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Reflections on Marriage and Family Beyond the Culture Wars


Daniel Liechty, Ph.D., D.Min., ACSW, LCSW
Associate Professor of Social Work
The School of Social Work,
Illinois State University




Although much attention has focused on same-sex marriage as an ominous destroyer of the traditional marriage and family structure, a more historical perspective suggests that the radical changes taking place in marriage and family structure in our culture are better understood as adaptations to social forces generated by a shifting economic base. This assertion is presented in three interlocking theses, and salient implications are discussed for the future of marriage and the family in the new economy.


Recent court decisions on same-sex marriages are indeed markers in the changing form and structure of marriage and the family. Already these decisions are touted as an apocalyptic attack on humanity in some quarters, and as a long-overdue confirmation of human rights and dignity in other quarters. According to exit interviews, the issues of “gay marriage” played a large role in returning George W. Bush to office for a second term, despite a determined and united opposition. But is it true that same-sex marriage is what drives the changes we are seeing in the structure of marriage and the family? A more historical view may be helpful in interpreting these developments. Following are a few ideas, presented here in the form of theses, which cast marriage and family structure in this historical perspective.

Thesis 1: The form, structure and social meaning of marriage and the family is highly variable, culturally and historically. Although we habitually assume the norms of our own culture and time period as universal, only a moment’s reflection makes it very clear that whereas the institutions of marriage and the family are universal, the form and structure of these institutions are not. Many of us notice in our own family photo albums the shift that occurred from the extended to the nuclear family structure. The religious stories of our youth are peppered with those who had many wives and concubines.

Thesis 2: As a rule, the dominant form and structure of marriage and the family in any given culture and time period will correspond closely to that which most efficiently utilizes the dominant means of production in its particular time and place. Over a period of a few generations, people living normal lives in the context of a given dominant economic condition will self-select for lifestyles that most effectively exploit the economic resources available to them, and the form and structure of marriage and family emerging from such lifestyle choices will reflect this adaptation to economic conditions.

We see, for example, that in nomadic pastoral or gathering societies, family form and structure tend toward large groups (tribes). Typically these tribes, of three or four generations, give a special place of privileged leadership and deference to the eldest male. This tribal patriarch is seen, either in fact or by intragroup narrative, as the progenitor of the entire family group (all are seen as his “seed,” his children). This is the type of family structure most of us in our society know only through literature, for example, in the biblical patriarchal families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The meaning of marriage in this context is heavily weighted toward arranged gestures of peace and goodwill toward other tribal groups that are frequently encountered, or over whose territory one must cross, during nomadic journeys. The patriarch and other high males often have more than one wife, and also have sexual access to – and father children by – women in the group who are not their wives, but have some other subordinate role. (For example, Abraham is depicted as having fathered children by his wife Sarah’s servant girl.)

In settled agricultural societies, the means of production center on exploitation of land resources. Here, the dominant form of family, the “extended” family, typically includes at least three generations living together and working the farm. There has been wide variation in this type of economic system, from the feudal estates of Medieval times, to the free-standing “family farms” of our own very recent past, and still seen today in many rural areas of the USA and Canada, represented in its most pure historical form among groups that have resisted the corporatization of large agribusiness, such as the Amish.

In extended families within agriculturally-based economies, the eldest male and female (grandfather and grandmother) continue to hold a place of honor and value in the family unit, but real decision-making power (as well as the title to land ownership) is usually in the hands of the second generation male. Grandparents are valued economic assets to the family unit because of their accumulated wisdom (they know what to do when the rain doesn’t fall, or there is human or animal sickness) and because they take care of the youngest children, who are not yet able to work on the farm. Children also are economic assets, because they form a needed labor force for working the farm. The meaning of marriage in this context is heavily weighted toward maintenance and acquisition of land claims.

