The Concept of "Pure Relationship"
by social theorist Anthony Giddens

Pure relationship: a social relation which is internally referential, that is, depends fundamentally on satisfactions or rewards generic to that relation itself.

In the reflexive project of the self, the narrative of self-identity is inherently fragile. The task of forging a distinct identity may be able to deliver distinct psychological gains, but it is clearly also a burden. A self-identity has to be created and more or less continually reordered against the backdrop of shifting experiences of day-to-day life and the fragmenting tendencies of modern institutions. Moreover the sustaining of such a narrative directly affects, and in some degree helps construct, the body as well as the self.

These stresses have a direct impact on the sphere of personal life. Pure relationships, like many other aspects of high modernity, are double-edged. They offer the opportunity for the development of trust based on voluntary commitments and an intensified intimacy. Where achieved and relatively secure, such trust is psychologically stabilising, because of the strong connections between basic trust and the reliability of caretaking figures. Given that these connections embrace feelings of security in the object-world, as well as in the sphere of personal relations as such, their importance is very considerable. The pure relationship is a key environment for building the reflexive project of the self, since it both allows for and demands organised and continuous self-understanding -- the means of securing a durable tie to the other. Of course, many actual relationships exist and endure where little symmetry is found, and where each person is held in thrall by traits in the other which on the surface repel them (co-dependency). But the tendencies towards symmetry in the pure relationship are more than just an ideal: they are in large degree inherent in its nature.

The rise of therapy is closely tied to the emergence of the pure relationship, but not only, or even primarily, because therapeutic work can help heal the psychological damage which such relationships can bring about. The centrality of therapy expresses the fact that the more that pure relationships become dominant, the more crucial becomes an in-depth understanding which allows one to feel 'all right' with oneself. For self-mastery is the condition of that opening-out process through which hope (commitment) and trust are generated in the pure relationship.

Yet pure relationships, and the nexus of intimacy in which they are involved, create enormous burdens for the integrity of the self. In so far as a relationship lacks external referents, it is morally mobilised only through 'authenticity': the authentic person is one who knows herself and is able to reveal that knowledge to the other, discursively and in the behavioural sphere. To be in an authentic relation with another can be a major source of moral support, again largely because of its potential integration with basic trust. But shorn of external moral criteria, the pure relationship is vulnerable as a source of security at fateful moments and at other major life transitions.

Moreover, the pure relationship contains internal tensions and even contradictions. By definition, it is a social relation which can be terminated at will, and is only sustained in so far as it generates sufficient psychic returns for each individual. On the one hand it demands commitment, not only to the other individual, but to the social relation itself: this is again intrinsic to the pure relationship. On the other hand, the relationship can be voluntarily broken, and is acknowledged by both parties to be only 'good until further notice'. The possibility of dissolution, perhaps willingly brought about by the individual in question, forms part of the very horizon of commitment. It is not surprising that rage, anger and depressive feelings swirl through the contexts of pure relationships and, in concrete circumstances, intimacy may be psychically more troubling than it is rewarding.

Source: Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991)

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