In the ever-changing and usually complicated world of male-female relationships, UC Irvine sociology professor Francesca Cancian sees hopeful signs.
Yes, she said, today's men and women are continuing a trend of the last 25 years toward self-development, meaning more personal freedom than ever. And with that freedom, the once-fixed "roles" of men and women in marriage continue to change.
But that doesn't doom the U.S. family, as some argue, Cancian said. In "Love in America: Gender and Self-Development," scheduled for publication this week by Cambridge University Press in New York, Cancian lays out a best-of-both-worlds scenario where men and women strive for self-development without sacrificing committed relationships.
Impossible, you say?
In an interview in her campus office, Cancian, 50, conceded that "most scholars" consider the self-development trend, which blossomed in the 1960s and '70s, to be perilous to family relationships.
The mistake they make, she said, is portraying an either/or choice: either a "traditional" family situation or a more modern "independent" model that stresses self-development.
That version of independence, Cancian said, goes something like this: "I go out by myself and figure out who I am. Then after that, I find you and express my feelings to you."
Under that pattern, Cancian said, "self-development is something you do by yourself. You peel away all the pressures from other people and just let 'er rip, let loose with whatever comes to you. So what commitment does is block the self."
The other arrangement--the traditional family--has male-female roles that are clearly defined. That arrangement, Cancian said, restricts personal freedom, usually the woman's.
However, Cancian said, a third model exists that has been largely ignored by sociologists. She called it an "interdependence" model, in which commitment and self-development can be good bedfellows.
"The people I talked to, when they talk of self-development, they don't mean 'me first and to hell with you,' " Cancian said. "They said that by being closer to (their partner) and having a family, they're getting to know themselves better as well as having a relationship."
In that view, marriage is a blanket that secures but doesn't smother.
"A big part of what keeps people from being who they could be is being frightened and insecure in the world," Cancian said. "Having a relationship where you're comfortable and accepted is a big step to having the courage to be willing to try things and lessen old fears that keep people rigid."
Those who lobby for a return to the "good old days" of the traditional family arrangement are unrealistic, Cancian said.
"Most people are saying either we go back, or it's going to be all selfishness. It's got to be either 'Leave It to Beaver' or 'Me, Me, Me.'
"From what I can see, divorce is going to remain very high, women are going to continue to work and sexual norms are not going to change all that much. We can't go back, so the choice is what kind of relationship is going to be the new ideal: independence or interdependence? We should focus on those choices, not nostalgia."
As a young wife and mother during the height of the women's movement during the 1960s, Cancian was deeply influenced by the drive toward self-development for women. Yet, she said, total independence isn't a blueprint for personal happiness.
"I think where some people go wrong is they get into this 'me first, do whatever you want' mentality," said Cancian, who is married to an anthropology professor and the mother of two children in their 20s.
"They think that means if you want to leave tomorrow, that's great. And if you have a fight and you hate the person, you tell them that and you leave them. But that destroys the security. And most people can't move forward under those circumstances. In fact, most people move backwards and get more rigid and more scared.
"You need some commitment and some guidelines and rules, to give people that security."
As the title of Cancian's book suggests, a crucial aspect of love in America stems from how men and women see their respective role in the relationship.
In Part 1 of the book, titled "The History of Love," Cancian writes that love was "feminized" in the 19th Century as America moved increasingly to an industrialized, materialistic society.
That is, she said, it became a man's responsibility to earn a living and a woman's responsibility to stay home and become the "center of love" in the family.
Love, she wrote, "was split into feminine and masculine fragments by the separation of the home and the workplace."
As society industrialized, Cancian said, the question became: "How do you keep a secure family going when men are going off being competitive and impersonal? The first solution was, keep women at home and they won't be like that. They'll be loving. Then women said, 'To hell with that, I'm leaving.' "
The 20th Century has seen fluctuations in the trend toward genderless models of love, Cancian said. In the 1920s and '60s--periods of liberation--the trend toward so-called "androgynous" love accelerated. In the '50s, for example, gender roles became more rigid.
Today, Cancian said, men and women should continue the move toward androgyny in their relationships. Cancian stressed that her thoughts about androgyny refer to how a person views his or her role in a relationship and not to a person's physical attributes.
Both sexes need to change, she said. "Who wants men who are powerful and can't love, and who wants women who are loving and can't take control and be powerful?" she asked.
"That's what I'm talking about--moving out of our boxes."