Behind the well-fed lawns of suburbia, a new subspecies of person has developed, says Fairfax County psychologist Robert C. Weigl, living a life "fraught with difficulties."
They are, he says, perhaps the world's "most highly evolved nomads" who display a readiness "to pull up stakes and move on, as career and economic exigencies might dictate."
They could be a GS-13 on the way to a 14, an Army lieutenant colonel chasing the silver eagle, a lawyer moving up in the corporate structure. And traveling with them are spouses and children.
Weigl has dubbed them "portable selfers," whose transcience has led them to believe "I can develop a new niche for myself whereever I am."
While many adapt quite successfully to this kind of life, many others suffer from the rootlessness -- the lack of "deep attachments to places and people" that one finds in a more settled community.
When Weigl, director of services for the Mount Vernon Center for Community Health, came to Fairfax about four years ago from a small Midwestern town, he was surprised he says, by the "tremendous alienation and distrust of their environment" he found among many suburbanites. "I had never seen people with such tenuous communications."
He found even the nieghborhood groups formed to fight for French in the schools or a stopsign at the corner were temporary -- developed few lasting bonds in the community.
The lack of local attachments can become serious when a family faces such crises as a job loss, an unruly teenager, too many debts or a unhappy marriage. c
"Portable selfers, I believe, are very poor in asking for help from neighbors," says Weigl, who will present a paper on "Suburban Adults and the Myth of the Portable Self" at the health center's April 17 day-long Conference on the Adult. "And the chances are that portable-selfing neighbors are equally maladroit, or at least uncomfortable, in answering a call for help."
The isolation manifests itself in many ways:
A family with an elderly grandparent cannot find someone they trust to look after her while they take a weekend at the beach. No "network of watchfulness" keeps an eye on teen-agers in their after-school pursuits. If there's money trouble, the family keeps quiet, thinking it must be the only such family in the neighborhood. Tall fences enclose each family's "turf."
"The long-term; slowly evolved, interfamilial ties" that could provide "exchanges of concern, comfort, information and material aid" are absent.
As a result, says Weigl, "With no or few other deep bonds outside of the family, portable selfers tend to grievously overburden marriages and families." f
Fundamental needs "for intimacy, self-disclosure, self-affirmation, and letting your hair down all have to be met in that half-acre lot, in that 2,700-square-foot bilevel that looked so gratisying when first shown by the realtor."
At the health center, he says, "We see the symptoms of families called on to provide too much: alcoholism, child neglect and abuse, depression, family feuds and a host of other symptoms.
"I have repeatedly observed that local families contract even more deeply into themseleves during times of stress. I have yet to see a family in this area with a deeply disturbed teen-ager or young adult which has maintained deep supportive ties with other folks."
In its therapy, he says, the center tries to help families develop closer bonds with neighbors and others outside the home.
Weigl is not sure why people become portable selfers. It may evolve, he says, "as a reaction to the pain of earlier moves and separations, so that such pain will not accompany future life changes." Those who manage it successfully generally have "an intact capacity for deeper ties to others."
"We are not infinitely plastic and movable," he says, "and to a very considerable extent our ongoing sense of ourselves is our lasting bonds to our human and physical environment."