MISINTERPRETED RELATIONS AND. INAPPROPRIATE FEELING
A bride and a mourner live out roles that are specific to an occasion. Yet the achievements of the heart are all the more remarkable within roles that last longer and go deeper. Parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and best friends expect to have more freedom from feeling rules and less need for emotion work; in reality, however, the subterranean work of placing an acceptable inner face on ambivalence is actually all the more crucial for them. In fact, the deeper the bond, the more emotion work, and the more unconscious we are of it. In the most personal bonds, then, emotion work is likely to be the strongest. At the other extreme, it is a wonder that we find emotion work at all—and not simple pretending—in the bill collector and the flight attendant. But we do, and because their contacts do not cut so deep, their emotion work rises more readily to the surface of consciousness where it can be seen and talked about. We may look at it where it is easiest to see in order to infer where, in the cement of the most personal bonds, it is strongest.
The family is often considered a “relief zone” away from the pressures of work, a place where one is free to be oneself. It may indeed be a refuge from the emotion work required on the job, but it quietly imposes emotional obligations of its own. Of these, perhaps the feeling obligations of parent for child are the clearest. Here, if nowhere else, we say love is “natural.” Culture may govern its expression, psychology may explain its unfolding, but we take parental feeling itself to be “natural.” It needs no normative shield, no feeling rules, we think, because nature does the work of a convention for us. In fact, however, we do seem to need conventions here—not because parental love is unnatural but because it is so important to security and sometimes so difficult to sustain.
The relation of parent to child differs from other close relations in three basic ways. First, the bond usually endures. Especially during the child’s tender years, we feel that a parent should not emotionally “divorce” a child. Second, the bond is tight because in the beginning a child depends upon it for virtually everything. Third, the bond is usually embedded in a wider network of kin and friends. Any bond like the one between parent and child is subject to ambivalence and the rules that contain it. The child loves and hates the parent, and the parent loves and hates the child. But cultural rules in each case prescribe acceptable mixes of feeling. These rules come to consciousness as moral injunctions — we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel this, we “have a right” or “don’t have the right” to feel that.
There are tests of parental love. A parent may habitually lie or rage against a child without explanation. And when the child cannot muster the love or sympathy that a father, for example, thinks himself owed, anger may emerge unprotected by the shield of entitlement to it:
Two years ago my father quit his job and in the process admitted himself into Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital for treatment of what was then diagnosed as manic-depressive psychosis. After being released, he admitted to the family many cruel and deceiving things he had been doing behind our backs for the past ten years. At the time I remember thinking that I should show him my love now more than ever before, that I should forgive this pitiful man who had lost the respect of his wife, his co-workers, his friends, his children, and most of all himself. But all I could feel was anger at his deception, anger at his once “funny” behavioral quirks that now suddenly came into sharp focus. I fought the obligation to love because I needed to hate. I had to resolve my own feelings before I could worry about his.
This son really wanted to forgive his father and to respond to his father’s desperate need for self-respect; he also felt obliged to feel forgiving. Yet because he himself felt deceived and angry at being deceived, he could not feel as he wanted to and thought he ought to. He could not see his father’s activities as “quirks”; he could not sustain that as if and feel the love he would experience if they were just quirks. Instead, these activities felt like deceptions. And given the serious reality of the deception, the boy felt angry. He did not revise what he sensed he owed his father—loyalty and love. He did not reconceive of his former love for his father as overpayment. He did not conceive of his father as be ingin emotional debt. Rather, the rule stayed in place and he “fought the obligation to love” because he needed to hate. He did not change the feeling rule. He acted on a strong need to violate it.
