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The Intentional Family
We Reinvented Family Life in the twentieth century but never wrote a user's manual. Have no doubt about the reinvention. This century has witnessed a revolution in the structures and expectations of family life. The changes in family structures are by now familiar: A child is as likely to grow up in a single-parent family or stepfamily as in a first-married family; an adult is likely to cohabitate, marry, divorce, and remarry; and most mothers are in the paid labor force.
The revolution in expectations of family life is less widely recognized. A scene from the 1971 film Lovers and Other Strangers captures this cultural shift. Richie, the adult son of Italian immigrant parents, tells them that he and his wife are divorcing. The stunned parents want to know "What's the story, Richie?" When he tells them he is not "happy," the answer does not compute. "Happy?" the father retorts, "What? Do you think your mother and I are happy?" A startled Richie asks, "You mean you and Mom aren't happy?" The parents look at each other, shrug, and with one voice respond, "No. We're content." Richie storms off with the testimonial of his generation: "Well, if I'm not going to be happy, I'm not going to stay married." But the memorable line from this vignette comes from the mother, played by Beatrice Arthur: "Don't look for happiness, Richie; it'll only make you miserable."
These fictional immigrant parents represented the remnants of the Institutional Family, the traditional family based on kinship, children, community ties, economics, and the father'sauthority. For the Institutional Family, the primary goals for family life were stability and security; happiness was secondary. Ending a marriage because you were not "happy " made no sense. An elderly British lord expressed the values of the Institutional Family when, upon learning that I was a family therapist he commented: "A frightful mistake so many people are making these days [is] throwing away a perfectly good marriage simply because they fall in love with somebody else."
The Institutional Family was suited to a world of family farms, small family businesses, and tight communities bound together by a common religion. The dominant form of family life for many centuries, it began to give way during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, when individual freedom and the pursuit of personal happiness and achievement began to be more important than kinship obligations, and when small farms and villages started to give way to more impersonal cities. During the 1920s, American sociologists began noting how an historically new kind of family -- what I term the Psychological Family -- was replacing the Institutional Family of the past. This new kind of family was based on personal achievement and happiness more than on family obligations and tight community bonds. In the early twentieth century, Americans turned a comer in family life, never to go back.
By the 1950s, the Psychological Family had largely replaced the Institutional Family as the cultural norm in America. In ideal form, the Psychological Family was a nuclear unit headed by a stable married couple with close emotional ties, good communication, and an effective partnership in rearing children in a nurturing atmosphere. The chief goals of this kind of family life were no longer stability and security. Instead, the overarching goal was. the satisfaction of individual family members. Men's and women's roles ideally were "separate but equal," with men being experts on the "world" and women being experts on the home.
Current social debates about the Traditional Family generally center around this Psychological Family, which did not come into full flower until the 1950s. Its supporters praise its traditional values, while its critics decry its conformity and unequal gender roles. Both sides miss an important point: the Psychological
Family was radical in its own right when it supplanted the Institutional Family as the dominant family form. Its emergence threatened historical family values by reversing the importance of the individual and the family. The family's main job now was to promote the happiness and achievement of individual family members, rather than individual family members' main job being to promote the well-being of the family unit. To paraphrase: Ask not what you can do for your family; ask what your family can do for you. No more radical idea ever entered family life, but it is one we now take for granted in mainstream American culture.
If you doubt this shift in family values, try to imagine a contemporary American man choosing a wife because his family thinks the match would be good for the family. Or imagine a young woman announcing that she will never marry in order to stay home to care for her aging parents. Or a young adult deciding not to have sex before marriage in order not to bring embarrassment to his or her family. Most of us would assume that there was much more to these stories; someone was not telling the truth, or there was some personal or family pathology at work. We would have trouble imagining that a healthy adult would sacrifice important personal goals for the sake of family duties. Although most Americans continue to assume that parents, especially mothers, should place family needs over personal needs while the children are being raised, all bets are off for young people's obligations to their parents and extended family. And the perceived absence of happiness in marriage is a widely acceptable reason to divorce and try again for the kind of satisfying intimate relationship that has become a cultural birthright.
From its beginning, the Psychological Family was germinating the seeds of its own destruction. It harbored a profound contradiction: the value of individual happiness for both men and women, coupled with the value of family stability. For marriage, this meant commitment based on getting one's personal needs met in an equal relationship -- a dicey combination for couples that lacked the skills required for such unions....The Intentional Family. Copyright © by William J. Doherty. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.