As large numbers of people move off the farms and into towns and cities, in order to service the factories of the rising industrially-based economic system, we see the emergence of a quite different form and structure in the family. This “nuclear” family structure typically includes only two generations living under one roof. The most efficient family form for utilizing the dominant means of production in this economy (factory wage labor) is for one adult to work for wages, away from the home, and for one adult to maintain the home and take care of the children during that period of absence (thus creating a separation between “work space” and “home space” that would be totally artificial in a pastoral or agricultural milieu). Family size condenses considerably, as children and older parents are no longer economic assets but rather liabilities. In purely economic terms, the “cost” of a child is greater in such economic conditions than the “benefit” that child would bring to the family. Likewise, the accumulated traditional wisdom of the elderly is less valued, because for the most part they have no experience with the new means of production (there is increased reliance on professionals and “experts” for such knowledge). Furthermore, with fewer children, combined with increased geographical mobility, elders are less needed and less available for the task of child care.

It must be made clear that only in strictly economic terms had children and elderly now become a liability. The benefits of emotional attachment must also be considered, and this is stronger than any strictly economic cost/benefit analysis. The bonds of emotion between group members may, in fact, be held to more strongly in the nuclear family structure than is the case in other family forms. Why? Because another important factor needed to most efficiently utilize the means of industrial production is that the adult working for wages has to be relatively settled and willing to stay put. The industrial machines roll on endlessly and need to be tended. This can only happen dependably as people stay in one place, and show up each day at their required time.

In pastoral, tribal, and even agricultural societies, families were bonded together by emotional attachment, no doubt, but even more importantly, they were bonded together by the unavoidable demands of survival. The prodigal son returned home out of love, to be sure, but also because he needed to survive. In such societies, family bonds are strongly bonds of survival itself.

What, then, over a period of time, would keep a man tied to his location, tending a machine, in the service of a wife and family who, from a purely economic perspective, he did not need for his own survival and (perhaps often in his more brooding moments) could only conclude were an economic liability? Here we see that the needs of the economic system would be greatly served if the meaning of marriage and the family were placed on a more firmly ensconced emotional plane. Thus, in these economic conditions, marriage partners are now encouraged to emotionally court and “choose” each other, to place these emotional attachments at the very center of their mutual commitment, as the source of their individual sense of life meaning. This marital “fulfillment” increasingly becomes the substantive element cementing together the marriage relationship and the family it produces.

Thus intrafamilial emotional bonding is perhaps even stronger in marriages of the nuclear family type than in previous family forms. This emotional bonding certainly extends intergenerationally, to children and elders, and (thank God!) majorities of parents are only too happy to take care of and provide for pre- and post-productive generations in the family. However, such parents tend strongly toward the lifestyle choice of radically fewer children, and are usually not at all insulted or displeased to learn that their own parents saved adequately to provide for their own care and provisions in old age, rather than relying on their children for their economic support.

Thesis 3: As we move into a post-industrial culture, we should expect emergence of new forms and structures for marriage and the family which more efficiently utilize the dominant means of production. If we cannot yet be totally certain what the dominant means of production will be, we do know that it is not factory wage work. Some commentators are calling the emerging new system the “information” economy; others are calling it an “administration and service” economy, in which a smaller segment of the society works in various sorts of corporate administration, while a larger segment of the society works in myriad “service” work, from flipping burgers on the low end to fending off government investigators on the high end. All segments of the society are increasingly pressured by an exaggerated reliance on free markets to regulate all exchange of goods and services (labor). Presently, at least, that seems to correspond with the evidence. But the important point to be made is that we are in a transitional period.

Marriage and Family In the New Economy

We can only speculate about what the shape of the future will be. Speculation of any value, however, must be disciplined and guided by educated observation of what we already see. There are forces of the “new economy” already clearly visible that will have a direct impact on lifestyle choices, and therefore on the form and structure of the family. We see already, for example, that in the “new economy,” work is becoming increasingly disengaged from specific location. Already for many types of work, the worker can telecommute from nearly any location. This will only increase. Likewise, even large corporations make decisions to change the location of their corporate headquarters at what seems to be the drop of a hat. Lifestyles of maximum flexibility in terms of location–both willingness and ability to telecommute from any location, and also to pick up and move domiciles frequently and with least encumbrance–will allow most efficient exploitation of the new economic realities. As lifestyle choices increasingly tend in this direction this will certainly create radical waves of change in marriage and family structure, since for most people, family itself is the major encumbrance to such mobility.

