Strangers Under the Roof
The Competence Cauldron

Strangers Under the Roof

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

The ear-wrenching honks of cars and dare-devil bike-tricks by youngsters had not yet invaded the quiet time on the sidewalks of the city in the early 1970’s. As a nineteen-year-old, I stepped into the majestic arcades of University College, Trivandrum, a world away from the small-town ambience of Central Travancore where I did much of my schooling. I was effortlessly sucked into the cross-currents of divergent opinions and left-of-the-centre worldview like a cobweb caught in a vacuum cleaner. (At that time, I hadn’t seen one, if vacuum cleaners did exist at all!)

The University Students’ Centre then was quite lively on most evenings and we had regular sessions to discuss and debate apolitical topics. I remember volunteering to speak on “Fresh Perspectives on Family” in one such gathering where everyone pretended to be the intellectual-in-waiting.

In an amateurish attempt at researching, I painstakingly gleaned through books and magazines to prepare my speech. I argued that time had come to cast away our traditional notions on family. If ‘family’ was to survive and thrive, it needed to align with the emerging aspirations of individuals. More than conformance, enablement would define the shape and strength of family in future, I reasoned. In retrospect, my views would arguably have reflected the vacillations of a Kerala Youth caught in the existentialist discourse of that time.

The ongoing lockdown has spawned an array of comments and observations on the emotional pressures generated by the unexpected protocol in social behaviour. Family as it has evolved over the years deserves a serious and critical look in this context.

Among the earliest social innovations of homo-sapiens in their quest for physical and emotional security and sustenance was the idea of ‘family’. It was quite a break from the mate-and-hate culture of the animal kingdom and the violence-ridden struggles for survival by our prehistoric ancestors. For the first time, the ‘family’ defined and delineated a private space, physically and emotionally, where individuals could relish the finer feelings of belongingness and mutual support. Humanity owes much of our subsequent advancement to the enabling climate of warmth, ownership and protection that the family provided.

Family as an institution has been under threat of disruption for quite some time due to the changing aspirations and expectations of individuals. The traditional joint family structure cracked and gave way to nuclear families as the upwardly mobile individuals saw it more restraining than supportive of their ambitions. As the connected and digitalised ‘knowledge society’ manifested in recent years on the back of technological breakthroughs, serious fissures appeared even in the simple family structure consisting of just the spouses and children. We have been inundated with news flows and research findings about the distress-prone family scenario. Incidents of broken marriages, infidelities, lust stories, child abuses, financial frauds as well as apathy towards the elderly and the sick have been spilling over the newspaper columns in recent years.

In the wake of the pandemic lockdown, media reports speak of heightened pressures on the emotional side of the family. There is significant increase around the world in divorce cases and recourse to behavioural counselling in the context of the forced ‘stay-at-home’ regimen. Instances of physical and emotional abuses are alarmingly high. Women, children and elderly are particularly vulnerable to emotional distress and harassment in the lockdown. The increasing instances of fraught family relationships point to the stark reality of how uncomfortable the emotional space within family has turned out to be for many individuals. Time has come for serious introspection as to whether many houses are indeed homes or just brick and mortar structures offering, at best, shelter from physical vagaries of nature.

Contemporary society is a product of digital empowerment. More and more people have access to information on a variety of topics, skills and opportunities. Our ability to tap social networks with a comforting veneer of anonymity adds to social empowerment on the one hand and voyeurism on the other.

True, family is still a key source of emotional support and provides the much-needed private space to recharge ourselves. But the number of people who see the cocooned comfort of the family space as inhibiting their independence and pursuit of social fulfilment has been growing. The competitive attitude of the empowered individual today is a very pragmatic “what is in it for me.” Some studies point out that openness, empowerment and options available have shortened the emotional resilience of people; more and more individuals are looking for instant gratification rather than painstakingly working their way up. Slackness in emotional self-regulation and the inability to postpone rewards to the future trigger the urge to grab sub-optimal benefits available in the short run.

Individuals have a range of physical, social and emotional needs to be satisfied. People are increasingly pursuing a laissez faire behavioural pattern and look beyond the family framework to meet their needs of affiliation, recognition and emotional soothing. I know of professionals who compulsively stay outside homes late into the night due to their addiction for socialising. Alcoholism and binge drinking are the extreme examples of carrying the socialising addiction too far. These habits not only burn our pockets and land severe knocks on health conditions, but also create lasting scars on family resilience.

