Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of the Arts, English and Media


This research explores how people in Australia are going about their intimate relationships at a time when traditional gender roles are being contested, and sexuality is more open to individual interpretation. Anthony Giddens’ (1992) theory of confluent love was a starting point for the research because he provides a way of talking about love that differs significantly from existing ideals. According to Giddens (1992), romantic love is still the dominant ideal in western culture, but confluent love is emerging, because, he argues that women no longer go along with male sexual dominance. Despite the weaknesses in Giddens’ (1992) theory, he provided a way of talking about love that potentially dissolves the unequal power dynamic at the heart of romantic love, and provides a space for people to experiment with different ways of being in love. Because the sort of love he talks about is a collaborative process, it allows more egalitarian forms of relationships to come into being. Unlike romantic love, which is essentially heterosexual love, limits what same sex couples can say about their relationships. Confluent love is a way of talking about love that is more aligned with people’s diverse sexual preferences, values and aspirations.

Confluent love is an emergent phenomenon that has come about in contemporary western culture as people experiment with different ways of being in a sexual relationship, according to Giddens (1992). In this sense, confluent love is a ‘bottom up’ rather than a ‘top down’ phenomenon. Because of this, I approached the research as a conversation, in the original Latin sense of ‘wandering along together’ (Liamputtong 2007). Using qualitative methods, I looked at love as a ‘language game’ as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) meant it, the aim being to identify ways of talking that might indicate confluent love. To do the research I posted nine questions on an Internet website called, asking people about their intimate relationships. I collected approximately 41,000 words in response, which I analysed as a ‘discourse’ or conversation about love in contemporary Australian culture. I used qualitative methods, including grounded theory (Charmaz 2006, 2012) and positioning theory (Davies and Harrè 1990), to understand how the people who participated in the research were navigating their intimate relationships. I identified a basic tension that participants were trying to resolve, which involved negotiating ‘being together’ and being separate’. As one respondent put it: ‘we want to be free and be in the relationship as well’. By focusing on how people resolved this tension in their relationships, a core category called ‘we share a world’ emerged. When I explored how respondents went about ‘sharing a world’, I discovered an ethic at work, which could be called confluent love.

The ethic that emerged in the research is different from existing moral theories in that it includes both an ethic of justice, or rights, and an ethic of care. Rather than these being contradictory, or opposing viewpoints, the two perspectives came together as people talked about their rights in a way that showed they cared. I do not make claims that this ethic can be generalised, and it is a procedural rather than a prescriptive ethic. While this is different from the way Giddens (1992) explains it, the research did support his claim that contemporary relationships are potentially revolutionary, in that they involve breaking away from existing ways of thinking about ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, ways of thinking that can lead to suffering rather than happiness. I also show how this ethic could foster more democratic relationships. Importantly this research explored love as a verb, as a journey, that potentially contributes to more authentic ways of being in love, ways that heal, rather than hurt.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.