Research

Negotiating the Life Course.
Individualization, Dyadic Life Course Decision-Making and Limits of Agency.

Societies undergo changes on the macro level which affect individuals' emotion, cognition, behavior and accordingly their intimate relationships. Often, this is not salient to individualized actors themselves 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 not only the outcome of social change, but also its mediator: “demographic pressures” arise (Henninger 2008) as “the aggregation of life course transitions [...] constitutes social and demographic change” (Huinink 2004). Processes on the micro-level of couples are thus of crucial relevance for demographic processes and societies as a whole.

In my PhD, I examine with mixed-methods dyadic life course decision-making in an individualized society (Beck 2004, 1993; Bonß 2004; van der Kaa 2001). Three case studies on biographically crucial questions of mobility, fertility and aging reflect dynamics and contradictions between individual autonomy and committed relationship (Kohli 2007, 1985; Huinink 2009, 2004). With both qualitative and quantitative methods, I examine the importance of agency for intimacy. Agency is required to both reconcile different life domains and to integrate individualized life courses (Elder 1987). How do partner negotiate contradictions? These culminate in dyadic life course defining decisions, when late/postmodern benefits, ambivalence and risks are particularly salient (Kohli 2007). Each case represents a biographical turning point: decisions will alter the logic of relationships and structure of individual life courses (Hitlin 2007). How do couples come to joint and sustainable decisions in such ambiguous and complex situations?

Study 1 - Mobility & Distance: Intimacy and distance have been contradictions in the past. However, the 'despatialization of work' (Beck 2004) intensified tensions between work and family life. Long-distance relationships could be a bridge, a life course tool between occupational flexibility demands and emotional needs for intimacy and belonging (Beck 2014; Sahlstein 2006). Without commuting and living apart, severe sacrifices would be necessary to continue a relationship. However, long distance is equally risky and exemplifies the flexibility of and strain on contemporary relationships.

Study 2 – Occupation & Fertility: Autonomy is crucial for career and occupational self-realization (Huinink 2009). Children can be seen as constraint and, thus, as competitive disadvantage. Therefore, fertility is increasingly subject to agentic biographical planning to minimize life course trade-offs. In individualized relationships, parenthood requires biographical coordination (Ajzen 2013, Bauer 2012). The resulting ‘solution’ is often postponement. A straightforward, but risky strategy (Buhr 2017, Bowman 2013). Unsuccessful postponement implies biographic and dyadic precariousness. Is fertility not only controllable, but also ‘projectable’?

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 actively shape one’s own aging process and to remain independent (Gilleard 2010). Yet, at a certain point, a focus on autonomy and agency could become costly and ineffective. At the end of life, agency faces severe age-imposed and health-related constraints (Gestorf 2008). While dyads can buffer functional losses to some degree (Dixon 2010), further aging threatens 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 demands and limits of agency across the life course in contemporary relationships. Flexibility is increasingly a defining aspect of relationships: a necessity but also a potential fragility. Agency, in contrast, is the integrating mechanism against centrifugal, individualized life course forces, that is however profoundly limited by late/postmodern trends.