Modernity and Self-Identity
Modernity and Self-Identity
The Contours of High Modernity
Let me open my discussion by describing some of the findings of a specific sociological study, plucked rather arbitrarily from a particular area of research. Second Chances, by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, is an investigation of divorce and remarriage. 1 The book describes the impact of marriage breakup, over a period of some ten years, on sixty sets of parents and children. Divorce, the authors point out, is a crisis in individuals' personal lives, which presents dangers to their security and sense of well-being, yet also offers fresh opportunities for their self-development and future happiness. Separation and divorce, and their aftermath, can cause long-lasting anxieties and psychological disturbances; but at the same time the changes brought about by the dissolution of a marriage provide possibilities, as the authors put it, to 'grow emotionally', to 'establish new competence and pride' and to 'strengthen intimate relationships far beyond earlier capacities'.
The marital separation, Wallerstein and Blakeslee say, is a marker 'that freezes certain images which frame the courses of action that ensue. Anger is often rooted in and feeds on the way in which the marriage came apart: one partner suddenly finding the other having an affair with a mutual best friend; one partner leaving a note informing the other, without warning, that the marriage is dead; one parent departing suddenly, taking the children, providing no address ...' A marriage that has come apart tends to be mourned, no matter how unhappy or desperate the partners may have been while they were together.
The longer two people have been with one another, the more protracted tends to be the period of mourning. Mourning derives from the loss of shared pleasures and experiences, plus the necessary abandoning of the hopes once invested in the relationship. Where no process of mourning occurs, the result is often the long-term persistence of hurt feelings, leading perhaps to despair and psychological breakdown. For the majority of people, in fact, the feelings engendered by divorce seem not to disappear completely with the passing of the years; they may be brought violently alive again by subsequent events, such as the remarriage of the previous partner, financial hardship, or quarrels over how the children should be brought up. Where a partner remains quite strongly involved emotionally with the other, even in a largely negative way, the results in such situations tends to be an upsurge of bitterness.
Going through a phase of mourning, according to Wallerstein and Blakeslee, is the key to 'reclaiming oneself after divorce. Anyone who successfully 'decouples' from his or her previous spouse faces the task of establishing a 'new sense of self, a 'new sense of identity'. In a long-term marriage, each individual's sense of self-identity becomes tied to the other person, and indeed to the marriage itself. Following a broken marriage, each person must 'reach back into his or her early experience and find other images and roots for independence, for being able to live alone, and for undertaking the second chances provided by divorce'.
A separated or divorced person needs moral courage to try new relationships and find new interests. Many people in such circumstances lose confidence in their own judgements and capabilities, and may come to feel that planning for the future is valueless. 'They sense that life gives hard knocks and is essentially unpredictable; they conclude that the best-laid plans go awry and become discouraged about setting long-range or even short-range goals, much less working towards these goals'. Overcoming such feelings demands persistence in the face of setbacks and a willingness to alter established personal traits or habits. Similar qualities are needed by the children of divorced parents, who often suffer profoundly from the dissolutio