Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Families: A precious roller coaster ride

Families are diverse and dynamic institutions. They comprise the people you don’t necessarily choose to be in your life, the people you grow up with and with whom you share many experiences, both good and bad. They are the people who you go through various stages with, loathing them at times and wanting to emulate them at others. They are also the people who you choose to bring into your life through marriage, a civil union or some other kind of domestic partnership, and they are the people, whether an actual family member or a friend, who you can always count on to be there for you no matter what, the people who you know will always give you a place to call home.

As indicated in the above paragraph, there is no one definition of a family. Several decades ago, in the 1950s especially, the majority of Americans would have defined a family as a mother, a father, one or more children and a dog. Today, however, a family can be defined in numerous ways: the aforementioned example, a single mother or father, and a divorced, remarried, inter-racial, gay or lesbian couple, among others. Jim Rule’s song, “A Family is What You Make It,” perfectly illustrates the idea that a family means something different to each person. The lyrics are as follows:

I used to believe that a family
Was a mom, and a dad, and 2.3 kids,
and a great big station wagon or a mini van
And a house and a dog and a cat.

But now that I've seen lots of families,
I know it's not always like that,

Because a family is what you make it.
It's you and your loved ones, whoever they are.
You've got to give and take it.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.

I used to believe I was normal
Now I don’t know what that means.
‘Cause if your family keeps you cozy and warm all right
and fits you like a pair of your favorite jeans

That’s what’s important. That makes it right,
Snug as a bug on a cold winter’s night.
Someone to love you and someone to fight
for your right to be just who you are.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.

However, no matter how one defines a family, there are going to be many trials and tribulations. As much as I would like to believe that the perfect family exists, it doesn’t. It would be ideal if every family could be like the Cleavers in the 1950s show, Leave it to Beaver, or the Brady Bunch gang, where problems are always resolved and everyone ends up being happy together. Instead, family relationships, just like any type of rapport, are like a roller coaster ride, taking each individual through many ups and downs over time. The 1998 movie, Pleasantville, demonstrates the idea that there is no such thing as the perfect family. In this movie, the two main characters, David and Jennifer Wagner, played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, are changed into the characters of a 1950s show that depicted the perfect family, where the father comes home from work, saying “Honey, I’m home,” to a house full of smiling faces and dinner waiting on the table. However, as the movie progresses and David and Jennifer influence the Pleasantville residents, this perfect lifestyle diminishes. For example, Betty and George Parker, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy, who depict the ideal couple, grow apart. The primary reason for this break in the marriage is that the two want different things. George wants things to stay as they were while Betty prefers her new life of color and excitement. Perhaps deep down Betty was always unhappy with her “perfect” life but suppressed her feelings. The new ideas that David and Jennifer introduced were the catalyst for her to release these emotions and seek a more liberating life. George is not able to respect his wife’s changes and new desires, which causes him much grief and ultimately ends their relationship. The following clip illustrates George’s inability to accept change and move on.

Marriages often end when there is a lack of sacrifice, commitment and respect, as in the Pleasantville scenario. Problems can arise in a marriage when one spouse decides to put work first and sacrifice time with family. An example of this comes from last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy. In one scene, Dr. Bailey, played by Chandra Wilson, and her husband argue about the number of hours she spends at the hospital. He tells her that the only time he sees her is before he goes to sleep at night and for a few minutes in the morning before she leaves again. Her work habits are an obvious strain on their relationship. However, issues with gender roles are also responsible for their problem. During the argument, Bailey’s husband indicates that he does not like the idea of staying home with their newborn son while she goes to work. Stay-at-home dads are becoming more common today, yet Dr. Aaron Rochlen, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Texas, notes in his babble.com article, “Maybe We Are Mr. Moms; Dad Survey Tells All,” that it is still difficult for men to leave their traditional role as breadwinner. He refers to a study of stay-at-home dads conducted at the university in April that found that the happiest stay-at-home dads were the ones who did not fit the traditional gender roles. He notes that according to the survey, “those who seek dominance over women, have trouble expressing themselves, feel they must do everything alone and have a penchant for John Wayne movies have a tough time on the at-home homefront.” Judging from this survey, it is likely that Bailey’s husband cannot accept any changes in the traditional gender roles.

