The NUCLEAR FAMILY will it survive the 20th century?
"I think marriage is a sort of dead end," a senior college coed stated. "I have seen so many couples who were very happy when they were just living together. Then they decided to get married, and after that things really got to be a drag. I don't know why.... I think if Bill and I were married, we would take each other for granted. Now we really appreciate each other and we both regard our relationship as a very precious thing. We wouldn't want to spoil it by getting married, and I'm afraid that's what's going to happen. So as long as we are happy the way we are, I don't see any point to getting married."* This coed is typical of thousands of young people who have abandoned the idea of a traditional family arrangement in favor of just living together. She and her counterparts clearly illustrate the challenges that face marriage and the family. Today, sociologists and others question the need for an institution like marriage, and are seriously searching for viable alternatives to the traditional family setup. Every year it seems new ideas are introduced by the avant garde, and many would like to do away with the nuclear family altogether.
The Nuclear Family Defined
But what is a "nuclear family," anyway? In the past, a family consisted of a father, a mother, children, grandparents, and an assortment of aunts, uncles and other related dependents. Today, sociologists refer to this large group of relatives living under the same roof or in the same general region as an "extended family." However, as more and more families move into smaller single-family dwelling units or move hundreds or thousands of miles away from their closest relatives to pursue job opportunities, the possibilities for living in such an extended-family situation narrow. Grandparents are sent to "retirement homes" and singles find their own apartments. After this exodus, what remains is the basic "nuclear family" husband, wife and children. The extended family used to provide a great deal of stability and emotional support for its members. Children were exposed to a variety of adults after whom they could pattern themselves. Relationships were more diverse, and therefore less intense. Family members didn't expect as much from each other emotionally. But in the nuclear family, members often feel trapped in an extremely intense situation where a few individuals are expected to provide all of the love, companionship, support and gratification which formerly came from a great variety of sources. Family members often tend to crack under such severe strain. Husbands, wives and children go their separate ways, coming "home" only to sleep and refuel. The nuclear family thus is more fragile and much less stable than the traditional extended family. Where then is the family as an institution headed? Will it survive this century or will it ultimately become obsolete, going the way of the dinosaur?
Charges Against the Family
If certain antifamily thinkers have their way, that is exactly what will happen and rapidly. Mervyn Cadwallader writes: "Contemporary marriage is a wretched institution. It spells the end of voluntary affection, of love freely given and joyously received. Beautiful romances are transmitted into dull marriages; eventually the relationship becomes constrictive, corrosive, grinding and destructive" ("Changing Social Mores," Current, February 1967, p. 48). Cadwallader is not alone in his opinion. British sociologist David Cooper, who appears to harbor an utter revulsion for the nuclear family, would revolutionize society and bring about a world of autonomous persons. The family, according to Cooper, "... obscurely filters out most of our experience and then deprives our acts of any genuine and generous spontaneity" (The Death of the Family, Vintage Books, 1971, p. 6). Those who encourage alternate life-styles regard the institution of marriage and the contemporary family relationship as obsolete, outmoded and just plain decadent. The family, they say, has few redeeming features. They charge the typical
DIVORCE: an Increasing Family Trauma The current rise in divorces is not helping the image of the nuclear family. Since the early 1900s the ratio of divorces to marriages has steadily risen. Writing of the disintegrating American family, O. Hobart Mowrer had this to report: "The increasing frequency of divorce is perhaps the most obvious indication of the family's state of instability and disrepair. In 1900, only one marriage in 100 ended in divorce... in the late 1920s, the ratio had increased to one divorce in 20 marriages. Today the nationwide average is one divorce in every three marriages. In California, for some reason, half of all marriages end in divorce; and, when I was in Sacramento a few years ago, I was told that in that city, the state's capital, there are more divorce decrees issued than marriage licenses" ("New Hope and Help for the Disintegrating American Family," Journal of Family Counseling," Spring 1975, p.17). Demographer Paul C. Glick states: "During the l2-month period ending in August, 1974, the estimated number of marriages in the United States was about 2,233,000, and the number of divorces was 948,000. For the first time since soon after World War II the marriage total for a 12-month period was significantly smaller (by 68,000) than it had been in the preceding year. However the divorce total for the 12 months ending in August, 1974, had continued to rise (by 56,000) above the level for the preceding 12 months. These current figures are the latest available in a growing series which document a slowdown of marriage and a speedup of divorce" ("A Demographer Looks at American Families," Journal of Marriage and the Family, February 1975, p. 16).
family with being the primary causative agent in the creation of neurotic human beings. They also charge it with being hopelessly rigid and confining in terms of limited role models. Husbands, wives and children alike are constrained to follow certain preordained, inflexible patterns which are said to be constricting. Traditional marriage limits legitimate sexual activity to one's legal mate, and some consider this both unreasonable and unnecessary in a socially and technologically advanced society. But are these complaints valid? It is certainly true that too many marriages are constricting, grinding, corrosive and destructive. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find blissfully happy marriages which are functioning at an optimum level in every respect. And over-familiarity does often breed contempt within the family. Communication between family members can easily become routine there's nothing new to say after a certain point. When members of a family become "known quantities" to each other, every act, every word, every suggestion becomes a cliche. Life in the home can become boringly predictable and unbearably dull. So these complaints by sociologists and others really do have some basis in fact. These experts are not just trying to create a family revolution in order to cater to their own anarchistic preferences. But while the charges are not without foundation, it would also be a 'mistake to assume that the situation is hopeless. Marital problems are the clear result of cause-and-effect factors. The nuclear family is too valuable as an institution too much a part of the fabric of human society to allow it to slip through our fingers without a fight. No one has offered a viable, equally prestigious. alternative. No sociologist or anthropologist has arrived at a more satisfactory or superior way in which to structure tomorrow's societies. It is clear that the family must remain as the bulwark of the social order.
