I had an intuition that this would not be something that we'd be committed to for a long period, but we'd both learn very important things from it. I shared this with my friend, it actually made her quite insecure, because initially she wanted (the relationship) to be a long oneI I actually feel a very deep sense of satisfaction about that relationship, that we learnt an enormous amount in the time that we were together. We grew a lot."
Nick "I think about what it would be like to form another relationship and I could not stand it. I don't think I could ever achieve and ever get to the same depth and I wouldn't want to go through that process again."
Simon (On a revelation while watching TV) "What hit me between the eyes was the possibility of someone having a relationship that was the centre of life. So it wasn't work that was the centre of life. A relationship could be something that was sustaining, that was enriching, and this hadn't occurred to me before."
*All names have been changed