Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

The Adult Children of Divorce: Pure Relationships and Family Values?

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

The Adult Children of Divorce: Pure Relationships and Family Values?

Article excerpt

It is irrefutable that intimate relationships in Australia have been changed over the last 40 years. A significant factor in this was the enactment of the Family Law Act in 1976 which heralded in an era of 'no-fault divorce'. The pressure to stay married has gradually disappeared and now marriages are freely terminable for the first time in history (Wallerstein and Blakeslee, 1990). Since 1976, the crude divorce rate has fluctuated between 2.4 and 2.9 divorces per 1000 population (ABS, 2002).

Aside from the reporting of the changes, there has been little qualitative research that explores the reasons individuals present for the choices they make in their intimate relationships and the wider implications for these choices for other family members. Judith Wallerstein's longitudinal study of divorcing families in the US is an exception to this (Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980; Wallerstein and Blakeslee, 1990; Wallerstein et al., 2000) since she tracks the experience of both the parents and their children, as is the work of Bren Neale (2001) and Carol Smart and Bren Neale (2001) in the UK, whose work concentrates on the perceptions of post-divorce life by young children.

In Australia, those who were children (up to 14 years old) when the Family Law Act came into being have now grown to adulthood. As a group, they were the first generation to witness significant numbers of divorces, they were raised in non-conventional families in large numbers, they appear to be having, or planning to have, far fewer children than previous generations, their rates of marriage are low and they have a high rate of living alone (Amato, 2000; Popenoe, 1994). It can be argued that these are the demographic indicators of a gradual and unstoppable shift in intimate relationships that has marked late modernity (Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Gross and Simmons, 2002). Yet behind these indicators lie shifts in the perceptions of the purpose of intimate relationships per se.

This article explores the perceptions of relationships and families held by a group whose experiences make them especially interesting. Born between 1961 (the year the contraceptive pill came on the market in Australia) and 1976 (when the Family Law Act was ushered in) they are members of Generation X (Howe and Strauss, 1991) and matured in a culture where divorce was relatively common, where women had won greater economic independence and nuclear families were shrinking in both size and number. The participants in the study under discussion here had added stresses--because of their own parents' divorce, they grew up in families which fundamentally changed, most commonly from nuclear, to single-parent and then to a blended or step-family. In addition to living in what has been termed a 'post-divorce' culture (Simpson, 1998), their lives have also been shaped by their experiences of parental divorce.


In The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), Anthony Giddens argues that intimate relationships have undergone a fundamental change commensurate with the transition to non-nuclear family formations (Simpson, 1998; Smart and Neale, 1999, 2001). The assumption that marriage meant a life-long commitment, the essence of which was remaining together, even when there was unease, unhappiness or (perhaps more importantly) a more attractive alternative to the marriage, is no longer prevalent.

The economic, social and emotional certainty of marriage has been slowly but irrevocably replaced by what Giddens termed the 'pure relationship' which has contingency and communication at its heart:

   It refers to a situation where a social relationship is entered into
   for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a
   sustained association with another; and which is continued only in
   so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough
   satisfactions for each individual to stay within it. (1992: 58)

It is a relationship which is perpetually negotiable, which stands aside from inevitability and which, Beck-Gernsheim suggests, frames 'the normalisation of fragility' (2002: 18), where the relationship is consistently seen as 'good until further notice' (Jamieson, 1999: 481). …

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