Such events differently interpreted often create problems between parents and children. In the following example, what the mother might have seen as a trying episode for a single parent, deserving of sympathy and understanding, was to the daughter simply inexcusable selfishness. As the daughter, a twenty-year-old college student, wrote:
I was alone in the house with my mother, who had been very unhappy and was making all of our lives miserable. Part of it stemmed from her hating the house in which we lived, and on this particular night the hate was very profound. She was in her room—crying, yelling, and banging things around very audibly and making angry references to my father, my sister, and, to a lesser extent, myself. I know I was the one person who was not involved in her hate—/felt I was supposed to feel sorry for her, comfort her, call someone who might be able to help. However, what I felt was intense anger at her; if she hated our family, I wanted to be included in that hate and I wanted her to quit making our lives miserable whether she was capable of controlling her emotions or not. I didn’t know what to do, I cried to myself and wanted to run from the situation entirely. I just didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Like the deceiving father, the distraught mother poses a test to love; she makes the rule that one should love a parent seem temporarily intolerable. Is the father crazy, forgivable, and lovable, or is he deceiving, unforgivable, and unlovable? Is the mother unable to control herself, in need of help, and basically well-meaning, or is she cruelly manipulative, using emotional blackmail to win an ally in a family war? What should a child feel? The choice in each case was hard not only because the child was violently torn between two reactions but because of a “should” that bolstered one reaction and not the other. As the daughter said, “I felt I was supposed to feel sorry for her, comfort her.”
An incapacity to control rage, or to tell the truth, or to fulfill sexual agreements, or to hold ajob are all human flaws which, up to a point, we may try to ignore or forgive but which we are also free to criticize. Being mentally retarded, on the other hand, is a problem that is no one’s fault, but it can lead to the same sort of emotional predicament: “My younger and only sister is severely mentally retarded. Though she is nearly normal physically, she has no intellect. I often think that I should feel love for her, but I don’t.
There is nothing there for me to love —the fact that she is my sister is not enough. I feel guilty about my feelings, but I’m content that at least I can be honest with myself.” This sibling feels guilty about not feeling love for a sister “with no intellect.” He confronts a “should” that he must reject in order to feel honest.
Like the bond between parent and child, the bond between wife and husband may be strained in the battle between sanction and feeling. Freud, in his essay “Modern Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness,” describes the problem well:
Let us take for instance the case observed so frequently of a woman who does not love her husband because owing to the conditions of her union and to her matrimonial experience she has absolutely no reason for loving him; she would like to love him, however, because that is in accord with what she has been brought up to consider as the ideal of married life. She will accordingly suppress all the instincts that would reveal the truth and counteract her ideal endeavor. She will take special care to act like a loving, tender, and thoughtful wife [my emphasis].15
“Like to love him” is one of those threads in the weave that differ by culture. A fourteen-year-old Indian girl in an arranged marriage to a wealthy sixty-year-old man may be required to serve him (and may even feel obliged to try to love him), but she may be internally freer to dislike him; she is not responsible for having chosen him. The “love ethic” in a free market exchange, on the other hand, places more exacting standards of experience on marriage. If the actual feelings between the spouses fall short of the ideal, it is not the institution of marriage but one’s own poor choice of a partner that is to blame.16
Between husband and wife or between lovers, sexual jealousy and love are usually presumed to go together. But the sociologist Kingsley Davis has suggested that sexualjealousy is not natural between mates and that it is often the proprietary claims that husband and wife make upon each other that cause adultery to evoke jealousy.17
Following this logic, some couples strive to rid themselves of the agreement to be monogamous and therefore of the right to jealousy. Making love to someone outside the marriage is defined not as adultery but as “sharing your love.” Since monogamy has been a common way of expressing emotional commitment, other ways of expressing that commitment are given more importance. But if these other ways fail, at least one partner may feel rejected. Consider the situation reported by this young woman:
About four years ago when I was living down South, I was involved with a group of people, friends. We used to spend most evenings after work or school together. We used to do a lot of drugs, acid, coke, or just smoke dope, and we had this philosophy that we were very communal and did our best to share everything—clothes, money, food, and so on. I was involved with this one man, and I thought I was “in love” with him. He in turn had told me that I was very important to him. Anyway, another woman who had been a very good friend of mine at one time started having a sexual relationship with this man, supposedly without my knowledge. I knew, though, and had a lot of mixed feelings about it. I thought, intellectually, that I had no claim to the man, that no one should ever try to own another person. I also believed that it was none of my business, that their relationship together really had nothing to do with my friendship with either of them. I also believed in sharing. But I was horribly hurt, lonely, and depressed, and I couldn’t shake the depression. And on top of those feelings, I felt guilt for having those possessively jealous feelings. And so I would continue going out with these people every night and try to suppress my feelings. My ego was shattered. I got to the point that I couldn’t even laugh around them. So finally I confronted my friends and left for the summer and traveled with a new friend. I realized later what a heavy situation it was, and it took me a long time to get myself together and feel whole again.
