Research

Negotiating the Life Course.
Individualization, Dyadic Life Course Decisions and Limits of Agency.

Societies undergo changes at the macro level which affect individuals' emotion, cognition, behavior and accordingly their intimate relationships. This might not be salient to actors when they face late/postmodern 'freedom' and 'constraints'. However, their decisions, which accumulate in their biographies and life courses, reflect these changes. In sum, life course decisions are both the outcome of social change, but also its mediator (Elder 1987). Out of such decisions arise “demographic pressures” (Henninger 2008) as “the aggregation of life course transitions [...] constitutes social and demographic change” (Huinink 2004).

I examine with three case studies couples' decision-making processes on biographically crucial questions which are shaped by late/postmodern times. These three cases on mobility, fertility and aging reflect the interplay or even new dilemmas between individual autonomy and committed relationship (Kohli 2007, 1985; Huinink 2009, 2004). Each case represents a biographical turning point for both the couple and the individuals, as these life course decisions alter the logic of intimate relationships and individual lives. Thus, they shape the life course over time profoundly (Elder 1987, Hitlin 2007). Therefore, I examine how intimate relationships and their negotiation and decision making are shaped by late/postmodern incentives and opportunities (Beck 2004, 1993; Bonß 2004; Beck-Gernsheim 1998; Jain 2000; van der Kaa 2001; Cheal 1993). I try to understand with both qualitative and quantitative methods, how agency might be increasingly important for intimacy. Agency might be required to reconcile various demands in different life areas and to ‘link’ lives to a dyadic life frame (Elder 1987). Furthermore, how potential contradictions are negotiated between partners. I assume that contradictions are especially salient and culminate in dyadic life course defining decision, where late/postmodern benefits, ambivalences and risks are particularly salient (Kohli 2007). How do couples come to joint solutions in such ambiguous and complex situations?

Study 1 - Mobility & Distance: Intimacy and distance have been contradictions in the past. However, 'despatialization of work' (Beck 2004) increases the difficulty to reconcile work and family life. Long-distance relationships might be a bridge, a life course tool between flexibility demands and an emotional need for intimacy (Beck 2014; Sahlstein 2006). Without commuting and living apart, severe sacrifices might be necessary to live a relationship. However, distance might equally be risky for intimacy and emotions. The dynamics and struggles of long-distance relationships exemplify the flexibility of and strain on late/postmodern relationships.

Study 2 – Occupation & Fertility: Autonomy is crucial for career and occupational self-realization (Huinink 2009). Constraints, such as children, can be seen as a competitive disadvantage. Fertility is therefore increasingly subject to agentic biographical planning to minimize life course trade-offs. Thus, the transition to parenthood requires biographical coordination and synchronization between two egalitarian actors (Ajzen 2013, Bauer 2012). The resulting ‘solution’ is often as late/postmodern default mode postponement. A straightforward, but risky strategy (Buhr 2017, Bowman 2013). Postponement might lead to biographic precarity, as fertility might be controllable, but cannot be planned. As the fundamentally dyadic issue of parenthood is modulated by changes in the individual life area of work, this illustrates the trend to “individualized relationships” (Burkart 1992)

Study 3 – Aging & Autonomy: Late life became a longer, more crucial part of life (Freund 2009). The idea of active and successful aging emerged (Boudiny 2013): the norm to shape the own aging process (Gilleard 2010). Agency helps to stabilize health and to experience self-efficacy in the process of aging. Yet, at a certain point, a focus on autonomy and agency might be costly and ineffective. At the end of life, late/postmodern agency faces severe age-imposed and health-related constraints (Gestorf 2008). Partner can balance each other’s functional losses (Dixon 2010). However, further aging, functional losses and approaching death threaten couples' well-being and functionality (Korpolaar 2013). Loss of autonomy is a fundamental dilemma for individuals; death is a fundamental dilemma for couples. Thus, aging threatens the functional, sometimes also the emotional unity of elderly couples. How do couples discuss, negotiate, decide and act on aging, autonomy and death?

These three cases exemplify the demands and limits of agency in late/postmodern times and show how couples cope with late/postmodern change and contradictions.