Who's to Blame?
But who or what are we to blame for the symptoms of family breakdown and decay we see all around us? Is the problem with the family institution itself an institution that has survived nearly 6,000 years of recorded human experience with incredible viability? Is the problem that people today are so different from their forebears? Or are family problems a natural result of changing patterns in our society? The fact that many of us now live in a technologically advanced industrial society provides a partial explanation. Today's home at least in the developed nations is often a marvel of modern engineering. Since the Industrial Revolution, the principal skill a housewife must possess is the ability to push a button or plug a cord into a wall socket. The modern housewife needs few of the domestic skills of her predecessors. No longer is it necessary for her to purchase food every day or to preserve meat with salt alone. She need not gather water at the well in the town square she simply turns on the faucet and out it comes. Why beat the weekly wash on a rock by the riverside when she can simply throw it into an automatic washer and push a button? And why bake bread when she can purchase every imaginable variety from the local supermarket, preserved, "enriched," and sliced? She need not be inventive when it comes to entertaining the children, either. She can simply flip on the television and allow it to "babysit" her offspring automatically. All of these conveniences irrespective of whether they are intrinsically good or evil combine to relieve her of the tasks that formerly made the home the time-consuming but fulfilling environment it once was. O. Hobart Mowrer adds his observations of this situation: "... The availability of prepared foods and ready-made clothing has made the domestic skills of women much less important than they once were. And since we are now moving toward few rather than many children per family, even childbearing and the role of mothering are less satisfying and honored. As a result, women have increasingly sought employment outside the home, often in competition with and, hopefully, on an equal" footing with men. Homemaking and devotion to the interests of family life have thus often given way to absorption in a job or profession of some sort, which has created confusion and conflict with respect to role expectations and the division of labor between husbands and wives" ("New Hope and Help for the Disintegrating American Family," Journal of Family Counseling, Spring 1975, p. 19). So the Industrial Revolution has dramatically affected traditional marriage and family life.
Can the Nuclear Family Survive?
After reading this overview, one might be tempted to conclude that the nuclear family has "had it" as an institution; that it will never survive the twentieth century. It is true that the nuclear family as it operates today stands in need of reevaluation. It needs scrutiny, study and enhancement or it will surely continue to fail or break down in many cases. It is true that we need to isolate those cause-and-effect factors leading to such breakdown, and we must improve the education of potential young marrieds in order to arm them with knowledge and understanding. They must be taught what to expect and not to expect from marriage. They must be taught to balance pie-in-the-sky idealism against the hard realities of life in the twentieth century. But the nuclear family is far from ready for extreme unction. While it is in deep trouble, it still remains the only social institution that truly fulfills human needs both organizationally and emotionally. Betty Yorburg, writing in The Changing Family, optimistically predicts "the nuclear family will not only persist into the twenty-first century, but it will be stronger than ever." She adds that "optimal emotional gratification requires a stable, dependable one-to-one relationship between human beings.... This need for an enduring and secure source of emotional gratification... is a major reason why marital pairing relationships will persist in the highly automated America of the future, although for different reasons than in the past. These relationships will increasingly be sanctioned less by mutual economic necessity and conceptions of duty than by recognized psychological necessity." Yorburg concludes: "Marriage and the nuclear family will continue as basic institutions in human societies, functioning imperfectly and inefficiently, and sometimes malevolently, but persevering because it is not possible to come up with anything more workable to provide for the basic emotional needs of human beings young or old" (The Changing Family, Columbia University Press, 1973, pp. 191-194). Sam Heilig, psychiatric social worker and director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, concurs. He states that "only a family relationship complete with marriage and kids can provide people with the constant support they need, a sense of belonging...." (Bella Stumbo, "The Lonely Young Their Isolation Can Be Deadly," Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1975). It may be said with utter certainty that the nuclear family is the best human institution we have. It really is the basic building block of any stable, godly society. But times have changed. The reality of today is different from the reality of Paul's day or Abraham's. Technology has changed things. Social values and mores are different. Today's woman not to mention today's man have come a long way from their first-century counterparts. Yet human nature remains what it always has been. And man is still a social creature. Man needs the stability provided by the traditional family setup. We all need a family base from which to launch our lives. If we are willing to face the reality of life in the soaring seventies and honestly address ourselves to those very real factors which lead to family breakdown, there is hope. The family can have more meaning and efficacy as a social institution than ever before in history if we are willing to work at making it successful and relevant to our age and time. The family will survive. It has to. But whether it survives in a crippled form or whether it continues to exist on a transcendentally higher plane than ever before is entirely up to those who participate in the institution of the family. The family is as good, or as bad, as we make it. As space permits, future articles will continue to explore the family, its problems and attractions, and will provide constructive suggestions and solutions to some of the problems which currently beset this time-honored institution.
* Interview with a senior college coed cohabiting with a male student, reported in The Futurist, December 1973, p. 250, in the article "Cohabitation: A Report on the Married-Unmarried Life-Style."
Is marriage obsolete?
Is marriage, like the Brown Pelican, in danger of extinction? Depending on which expert you consult, marriage is either (a) declining, (b) already dead, or (c) making a mild comeback. In any case, there's been a major shakeup of values. The important thing is: what does this mean to you? Whether you're single, married, or contemplating divorce, you'll find the booklet Why Marriage? most helpful. It's free!