What is a Family?
In American society, as in all other societies in the world, group organization revolves around the family unit. Because each culture defines the family differently, a common definition for family is difficult to determine. This unit will examine how contemporary systems of marriage and family operate. The sociological perspective should be applied to understand how the family has evolved due to recent economic, political, religious, and cultural changes.
As was mentioned before, every society creates its own definition of a family. But that hasn’t stopped sociologists from trying to define what a family is. The definition most commonly agreed upon is that a family consists of two or more people who consider themselves related by blood, marriage, or adoption. Here in the United States and in some European countries, because of the changing definition of family, companies and cities are recognizing families of affinity, which is a group of people with or without legal or blood ties who feel they belong together and wish to define themselves as a family. Businesses and cities are according this new definition of family with benefits such as health care.
There are a number of family classifications. Below is a brief description of each.
Nuclear Family. The nuclear family consists of a father, mother, and biological and/or adoptive children. Most people in the United States see this as the preferred family arrangement, yet only about one-third of the nation’s family households fit this model.
Extended Family. A family where relatives, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles, live in the same home as parents with children. The move towards Industrialization in a society tends to promote the destruction of extended families and the support of nuclear families.
Family of Orientation. The family in which you are born into, and/or are subsequently raised.
Family of Procreation. The family that is formed when a couple have their first child.
Marriage Arrangements and Types
The institution of marriage plays an important role in the structure of the family. Marriage can be thought of as a group’s approved mating arrangements. It is also a legally sanctioned relationship involving economic cooperation. Below is a brief description of the various marriage arrangements.
Monogamy. Marriage of one male to one female. They are married only to each other.
Serial monogamy. A person may have several spouses over his or her life, but only one spouse at a time. An example would be Elizabeth Taylor. The world record for marriages is held by a Indiana woman at 23.
Polygyny. Marriage of one male to several females. This is the most common form of polygamy. In polygamous societies, relatively few men have multiple spouses. Having multiple wives is viewed as a mark of status. It is an indication of how much wealth you have.
Polyandry. Marriage of one female with more than one male. Few societies have this marriage arrangement. The culture of the Todas of southern India is an example. This form of marriage has been accepted in societies that practice female infanticide, and thus have a relatively smaller number of women. It can also be found in societies where agriculture is difficult, such as Tibet, where polyandry discourages the division of land into parcels too small to support a family.
Kinship Patterns and Descent: To Whom Are We Related?
Kinship and descent refer to how people trace family lineage over generations. Questions of descent are important in determining how property and authority are passed on from one generation to the next. The following are the most common descent systems:
Patrilineal. Most societies have chosen this solution. Descent is traced through the male line. The woman marries and becomes part of her husbands family, as do the children. Children are related to others only through their fathers. Fathers usually pass on property to the sons.
Matrilineal. About 20% of known societies trace descent through the female line. It is often the wife’s brother who is the “head” of the family. Children are brought up in their mother’s family – with their mother’s brother acting as their social father. Property and name are passed through the female’s side.
Bilateral. No distinctions are made between the wife’s and husband’s families. Daughters and sons are treated equally in terms of inheritance. Industrial societies with possess greater gender equality recognize bilateral descent. This is the norm for American society. As a norm, it is one that does allow for much possible conflict.
Sociological Theories on the Family
According to structural-functionalists, for a society to survive, basic needs must be met. For this perspective, the major question is: how does the family contribute to the well-being of society? The family unit is universal because it fulfills basic needs of every society. These needs are:
Reproduction. For societies to continue, dying members must be replaced. Throughout history, the family has served as the legitimate institution to have offspring. When children become adults, they can help support their elderly parents.
Protection. To develop fully, human infants require an extremely long period of care. In all societies, family members assume ultimate responsibility for the protection of young children.
Socialization. The family is probably the most influential agent of socialization. Cultural norms, values, language and behaviors are taught and transmitted within the family unit. Parents teach their children to be contributing members of society.