One clear result of increasing telecommunication is that the bifurcation between “work space” and “home space” of the industrial economy is breaking down. Correlative to this, the “natural” gender labor division of the industrial economy (wage-earning men, home-making women) is also breaking down entirely. Increasingly, elders are positively expected to have saved for their own retirement provisions (it is considered “irresponsible,” that is, negatively socially sanctioned, not to do so), and children are becoming a fully commoditized “lifestyle choice” (that is, a potential source of personal happiness and fulfillment, to be weighed against other options). These emerging norms are also enforced by positive social sanction for “good” lifestyle choices, and negative social sanction (social stigma) for “bad” choices. Thus, “responsible” parents (those positively sanctioned) are those who weigh the options and make choices only in favor of children they can “afford,” while “irresponsible” parents (those socially stigmatized) are those who have children without fully “counting the cost,” and then find themselves either backing out of the emotional and financial commitments that having children entail (“deadbeat” parents), or looking to society for the economic means of caring for those children (Reagan’s celebrated welfare queen…).

The meaning of marriage in this context is also shifting radically. The happiness and fulfillment promised by romantic emotional bonding is proving to be a pliant cement. The marriage relationship itself has become commoditized, as well-meaning counselors and social workers sit with feuding couples, helping them sort out what they “really want” in life (which may or may not be marriage, or at least marriage to each other...). Effective methods of birth control have erased the intimate connection between marriage and children that has characterized marriage for all of human history until now. Modern practices of no-fault divorce, as well as prenuptial contracts of all sorts have completely changed the very sense of what is being “united” in marriage in our time. Thus, while we don’t know what dominant form and structure of family and marriage will characterize the culture of the new economy, we can assume with certainty that the two-parents-plus-children nuclear family will be, at most, one option among many other recognized arrangements, and probably not the dominant option (just as the extended generation family with fourteen children is an option currently, but one which few people choose).
There are other important harbingers we see in the present that point toward what the future may look like for marriage and the family. Looking at marriage as a culturally-informed coupling process, the most important of these are
the high divorce and remarriage rate–effectively having already established a system of serial monogamy;
the emergence of cohabitation (“shacking up”) as a form of coupling tolerated to the point of positive acceptance–there is no effective social stigma any longer attached to a cohabiting relationship;
the increasingly prominent use of prenuptial agreements and contracts–institutionalizing the concept that one does not need to take “everything” into the marriage relationship, and also effectively institutionalizing a society-wide expectation that the marriage is temporary, thus providing preemptive arrangements for its dissolution;
successfully litigated “palimony” suits–effectively giving legal recognition that coupling agreements other than legal marriage nonetheless entail legally binding mutual obligations.
Each of these increasingly accepted practices is significant because it represents a level of “marriage” (coupling) that is outside, or a significant modification, of the present formal, legal marriage contract.

A Continuum of Coupling

What we see emerging, I suggest, is a continuum of coupling, with various levels of mutual commitment, socially recognized and sanctioned, containing also a continuum of rights and obligations at each level. The significance of recent court decisions is not that of “sanctioning” same-sex marriage per se, but rather in the courts’ recognition that the State has no overriding interest in granting legal rights, benefits and responsibilities only to those occupying one particular location on the coupling continuum.

Much learned commentary suggests that the result of this and other related court rulings, as well as George Bush’s clear challenge on defining marriage to judges and legislators in his 2004 State of the Union Address, will be the creation of some category of “civil commitment” to accommodate same-sex couples and yet preserve the category of “marriage” as a state only between a man and a woman. Some polling data suggests that clear majorities of both major parties in the USA already favor this approach.

Side-stepping the arguments pro and con, it is clear that as soon as such a category of “civil partnership” were created, the courts would quickly also establish the right of heterosexual couples to enter into such arrangements as well as same-sex couples. In short, while same-sex marriage is getting most of the publicity, for good or evil, as we move to update our marriage laws so that the laws more clearly reflect actual practices, it is by no means the case that it is the push for same-sex marriage that is the strongest force in bringing changes to the form and structure of marriage and family in our culture. We continue to witness legal recognition of increasing rights, responsibilities, and benefits accruing to various levels of commitment along this continuum of coupling, and it is very likely that these will eventually congeal into more visibly defined levels of marriage (coupling commitment).

