Why is “immediate” family structure so important? Well, the lines that define the family unit also typically define the borders of deep financial entanglement, procreation, primary sources of emotional support and child rearing, etc. Or as sociologist James Henslin (Essentials of Sociology) states, the core functions of the family include “economic production, socialization of children, care of the sick and aged, recreation, sexual control and reproduction.” The nuclear family has been presumed ideal family structure in Western society during the modern era. However, signs of a growing need and willingness to experiment with different family structures are replete in contemporary society (from platonic life partners to a variety of polyamorous families).
The nuclear family is in pretty rapid decline and has been for some time. There is a lot of hand wringing about the rise of single parent households and other family structures that depart from the nuclear ideal. No doubt that family structure is important in how those functions actually, well, function. But, it is important to not insist on a singular model just because it has some advantages. As conditions change, those advantages may be less attractive.
For example, Avner Grief of Stanford asserts that flexibility in economic decision-making is an important advantage of the nuclear family. Especially in the case where there is one primary income, a nuclear family can more easily pull up stakes and pursue economic opportunity in other regions. This mobility of families creates tremendous flexibility in the economy to absorb regional downturns, accelerate structural economic change (e.g., changing from an agriculture to a factory based economy) and more effectively match labor supply to demand.
There is less flexibility in extended families because there are more adult decision makers and the family relies on interconnected family units. On the other hand, extended families can better provide social safety nets (financial support, care taking during a health crises, additional child rearing support etc.) than the nuclear family. To wit, the nuclear family is better at helping society adjust to economic shock while extended families are better at helping individual families cope with challenges of various types. In this way, what is good for the economy as a whole isn’t necessarily good for individual families (at least, not at the points of transition and challenge).
“Institutionalized monogamy has not served women’s best interests. It privileges the interests of both men and capitalism, operating as it does through the mechanisms of exclusivity, possessiveness and jealousy, all filtered through rose-tinted lens of romance.” – Victoria Robinson
There is an extensive feminist critique of the nuclear family that applies here. Without belaboring the point, I will simply assert that the nuclear family has been a fundamental tool in perpetuating patriarchy and controlling the spread of alternatives for women. The family – as a point of economic production, socialization of children, care of the sick, and sexual control and reproduction – was a prime avenue of women’s repression. In many ways, this was planned, systematic and intentional. A patriarchal society where inheritance is passed down the male line requires paternity certainty to function. Enforcing strict monogamy on women while allowing men to wander (as long as it is kept relatively unseen or on the side) is an effective means of control and ensure patrilineal purity. “The medieval church instituted marriage laws and practices that undermined large kinship groups. From as early as the fourth century, it discouraged practices that enlarged the family, such as adoption, polygamy, concubinage, divorce, and remarriage. It severely prohibited marriages among individuals of the same blood (consanguineous marriages), which had constituted a means to create and maintain kinship groups throughout history” (Avner Grief). Just as it can be used as a tool for control and oppression, family structures can also be a tool for liberation and social progression.
“No society that has survived has ever been quite like ours today. Ours is made up largely of isolated families. The children are totally dependent on their fathers and mothers, with no other relatives to fall back on, or neighbors, or anybody. Yet we are coming to think that the only form of possible life is this kind of “nuclear” family. That could be dangerous.…Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.” – Margaret Mead
The rapid decline of the nuclear family is not a problem to be solved. Instead, this rapid decline highlights the need for continued experimentation with family structures as society evolves. The growing diversity of family structures – from those that mimic the nuclear family (e.g., two men with children or step parent households) to single parent, shared custody households etc. – is an adaptive response to changing social and economic conditions. We should find ways to support this diversity instead of the false-nostalgia fueled reactionary impulse that is entirely too common (The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap).
What about households with more than two unrelated adults – so-called “Complex Family Structures”? This family structure is ideal for polyamorous families but could also include close friends choosing to blend families directly.
The modern family* that I desire to co-create is a focal point of emotional nurturing, a catalyst for discovering and accepting our best authentic selves, and a place where love is expansive and inclusive. It is radical in that it values guided experimentation and personal agency over indoctrination and control. It is traditional in that it aims to provide the fundamental support for each other’s economic and care taking needs.
The long term intent of the “modern family” fits under the Complex Family structure umbrella as a natural evolution of its functions. It may, however, be descriptively nuclear at a given point in time. In effect, this modern family might be better viewed as a family process instead of a singular structure. The departure from the Nuclear is in its inclusive and adaptive nature in order to support the personal agency and autonomy of family members. I have labeled this modern family the Progressive Family Structure** and I have augmented Henslin’s five functions of family to further explore its implications.
Intentional and Adaptive. This function draws heavily from various traditions that emphasize awareness, individual choice and participative design of social expectations and structures that are normally dictated by society. Instead of being a tool for socialization and enforcement of (often regressive) societal norms, this structure emphasizes the need for adaptation. This adaptive trait is based on the active and intentional design of the family itself. It is custom designed and redesigned as needed. It is a radical notion to assert that a core function of the family is to be designed to meet that family’s needs instead of society’s needs.