Though the younger generations are more prone to social media addiction, people of all ages seem to be attracted by it. Anonymity and lack of expectations probably make social media a comfortable place to hang out for many people. The cost that we pay for over indulgence in social media is enormous when measured in emotional terms especially in the context of family.

Even in the best of times, many of us struggle to effectively manage our relationships with the near and dear ones, simply because we haven’t trained ourselves to see things from their perspectives. It’s no surprise that we are woefully unprepared to manage the acute stress caused by a crisis like the lockdown. Even mild infractions can become major irritants and can lead us to take out our frustrations on one another. The foundations on which emotional cohesion and mutuality of interests within the family are built have grown shaky over the years. Many families have grown accustomed to taking one another for granted.

The core issue in managing relationships in the family is the failure to acknowledge and respect individuals as they are. The socio-cultural norms prevailing in many homes in India put the onus of managing the household as an exclusive responsibility of the woman of the house. In a survey in 2019 titled 'Big Small Steps', by Akshara Centre, a paltry 1.5 per cent men said that basic cooking, cleaning and washing were their responsibilities too. For a working woman, the burden of home management and managing the office assignments with professional finesse could be a matter of enormous emotional strain. The absence of the social support mechanism provided by colleagues at work would accentuate the situation in the lockdown scenario.

In case one of the spouses is the homemaker and the other the breadwinner, various combinations of emotional distress can manifest. It can range from emotional bullying to outright patronising. The crux of the incompatibility and uneasiness between spouses is the perceived deficit in empathy, mutual respect and the right to personal privacy. It requires serious unlearning of habits and attitudes to retrieve the level playing ground in marital relations. The traditional caste-based hierarchy and the inherent gender bias against women still continue to drag social progress of Indian society. It remains a blot in the contemporary history of India that public education has failed in preparing younger generations to be gender sensitive, inclusive and accommodative.

Another hotspot in our social psyche is the clash of expectations between parents and children. The emotional alignment between parents and children have many dimensions. Lack of warmth, overcontrol and rejection are three of the critical factors that adversely impact the dynamics of parent-child relations. These have far reaching impact on the shaping of emotional intelligence and social wellbeing of children well into their adult days.

In a study by University College, London (UCL), researchers tracked individuals born in the 1940’s well into their 60’s. They concluded based on empirical evidence that those who reported their parents had intruded on their privacy in childhood or encouraged them to practice dependence were more likely to have low scores in surveys of happiness and general well being carried out in their youth and adult life. The long-lasting impact of rude and insensitive parenting can be devastating. Overbearing parents tend to infantilize children and refuse to provide space for emotional maturing to their children as they advance into adolescence and adulthood.

If anything, the lockdown has brought the woes of unhealthy family relations and the deficiencies in the emotional support system within families out of the closet. The pandemic has shown a mirror to us on how casually and selfishly we have been handling the relationships and interfaces within our immediate families.

As the world gets back to routine, one significant psychological and wellness takeaway would be the opportunity that we now have to reappraise and recommit to the enormous potential of the institution of family to support individuals in their pursuit of dreams.

Use the following five-point checklist to assess your family management skills and resolve to make changes even as we move out of the lockdown phase.

  1. Are you treating your family members as individuals with their own perceptions, aspirations and expectations?

  2. Do you make efforts to understand and appreciate situations and behaviours of others from their perspectives?

  3. Do you spend structured, quality time for family huddles and interactions every day?

  4. Have you created an open, confident and supportive climate for everyone to share their issues and concerns without fear of attracting judgemental and patronising responses?

  5. Do you practice group activities regularly in the family? This could be farming, praying, travelling, meditating, playing or any other activity that provides opportunity for bonding.

Based on your honest introspection, do make a transformation plan and follow through with commitment. May more and more families rediscover the joys of togetherness even as we get back to work and engagements as the lockdown blows over.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach, mentor and start up enthusiast based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at ravikumarpillai9@gmail.com

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Facts and views in the article are that of the author

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