Regulation of Sexual Behavior. Standards of sexual behavior are most clearly defined within the family unit. Dating, pre-marital sex, marital sex, and extra-marital sex, and other sexual norms of a culture, are regulated primarily by the family. One universal regulation is the incest taboo, which is a prohibition forbidding sexual relations or marriage between certain family members. The incest taboo minimizes sexual competition within families, and forces people to marry outside of their families which serves to integrate the larger society. Regulated sexual behavior within the family makes social order possible.
Affection and Companionship. If the family is functioning properly, it should provide members with warm and intimate relationships. Family members expect one another to be there in times of crisis and provide emotional support.
Providing of Social Status. We are born into a social position because of our parents economic, educational, and social status. Family resources help to determine the degree of social mobility available.
This perspective sees the institution of the family not as a contributor to social stability, but as a reflection of the inequality in wealth and power found in society at large. Throughout human history, and in much of the world today, husbands have held overwhelming power and authority within the family. In fact, until just recently, women and children were often viewed as property of the husband. Although the egalitarian family is the goal in American society, it is one not often reached. For example, women are significantly more likely to leave their jobs when their husbands find better employment opportunities, than men when their wives receive better employment opportunities.
The “Second Shift”. Conflict theorists stress the continuing struggle for scare resources. The demands of housework create a struggle for the scarce resources of time, energy, and pursuing individual interests. “Second shift” refers to the second job many women have when they come home after work. Women put in on the average eleven more hours per week more than their husbands in tasks such as shopping, cooking, cleaning and paying bills. It is not surprising, that this gap in household chores creates discontent among wives and friction within the marriage. Two factors help to shrink the gap in household chores. The first is wages. The smaller the gap between husband and wife pay, the more equitable is the household labor. A second factor is the existence of the idea that there should be equality in the division of household chores. This attitude towards equality is usually linked to both spouses having a college education.
Domestic Abuse. Throughout the world, many husbands reinforce their power and control in the family through acts of violence. Although there exists abuse of men by women, it represents a small percentage of total abuse cases. For many women and children around the world, the family does not represent a sanctuary, but rather, a personal prison. One of the leading authorities in the world on spouse abuse, sociologist Murray A. Strauss, through extensive research, has discovered some interesting finding. The first, is that violent assaults on wives can be found in every social class. However, violent abuse against wives is more common in the lower class, than in the higher classes where higher education is more common. His research also indicates that abuse towards wives is more common amongst couples who witnessed their mothers being abused as a child or who were themselves abused as children.
Inheritance of Property. Throughout history, and even today, many societies have had or currently have, restrictions on the inheritance rights of women. This unequal distribution of wealth between brothers and sisters, creates unequal opportunities within the family. Families allow fathers to transmit their property to sons. Families, therefore act as a mechanism for reproducing gender inequalities from one generation to the next. For conflict theorists, patriarchy within the family structure allows women to be transformed into sexual and economic property of men.
Symbolic interactionists focus on the microlevel of the family and its relationships. They focus on the meanings associated with the interactions of family members. For example, they might study the connection between fathers and behavior problems of children. (Studies show that children who have active fathers in their lives, have fewer behavioral problems than do children with fathers who are not active in their development.) They might also look at the role of housework, and how housework in general, or even specific chores, may be viewed as male or female. Symbolic interactionists look at the various ways family members adjust their individual and family identities in response to changing roles and crises. How do married couples react to a newborn child? How do they react when the child leaves home? How do children deal with a divorce? Ask yourself, how does a person’s identity change with each of these new situations?
Diversity in U.S. Families
In American society, as in all other societies in the world, the family has undergone change. This process can be seen in the changing definitions of what constitutes a family, types of marriages, living arrangements, and child rearing practices. Demographic and structural changes have resulted in great diversity in family forms. The discussion below examines how the changing nature of families in the United States.
