Chapter 14. Marriage and Family
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Figure 14.1. With so many unmarried couples living together and having children, is marriage becoming obsolete? (Photo courtesy of Nina Matthews/flickr)

Learning Objectives

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?

Define “the family”.Describe micro, meso, and macro approaches to the family.Outline the sociological approach to the dynamics of attraction and love.Analyze changes in marriage and family patterns.Understand the effect of the family life cycle on the quality of family experience.

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14.2. Variations in Family Life

Recognize variations in family life.Describe the different forms of the family including the nuclear family, single-parent families, cohabitation, same-sex couples, and unmarried individuals.Discuss the functionalist, critical, and symbolic interactionist perspectives on the modern family.

14.3. Challenges Families Face

Understand the social and interpersonal impact of divorce.Describe the problems of family abuse and discuss whether corporal punishment is a form of abuse.

Introduction to Marriage and Family

Christina and James met in college and have been dating for more than five years. For the past two years, they have been living together in a condo they purchased jointly. While Christina and James were confident in their decision to enter into a commitment (such as a 20-year mortgage), they are unsure if they want to enter into marriage. The couple had many discussions about marriage and decided that it just did not seem necessary. Was it not only a piece of paper? Did not half of all marriages end in divorce?

Neither Christina nor James had seen much success with marriage while growing up. Christina was raised by a single mother. Her parents never married, and her father has had little contact with the family since she was a toddler. Christina and her mother lived with her maternal grandmother, who often served as a surrogate parent. James grew up in a two-parent household until age seven, when his parents divorced. He lived with his mother for a few years, and then later with his mother and her boyfriend until he left for college. James remained close with his father who remarried and had a baby with his new wife.

Recently, Christina and James have been thinking about having children and the subject of marriage has resurfaced. Christina likes the idea of her children growing up in a traditional family, while James is concerned about possible marital problems down the road and negative consequences for the children should that occur. When they shared these concerns with their parents, James’s mom was adamant that the couple should get married. Despite having been divorced and having a live-in boyfriend of 15 years, she believes that children are better off when their parents are married. Christina’s mom believes that the couple should do whatever they want but adds that it would “be nice” if they wed. Christina and James’s friends told them, married or not married, they would still be a family.

Christina and James’s scenario may be complicated, but it is representative of the lives of many young couples today, particularly those in urban areas (Useem, 2007). Statistics Canada (2012) reports that the number of unmarried, common-law couples grew by 35% between 2001 and 2011, to make up a total of 16.7% of all families in Canada. Cohabitating, but unwed, couples account for 16.7% of all families in Canada. Some may never choose to wed (Jayson, 2008). With fewer couples marrying, the traditional Canadian family structure is becoming less common. Nevertheless, although the percentage of traditional married couples has declined as a proportion of all families, at 67% of all families, it is still by far the predominant family structure.

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?

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Figure 14.2. The modern concept of family is far more encompassing than in past decades. What do you think constitutes a family? (Photo (a) courtesy of Gareth Williams/flickr; photo (b) courtesy of Guillaume Paumier/ Wikimedia Commons)

Marriage and family are key structures in most societies. While the two institutions have historically been closely linked in Canadian culture, their connection is becoming more complex. The relationship between marriage and family is often taken for granted in the popular imagination but with the increasing diversity of family forms in the 21st century their relationship needs to be reexamined.

What is marriage? Different people define it in different ways. Not even sociologists are able to agree on a single meaning. For our purposes, we will define marriage as a legally recognized social contract between two people, traditionally based on a sexual relationship, and implying a permanence of the union. In creating an inclusive definition, we should also consider variations, such as whether a formal legal union is required (think of common-law marriage and its equivalents), or whether more than two people can be involved (consider polygamy). Other variations on the definition of marriage might include whether spouses are of opposite sexes or the same sex, and how one of the traditional expectations of marriage (to produce children) is understood today.

Sociologists are interested in the relationship between the institution of marriage and the institution of family because, historically, marriages are what create a family, and families are the most basic social unit upon which society is built. Both marriage and family create status roles that are sanctioned by society.

So what is a family? A husband, a wife, and two children — maybe even a pet — served as the model for the traditional Canadian family for most of the 20th century. But what about families that deviate from this model, such as a single-parent household or a homosexual couple without children? Should they be considered families as well?

The question of what constitutes a family is a prime area of debate in family sociology, as well as in politics and religion. Social conservatives tend to define the family in terms of a “traditional” nuclear family structure with each family member filling a certain role (like father, mother, or child). Sociologists, on the other hand, tend to define family more in terms of the manner in which members relate to one another than on a strict configuration of status roles. Here, we will define family as a socially recognized group joined by blood relations, marriage, or adoption, that forms an emotional connection and serves as an economic unit of society. Sociologists also identify different types of families based on how one enters into them. A family of orientation refers to the family into which a person is born. A family of procreation describes one that is formed through marriage. These distinctions have cultural significance related to issues of lineage (the difference between patrilineal and matrilineal descent for example).