When all of the important facets of a relationship, including caring, compassion, commitment, trust and friendship, diminish too much, then the relationship will also diminish. My aunt and uncle are an example of these fading elements. They often fought with each other and expressed their anger very clearly by attacking each other verbally and even going as far as throwing dishes at each other. The primary reason for these continual arguments was that they lost respect for one another, and my aunt lost her trust for her husband after she found out that he cheated on her. Their weakening relationship eventually led to divorce. My aunt has since remarried and seems happy with her new family. So “cleaning her house” with her ex-husband was necessary for my aunt to recover her happiness. The funny thing is that now both of them are friends and seem to get along better than when they were married. I guess that a romantic relationship was not right for them.

Societal pressures can also cause problems in families. First of all, Rebecca Sweat notes in her vision.org article, “Frenzied Families,” that there are more social pressures on parents to create enriching opportunities for their children. As a result, the parents enroll their kids in various activities, hoping that they will become successful, well-rounded individuals. William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Take Back Your Kids, points out that “we have higher expectations today of what our children should be experiencing, what they should be learning, and what they should be doing.” Yet, at the same time, the parents are creating busier lives for themselves and their children, which deprives them of quality time together. Sweat points to a 2001 study at the University of Minnesota, which found that conversations between family members in a household decreased by 50 percent in the past 20 years. She notes in another vision.org article, “The Family that Eats Together,” that “when family members are constantly on the go, one of the first casualties is the family meal.” In fact, according to the Food Marketing Institute, only 40 percent of American families eat dinner together, and that is only two or three times a week. When family members are so busy, they have less time to communicate with each other, share experiences and just enjoy each other’s company. When I was younger, I always used to eat dinner in front of the TV while my parents and brother ate together at the kitchen table. Then one day when I was about 12 years old, I decided to sit at the table, and it was such a different and better dinner experience. I was able to tell them about my day and learn about theirs, which is important when everyone is not together during the day. Now that I think back at the time when I ate in a separate room, I don’t know what I was thinking because today, those dinners with my family are times that I miss deeply. Ironically, I missed those family dinners this Thanksgiving because this was my family’s first holiday without my brother. He got married during the summer (the photo at the top is of the wedding), and this holiday was spent with my sister-n-law’s family. We were not able to have Thanksgiving with everyone because her family is in Florida, and the travel expenses were too much for both families. This experience was difficult for both myself and my parents, but I think more for my parents since they were not expecting shared holidays so soon. My brother and sister-n-law started dating last November, were engaged by May and married in July — a completely different love style than my parents, who dated for two years before marriage, were used to. Although it was saddening not to see my brother where he usually sat at the table, I think I handled the situation pretty well. However, I now know more than ever that time spent with family is precious and should never be taken for granted.

Another issue that can cause problems in families is when individuals go through various stages of life, as indicated in Gail Sheehy’s essay in Mercury Reader, “Predictable Crises of Adulthood.” One stage in the Sheehy’s “development ladder” occurs between the ages of 18 and 22. During these years, individuals often rebel against their parents and want to prove to themselves and to everyone else that they can take care of themselves. Individuals during these years will also try to avoid being seen with their parents in public, especially among their peers. The following clip from “8 Simple Rules...For Dating My Teenage Daughter” epitomizes this phenomenon. In this scene, Bridgette, played by Kaley Cuoco, doesn’t want anyone at the mall to know that she is related to her father, played by the late John Ritter, and bother, played by Martin Spanjers. In fact, she says that she wants to stay at least three steps behind them. I can relate to Bridgette’s feelings because when I was in high school, I never wanted anyone to see me with my parents. I guess you could say that I was embarrassed of them.

