Why are families growing apart?
“Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not reject it merely because it comes too late.”
--Justice Felix Frankfurter
Are there more estrangements today than in the past? While there are no statistics on the subject, considering how easily I found people who have had an estrangement or are in the midst of one, it appears to be an escalating problem. We can only speculate on the reasons why. There have always been rifts in families, but they seem to be more numerous, more intense and more hurtful than ever before.
Sisters aren't speaking to each other since one sister took the silver when Mom died. Two brothers rarely visit because their wives refuse to talk to each other. A son alienates himself from his family when he marries the woman who hates everyone that was ever in his life before she was. A daughter never sees her mother because she can't stand another guilt trip. A family banishes a daughter for marrying outside her race or religion. A son repudiates a divorced father when he reveals his homosexuality. And so it goes-a variety of conflicts, misperceptions, petty grievances, prejudices and jealousies that can lead to one unhappy outcome: estrangements.
Today we are facing a rapidly changing family relationship landscape. Every assumption made about the family structure has been challenged, and once-narrow boundaries have been stretched to include single mothers raising out-of-wedlock children and gay couples having or adopting children. If the so-called conventional family is having trouble maintaining good relationships, imagine what problems can and do arise in less traditional situations. Looking back, we can see that fault lines in our family structure were widening throughout the last 40 years of the twentieth century. The cracks did not become evident until the early 1960s, when the divorce rate began to rise so sharply that it doubled by the mid-1970s. According to a 1999 Rutgers University study, divorce rates have risen 30 percent since 1970, the marriage rate has fallen faster, and only 38 percent of Americans consider themselves happy in their married state, a drop from 53 percent of happily married people 25 years ago. Today, 51 percent of all marriages end in divorce.
How Americans managed to alter their concept of marriage and family so profoundly during those 40 years is the subject of a great deal of scholarly investigation and academic debate. In a New York Times
magazine article (May 2000) titled "The Pursuit of Autonomy," the writer maintains that "the family is no longer a haven; all too often a center of dysfunction, it has become one with the heartless world that surrounds it."
Unlike the past, the job that fits you in your twenties is not the job or career you'll have in your forties. Even the spouse you had in your 20s will probably not be the spouse you'll have after you've gone through your midlife crisis.
Starting with the 1960s, four sweeping societal changes have exerted an enormous influence on the traditional family structure. Many of these changes led to positive results, including but not limited to a strengthened social conscience, women's rights, constraints on going to war and a growing tolerance for diversity. But there has been a price to pay. Not only have these societal changes altered the structure of the family, but converging together, and as an unintended by-product, they fostered family alienation, exacerbated old family estrangements and created new ones. These major shifts in our American society were:
*the Me Generation of the 1960s,
*the women's liberation movement,
*the states' relaxation of divorce laws, and
*the ever-increasing mobility of American families.
Me, Me, Me! The Me Generation of the 1960s perpetuated the notion that we are first and foremost entitled to happiness and fulfillment. In America, the business of happiness has always been a growth industry. It's positively un-American not to seek it! Which goes back to that early period of our history when Thomas Jefferson dropped the final term from John Locke's specification of human rights-"life, liberty, and ... property"-and replaced it with what would become the slogan of the new nation: "the pursuit of happiness." In 1961, an advertising executive working on the Clairol hair color account came up with the catchy line: "If I've only one life, let me live it as a blond." In a sense, this neon commercial distilled the basic nature of the 1960s. Tom Wolfe, in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine
, had it right when he pointed out, "If I've only one life, let me live it as a ____________!
Throughout the next decade, everyone began to fill in the blank for themselves." With the same vigor and determination demonstrated by Americans in their rush for gold, so too were these baby boomers in pursuit of their own individual destinies. This was a cultural revolution with a new perspective-whatever made me happy was acceptable. And the converse of that perspective was also true: if marriage made a spouse unhappy, the marriage was no longer acceptable. For that matter, any relationship that was failing to deliver happiness was being tossed out like an empty beer can. More recently, the pharmaceutical industry has learned how to cash in on the American obsession with feeling good by hyping mood drugs to rewire the brain circuitry for happiness through the elimination of sadness and depression.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Americans were enjoying the most prolonged adolescence in their history. The predictable self-absorption of youth evolved into a philosophy of instant gratification that spread through our culture like a California brushfire. In fact, that's where it all started-at the Haight-Ashbury intersection in San Francisco where the "hippies" first congregated to be heard and celebrated. They gyrated to the music of the Beatles and the Grateful Dead, swayed to the songs of Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel. Yes, there were birth control pills and a sexual revolution, but also there was a growing social conscience. While longhaired women wearing headbands were reputed to be burning their bras, they were also marching beside their bearded men in opposition to the Vietnam War. Gail Sheehy in New Passages
describes this generation of young people: "Pampered in the childcentric incubator of a prosperous period [the 1950s], with the invisible hand of Dr. Spock sparing the rod, members of the Vietnam Generation grew up believing they could do just about anything."
Young people fled from the confines of family to be a part of "the scene," and that scene included not only demonstrations and protest marches, but mind-altering drugs and sex for the taking. Families were frantic worrying about exactly where their adult children were and what they were doing. One thing was certain-they weren't abiding by the rules their parents and prior generations had lived by. In fact, the word was, "Don't trust anyone over 30." What better way to alienate than to believe that the parents couldn't be trusted? There were probably more estrangements between parents and their adult children during that period than ever before.
Excerpted from Family Estrangements by Barbara LeBey. Copyright © 2003 by Barbara LeBey. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.