Types of Families
The family is an institution that changes according to social conditions. There is no one natural, or true form for the family. Yet, the idea of a “golden age” or “idealized” state of the family persists for many people. The family unit varies substantially by race, social class, age, and income. Below is a brief description of some of the types of families in the United States.
Married- Couple Families.
With all the changes in the family structure, the married-couple family still represents the most common of all household types. Family households predominated in 1970, when they made up 81 percent of all households. This proportion dropped to around 66 percent by 2012. Between 1970 and 2013, the share of households that were married couples with children decreased by about half from 40 to 19 percent. One of the most notable changes in married-couple families is the increased participation of women in the labor force. Among married people between the ages of 25 and 34, 96 percent of the men and 72 percent of the women are in the labor force. Dual-income families raise issues about the quality of life- marital relationships, child care, and standard of living. The additional income of the second wage earner does not guarantee marital bliss. Married-couple families face a great amount of stress. With respect to child-rearing, studies indicate that despite the widespread belief that the birth of a child will bring a couple closer together, research shows that having children increases stress and may lower marital satisfaction.
Single-parent families are a family where one parent is the primary care provider. Since 1970 the number of single-parent families has tripled. In recent decades the social stigma attached to single parents has decreased. According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, some 74 million children younger than 18 lived in the United States. Of these, 64 percent lived with married parents, 3.9 percent lived with two unmarried parents, 28 percent lived with one parent and 3.5 percent lived with no parent present. According to a 2013 Census Bureau Report, a single parent was the head of 21 percent of white families with children under 18, 31 percent for Hispanic families, and 55 percent for African-American families. Most single parent households are headed by women (78%). According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, there were 21 million children-or 28% of all children- who lived in one-parent families in 2012 — 17.9 million single-mother families and 2.9 million single-father families. The two major reasons for the increase in single-parent families are: 1) the high divorce rate, and 2) the high rate of pregnancy among unmarried teens. A family headed by a single, teenage mother faces especially difficult problems. Teen mothers, regardless of race, are among the most economically and educationally disadvantaged groups in American society. They find it difficult to get jobs, their schooling is interrupted, and they are unlikely to receive child support.
Stepfamilies. Approximately one-third of all people in the United States will marry, divorce, and remarry. The rising rates of divorce and remarriage have led to an increase in stepfamily relationships. According to Census Bureau statistics, in 1980, 9% of families with children included a stepparent, by 1990, that figure had risen to 24%. This has given rise to the blended family. A blended family is a family whose members were once a part of another family. Blended families include those that contain stepchildren and their stepparents, half siblings, or stepsiblings. Overall, 17% (12.2 million) of all children lived in blended families (2008 Census Bureau Report). The fictionalized TV family of the Brady Bunch would be an example. Stepfamilies have a unique set of problems. The parental roles of mothers and fathers are suddenly expanded to include more children. Jealousy, competition, and demands for time and attention can make the relationships within stepfamilies tense.
Families Without Children.
The number of married couples who choose to remain childless has increased in American society. Approximately 12 percent of U.S. married couples never have children. From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there’s data, the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s. Some reasons for this is because some couples do not want to give up the excitement and challenges of a career, or they may view raising a child as too expensive. The acronym DINKS (dual income no kids) has worked its way into our society’s vocabulary to designate the rise in the number of married couples without children.
Families Headed by Grandparents. According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2013, in 2013, approximately 7.1 million (10 percent) of children lived in a household that included a grandparent. The majority of these children (3.7 million) lived in the grandparent’s home, and of these, about 60 percent had a parent present. The main reason for the increase in families headed by grandparents is that the parents are incapable of caring for their children. The most common reasons are because parents have died, become ill, are homeless, addicted to drugs, abused or neglected their children, or are in prison.
