When we first moved to southwest Ohio to interview young adults for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, we were surprised by the distrust that we confronted. In that tiny Midwestern town with about a dozen churches, we heard about drug overdoses, fist fights on the street, a rape. Neighbors didn’t trust each other and gossip proliferated. For instance, one neighbor complained that another neighbor made inappropriate sexual advances toward her; the accused neighbor alleged that the accusing neighbor was mentally unstable. Who to believe? Never before had we felt such a crisis of trust.
While Robert Putnam and others have documented the increasing isolation of all Americans, the alienation and distrust that we witnessed in this working-class town seemed like an advanced form of isolation. Things that we took for granted in relationships with new acquaintances—asking questions and listening to the responses, returning phone calls and text messages, extending invitations to dinner—soon earned us “best friend” status among a handful of the young adults we were meeting. Starved for friendship, they were quick to jump from acquaintance-level chit-chat to intimate conversations about their life experiences and then to declarations of deep friendship. It was an irony of the climate of distrust: distrust kept most people at a distance, but anyone who broke through to extend the slightest promise of meaningful connection was enthusiastically embraced as a friend. As in romantic relationships—fast beginnings, fast endings—so in friendships.
The scarcity and instability of friendships among those young adults that we interviewed struck us as a problem not only for individuals but also for families. We had benefitted from a tight-knit group of friends in New York City, and we felt that these friendships helped us in our marriage. We noticed that when we moved to Ohio and left that supportive community behind, our marital squabbles became more numerous and more intense. We were feeling pretty isolated ourselves.
Since then, we’ve come to the conclusion that group experiences that foster authentic friendships could be an important step toward rebuilding trust in working-class communities, and thus to bridging the class-based marriage gap that exists in America. Given that for many working-class young adults, the formative experiences of their lives have involved communities breaking down—fragmented families, unstable relationships, falling-apart neighborhoods—it makes sense that the path to healing might lie in a group experience that is an avenue to a better experience of community.
The problem, of course, is that given the climate of distrust and past experiences of broken community, working-class young adults are not taking the initiative to join a church (much less a church small group), or to attend their local library’s book club, or to organize the next summer block party.
Even if the interest in community activities is there, the follow-through can be lacking. One young woman we know asked if she could attend a weekly Bible study at church with Amber. Every week for several months she would promise that she would be there, almost every week for those several months she would text Amber a reason of why she could not. Often her reasons were valid ones—her kids were sick, she was sick, her work schedule was unpredictable and rigorous. She also told us that social anxiety was a factor: being around people she didn’t know well made her nervous.
Another barrier to creating a successful group experience is convincing men to attend meetings. As Mitch Pearlstein noted in his book, Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means For America’s Future, “one of the more-sobering lessons learned from marriage enrichment programs aimed at low-income men and women initiated during the George W. Bush administration” is that “men in particular don’t like attending meetings.” We’ve observed the same thing: For instance, one of the men we interviewed initially attended a parenting class with his girlfriend, but then stopped attending, in part because he was ambivalent about their relationship. Whether it’s because of reluctance to delve into intimate topics like relationships, or social anxiety, or just plain boredom, working-class men can be more difficult to reach than women in projects like these.
So what can be done to create community and foster friendship among young working-class men and women, many of whom share deep distrust, social anxieties, irregular work schedules, and the burdens of single parenthood? We’ll suggest a few ideas in our next post.