THIS LAND OF STRANGERS
The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics, and Faith
By ROBERT E. HALL
Greenleaf Book Group Press
Copyright © 2012 Robert E. Hall
All right reserved.
Chapter One Home Alone: The Decline of Family, Friends, and Community
We lead the world in fatherless families—40% of children fall asleep without a resident father regularly within reach. —Lionel Tiger, anthropologist, Rutgers University
Several years ago I made a visit to my company's Johannesburg, South Africa, office to meet with a large financial services client. During my stay, our managing director there arranged for me to speak to the management team of a large retail chain. I made the presentation in a large tent out in the bush on a large private game preserve owned by our client's CEO. After a great barbecue cooked over an open fire pit, the owner took a couple of my team members and me on a night tour in his open-top vehicle to observe wild African animals. We saw several white rhinos, two hippopotamuses, giraffes, and hyenas. As we returned to camp, the owner commented that he had previously had some elephants but had to remove them because a couple of younger rogue males in the group had become very disruptive. He went on to explain that they had been raised without their mothers, extended family, and older bulls, and as a result, they became hooligans that really tore the place up.
My South African host's story corroborated that of documentaries on PBS and accounts in newspapers chronicling the ongoing saga of rogue elephants. The abnormal behavior of such elephants, which has included raping and killing rhinos, was the result of a collapse of their culture. Charles Seifert at the New York Times described it this way: "Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss ... have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous relational collapse of elephant culture."
The number of older female caregivers had fallen dramatically—sometimes to zero—as had the number of older bulls, which play a key role in keeping the younger males in line. Calves were being born to and raised by younger and inexperienced mothers. In some cases, where orphans witnessed the death of their parents and elders from poaching and culling, the young elephants exhibited behavior associated with posttraumatic stress and other trauma-related disorders in humans: abnormal startle response, unpredictable asocial behavior, inattentive mothering, and hyperaggressiveness.
The crisis of relationship is nowhere more evident or costly than in the current state of our personal lives. In the elephant culture the disruption to family and herd relationships, decline in relational leadership, and collapse of local community and habitat led to its near demise. It is not unlike our human society where the decline of married, two-parent families has greatly reduced the number of actively involved parents, especially adult males. Mobility has led to a level of separation and transience—a loss of place similar to the elephants' loss of habitat—as well as a decrease in access to extended family members, particularly older matriarchs and female caregivers. There has been a large increase in the number of young females, often with children, left alone to raise a family. We have witnessed an increase of youth-based mayhem and violence over the years, both directly and through cultural platforms such as television, movies, music lyrics, and computer games.
So many of the jarring headlines are really news about relationships: rising divorce rates, strains on single mothers, homelessness, declining graduation rates, unemployment, child abuse, drug abuse, random shootings, isolation, a growing prison population, and loss of global competiveness. Relationship, society's most elemental and value-creating building block, is falling apart.
Despite our progress in research, technology, social programs, medicine, and living standards, something is profoundly wrong. Our relationship dysfunction is casting growing segments of our society into a perpetual spiral of destruction and poverty.
A speaker I once heard asked his audience what word in the English language had the strongest positive resonance. The answer was "home." Home serves as the base for family, friends, and community. "Home" comes in a variety of venues. It's the bar where everyone knows your name, as portrayed in the 1980s sitcom Cheers. It's the coffee bar where everyone gathers to weave the tangled relationship web of the 1990s sitcom Friends. It's the loving support and gritty conflicts of the more recent show Brothers and Sisters. The ideal of home is the place where family, friends, or community treasures and develops you in spite of fights, faults, and tensions. In today's world, it may even be an electronic place where people connect deeply, albeit virtually, on subjects that impassion them. Home is both the "people" and the "place" where precious relationships reside and we matter.
The concept of home has undergone a seismic shift in the past 50 years. In the language of genetics, our relationship DNA, which contains the formula for how families, friends, and communities function, has been materially altered. If we are to adjust to advance relationships in the good ole new days going forward, we must begin by asking ourselves a critical question: When did we decide that relationships aren't really all that important? To answer that question we must examine our relational decline.
