My psychotherapy client, David, is 32 years old. If anything, David is neat. His blond hair is closely cropped. He wears a Banana Republic iron-free shirt, pressed pants, and shiny black shoes. This is the uniform of a mid-level guy at a major law firm.
His eyes are wide and confused. “I just don’t get it,” he tells me, “I think I’m doing everything right but my wife, Cindy, tells me she just isn’t getting her needs met.”
I ask him why he hasn’t been able to attend his psychotherapy appointments with me for the last three weeks. He tells me he couldn’t get out of work. Then he stops and says, “I know. I keep saying that time just keeps going on and things are not resolving. I was saying the same thing a year ago.”
I find out that David and Cindy barely see each other from Monday to Friday. They both work 70 hour weeks. Cindy is in finance. She is stressed and anxious. She has trouble sleeping.
“By the time the weekend comes, we’re both exhausted,” he says, “and we don’t want to talk about our issues. Then before we know it we’re back at work again, and another week has passed.”
He fears they are headed for divorce.
After David leaves I see Lucy. Lucy was just rejected by a 47-year-old guy who bounces from relationship to relationship because he can’t seem to find a woman who is “right” for him. Broken hearted, Lucy, at 39, is convinced she will be alone and childless for the remainder of her life.
Then I see Dierdre who complains about how much time Richard spends gaming.
Next comes Alex who is upset that Jane never wants to have sex.
Paul feels like there must be something wrong with him, because none of his friends answer his emails.
Charles tells me that he can’t stop binge drinking and having random hook ups every weekend. He tells me he does this because that’s what everyone in his peer group is doing and he doesn’t want to be alone.
Stephanie can’t get a date on Match.com.
The stories go on and on. Certainly, as a therapist working in the city, the sample of people that I encounter is a skewed one. But I wonder, is there a pattern here? Through my lens, it appears that though 500 million people are now members of Facebook, people aren’t connecting.
When researchers talk about relationship problems in the post-industrial world, they usually refer to marriage statistics. And these numbers are painful. More than 50% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. The rate of marriage around the world has fallen precipitously and the number of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed.
But these well-known facts only tell part of the story. We have many different kinds of relationships beyond our marital ones. In fact, throughout our whole lives we are inextricably intertwined with others. None of us is, as Paul Simon said, a rock, or an island.
Our life of relationship may be the most important dimension of our lives. Yet, if what I am seeing in my practice is true, and the statistics about marriage and family are any indication, we are facing a connection crisis. Does my sample indicate a larger trend of people feeling increasingly isolated, alienated, lonely, and empty? Statistics bear out this trend. In 1950, less than one in ten people lived alone. Today, fully 25% do.
Where is this connection crisis coming from? None of us knows for sure. But we do know that we are in a period of massive technological and cultural transformation. As a result, many of our institutions are fracturing and this is leading to a great deal of personal dislocation. Though these changes can be painful, the results have both positive and negative aspects. Certainly, much about the old models of relationship needed improvement.
Anybody who is a fan of the hit TV show, “Mad Men” can attest that in many ways things are better for both women and men since the time of that show in the early 1960’s. At that time, men drank and smoked their way to heart attacks and cancer, and women were relegated to roles like secretary and housewife. The notion of an equal, healthy partnership between the sexes had not entered the common consciousness.
The traumatic life stories of all too many of my clients tells us that physical and emotional abuse and neglect were all too common in the child rearing practices of the past. Unfortunately, these practices still continue, but at least we are beginning to expose this behavior as wholly destructive and many, many people are changing their child-rearing approaches to a more positive one.
The transformation in relationships that is occurring as a result of technology is unprecedented and no one knows what the results of these changes will be. On one hand, the new technologies can be a lot of fun. The ability of Facebook to reconnect people who have been out of touch for decades is extraordinary. At the same time, workers are losing downtime to be with their families because of the demands that they remain tethered to their smart phones 24/7.
For all the good that the changes over the last decades has brought about, the connection crisis tells us that they have also created enormous problems that will be with us for many years to come. For example, at least 1 out of every 5 children are living with one parent, which ample research indicates can have lifelong negative effects. Even if children are living with two parents, the economy and parent’s lifestyle choices are keeping many parents of both genders separated from their children more and more.
Out of an awareness of these down-sides and the fear of change itself, many people are reacting to these transformations with a wish to return to the old days and ways. But returning to the past is impossible. Though we know we cannot return to a former time, the connection crisis tells us that what we have now is not the complete answer. We have been throwing over the past without having found something better to replace it with.
Rather than succumbing to hopelessness about the negative consequences to relationships and connection that we are experiencing today, we must look upon this time as one that offers tremendous opportunity. We must envision this as a time when we can advance the cause of human progress toward living in a more loving world.
How are we going to solve our connection crisis? By improving the way we relate to others, whether it is with close family members or people from the most far-flung lands.
In fact, creating new forms for relationships is the most important task of our time. In order to do this, we need to foster a relationship fitness movement. We need to redefine the meaning and nature of relationship itself and find ways to teach humanity how to have better, deeper, more fulfilling, relationships.
This relationship fitness movement must begin with a positive vision of the world of relationships as we would like to see it and to propose methods for achieving this new vision.
Our times demand that we recreate long standing institutions like the family, marriage, religion, school, and the work place. It is up to us to do what we can to improve upon these institutions, rather than to either throw them over completely or to suffer the effects of living with them in an outmoded form.
Not only will this relationship fitness movement improve our personal lives, but it is the only way that we will be able to truly live in a safe and secure world. We are not going to bring about this safer world through military might, which only serves to divide us more. When we truly learn how to listen to one another, and we ourselves feel heard, we become compassionate. And true safety will emerge in the world when we most fully develop our compassion towards one another.
In order to create this vision, here are some of the questions we need to answer.
What is the present condition of our relationships? How are we being affected by the ways we are relating now? What is the impact of our culture, institutions and the new media on our relationships?
What does it mean to have a good relationship? What skills are necessary to have good relationships? How can these skills be taught? How can we teach these skills to the greatest number of people? How can we recruit our schools, religious institutions, the work place and social media to foster better relationships?
The changes that need to be made do not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The new needs to be informed by the wisdom from the past. More than ever, we need what the Akan people of Africa call a sankofa, a reconnection to ancient truths to ground us in a more promising future. What can we learn from our great cultural heritage to help us become something new?
What all of my clients need – what every one of us needs — is basic to human nature and has been primary for people since the beginning of time. Through changes upon changes certain eternal truths remain. In the end, both for our personal fulfillment and the very survival of the planet, we need to figure out how to move humanity ever closer to the realization of universal love.
If we are to survive and thrive in this new world, we need greater and greater numbers of people to learn how to authentically connect in deeper and more sustaining ways. This idea of a relationship fitness movement hopes to contribute to this end. We can only transform our world of relationships if we start doing it here, ourselves. I am very interested in your ideas of how we can bring these kinds of ideas into reality. Please share your thoughts.