March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

A Clean Sweep for Our Relationships

If the Reagan Era was morning in America, now it’s the morning after. After the bonfire of the vanities, the false torch of glitz and greed, the ’90s promise to be more like a camp fire—a communal huddle, both for the pleasure of each other’s company and as a defense against the challenges out there in the dark.

So goodbye, Dynasty. Hello to one another. The new bottom line will be getting along with, and getting strong with, the people we can reach out and touch—friends, lovers, spouses and parents. But once past the first blush, human linkups are hard work. Here are three professionals with provocative and useful ideas for enriching the one-to-one.

Real Men Do Do Housework

Feminism has brought men a long way, baby. The guys, having stopped insisting that a woman’s place is in the home, are enjoying that second paycheck as well as spousal conversation that isn’t exclusively mops and moppets. But, alas, recent revelations that working moms rack up 22.6 hours of housework and child care a week to their husbands’ 7.4 show that men still have a long way to go.

“Men have to adjust,” asserts Michael Kimmel, a spokesman for the NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR CHANGING MEN. “Only 18 percent of families today have a bread-winning man and a stay-at-home mom. So if she’s bringing in half the income, her man ought to be doing half the housework.”

Sure, but what’s in it for him? “If it’s child care, it’s tremendously rewarding all by itself,” says Kimmel, a sociologist. “If it’s housework, women must explain that nobody likes doing it. It’s a stupid fact of life, like sitting in traffic or changing the oil. But it can give us a feeling of togetherness. Any way, if we don’t do it together in half the time, nobody’s going to the movies tonight.”

Chore sharing is only one issue tackled by NOCM, a loose network of 1,500 members, including many therapists and teachers. It has task forces working on violence, pornography and sexual harassment. Through its newsletter, annual meetings and support groups, it urges men to learn what they have to gain from feminism.

“We try,” says Kimmel, “to teach the skills and attitudes necessary for men to have friends among themselves like women do, to become involved fathers and to become emotionally responsive to women and therefore have better relationships with them.”

Kimmel reports that most men suddenly get interested in NOCM at two crucial points in their lives: “First, when they’re freshly divorced, pained and angry; and second, when they become fathers and want to be good at it, but don’t have good role models for the job.”

Kimmel, who is 39 and single, grew up outside New York City with a psychoanalyst mother “who always worked” and a father who was “a football player and a chiropractor and very tender and nurturing. My father was very good about housework, and he was a real man. So if a little boy is raised like that, he’ll grow up to believe in equality.” Kimmel graduated in the first coed class at Vassar (’72) and teaches sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

In Kimmel’s view, men are “confused in the face of feminism. We don’t want to be Rambo, but we’re not so sure we want to be Alan Alda, either.” Tom Selleck, maybe? Well, we can dream. But if learning to savor “the pleasures of child care, the rewards of an equal relationship,” sounds like a milquetoast manifesto, Kimmel knows how to put it in reassuring terms. “Think of it,” he suggests, “as building new muscles.”

Butting Heads? Try Divorce Busters

The number of couples seeking marital help has approximately doubled in the past two years—an encouraging sign, according to behaviorists. “These days, people want to stay in their marriages instead of tossing them out when things go awry,” says Rabbi Morris Gordon, board chairman of the nonprofit PAIRS Institute of Falls Church, Va. “The danger is that we’re seeing people settle into boring, non-communicative existences as they did before divorce became popular.”

Offering an ounce of divorce prevention rather than a pound of patch-up is the purpose of PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills). The $1,600-per-couple, four-month course was created by Gordon’s wife, Lori, a family therapist, in 1984. It has since spread to 26 states and 13 countries, and has graduated over 100 therapists and thousands of couples-engaged, newlywed, long hitched. The 110 hours of training focus on skills that keep familiarity from breeding contempt—mutual praising, degrees of physical affection without sex, fighting fair, sharing dreams, criticizing only with a suggestion for change, confiding. It also debunks a mound of marital myths (“If you loved me, you’d know what I want,” and “If we disagree, somebody has to be wrong, and it’s not going to be me”).

