The Crumbling Foundations of Traditional Marriage and the Nuclear Family
July 30, 2009
I was standing in line at the grocery store when an issue of Time Magazine caught my eye. The cover was a badly made wedding cake with a plastic bride and groom plowed into the top, the cover article, Unfaithfully Yours, by Caitlin Flanagan. I had to buy it and read this article. In the contents under the cover story listing the byline was “The two-parent family is in trouble. Why we still need the nuclear unit-and how to save it.”
The article talked about Sanford and other high-profile cheaters and of these men being “blatantly self-centered”. The article went into numerous studies of how divorce is awful for kids, how children need a father and how single parent families are destroying children. The solution of course is the institution of marriage. There was an underlying feeling as I read that really it was men who lacked commitment. The article never did really give a “how to save it” answers. There was the impression that traditional marriage in which people stay together forever no matter how tough or miserable was the only solution.
This is what fascinates me. Yes divorce is a challenge and kids get hurt, but is it divorce and lack of commitment or is there a deeper underlying cause that no one is willing to see? We as a culture seem to unwilling to look at our traditions of marriage itself as possibly being the problem and not the solution.
Traditional marriage is not a good fit for a changing culture seeking connection and acceptance. Marriage as an institution has its roots in slavery. In the early Judeo/Christian system women were property sold in marriage. When the Bible speaks of adultery, it is referring to polluting or adulterating the family line. To covet a man’s wife was to covet his property. Less than one hundred years ago this was still true of marriage, women had very few rights, not even the right to vote. Marriages, until very recently, were a subtle form of slavery or as some have referred to it “legal prostitution”. As late as the seventies if a man raped his wife it was not considered rape. Can an institution or tradition with such negative roots be changed or salvaged? Should it be salvaged? If not what are our options?
There is bit of myopic challenge going on in our culture. We know something is not working and many long for acceptance, somewhere to belong and feel safe. Traditional marriage was not built for this. The roots of marriage are from a time of small villages, extended family and close ties to the community. Nuclear family is a poor substitute for peoples need for acceptance and community. In our modern age we move often for jobs, money or simply because we can. We have few connections of extended family, little real community and we rely on our partner or spouse and children to fulfill these needs. This is a lot to ask of two or three people and then the kids grow up and move away. This leaves us relying on one main person for a sense of connection, purpose, acceptance and other needs formally met by extended family and our village. The traditional marriage was about survival, children, family and property. People had considerably shorter life spans and lifetime marriage meant 20 or so years.
Today we marry for love, we live much longer and both people work outside the home. Is it even reasonable to expect a nuclear family to fulfill the promise of lifelong acceptance and connection from just one person? Perhaps we as a people need to take a long hard look at the reality of failing marriage and ask what might work better. What is it we are really seeking and how can we both give stabilitu to our children and fulfillment to ourselves. How do we create extended family and real communities where we have a village of people to help us, to be there for the children and help us when we are down. Isn’t the very notion of a nuclear family going it alone completely counterproductive to fulfilling our human need to be part of a tribe or pack. The nuclear family isolates us from one another and the modern work world of two career households divides spouses from each other. When most couples spend more time with co-workers then with each other, of course they will form connections and bonds with colleagues.
The ideal of lifelong marriage is not working. It is crumbling at the foundations, yet many people are so attached they can’t conceive of alternatives. We need to look for solutions that actually work for all parties concerned. Polyamory is one possibility that just might work for many people but a lack of awareness and acceptance keep it on the fringes. We as a culture really need to support the possible alternatives, gay marriage, polyamory, domestic partnerships, civil unions done by specific contract and parenting agreements.
Polyamory has so many possibilities that for some can be a wonderful alternative. Take the couple who marry young, have kids and love them deeply, with poly they can stay together, be good parents and still find connection and acceptance they may not have with each other. There are possibilities of three, four, five adults or more forming extended families with real commitments to the family and the children. With more people there is more connection, help and support which can be awesome for kids. Why not support forms like polyamory that can meet innate human needs better. If people could stay together, partnered, as parents and still find relationships to grow, feel alive and connect this could provide the stability so badly missing for many. Currently this form of relating is looked down on by society, parents and therapists and is not even in the realm of possibility for many. We are surprised by infidelity even though every study done confirms most homo sapiens are not monogamous.
I do agree with the article that many people lack real commitment. Polyamory takes honesty, commitment and communication. It is work and many people see it as too much work. Even among polyamorists themselves it is often difficult to really commit and do the work needed to form long term stable relationships. All too often people are seeking acceptance and connection through sexual encounters instead of deep relating. It does not help that polyamory as a committed family relationship is not supported. There have been no studies of plural families. For people who want this kind of family there is no map, no ceremony, no recognition and no rights, making it very difficult to sustain or even be open about. It would be nice to one day see polyamory as a solution and possibility for modern families.
The article also spoke of single parent families and absentee fathers. The article implied that marriage would make men better fathers. Sixty years ago men worked and women stayed home. We had clearly defined roles in marriage and as parents. Men brought home the paycheck and women ran the house. In today’s world many men have no idea their role or their importance in a child’s life. When women can have children single, bring home the bacon and run the household, many men feel disposable. Maybe this is what really needs to change. To help men be better fathers they must first know they matter. Women often feel unsupported by men not knowing how they fit and so they take control. It is not malice but by necessity to care for children. Women for the most part still run the household, take the kids to the doctor or dentist, stay home when their child is sick. This leaves men feeling unneeded and women overworked. Men have not really found their role in families in this modern time following women’s liberation. Women are so tired from fulfilling both roles, they have no time for the partner they married and love. This makes it easy for men to leave or to have affairs as they feel abandoned, alone and most of all unaccepted.
When Ms Flanagan wrote of marriage being what we needed she missed the entire reason it is not working. We no longer live in single income families with carefully defined roles. Most women and many men have no desire to return to that. We need to look at how we empower men to be fathers, how women can find more balance and how all of us can find the connections we need. Children need two parents and this generally means their father. Mothers need the support of a partner to find balance and people need each other for connection. Men, and for that matter everyone, need to be needed, to know we matter. Instead of looking back a tradition fraught with negative connotations of slavery and suffering, let’s look for solutions. We can as a culture become more open and accepting of same sex couples having legal commitments to each other and their children. We can study polyamory and other plural relationships and help people to make them work. We can empower men to know they matter to their kids and women to know they do not have to do it all alone. We can encourage people to form communities and/or extended families with people they feel connected to. We can honor choices of family style and relationships that support everyone’s well-being, adult and child alike. We can grow into honesty, make real commitments, have lasting families/relationships and discover new traditions of partnership and family beyond traditional monogamous marriage and the nuclear unit.
Robyn is the Executive Director of Loving More Non-Profit, a national leader for polyamory awareness, polyamory counselor, workshop facilitator and writer. Since 2004 Robyn has worked to expand media awareness of polyamory appearing in numerous articles, radio shows and TV. Robyn and Loving More were instrumental in the formation of Polyamory Leadership Network. A national speaker and advocate for polyamory she has been a speaker at conferences, taught at universities and been a featured keynote speaker. Robyn has been openly polyamorous for 23 years, raising three children in a polyamorous family. Robyn has been running polyamory support groups, teaching and facilitating relationship and sexuality workshop since 1999. In addition she counsels polyamorous individuals and families. Currently Robyn is working on two polyamory related books.