A first-level marriage (coupling commitment), for example, corresponding perhaps to what we presently call “living together,” may sanction a basic level of legal rights, such as inheritance of mutual property, and visitation rights in hospital. For couples who have cohabitated for a full calendar year, filing a joint tax return might be an option. If the couple decides to split, it is simply a matter of packing the suitcase. The rights accrued to this level of commitment are minimal, as are the corresponding expectations of responsibility.

At a second-level marriage (coupling commitment), the commitment would be legally formalized by written contract, and perhaps even an optional civil ritual, but be time-limited. If, for example, in five years, either person decides to split, it can be done on a no-fault basis. Before that time, however, the person would be committed to try marriage counseling or other means to hold the relationship together, and may have to pay some mutually agreed upon amount (perhaps pro-rated forfeiture of mutually-owned property) if he or she should decide to leave early. Correspondingly, the legal rights accrued in this relationship would also increase–for example, in addition to rights of property inheritance and visitation rights in hospital, both partners could be covered by one partner’s employment-based medical benefits.

At a third-level of marriage (coupling commitment), a written contract and ceremonial formalization would be expected. The time limitation would be longer, and dissolution of the marriage would be much more difficult legally. Perhaps there would be no “no-fault” divorce option at this level, and a successful divorce suit may perhaps be possible only after demonstrated fulfillment of months or even years of required counseling. Correspondingly, inheritance rights would be full (although pre-nuptial agreements might be possible at this level, which would perhaps also spell out clearly the mutually-agreed upon understanding of sexual monogamy), and the couple would have many or all of the other presently recognized benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

And finally, in a fourth-level marriage (coupling commitment), the communal, ceremonial inauguration is accompanied by the highest expectations, reflected in the marriage vows, of decades-extended or even life-long commitment to the partnership, including sexual monogamy. Obligations would include the highest level of financial fidelity and mutual trust. Property would be held in common and there would be full inheritance rights, with tax and other legal benefits that are unique to this level of marriage. On the side of corresponding responsibilities, the commitments (life-long or at least of 20 years or more) to which the partners agree are, in turn, legally binding in the most strict sense. At this level of marriage, it is recognized that the marriage commitment is not only a private agreement between two consenting adults, but also and especially between them and their (present and future) children, and even between them and the witnessing community. Not only would there be at this level no easy no-fault divorce, but in divorce proceedings, judges may in fact be instructed by the law to consider the well-being and the rights of children as equal to, or even as higher than the desires of the married couple themselves, putting the sanction of law behind the old adage of “staying together for the children’s sake.” Those entering into such a marriage contract, and then breaking it with impunity, would perhaps find themselves facing heavy fines or even jail time. This level of marriage would perhaps be as difficult to get into as to get out of, requiring weeks or even months of marriage preparation, counseling, and education.

Further Thoughts

Although I do think we can see the basic contours of a multi-level continuum of coupling already developing, I again emphasize that my prognostications of what marriage and family might look like as they settle out in relation to the new economy are only educated guesses. It must be obvious to even a casual observer, however, that the old assumption that “either you are married or you are not” already no longer describes our actual current social practices related to the coupling continuum. When I was in college during the early 1970s, for example, the question “Are you married?” was essentially a “yes or no” question. To be sure, there was some “shacking up” already at that time, but social stigma for such a relationship was still very strong, especially for the female. The same question posed to my own students today might elicit a number of different responses, corresponding to a number of different levels of coupling commitment.

At present, legal “marriage” basically corresponds to the fourth-level marriage commitment above, although, as noted, in real practice we don’t actually expect that level of commitment for most couples entering into marriage. The advantage of moving toward a multi-level system of coupling is that, within an economic culture that makes a fourth-level marriage commitment very difficult to sustain, it offers legally recognized positions along the coupling continuum that are better suited to the actual life circumstances of people within this economic culture. In short, it discourages people from jumping into commitments they really don’t mean and are not economically or emotionally prepared to make, while at the same time preserving and even strengthening the “sacred” character of the commitment demanded and expected by the highest level of marriage.

The Rights of Children

In what has been said so far, we can see that the changes in attitudes and practices brought by the so-called Sexual Revolution of the past generation can be seen in retrospect as predictable social shifts, as the social and sexual mores moved more into conformity with the requirements of the changing economic system. As such, it is simply moot to speak, as some now are, of “reversing” the achievements of that movement of social change. On the other hand, it can also be seen that attitudes, mores, and behavior changed at a much faster pace than did the supporting social institutions. In very real ways, moving toward a multi-leveled continuum of coupling is simply closing the cultural lag between actual behavior and social institutions.

