(This is a concept I’ve been mulling over for a while, but I finally got it down in print in response to a discussion in the comments at The Woman and the Dragon.)
The year is 1952. Mary is a 16-year-old high school sophomore who lives with her father and mother and three siblings. At school, she pretty much takes the classes all the other girls are taking, and wears the school uniform. Her mother picks out her regular clothes, with input from Mary. She has an allowance, but any significant purchases have to be approved by her parents. Social events are mostly arranged and chaperoned, like school sock hops. She has a curfew, and she’s expected to tell her parents where she will be at all times.
When she starts dating, boys introduce themselves to her parents for a once-over, and dates mostly take place in the context of arranged social events. Once she graduates, she continues to live at home and help her mother with the younger kids, but maybe gets a part-time job or takes some classes in something like nursing. Within a couple years, nature takes its course with one of the boys, and if she’s amenable, he talks to her dad about marriage. Her mother takes charge of most of the wedding arrangements, and they start their new life together. Her new husband makes most of the decisions: what car to buy and when to change the oil, what house they can afford, what form serious discipline of the children will take, and so on. He consults with Mary on many decisions, but he makes the final call on most everything.
This is an idealized picture of the era, of course. But the point is that a typical woman in that society, who got married young and assumed her husband was in charge, didn’t make a more critical decision on most days than what to make for the kids’ lunches or how to style her hair (and even that would be done within limits based on her husband’s likes). She went from following her father’s lead to following her husband’s, with at most a few years of semi-autonomy in between. Her day-to-day life just didn’t involve a lot of decisions, large or small, and that seemed to work out pretty well.
Now the year is 2002, and Jane is a 16-year-old sophomore. She has a lot of choices of classes at school, and she’s already being pressed to choose a career path to work toward. Her parents (or mother alone, in many cases) leave most of her clothing and spending decisions up to her, perhaps within some extreme limits. She may have a curfew and some restrictions on real-life social activities, but her online social life is entirely her own. She decides for herself which boys to date.
After graduation, she goes off to college and lives in a dorm where (if it’s not outright coed) boys are in and out of the rooms regularly (read I Am Charlotte Simmons for a truly depressing account of college life). Now her decisions about sex and relationships are entirely her own, with no oversight from adults at all. After college, she decides what jobs to apply for, what apartment she wants and can afford, what car to get, and so on. She continues to make all her own decisions about sex, drinking, partying, friends, etc. She has to decide whether each expenditure she makes fits in her budget, with no one to set even some basic boundaries.
By the time Jane reaches age 30, she’s been making her own decisions (with the strongest input coming from her peers and TV shows) for at least a decade, basically filling the father/husband role for herself, and she’s shell-shocked. This lifestyle isn’t natural for her, because women are too moody and impulsive, and they need a man to provide stability. Without that, she makes too many bad decisions, gets herself into emotional roller coasters, and generally develops a me-against-the-world attitude from being burned by too many bad choices.
Now she feels the wall coming and meets a man she’s crazy about, and part of her wants to submit to him — and she does, sexually, with gusto — but it’s been so long since she was under the charge of a man that she’s forgotten how. So she bounces back and forth, throwing herself into the role one day and then getting scared of losing control and rejecting it the next. More than a decade of being on her own has made it difficult for her to really trust anyone. On the good days, she thinks her current guy is perfect, but on the bad days she hates him.
Now, consider some of the qualifications for BPD (or “emotionally unstable personality disorder,” at it’s being called today):
- impulsive actions
- tendency toward conflict, especially when people try to block her impulsive actions
- unstable mood
- poor or unstable self-image
- intense and unstable relationships
- excess efforts to avoid abandonment
- feeling of emptiness
It seems to me that a woman like Jane is very likely to demonstrate many or all of these qualities. After years of having no outside rein on her impulsive behavior, it’s gotten out of control, and she resents anyone who tries to curb it. Likewise, no one ever calls her on her moodiness, so it’s become normal. A series of relationships and breakups have left her questioning her self-image, and getting more intense and impulsive about each relationship out of desperation. The many breakups — whether initiated by her or the guy — make her worry about abandonment, that maybe she’ll never find a relationship that will last. The periods of loneliness between relationships (or during meaningless ones) leave her feeling empty, and her ability to trust people — or even to trust in God’s will for her — dwindles.
So Jane, just by virtue of living the modern, strongandindependent, have-it-all life, could very easily develop the attitude and behaviors that would be diagnosed as a major personality disorder and treated with medication and/or years of therapy. If she is a strong-willed, feminine woman who had a very good upbringing, maybe she comes out of the experience without too much damage and is able to settle down in marriage and have a good life. But if she had no father so the fear of abandonment started early, or if childhood abuse gave her a head-start on self-image problems, or if she’s just genetically predisposed to excessive moodiness and impulsivity, Jane’s life may make her a complete basket-case who will never be able to find a reasonable level of contentment. Mary (remember her?) wasn’t likely to develop something like BPD unless something wasn’t right in her brain from birth.
There have always been people with personality disorders and other mental illnesses. But these things are being diagnosed so commonly today that something has clearly changed, either in us or in the diagnosis. Probably some of both: I’m sure they are being over-diagnosed, because that’s where the money is; but I also know too many women who clearly do have a disorder — maybe not drastic enough to be medicated or locked up, but bad enough to make normal life problematic for them. The fact that BPD is almost never diagnosed before age 18 is significant too. It develops.
I suspect that Jane’s lifestyle shifts the women who live it sideways on the crazy scale. The ones who would have been crazy anyway are still crazy, and the extremely sane ones at the other end are still reasonably sane. But the woman whose moodiness would have excited her husband and kept things interesting a century ago now becomes an unstable, hyper-sexualized harridan; and normal women in the middle develop behaviors and tendencies that they wouldn’t have developed if they had spent their 20s and 30s married and having babies while their husbands made most of the decisions.
That’s my theory, anyway. Yes, there are outliers and NAWALT and all that, but I think there’s been a shift here that may be attributed to women being free to run their own lives for far too long.