Simon Fowler's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘family’

Snapshot of American Relational Life

Posted by Simon on February 9, 2012

While considering Americas relational life recently I pulled together the following facts. I wonder what you make of them? If you see a problem, what do you think the essence of the problem is?

Note: of course it’s easy to cherry pick facts or extract them from context to make a point. And I always have questions about research methods and controls and correlation/causation confusion. But on the face of it, the situation looks pretty grim.

Americans have too few relationships About one in four Americans has no one with whom to talk about weighty matters, and nearly half of the population is one close friend or family member away from being socially isolated. (National Conference on Citizenship

Americans have too many relationships The average American has 634 ties in their overall network, and technology users have bigger networks.

Note: in case you wondered if there’s a limit consider “Dunbar’s Number”: according to Robin Dunbar, the size of our neocortex — the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language — limits us to managing social circles of around 150 friends no matter how sociable we are.

Lenders and borrowers are further apart:

  • geographical distance: local lending institutions no longer make a significant proportion of the loans that are originated.
  • transactional distance: there little direct contact; instead intermediaries such as mortgage brokers, appraisers, insurers, and closing officers, separate the principals.
  • financial distance: many borrowers have no equity (or negative equity) in their homes, and due to the securitization of loans through the secondary mortgage market, few originating lenders retain a stake in the loans they create.

From “The Structural Causes of Mortgage Fraud” James Charles Smith, University of Georgia Law School

More Americans are incarcerated
Adult Correction Populations
Bureau of Justice Statistics

Americans are having fewer encounters (over last quarter of 20th Century)

  • 58% drop attending club meetings
  • 43% drop family dinners
  • 35% drop having friends over
  • 10% more people bowling, but 40% fewer bowling leagues

Couples are committing to each other less, and staying committed less.

  • Since 1970 the number of Americans living together outside of marriage has increased more than 1,000 percent, with such couples now making up about 10% of all couples” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)
  • 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. (NMP, “Evolution of Divorce” Wilcox 2009)
  • Cohabiting couples have a significantly higher dissolution rate than married couples. One recent study found that “children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents’ separation.” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)

Posted in American Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

rLiving Day 17: … and balloons and beer (Continuity)

Posted by Simon on May 17, 2010

The full sentence tonight was, “Dear Gooood, thank you for this lovely fooood and C~ and M~ and Mama and Papa and knives and forks and this lovely food and knives and C~’s picture and M’s picture and balloons aaaand beer. In Jesus’ name, aaaaaaaamen.” M~ (3yrs) just looks around the room to find things and people to give thanks for, including herself. I start grinning as soon as she starts praying just wondering what she’ll notice.

I guess and hope most dads have similar stories, not necessarily of giving thanks around the table, but of their children just doing or saying something wonderfully idiosyncratic in the course of a regular day. But I do in fact hope that most dads, and moms, have lots of dinner table stories, or at least that there’s been the possibility.

Relational Proximity Dimension #2 is Continuity: our relationship is formed and strengthened by the amount, frequency and span of time we are together. It includes a sense of shared history, and an anticipation of the future.

“he learned … ‘to be in the present moment, how to live there at least for snippets of time'”

Who did? A man who was diagnosed with late-stage cancer in mid-2005 and changed his life for those last few months. His wife of 27 years I’m sure was grateful. Apparently, because of his job, he’d only had lunch with her on a weekday twice in a decade. Twice. I’m sure his 14-yr-old daughter was grateful too. And I have no reason to doubt that he loved them sincerely. But it took brain cancer for him to focus on that fact enough to do something about it, to realize that they were more important than work. So he, former CEO of KPMG, wrote a book about it, Chasing Daylight. Presumably so that others could learn from his lesson.

In 2005!!!! This happened in 2005! Four years after thousands of people were utterly stunned to be a missed bus, a failed alarm clock, a cancelled meeting away from death and final separation from their loved ones on September 11, 2001. Did he not hear any of those stories? Wasn’t he himself stunned and bewildered on that day and for time after? His office was in Manhattan. Did not those endless horrifying stories of near misses – even more horrifying when told next to stories of those who didn’t make it – make him reconsider his life then?

I haven’t read the book. I just got those details from the editorial review on But I remember hearing about it on the radio when the book came out and having the same reaction. And I don’t want to judge him in particular. God knows, truly, that I’m in no position to judge him or anyone. He just happens to illustrate, for one thing, how unbelievably self-referential we all are. We seem almost incapable, at least in terms of our attitude, of learning from others. Do we really have to always learn only by personal experience? Is our concept of, and suspicion of, ‘authority’ so whacked that we’re unteachable? Don’t we trust anyone else enough to believe that maybe, just maybe, what they’re realizing or teaching may also apply to us? And if we do, can we not hold on to that thought long enough to have a conversation with loved ones about it and perhaps make a courageous decision about it?

