The Family Cycle
The Good Enough Family

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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The families of the not too distant past were oriented along four axes. These axes were not mutually exclusive. Some overlapped, all of them enhanced each other.

People got married because of social pressure and social norms (the Social Dyad), to form a more efficient or synergetic economic unit (the Economic Dyad), in pursuit of psychosexual fulfilment (the Psychosexual Dyad), to secure a long term companionship (the Companionship Dyad). Thus, we can talk about the following four axes: Social-Economic, Emotional, Utilitarian (Rational), Private-Familial.

To illustrate how these axes were intertwined, let us consider the Emotional one. People got married because they felt very strongly about living alone. But they felt so also because of social pressures. Some of them subscribed to ideologies which promoted the family as a pillar of society, the basic cell of the national organism, a hothouse in which to breed children to empower the nation and so on. These ideologies of personal contributions to collectives had a strong emotional dimension and provided impetus to a host of behaviour patterns. The emotional investment in today's individualistic-capitalist ideologies is no smaller. Technological developments rendered past thinking obsolete and dysfunctional but did not quench Man's thirst for guidance and a worldview.

Still, as technology evolved, it became more and more disruptive in so far as families were concerned. Increased mobility, a decentralization of information sources, the transfers of the traditional functions of the family to societal and private sector establishments, the increased incidence of interactions, safer sex with lesser consequences to those who engage in it all assisted the disintegration of the traditional family. Consider the trends that affected women, for instance:

1. The emergence of common marital property and of laws for its equal distribution in case of divorce constituted a shift in legal philosophy in most societies. The result was a major (and on going) distribution of wealth and its transfer from men to women. Add to this the disparities in life expectancy between the two genders and the magnitude of the redistribution of economic resources becomes evident. Women are becoming richer at the expense of men because they live long enough to inherit them and because they get a share of the marital property when they divorce them. These "endowments" are larger than their quantifiable contribution to the formation of the wealth thus redistributed. Women still earn less than men, for instance.

2. An increase in economic opportunities. Social and ethical mores changed, technology allowed for increased mobility, wars and economic upheavals led to the forced introduction of women into the labour markets.

3. The result of their enhanced economic clout was a more egalitarian social and legal system. Women's rights were legally as well as informally secured in an evolutionary process, punctuated by minor legal revolutions. This reflected reality rather than created it.

4. While securing equality in opportunities and fighting for it in other domains of life (representation, taxation, education, property rights and so on) women still enjoy a discrimination in their favour regarding their obligations. It is rare for a man to complain of sexual harassment or to receive alimony or custody of his children or, in many countries, to be the beneficiary of family related welfare benefits. This discrepancy works in women's favour.

5. The emergence of single parent and non-nuclear families and their social acceptance helped women to shape their lives as they saw fit. Most single parent families are headed by women. Women single parents are severely penalized economically, though (their median income is very low even when adjusted to reflect transfer payments).

6. Thus, gradually, the shaping of future generations will become the exclusive domain of women. Even today, one third of all children in developed countries grow in single parent families with no male figure around to serve as a role model. This exclusivity has tremendous social and economic implications. Gradually and subtly the balance of power will shift as society becomes matriarchal.

7. The invention of the pill and other contraceptives liberated women as far as sex was concerned. The resulting sexual revolution engulfed and affected both sexes but the main beneficiaries were women whose sexuality was in the process of being legitimized. Not under the cloud of unwanted pregnancy any longer women felt free to engage in sex with multiple partners.

8. In the face of this newfound freedom and the realities of changing sexual conduct, the double standard, which was hitherto applied to the sexual behaviour of men and women crumbled. The existence of the woman's sexual drive and its legitimacy were widely accepted. The family, therefore, became a joint venture also sexually.

9. Urbanization, communication, and transportation multiplied the number of encounters and potential interactions between women and men. Comparison became possible. Women were able to judge their male partners in context for the first time. They were able to develop extra-marital relationships with relative ease. They were able to opt out of a relationship, which they deemed to be wrong or inadequate for them.

10. Women became aware of their needs, their wishes and, in general, their proper emotions and cognitions, as opposed to emotions and cognitions instilled in them by society through the agency of the men in their lives, by other conformist women and as a result of peer pressure. They were able to establish priorities and preferences and act upon them, even when they conflicted with others'.