In short, due largely to this 30 year cultural lag, there has been a dark side to the Sexual Revolution. Sexual freedom and no-fault divorce has, for example, been disproportionately beneficial for men, as opposed to women. On the domestic front, women have often been expected (externally and internally) to fulfill the role of both outside earner and maintainer of the children and household. Social institutions that foster more conscious thought and explicit mutual agreement between partners as to just what exactly is expected in the relationship financially and in terms of household maintenance, may finally bring to women a more equal share of the benefits of the Sexual Revolution.

It is also undeniable that the benefits of the Sexual Revolution flowed disproportionately to adults, and the costs disproportionately to children. I am repeatedly startled, shaken, by the depth of anger and resentment toward parents and Baby Boomers I sometimes confront just under the surface among my undergraduate students. Although many of these students grew up in affluent and highly educated professional families, they basically raised themselves and each other as years-long “latch-key” kids. They have listened to their parents endlessly scream at each other over role expectations. They have lived in large numbers in broken and blended families, as their parents follow (what to these kids seem to be) their own selfish and narcissistic dreams of personal and sexual fulfillment. When they discuss abortion, it is not as a key ingredient for freedom, equality, and personal liberation, but as a Boomer weapon of intergenerational warfare against them.

Experiencing the dark side of the Sexual Revolution and the “chaos” of changing family structures during a transitional period (when social stigma no longer discourages behavior it recently deterred) has had notable effects on these young people. It has made many of them much more open than they otherwise would be to reactionary social and religious movements that decry and want to reverse the achievements of the Sexual Revolution, offering them a sense of solid absolutes for living they lacked in their own family experience. For others, it has sulfured their attitudes toward marriage and family in general, and they speak of these institutions mainly in tones of cynicism. Still others find that their longing for familial solidness and “getting it right” this time, pushes them into making long-term commitments they really are not ready for and may later regret.

One thing we might see as the cultural lag is narrowed is a strong rekindling of social stigma (negative sanctioning) for having children at any marriage level other than level four, or perhaps at level three with a legally recognized agreement not to dissolve the union until the youngest child is, say, 18 years of age. This might be backed up with legal and tax sanctions as well, and could apply equally to other- and same-sex couples.

In discussing these possible developments with others, I have noted a strong negative reaction to my introduction here of the notion of social stigma. This is very understandable, because many of my interlocutors have dealt professionally with those who have experienced social stigma, or have experienced social stigma themselves. It is hard to think of social stigma as anything but a bad thing.

Yet every group of human beings will positively sanction (socially reward) behavior of which it approves and wants to encourage, and negatively sanction (socially stigmatize) behavior of which it does not approve and wants to discourage. These are natural and unavoidable sociological processes. As citizens and professionals, we of course want to do our part to make sure the negative social sanction (stigma) falls on those who actually performed the behavior we want to discourage, rather than its victims (for example, on the rapist rather than the rape victim or any child produced by the act of rape). Almost entirely when people react strongly against the concept of social stigma as a category, they are thinking of social stigma as applied to an “innocent” victim of circumstances. Hardly one of us truly would want to live a day in a society in which there were no social stigma (negative social sanction) for any behavior at all.

Therefore, while none of us wants to return to the kind of hypocritical social stigma for bastardry that fills the writings of Charles Dickens (writings that chronicle the familial chaos of an earlier “transitional” period), it is clear that eventually, whatever settles out in terms of the form and structure of marriage and the family, the intimate connection between the decision to bear children and the overriding responsibility to care for them and raise them (emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, in addition to physically or economically) will again need to be established and (both positively and negatively) socially sanctioned.

