Marriage and the Family


Most young Americans today look forward to the time when they can "get married and start a family". In other words, they hope to find a person of the other sex who will make them happy for life and with whom they can share the joys of parenthood in a house or apartment of their own.

All of these expectations seem so natural, simple, and well justified, that it may be hard to believe that young people of other times and other cultures have often felt quite differently. However, as we can learn from historians and anthropologists, our own present forms of marriage and family are relatively new and by no means universal. For example, in some non-Western societies people may marry a person of the same sex or more than one partner of the other sex, the marriage may be quite unrelated to happiness, love, sexual intercourse, or procreation, it may not lead to establishing a new household, and it may, from the very beginning, be planned only as a temporary arrangement.

By the same token, in some societies of the past, a family did not consist only of parents and their children, but included a number of other close and distant relatives as well as servants, friends, and permanent guests. On the other hand, sometimes the children's natural father or mother was excluded from the family and remained an unrecognized "outsider". Indeed, in some cases the "official" husbands or wives were themselves children and younger than their legal offspring.

These few observations may suffice to show that it makes little sense to talk about marriage and family in the abstract, as if they had the same meaning for everyone. There are simply too many different forms of marriage and too many different types of family in the world. In short, there are too many exceptions for any rule that we might set up. Marriage and family are actually very difficult to define and even more difficult to explain.

Nevertheless, scholars have often tried to explain marriage and family by pointing to some of their obvious functions. After all, it is a biological fact that sexual intercourse between men and women can produce children, and that these children need adult care and protection for many years before they can fend for themselves. Thus, it has been suggested that, with all of their possible variations, marriage and family are natural and inevitable institutions which provide for the proper raising of children, i.e., ultimately for the survival of the human species. Indeed, the two institutions have been found to serve many additional useful functions, such as providing sexual satisfaction and companionship for the spouses and economic cooperation between all family members. The larger community has also been said to profit from the arrangement since marriage tends to restrict, regulate, and refine human sexual behavior which might otherwise become promiscuous and barbaric. By the same token, a stable family life has often been seen as the best guarantee of social peace.

Yet, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that all of these worthy goals can also be accomplished without marriages and families. Children do not have to depend on their parents, but can very well be raised by other adults in professional nurseries, daycare centers, schools, and similar institutions. Sexual satisfaction and companionship can be found outside of marriage, and economic cooperation can be achieved in all sorts of ways between all sorts of people. Sexual behavior can be regulated by religious and secular authorities, and social peace can be preserved even in societies which downgrade the family as an institution and subject everyone directly to some totalitarian control.

On the other hand, as already hinted above, in some parts of the globe the institution of marriage has shown such puzzling features that, for a very long time, modern Western observers could not make sense out of them. For example, the theory that marriage always ensures the raising of children by their own parents is contradicted in certain societies by some very strange rules of determining "fatherhood". Thus, among the biblical Israelites who practiced the levirate (i.e., a man's compulsory marriage to his brother's widow), a dead man became the father of children conceived by his widow and his brother. Similarly, among the Nayar in Southern India, a young girl was briefly married to a man who never had a chance to impregnate her, but nevertheless later became the legitimate father of all her children. Even more bizarre: Among the Nuer in Southern Sudan, a woman could marry another woman and be considered the father of that woman's children by some male outsider. Furthermore, the belief that sexual intercourse is the basis or object of marriage loses conviction when one considers the example of the Mojave Indians who allowed adult men to marry baby girls. Or, to give one final illustration, among the Siberian Chukchee, a woman who became pregnant by an authorized lover might marry not him, but a baby husband not older than her own child, and she might, in fact, nurse both of them together at her breast.

Curiously enough, if one looks for an explanation of these customs, one eventually finds that, in spite of their dissimilarities, they have one common denominator, and that it is an economic one. That is to say, in all of the above cases, marriage has little to do with biological parenthood or sexual partnership, but instead is concerned with social legitimacy, official family lines, property rights, and laws of inheritance. In short, it is a method for the orderly transmission and conservation of wealth and status. Its particular form depends on the political organization of each society. This observation, in turn, has prompted some scholars to describe the origin and "true" basis of marriage as economic. Friedrich Engels's study The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written in the 1880s, is perhaps the best known example of this approach.

However, while economic factors have undoubtedly played an important role in the development of marriage and family, they cannot explain everything about them. For instance, if only economic considerations were involved, same-sex marriages would long have been common ail over the world. Instead, marital partners have nearly always been of different sex. And another point deserves to be made: While marriage usually involves a division of labor between the sexes, one can never predict with certainty how it will work out in practice. What one society calls "men's work", is "women's work" in another and vice versa. It is not true that all wives and mothers everywhere spend their lives as homemakers caring for their children, or that all husbands and fathers work outside the home as providers. Modern anthropologists have found cultures in which these roles were reversed.

