The Ideal Vs. The Real -- Like It Or Not, Traditional American Family is On The Decline

Release Date: February 26, 1999 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The obvious decline of the traditional family, a trend marked by increasing rates of both divorce and cohabitation, is raising concern among sociologists and policy makers, politicians and religious groups.

But it shouldn't come as a surprise, says University at Buffalo sociologist Lynn Magdol.

"The trend scares and disorients a lot of people, but the situation illustrates the paradoxical nature of Americans' attitude toward marriage and family," she notes. When it comes to these institutions, they run hot and cold.

"Marriage and family are very much idealized in this country, and officially, at least, we hold them to be sacred," according to Magdol, UB assistant professor of sociology. "Our public behavior seems to support that position. Nearly all of us express a desire for an exclusive, intimate association; at least 90 percent of us say we want to marry, most of us do and the majority of us want to have children.

"But," she says, "it is clear that traditional marriages and families are apparently not meeting the social and intimacy needs of an increasing number of Americans."

To find out why, Magdol recently began a qualitative study of cohabiting couples. She previously conducted quantitative research among UB students to determine their attitudes toward cohabitation.

• Although most Americans marry at some point, they are delaying marriage until they are older.

• Demographers project that married couples have a 50 percent chance of divorcing. Andrew Cherlin, a leading family demographer, notes that the divorce rate in the 1980s was twice what it was in the 1950s, and has declined only moderately since then. "In 1880, two of every 1,000 couples divorced each year," Magdol notes. "Today, 20 of every 1000 couples divorce each year -- a 10-fold increase over 100 years."

• The U.S. birth rate is down.

• More Americans elect to have children outside of marriage than any time in our history.

• Cohabitation is on the rise in all sectors. The 1970 Census estimated that 500,000 households consisted of heterosexual unmarried couples. Today, more than 3.7 million households fit that description.

• Sixty percent of divorced people who remarry start out by living together. Conversely, a substantial number of divorced persons who cohabit, remarry.

The result of these changes, said Magdol, is that Americans spend less time married over the course of their lives than they used to. Marriage is less central to their life course and less central to their decision to bear children.

"It isn't that we're just tossing the traditional forms out the window," she says. "After all, most couples who live together eventually marry. We are, however, stretching and molding the institutions of marriage and family to accommodate new kinds of relational units and intimate liaisons. Perhaps these new forms are more suited to the changing times."

Americans have come to accept broader and more varied definitions of "family" and "marriage" than they have in the past, according to Magdol. Because of this, she said, more and more of them will be involved in such non-traditional arrangements in years to come because it will carry less stigma.

This has important public-policy implications, she notes, and her study is likely to suggest new avenues of quantitative research to help adapt policies to reality.

That possibility upsets those who consider a movement from traditional to non-traditional family structures inherently "bad." Magdol says they probably will continue to enjoin church, government and social agencies to discourage this trend and find ways to strengthen traditional marriage.

"The truth is, however," Magdol says, "that cohabitation has always existed but it has been more or less invisible until recently. In the past it usually was associated with those on the lower end of the economic and social scale, and was stigmatized by the middle classes, as indicated by the phrases 'living in sin' and 'shacking up.'

"But new forms develop in the face of need," Magdol says. "Divorce rates are even higher for second marriages, for instance, and we know that many 'intact' marriages are troubled and dysfunctional. At the very least," she says, "the upswing in cohabitation suggests that we continue to want companionship, but distrust the institution of marriage."

"As a result, a broader definition of 'family' is growing among Americans, one that embraces unmarried couples, interracial and intercultural families, adopted families, 'constructed' or non-kinship 'families' made up of unrelated persons, gay and lesbian families, and so on."

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