If nothing else, after 50 years fighting poverty, one thing’s clear: America hasn’t found the right WMD.
Poverty’s still the winner.
Among the most ill-advised social programs developed to counteract the effects of single parenthood on women is one that promoted marriage as an effective weapon. While it’s true that a healthy, stable marriage between two committed people helps in the battle against hopelessness and helplessness, there may be a population not committed to marriage in the first place.
Whoever conceptualized that encouraging the chronically ill-prepared to otherwise marry was delusional at best; a bureaucratic butt-kisser at worst.
What were they thinking?
Not in doubt is that solid relationships can be beacons, gateways to education, employment, mental and physical health. The kicker is that such relationships can’t just be imagined, wished for, or expected without knowing how solid relationship works and passing it on, for at least 5 generations that adopt healthy marital functioning.
Marriage, itself, is a complicated construct that, in the hard sense, pre-exists poverty. Lack of knowledge is a set-up to failure to anything (imagine wiring a house without knowledge of electricity), especially regarding something as profoundly complicated as building a better relationship. Put bluntly, how can anyone expect that partners raised in dysfunctional families would, by dint only of wanting to, create a functional one? That marriage is imbued with such magical powers that, by its very existence, an intricate human condition is untangled? Or that the people who inhabit those relationships remain, generation after generation, committed to their marriages?
Welcome to the Magic Kingdom.
Children learn what they see. Further, children seek more than anything to belong and to be loved. When the cost of having that is withstanding an environment that is counter to family/relationship health — e.g. abusive, withdrawing, uncommitted, adulterous, enabling, permissive, angry, addicted or violent – children often choose unhealthy over healthy. Immature brains learn that this is what marriage and family looks like. Even people who strongly react against their upbringing stand the risk of riding the pendulum to the other extreme, becoming overly compliant, accommodating, permissive, rigid, pious, rule-bound.
The knottiness of relationship is that each of us brings a perspective on these experiences that are often different from our partner’s. Often explosive, this confluence paves the way for increasingly unhealthy negative behaviors for each partner as well as the relationship.
Marital success is promoted when partners participate in learning relationship skills. Partial participation, which seems the rule, doesn’t count; it’s like being “sort of” dead. Besides, when a parent is struggling to provide the basics of life, little, if any, focus is given to the hard work needed to sustain a healthy union during formal couples education, let alone past its end.
Abraham Maslow put it elegantly when describing what needs to be in place before someone can even minimally “become”. The condition of being poor, pregnant and female plays out on a stage of basic needs where relationship improvement is trumped by paying the rent. In the same way, one wonders if self-esteem can be extrinsically motivated in generations raised dysfunctionally.
Poverty in America is generations-old; institutionalized; a mind-set. It would stand to reason that any upward movement on the psychosocioeconomic ladder would also be a lengthy process. A multidimensional process. And a difficult one. As we see development of the New Poor, Americans’ marital behavior will be interesting to track. Will there be a relinquishment of the values that inspire healthy relationship? Will difficulty bind people closer together? And what will happen to the trillions of dollars spent on social welfare programs that, fifty years out, have been unsuccessful in eliminating poverty?
That social success in other countries is not surprising given the unique social structure and size of the United States. While a nation as small as Finland, for example, may be socialistic success in reducing the strife of single parenthood, Finland is not the United States. Not in vastness of size, diversity, political structure, and multiculturalism. Even in the best of situations, marriage is no less multidimensional or difficult; with behavioral and attitudinal improvement also measured in generations.
While I offer no resolution to the multiple dimensions encompassing poverty (my magic wand is broken) better minds than mine have tried and failed.
I do know that a uni-dimensional solution to single mothers’ poverty through marriage insults the problem and ignores the complexity of the fix itself.
For more insights, read Julie Baumgardner’s response to the Council on Contemporary Marriages position on this subject. Ms. Baumgardner is the Chair of the National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education.
Kathe Skinner is a Marriage & Family Therapist in private practice in Colorado. Over almost two decades, she has seen low percentages of middle-class couples who have engaged in relationship education continue to apply what they learn. She calls the ones who have, like Adam and Leslie, “Super Stars” and their existence is cause for a smile every day. For almost 30 years, Kathe and her husband, David, have been committed to each other and to their marriage. As Jethro Tull once said, nothing is easy. Read more about their programs for couples at http://www.BeingHeardNow.com.
©2014, Being Heard, LLC