Under the circumstances, we are forced to search for still other explanations, and thus some contemporary scholars have suggested that we look beyond the relationships between husband and wife or parents and children. There seems to be more to marriage than that. Indeed, it appears that any such narrow individual concerns are irrelevant to the question. The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, for example, cites an interesting clue provided by the natives of New Guinea who state that "the purpose of getting married is not so much to obtain a wife, but to secure brothers-in-law". Accordingly, Levi-Strauss describes husband and wife as pawns in a larger social game played by their two respective families who use the marriage for the mutual acquisition of in-laws. This means that we are actually dealing with a paradox: Although it is true that marriages produce families, it is also true that families produce marriages as a means of establishing alliances between each other. Such ever-enlarging alliances are the preconditions of civilization. Social progress would have been impossible if people had not found a way of affiliating themselves systematically with other people beyond their immediate blood kin. Fortunately, however, they found it by creating the incest taboo which forced everyone to marry outside his own family. Thus, families were linked up to form larger groups, and the survival of the human race was assured. (For further details see Levi-Strauss, "The Family," in the anthology by A.S. and J.H. Skolnick under "Reference and Recommended Reading" below. The essay had appeared earlier in Man, Culture, and Society, edited by H.L. Shapiro, New York: 1956.)

It should be pointed out that Levi-Strauss's explanation of the incest taboo is not considered definitive by everyone. On the other hand, his conclusion about the place of the family in society seems indisputable: The small family of parents and children is not the natural elementary component, cornerstone, or building block of society, as is so often thoughtlessly assumed. In fact, a society does not consist of families any more than it consists of individuals. The old model of a society, state, or nation being made up of people or groups of people is wrong. Societies, states, or nations are not composed of people, but of relationships, and these relationships cannot be understood by simply adding up numbers. With regard to the family, the relationship of those within it to the rest of society is obviously far from static. Families are necessary, but they are not meant to be permanent. On the contrary, society survives precisely because they are continuously being formed, broken up, and formed again by marriages. Adults live with children in a temporary family unit only to give them away in marriage so that they may found their own temporary family units, and so on. Thus, every marriage breaks up the two families of bridegroom and bride while at the same time forging a bond between them and establishing a third, entirely new family. The point of the whole enterprise, however, is the continued transference, realignment, and exchange of social obligations. As Levi-Strauss summarizes it, quoting the Bible: " 'You will leave your father and mother' provides the iron rule for the establishment and functioning of any society."

It is interesting to note, however, that many past and present thinkers have wanted to see this "iron rule" applied much more strictly than is being suggested by Levi-Strauss. That is to say, throughout history Utopian philosophers from Plato to K'ang Yu-wei have wanted to see marriage and family abolished altogether. Children should therefore be taken away from their fathers and mothers from their day of birth. For example, in Plato's Republic wives and children were to be held in common, so that "no parent would know his own child, nor any child his own parent". As a result, all family feelings would be transferred to the whole community. In K'ang Yu-wei's Book of the Great Equality (1935), children were to be raised in public institutions, because families were an obstacle to the "perfection of human nature". Similar sentiments have been expressed by certain religious leaders. Indeed, it is striking how many of those who have tried to save or improve mankind have found their efforts obstructed by marital bonds and family loyalties. Thus, as we can learn from the Bible, Jesus himself was quite indifferent to marriage and family as social institutions. He wandered about homeless, remained unmarried, left his own relatives behind, and never showed them any special consideration (Matthew 12; 46-50). When some young men wanted to become his followers, he asked them to ignore their families and to devote themselves entirely to the cause. He even told one of them not to waste time with his father's funeral, but to "go and preach the kingdom of God" (Luke 9; 59-60). Accordingly, the early Christians generally put little emphasis on family relationships and family life. The concept of a close "Christian family" and the idyllic image of the "Holy Family" in Nazareth are products of later historical periods.

There is, of course, little doubt that families can hold an individual down and that they can frustrate ambition, stifle initiative, hamper personal growth, or sabotage noble causes. Occasionally, they can even be downright destructive, ft is also clear that entrenched family systems often promote and perpetuate inequality. In short, the family is a very conservative institution, and it usually serves the prevailing social order, whatever it happens to be. By the same token, revolutionaries, reformers, and social visionaries often lose patience with it. Family ties tend to get in the way of sudden social change, even if it is meant to be for the better.

On the other hand, any larger social change sooner or later also affects the family, This fact is illustrated today by the well-publicized "crisis" of marriage and family in our own society. We can now often hear it said that the technological and political changes of our recent history have led to a "breakdown" of the family, and that this, in turn, will eventually lead to the breakdown of society itself. However, these dour predictions do not have to come true and may even rest on false assumptions. As we have mentioned earlier, the family and society do not stand in a static relationship to each other, but exist in a state of dynamic tension, indeed, almost confrontation, in a creative equilibrium subject to constant readjustment. Thus, we may at present simply be going through another phase in which the demands of family and society are being forced to find a new balance.

The following pages are devoted to a more detailed discussion of these and other issues. For the sake of clarity, marriage and family are examined in separate sections. Both of these sections, however, offer some historical and cross-cultural observations and point to future possibilities.


[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Behavior] [Sex and Society] [The Social Roles] [Conformity & Deviance] [Marriage and Family] [The Oppressed] ["Sexual Revolution"] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]