Why Commitment? Hannah Horvath vs. Jess Day (part 3 of 3)

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Our donors have a capacity to give a certain amount of money. Stay on message. Our globally distributed products are. Every organization has its corporate speak vernacular. (Some organizations attempt valiantly to destroy corporate lingo.)

The therapy world is no different. Differentiation tops the list of buzzwords for marriage and family therapists.

Murray Bowen co-opted the term to describe the process by which individuals make their own decisions, sometimes by overcoming some kind of inter-familial conflict. Differentiation is gauged through the lens of anxiety, and generally happens for the first time once an individual leaves his/her family of origin (either geographically or philosophically). Undifferentiated individuals identify their sense of “self” through the acceptance of others, and their behaviors vary between controlling/manipulative (forcing others to accept “self”) and unassertive/easily swayed. Differentiated individuals stay calm and collected when faced with conflict and criticism. They recognize their dependence on others, but their decisions are not driven by approval from others. Differentiated individuals (and systems) adapt to change and stressful situations much better than the undifferentiated.

Couples therapists acknowledge that intimate relationships expedite or slow the differentiation process. Psychotherapy Networker, dubbed the conversation about the relationship between intimacy and differentiation “The Great Attachment Debate” with two major players, David Schnarch and Sue Johnson. Schnarch explains that sexual interactions involve an enormous amount of anxiety, risks, and opportunities for rejection. Differentiation occurs by increasing the ability to verbally and emotionally communicate sexual needs and improving the ability to relax via accommodating. Sue Johnson explores emotional vulnerability, explaining that partners take risks or rejection when verbalizing their emotional status. She agrees that sexual intimacy is part of the differentiation process, but argues that one must first feel safe, secure, and accepted in their relationship. Emotionally-focused therapy, Johnson’s model, explains that partners have deep attachment needs and fears (fear of rejection, needing to provide, etc.), and helps partners develop the courage to express and understand these needs.

lena-dunhams-hannah-horvath-mdash-caught-somewhere-between-a-kid-and-a-ladyHannah Horvath and Jess Day join this debate through their narratives of discovering “self” as twenty-somethings. Hannah explores her needs and fears through her sexual relationships with Sandy and Dr. Joshua. Some have suggested that her persistent partial/full nudity throughout the show represents Hannah’s attempt to reduce anxiety and grow more comfortable with her body, even though it “fails to meet” the beautiful standards of Hollywood. Other characters on the show, such as Adam, directly express their pain at not being understood through the art of sex.

zooey-deschanel-300Jess, during the last season and a half of New Girl, awkwardly evaluates her sexual needs and fears with Nick. The first two seasons of the show document Jess’ journey toward experiencing safety and security with Nick (and Schmidt and Winston for that matter). Sometimes the conversations are sexual; other times the conversations are merely absurd. Nevertheless, Jess learns she can trust her roommates, and through this emotional security explores deeper, more vulnerable and erotic aspects of her “self”. Sex validates Jess’ security with Nick in New Girl. Sex experiments in determining whether others (include oneself) are safe in Girls.

So why The Commitment Project instead of The Fornication Project? Both sides of the “Great Attachment Debate” bring valid points about building relationships and developing differentiation. I agree with Schnarch’s assertion that “the bedroom is a window into one’s relationship”. My anxieties about sex symbolize my anxieties about the larger world. In therapeutic practice, I tend to side with Sue Johnson (and Jess Day, I guess) because she acknowledges other aspects of the relational narrative. Johnson’s model accounts for and gives voice to the fears that enter relationships, those that have nothing to do with the partner but get transferred onto him/her anyway. Even though I believe that you need an emotionally secure and safe relationship in order to have a promising sexual relationship, both arenas–emotional and sexual–are vital to maintaining committed relationships.

I’m interested in commitment because I’m interested in the stabilization of family units, as well as dyadic relationships. I’m thinking long-term, big picture with this blog. I believe the most significant determinant for the success of children is how his/her parents prioritize each other. That’s one of the failures of our generation: we, as children and adolescents, were prioritized first. We were catered to. We were allowed to participate in fourteen extracurricular activities so that our calendars ran the house. A part of me is grateful for the sacrifices our parents made. I mean, at least we were prioritized. But what was the cost of the “sacrifices” our parents made?

I believe that our generation can build health families by first sustaining healthy, committed relationships. Relationship maintenance involves being reminded daily that I’m safe and secure both with my partner and with myself. We should absolutely have great sex, and have fun while doing it, using our bodies to physically represent that safety. There are numerous ways to prioritize our partners, our relationships, and ourselves, and I’m excited about exploring the messy, complicated experience of commitment with you.

