THE YEAR IS 1885, 100 years ago. You decide to leave the farm and move to the city with your wife and kids. Suddenly you are no longer part of an extended family; you’re a nuclear family. You think of the relatives you left behind, and wonder what happened to your commitment and loyalty.
Now, shift centuries: today, at the end of the 20th century, we are going through the same process, only this time it is not the extended family we are outgrowing – it is the nuclear family. You cannot commit yourself to one person; you don’t have a spouse, a home and kids. Again the same pressures: where the hell is your commitment? Your loyalty? Your attachment? Isn’t it time you settled down? After all, you are already 28 or 32 or 36, or whatever. The dynamics are essentially the same. Why are we outgrowing the nuclear family? What are the forces behind this evolution? What is replacing the nuclear family?
In today’s world, virtually all areas of our society are undergoing vast upheavals; the trend, especially in organizations, corporations, and businesses, is toward despecialization, decentralization, denationalization, and diversification. In the face of such significant change, it is crazy to think that the home will remain intact and somehow miraculously unchanged. Our homes, our social life and our interpersonal connections are undergoing precisely the same kind of evolution. In the 1950s, 75-80 percent of families in the U.S. were traditional (breadwinner husband, homemaker wife, two or more kids); today, that figure is less than 7 percent.
Many of the support systems, social institutions and old values that have existed to sustain the mating process are beginning to collapse – including marriage, coupling, commitment, exclusivity, continuity. Half to two-thirds of all marriages break down. Texas, a fundamentalist state, has the highest divorce rate – double that of New York. One of the fastest growing types of household is that of the step- family. People are marrying later and later or not at all. The fastest growing relationship lifestyle in the West is singlehood; there are 55 million single adults in this country. The U.S. now has the lowest fertility rate in its history (1.8). Childless marriages are increasing, and two out of five women have no children. People are aging more slowly; to be 82 years old and still erotic is just fine. The old lifestyles do not seem to operate. There is increasing sex without commitment, increasing sex without procreation, and increasing reproduction without sex.
We are at the beginning of a massive recontexting of our social life. We live in this new social environment, and yet we do not have any training or preparation to deal with it. We don’t even know where to go to get such training. Thirty or 40 years ago all we had to do was copy our parents (e.g., marry at the same age as they did, have the same number of kids, stick it out no matter what). But what worked for them no longer works for us – their programming, their conditioning is from another age. Just as it didn’t work to try and bring the extended family to the city in the 1890s, it does not work to carry the nuclear family with us as the major social structure in this new age. If we continue along the same old track, using the same values, the same pacing and the same rhythms as our parents, we’ll find ourselves with a lot of loneliness, a lot of pain, one breakdown or breakup after another, disenchantment with marriage and parenthood, bitterness, anxiety, guilt, confusion and so on – and all this at the very moment when we are about to lift off to glorious new worlds!
GUIDELINES FOR RELATIONSHIPS IN A CHANGING WORLD
So, what guidelines can we follow for living and surviving in this new social environment so foreign to our upbringing?
First, we must begin by acknowledging the obvious inevitable fact that the context has changed. Trying desperately to fit yesterday’s behavior patterns into today’s world won’t work! 90 percent of all interpersonal problems and conflicts today arise from the fact that we have not switched contexts; many people are still living in the world of the 1950s or 60s, or even 70s. Existing therapies and value systems seem to encourage the old rhythms and old values. If traditional models (e.g., getting married, having kids) don’t work for you, do not blame yourself; instead, take a look around – the world has changed, the context has changed! You are holding onto a lot of invalid, anachronistic props that have lost their utility in this new world. You hear people say, “My marriage broke down; I failed miserably!” or “I’m 35 years old and still not married!” or “I’m 42 and I don’t have any kids. What’s wrong with me?” Instead of blaming yourself, try to find your way in this new environment creatively.
Second, under no circumstances should we set up our parents as models; our parents were wonderful, but their values and their worlds are not ours. You will find yourself in a lot of trouble if you keep using them as models.