The clash between the feeling she could muster under the countercultural feeling rule and the feeling of hurt and jealousy she experienced seemed like a private nightmare. Yet the origin of this sort of conflict and pain is also profoundly social, for it is through social institutions that a basic view of sexual access is elaborated and a moral code promoted. That is why institutions or subcultures that develop a total system of punishments for jealous behavior, and rewards for unjealous behavior, may go some distance toward eliminating jealousy. As two sociologists comment about a communal experiment:
At Twin Oaks in Virginia, sexual freedom is the community norm and jealousy is a common problem. Cat Kincade,… one of the founders, describes jealousy management at Twin Oaks: “The biggest bulwark against jealousy is our heavy community disapproval of it… nobody gets group reinforcement for feeling or expressing jealousy. A surprising amount of it is wiped out by that fact alone…. Most of us here do not approve of our bad feelings when we have them. Just as a person with a Puritan conscience can often control his erotic impulses by reference to what he believes, so a person with a communitarian conscience can control his repressive impulses by reminding himself what his principles are.18
Had the young woman’s friends and neighbors taken more care to reinforce her communitarian view and more closely supported her emotion work, it is conceivable that her story would have ended differently.
A social role—such as that of bride, wife, or mother—is partly a way of describing what feelings people think are owed and are owing. A role establishes a baseline for what feelings seem appropriate to a certain series of events. When roles change, so do rules for how to feel and interpret events. A rising divorce rate, a rising remarriage rate, a declining birthrate, a rising number of working women, and a greater legitimation of homosexuality are the outer signs of changing roles. What, when she works outside the home, is a wife? What, when others care for children, is a parent? And what, then, is a child? What, when marriages easily dissolve, is a lover and what is a friend? According to which standard, among all those that are culturally available, do we assess how appropriate our feelings are to a situation? If periods of rapid change induce status anxiety, they also lead to anxiety about what, after all, the feeling rules are *
In times of uncertainty, the expert rises to prominence. Authorities on how a situation ought to be viewed are also authorities on how we should feel. The need for guidance felt by those who must cross shifting social sands only adds importance to a more fundamental principle: in the matter of what to feel, the social bottom usually looks for guidance to they social top. Authority carries with it a certain mandate over feeling rules. A parent may show a child how much fear to feel about the new bull terrier on the block. An English literature professor may suggest to students how strongly they should feel about Rilke’s first Duino Elegy. A supervisor may comment on a cheer worn thin in a secretary’s “Here’s your correspondence, sir.” It is mainly the authorities who are the keepers of feeling rules.19 And so when an authority like Gail Sheehy tells us that “a restless vitality wells up as we approach thirty,” it can, as Christopher Lasch points out, become part of the experience of turning thirty to address the “restless vitality” norm. Similarly, it can become part of the experience of greeting a passenger, or collecting a bill, to address official ideas about what we should feel as we do it.
* Indeed, we are most likely to sense a feeling rule as a feeling rule, and deep acting as deep acting, not when we are strongly attached to a culture or a role but when we are moving from one culture or one role to another. It is when we are between jobs, between marriages, or between cultures that we are prone to feel at odds with past feeling rules.