However, I now think it is important to accept all family members no matter what their little quirks might be. Learning acceptance is something that Clark Griswald, played by Chevy Chase, in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation needs to learn. Since he thinks that some of his family members are bizarre, time spent with them during family get-togethers is something that he dreads. However, when getting past everyone’s oddities, families will be able to have an enjoyable, and in the Griswald’s case, comical, time together.

Therefore, the relationships between family members come with many ups and downs. However, if we learn to get through all of the low points, we will be able to not only maintain but also enjoy those precious rapports. After all, when we reach the bottom, the only way to go is up.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Men and Women: Same Species, Different Planets

It’s no secret that men and women are different. Just look at the symbols that distinguish a male from a female — they are different colors, shapes and directions. The physical differences between a man and a woman are also very clear. However, beyond the obvious gender differences are the dissimilarities that have required much research and analysis: communication styles. The ways men and women interact are so different that linguist Deborah Tannen refers to male-female exchanges as cross-cultural, and psychologist and relationship expert John Gray goes as far as saying that men and women are from different planets. With the vast amount of differences in the field of gender communication, I tend to believe that Gray might be on to something when he says that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

The first difference in communication styles between men and women is body language. In her book He Says, She Says: Closing the Communication Gap Between the Sexes, Dr. Lillian Glass notes that men take up more physical space when they sit or stand, with their arms or legs stretched out away from their body; gesture away from the body; and assume more reclined positions when sitting and listening. These differences in body language are evident in a classroom. For example, as I observed my current classes and thought back on my former ones, I noticed that the majority of male students seemed to be lounging more than the female students — sitting on the edge of the seat, legs stretched out in front of them and leaning against the back of the chair. However, this isn’t the case for all the male students. Some have very good posture, while a few of the female students assume a reclining position. Such positions could send the wrong message to the teacher. For instance, the teacher might conclude that the students are not interested in the subject matter or that they are not paying attention fully. If this is just how someone sits in order to be comfortable, then a miscommunicaiton has occurred. The differences in body language are also evident in news programs and talk shows. For example, when Good Morning America correspondent Bill Weir interviews Johnny Depp, he leans back in his chair and often makes large hand gestures that take up space. (Pay attention to the following times in the interview: 1:12, 1:49, 3:03, 4:12 and 4:30). On the other hand, when Katie Couric interviews Brad Pitt on The Today Show, she leans in toward her interviewee, does not lean against the back of the chair and although she makes some hand gestures, they are not as expressive.

Another difference in communication styles between men and women is how each gender listens. In the Mercury Reader article, “Sex, Lies, and Conversation,” Tannen notes that most women complain that their husbands don’t listen to them. She says that the “impression of not listening results from misalignments in the mechanics of conversation.” In other words, men do not maintain eye contact when they are having a conversation, which signals to the women that they are not paying attention. This communication difference is illustrated in the case study “He Says, She Says.” When Ginger is talking to her boyfriend Luke, he often responds to her while watching a roller blader pass by or glancing at a construction site. Julia T. Wood, the author, notes that “Ginger tries to make eye contact with Luke, but his eyes remain focused on the construction.” However, this is just his style of listening. Although he often looks away from her, he still responds to her, which indicates that he is listening. Yet, women want more assurance that their male conversation partner is listening to them. I have seen my mother often get angry at my father and accuse him of not listening to her because he is either watching TV, looking at his dinner, or doing something else while she is talking to him. Although he might not hear what she says every now and then, for the most part, he is listening. In fact, as I was reading the part in “Sex, Lies, and Conversation,” where the college student’s boyfriend listens lying down with his arm over his eyes, I thought of my father. He gets up at 3 in the morning to go to work, and as a result is tired early at night. He often sits on the couch and just rests his eyes. When my mother talks to him like this, she presumes that he is ignoring her. However, he is listening; he simply responds with his eyes closed.