Third, we need to break out of the cultural imperative of an addictive type of bonding or attachment that we can call imprinting. This bonding or imprinting was survival- efficient for thousands of years; it guaranteed the cohesion of the group, clan and family, and ensured that two people who had mated remained bonded or paired. But now we suddenly find it is survival-deficient. Today we go through one breakup, and then another, and another; if we imprinted on every person we connected with, we’d be in trouble. We cannot continue to imprint and then break up.
Once we have imprinted, it’s very difficult to disattach. Imprinting is the ultimate centralizer. The key to survival at all levels of our society today, and the key to avoiding imprinting, is to diversify, de-specialize, decentralize. Don’t spend all your time with one person. Pace yourself. Make sure you do different things, see different people, have different activities. Remember, we rarely imprint on friends. Imprinting works only within a sexual, romantic context where our vestigial, primal emotions – such as territoriality, possessiveness, paranoia, jealousy, rivalry, insecurity and anxiety – are aroused. The whole purpose of life used to be to ensnare the right man or woman. Not any longer. There was a time when it was common to say, “I am in love with this person, and we do everything together.” That was the ideal, and it may have worked well at one time, but today we do not have to do everything with the same person. Today networks of friends take the place of family and spouse. These networks are wonderful because they are free of imprinting and are chosen voluntarily. Friendships are now providing the constancy and the sense of continuity that families provided in the past.
Fourth, the duration of linkups is no longer a gauge of their success or failure. We live in a discontinuous world. The quality, the success and the profundity of our involvements no longer depend on their permanency or duration. Modern, fluid linkups, non-imprint linkups, are very rarely unsuccessful. It used to take a year or so just to court somebody, to get close enough to say, “I think I like you,” to develop trust. Today people are much more open, much more confident and trusting, and much less sexist; they connect quickly and far more profoundly than people did in the past. It doesn’t really matter how long it lasts – it could be a few hours, days, months, or forever – the duration is not important. In this environment a breakup is really unnecessary.
Last, we need not let ourselves be railroaded by old world pressures for commitment. “You really cannot commit yourself, can you?” “You really can’t hold onto someone, can you?” There was a time when we remained wedded to our jobs for a lifetime but that kind of commitment is neither desirable nor expected today. The person who remains committed to one specific job or profession is often a slow- growth person; the dynamic, growing individual changes jobs with the changing times. Why is it that in our interpersonal relationships we expect anachronistic commitments? Commitment for what? Commitment used to be necessary to ensure that a beneficial environment was created for your kids. If you don’t have kids, what are you committing for?
NEW OPTIONS, NEW COMMITMENTS
We must begin asking new questions. Instead of asking how we can save the nuclear family or how we can save marriage or exclusive parenting, let us ask:
* What options are available, beyond the nuclear family, beyond exclusivities?
* What kinds of environments make sense in today’s world to ensure the happy, healthy development of our kids?
* What kinds of social networks do we need to support our 80- and 90-year-old friends?
* How can we maximize intimacy and love and companionship and friendship and passion and fun in an increasingly discontinuous and fluid world?
Singlehood is one of the alternatives to the nuclear family already available to us. Many people are opting for the single, but fluid life, with its autonomy, freedom of movement, independence, spontaneity, and freedom from compromise with another person. There are many options available to the single person who does not want to live alone all the time. Shared housing is becoming very popular. One option that I have described in my book Up-Wingers is called a mobilia – a very fluid, mobile communality. A group of people linkup for a few days, or weeks, or months – then linkout. It is easy to switch from one lifestyle to another.
The single individual who is relatively free of imprinting can function with versatility, freedom and autonomy, and can begin to express a new kind of commitment – commitment not to a specific individual, not to an attachment figure, but to a much greater environment. If it is possible for us to identify with and be committed to a specific person or group, it ought to become possible for us to reprogram so that we can begin to identify with and be committed to ALL HUMANITY! If we can transcend imprinting, it is possible to empathize with everybody. The single individuals who are committed to their creative work, to causes, jobs and movements, are already moving in this direction of greater commitment. Ultimately, commitment to planet and all humanity will replace commitment to clan, family, or nation.
Published by In Context on June 29th, 2000