Pushing conference boundaries: Midlife and later life adults challenge relationship assumptions

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How does one try to change the culture of an organisation, or the way society is viewed and studied? The nature of relationships is changing – or their overt expression is changing – and my research contributes to the bigger picture about this change, yet mainstream research seems focused only on mainstream. Joining an organisation and sharing work at its conferences is one way to raise awareness of change and promote interest in new ideas. I have been doing this through IARR.

The International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) has its conference every two years. I presented in 2012 in Chicago at the very unfriendly time of first thing on the morning after the conference dinner. The symposium, organised by (now) Dr Jocelyn Wentland was on casual sex, and at the time I wondered if the timeslot implied a judgement on the topic. I wrote at the time how I felt like a fish out of water as most presentations assumed the committed, heterosexual couple was the default and expected gold standard. My non-cohabiting, not always monogamous, not all heterosexual participants did not fit this model. I wondered if the emphasis would change for the 2014 conference, and if diverse relationships would feature more. This year the conference was in Melbourne, and I was part of two presentations. Dr Sue Malta’s PhD was on late-life romantic relationships and our work complements each other well. We did a joint presentation which focused on agency and sex – and it was at 9 am after the conference dinner, just like last time! There were 12 people present which was a good number considering the time, and the work was well received.

Better positioned at 3.30 on Friday afternoon was a round table panel presentation which was: From Early Adulthood to Later Life: Redefining the Boundaries of New Intimate Relationships Across the Lifespan. Four of us were in this: Dr Sue Malta represented older adults in new romantic relationships aged 60-92; I included baby boomers in friends-with-benefits aged 46-65; Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli spoke of poly families with adults in their thirties and forties; and Luke Gahan referred to young same sex attracted, religious people aged 14-21. That session was fabulous. We each commented on three topics: exclusivity and commitment in the relationships; significance of sexual activity; the impact on wellbeing of the relationships and how it was influenced by the level of social acceptance of the relationships. A consistent finding was that the individuals and their relationships were doing well, and the main concern was the judgement or stigma that was feared or enacted in relation to being outside hetero-monogamy. We are writing a paper based on this presentation, so watch out for it. The picture shows us anxiously waiting for people to come – 14 turned up and were engaged and interested.

From left: Luke, Maria, Linda and Sue

From left: Luke, Maria, Linda and Sue

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