Recently in the United States, the traditional heterosexual definition of the family has been challenged by the gay and lesbian community. The relationships between gays and lesbians do not carry the same social blessings as heterosexual relationships. The dominant culture still denies lesbian and gay couples the benefits and privileges that heterosexual couples receive. Some businesses and municipalities have recently begun to offer health care plans and other benefits to homosexual couples. Some states and a number of major cities such as San Francisco and New York have passed laws giving limited spousal benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Many other states have passed legislation allowing homosexual couples to adopt. Most gay couples with children in the United States are raising the offspring of previous heterosexual unions. Recent research has found that despite popular stereotypes, there is no harmful effect on children who grow up in gay households. According to the 2011 American Community Survey, there were 605,000 same-sex couple households, including both married and unmarried couples, of whom 284,000 were male and 321,000 were female couples.
In 1957, University of Michigan psychology professors Joseph Veroff, Elizabeth Douvan, and Richard Kulka released a survey that examined American attitudes to being single. The findings were stark: 80% of those surveyed believed that people who preferred being unmarried were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.” Things have changed. Americans are now within mere percentage points of being a majority single nation: Only 51% of adults today are married, according to census data. And 28% of all households now consist of just one person — the highest level in U.S. history. The trend toward maintaining a single lifestyle for a longer period of time is related to economic and social factors. Many young people, especially women, delay marriage for educational pursuits and entry into the labor force. The rise in the number of single people is a consequence of the fact that men and women are marrying at a later age. Yet despite the increases in delaying marriage, fewer than 5 percent of men and women will remain single throughout their lifetimes. According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2013, slightly more than one in four households (28 percent) consisted of a person living alone in 2013, up from 17 percent in 1970.
Adoption. Adoption refers to the transfer of legal rights, responsibilities, and privileges of parenthood to a new legal parent or parents. The largest single category of adoption in the United States is adoption by relatives.
Comparison of the Traditional Nuclear Family With New Alternative Family Forms
Traditional Nuclear Family
never-married, singlehood, cohabitation
single-parent (never married or previously married)
male primary provider, ultimate authority
egalitarian marriage (including dual career and commuter marriage)
extramarital affairs ( including sexually open marriage and swinging)
same-sex intimate relationships or households
multi-adult households (including multiple spouses, communal living, and multigenerational families)
Source: Macklin, Eleanor D. 1980. “Nontraditional Family Forms: A Decade of Research.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 42: p. 906
Trends in U.S. Families
Marriage is no longer the assumed route from adolescence to adulthood. As seen from our discussion above, the structure of the family has undergone change. Listed below is a short description of some of the trends in the United States with respect to families and marriage.
Americans are postponing marriage. According to a Census Bureau Report, the proportion of never married women 25 to 34 increased between 1970 and 2005, from 9 percent to 32 percent. Among men, this age, the share rose from 15 percent to 43 percent. The median age at first marriage in 2013 was 29.0 for men and 26.6 for women, up from 23.2 for men and 20.8 for women in 1970. There are a number of factors responsible for this. First, freed from financial needs, many women don’t necessarily have to marry to enjoy a satisfying life. As sexual attitudes towards greater sexual permissiveness have changed, many people also find the same sexual gratification in single life as they would in marriage. Approximately 95 percent of Americans will get married at some point in their lifetimes.
Cohabitation. Cohabitation refers to adults living together in a sexual relationship without being married. According to the Census Bureau, at any given time, one out of every ten opposite sex couples are unmarried. Half of all people between the ages of 25 and 40 have cohabitated. Twelve times more Americans were cohabitating in 2008 than in 1970 (U.S. Census Bureau 2010). Many sociologists (particularly symbolic interactionists) believe that one reason why married couples who lived in separate residences before marriage have lower divorce rates than married couples who cohabitated before marriage is in how the two groups view the term “commitment”. Those who did not cohabitate before marriage placed a stronger emphasis on commitment than those who cohabitated.
