A Reagan-Type Marriage

Nancy Reagan’s funeral a few weeks ago was an occasion to celebrate the ultimate romantic marriage.

Nancy Reagan was famously known as a devoted wife, fiercely protective and supportive of her husband’s acting, then political and finally presidential career. It seems genuinely to have been a marriage for the history books: loving, enduring, fully mutual. The fallout from such a single-minded love affair is also in evidence: children who were shut out and hurt.

Ronald Reagan’s remoteness from his children, as well as others, was commented upon by colleagues. Nancy’s harshness with Patti and Maureen have also been noted by biographers. Ron Reagan, President and Nancy Reagan’s youngest child, often spoke “about his parents’ remoteness from everyone but each other.”

Even at her mother’s funeral Patti Davis was moved to speak about her conflicts with her mother, and in print she was even more descriptive of Nancy’s harsh expectations.

I remember from courses in Family Systems Theory, a diagram of such a family with the parental generation, “mom and dad” being enclosed in a tight circle, strongly bound to each other. The line of the circle is drawn in bold. Outside the circle the children, have little emotional access to their parents. The extreme opposite of this is where no lines at all exist and boundaries are too porous. Where children have too much access, where boundaries barely exist between the generations, children having too much power in the system, they call the shots. Some would say “the family bed” was an example of this. In another scenario children are triangulated, that is, they carry the load of unexpressed, unconscious conflict between the parents and the task of the family therapist is to get the marital concerns and conflicts back in the marriage and off the slim shoulders of acting out or depressed or anxious children. Ideal is a family system where generational boundaries are semi-permeable, children have full access to the parents’ empathy and energy but are protected from many aspects of adult life: parental worries, burdens, and sexuality.

Nancy and Ronnie would seem to have been the romantic parental couple where all the loving vitality and empathy goes into the marriage, with little, or at least not enough, left over to nurture the children. In other words the ultra-romantic marriage has consequences for the children of the family, and the consequences are not positive. And yet we hold up the model of the Reagans’ marriage as enviable and ideal.

If children are not adequately cared for, bad things can happen to them. We live in a world where the statistics on child abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse, are tragically high. A non-CPS (Child Protective Services) study estimated that 1 in 4 U.S. children experience some form of child maltreatment in their lifetimes. This well may underestimate the true incidence as reporting is not reliable. The total lifetime economic burden resulting from new cases of fatal and nonfatal child maltreatment in the United States is approximately $124 billion.

The harm this can do is enduring. The Adverse Child Experiences studies, which now have studied makes a stunning case for the long term effects on health of violence, abuse, disruption and neglect in the life of adults. Disease and longevity are strongly correlated with adverse childhood experiences.

I am not accusing the Reagans here. I only know from hearsay what the family was really like and how it affected their children. I am using the example of a particular type of marriage configuration touted and idealized by the press as one which can leave children at a disadvantage and vulnerable.

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