Why Commitment? Hannah Horvath vs. Jess Day (Part 2 of 3)

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300.newgirl.lc.080511Meanwhile, over on Fox, Jess Day shares her uniquely millennial experience: living with roommates. Following a failed relationship, she transplants her Portlandia replication into an LA apartment with three guys: Nick, Schmidt, and Winston. The New Girl Jess rather hopelessly stumbles in and out of relationships with fancy people and slightly patronizing doctors during the first couple of seasons. Jess seems to regress to a younger, more naive self throughout these relationships, epitomized by Sam (the slightly patronizing doctor) offering her a lollipop before their breakup.

Jess has an endearingly awkward relationship with Nick. She pretends to be his date to a wedding that Nick fears an ex-girlfriend will show up, a night capped by a stunning rendition of the chicken dance (done to a Phil Collins song, no less). He protects Jess from a creepy landlord (and her own painful inability to say no.) He yells his way through his miserable existence until realizing Jess can liven him up a bit. She accepts his comfort following her breakup with Sam, only to punch him in the nose as payback for being (inadvertently) smacked while in a haunted house.

And then they kiss, begin to label subtle things (ironing clothes, for example) as sexually attractive, and toward the end of season two, have sex. The episode following their first night of sex actually provides excellent commentary on the beginning of relationships, between Jess telling off her dad, who does everything short of attacking Nick, and announcing to her middle-school students, “Life’s messy. It…kicks you in the ass. Yeah, I said ass. But it does, it kicks you in the ass. And messy parts are the best parts.”

The beginning of season three actually threatens to delve into the sexual awakening trap, that having sex completely transforms and improves faulty characteristics. For example, Jess quickly morphs out of her generally carefree self and rips into Nick for blowing his father’s money and “having” to pay bills. As one critic writes, “As it is, they act like they’re having sex almost hourly, but we have a difficult time believing that’s happening since the Nick we used to love has totally been neutered by Jess.”

The last few episodes have returned to the series that introduced us to the douchebag jar, indescribable camping adventures, and “Schmidt happens” with the reemergence of Coach, the reminder that Nick and Jess are still strongly insecure, and the bizarrely hilarious Thanksgiving episode. New Girl speaks to the millennial generation because of its humanness and candidness about relationships. Sex is an important part of relationships, but doesn’t encompass them nor define their process of change. The characters in New Girl grow by identifying and owning their insecurities (rather than repressing them), accepting curmudgeonly, arrogant individuals for who they are, and returning to each other in spite of the ridiculous situations they enter.

Why Commitment? Hannah Horvath vs. Jessica Day (Part 1 of 3)

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3827414_origHannah Horvath seems to be hanging on for dear life.

Okay, she and her love interest, Adam Sackler are back together, although Lena Dunham, Horvath’s alter ego and creator of HBO’s Girls, insinuates in interviews their relationship won’t last long when season 3 resumes in January. It took a nervous breakdown stemming from an awful haircut and death-defying experiences with Q-Tips (and for God’s sakes, where did this woman’s pants go?), but she eventually found comfort from Adam, himself recovering from an odd, borderline-sexual assault experience involving ejaculating on a girl’s chest. However, for the moment, Hannah and Adam are back together.

In some ways, Dunham writes a 21st-century sexual awakening narrative. Many stories, from D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover to 50 Shades of Grey (so I hear anyway; I couldn’t make it past page 15 due to egregious use of poor grammar), involve the protagonist expanding his/ her confidence and knowledge of the world via sexual encounters. Sex provides an arena for practicing assertiveness and control for the previously weak, ineffective hero/heroine. Our protagonist seems wiser, bolder, and stronger following his/her sexual experiences.

Hannah Horvath, despite her 48-hour rendezvous with Dr. Joshua and fling with the anti-Hannah, a black Republican named Sandy, doesn’t seem to be gaining control of her life though. On the one hand, Hannah gradually increases her confidence in her atypical (on Hollywood’s standards) body image, as signified by her increasing random nudity. I mean come on, who plays topless ping pong? However, she’s a perpetual mess prone to emotional breakdowns, self-deprecation, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Mary McNamara, LA Times television critic, writes the following: “But lately, watching Girls just makes me feel old. And impatient in a vaguely maternal way like when you see a lovely but irritating wild child running naked around the playground, shouting “vagina” at everyone and peeing in the sandbox.”

Hannah Horvath tells a brutally honest story, one that counters generic sexual awakening, and for that matter, pornographic narratives. Sex is messy, particularly when it involves minor characters. Sex can backfire when used strictly to salve emotional insecurities and wounds. Sometimes it brings people closer together, and sometimes Hannah wakes up the next morning refreshed and reinvigorated. Sometimes the vulnerabilities of sex leave people in a longitudinal state of nudity, both physically and emotionally, desperate for someone to pay attention to, to care for emotional wounds, Sometimes the risks of sex leave people longing to be perpetually clothed.