With respect to cohabitation, there has also been a cultural shift in how and when cohabitating couples have children. In the past if a cohabitating couple had a baby, a “shotgun wedding” might occur shortly afterwards to avoid family embarrassment. Today that is less likely to occur. With marriage in decline, cohabitation has emerged as an acceptable form for child bearing and child rearing. The share of unmarried couples who opted to have “shotgun cohabitations” — moving in together after a pregnancy — surpassed “shotgun marriages” for the first time over the last decade, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, according to 2006-2010 data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, the latest available. That is compared to 5.3 percent who chose a post-conception marriage. As recently as the early 1990s, 25 percent of such couples got married.
Cohabiting mothers are spurring increases in out-of-wedlock births, now at a high of 41 percent. In all, about 60 percent of all births during the 2000s were to married mothers, compared to 24 percent to cohabiting mothers and 16 percent to non-cohabiting mothers. That was the first time that cohabiting births exceeded births from single mothers who weren’t living with their child’s father.
Since the early 1990s, the share of out-of-wedlock, cohabiting births has grown from 11 percent to 24 percent, while those to non-cohabiting, single mothers has remained steady at 16 percent.
Unmarried Mothers. With the exception of Japan, all other industrialized nations have seen an increase over the past 40 years in the number of unmarried mothers. Many of these unmarried mothers are teenagers. Forty-four percent of single mothers have never been married. This is 11 times the percent of never-married single mothers in 1960. In 2012, over 40 percent of all children are born to single women, compared with less than 10 percent in 1960.
The Sandwich Generation and Elder Care. Families in the United States are increasingly being affected by the need to provide elder care. Because our family size is shrinking in the United States, there are fewer younger people available to take care of the elderly. The term “sandwich generation” refers to people who find themselves sandwiched between taking care of two generations, their children and their parents. In our society, as in most societies, women are expected to shoulder the work of elder care. Elder care in the United States is provided in two ways: institutions for the elderly and private care in the home. Most of the care of older people in the United States is provided by families. A relatively small percentage of the elderly are placed in long-term institutional care, but that percentage is increasing.
Families and Social Problems
Family Violence. Although the family is often depicted as sanctuary where members are nurtured, families can also be a private sphere of violence and conflict. Although husbands and wives are about equally likely to attack one another, women are far more likely to need medical attention because of marital violence. The American Medical Association has estimated that one in three women in the United States will be physically assaulted by her husband at some point in their married life. According to a Department of Justice Report from 2005, The majority (73%) of family violence victims were female. Females were 84% of spouse abuse victims and 86% of victims of abuse at the hands of a boyfriend or girlfriend. While about three-fourths of the victims of family violence were female, about three-fourths of the persons who committed family violence were male. Eight in ten murderers who killed a family member were male.
Child abuse is another form of family violence. Child abuse may involve physical or emotional abuse, as well as neglect. Factors associated with abuse include: drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, and isolation of the family. Incest is a particular kind of child abuse involving sexual relations with persons who are closely related. Studies have found that fathers and uncles are the most frequent incest abusers. New research has indicated that brother-sister incest is more common than father-daughter incest.
Teen Pregnancy. The United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world. Each year close to half a million teenage girls have babies.
Families and the World of Work. One new area of research is the conflict between the demands of the workplace and the demands of family life. Sociologists are beginning to conduct research looking at the possible connection between such things as workload and child neglect and/or abuse. Among industrialized nations, the United States provides the fewest federally supported maternity and child-care policies. The Family and Medical Leave Act adopted by Congress in 1993 is meant to address the competing demands of work and family.
2. Paid Leave Benefits Lagging for Working Parents in the UShttps://www.dol.gov/featured/paidleave/cost-of-doing-nothing-report.pdf
Marriage and Divorce
In American society, marriage is still viewed as the cultural norm. Despite depressing divorce statistics, the majority of Americans still marry at some point in their lives. The United States has both the highest marriage and divorce rates in the industrialized world. What is it about the institution of marriage that can attract and repel so many people? This page will examine the various influences on the institution of marriage.
