In this excerpt from The Children of Divorce I’m drawing from Anthony Giddens’ concept of “the pure relationship.” Giddens believes almost all our relationships in late-modernity are “pure,” by which he means they are free from the obligation of tradition or village or ethnic group, etc. We now get to choose whom to love and whom to hate:
Divorce itself, in late modernity, is the product of reflexivity. People divorce because they are free to imagine their identities anew outside marriage. Marriage in late modernity must bow to the fluctuations of the pure relationship. Where earlier marriage bowed to political mergers and labor negotiations, today marriage bows to the reflexive project of self-identity. It seeks intimacy on the horizon of the future. No-fault divorce allows marriage to take on the marks of the pure relationship. No longer are individuals bound to the institution of marriage itself. Rather, no-fault divorce allows the self the freedom to rework its identity as it moves into the future with or without the spouse. This may be good for the selves of husband and wife. But what about their children?
As the self moves into the future, open to transitions in identity and formulating intimacy through the pure relationship, the self is free from obligatory structures. The pure relationship itself is contingent on the choice to be together outside of any kind of coercion. But herein again lies the rub: children are bound to their parents not by choice but by biology. While parents can relate to each other through the pure relationship, and the child can relate to many others in its world in such a manner, the relationship of parent to child, or rather family to child, cannot be based on the pure relationship. The very sharing of DNA creates an obligatory bond between children and parents (we will see how this is so in the following chapters). Jen Abbas, in discussing her parents’ divorce, reveals how the pure relationship can serve parents well by providing the freedom of a second chance, but in so doing can strike children at a deeply ontological level. “Our perspective on the divorce differs vastly from that of our parents. We do not perceive divorce as a second chance, and this is part of our pain. Divorce shatters our sense of home. As much as our parents strive to convince us otherwise, we still feel rejected.”
For instance, nineteen-year-old Christina says, “Oh, yeah, my dad had failed as a father, but he was my father. He loved me, and it’s been very hard for me to try to build a relationship with him. I want to have a relationship with him, because you only get one dad. Even if your mom remarries, to a certain extent you only get one dad.” Christina points to the fact that children are bound to their parents by more than the free choice of the pure relationship. Even though her (biological) father failed her, something in her being desires communion with him, her being in relation to his creates an obligatory bond that keeps her yearning for him, and for the union of those responsible for her being.