The film, The Graduate, is Mike Nichol’s 1967 comedy-drama adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel of the same title. The story follows Benjamin Braddock, a 21 years old recent college graduate who has no well-defined aims in life. In his idleness, Benjamin gets seduced by an older woman, the family friend Mrs. Robinson. But things get even more heated when he falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine.
It explores, among others, the theme of family and becomes a good portrayal of just how delicate the family can be, how the dynamics of factors, often subtle in themselves and equally working in subtle ways, can tear a family apart, sometime against the will and wishes of those involved. From the onset, there is an underlying tension between the characters as it increasingly becomes clear that there is a clash of goals and ambitions. This is so even if the characters themselves do not know it. In a nutshell, it can be said that this film is interested in the broken family. There are two sets of families here. In some cases, this interest is obvious. In others, this is not as obvious.
This paper will focus on the Robinsons; the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, as well as the relationship between each of them and their daughter Elaine. The main problem between Mr. and Mrs. Robinson is the lack of love, the fact that the two did not marry out of love. Mrs. Robinson is, consequently, an abandoned wife. As for their relationship with Elaine, the two relate differently with her. However, they both seem to attempt the same control over her, each hardly giving much voice in her life. This leads to conflict
This paper analyses the family dynamics in the Robinsons family within the framework of a structural family perspective.
Structural Family Therapy in Brief
Family structure refers to “the invisible set of functional demands that organizes the ways in which family members interact” (Munichin, 1974, p.5). In this respect, the family becomes a social setting in which people (the members) exchange relational transactions through that establish rules of when and how family members interact.
The rules are the determinants of boundaries to interrelationship and interaction. ‘Boundaries’ are the invisible barriers that govern the contact between members of a family. There are different types of boundaries in this regard. Diffuse boundaries weak boundaries in which there seem to be no rules governing how family members interact and relate with each other. On the other hand, in enmeshed relationships, some members of the family loss autonomy as a result of over-involved of other family member(s) (Munichin, 1974; Karver et al., 2006).
First Construct: Disengaged Boundary between Mr. and Mrs. Robinson
The Robinson’s family seems intact to those looking from the outside. However, Mrs. Robinson is a neglected wife, having to bear a loveless marriage. It is perhaps for this stark difference between what people see and what actually happens on the inside that Mrs. Robinson’s seduction of Benjamin comes as a shocking surprise to him. It seems that the Robinson’s are together but are far from a family. They got married because she got pregnant with his child and they seem to be keeping up with charade for the same reason.
Now, in this relationship, the boundaries are loose. This can be considered from two main perspectives. First, the relational boundaries between Mr. and Mrs. Robinson seem too open. Mr. Robinson seems to care less about his wife than he has given her all freedom to do what she wants. Of course, he does not necessarily say this or allow it. However, the fact that Mrs. Robinson is away with Benjamin every night and Mr. Robinson does not seem to realize it- or maybe he does but it does not bother him much- reveals a lot about this relationship. The two are totally out of touch. Secondly, marriage in itself does impose certain invisible but equally imposing boundaries, so that there are things the married people cannot do, such as sleep with other people. That Mrs. Robinson sleeps with Benjamin and does not seem to feel any guilt means that she has lost all feeling that the institution of marriage and family should be able to give her and guide her behavior. These boundaries are not there because there is no family to speak of, especially between Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in this particular case. There are hardly any visible instances of conflict. But these seem to be as a result of conscious efforts by the two to avoid them or as evidence of some sort of resigned acceptance. Even when the two finally seem to agree on one thing (that is, both being against the relationship between Benjamin and Elaine), it is for very different goals. Mr. Robinson is against the relationship because of the relationship between Benjamin and his wife, which is the most natural thing. However, Mrs. Robinson is against the relationship not because of some desire to protect her daughter but out of jealousy.
Second Construct: Enmeshed Boundary between the Robinson Parents and Elaine
On the other hand, although the relational boundaries between the parents (the Robinson’s) are loose (i.e. diffuse), the relationship between them and the daughter Elaine- even if driven by different reasons- are enmeshed. There is the feeling that Elaine does not have much say in her life. Indeed, she does fall in love with Benjamin. However, they were pushed together, pushed into becoming lovers. Perhaps, if the parents had not interfered, Benjamin and Elaine may not have met or maybe did but not fallen in love because no one would have planted the seed of the two of them together in their heads. This seed did have a big manipulative effect on the two going out.
