Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Family and Society

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

I was invited to speak briefly this week at the Céifin Conference which is held every year in Ennis, Co. Clare. It puts the emphasis on what it terms ‘values-led change’ by shining a light on the quality of our social, political, economic and spiritual lives.
Organised by Fr Harry Bohan, a sociologist, Director of Pastoral Planning of the Diocese of Killaloe, a parish priest and the founder of the Céifin Centre, this year’s theme was ‘Family Life Today: The Greatest Revolution’.
I spoke as a father rather than a psychoanalytic psychotherapist about the notion of the family as the basic unit of society, a position that is enshrined in our Constitution. As such, the integrity of the family must be protected because otherwise the fabric of society will be threatened. No one can find any argument with that.
The family is the cradle out of which the individual emerges; the individual is the basic component of society and therefore society is enriched or impoverished depending on the health or otherwise of the family.
I made the point that the burden on the contemporary family – of doing this particular job on behalf of society – is becoming too heavy. The family as we know it today is not just the basic unit of society but the ‘isolated’ basic unit of society.
The growth of urbanisation, the fragmentation of communities, the economic realities that force extended families to live apart, and the changing attitudes to ideas such as neighbourliness, community and belonging are all factors that contribute to this.
Naturally, this trend is also happening against a backdrop of wider cultural movements. Increasing secularisation with decreasing spiritual values and the growth in the ‘isolationist’ trend towards self-sufficiency and independence from a shared reliance on others are part of the picture also. And that’s before we consider political action, and to an even greater extent inaction, when it comes to supporting family life.
I mentioned in passing that some years ago ‘individualisation’ of tax was brought in to favour those stay-at-home spouses who went out of the home to join in and contribute to the booming economy. Despite the pro-family rhetoric, sometimes even blatant anti-family measures slip under the radar unnoticed.
My point, however, was that the family is only strong because of the quality of its connections to other families through communities that share sustainable and sustaining values. This is what guarantees the family’s strength and its ability to function properly.
If the job of the family is to raise well rounded children who are capable of facing the challenges of life, then perhaps at a macro level the modern family is doing a good job. But if you take the old African saying, once quoted on the Oprah Winfrey TV show, that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ then a new perspective emerges.
Our western idea is that a two-parent or one-parent family is an ideal model. That’s an idea that suits our system, if you like. Since industrialisation, western societies have needed workers for its industries so social living moved from the land to the cities, from communities to geographic or postal locations. The nuclear family is an ideal model for mobility to go where the work is. Now we are so used to it that it seems as if it is the most natural way in the world.
Yet it puts a heavy burden on two parents, and often times on just one, of being the sole providers of guidance, of elder relationships, of mediator with the outside world, as well as the basic requirements of providing love, care and security.
There is only a small place in our model of the nuclear family now for aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbours or friends to have any hand, act or part in how our children should be raised. In fact, more often than not we actively discourage it as interference.
When was the last time you saw someone in the street telling a child that wasn’t theirs to behave? There is no authority behind such an act anymore and so it rarely happens. If it does, it has little effect.
When it comes to the therapy room, this modern phenomenon brings some interesting features with it, especially for people who are suffering the effects of a damaging family life.
Each person’s situation is unique but a common element is the intensity of the primary relationships that exist and have existed in their family. There have been little or no outside influences from extended family members, little dilution of the tension, little alternative or substitute relationships and practically no getting away from this intensity if the relationship was not good.
And so a bad situation continued to get worse until these people’s lives became unmanageable. This is not about blaming parents for problems. They are as much a part of this cultural system as their children. But before we can talk about change we must recognise the problem. And so far there has been nothing to suggest we have started to do that.

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