Based on Simmel’s distinction between the form and content of social interaction (see Chapter 6), we can analyze the family as a social form that comes into existence around five different contents or interests: sexual activity, economic cooperation, reproduction, socialization of children, and emotional support. As we might expect from Simmel’s analysis, the types of family form in which all or some of these contents are expressed are diverse: nuclear families, polygamous families, extended families, same-sex parent families, single-parent families, blended families, and zero-child families, etc. However, the forms that families take are not random; rather, these forms are determined by cultural traditions, social structures, economic pressures, and historical transformations. They also are subject to intense moral and political debate about the definition of the family, the “decline of the family,” or the policy options to best support the well-being of children. In these debates, sociology demonstrates its practical side as a discipline that is capable of providing the factual knowledge needed to make evidence-based decisions on political and moral issues concerning the family.

The Macro, Meso and Micro Family

The family is an excellent example of an institution that can be examined at the micro-, meso-, and macro- levels of analysis. For example, the debate between functionalist and critical sociologists on the rise of non-nuclear family forms is a macro-level debate. It focuses on the family in relationship to a society as a whole. Since the 1950s, the functionalist approach to the family has emphasized the importance of the nuclear family — a cohabiting man and woman who maintain a socially approved sexual relationship and have at least one child — as the basic unit of an orderly and functional society. Although only 39% of families conformed to this model in 2006, in functionalist approaches, it often operates as a model of the normal family, with the implication that non-normal family forms lead to a variety of society-wide dysfunctions such as crime, drug use, poverty, and welfare dependency .

On the other hand, critical perspectives emphasize the inequalities and power relations within the family and their relationship to inequality in the wider society. The contemporary diversity of family forms does not indicate the “decline of the family” (i.e., of the ideal of the nuclear family) but the diverse responses of the family form to the tensions of gender inequality and historical changes in the economy and society. The typically large, extended family of the rural, agriculture-based economy 100 years ago in Canada was very different from the single breadwinner-led “nuclear” family of the Fordist economy following World War II; it is different again from today’s families who have to respond to economic conditions of precarious employment, fluid modernity, and norms of gender and sexual equality. In the critical perspective, the nuclear family should be thought of less as a normative model for how families should be and more as an historical anomaly that reflected the specific social and economic conditions of the two decades following the Second World War. These are analyses that set out to understand the family within the context of macro-level processes or society as a whole.

At the meso-level, the sociology of mate selection and marital satisfaction reveal the various ways in which the dynamics of the group, or the family form itself, act upon the desire, preferences, and choices of individual actors. At the meso-level, sociologists are concerned with the interactions within groups where multiple social roles interact simultaneously. Since the spontaneity of romantic love and notions of individual “chemistry” have become so central to our concepts of mate selection in Western societies, it is interesting to note the social and group influences that impinge on what otherwise seems a purely individual choice: the appraisal of socially defined “assets” in potential mates, in-group/out-group dynamics in mate preference, and demographic variables that affect the availability of desirable mates (see discussion below).

Similarly, it is possible to speak of the life cycle of marriages independently of the specific individuals involved. This area of study is another meso-level analysis. Marital dissatisfaction and divorce peak in the 5th year of marriage and again between the 15th and 20th years of marriage. The presence or absence of children in the home also affects marital satisfaction — nonparents and parents whose children have left home have the highest level of marital satisfaction. Thus, the family form itself appears to have built-in qualities or dynamics regardless of the personalities or specific qualities of family members.

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At the micro-level of analysis, sociologists focus on the dynamics between individuals within families. One example, of which probably every married couple is acutely aware, is the interactive dynamic described by exchange theory. Exchange theory proposes that all relationships are based on giving and returning valued “goods” or “services.” Individuals seek to maximize their rewards in their exchanges with others. How do they weigh up who is contributing more, and who is contributing less, of the valuable resources that sustain the marriage relationship (such as money, time, chores, emotional support, romantic gestures, quality time, etc.)? What happens to the family dynamic when one spouse is a net debtor and another a net creditor in the exchange relationship? In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera describes the way every relationship forges an implicit contract regarding these exchanges within the first 6 weeks. It is as if a template has been established that will govern the nature of the conflicts, tensions, and disagreements between a married couple for the duration of their relationship. Kundera is writing fiction, but the dynamic he describes exemplifies a micro-level analysis in that this “contract” is a form created through the interaction between specific individuals. Afterwards, it acts as a structure that constrains their interaction. In the more severe cases of unequal exchange, domestic violence, whether physical or emotional, can be the result. The dynamics of “intimate terrorism” and “violent resistance” describe the extreme outcomes of unequal exchange.