The Decline of the Family
Out-of-wedlock births have risen to almost 70 percent in black America, almost half of Hispanic births and more than a fourth of white births. In 1950, the rates for all three were about 10 percent. Add in the high rates of divorce and other parental break-ups, and you have large numbers of American children growing up in single-parent households. As Roland Warren ... has said, "Kids have a hole in their soul the shape of their dad." —Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune
The first clue to the plummeting value of family relationships is the significant decrease in the rate of marriage. We have all seen the headlines—single is the new majority. According to information analyzed by the Brookings Institute, married couples represented just 48 percent of American households in 2010. People increasingly are choosing single life over married life, along with shorter, less committed (legally) relationships. The state of our family unions is troubled. A report from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers indicates that close to half of first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Today's divorce rate is still nearly double what it was in 1960,6 even though it has declined slightly since the early 1980s.
If our buildings or bridges started collapsing or the number of auto accidents doubled in 50 years, as a society at large we would be alarmed. Yet we have become numb to the dramatic shift that affects spouses, children, grandparents, friends, schools, neighborhoods, social circles, and businesses—even church and state. Separation or divorce is a very disruptive, painful, expensive, and time-consuming process for the parties involved. However, it is important to point out that staying in a dysfunctional relationship is not a piece of cake, either, and has its own set of issues. Regardless of the outcome, relationships that do not work have significant consequences.
Similarly, forming marriage relationships has become considerably less attractive. From 1970 through 2004 the number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women dropped by nearly 50 percent. Pew reports that the rate of new marriages between 2009 and 2010 declined by 5 percent among all groups but most dramatically fell 13 percent among young adults. Similar declines have taken hold in most other postindustrial societies. If marriage were a product, it would have lost market share over the past 50 years at about the same rate as the U.S. automotive industry.
The future does not look promising. For example, recent research from Japan, a country struggling to sustain its current population levels, reports that sexual interest and sexual activity of the young and old alike are in serious decline. A whopping 36.1 percent of teenage boys between the ages of 16 and 19 said they had little to no interest in sex, and in some cases even despised it; that's more than twice the 2008 figure of 17.5 percent. A 2010 survey found that 83.7 percent of Japanese men who turned 20 this year were not dating anyone, while 49.3 percent said they had never had a girlfriend. About 59 percent of girls in the same age group felt the same way, up 12 percent from 2008, while 40.8 percent of married people said they had not had sex in the past month, up from 36.5 percent in the 2008 survey. Kunio Kitamura, head of the Japan Family Planning Association, concluded: "The findings seem to reflect the increasing shallowness of human relations in today's busy society."
Here in the United States, of the percentage of those who do marry, relational satisfaction has declined. The number of women who consider their marriage to be "very happy" has gone down since the 1970s, from 68.6 percent to 60.3 percent. Interestingly, the drop for men is slightly less—from 69.6 percent to 64.6 percent.
The number of children born to unwed mothers continues to reach record highs. From 1960 to 2006, the percentage of births to unwed mothers increased a mind-boggling 726 percent. In 2006 (the latest data available), 38.5 percent of children born in the United States were to unmarried women. By 2012, for women under 30, more than 50 percent of births were outside marriage. In most of these cases, the children grow up in a single-parent family, usually without a father. That means they have only half of the on-site parental relationship resources of a traditional two-parent family.
The percentage of children under 18 living with both biological parents in the United States is 63 percent, the lowest among Western industrialized nations. The second lowest is Sweden, at 73 percent. More than one-third of American children lack one or both biological parents at home.
Finally, according to census information released in 2008, the number of unmarried couples cohabiting has increased from less than a million to 6.4 million over the past 30 years. (Cohabiting refers to couples who are sexual partners, not married to each other but sharing a household.) Unmarried cohabitation is particularly common among the young. About a quarter of unmarried women ages 25 to 39 are currently living with a partner, and an additional quarter have lived with a partner at some time in the past.
Also according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 to 60 percent of all first marriages are preceded by the couple living together, as compared to virtually no prior cohabitation 50 years ago. Cohabitation is most common among those of lower educational and income levels. Among women ages 19 to 44, 60 percent of high school dropouts have cohabited, compared to 37 percent of college graduates. Cohabitation is also more common among those who are less religious than their peers and those who have been divorced or have experienced parental divorce, fatherlessness, or high levels of marital discord during childhood.