Courtship, Love, and the Selection of Mates
Throughout history, societies around the world have had cultural norms with respect to mate selection and marriage. In the United States, the vast majority of adults will get married at some point in their lifetimes. But how do they get married? How does one find a mate?
Dating and Mate Selection. Over the course of an individual’s “single” career, one meets thousands of potential marriage partners. How does one narrow down the field? According to sociologists, one of the most important factors is propinquity. Propinquity refers to the spatial nearness of a potential mate. In other words, it is much easier to find a marriage partner in your community than it is to find someone across the country. It is probably no accident that most people marry co-workers are fellow students. Another important factor in mate selection is what sociologists refer to as homogamy. Homogamy is the tendency to choose a mate similar to oneself. People with similar interests and values often find themselves in similar places, and are typically drawn to each other. Most people choose a mate because of similarities in social class, religion, age, and race. Dating is likely to progress towards considerations of marriage if the couple discover similar interests, aspirations, and values. Finally, the issue of third parties plays a role in your mate selection. In other words, parents, organized religion, and a variety of other community members may protest the selection of a mate.
Another factor that influences mate selection is the local marriage market. The marriage market refers to the local supply of men and women available for marriage. Much of the time the focus is on available men. In some communities, women find it difficult to find a mate because of men leaving for war or for employment purposes. Here in the United States, there has been recent research into the reasons why African-American women marry less frequently than white women. Research seems to indicate that one reason might be that because of the high rate of incarceration of African-American males into our prison system, that there is shrinking pool of well-educated black men with good paying jobs.
A microsociological approach called “social exchange theory” describes courtship and marriage as forms of negotiation. When couples engage in dating, each person is assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the other person becoming their potential spouse. In the local marriage market, then, people are “shopping around” for the “best deal”. There are many qualities that people look for, from physical beauty to money, to being a reliable parent. When dating, an individual is looking to maximize rewards while minimizing costs.
Romantic Love. In the United States, love is important in the courtship process. Parents in the United States tend to value love in a marriage, and they encourage their children to develop intimate relationships based on love. Modern research has indicated that romantic love usually begins with sexual attraction. Once a person finds another sexually attractive, they tend to spend more time with that person, discovering common interests, and laying the foundation of a potential lifelong relationship. It must be remembered that love and marriage in not a cultural universal. Many cultures in the past and present have not viewed romantic love as a prerequisite for marriage. In societies with arranged marriages, economic considerations are often the most important factor in mate selection.
The Sexual Side of Courtship. Some of the most important cultural norms regarding courtship and dating revolve around the notion of acceptable sexual contact. In the United States, recent surveys have shown increases in sexual permissiveness. More people are engaging in sex before marriage, and fewer people are finding anything wrong with it. Many of the changes in attitudes towards sexual permissiveness have occurred with women. The result has been that today men and women are more alike in attitudes and level of experience.
Marriage as an institution in the United States has undergone change. The expectations and longevity of a marriage are not the same as they were fifty years ago. Listed below is a short description of some of the factors that influence the institution of marriage.
Getting Married. Approximately 95 percent of Americans will get married at some point in their lifetimes. According to Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, the majority of men and women in 2012 had been married by the time they were 30 to 34 (71 percent), and among men and women 65 and older, 96 percent had been married.
A report released in July of 2013 by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Marriage and Family Research found that the U.S. marriage rate is 31.1, or 31 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women. That means for every 1,000 unmarried women in the U.S., 31 of those previously single women tied the knot in the last year. For comparison, in 1920, the national marriage rate was 92.3. In 2011, the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans were married, compared to 72 percent in 1960.
In the United States, the majority of them will do so through the cultural norm of romantic love. Arranged marriages in the United States are usually found only in subcultures who have brought those values with them from their home countries. One recent change in U.S. marriages is the increase in the number of interracial marriages. Interracial marriages now make up 6 percent of all married couples.
Social Class and Marriage. As was mentioned before, social class is one of the factors of homogamy that influence mate selection. Contrary to popular Hollywood films, most people marry within their social class. Upper-class families emphasize family lineage, and therefore, play a more visible role in marriage decisions. It becomes a family decision instead of an individual one.
