Relationships in Contemporary Australia

May 16, 2013

A reflection on the state of relationships in contemporary Australia

We are, in large part, defined by our relationships. As Brené Brown (qualitative research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work) puts it “connection is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives”. It provides a role for us to play – as a mother, a son, a sister, a colleague, a best friend, a lover and so on. These have historically come with a socially prescribed, unwritten hand book that guided ones conduct. But as the traditional meaning and ‘rules’ attached to these (including codes on gender, parenting and sexuality) begin to shift and broaden, we are faced with unprecedented choice that must be navigated independently.

The paradox of choice

As Barry Schwartz talks about, choice is a paradox. Oft touted as the cornerstone of a liberated Western society, and yet in the face of such proliferating choice, we are prone to paralysis and regret – emotions exacerbated by the significance of the decision to be made. 

Let us consider the choices faced by the modern mother. No longer ‘chained to the kitchen sink’, she can elect to return to the work force and place her child(ren) in care. Or, perhaps, even dad might stay home and raise the kids while she provides financially. Interestingly, Kathleen Gerson (author of The Unfinished Revolution) found that 80% of women and 70% of men across all races, classes, and family backgrounds — desire equality in marriage where by both partners would split responsibility for raising the children, housekeeping and breadwinning. This model holds particular appeal to our Australian, egalitarian ideals. But ironically, rather that providing a sense of freedom, these perceptions trap Australian’s under further expectation. 

“Until the 1960s, women were expected to just be a wife and mother. Now she is expected to be that and everything else.”

There is similar to be said for fathers, with the residual expectation that they play the role of primary provider, in additional to being emotionally available and engaged with their kids, partner, colleagues and clients. With the way we increasingly share our personal lives publically (through social media broadcasts) and the correlated rise in narcissism, we feel mounting pressure to fulfil these ever widening societal expectations; to be the model Australian, leading the enviable life…however unattainable that is becoming.

Finding time to do it all

Finding the time and energy to be superman and wonder women is the sticking point. The average Australian now works an additional 3.5 weeks p/a unpaid (largely caused by job insecurity and facilitated by ‘take-home’ technology). And yet as leisure time contracts, the to-do-list blows out with the 101 other demands of this awakened modern life – stay fit, grow your own veggies, meditate, volunteer…and so on. So how does one juggle this all while observing Beyonce’s decree that it must always be 50-50 in relationships?

As in all other areas of life, Australians are looking for efficiency gains – avenues to find relationships and fulfil them with compromised resources. First off, we are taking a more methodical approach to finding friends and lovers. From chance meeting and a reliance on fate to streamlined, systematic selection. Social media and match making sites now provide the ‘short cut’ to connection and safeguard us from ‘wasting time’ with the ‘wrong’ people. This has become the only plausible reality for many due to incongruent work schedules, rising singledom later in life and transient populations.

Then, for those in a relationship, the challenge is to tick all the boxes. Consider the sandwich generation (those individuals caring for their ailing parents whilst raising their own kids). Despite the undeniably low cost-benefit trade off or domestic outsourcing, and the associated guilt of shirking personal it can feel like there is no alternative.  

And so it seems that all paths lead to compromise.