Thursday, April 20, 2006

Garth George: Arrogance of lost generation

Anyone who has read this column for any length of time will know that I hold a rather low opinion of the indisciplines of psychology and psychiatry.

And I have learned that when I read the words "new research" these days I should reach for the salt cellar and shake out a few big grains.

So when I came across both "new research" and "psychologist" in the same sentence in a story in the Weekend Herald on Saturday my critical faculties antenna began twanging like Keith Richards' guitar strings.

By the time I had finished the article, headed with the immensely arguable statement "You can change your partner ..." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I did neither for I was speechless at the insufferable arrogance and self-centredness of the proposition that one human being should set out to change another just because he or she doesn't like the way the other is. But that is what this "research", undertaken by Auckland University psychologist Nicola Overall, was all about.

Her research, reporter Simon Collins told us, was based on interviewing people about how much they try to change their partners, filming them in a five or 10-minute conversation in which they try to change each other, and following up with phone interviews over the subsequent year to see whether their strategies worked.

We are not told how many couples were involved, and I find the methodology rather strange. Because I know that if I were in that situation, arguing with my partner before a camera, I would put on the best performance I could to make myself look good.

And I would be grateful that the follow-up contact was by telephone because I could be certain that my body language and my eyes would give nothing away.

The results of the study, however, were unsurprising: between 94 and 98 per cent of people want to change at least something in their partners; and the average success rate of those who try is dismal, at 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 7.

I say unsurprising because one of the great lessons of life I have learned is that you cannot change other people, you can only change yourself.

And that, human nature being what it is, changing oneself is no easy matter and invariably results, not from the opinions or urgings of others, but from a chronic inner conflict which eventually becomes intolerable.

It seems to me that the generations which have followed that of the so-called baby-boomers are suffering an epidemic of low self-esteem which, I think, derives from an absence of certainties in their lives.

Young people today (anyone under 50 is young to me) seem not to know where they are, where they come from, or where they're going.

An increasingly secular and rampantly materialistic society and the poison of political correctness seem to have robbed most young men and women of the ability to see themselves clearly and to understand that they are unique and valuable just as they are.

That has spawned a vast industry of advice-givers - counsellors, certain social workers, life-coaches, motivators et al -who are coining a fortune by trying to help screwed-up people to sort themselves out.

And, judging by the divorce rate and other partnership break-ups, the number of one-parent families, the abortion toll, the road toll, pandemics of binge drinking and drug-taking and other rents in our social fabric, without much success.

Unfortunately for many, there are no psychological or behavioural-modification answers to what ails them because deep down the malaise is spiritual, not physical or mental.

My generation, and the one that followed, at least had available to us an ingrained knowledge of what was considered right and what was considered wrong (a sense of sin, if you like), of our family history, our nation's history, of our community's mores.

Christianity was alive and well and Sunday Schools thrived, in which children learned the basics of traditionally acceptable behaviour. Boundaries were set, and while many of us wilfully exceeded those boundaries at every opportunity, we knew there were penalties to be paid if we were caught out.

Good manners - the mortar which binds the bricks of society - were valued and society was quick to condemn those who offended.

We knew who we were, we knew where we were, and we had a pretty good idea of what was expected of us. We knew, although many of us perhaps at a subconscious level, that we were entitled to be and to do, but within a framework that went far beyond self.

In today's society, however, which preaches "tolerance" but means anything goes; in which children have "rights" but are taught nothing of responsibilities; in which dog-eat-dog and every man (and woman) for him/herself are seen as virtues; in which those who believe in nothing end up believing in anything; and in which money, property and prestige are the be-all and end-all of existence, self is all that is left.

Which goes a long way to explaining why so many people, desperately unhappy within themselves, demand that others change to suit them, and why a psychologist would take the time to study that phenomenon.

Well, now for the good news. It is possible to change your partner. You simply bugger off and find a new one, which thousands of men and women do all the time in a futile search for the one human being in the world who doesn't exist - the perfect mate.

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