November 18, 2002    Psychology

Postmodern Family

Today, we are keenly aware that gender roles are changing. In the not-so-distant past, we had to accept, against our wish, the roles assigned by our gender because of the material necessities. For instance, it made sense for men, who are physically stronger, to go hunting, and for women, who are physically equipped to nurture children, to stay home. Today, chiefly because of technological advancement, the differences between sexes became less relevant. We, therefore, strive to evolve more ideologically. The question I want to address below is this: If technological advancement can render the differences between sexes irrelevant, then how about the concept of family?

A family is essentially a unit of support system. There were days when we could not survive without it. Today, most of us do fine on our own. Just as some people still prefer to play traditional gender roles, many find comfort in playing the traditional roles of family.

The way a family as a support system works is not dissimilar to the way organized crime works; to receive the sense of security that comes with being a family member, you must pay your dues. As in a typical Mafia family, you don’t want to spell out what these dues are. You do not talk about them as something you have to do, but as something you want to do. You are required to be generous to other members of your family, but this generosity is only a pretense in most cases.

Whenever we do something we don’t want to do, as a human being, we cannot help but expect something in return, whether it is money, recognition, or a favor. The people who feel they are getting more than a fair share of happiness in life appear unconditionally generous, but they are just trying to be fair to everyone; generosity is not what they have in mind. They too would expect something in return if they had to do something they don’t want to do. If someone asks you to be generous but you don’t want to, you’d be better off saying no. If you feel you have to be generous, you cease to be generous because you end up expecting something back. You can only be as generous as you are; a conscious intervention cannot change who you are.

From this perspective, even the supposedly “unconditional” support among family members is ultimately transactional, no different from the support we get from our friends.

Given that a family as a survival tool does not offer any advantage over the one provided by friends, a family in our postmodern era is destined to be something rather ugly.

A postmodern family tends to be a system of codependency. It is a nest from which many refuse to fly away. The fear of losing their support system is perceived and interpreted as love. They want the sense of security, but they don’t want to pay their dues, because, rationally, they can see that they should not need any support. When the real need for support is lacking, psychological codependence becomes painfully apparent.

Codependence gives rise to unhealthy competition. When others have the same problem you have, you are tempted to point your finger at them in order to convince yourself that you do not have it. In a codependent family, pots and kettles call each other black. If anyone tries to fly away from the nest, the other members try to prevent it as anyone succeeding would destabilize the delicate balance of codependency and make the remaining members feel ashamed. It’s a situation where inmates are guarding the prison.

If you are willing and capable of helping others, why differentiate family members from friends? The amount of help you can offer is a fixed pie; if more goes to your family, less will go to your friends, which in turn would mean that the people without families receive less help in general. If it weren’t for our cultural expectations of family, we would be offering more help to friends and strangers. Put it another way, we become fearful of being without a family because other people prioritize their own families. The concept of family perpetuates our fear and insecurity. If we could do away with it, we could all belong to one big family on earth.