Family: Crisis or Change?

by John Scanzoni

Dr. Scanzoni is professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 12-19, 1981, pp. 794-799. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The question to ask if we want to improve the quality of family life is this: Why are families changing? They aren’t changing as much as we might think, for the good old days were not as isolated from many of the modern problems of our technological age as we like to think.

From pulpit and newsmagazine alike comes the message that the family is in crisis. Concerned clergy and laity are asking, "What can we do to solve its problems?" But to solve a problem, one must first ask the right question. "How many miles can I sail before my ship falls off the end of the world?" was a terrifying question to ancient seafarers, and one that puzzled people until the time of Columbus. But Columbus asked instead, "How far must I sail from my western coast before I arrive at my eastern coast?" And the discoveries that followed made the old question about "falling off the earth" irrelevant.

During the 14th century, millions of Europeans died from the "black plague." "Why is God displeased with us?" they asked. The answer they got was "our sin." The authorities ordered "that everything that could anger God, such as gambling, cursing, and drinking, must be stopped" (A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara W. Tuchman [Random House, 1978], p. 103). But to ask why God was displeased was the wrong question. Five hundred years passed before Louis Pasteur asked the right question: "What are the tiny organisms that carry the black plague?" That question led him to the right answer -- an organism that traveled in the stomach of the flea and the bloodstream of the rat. And that answer brought an end to the black plague.

Similarly, to inquire "Why is the family falling apart?" or "What’s wrong with the family?" is as pointless as asking "How far till I fall off the ocean?" or "Why is God sending us the plague?" The question to ask if we want to improve the quality of family life is this: "Why are families changing?"

The Good Old Days

Historians observe that every generation idealizes the one preceding it -- we magnify the good things and forget the bad. And that sort of image-making is prevalent when it comes to the family. Take divorce, for instance. We like to think that in the "good old days," there was little or no divorce -- marriages were stable. But were they? It is true that there were relatively few legal divorces prior to the Civil War. It’s also true that the frequency of divorce has been growing ever since.

But historians are uncovering increasing evidence for the "poor man’s [or "poor woman’s"] divorce," namely desertion (Marital Incompatibility and Social Change in Early America, by Herman R. Lantz [Sage, 1976]). Throughout colonial times and the 19th century expansion of the western frontier, it was exceedingly simple for men especially -- but also for women -- to slip away from their families undetected and never return. And it was almost impossible to trace them. There were no social security numbers, no FBI, no computers, no effective way to track down someone who left a family in Cincinnati and took off for Walla Walla. While the actual numbers of annual desertions are unknown, they are thought to be substantial. And since no one knew you once you arrived in Walla Walla, you could claim to be unmarried, and then remarry without anyone’s ever being able to trace your former family connections.

In this century, there have been many more legal divorces for a number of reasons, but one factor is that it’s harder to "drop out" and resurface without being detected. In short, when we look longingly to the past and say, "My, wasn’t it grand when marriages were stable." we have to face the hard fact that they weren’t as stable as we once thought.

We like to think also that our ancestors had harmonious and happy families, and that the violence characteristic of contemporary families didn’t exist. However, social historians are becoming increasingly aware of just how much violence went on in pre-20th-century families (A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women, edited by N. F. Cott and E. H. Pleck [Simon & Schuster, 1979], pp. 107-135). While a great deal of violence occurs today, there was probably more of it during earlier times because there was then greater community support for it. A "good" husband routinely beat his wife to keep her in subjection; "good" parents often beat their children in order to "get the devil" or the "sin-nature" out of them.

In a study of 18th century family life, one historian tells us that walls were paper-thin and houses crowded. One source quotes a woman who said of her neighbors, "We lived next door, where only a thin partition divided us and have often heard him beat his wife and heard her scream in consequence of the beating" (ibid.. p. 111). In short, family violence was not invented during the 1970s -- it’s been around for a long time.