As evidence of this enmeshment, Mr. Robinson, as already noted, does push Elaine into going out with Benjamin. Moreover, when he finds out about the affair between Benjamin and his wife, he does everything to keep the two apart. Although Elaine seems ready to forgive Benjamin and restore their relationship after his confessions to his affair with her mother, Mr. Robinson insists the two will never be together. He even considers prosecuting Benjamin. But in the end, he forces Elaine to drop her studies so she could marry Carl, a classmate she once had an affair with. Mrs. Robinson also exercises this control over Elaine during the drama at the wedding when she joins others in trying to stop Elaine from leaving with Benjamin.
The irony is that this enmeshment, this effort to control Elaine in the end backfires. The plans of the Robinson parents, it seems, is to have Elaine living as they want, in a way that helps them have some control over their lives, their desires. For Mr. Robinson, Elaine seems to be the only symbol for his power in the family, the tool for his exercise of manly power over his family. She probably makes him believe in his being ‘head of the family’. Besides, Mrs. Robinson seems to be gone, now sleeping with his partner’s younger son. For Mrs. Robinson, controlling Elaine means having her way, which is to prevent her from being with or even marrying Benjamin. She is punishing her daughter for taking the one thing she believed she possessed. Of course, it does not mean she will have Benjamin back. But at least it might perhaps give her some satisfaction that her life was not entirely gone out of her hands, that she can at least exercise some control over some aspects of it.
However, this control, this obvious attempt to take Elaine’s control out of her own hands has just the opposite effect. It provokes in Elaine the desire to fight for it, her autonomy. As a result, she rebels against both, doing exactly what the two did not want to see happen.
Third Construct: Elaine and Triangulation
Without trying to, or even the Robinson parents being aware of it, Elaine becomes the uniting factor for the family- at least on the surface. Both Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, even if for different reasons and goals (as already pointed out), agree that Elaine must not be with Benjamin. In previous times, it remains obvious that the two parents are driven by their different purposes in their determination to prevent Elaine and Benjamin from being together. However, in the last scene, in their effort to prevent the two from getting away, we forget the differences in their goals and focus more on their present determination. We see the parents as one thing, a single force working toward a single goal. However, this unity is only short-lived because the silent war between the two is still there.
Limitations in Conceptualization
So far, the constructs examined above are consistent with the premises of the structural family theory. However, there are cases when the theory does not seem practical in real-life situations. For instance, the theory emphasizes that inappropriate boundaries and unbalanced subsystems lead to dysfunctional families. The relationships between the family members in the Robinsons family prove this to be true. Minuchin (1974) also stressed that, for a family to function well, whatever works well for the family system should be encouraged. In other words, there is a not a universal factor that makes up a functional family. In this respect, structural theory is not about “what is ideal”. Rather, it encourages acceptance of the family’s unique culture and looking for “what works for them.”
Indeed, maybe this is one of the problems with the Robinsons families; the fact that the family members do not accept what is and work with it, instead always trying to manipulate circumstances to create conditions that work best for themselves. Each member is too shut into their selfish selves to work at what suits them as a group, family. However, initially, the Robinsons seem to be getting on relatively okay. Mrs. Robinson seems to have accepted her place as the rejected wife and Mr. Robinson did not ask for a lot of her. Elaine, on her part, was largely the innocent bystander. However, things seem to get worse and, in what may confirm Minuchin’s (1974) arguments, the problem might be that the family members try to control the dynamics that run the family. Still, the question would be whether the initial situation was better than the present situation just because the conflict was kept under check. That is doubtful. The way things end only brought the underlying tensions (in the previous situation) to the fore. For me, the problem with Munichin’s (1974) argument has to do with how to determine that the circumstances have ‘worked’ for the family. In other words, Munichin (1974) does not make clear what would one need to focus on to make conclusion(s) as to the workability of the family at whatever point in time.
One of the obvious problems in this family is conflict. There is a general lack of literature on evidence-based family therapy. This has been attributed to many factors. Walsh (2013) believes this has to do with the difficulty in measuring therapy goals and outcomes. For example, in the case of the Robinsons, the question would be whether treatment should focus on treating the child’s (Elaine’s) symptoms or restoring the feelings of the parents towards each other or both. Indeed, it is hard to see a case where therapy achieves both. Yet, achieving just one of these cannot be sufficient for this family. For example, without solving the feelings of the parents towards each other means there is risk for relapse for the child.