A third difference in the way men and women communicate is that women talk to relate while men talk to resolve. In the Expert Magazine article, “Helping Business Women Bridge the Communication Gap,” Rosalind Sedacca notes that women focus on communicating, making connections, exploring emotions and being understood, while men focus on taking action and solving problems. I have noticed this difference in my relationship with my brother. Whenever I talk to him and tell him how stressed or worried I am about something or about any other problem I am having, he usually tells me what I should do. Sometimes, his advice irritates me because I wasn’t telling him about my problems so he could suggest a solution; I was simply filling him in on some aspects of my life. At first, I thought he felt like he needed to give me advice because he is older than me, but now I think it is that coupled with the fact that he is a male. Tannen put this difference best when she said that "women talk to establish rapport ... while men talk to report." This rapport/report difference is illustrated in the following clip from the TV show Friends. In this scene, Rachael (Jennifer Aniston) tells her friends Monica (Courtney Cox) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) that she and Ross (David Schwimmer) kissed. Monica and Phoebe immediately want to know all the details and are very attentive. In fact, Monica even tells Rachael not to start the story without her as she runs to get wine and unplug the phone — she doesn’t want to miss a thing. Now when Ross tells his friends, Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) about the kiss, he leaves out all the details. He is simply reporting what happened.

The Friends clip demonstrates one last difference in gender communication: the idea that women are more comfortable self-disclosing personal information. Rachael has no problem revealing to her friends all of the details about her kiss with Ross. In fact, her friends expect that she will disclose this information, while the opposite is true for Ross. I have also noticed this difference in the workplace. At my internship this past summer, the female employees seemed friendlier with each other than the male employees did with the other workers, both male and female. The women often spoke about topics outside of work, such as their family or future vacation plans, while the men spoke more about work-related topics. If a female worker were not aware of the differences in gender communication, she might perceive her male co-worker as unfriendly.

It is possible for disputes to arise when both parties in a relationship do not understand the differences in gender communication. Clinical and Medical Psychologist Michael G. Conner says in his essay, “Understanding the Difference Between Men and Women,” that “recognizing, understanding, discussing as well as acting skillfully in light of the differences between men and women can be difficult.” Sometimes it would be helpful to have a gender translator, as suggested by this cartoon. With or without a translator, Conner stresses the importance of this understanding because “our failure to recognize and appreciate these differences can become a life long source of disappointment, frustration, tension and eventually our downfall in a relationship.” Therefore, it is essential for both men and women to understand the different ways the opposite sex communicates. Only then will male/female relationships become and remain healthy.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cleaning House & Moving On

When our rooms or our houses get too dirty or unorganized, we clean them so we can feel more comfortable. Sometimes, we also need to “clean up” our relationships that have become too uncomfortable or unorganized. This tidying up might mean making changes to the relationship or ending it altogether. Either way, when a relationship becomes too “dirty,” something must be done in order to ensure that the rapport remains healthy and helps the individuals grow.

There are numerous reasons why a relationship would need to be cleaned up. One reason is when the costs of a relationship outweigh the rewards. In other words, when someone is taking advantage of a friend, lover, spouse, or family member. An example of this exchange comes from an episode of the ABC show According to Jim. In one scene, Cheryl, the mother, cleans the kitchen until it is spotless. She is very proud of this accomplishment because with three children and a husband, this room can get quite messy. When she is finished, she leaves the room with a sense of achievement. However, just after she completes this task, her children and husband come in and make a mess, not even noticing her work. In the show, Cheryl resorts to alcohol to cope with her relationship problems, which indicates that feelings of unimportance in a relationship can have significant negative effects on an individual. According to the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, the threat of being taken advantage of in relationships often results in feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. When feelings of unimportance exist in a relationship, something needs to be done. In a situation like the one from the show, it is unlikely that the mother would decide to end the relationship with her family. Instead, she could do what my mother did when she felt like all of her housework had gone unnoticed — sat her family down, explained her feelings and suggested ways to enhance the relationship; perhaps a simple “thank you” from time to time. As I was watching the clip from According to Jim, I immediately thought about the article from Mercury Reader, “Why I Want A Wife.” The author, Judy Brady, lists all of the reasons why she would want a wife. The list is extremely long and includes the following: someone to take care of the kids while she is at work or at night classes for her college degree, someone who will keep the house clean and pick up after her, someone who will sympathize with her when she is sick and someone who will help entertain her friends. The reasons Brady lists represent the Western idea of the typical wife and mother. However, the way Brady describes the role of a wife indicates that her rewards are very slim and her costs are very high. The above cartoon also illustrates the idea that a wife's many duties are usually taken for granted.

