Enduring Love?

Dr Jacqui Gabb

This study examined the meanings and experiences of couples in long-term relationships in contemporary Britain. The study identified and explored the everyday practices that helped people sustain relationships. Our ongoing dialogue throughout the study with academic colleagues, third sector organisations and government departments was crucial in refining our research questions, focusing our data analysis and successfully disseminating our findings.

The study aimed to integrate questions and concerns that spoke to the academic community and those working in policy and practice around relationship support and education. A mixed-methods approach was used, which included qualitative methods (diaries, emotions maps, biographical and couple collage interviews) and an online survey.

Ethical issues

Researching couples has the potential to impact on participants' relationships in unexpected ways; for example, through revelations in joint interviews of issues not previously considered or discussed. Interviewing couples together and apart opens up the relationship to close scrutiny, as partners often craft different accounts of coupledom and relationship stories. Individuals are not only revealing aspects of their 'private lives' to the outside world, they may be voicing emotions and opinions about or to their partners that could have long-lasting consequences for the relationship. Informed consent was negotiated with each partner and the limitations of confidentiality agreements (including around the archiving of the study’s data) were made clear. Further information including details on external support provision was provided on the ‘Enduring Love?’ website and the project operated within the British Sociological Association's Statement of Ethical Practice (BSA website) and was undertaken within The Open University’s structured framework.

This study raised important questions of confidentiality and challenges for anonymising material for publication. Data collected from an individual were not shared with their partner. Participants were invited to read transcripts of their data and elaborate on or delete comments. Transcripts of the couple interview were sent to each partner at their home address. Transcripts of individual interviews were distributed only to the individual participant and to an address of their choosing if they had concerns about maintaining the confidential nature of their account. Published material was anonymised ensuring confidential details of individual accounts are not revealed to their partners. Participants were identified by two pseudonyms; the first accompanied their individual data, the second their couple interview data.

Lessons

Recruitment was time-consuming with higher than expected levels of attrition in the early stages. Researchers met couples at least once prior to their involvement in the study to ensure they understood the research aims; methods; the ways data would be anonymised and how issues of confidentiality would be addressed. These meetings were essential for setting up the ongoing nature of the informed consent process, offering participants an opportunity to ask about issues and, to reflect on implications of participation for their relationship.

Good relationships with gate-keepers (eg Asian Family Counselling Service, One plus one, Pace and Relate) of ‘hard to reach’ groups were crucial and ensured that the ethics of the research was endorsed by trusted key-workers. Gate-keepers also raised researchers’ awareness of the different vulnerabilities of these groups, such as issues around literacy skills, and how these might be accommodated sensitively by adapting the study’s research methods.

Data from the study’s mixed methods approach required different anonymisation techniques. Using pseudonyms ensured that individual and couple cases were disconnected (and could not be re-connected) but it also required a rigorous and systematic approach to the anonymising and archiving of interview data, diaries and emotion maps. Where data could not be fully anonymised, we stipulated that data must not be reproduced by researchers undertaking further analysis as this would breach our confidentiality agreements with participants. For example, emotion maps cannot be downloaded for use in publications but made accessible to researchers via UKDS.

The anonymising process had to err on the side of caution when archiving data sets concerned with potentially sensitive or private issues. The potential for the re-use of archived data may, as a result, be more limited than researchers might anticipate but, at the same time, participants and their contributions to the research are more effectively safeguarded.