Beyond the Nuclear Family

experiments in new social relations

Since the 1960’s, domestic support structures have been increasingly taking on new forms and new meanings, with a general decline in the nuclear family form. As Vern L. Bengston explains, this can be seen on several fronts: firstly, in of higher divorce rates; secondly, in the diversification of family forms, from non-biological or conjugal relationships to racial and ethnic minority families who practice different versions of non-nuclear versions of kinship; and the increasing relevance and importance of multi-generational bonds and familial relations.”Vern L. Bengtson, “Beyond the Nuclear Family: The Increasing Importance of Multigenerational Bonds”, Journal of Marriage and Family; Feb 2001; 63, 1; pg. 1)

“Supporters of the family decline hypothesis have focused on the negative consequences of changing family structure”, but this “‘family decline’ hypothesis is limited, and to some critics flawed, by its preoccupation with the family as a coresident household and the nuclear family as its primary representation.” (Vern L. Bengtson, “Beyond the Nuclear Family: The Increasing Importance of Multigenerational Bonds”, Journal of Marriage and Family; Feb 2001; 63, 1; pg. 3 & 4) What this representation of family misses is the importance of non-resident bonds, as well as multi-generational roles played in kinship networks. “Families are changing in both forms and meanings, expanding beyond the nuclear family structure to involve a variety of kin and nankin relationships”, Bengston explains, and this can perhaps be taken as both a positive and a negative thing: “family diversity and fluidity are now ‘normal,’ and the postmodern family condition opens up the possibility of egalitarian, democratic forms of intimacy, as well as potentially threatening levels of insecurity.” (Vern L. Bengtson, “Beyond the Nuclear Family: The Increasing Importance of Multigenerational Bonds”, Journal of Marriage and Family; Feb 2001; 63, 1; pg. 4)

Rather than resisting these developments, or having nostalgia about the ‘way things were’, it is important to observe where their real consequences lie, and to mitigate these consequences with new institutions befitting of the contemporary, pluralistic moment.

One key institution that is worth examining is the institution of marriage, which has been relied upon as the foundation for family life and social stability throughout most of the twentieth century. While Americans are more supportive of marriage and are more likely to marry than those in other industrialized nations, our relationship with the institution is a conflicted one, according to Mark Fine, a psychologist who studies marriage and family relations. Reviewing Andrew J. Cherlin’s book The Marriage-Go-Around: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, Fine comments on the author’s choice to portray a bus advertisement in support of marriage:

he cites a poignant example of an advertisement on a bus showing a smiling couple and the statement “Marriage works.” Cherlin suggests that such an advertisement would not be seen in any other Western country and […] suggests that Americans are uniquely focused on the value of being married and on strengthening marriages as opposed to improving romantic partnerships in general.

This emphasis is at odds with the individualism that Americans claim to possess — and ideology in which “high value [is placed] on personal freedoms, fulfillment, and growth, as well as spiritual fulfillment”. The proclaimed valuing of personal freedom is in direct contradiction with the commitment to obligation and mutual responsibility that marriage entails, and this places marriage in a unique cultural position among Americans. Fine observes that in addition to unprecedented marriage rates, the United States also has the highest voluntary relationship turnover rate among developed countries.

Another (related) valence to this contradiction is the conflicted relationship that American culture has with sex and sexuality. On the one hand, America remains predominantly Christian, with puritanical roots and a set of values that eschew loose sexuality. On the other hand, American culture is highly influenced by commercialism that flaunts sexuality, and uses overtly sexual imagery to sell products. There is both shame and celebration of sex and sexual desire, and these distinct poles perhaps factor into the complicated relationship that Americans have with the institution of marriage. The balancing of vice and temperance is perhaps as American as apple pie.

Fortunately, while divorce is easier to obtain today, and, according to Fine, legal structures are increasingly being put into place to advance “individual rights and responsibilities in rearing children”, legal structures alone do not lend the support needed to adequately raise children or to provide social solidarity.

The present moment’s increasing interest in flexible, varied, non-committed, and multiple simultaneous sexual and romantic relationships yields a high degree of personal freedom, but doesn’t tend to offer alternatives to the structures that it displaces. The result is perhaps a widespread precarity from a child-rearing standpoint. While being ‘sex positive’ (a proponent of unbounded sex) may be an important step for many in feeling happy and fulfilled, it is perhaps insufficient on its own. Perhaps what’s needed is an attention on new, emergent forms of care, compassion and mutual aid, as well as non-coercive forms of collectivity and collaboration.

In an ongoing series of discussions, several of us who are involved in the Embassy Network have been attempting to address issues around new forms of care, reconceptions of marriage, the prospects for non-romantic partnership around child-rearing and domestic partnership, and communal living, to attempt to come up with the value and utility of new social structures in a time of shifting values and ideals. There was a resounding resonance with the idea that sexual liberation and even renewed concepts of amorous love, while nice, don’t provide adequate alternatives to more ‘traditional’ twentieth century romantic/domestic ideals. This does not equate to sympathy for those old ideals, but instead represents a concern that in the urgent rejection of those ideals, a vast remainder of unresolved issues has not been accounted for. It is to the question about how to make up for these deficiencies (and many other ones, relating to the failure of the Welfare State, the gradual exodus from religion, and the increasing precarity of work, etc.), that new structures are being advocated: new community centers and membership-based organizations, communal residences, co-operatively-run services (such as childcare, cooking/dining, health, etc.), co-parenting networks (involving multiple ‘families’ and non-families with and without children rearing children together and dividing responsibilities), and other socially-innovative ideas. Fortuitously, many of these ideas are already being experimented with in many circles around the world, including the social milieu in which the Embassy Network is situated. Moving forward, there will be more experiments of and inquiries into these kinds of ‘alternative’ social structures, and observations of their efficacy and resilience.