“The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish.” -Pope John Paul II
We are the country of grand experiments and the only constant is change. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ways we are witnessing the disintegration of the traditional family unit. I inherited my father’s AARP subscription and the cover story of this month’s issue featured a special report on the New American Family and detailed how we live now. The trends cited are important not only because they reflect how families are formed now, but even more because they provide important implications for what is to come. While the Baby Boomer generation has created a wave of cultural changes, the most impactful may be the close to 50% divorce rate statistic, which makes them the generation with the highest divorce rate in the 20th century. Indeed, their influence is clear as families consisting of married couples with kids are now less than half of what they were in 1970 and children born to unmarried women has jumped from 5% to 41%.
The silver lining in these huge changes is how it has forced us to redefine our stereotypical concepts of family and paved the way for the vast increases in interracial and same-sex unions, as well as many more inter-generational family units. But there is also a dark side to our shifting family life, which comes up more frequently in the ongoing conversations about economic inequality than it does when we talk about the quality of our relationships. Divorce and families with single wage earners are at the leading edge of poverty. These families often do not thrive, lacking not only the economic advantages of coupling, but also many of the social benefits as well. Outcomes for children of single family homes are poor, with these kids more likely to have physical and mental health issues, not complete their educations, have trouble keeping jobs and not surprisingly, be unsuccessful in creating long term relationships.
Let’s face it, as a nation we are culturally stunted when it comes to relationships. Most people receive no real education in emotional literacy and are often unable to identify or communicate about their own experience, let alone interpret the confusing signals from others that they care about. We are also equally uneducated about the nature of the realistic demands and work involved in communicating and showing up in our relationships. We persist in promoting the mythology of relationships, which are easy and make us happy, like they did when we “fell in love,” rather than facing up to the hard work of growing up to become a better version of ourselves for the people we love. We experience emotional rejections like poison rather than using them as the impetus to carve away at the parts of our history and baggage that does not serve our ability to love.
Loving people is hard work. Making a family and caring for them over time is monumental. It requires endless hours of practice and a willingness to look at the hundreds of ways you get it wrong and have to try again. This is what motivated me to make the Love Agent program and essentially, reward people to practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets to choose to do it.
We have to learn how to love better, with more intention and less fear. We have to become our better selves. Everything depends on it. Certainly the future does.