Self-Help / Self-Hurt

One of the persistent problems with the self-help movement is that it can’t understand that the problems most people have are symptomatic of being itself.


Instead of viewing social phenomenon such as divorce as a problem in the historically constructed mindset of a specific generation (Boomers) it instead identifies a problem in the social convention of marriage. This is all well and fine until another generation breaks with the pattern and stays together.


The self-help therapist then has to either choose reality – which would say that maybe marriage is fine and what requires work is the Boomer worldview – or stay close to the path that they’ve walked for decades and declare that millions of Boomers are just not doing this marriage thing correctly. Marriage needs to be tweaked.


In the August 1, 2011 story “Gen X marriages: Divorce is out, monogamy's in” the Baltimore Sun comes to the startling conclusion that Xers are different than Boomers. The story says that divorces have been in decline since the 1980s (a fact which doesn’t itself discount the possibility that older Boomers have figured out how to stay together but never mind that) and that we Xers have somehow figured something out for ourselves.


Hard to believe, no?


The story takes a predictable turn to the right by suggesting Gen Xers remember their own teary childhoods and want to spare their kids that pain, though there isn’t any evidence cited in the story. This narrative (that Xers are staying together only because they don’t want their children to face the things they did) is a quaint fiction.


On first blush, it might appear to be a (gasp) compliment, but it’s not. It’s based not on the belief that folks my age are altruistic, but that our narcissism  projects our problems onto our children and we only do good because we don’t want to face those issues again.


“In any case, it is easier to put the kids first if you remember too well the pain and confusion of your own parents' divorce,” writes Editor Susan Reimer. Oh, I’m glad to see that we owe our successes in staying together to Boomers, however indirect.


So instead of asking what miraculous drug us Xers have been smoking that exempts us from the divorce epidemic, the rest of the article is devoted to the intellectual burps of a Boomer expert, author Iris Krasnow. Putting aside the obvious question – Why not survey younger couples that stayed together, if MOST older couples are having a difficult time? – the Boomer expert launches into a critique of marriage which is itself a deconstruction of Baby Boomer issues with intimacy.


So it’s not unexpected that for Krasnow the enemy of marriage is intimacy, the fear of losing one’s individualism and being ‘swallowed up’ by the other. The antidote for feeling alienated enough to break up seems to be to remove yourself from the relationship so much that you can’t be hurt.


Krasnow suggests setting realistic expectations and keeping secrets as a way to cement the glue on Boomers’ wedding vows: "A secret is different than a lie, and secrets can be healthy. Keep a little part of yourself to yourself. Something that is a mystery.” Yes, there is nothing better for a relationship than a secret internet porn addiction, nothing as magically mysterious as a private crush on a co-worker.


Now I haven’t written a book about why Boomers break up, but if I were to hazard a guess I would say it’s not because one person has “lost” him or herself in the other, but that neither have committed completely. Without that sort of surrender to the other, love is a casual experience that’s as easy to end as a contract for a cell phone.


One of the reasons most Boomers seem unhappy to me is that they have sealed themselves off to others. They have built myths of self-sufficiency that make them difficult to work or live with and this has made them secretly lonely. Every friend they’ve made with winning smiles and tasteful jokes has proven to them how easily manipulated and shallow others are.


Suggesting that fear of losing one’s self is the reason marriages fail is like saying that the only way to beat addiction is never to run out of junk.


I would suggest that Boomers (and everyone else) need to give up their secrets, admit their faults, and learn to have authentic connections with one another and everyone else. But don’t ask me. I’m only an Xer who has been married 19 years.


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