Marital Satisfaction. There seems to be conflicting evidence in viewing marital satisfaction. Some research indicates that marital satisfaction decreases with the birth of a child. Other research indicates that two out of three married Americans report that they are very happy with their marriages. Regardless of the statistics used, there is a growing awareness of the importance of marital satisfaction. With more people marrying for love instead of arranged marriages, and the entry of women in the labor force, giving them a level of autonomy within the marriage, there has been a growing expectation that marriages should be happy, not just useful. As a result, there has developed a conflict between ideal and real marriages. After the honeymoon, couples begin to realize the difference between the myth of marriage and the reality of marriage. Many married couples begin to recognize the fantasy element of romantic love. They realize that they married someone not for who they were, but who they wanted them to be. The routines of managing a household also adds stress to the marriage. Sexual relations between couples also undergo a change. Couples who report have a great relationship tend to report the highest satisfaction in their sexual relationship. The prevalence of infidelity ( recent studies reveal that 45-55% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship (Atwood & Schwartz, 2002 – Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy), demonstrates the conflict between the real and the ideal cultural value of a happy marriage. How can couples enjoy a high level of marital satisfaction? Sociologists have come up with the following list:
1) Marital satisfaction increases for both husbands and wives when the wife enters the labor force. The financial benefits and autonomy for the wife seems to improve the relationship. However, if either of the spouses spends too much time at work, marital satisfaction declines.
2) Marital satisfaction decreases among groups with high poverty rates.
3) Marital satisfaction is influenced by the family life cycle. Marital satisfaction tends to start off high, decreases when children are born, reaches a low point during the teen years, and then rises when children reach adulthood. Parents who are “empty-nesters” enjoy the highest level of marital satisfaction.
4) Research indicates that marital satisfaction is higher among couples who share the burden of household chores and child care responsibilities.
5. A health sex life is a characteristic reported among couples claiming high levels of marital satisfaction.
Roles and Relationships in Marriage. Marriage is one of the major role transitions to adulthood. Marriage means the acquisition of a whole new set of duties, responsibilities, and rights. Every marriage contains gender roles. Although gender roles are changing in the United States, surveys still indicate that the social norm is that the husband be the breadwinner and the wife engage in child rearing activities and household chores. Sexual roles within marriage is a new area of study. Recent research indicates a few trends: 1) the frequency of intercourse declines steadily with the length of the marriage,- regardless of the couple’s age, education, or situation, and 2) women have reached parity with men in their probability of having an affair. Parental roles have also undergone change. For example, because of the entry of women into the workplace, fathers have had to increase their role in child care. Yet, despite some changes, some roles have remained. Mothers are still more likely to drop out of the labor force to care for children, and men are more likely to carry the burden of providing for their families.
Getting Divorced. The United States leads the world in the number of people who divorce. Just how common is divorce? Divorce statistics are hard to interpret. The mass media frequently reports that half of all marriages end in divorce. This figure is misleading because many marriages last for decades. The couples who divorce during a given year, are for the most part, not from the same group that married that year. How then could we measure divorce? We could compare the total number of married couples and then look at how many of those obtained a divorce in a given year. Or we could look at the number of divorces per thousand married women. Which ever statistics are used, the divorce rates have increased over the past fifty years. Divorce is not equally distributed across all groups. Divorce is more likely for couples who marry young (teens or early 20’s). Second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. Divorce rates also differ according to race and class. For the most part, divorce rates are higher among low income couples. The higher one’s education, the less likely one’s marriage is to end in divorce. Finally, those who are married to a spouse who engages in “bad” behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, and crime, have a higher chance of their marriage ending in divorce.
