Read an Excerpt
The Changing Dream
"I LOVE YOU"--Magical words, Ionged for, hoped for, dreamed about. "I love you"--words that hold out the promise that loneliness will be stilled, that life will at last be complete. Once, not so long ago, we heard those words and thought about forever. Once, they signaled the end of the search, meant that we would marry and live happily ever after. Now, we're not so sure.
Who really knows how "happy" ever-after was? What we do know is that the dream of that earlier time seemed a simpler one. Women and men each had a place--a clearly defined, highly specific set of roles and responsibilities that each would fulfill. She'd take care of home and hearth; he'd provide it. She'd raise the children; he'd support them. she'd subordinate her life to his, and wouldn't even notice it; her needs for achievement and mastery would be met vicariously through his accomplishments or those of the children.
It seemed fair then--a tidy division of labor not often questioned. It was, after all, in the nature of things, in the nature of women and men--what they expected of themselves, what they expected of each other. Now, we're not so sure.
As time tested It, as the world changed, it became clear that the old dream didn't work so well for most people most of the time. Marriages staggered under the burden of these role definitions; the dream began to look like a nightmare. Most women couldn't simply give themselves and their needs away so readily, at least not without some covert rebellion--rebellion that took the form of depression, of overcontrolling and demanding behavior, of nagging, or of any of the other ways Inwhich women have sought to reclaim some parts of themselves and some power in their relationships with their men.
The men faced an equally difficult set of tasks. The tough, fearless, unemotional hero of folklore was a hard act to keep up in real life, the attempt carrying with it enormous emotional stress. In an economy that is almost always short on jobs, and in which most men who are lucky enough to have one simply can't earn enough to meet the idealized notions of male responsibility, making it in the world of work is no less problematic--especially when a man's accomplishment are supposed to do for two, when his successes are expected to serve for hers also. The disappointment of his own dreams would be hard enough to bear, but it hurts even worse when a man must face the knowledge that he has dashed hers as well.
More and more we have come to see that we made a bad bargain, if not an impossible one. More and more we have come to recognize that both men and women have been feeling helpless and angry--feelings that get acted out against each other all too often. Like hers, his rebellions, too, have come under the cover of behaviors not easily recognized as rebellious: hostile withdrawals; critical, perfectionist demands of wife and children; escapes into work, television, drinking, sometimes even violence.
But cultural ideals are powerful forces, shaping not onlyour ways of thinking and doing but our ways of being as well,giving form to both the conscious and unconscious content of our inner lives. Change, therefore, comes slowly, meeting enormous resistance both inside us and in the system of social institutions that supports our society's mandates about fimininity and masculinity--about how a good woman lives, how a good man behaves.
Still, however haltingly, however incompletely, change does come. The Ideal visions of one age eventually are seen as its excesses by the next. Thus, for example, the corseted repression that constrained the Victorian era was the yoke against which the succeeding generation strained. And the taut bonds of togetherness that were the mark of the 1950s became the target of rebellion by the youth of the 1960s. It was not just an obscene war, not just some abstraction called "society" that came under attack, but the very structure of the family itself and the relationships inside it. Togetherness was out; foreverness was called into question; commitment to another was edged aside by the search for self. Talk about the generation gap became part of our public dialogue and private agony as parents and children were separated by a shifting value system that opened up a huge chasm between them.
But change generally outruns consciousness, and, for most of us, change in consciousness lags well behind the changing social norms, sometimes even behind changing personal behaviors. Indeed, always, no matter how revotutionary a period of change may seem on the surface, the old myths continue to whisper to us. Consciously derogated, unconsciously avoided and denied, they continue to speak with a power and persistence that will not be dismissed. Consequently, two contradictory systems of ideals lie within us--the emerging one vying for dominance with the old one, new behaviors creating internal conflicts as they rub against obsolete but still living rules. Thus, even the children who initiated the change haven't wholly given up the happily-ever-after dream. They have instead made it time-limited. Each new relationship raises again the fantasy of eternal love and endless joy--he difference being that, when disappointment sets in, they feel freer now to move on to continue the search.
No small change, it's true. And the divorce and remarriage rates give testimony to the depth of the shift. But it isn't, as some critics have charged, simply selfishness, immaturity, narcissism, or some other newly discovered and widespread character flaw that makes bindingcommitments so difficult in the present era. To write such major social changes off with an analysis that focuses on personal psychopathology is to trivialize the impact of the social world on the lives of the people who live in it and to elevate psychology to a cause of our social malaise rather than an effect of it.Intimate Strangers. Copyright © by Lillian B. Rubin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.