Further, the Progressive Family is an intentional family in that it is volitional. It is a Family of Choice, not one dictated by traditional relationship forms. The Progressive Family breaks through the presumption that family members are either romantic partners or blood relatives, as well as dismissing with the assumption that there are only two romantic partners forming the adult core of the family. A best friend (and accompanying family, if applicable) is as much an option for joining this family of choice as is a second primary partner. The Progressive Family is simply composed of the adults who choose to co-create that family together. No other societal blessing is necessary. And, as we will discuss later, cohabitation is also not required.
Emotional Support and Self-Actualization. The best families of all types provide a safe place to share and explore fears and vulnerabilities in order to be better caretakers of family members’ emotional health. Because of the isolation and fragility of Nuclear Families, however, it may be more frequently challenged here than other family structures. Leaning on Henslin again: “unlike extended families with large kinship networks that can share material and emotional support, nuclear families are more isolated and have to deal with the pressures of life alone. This leads to an ’emotional overload’.” The Progressive Family includes emotionally bonded adults beyond the couple forming a stronger network of emotional care and support. In addition, an explicit function of the Progressive Family is to be a catalyst for personal growth of its members versus control. Practically, this takes the form of respecting the agency and autonomy of all family members (age appropriate for non-adult family members) with the family’s support and investment in those choices.
Sexual liberation and Reproductive Agency. The obvious implication of an open polyamorous family is the explicit relaxing of the sexual control and reproduction function described by Henslin. Instead, the Progressive family emphasizes respecting the individual agency and autonomy of adult family members. The social control of sex and, thereby, reproduction was perhaps useful prior to effective means of birth control. With effective birth control, family members get to choose when, with whom and how they will reproduce, if at all. Reproductive agency means the family does not as much control sex and reproduction as much as create the healthy supportive conditions for same. Individual commitment to the family provides the security for adult family members to more widely explore their sexual interests. We find the reverse of what is expected to be true. Instead of a spinning apart of the family due to sexual liberation (e.g., by running away with that new hotness or by way of a jealousy fueled breakup), the enrichment of the sexual liberation and comfort with continued exploration is a highly attractive attribute coveted by family members.
Care taking and Child Rearing. The family continues to be the ideal nurturing environment for child rearing. Like Extended Families, the Progressive Family structure has the advantage of the possibility of more than two adults who can take on the care and nurturing of children. That moment when your metamore (your partner’s other partner) or your other primary partner helps ferry the kids to practice or you tuck their kid into bed at night is a happy family moment. Combined with the economic support discussed below, one of the family members can choose to be the primary care giver for all of the family’s children and not have to worry about the inherent fragility of depending on a single income. Even households without children benefit from the advantages of more adults available to take on care giving. When a family member becomes seriously ill and needs physical care and emotional support, the family has more personal and financial resources to bring to bear.
Economic Support and Cohousing. I use cohousing explicitly to draw a bright line between the family boundary I’m describing here and the boundary as traditionally drawn. Generally, cohousing is a communal living arrangement where people share tasks (e.g., child care), own their private living spaces and share communal spaces. I like the term because it allows for the sharing and interdependence of a family without requiring strict cohabitation. The Progressive Family structure with its primary adaptive function could rely on a cohousing type arrangement to suit the needs of the family members. A committed and interdependent family can be created without cohabitating through sharing key functions of the family, having communal/family spaces to ensure near daily social interaction and emotional support, as well as intertwining finances and financial responsibilities.
Speaking of which, economic support and interweaving financial responsibilities is one of the prime legal functions of a family (specifically, marriage). Those specific legal rights and responsibilities aren’t necessarily available to all members of a Progressive Family, but there are mechanisms to approximate within contract law. The broader point is more important, however. Just as the expectation of sexual fidelity (sexual control) substantially defines the monogamous ideal form of a Nuclear Family, the intermingling of finances and economic support is the other major accompanying adult-to-adult expectation. Unfortunately, just like sexual fidelity, economic support is an area where the Nuclear family is most brittle. Nuclear families fail as frequently due to financial stress as due to cheating (perhaps more).
The pooling of financial resources by more than two adults has a few important implications: First, it raises everybody’s standard of living while simultaneously reducing living expenses. Everyone lives better. Second, there’s more freedom for family members to take financial risks such as going back to school, starting a business or becoming a full-time artist. Finally, the family is more resilient to economic shocks. In the recent past, one of my metamores lost his job. This put a tremendous stress on their family’s finances. Besides the issues related to pride, the loss of that income would have been more easily handled if we were all in a Progressive Family structure – even if not cohabitating.
“Families are factories which produce human personalities.” – Talcott Parsons
Like all families – driven by kin, marriage or emotional bonds – the Progressive Family relies on the interweaving of lives into a beautiful mosaic. The commitment of family members to each other is a daily act to invest in each other. It is not a static thing. Sustaining this amazing process we call “family” requires personal investment, nurturing and energy from all. If we reify it and treat family like a static thing, we’re likely to under invest. We’re likely to refuse to help adapt it to emerging family needs. Vital families are a generative process that creates and recreates the platform from which family members can lead a soulful life. And, in the case of the children, the family is the platform from which they launch into soulful lives of their own. What price soulful living? More effort and energy. More focus and will. More creativity and heart and connection… More of me, my family of choice and more of everything we can possibly be.
- happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step.
- (of a group, person, or idea) favoring or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.
- grammar denoting an aspect or tense of a verb that expresses an action in progress, e.g., am writing, was writing. Also called continuous.