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Science Fiction: Revolutionary Road

December 4, 2009

Last night I finished RichardYate’s Revolutionary Road (book, not film). My fiancé had been talking it up as long as we’ve been dating, and now, predictably, I’m wondering what took me so long. It is a near perfect novel.  And? It’s chock full of examples of relationship science and social psychology at work.

I am still struggling to find the best way to write about these reflections of psychology in literature. What interests me is that I believe that at the heart of why good books resonate with us is that on some deep human level they are true (fiction or not). Science can provide the empirical evidence for this– we can look to psychology to see if, indeed, what has been described occurs with any frequency in human life. In other words, if we can say “At some level this work of fiction is true” then the work must be speaking to something that does in fact happen in and between people

I found myself deep in conversation with said fiancé last night about what the central character of Revolutionary Road is truly feeling—what state of emotion and state of liking or not liking his life makes him act as he does. Ethan–I’ll just tell you his name–felt sure that While Frank complains about his life, he had actually come to like it. I feel strongly that Frank continues to dislike his life but is afraid to change it. At its heart, this is a book about fear, and more accurately—what our relationships mean for how we respond to our fears. There is a whole theory out there—a very old and established one—that speaks directly to this: Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory concerns itself with our sense of security in relationships. Is a person afraid of intimacy and tries to avoid it? Is a person desperate for intimacy and chases after it relentlessly? Or is someone essentially secure and thus finds solace, comfort and delight in close relationships? The obvious benefit of the latter is that one’s relationship acts a kind of army and fortress all at one. It protects us when we’re in the face of fire and gives us the confidence to head into adventure.  It’s thought that we inherit these tendencies from our relationship histories—were we adequately loved by our parents? Have ex-boyfriends scorned us unpredictably? Did our mothers come when we cried? We know that Frank Wheeler, Revolutionary Road’s central voice, was keenly aware of his father’s own fear and absence. We also see how he responds to his own potential adventure (April: We’ll go to Paris! You can find yourself!)–with utter panic. Before his wife April is done excitedly explaining the plan, Frank is plotting ways in which to make this terrifying possibility go away. We can feel him recoil within this conversation and we feel the metallic taste of desperation in all of his actions until he successfully recedes from the trip.

Fear –cowardice and courage—is the thread that defines Frank (for me anyway) and moves him through this story, but we can see on a far more local level how this relationship unwinds.  When Frank comes home from work one day, high on praise from his boss, giddy with the feelings of control and success, and ready to share it with April, he is “uh-huh’ed” by her, ignored. Her failure to read his mood and nurture his excitement stings. He feels let down.  Responding to our partners—I mean really responding to their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,  and making them feel cared for, validated, and understood, isn’t just the road to relationship satisfaction, but is part of what lays the groundwork for all that adventure going and life-living.

So what makes their story work? What made me shudder in the face of April’s stonewalling and pity Frank’s cruelty? Somehow we know how trust is built and love is exchanged, or how it should be. We’ve been there (or haven’t) and experienced it (or longed for it). Essentially, it’s true.

For nerdy follow-up:

-Reis, H. T., Clark, M. S., & Holmes, J. G. (2004).  Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing construct in the study of intimacy and closeness.  In D. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds), The handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 201-225). Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

-Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004).  What do you do when things go right?:  The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228-245.

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