11. The roles and traditional functions of the family were gradually eroded and transferred to other social agents. Even functions such as emotional support, psychosexual interactions and child rearing were relegated to outside "subcontractors". Devoid of these functions and of inter-generation interactions, the nuclear family was reduced to a dysfunctional shell, a hub of rudimentary communication between its remaining members, a dilapidated version of its former self. The traditional roles of women and their alleged character propensities and inclinations were no longer of use in this new environment. Emotional emptiness was bound to set in and it did. Women had to find a new definition, a new niche. They were literally driven out of their homes by its functional disappearance.

12. In parallel, women's life expectancy increased, their child bearing years were prolonged, their health improved dramatically, their beauty was preserved through a myriad of newfangled techniques. This gave women a new lease on life. They were no longer likely to die at childbirth, to look decrepit at 30 years of age. They were able to time their decision to bring a child to the world, or to refrain from doing so passively or actively (by having an abortion). This growing control over their body, which has been objectified, reviled and admired for millennia by men is arguably one of the most striking features of the feminine revolution. It allowed women to rid themselves of deeply embedded masculine values, views and prejudices concerning their physique and their sexuality.

13. Finally, the legal system and other social and economic structures adapted themselves to reflect most of the above sea changes. Being inertial and cumbersome, these reacted slowly, partially and gradually. Still, they did react and any comparison between the situation just twenty years ago and today is likely to reveal substantial differences.

But this revolution is only a segment of a much larger one. In the past, the axes with which we opened our discussion were closely and seemingly inextricably intertwined. The Economic, the Social and the Emotional (this was the axis invested in the preservation of societal mores and ideologies) constituted one amalgam and the Private, the Familial and the Utilitarian-Rational constituted another. In other words: society encouraged people to get married because it was emotionally committed to a societal-economic ideology which infused the family with sanctity, an historical mission and grandeur. But the majority of men and women got married out of a cold economic calculation that regarded the family as a functioning economic unit, within which the individual could find his economic expression in the most effective manner. Forming families was an efficient technique of wealth generation, accumulation and transfer across time and space.

These traditional alliances of axes were diametrically reversed in the last few decades. The modern permutations: the Social and Economic axes together with the Utilitarian (Rational) axis and the Emotional axis is now aligned with the Private and Familial axes. Put simply, society encourages people to marry today because it wishes to maximize their economic output while most people do not see it this way and wish mostly to find a safe emotional haven in the family. The distinction between past and present may be subtle but it is by no means trivial. In the past, people expressed emotions through set formulas, social patterns, beliefs and ideologies and the family was part of these modes of expression. But really, it served as a mere economic unit, devoid of any emotional involvement and content. Today, people are looking to the family for emotional sustenance (romantic love, companionship) and do not strive to use it as an instrument to enhance their social and economic status. The modern family is not a way to maximize utility (this was the historical, now obsolete, contribution of men to it). Rather it has become an unstable base as a result of emotional vicissitudes (and this is the contribution of women). Women sought emotional comfort in the family and when they failed to find it, used their newfound self-sufficiency and freedoms and divorced (most divorces in the West are the initiative of women, contrary to common opinion). Men sought in the family the emotional stability, which will let them launch a thousand ships. Whenever the family failed as an economic and social launching pad men lost interest in it and began looking for extramarital alternatives. This trend of disintegration was further supported and made possible by new technological innovations such as the cellular phone, the internet, the personal computer and the multiplicity of media channels. All these encouraged self-sufficiency and unprecedented social segmentation. While in the past, society at large regarded families in an emotional light, as part of the prevailing ideology it now tended to regard it in a utilitarian-rational light, as an efficient mode of organization of economic and social activity. And while in the past the individuals involved regarded the family mainly in a utilitarian-rational manner (as a wealth producing unit, facilitating wealth accumulation and transfer across space and time) now they began to pass emotional judgement on it. In the eyes of the individual, families were transformed from economic production units to emotional powerhouses. In the eyes of society, families were transformed from elements of emotional and spiritual ideology to utilitarian-rational production units.

This shift of axes and emphases led to a widening rift between men and women. The latter always accentuated the emotional side of the couple and of the family. Men always emphasized the convenience and the utility of the family. This was unbridgeable. Men acted as conservative social agents, women as revolutionaries. What is happening to the institution of the family today was, therefore, inevitable.

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