The Family Cycle: The Good Enough Family

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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

People got married for various reasons:

1. Because of social pressure and social norms (the Social Dyad)

2. To form a more efficient or synergetic economic unit (the Economic Dyad)

3. In pursuit of psychosexual fulfillment (the Psychosexual Dyad)

4. To secure 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.

Until very recently, people used to get married because they felt very strongly about living alone, partly due to social condemnation of reculsiveness.

In some countries, people still subscribe to ideologies which promote the family as a pillar of society, the basic cell of the national organism, a hothouse in which to breed children for the army, and so on. These collective ideologies call for personal contributions and sacrifices. They have a strong emotional dimension and provide impetus to a host of behavior patterns.

But the emotional investment in today's individualistic-capitalist ideologies is no smaller than it was in yesterday's nationalistic ones. True, 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 to the family. 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 interpersonal interactions, safer sex with lesser or no consequences – all fostered the disintegration of the traditional, extended and nuclear family.

Consider the trends that directly 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) re-distribution of wealth from men to women. Add to this the disparities in life expectancy between the two genders and the magnitude of the transfer of economic resources becomes evident.

Women are becoming richer because they live longer than men and thus inherit them and because they get a share of the marital property when they divorce them. These "endowments" are usually more than they had contributed to the couple in money terms. Women still earn less than men, for instance.

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

3. The result of women's enhanced economic clout is a more egalitarian social and legal system. Women's rights are being legally as well as informally secured in an evolutionary process, punctuated by minor legal revolutions.

4. Women had largely achieved equality in educational and economic opportunities and are fighting a winning battle in other domains of life (the military, political representation). Actually, in some legal respects, the bias is against men. 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 social welfare payments.

5. The emergence of socially-accepted (normative) single parent and non-nuclear families helped women to shape their lives as they see fit. Most single parent families are headed by women. Women single parents are disadvantaged economically (their median income is very low even when adjusted to reflect transfer payments) - but many are taking the plunge.

6. Thus, gradually, the shaping of future generations becomes 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 sexually. The resulting sexual revolution affected both sexes but the main beneficiaries were women whose sexuality was suddenly legitimized. No longer under the cloud of unwanted pregnancy, 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 moral standard crumbled. The existence of a legitimately expressed feminine sexual drive is widely accepted. The family, therefore, becomes also a sexual joint venture.

9. Urbanization, communication, and transportation multiplied the number of encounters between men and women and the opportunities for economic, sexual, and emotional interactions. For the first time in centuries, women were able to judge and compare their male partners to others in every conceivable way. Increasingly, women choose to opt out of relationships which they deem to be dysfunctional or inadequate. More than three quarters of all divorces in the West are initiated by women.

10. Women became aware of their needs, priorities, preferences, wishes and, in general, of their proper emotions. They cast off emotions and thought patterns inculcated in them by patriarchal societies and cultures and sustained through peer pressure.

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 are often relegated to outside "subcontractors".

Emptied of these functions and of inter-generational 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 useful in this new environment. This led women to search for a new definition, to find a new niche. They were literally driven out of their homes by its functional disappearance.

12. In parallel, modern medicine increased women's life expectancy, prolonged their child bearing years, improved their health dramatically, and preserved their beauty through a myriad newfangled techniques. This gave women a new lease on life.

In this new world, women are far less likely to die at childbirth or to look decrepit at 30 years of age. They are 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).


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Women's 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 allows 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 many of the abovementioned sea changes. Being inertial and cumbersome, they reacted slowly, partially and gradually. Still, they did react. 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 (the axis invested in the preservation of societal mores and ideologies) formed one amalgam – and the Private, the Familial and the Utilitarian-Rational constituted another.

Thus, 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.

Notwithstanding social views of the family, the majority of men and women got married out of a cold pecuniary calculation that regarded the family as a functioning economic unit, within which the individual effectively transacts. Forming families was the most efficient way known to generate wealth, accumulate it and transfer it across time and space to future generations.

These traditional confluences of axes were diametrically reversed in the last few decades. The Social and Economic axes together with the Utilitarian (Rational) axis and the Emotional axis are now aligned with the Private and Familial axes.

Put simply, nowadays society encourages people to get married because it wishes to maximize their economic output. But most people do not see it this way. They regard the family as a safe emotional haven.

The distinction between past and present may be subtle but it is by no means trivial. In the past, people used to express emotions in formulaic, socially dictated ways, wearing their beliefs and ideologies on their sleeves as it were. The family was one 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 not as an instrument to enhance their social and economic standing. Creating a family is no longer the way to maximize utility.

But these new expectations have destabilized the family. Both men and women seek emotional comfort and true companionships within it and when they fail to find it, use their newfound self-sufficiency and freedoms and divorce.

To summarize:

Men and women used to look to the family for economic and social support. Whenever the family failed as an economic and social launching pad – they lost interest in it and began looking for extramarital alternatives. This trend of disintegration was further enhanced by technological innovation which encouraged self-sufficiency and unprecedented social segmentation. It was society at large which regarded families emotionally, as part of the prevailing ideology.

The roles have reversed. Society now tends to view the family in a utilitarian-rational light, as an efficient mode of organization of economic and social activity. And while in the past, its members regarded the family mainly in a utilitarian-rational manner (as a wealth producing unit) – now they want more: emotional support and companionship.

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 is bridging the traditional gap between men and women. Women had always accentuated the emotional side of being in a couple and of the family. Men always emphasized the convenience and the utility of the family. This gap used to be unbridgeable. Men acted as conservative social agents, women as revolutionaries. What is happening to the institution of the family today is that the revolution is becoming mainstream.


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