Relationship status and identity construction in heterosexual women
: A discourse analytic and personal construct study

  • Anna Sandfield

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis reports the findings of three studies examining relationship status and identity construction in the talk of heterosexual women, from a feminist and social constructionist perspective. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 women in study 1 and 13 women for study 2, between the ages of twenty and eighty-seven, discussing their experiences of relationships. All interviews were transcribed and analysed using discourse analysis, by hand and using the Nudist 6 program. The resulting themes create distinct age-related marital status expectations. Unmarried women were aware they had to marry by a ‘certain age’ or face a ‘lonely spinsterhood’. Through marriage women gained a socially accepted position associated with responsibility for others, self-sacrifice, a home-focused lifestyle and relational identification. Divorce was constructed as the consequence of personal faults and poor relationship care, reassuring the married of their own control over their status. Older unmarried women were constructed as deviant and pitiable, occupying social purgatory as a result of transgressing these valued conventions. Study 3 used repertory grid tasks, with 33 women, analysing transcripts and notes alongside numerical data using Web Grid II internet analysis tool, to produce principle components maps demonstrating the relationships between relationship terms and statuses. This study illuminated the consistency with which women of different ages and status saw marriage as their ideal living situation and outlined the domestic responsibilities associated. Spinsters and single-again women were defined primarily by their lack of marriage and by loneliness. This highlighted the devalued position of older unmarried women. The results of these studies indicated a consistent set of age-related expectations of relationship status, acknowledged by women and reinforced by their families and friends, which render many unmarried women deviant and fail to acknowledge the potential variety of women’s ways of living.
Date of Award2003
Original languageEnglish


  • relationship status
  • identity construction
  • heterosexual women
  • feminism
  • spinster
  • single
  • marriage

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