Nonetheless, there is still enough literature to help make a few conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the structural; family therapy as a solution to the family problems. Larner (2004), for instance, basing his arguments on evidence-based practice finds that a good number of outcome researches that confirm that structural family therapy do work. However, like Walsh (2003), Larner (2004) acknowledges that there remains uncertainty on the specificity of therapies; that is, what works for whom and under what circumstances. For instance, the therapy strategy has proven it works for children and adolescents. For example, examining the effectiveness of Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT), Szapocnik et al. (2012) cite evidence showing that the therapy have been effective in dealing with risk behavior on the part of the youth in families facing conflicts. Moreover, the therapy has proved largely effective when using double-blind treatment and control groups. Another empirical study that helped add weight to this view of the workability of this therapy was Shadish et al.’s (1993; 1995, cited in Larner, 2004) meta-analysis of a total of 163 randomized trial studies. The study found that family therapy is a lot better than no treatment. Unfortunately, this conclusion does not do much good for the therapy. Making family therapy sound like merely better than nothing cannot be considered as much weight. However, there is still need for “further well-designed outcome studies using clearly specified, manualised forms of treatment and conceptually relevant outcome measures” (Cottrell & Boston, 2002, p.573, quoted in Larner, 2004, 18). This suggestion is informed by the general notion that family therapy lacks the experimental rigor that other forms of therapies have been subjected to; that is., what is necessary for an evidence-based outcome.
However, part of this lack of agreement on whether structural family therapy works in dealing with family conflict or not may have to do with the fact that people focus more on one side of the goals of such therapy than the other. Particularly, perhaps the most preferred outcome of structural therapy is to preserve the family. In this regard, the aim would be to change family dynamics in such a way that the result keeps then family intact. However, it is not always that such a goal is attainable. In fact, in a good number of cases, keeping the family together would not be the best answer as it would mean problems for the child (Walsh, 2003).
It is mainly on these grounds that many question the workability of the structural family therapy, particularly the fact that it may focus so much on the individual (the young person) and now the family as a whole, so that most decisions are made for the client than for the family. Still, structural family therapy has been found to be effective in many cases.
It does not seem to me like this family is beyond hope. Although they may have held on for other reasons other than what should be holding families together, there may be an underlying will to keep the family intact. This is the what this therapy should focus on most.
Toward achieving this goal, the therapy sets two main goals. First, to eliminate or reduce the problem behaviors of the clients, including risk-taking behavior (known as symptom or strategic focus). For example, system or symptom focus happens when a parent directs his or her anger toward the young person exhibiting the problem behavior. In this respect, the parent’s negativity toward the young person only makes the problem behavior worse (Walsh, 2003). We see this in the case of Elaine. Although she probably may have kept Benjamin away on her own, her parents’ determination to keep her away from Benjamin makes her determined to see him. The second goal is to change the interactions that are associated with such problem behaviors within the family. In this respect, the therapy aims to change how the family members behave toward and interact with one another and, consequently, interrupt the negativity cycle between family interactions and problem behavior in the young person.
This film makes clear just how much helpless families can be to relational dynamics that govern them. Looking at the working of the two boundaries in the Robinsons family, we see how relational dynamics can act in unpredictable ways. The most complex manifestation of these relational dynamics and the boundaries plays out in the Robinson family and makes it hard deciding which type of boundary (diffuse or enmeshed) is the best. For example, like we see in the relationship between the parents, diffuse boundary seems to be evidence of a broken family, but also a cause for further breakdown. On the other hand, enmeshed boundaries seem to only work when those on the receiving end of the control are not conscious of it. Indeed, it can be hard to identify such control. For example, it is not obvious that Benjamin is aware of the control although he seems to respond to it. However, when one identifies this control, like Elaine does, there is bound to be conflict which could lead to further disintegration of the family. Besides, although she really seems to be in love with Benjamin, Elaine does rebel against her parents as a conscious fight-back. Maybe, ultimately, the lesson is that we cannot control family dynamics; that things should be left to run their course. Yet, the uncertainty in the faces of Benjamin and Elaine as the ride into the future may perhaps imply the pain of cutting off family ties, our consciousness of it.
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