Causes of Divorce. There are a number of factors that contribute to the increase in divorce in the United States. Demographics play a role in divorce. We are living longer. Many marriages that would have ended with the death of a spouse, now end with a divorce. Cultural factors also contribute to increased divorce rates. Individualism is a cultural trait in the United States. A high value is placed on individual satisfaction. People often terminate a marriage looking for happiness elsewhere. We have become more concerned with personal happiness than with the well-being of our families and children. In addition to individualism, there has been a growing acceptance of divorce in American society. People no longer believe one should endure an unhappy marriage. This can be seen in the expansion of no-fault divorce laws over the past few decades. Finally, the change in women’s roles over the past half century have changed the views of divorce. Women are less financially dependent on the resources of husbands as they were in the past. They feel economically and emotionally more confident to leave a marriage that seems hopeless.
Characteristics That Make It More Likely A Person Will Get Divorced
* Marriage at an early age
* A short acquaintanceship before marriage
* Disapproval of the marriage by relatives and friends
* Limited economic resources and low wages
* A high school education or less
* Parents who are divorced or have unhappy marriages
* The presence of children at the beginning of the marriage
Although the emotional trauma of a divorce is a heavy burden, some sociologists believe it can be a positive option. Divorce may be the only option for people in unhappy marriages. Without it, they would be resigned to a life of misery. Secondly, new research suggests that it is more harmful to children to remain in a marriage with a high level of conflict, than in staying together for the sake of the children.
Remarriage. Some sociologists view the high rate of remarriage in the United States as an endorsement of the institution of marriage. Four out of five people who divorce remarry, most within five years. However, research seems to indicate that divorce rates are higher for those who remarry. Most divorced people remarry others who have been divorced. At all ages, a greater percentage of men remarry than women.
Children and Divorce. Divorce has a special meaning to the approximately one million children whose parents divorce each year. Most children will feel confused and insecure. Some may see the divorce as a welcomed end to a dysfunctional relationship. A recent study in 1997 by sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth found that in about one-third of divorces children benefit from the separation of parents because of a decrease in exposure to conflict. Yet for the remainder, divorce represents the beginning of an emotionally painful time. It is important to remember, that not all problems experienced by children whose parents divorce are attributable to the divorce. Many of these difficulties were present before the breakup. A number of factors influence how children adjust to a divorce. Children adjust better if: 1) both parents show understanding and affection, 2) the child is living with a parent who is making a good adjustment, and 3) the family has adequate money to meet its needs.
Divorce and the Absent Father. One of the more unfortunate outcomes of divorce in American society is the absent father. Men who are unhappy about custody, alimony, or child support arrangements often give up visiting their children altogether. The term “dead beat dad” refers to the thousands of men each year who decide to abdicate their parental responsibilities. This means that the burden of child rearing often falls on the shoulders of women. Only three-quarters of the children who are eligible for child support following a divorce actually receive any, most getting only a partial amount.
Summary of Divorce
In recent years concern about the increased divorce rate and the impact of divorce on children, has prompted many states to reconsider existing divorce laws. In 1997 the state of Louisiana legislated premarital counseling and strict limits on divorce. A marriage may only be dissolved after a two year separation or documented adultery or abuse. Do you think our nation needs to pass legislation making getting a divorce harder to obtain?
Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
American Beauty. A depressing look at suburban American family life.
Parenthood. A funny, yet enlightening look at the demands of parenting.
Meet the Patels. An Indian-American man who is about to turn 30 gets help from his parents and extended family to start looking for a wife in the traditional Indian way through an arranged marriage.
Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
1. Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz
2. A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom
3. Promises I Can Keep : Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathryn Edin
4. The Sandwich Generation: Caught Between Growing Children and Aging Parents by H. Michael Zal
5. A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth
6. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
Brym, Robert J.
2003 Sociology: Your Compass For A New World Canada: Wadsworth Thomson Learning
2000 Sociology: The United States in a Global Community United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning
Henslin, James M.
2000 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (3rd Edition) Boston: Allyn and Bacon
Macionis, John J.
1999 Sociology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Copyright ©2002, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved