Understanding Relationships in a Changing Culture


Culture and the brain combine to determine expectations and beliefs around relationships. In the many dialogues that I have had with hundreds of other clinicians, I have come to recognize that I, along with other therapists, are immersed in the very confusing cultural messages as the people we are trying to help. We were raised with the same set of beliefs, expectations, and implications of the messages that we receive daily. Like fish in a lake, we are unable to separate ourselves from the social environment in which we live.
In the culture of my great grandmother who was born, married and raised ten children during mid 19th century, Europe, it was accepted that if one of her children had behavior problems, she had a problem child. By the 20th century, if one of my two children had behavior problems, my child had a problem mother. It cannot help but influence how I feel about my childrearing skills. The culture in which we live determines what we can expect.


If I had been raised in England at the time when novelist Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) was writing her fictionalized books of love and marriage among the landed gentry, I would be likely to accept the belief that it is unseemly for a husband and wife to be demonstrative in showing signs of love. I would likely deem it perfectly normal that money rather love is the primary factor in choosing your mate, and that my family would have a big say in who I married. Living in the 19th century, based on then cultural beliefs about marriage and family, I would not be as indignant as I am now hearing of laws that that make it illegal for a husband to beat his wife with a stick “wider than his thumb”. Nor would I have the knowledge or recourse to change laws based on the supposed superiority of males over less physically or intellectually endowed females. As a woman I might have chafed at laws determining that any property I brought into marriage, belongs to my husband to use as he deems fit. Nor would I have had a say in laws that gave custody of children to their father if there we divorced. Moreover, if I felt strongly the unfairness of the relationships between males and females, I would know that if I showed open disagreement of the wrongness of diminished women’s status, it might make me unwelcome in the company of community citizens, a pariah, in the community. A majority of one is not socially welcome. And evolution has bred us to be a very social species.

Relationships are affected not only by culture, but also by biology. In the years before the 20th century, before modern medical treatment, and development of antibiotics, even earlier, before the discovery that microorganisms, germs in the human body caused illness and death, many babies died before they were one year old. I remember my grandmother telling me that she had lost two brothers to diphtheria and whooping cough. She recalled her mother telling her when she was 13 years old that she didn’t want to get too attached when a third brother was born. My grandmother smiled as she said she told how she held her brother in her lap for hours on end. We don’t always listen to attempts to instill cultural norms. What is so amazing is how often the beliefs in a society are taken in as the only possible truths, and passed on from generation to generation.
By the late 20th and current 21st centuries, psychobiologic research has advanced in many ways. We have learned the importance of early attachment bonds, and recognize that children need a loving connection with a caretaker for healthy development, that babies need physical touch to thrive, and the importance of developing positive self-esteem. We revised parenting advice about care of babies based upon new knowledge. No longer do we try to provide as sterile an environment as possible, not touching newborns thinking it would enhance good health. Nor do we have books on parenting that advise, “breaking the will of a child to enhance good behavior. No longer do we encourage total permissiveness, to avoid frustrating a child’s natural impulses. Such advice was popular at different times during the 20th century. Many still believe in attempting to raise children’s self esteem by telling them they are winners for just participating, instead of rewarding excellence. Styles of parenting, just as styles of loving go in cycles, as most people follow what they perceive others in their groups and communities do.
What is interesting when we look at history is that millions of people join lock step, thinking alike, as if some outside force were driving us to new ideas. The feminist movement of the 19th century suffragettes was derided and ignored by many people. The 20th century “Flappers,” young women in the 1920s who wore excessive makeup and short skirts, engaged in casual sex, and drove automobiles, got attention as the "new breed" of emancipated women. But it didn’t change the diminished status of women. The demand for equality went into hibernation during the depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War in the 1940s. It came roaring back when Betty Friedan wrote the Feminine Mystique in 1963. We humans tend to ignore new ideas until they reach a tipping point in a culture, and a sudden shift occurs. The culture makes us do it. And what is culture, but a co-mingling of brains with powerful influence on one another.
This has happened repeatedly throughout history. In the ancient democracy of Greece, the cultural norm for woman was to accept one of several legally sanctioned roles; wife, running her husband’s home, and raising legitimate children, a Hetaera, an intellectual as well as sexual companion, or prostitute to fill men’s physical needs for sex. But the “highest form of love” was considered the love between an adolescent boy and his adult male lover - mentor. Many alternative models arose over the years, often making illegal what had been quite acceptable in earlier cultures.
With the shift from pagan to monotheistic culture, sex moved from pleasure to intercourse based to procreation only. A new morality arose and was accepted in word, if not always in deed. For those who could not resist the call of sex, get married and procreate. “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman…. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion .”
The love between same sex partners became “an abomination,” punished by castration, imprisonment or death. Even in the 20th century, homosexual males were sentenced to long terms for their sexual behavior. Since women during the Victorian era onward were considered nonsexual, lesbian lovers were able to live together without being censured. The relationship was called a Boston marriage, a loving, but nonsexual partnership. Few questions were asked.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the issue became, Is homosexuality an inborn genetic condition, or was it bad behavior that required reeducation and reconditioning? By the 21st century, the battle moved to whether two homosexual partners should be allowed to legally marry. Each of these fundamentally different ideas was culturally reinforced at various times.
Sexuality itself has had radically dissimilar definitions. For most of recorded history, male sexuality was a sign of strength; the reality of female sexuality was dismissed, or considered a sign of wantonness. There are many indications that in the era of prehistory, female sexuality was connected to fertility, and prized by pagan religious communities most concerned with reproduction of children, and production of food. During the first thousand years after to ascent of Christianity, sexuality of all kinds was frowned upon, except for the purpose of procreation.
Again, each of these vastly different ideas about male and female roles lasted decades, and even centuries, and the majority of the population in the social milieu wholly accepted each. What is clear to any reader of history is that violating culturally accepted mores leads to rejection or ostracism. A current example is the belief that any man, who seeks sexual activities with someone other than a single committed partner, may have a psychopathology or be a sex addict. We see it in the reaction to president Bill Clinton, who came close to impeachment for activities with a White House intern, governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, who resigned after the press reported a sexual encounter with a prostitute, a voluntary exchange of money for sex.
What do we do when we see victims of sexual abuse? How do we handle it when we see couples when a partner has been involved or is currently involved in an “illicit” sexual encounter? What is different when we work with a gay or lesbian couple today as compared with a time when LGBTQ was not part of our cultural awareness?
We are part of our culture and our work is very much influenced by the messages all around us. These messages have changed dramatically in recent years. We carry the messages with little conscious awareness, sometimes to the detriment of our patients. We need to rethink our “truths.”
I’ll be sharing my thoughts on this in the next few months.

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