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If you want to learn about the complexities of family interactions, go to the theater. Plays have the ability to expose chilling, murky and complicated truths that social science surveys and interviews often miss.

I just had the opportunity to see (off, off Broadway) Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan’s The Saviour, which premiered online in 2021. Just 77 minutes long, it’s a story of fraught mother-child dynamics, sex inside and outside marriage, and the lifelong effects of childhood trauma. It’s also about cross-generational tensions, the uneven process of secularization in a Roman Catholic society and the problematics of forgiveness.

The play opens with its protagonist, the deeply religious Máire, celebrating her 67th birthday with a postcoital cigarette. After four decades of a sexually unfilled marriage, a handyman whom she met in church after her husband’s death has awakened feelings and sensations she thought were well behind her.  

But when her son arrives with a birthday present (a doll in a dress that resembles one that Máire had worn in girlhood), a series of grim truths is gradually revealed.

We learn that Máire had survived years of severe physical and emotional abuse in Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, where “enforced silence, constant surveillance, severe emotional and physical abuse, and deprivation of educational opportunity” were the rule. We discover that the handyman had himself been imprisoned for eight years for childhood sexual abuse and been left alone with Máire’s grandchildren. We find that Máire had herself undergone a mental breakdown that deeply damaged her relationships with her own children. We see that her intense religiosity, which led her to refuse to accept her son’s gay marriage, is, in part, a way to cope with changes in social mores that she can barely absorb and to deny her own responsibility for past life decisions and hurtful acts.

A play is not a clinical case study, but, at its best, it does allow an audience to enter the black hole of the psyche and the black box of family interactions and collectively ponder their meaning.

In my scholarship, I have written about the history of American family life. My basic argument (fresh in 1988 but familiar today) is that the family is not a fixed, static or unchanging entity, but has, in fact, undergone far-reaching changes in its size and composition, roles and functions and emotional and power dynamics, with same-sex families only the most recent addition to an ongoing story of change. The family is, in short, a historical, social and cultural construct. Its structure, tasks, meaning and expectations shift profoundly over time and vary widely across subcultures.

Early in this century, I was invited to visit and speak at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families. With funding from the Sloan Foundation, the center had, between 2002 and 2005, videotaped and analyzed some 32 Los Angeles families’ interactions, 1,540 hours in all, “coding and categorizing every hug, every tantrum, every soul-draining search for a missing soccer cleat.” This, the first systematic study of dual-earner families, included two Black families, two headed by gay parents, as well as a single Latino family, one Japanese American family and several ethnically mixed households.

The findings weren’t especially surprising, but noteworthy nonetheless. Gender disparities were widespread. Moms devoted a much larger share of their time to housework than did their husbands (27 percent as opposed to 18 percent). They spent much more time with their children (34 percent versus 25 percent). They also had much less leisure time, just 11 percent of their time, against 23 percent for their husbands.  

Especially striking was how little time spouses spent together. Just 10 percent of their waking hours were in each other’s company. The couples were ships passing in the night.

The biggest takeaways:

  • Stress—calculated by measuring cortisol levels in saliva, collected four times a day—pervaded these households.
  • Family time was quite limited. The families spent just 14 percent of their waking hours in the house in the same room.
  • Decisions about housework and childcare were the product of a constant process of negotiation rather than a well-defined division of labor.
  • Household clutter was omnipresent, and yet the amount of time the families spent outdoors was extremely limited.

Looking back at the UCLA study with the benefit of hindsight, I am struck by the difference between what The Savior or Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Death of a Salesman or A Raisin in the Sun have to say about the nature of family life and what the Center on Everyday Lives of Families researchers found.

The plays are about the complexities of family love and resentment and focus on the conflicts between personal aspirations and family solidarity. The playwrights expose the tensions, conflicts, dreams, disappointments and generational warfare that exist within families. Their narratives reveal how personal weaknesses and financial insecurity can tear a family apart even as emotional and psychological enmeshment creates bonds that family members can’t escape. The plays are also about family dysfunction: alcohol abuse, domestic violence, infidelity and the impact of chronic illness and mental health issues.

You might say that the families that the UCLA center examined are more representative of early-21st-century family life than those you’d find on the stage. Certainly, the portrait that the videotapes convey is far less emotionally intense or complex or laden with cultural significance than those that Kinahan, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller or Lorraine Hansberry describe.

Maybe families that agree to be videotaped are less emotionally charged than the ones we peer into in a theater. It’s certainly possible that in today’s secular, highly individualistic society, family life has lost some of its cultural and emotional heft. Perhaps the family has become little more than a functional, transactional, utilitarian entity, stripped of its large cultural valence.

I don’t think so.

Families, for good or bad, are the most intensely intimate, psychologically complex relationships we will ever enter into. Indeed, I believe one reason why an unprecedentedly large share of young people decline to marry or bear children is precisely because they don’t want to deal with family complications. They prefer relationships and obligations that are voluntarily chosen rather than ascribed and more casual and informal than those typical in family life. They have no interest in the weighty expectations and demands that families inevitably impose.

At the heart of every family is a complex web of emotional bonds that define how family members relate to one another. These relationships can be characterized by love, support and nurturance but also by conflict, resentment or indifference.

Families also consist of a series of assigned or assumed roles, ranging from caregiver to breadwinner, authority figure, peacemaker and rebel. These roles both reflect and contribute to the family’s emotional atmosphere. While these roles can provide structure and predictability, they can also cause tension, stress or resentment if enforced too rigidly or if they don’t align with an individual’s personality or aspirations.

The family’s emotional interior is shaped by its members’ patterns or styles of communication, whether verbal or nonverbal. Words carry weight, but so do tone, physical gestures and body language. Family communication can be direct or indirect, informative or desultory, unassuming or presumptuous, or calm or tense. Some families offer a safe space for expressing difficult emotions openly and honestly. But in other cases, emotional expression is met with ridicule, anger or indifference, leading to bitterness or emotional withdrawal.

Conflict, disagreement, misunderstandings and personality clashes are unavoidable facets of any close relationship and families handle these conflicts in a wide array of ways. Reactions can range from empathetic and supportive to the perpetually unresolved, allowing grudges, tensions and alienation to persist.

As family members age, family structure changes (as a result of births, deaths, divorces or remarriage), family dynamics and the vicissitudes of life (such as job loss or serious illness) occur, family life can evolve in healthy or unhealthy ways. Outside events, like the Great Recession or a global pandemic, can also impinge on family life How families respond to these developments shapes a family’s emotional atmosphere. Families, in short, vary widely in how they manage conflict or adapt to change.

Family boundaries, too, differ widely. Some families have more rigid or more fluid or permeable boundaries; some are intensely inward focused, others less so. Some emphasize individual autonomy and personal independence, while others stress family solidarity or togetherness. Some maintain strong ties with extended family members; others have few connections with relatives.

Too often, we set the social sciences and imaginative literature into two separate realms. Let’s not forget that fiction, whether on the page, the stage or the screen, offers some of the most profound insights into the psychology and sociology of family life that are available.

A family isn’t a sitcom caricature. It’s more like a seething, simmering cauldron of complex interpersonal interactions, roles and relationships. To ignore the family’s psychological and emotional interior, its relational dynamics and its connections (and disconnections) with other households is to overlook the unit’s true nature. For it’s largely within the family that we are socialized; internalize our gender, ethnic and racial identities; and inherit our class status.

It’s high time to break through the academy’s rigid disciplinary silos and recognize that the worlds of fiction and fact are in fact complementary.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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