When Malinowski coined the ubiquitous term in the 1920s, nuclear families had been at the root of most societies for more than 500 years; yet that was not always the case. In history, we see other constructs that have been much more successful in delivering a wide range of impressive lifestyle benefits as, both, precursors and parallel structures, of this now prevalent reality.
Nuclear families, even by definition, are proponents of exclusion. A nucleus is compactly closed, not open. It hardens its barriers to the rest of the world rejecting fluency. Indubitably a suitable environment for the very young, for young adults and beyond, nuclear families are not enough.
There is a lot of debate around changing this model. Opponents of alternate structures call up a pre-nuclear past filled with squalor, poverty and disease, unsafe and bad in too many ways. The fear of that returning is the bastion of their resistance and their voices are so loud, that many agree and don’t see the need for such development.
Prehistoric societies were dominated by rules larger than this family unit type, even though some anthropological finds suggest that this also existed. The tribe – or band – of sometimes polygamous groups dominated the organizational aspects of society. Polygamy aside, the value of this overarching group was the protection offered to all, independent of the members being or not, in what I would call a sub-structure, the nuclear family.
Later on, with the emergence and increasing stronghold of the “state” over the individual, the role of this overarching organizational system shifted. Nowadays, the state often claims, without always managing, that it performs the duties of protection of the individuals that the earlier evolutionary model offered. Part of the cause of occasional failures is the sheer number of humans alive. Picking up the pieces, smaller communities emerged to take over the well-being of those lifestyle aspects that the state is just incapable of handling. These communities are often social islands of emotional survival that offer, within the large footprint of a country, an additional layer of protection that substantially contributes to a better life and healthier longevity.
LONELINESS IS PRE-PROGRAMMED INTO OUR LIVES BY THE VERY STRUCTURE THAT IS SUPPOSED TO PROTECT US FROM IT
The biggest problem with nuclear families is that they are centred on breeding new generations as if they are the supreme authority on the matter. Yet, on the way, and often unintentionally, they create unhealthy, and sometimes even harmful, co-dependencies between parents, occasionally spilling to children as well.
Nobody wants to admit that they are that family that has issues, that the problems they experience may not be apparently bad, yet they are. Nobody likes to self-analyze their lives when not in a crisis or periodically “realign” them while constructively self-criticizing with fairness.
Physicality is way easier to analyze: we go and adjust our backs, our diets, our sleep, we exercise – continuously or in bursts – we groom, and do our medical checkups. Yet, despite the age we live in, when so much attention and effort is put into the importance of our minds, we perform very little ongoing maintenance in that department. Like with our general medicine, we opt to treat symptoms rather than to deal with causes and realign ourselves before any clinical symptoms arise.
Even when “positive,” co-dependencies deceivingly fill the gap that loneliness creeps into when the co-dependant disappears for whatever reason. On the one hand, it is nearly impossible in a nuclear family to not have a dependency, yet having too much of it shunts your self-sufficiency and emotional resilience.
Would it not be better to revisit how we can continuously improve that right from the get-go? Change how we breed new generations and turn them into healthy, independent, self-sufficient adults? And even though we say this is what we’re trying to do, is that really correct?
As we age, most of us slowly creep into the unpleasant territory where emotionally-supportive co-dependencies are lost by divorce, death or other less dramatic choices we each make, leaving us, crutch-less, with ourselves. Not in the sense that we do not have any friends, family, or anyone in the world to call. Those extreme cases deserve much more scrutiny and fall under a completely different category of care.
I am talking about the simple everyday life when simple people, living in the mainstream of things, are becoming that which they hear on the news, see on the screens, and learn from their friends: painfully lonely and isolated in the sea of modern living.
Loneliness is not solitude. Being alone does not make one lonely, and you can easily feel lonely even when surrounded by many people. In fact, solitude has so many benefits that I believe it to be a great model to study for answers. What makes one lonely is the incapacity to satisfy the individual need for socializing at the emotional intensity one needs to feel “good.” This is the crux of the matter. Not all of us need the same amount of human contact, the same kind or the same intensity. But we each should find our place within this large spectrum and pleasantly maintain it.
According to NIA-supported (National institute on aging, United States) research, loneliness contributes to depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and many other diseases that actively reduce the quality of life and lifespan. At the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, John Cacioppo and his wife conducted breakthrough studies that established the germinal scientific links between the effects of loneliness and longevity. According to their research and predictions, premature death in people of any age can be induced by biological and behavioural processes automatically triggered by loneliness.
How to not be lonely is something that should be taught; it should be taught to our kids and start in childhood.
No universal manual teaches you how to have a good family relationship. No universal manual leads you to be a good parent or maintain certain independence. A healthy amount of ongoing autonomy is the key to fulfilling adulthood and crucial in later years. With it under your belt, you can look at extending your life expectancy by yourself just by virtue of living the way you always did instead of radically drifting away from healthy patterns of interaction into a sea of unpleasant emotions.
Another study out of California has found that single people have a lot more self-determination, social life and personal growth than those married. I don’t believe this is because living with someone else is inherently bad, but because so many of us do not know how to do it well. When single’s life happens at younger ages, there are many goals to follow, dreams to dream and people out there that can fulfill each-others social agendas; as you age, all these pools get smaller.
The signs and tools are all there. We have solutions for combating loneliness, yet it is still prevalent in adults that reach a certain age. We have now tools to merge the nuclear family benefits with the “village” mentality. After more than 5000 years on earth, we are ripe for a better proposition. What would that be?
Stay tuned and find out! Next episode on combating loneliness coming in 2023: The nuclear family is not enough
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