Friday, May 17, 2019

How Making History Unmade a Family

I'm sharing this article partly because today is the 15th anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts, and partly because I think it illustrates an aspect of human nature and relationships that is applicable to so many other situations:

After spending all day in the public eye, often discussing their relationship, the last thing they wanted to do when they got home was discuss their relationship.
"We kind of went our separate ways in the house," says Julie.
Annie echoes that sentiment: "When you have to be so public about every tiny detail of your lives, it really exacerbates any minute divide between how you deal with stress and what you need to do at the end of the day."
The article of course is specifically discussing the Goodridge family, who were the lead plaintiffs in Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health. The couple ended up divorcing, which they attribute largely to the stress of having to spend time as activists in the public eye in order to have their family legally recognized.

I think this dynamic plays out in many other situations though in which one's fitness, sanity, truthfulness, or worthiness is scrutinized. I see it happen with families who are involved in the child welfare system or otherwise court involved, people who are being sued, individuals who have been psychiatrically hospitalized, and individuals who have been charged with crimes. People describe a psychic change, in which every thought is now viewed through the lens of whether they are a nurturing parent, an honest person, a safe partner, an ethical employee, a good decision-maker. Every private decision feels like it could become a matter of public scrutiny. People feel they are no longer able to argue, be sick, be injured, eat junk, make a mess, make a frivolous purchase. Even if they know in their logical mind that a particular interaction or decision will never become known to a social worker, judge, probation officer, or the media, shadows of the scrutiny and intrusion are constantly present in every thought and every decision. Having a very real need to constantly act as if you are being watched can make someone with no underlying mental illness think and act much like someone with an organic thought disorder. Everything becomes exhausting, and there is certainly no room for any "extra" interactions or undertakings when just the basics are so challenging.

The takeaway from this I guess is that these type of "fishbowl" situations are too be avoided. In the case of the Goodridges, they independently chose to involve themselves in such a situation, which I and many other families like mine thank them immensely for. Of course, no one should have ever been in the position to have had to secure the civil rights of their family and others through a personal lawsuit. In many other cases though, we can avoid this type of dynamic by resolving situations in a non-punitive and non-intrusive manner.

Let's reserve calling the police, crisis teams, or child protection services for those dire situations in which it's truly necessary. And those who work for such organizations, be continually working to do better. Look to your colleagues who are handling things in the most respectful and humanitarian manner, and emulate them.

Likewise, let's save lawsuits, firings, internal investigations and so forth for those situations in which there really is no other option. Remember that we can usually resolve issues by remembering the human, and treating people the way we want to be treated. As the article illustrates and as I've had described to me so many times, treating people punitively and using adversary processes usually only serves to make things worse, and then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. When these processes are used, and the functioning of the person in question declines, this is not to be taken as indication that bringing in the big guns was the right thing to do; rather, it's an indication that anyone's relationship, sanity, or performance is going to suffer if you push them hard enough.

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