Moving Beyond the “Love-Hate” Model of Family Law

Our American family law system has a single organizing paradigm: families are either intact, loving, and saturated with mutual trust; or they’re broken, riddled with animosity, and in need of court supervision. In a groundbreaking article, a Colorado Law School professor says we’ve neglected too long the need to repair relationships.

Clare Huntington, Repairing Family Law, 57 Duke L.J. 1245 (2008). The article is important enough, and my enthusiasm about it strong enough, that I will devote three posts to it, today, tomorrow, and Friday.

Huntington states that human relationships are normally cyclical, marked by varying degrees of love, hate, guilt, and reparation. We inevitably do wrong to those we love, she says, and our normal response is to feel guilt for our transgression(s) and to act to repair the damage. Our family law system, she says, “freezes” relationships at the point of rupture and transgression and therefore interferes with the normal reparative process.

After exploring the application to family law of the infant theory of law and emotion, Huntington turns her attention to the work of Melanie Klein on the cycle of intimacy. Today’s note will focus on Huntington’s analysis of that theory and its application to family law. Tomorrow, we will explore Huntington’s description of the present family law system and how it inhibits the normal cycle of love, hate, guilt, and reparation. Monday, we will learn more about Huntington’s suggested new model of family law.

Melanie Klein is a Freudian psychoanalyst best known for developing object relations theory, the school of thought that explores how our normal development moves from seeing all around us as “good” objects or “bad” objects to a more integrated and complex understanding. Huntington discusses instead Klein’s work in the cyclical pattern of normal intimacy. Huntington points out that our culture is soaked with examples of the rupture of relationships and the reparation of those relationships. “Think of almost any romantic comedy (or buddy movie, for that matter): after the meet-cute, the pair inevitably finds conflict, which is then resolved with a reconciliation. Cue the credits.” Huntington at 1267.

This cycle permeates our understanding of family relationships, she says, including the importance of apology. It even provided the fundamental organizing principle of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “The truth telling embodied in perpetrators accounting for their offenses was intended to ensure the harm was not forgotten. Although not uncontroversial, the idea behind the ¬†commission was that by acknowledging the hate, South African society, on a collective level, had a tool to move on to guilt and reparation. Without this acknowledgement, South Africa risked remaining in the hate phase, and reparations, if they occurred, would have been hollow. Ideally, then, political reconciliation and personal reconciliation operate in parallel ways.” Huntington at 1271-72.

Huntington concludes her discussion of the cycle of intimacy with a caution that not all relationships are marked by the desire to repair them. Sometimes, hate and the desire for revenge remain the predominant goal for one or both the participants. “As Anna Karenina makes clear, not all stories end happily, and the protagonist may end up on the tracks instead of at the altar.” Huntington at 1273.

Tomorrow: Huntington’s description of how our present family law system is at odds with and interferes with the normal repair of relationships.

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