Saturday, May 2, 2009

We, We, We, all the way home!

I’ve thought and written a lot about commitment. Once of the hallmarks of a strong commitment between two individuals is that they have “WE-ness.” In other words, there is a strong identity of “us” and it’s not all about just me or you. In fact, one of the many ways I’ve summarized commitment in marriage is that it reflects “us with a future.” (My book on commitment is linked on the side of this blog. Okay, that was shameless, but someone might be interested!)

Having a strong couple identity doesn’t mean merging the identities of the two individuals into some Vulcan-mind-meld-blob-of-undifferentiated-goo. A lot of people fear the merging thing, some to the point of over doing their avoidance of joining with another; and some people desire exactly this type of merging because of insecurity or other issues. Healthy couple identity means there is me, you, and us. There are three identities. All three matter and all are honored in how we go through life together.

So, WE is good, but it also gets hard to build and hang onto in a culture that is focused on individuality. There is growing trend that reflects the WE thing but undermines it as well. Paul Amato is a sociologist I know and admire, who published a book with colleagues two years ago that I thought was fantastic. (Keep in mind, I mean fantastic in the somewhat geeky manner.) It’s not a self-help book but it is a fabulous, very readable discussion of how marriage has changed in the past 20 years. Amato and colleagues have one of the best research samples in the country for addressing questions about changes in marriage. The book is entitled, “Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing.” If you are interested in marriage as a subject of interest, not just your own marriage, I highly recommend this book.

Today, I’m focusing on one major finding among many from their work. They found that couples, as couples, are increasingly isolated. There is a WE but the WE has, on average, been growing thinner. Think of this as the isolation WE diet. Couples have grown less engaged in shared activities and outside commitments, such as involvement in community groups. Amato and colleagues note: “Couples in 2000 were substantially less likely than couples in 1980 to eat together, visit friends together, go out for leisure activities together, or work on projects around the house together.” They were less likely to do things like be in clubs or groups together, as well. Home alone meets alone together.

Couples do best when engaged in some significant shared commitments outside their relationship, such as to groups, clubs, church/synagogue, etc., and efforts to help others. This trend toward growing isolation is concerning. Amato and colleagues note one exception to this trend, which is involvement in religious organizations, particularly churches. There is a movement toward increased church involvement among married couples since 1980.

My short hand for what they find is the title of this blog entry: We, We, We, all the way home. It’s sort of like couples—at least some couples—have figured out a version of the WE thing, but it’s very much a WE at home and alone thing.

Does this matter? I think it does. Doing some things together, where you are engaged and connected to others in the community, is usually a good thing. Good for you, good for your relationship, and good for the community. Isolation has never been shown to be good for people. While there are some couples who are involved in too many things, the trend for the average couple is toward reclusiveness. If you and your partner have gotten pretty isolated, it’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on your options for doing at least one thing together where you can be involved, together, with others. That would take a decision.

You’re not always safe when you are sliding into home.