Ed and Carol were seeking help for a number of common complaints: poor communication, feeling distant from each other, disagreements on how to handle their four-year-old’s difficult behavior. In the first meeting they asked if I thought today’s families were more stressed out than in the past. (The question followed my comment that I’d been in practice for 26 years and is a typical response.) My impression, for what it’s worth, is affirmative. I see four factors contributing to the extraordinary stresses on contemporary family life. (Please note I’m not addressing more complex socioeconomic issues of poverty, teenage pregnancies, and single-parent families). All the factors were present in the lives of Carol and Ed.
Carol’s parents had been divorced when she was 12 years old and she remembers a mixture of pain and relief because there had been intense fighting as far back as she could remember. The divorce didn’t end the fighting and she was constantly caught between the parents’ embittered post-divorce conflicts. As the oldest sibling, and instinctively a peacemaker, Carol was often caught up in trying to please both parents and make everything okay. Her constant failure at this undermined her self-respect and exaggerated her role as a caretaker and saver-of-lives in her friendships and serious relationships. The divorce also shattered her trust in marital intimacy and permanence. In addition, she watched her mother struggle financially and was determined to be financially independent as an adult.
Carol delayed marriage until she had established her career in marketing and then pushed to have children close together so she wouldn’t lose her professional credentials while trying to do as much parenting as possible when the children were very young. She expected Ed to be a very involved father and to support her career needs.
Ed’s family was more loving but his father was a very successful attorney who was rarely around. Still, Ed had some fond memories of times that they shared. As Ed got older, they actually began to grow closer, but his father died suddenly when Ed was in college and he has never worked through his intense but confusing mixture of anger (“Why did you leave me when we were just starting to get close?”) and sadness (“I miss him”). Ed wants to be a more involved father and husband but he never really learned how. Meanwhile, the model ingrained deeply into his psyche, and reinforced by his wish to stay connected to his deceased father, is still the traditional role of the successful provider. Ed had already experienced a traumatic job loss when his exciting high-tech company went under and he had great difficulty finding another position.
As always, when a couple marries they bring much baggage from their respective pasts, some good, some not. But today I think there is a higher percentage of “not.” At one time “til death do us part” was a believable vow. Now, it is very difficult for either partner to push out of their head the reality of the high divorce rate. How hard is it to work at creating a truly intimate relationship when consciously or subconsciously, you have serious doubts in the permanence of the relationship? That’s factor number one. Number two is another loss of permanence – the belief that you could go to work for a good company and be there for a very long time. Job anxiety is a constant part of the day-to-day reality for many young adults (and older ones, too!).
The third special factor is role confusion. It is exacerbated by a fourth key issue, the myth of gender equality in marriage. Women are struggling with the practical and emotional conflicts between career and family responsibilities and, for some, no solution feels right. Men hear the clarion call for a “new masculinity” but experience much conflict between the intense competitive attitude required to be successful in a career and the expectation of being a more sensitive, family-oriented man. And both suffer from a current picture of marriage as distorted as the old one portrayed by “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet” — the image of a couple equally sharing in the earning and child-rearing roles. It simply spawns a new generation of married couples who believe they are doing something wrong because they can’t live up to the expectations portrayed in the media of what a successful, contemporary marriage ought to be.
Ed and Carol had to “really get to know” each other and themselves. They needed to carve out a relationship that fit their complex experiences and personalities, not one that fit externally-imposed expectations. It took time, commitment, and hard work. But they were able to rewrite their own script for a successful marriage and move forward with renewed confidence that they really did have a future together.