Since cohabiting relationships are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages, and since more than 40 percent of cohabiting-couple households now contain children, growing numbers of children are growing up in families where their parental connections are more transient.
In putting a high value on the presence of both parents in a household, raising their children together, it is easy to fall into the trap of devaluing the relative importance of a single mom or dad. While we may lament the pain of divorce, we cannot ignore the abuse, dysfunction, or destruction that can be present in marriage. Likewise, gay couples or single parents who have chosen to have children absent a mother or father have opened up nontraditional approaches and access to family relationships for groups historically excluded. It has led to "mothering and fathering" roles that don't conform strictly to traditional male/female and mother/father identity. This has led to clashes between those who advocate for traditional relationships versus those who advocate for relational inclusion and access for all. One thing is clear: married, divorced, cohabiting, raising children or not, with or without extended family, straight or gay—relationships come in many forms, and ultimately we need the best relationships we can muster in a changing, challenging, and imperfect world.
In a nutshell, divorce is up, marriage is down; unwed mothers are up, very happy marriages are down; cohabitation is up, and the percentage of children living with both biological parents is down. Indeed, there is a growing recognition and anxiety that our society is playing a form of "relationship roulette" that delivers random and often dire consequences because we lack sufficient intention when it comes to relationships. There are many reasons for all of this, but it is irrefutable that, in terms of up or down, the relative quantity, perceived value, and duration of marital relationships are down.
The Costs of Fewer Family Relationships
If you are a middle-class woman, you have more to fear from divorce than from outsourcing. If you have a daughter, you're right to worry more about her having a child before marriage than about her being a victim of globalization. This country's prosperity is threatened more by homes where no one reads to children than it is by big pharmaceutical companies. -David Brooks, The New York Times
In our society, family relationships serve many functions. They provide protection, learning, support, love, feedback, and accountability. All of these functions share a common benefit. They are a key source of development for all the parties involved. Children, parents, siblings, and extended family members learn from and are influenced by each other. When these relationships are absent, dysfunctional, or abusive, they inhibit the very development so crucial for a society to thrive and advance.
The cost of divorce, and even for not being married, is considerable. Those who are divorced or stay single accumulate only about half per person what those who marry and stay married do. (We will discuss these financial implications in greater detail in chapter 6, "Relationship Math: Looking at the Dollars and Sense.")
Research from Statistics Canada found that men who divorce are six times more likely to report an episode of depression than are men who remain married. Divorcing women are 3.5 times as likely to experience depression, compared to women who stay married. Certainly depression is not only a result of separation and divorce but also often a cause. Tal Ben-Shahar, the popular professor of happiness at Harvard, reports that depression has increased tenfold since 1960. He calls this increase in depression nothing short of an epidemic and points to our relational decline as its primary cause.
Marital discord has a number of additional costs that cannot be so easily quantified, and these include stress, health issues, loss of productivity and eventually unemployment, and addiction. While I have talked mostly about marriage as a surrogate for relationships (most research regarding romantic partners is organized this way), the reality is that broken relationships between partners of any kind—whether they stay together or part ways—are difficult and expensive economically, socially, and emotionally.
The Costs of—and to—Children
Perhaps the most telling trend regarding the value we place on family relationships in our society is the significant decline in the rate of childbearing. The fertility rate—the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime—went from 7.04 in 180022 to 2.12 in 2007.23 This is consistent worldwide—as incomes rise, fertility rates drop. There are many reasons behind this trend: birth control, changing religious beliefs, family income, less support from the extended family, and the disappearance of the family farm where child labor was an economic advantage.
It is ironic that in general, those who have the fewest economic resources are having the most children. The Hispanic fertility rate (2.99) is nearly 60 percent higher and the African American rate (2.13) is about 26 percent higher than the Caucasian rate (1.87). Yet the influx of women into the workforce has dramatically elevated living standards in recent decades across all groups. In the 1950s, 17 percent of women with children worked outside the home; today, better than 68 percent do. Attempting to meet all of the requirements of work and home—child care, shopping and cooking, cleaning, washing, and the like—has added major demands on time, energy, and relationships among dual-income families, and especially women who work outside the home. (Continues...)
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