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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 4:40 pm | Fair 62º


Russell Collins: There’s No Time Like the Present to Reconnect

Economic stress can tear us apart, or it can bring us back together.

Only once did I hear my mother express unhappiness with her marriage. I was 9, and I had just awakened from a long nap (my memory of the moment is tellingly clear). Mom came into the room and sat down on my bed with a sigh. “What would you think if your dad and I got a divorce?” she asked. That was it. I was unable to come up with anything coherent on the matter, and she never brought it up again.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins
Many years later, I came to understand the cause of her unhappiness. Dad had made some big decisions about relocating the family without consulting her — to a little farm community in northern San Diego County from Los Angeles. The move was pretty disastrous for Mom. Today, I think, many women might have said goodbye to the marriage and moved on. But while she obviously thought about divorce, it wasn’t really in the cards for her; there were pretty strict limits to her freedom of action, back then. It was still the 1950s — the zenith of the post-depression, Father Knows Best, suburban lifestyle, when the term “divorcee” had connotations way beyond the legal status of your marriage.

In retrospect, the ‘50s look pretty limiting and repressed. Especially since, by the middle of the decade, as the stock market finally regained its 1929 high, the rigid conformity of the time had already sown the seeds of its own tumultuous end. But what about this: the bathwater that went out so violently in the culture wars of the ‘60s and ‘70s ... was there a baby in there?

For my parents, I believe, there was. They stuck it out for another 40 years or so until Dad died. I think they had a pretty good marriage, all and all. They had almost a half-century together.

One of the interesting discoveries in neuroscience over the last 10 or so years has been the biological basis for the social instincts we used to (sneeringly) call “conformity,” “conventionality,” “herd mentality” etc. Our brains are constructed, it turns out, to function in synchrony with others. We are in a behavioral dance with our families and neighbors and bosses that — despite how it seems to us at the time — is largely automatic. We are wired together as a species in ways that orchestrates our innermost thoughts and actions. And one of the key factors in determining how we relate together is stress, which activates our social instincts and causes us to respond to our social environment in surprisingly predictable ways.

One social reaction to stress can be increased conflict, of course. But another, less appreciated aspect, is the urge it can stimulate to join, affiliate or merge. One way to think of the social conformity of my mom’s generation is as a stress-induced urge to merge — to be one of the crowd, the much-maligned man in the gray-flannel suit, or the stereotypical suburban housewife of the 1950s. The stress that produced this conformity was the economic hard times of the ‘30’s — the era in which my mother grew up.

There is lots of good evidence pointing to this connection between conformity and economy. According to historian Robert S. McElvaine, the eras preceding big depressions, like the roaring ‘20s or the “gilded age” at the end of 19th century, tended to be times that celebrated individual achievement, creative expression and personal wealth. The hard times of depression, conversely, spawned “a renewed affection for traditional ways. The human need for a sense of belonging, a context or place.”

This emphasis on “belonging” over individuality was not all good, by any means. Carried to extremes, it produced Adolf Hitler. But as we stand gazing into the abyss of our own Depression (whether it’s Great or not has yet to be determined), it’s reassuring to think there may be a gratifying return to a time when caring about our connection with others took up at least as much energy as worrying about ourselves. If hard times produce teamwork and self-sacrifice for the greater good, that’s good. While no one wants to go back to the rigid social roles of the ‘50s, a bit more emphasis on community may be a much-needed tonic for what ails us as a culture.

What this might mean for couples and families is a backing off from the cult of individuality, entrepreneurship, youth, excitement and wealth ... and renewed focus on togetherness.

Practically speaking, here are eight things that you can do to strengthen your relationship during times such as these:

» More extended family gatherings to reinforce connections beyond the couple or immediate family.

» More dinners in, maybe even without the TV.

» More church or temple or other community affiliation.

» Joining a bowling league together ... and wearing matching shirts.

» Hold hands more ... in public!

» More patience with a relationship or marriage that has lost its zing.

» More love notes.

» More laying around together Saturday morning, or taking a hike instead of rushing off to the gym.

The stress of hard times can wreak havoc on a relationship, but it presents opportunities as well. If we can relax a little into our lives together — diminished though they may be — we may look back in 40 years and feel OK with our relationships and marriages that lasted long after the good times cease to roll.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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