Lori Gordon, 60, says she began to travel the road to PAIRS in the late’60s, “when I went looking for help in my own first marriage, and nobody was seeing couples.” In 1969 she launched the Family Relations Institute in Falls Church and developed a program that grew into the preventative PAIRS concept after “some singles came to me in the early ’80s and said they wanted to avoid the things that had gone wrong in their friends’ relationships.”

Gordon and the rabbi, 75, met in 1981 and were married in 1982. It was his influence that established PAIRS and spread its gospel. “A relationship is like a minefield,” declares Lori Gordon, whose book on the subject, Love Knots, will be published in May. “PAIRS gives you a road map so you don’t get blown up.”

Teaching Toilers How to Have Fun

Self-deception comes as easily to the workaholic as to the alcoholic. “You don’t have to spend all weekend at the office to be a workaholic,” says ex-priest turned counselor Earnie Larson. “If you think you’re worthwhile only when you’re working, you’re a workaholic. You try to play, and you have a terrible time—you fight with your wife, make everyone miserable. You need to practice playing.”

That’s a skill Larson will teach in the treatment center he’s founding this year in Minneapolis, where his change-your-life seminar, videotape and book business has been based for 12 years. Larson is already well-known in Minneapolis and in self-help circles nationwide. More than 50,000 people-two thirds of them women-attend his lectures annually, and he has sold more than $750,000 worth of audio-and videotapes. But now the brusque and burly 50-year-old hopes to reach a needy new audience of workaholics. Recovery might begin with one $25, all-day session or with a series of $5 nightly meetings.

Job One, he insists, is to “understand the age-old hurt that you’re working constantly to cover up. If you don’t know why you’re in pain, you won’t persevere long enough to change.” The next step is to figure out if pressures are external or self-imposed. (If you feel “nothing you do is ever good enough,” you’re probably in the latter camp.)

“Start small,” Larson advises. Don’t try to jump off the treadmill all at once. “Take 10 minutes when you first get home just to talk to your wife,” he suggests, “try taking Friday afternoons off. You’ll feel guilty, lazy, worthless. Just tell yourself you’re worthwhile whether you’re working or not.”

But don’t expect miracles: If you suddenly start coming home early, you’ll be disrupting family routine. “It’s frustrating,” Larson admits. “Things might seem worse for a while. That’s why it helps to have a group, or someone, to support you.”

Larson developed his own workaholic habits growing up in Omaha, where his father, a plasterer, taught him that “we had to work harder than anyone. If the job starts at 8, be there at 7:30. By the time I was 7, 1 knew: Larsons work hard.”

As an inner-city Catholic priest, he drove himself mercilessly, partly so as not to feel the pain and hurt he saw in the streets. “I remember once wiping a suicide’s brains off the wall and telling myself, ‘I’m tough. I can do anything.’ Half an hour later I was saying Mass for the little old ladies in church.” The turning point came when his father dropped dead before his eyes in 1976. “Here was this man I loved dearly, the No. 1 man in my life, laying there dead,” Larson recalls. “And I looked across the street and saw some kids playing ball, and I realized I could easily go right over and play. That’s when I knew I needed help.”

He left the priesthood and eventually began his seminars. “I think he’s one of our modern day apostles,” says Suzanne Somers, who has taped a TV “infomercial” with him. “His work centers me—I think he’s terrific,” says Mariette Hartley, who also hopes to collaborate with him on a TV or other project. Larson’s latest book, Why Do I Still Hurt? will be published by Prentice Hall in the fall.

Still, Larson has to resist the impulse to backslide. He has abandoned out-of-town seminars, and he and his wife of 10 years, Paula, take a month off each March. “People want balance,” he says. “They want relationships. Despite this speed-it-up, do-it-faster society, people know there’s more to life.”

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