As the title of this book suggests, Giddens believes intimate relationships in the United States are in the process of profound transformation. By transformation he means a kind of democratization of the interpersonal domain, in a manner fully compatible with democracy in the public sphere. No longer an oppressive demand for constant emotional closeness, this new kind of intimacy represents a negotiated agreement between individuals of equal standing. Citing data gathered from the popular literature, especially therapeutic works and self-help manuals, Giddens characterizes this change and traces its development against a backdrop of causally-related phenomena. He closes with a discussion of democratic ideals and proposes a new ethics for personal relationship.
One of the most important differences between modern and pre-modern societies is that modern society is characterized by a high degree of institutional reflexivity. Institutions structure and describe social life, introducing terms and concepts that influence changes at both the group and individual level. The rise of research in recent times on subjects like sexuality has increased the level of personal reflexivity. The hallmark of this reflexivity is a somewhat fluid sense of self-identity, including sexual identity. Giddens writes that the self today is for everyone a reflexive project. The self-help genre of literature that he draws on is the typical output of a highly reflexive culture. Other reflexive resources include television and magazines; collectively, these resources have the effect of undermining the more traditional elements of social life in modern society.
Modern institutions have intervened in the traditional systems that once governed culture and have moved Americans to create internally referential systems. The more the life-span becomes internally referential and self-identity is reflexively organized, the more sexuality becomes a property of the individual. These changes have opened the way to a kind of sexual emancipation – by which he means sexual democracy – that in turn has the potential to completely restructure personal relations, including those between friends, between parents and children, etc. This emancipatory ideal is the essence of personal autonomy.
The rise of plastic sexuality, i.e., sexuality no longer tied to the exigencies of reproduction, has contributed to the emancipation of feminine sexuality. Once bound up in fear (of repetitive pregnancies and possible death), sexuality now has the potential to become a mechanism of self exploration. Combined with the reflexive project of self, plastic sexuality makes possible a complete restructuring of intimate relations. Love and sexuality are no longer tied exclusively to marriage; instead, they are coming together more and more in the context of ‘pure relationship,’ an arrangement entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from sustained association with another. The pure relationship is continued only in so far as it is considered by both parties to provide enough satisfaction for each individual to stay in it. In other words, it is an agreement between two individuals to be together until further notice.
Pure relationship assumes a balance of power between the sexes and it depends on the autonomy of women, free from the double standard inherent in the more traditional notions of romantic love.
Giddens calls this new model ‘confluent love.’ It is an active, contingent love and it presumes equality in emotional exchange. It is the new model of love for sexual relationships. Giddens maintains that heterosexual marriage, although superficially retaining its central position in the social order, has been undermined by the rise of pure relationship and plastic sexuality. It is on its way to becoming just another life-style choice.
The confluent love model is best understood in contrast to the romantic model of love it presumably replaces. Romantic love ddeeepends on ‘projective identification,’ which creates a feeling of wholeness with the other, strengthened by the established differences between masculinity and femininity, each defined in terms of an antithesis. These gender ideals have become strained under the pressure of feminine sexual emancipation and autonomy. Confluent love, on the other hand, brings more balance to gender terms since it is not based on complementarity. Anatomy is no longer destiny. Sexual identity is less gender-based and becomes more of a life-style issue.
The democratization of personal life depends on the emergence of pure relationship, not only in sexual relations but in all our relations. It is a process lead by women, but its benefits are open to all. To ensure free and equal relations, certain democratic principles must apply also to the personal sphere. Autonomy, defined as the capacity to be self-reflective and self-determining, is the idea that holds it all together.
Giddens’ ethical framework is based on his model of confluent love. Fundamental to the confluent love contract are: a prohibition of violence and emotional abuse in favor of the cultivation of mutual respect for others’ personal traits and views; a balance between rights and obligations that are continually negotiated and never taken for granted; and personal reflexivity and open communication to facilitate public accountability. Open communication necessitates firm personal boundaries so that intimacy does not degenerate into reciprocal compulsiveness or codependency. Authority exists only according to specially developed capabilities and not along gender lines. Giddens writes that a rolling contract has no ethical absolutes. And since modern self-identity is an internally-referential system, the aim of the reflexive project of self is control. Its only moral principle, therefore, is the modern version of the maxim ‘to thine own self be true.’