Because this isn’t about feelings, and ‘experience’, but about fairly accessible information, priorities, and decisions. But the main point I want to make is about time. And children.

Relationships consist in time. Chunks of time like hours and days. Frequencies of time like daily and weekly. Spans of time like years and years. At a conference on inner-city development once I asked a guy how I could help young kids without parents (he was a residential worker with such). He said, “First, be home for dinner, be a husband and a father at home, be around.” He said, growing up his friends were always at his house because his dad and mom were around. They craved some kind of stability.

Robert Putnam’s research, published a decade ago in Bowling Alone revealed that “every 10 minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%.” Our neighbors may not notice, but our children will. Decisions we make about our jobs and our locations have huge implications on available time and therefore huge implications on relationships. I recognize that many, many people don’t have much choice about where and how (or even if) they work, but to the degree that we have a choice we should exercise it. I’m amazingly fortunate that my job allows me to be home every night. I’m consciously grateful for it every day because I’m aware how significant this continuity is for my kids.

Being able to tell stories about what our children say and do – the delightful and the hideous – in the humdrum of every day life requires being there for every day life. It’s not always possible, it’s not always exciting, it’s sometimes a drag, but truly it’s what makes life worth living.

Posted in Continuity, first-follower, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

rLiving Day 10: Family (Relational Proximity)

Posted by Simon on May 9, 2010

The girls were playing around in bed tonight, avoiding going to their own beds. They’d had a few spats today, as most days. But they were having a laugh now and suddenly M~ (3yrs old) grabbed C~ (5yrs old) around the leg and gave her the biggest squeeze saying, “I wuv you C~!”. I’m sure tomorrow at some point they’ll be screaming again. That’s what happens in families.

Who are the people most important to you? With whom do you have the most significant relationships?

I suspect you included, perhaps exclusively, ‘family’.

Why is that? Is it just, well, because? Maybe relational proximity explains why families end up being the most significant relationships we have even if they’re not the best. Relational proximity doesn’t guarantee relational health, it provides the basis of possibility for health. Here’s a quick attempt at working through the model in the context of families. I’m going to try it as though looking back. But first here’s a quick recap of the five dimensions:

1. Directness – the degree to which the relationship is unmediated and truthful
2. Continuity – the degree to which it has a history, the parties meet regularly, and it has an expected future
3. Multiplexity – the degree to which the parties know each other through different contexts
4. Parity – the degree to which there is a symmetry in power
5. Commonality/Purpose – the degree to which they share a sense of common purpose or identity

So here’s an attempt at looking at all five with respect to the health of family relationships.

1. Directness
+ We’ve shared physical space, face to face; our real selves have been more exposed to each other (at least in the early years, but even later it’s difficult to fake it) because it’s really hard to keep up a pretense ALL the time.
– Lack of face to face time with parents or even siblings has been a grievous loss (even if we got used to it).

2. Continuity
+ We’ve seen each other daily, weekly, monthly for years and years; we have a lifetime of shared history, and an unquestioned anticipation of a future relationship until the day we die.
– Moving away to different cities or countries, while not changing the deep sense of belonging, prevents us knowing each other as we are now (so we end up regressing to our teens whenever we meet!)

3. Multiplexity
+ The number of different things we’ve done as a family, the number of contexts we’ve seen each other in, is almost uncountable. So we really, really know each other, whether we like it or not!
– We were always taken to events and other activities by other people, not our mom or dad. We only had a domestic life together – eating or chores – we never did anything else, so I never knew what they were capable of.

4. Power
+ We felt safe and protected and also respected; encouraged to try things out knowing we had a back-stop.
– We felt scared and intimidated. We loathed the pain and humiliation.

5. Commonality/Purpose
+ We all had the same last name! We had the same blood. As an adopted child I never felt anything other than their true son/brother. We didn’t exist just for ourselves, we realized that as a family we could serve others.
– I was the outsider, the black sheep. We were expected to follow the family business, as though that was more important than just being family.

I’m not sure these are the best examples. But I think it’s possible to see that you need to have all the positive elements of these five to even have a chance to loving each other.

Do these resonate with you? Do the five dimensions help explain the dynamics of your family?

Posted in RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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