Our current laissez-faire approach to procreation, in which anyone with the basic anatomical equipment can claim the “right” to churn out as many children as they choose, is clearly a violation of the best interests of future generations. Furthermore, species survival is no longer enhanced by having more children. The exact opposite is the case: as a species we are choking on overpopulation in much of the world, while the damaging ecological footprint of children born in the most affluent countries is completely unsustainable at present levels of population growth. Eventually, social stigma and even government policy must support social mores that discourage procreation beyond minimal levels of population maintenance. Personally, I am not at all ready to support the kind of forced population control measures seen in some Asian societies. Positive encouragement for childless coupling in the law, combined with rekindled social stigma in favor of reserving childbearing for the highest levels of marriage commitment may represent at least one relatively nonviolent avenue for securing the reproductive rights of present human beings, while also ensuring the rights of future human beings to families in which they truly are wanted and will be cared for in the manner they deserve.

Applications for Social Work Practice

Although we have been looking at marriage and family structure from an historical, sociological perspective, this does have some rather direct applications in social work practice. Social work practice is situated on the edge of social development. Because social development is uneven and frictional, much of social work practice can be understood as helping people to recognize the wider social forces that impact their lives and to assist them in finding paths of improved social functioning in the face of these forces.

Many of the problems we see in marriages and families stem directly from the transitional situation in which we find ourselves. People are being pushed by large economic forces in new directions in terms of family formation, but without parental role models for these new forms. They strive to form families in adaptation to the present economic realities, with the nagging internalized parental voices telling them they are blowing it big time. Likewise, couples may find themselves with very different and conflicting expectations in terms of roles and proper divisions of labor within the family. Building resentments and frustrations are easily interpreted as lack of love and caring on the part of partners, children and parents. But this interpretation may be far from accurate. Especially in immigrant families, one may be dealing with extended, nuclear and multi-level assumptions about proper marriage and family structure all at once within different generations of the family.

Although the historical and sociological perspective offered here cannot solve family problems, it may give the practitioner new and theoretically grounded insights into what may be actually occurring in cases of family and marital discord. It may also serve as a catalyst for practitioners to examine the sources of their own assumptions about marriage and family structure, and thus as a cautionary point against imposing those assumptions on client couples and families.

A Final Note on the Religious Institutions

At a time when the strongest forces against changes in the form and structure of marriage and the family are located in powerful religious institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the many conservative Protestant congregations of the Religious Right, isn’t it very premature to speak of the demise of the “traditional family” structure?

As is clearly documented in social science research, all dynamic societies are composed of many elements and institutions. Some of these elements and institutions foster change and experimentation, while others foster caution, conservation and resistance to change. Religious institutions are, for the most part, among the “conserving” elements of any society. Therefore, it is expected that the churches and other religious institutions will reject outright this multi-leveled continuum of coupling in the short term, but slowly accommodate it in the middle term, and finally adopt it and give it positive religious sanction in the long term. We have seen this process at work in relation to the changing forms and structures of marriage and the family in the past. Current defense of “traditional” marriage and family, as well as evermore shrill claims that marriage must entail at least the possibility of childbearing for it to be a “real” marriage (tell that to post-menopausal couples…), are up against the forces of economic history and are not likely to influence the long-term future. In this context, it is interesting to note that while many of these people focus on same-sex marriage as the destroyer of traditional marriage and family, it may well be that same-sex couples are one of the last social groups within our culture who want to take traditional marriage vows seriously!

It should also be noted that in the discourse of religious conservatives, traditional marriage and family means the nuclear family, the form and structure of the industrial economic culture–the immediate form being left behind. Although they appeal to the Bible for God’s exclusive sanction of this form of marriage and family, it is a form alien to the Bible itself. The truly “biblical” family was the tribal, polygamous family, and the extended, multi-generational family. Neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul, the foundational figures of Christianity, were likely married at all, and both viewed family mainly as an encumbrance to those who would do missionary work.

On the positive side, people of conservative religious convictions might be expected to welcome renewed (positive and negative) social sanction for reserving childbearing for only the most committed levels of marriage. Furthermore, since divorce rates in the churches mirror those of the larger society (and are even slightly higher among the conservative groups, who are most vocal in their defense of marriage and the family), clearly these groups are struggling themselves to keep their own houses in order in relation to the continuum of coupling. We might expect that a policy of ritual, ceremonial recognition of the highest level of marriage, accompanied by a more tacit acceptance of lower levels of marriage, could offer such relief to the churches in maintaining order in their own houses that the period of outright rejection of a multi-level approach will be short indeed.



Daniel Liechty can be contacted via email at


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