Though I chose not to focus primarily on sex for my blog and ensuing study on relationships, sex provides a valuable window into the quality of relationships. People with increased sexual quality tend to be more comfortable with asserting their intimate needs to their partners. Hannah Horvath’s narrative accentuates the conflict provided by the messages many in our generation have received about sexuality, that voluptuous body figures and sexual prowess automatically lead to increased self-esteem and happiness.

About The Commitment Project

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Many of my Massachusetts friends are surprised to know that I will have been married for almost six years when I turn 30. (The value of marriage, and pressure to marry in Southern evangelical Christian circles supersedes any kinds of romantic pressures most New England millennials face. That’s another blog post. Or five.) In fact, the average American man gets married at my age, and the average American woman gets married at 27.

cover_marriageStephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage”, describes that though most Americans still get married, marriage no longer organizes people’s lives. Men and women make significant career choices and life transitions independent from the opposite gender. Coontz writes in the Times: “Many alternatives to traditional marriage have emerged. People feel free to shop around, experimenting with several living arrangements in succession. And when people do marry, they have different expectations and goals. In consequence, many of the “rules” we used to take for granted — about who marries, who doesn’t, what makes for a satisfactory marriage and what raises the risk of divorce — are changing.”

The Commitment Project seeks to evaluate potential benefits and costs of modern relationship trends. For example, what are the social implications of the fact that two-thirds of newlyweds cohabited before marriage? How do race and socioeconomic status affect the ability to maintain a relationship? Generally my comments will promote exploration and avoid value statements, but one of the current terrifying relationship trends is in 2011, over one third of reported births were to single mothers. 62% of women aged 20-24, in the middle of my target “millennial” audience, gave births in unmarried relationships.

More importantly, I hope to develop a qualitative research project discussing how millennials define relational commitment. Have our values toward relational commitment changed, as have the venues for expressing relational commitment? What outside resources have shaped our understanding, as well as fears of commitment? I hope that, as more information gets shared, you will be interested in joining me in this project.

 

Welcome

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Perhaps your perceptions of my generation are similar to those (sarcastically) outlined in this clip. An entitled, narcissistic collective with limited focus. An amoral, irreligious group of 20-somethings addicted to sex, alcohol, and the Internet. An irreverent population with limited respect for authority–note the sarcasm in the youtube video. An irresponsible, lazy demographic unwilling to do things themselves and take ownership of their own problems.

Maybe some of these are true. After all, our generation was the first to struggle with the breakdown of the nuclear family. Demographers show that divorce rates peaked in the late 70s, where, perhaps due to the legalization of no-fault divorces, a reported 23 of every 1000 marriages ended. Though divorce rates (a statistical anomaly, as this author explains) have declined since then, our families of origin have been haunted by the myth 50% of marriages will end in divorce.

Perhaps that’s why I became a couples therapist. I believe in the power of lifelong commitment, and have been surrounded by couples in older generations who deeply love each other. My adolescent self feared that my parents would become a casualty to divorce when they argued, but as I’ve aged and moved away from home, I realize that their marriage has never been stronger.

My passion for couples therapy is rooted in my understanding of family systems theory, which states that families must have clear patterns of communication, boundaries, and leadership structures in order to succeed. Millennials have been reared in an inverted society that tells us that we, a group of kids and teenagers, are the most important thing. Our parents have been taught that successful parenting involves meeting our tangible (rather than biological) needs. Successful parents bend over backwards to drive us to numerous extracurricular activities. Successful parents buy us the right clothes and technological advances. The inmates run the prison, and unfortunately, that pattern seems to have continued for post-millennial generations.

Systems theory suggests that the most important dyad in the nuclear family system is the committed relationship between adults. I believe that the most influential work I can do with a family system is providing quality couples therapy. In May, I will be 30. Both my sister and my sister-in-law have children. It’s our turn to develop nuclear families, and our families can maintain greater continuity by placing greater emphasis on the relationship between partners, mom and dad, husband and wife.

Many future blog posts will present conversations on maintaining healthy relationships. I’m somewhat addicted to research journals, so blog posts will shy away from “Ten Ways to ____” and tend to focus on more theoretical issues. I’m also interested in research on social issues pertaining to the millennial generation, specifically around relationship building and family formation. Occasionally I’ll post thoughts from my own relationship, but only if I get the go-ahead from my wife.

I’m excited to begin this journey with the blogosphere. Please let me know what feedback you have as we go along.