Another reason why a relationship would need to be cleaned up is when the interests of the individuals undergo a drastic change and create two dialectics that do not mesh well together. Sometimes there are desires that cannot coincide with each other, leaving an individual to make a choice. For example, in the movie Keeping the Faith, Edward Norton’s character, father Brian Finn, struggles with the decision between his vows to the priesthood or his love for Jenna Elfman’s character, Anna Reilly. Ben Stiller’s character, Rabbi Jake Schram, deals with a similar choice: his love for Anna or his religion (As a Jew, it is not encouraged that he marries outside of the faith). Anna, who loves Jake, also has a decision to make: whether or not to convert to Judaism. Each character weighs the pros and cons of each choice and makes the best decision to help them all grow. I also had to decide whether or not to end a relationship when I was younger. When I was eight years old, I met my childhood best friend, Sarah. When I met her and for several years after that, she and I shared the same interests — the same movies, music, sports and other pastimes, like drawing, baking and practicing our flutes. We saw each other nearly everyday since she lived down the road from me, and we also did everything together; she was like the sister I never had. However, when we entered middle school, her interests changed. She found a new circle of friends, started listening to hardcore rock music, began to curse, smoke, steal and party, and no longer liked to draw or bake. She was like a completely different person, and the complete opposite of me. I tried to make the friendship last by continuing to spend time with her, but it wasn’t the same. There were times when I felt like she didn’t care about me or that she wanted to get me in trouble. For example, one day when we went to our local pool together, she met a boy and then spent the rest of the day with him. She also tried to persuade me to steal on several occasions, which was something I did not feel comfortable doing. When I realized that her influences were harming my growth as an individual and that our relationship was never going to be the same, I decided that it would be best to end the friendship, which was one of the hardest things I had to do. She was my best friend for five years, and losing her was like losing a significant part of myself. Yet, I knew it was the right thing to do. According to Nicole Thrasher, who wrote about ending a friendship on helium.com, although it might be hard to end a friendship, knowing when to end it is an intrinsic quality. “It’s much like a romantic relationship,” she said. “It’s not always that the love is gone, but that there's so many other things blocking it, it’s not really worth fighting for anymore. When the time comes, you will know how to end it.”

Still, another reason that a relationship needs to be cleaned up is when there is a loss of trust and security. For example, when I was six years old, my parents decided that the town we were living in, Clifton, was becoming too unsafe for my me and my brother. My mom heard rumors that the middle school was becoming increasingly dangerous since students were bringing knives into the building and starting fights, and the town in general was just becoming less family-friendly. Therefore, my parents decided to move. When I heard this, I became angry and then started to cry. I didn’t want to move and leave the only home I’ve ever known. Saying goodbye to my room, the house and my friends was really hard for me, especially because we were moving to Vernon, which was more than an hour away. I never understood why we had to leave Clifton, and whenever we were in the area, I would ask to drive by our old house. Seeing the house and the changes that the new residents made to it only made my heartache stronger. However, time eventually healed that wound, and I started to like my new home in a safer environment.

There are many more reasons why a relationship — whether it’s with a spouse, romantic partner, friend, town or lifestyle — should be cleaned up. Those reasons are too many to list here, but the same thinking applies to them all: If a relationship is impeding your growth in any way, try to repair it, and if it cannot be fixed, then think about ending it. In the end, you might realize that this change was for the best.