A third "problem area" has to do with children. Certain observers argue that our ancestors cared more for children than do today’s parents. Critics complain that modern mothers go to work and leave their kids with sitters or in nursery schools; and when they’re home, parents plunk kids down in front of the TV. The charge is that parents don’t "relate" to their children the way they used to. Observers also worry about the family’s helplessness to protect young children from exposure to sex and violence.

Here again, historians are helping us sort fact from fiction. Take, for example, the idea of working mothers. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most women were married to farmers or shopkeepers. They worked with their men from dawn to dusk and simply had no time for "full-time motherhood" as it came to be defined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Women and Men: Changing Roles, Relationships and Perceptions, edited by L. A. Cater and A. F. Scott [Praeger, 1977], pp. 93-118). But who took care of children while mothers and fathers -- and all other able-bodied adults -- struggled to survive economically? The truth is that no one gave the matter much thought. Any available adult, or older brother or sister, who happened to be around when the child needed something, did what had to be done for the child.

But the idea that the child is a "special" person requiring extraordinary attention, nurture and care never entered their minds. Only in relatively recent times has there been concern about "child development" and "quality children." One historian describes the experiences of most children during that pre-industrial era as a "nightmare" (Cott and Fleck, op. cit., p. 118). Clearly, many of today’s children suffer a great deal. But along with that suffering is a societal concern to alleviate childhood suffering -- a concern that did not exist years ago.

Sexual Behavior

And then there’s the matter of the child’s exposure to sex. Historians are discovering that because houses were small and crowded, adults could not conceal their sexual activities from children. There were no "private bedrooms," and children understood sexual details at a very early age from watching adults (ibid.). They also watched farm animals have intercourse and give birth. But no one thought that such "sexual exposure" would harm a tender child’s innocence.

A fourth "problem area" has to do with sex itself. Many people -- especially those under 30 -- seem to have the idea that sex came in with the space age: that people didn’t have sexual "highs" before then, that married people didn’t really enjoy the sex they had with their own spouses, that unmarried people weren’t having sex or that married people didn’t have sex with persons to whom they weren’t married -- that somehow all of this sexual behavior is new. Our difficulty in understanding today’s sexual patterns is that we compare them with the 19th century Victorian middle class and stop there. The prevailing idea during the 19th century was that women were passionless. As one writer puts it, women "were [thought to be] less carnal and lustful than men" (ibid., pp. 162-181).

But historians tell us that prior to the 19th century, female sexuality had not been "suppressed," and it never occurred to anyone that women were less sexual beings than men. In fact, precisely the opposite was true. A 15th century "witch-hunter’s guide" warned that "carnal lust in women is insatiable" (ibid.). After analyzing 18th century Massachusetts divorce court records, one historian concludes that the prevailing wisdom was that "if women made advances they were irresistible" (ibid., p.125).

In short, prior to the 19th century women as well as men thought of themselves, and of each other, as passionate sexual beings, and often their passion led them to deviate from existing community norms. Studies comparing marriage and birth records during colonial times show, for instance, that Elijah and Hannah married on January 1, and on June 1, Hannah gave birth to an eight-pound, six-ounce baby girl! That kind of historical evidence has emerged often enough to suggest that rather than having enormous premature babies, ordinary people like Hannah and Elijah were having premarital sex (Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, by P. Laslett [Cambridge University Press, 1977]).

So when critics today say that premarital and extramarital sex are destroying. the family, what they may have in mind is the 19th century middle-class family, in which women were supposed to be passionless. But before the Victorian era, sex was much less suppressed, and yet families somehow persisted.

The Erosion of Traditions

Therefore, when we consider all four of these areas -- divorce and marital stability, family violence, the unique needs of children, and sexuality -- and then compare yesterday’s with today’s families, the contrast is not so striking as some would have us believe. To be sure, there have been and continue to be significant changes in the family. But the "problems" that observers perceive are simply the surface manifestations -- the symptoms of the underlying changes. Therefore, rather than focus primarily on symptoms -- or family problems -- it makes more sense to focus on the changes themselves. Why is the family changing?

As we think of the four problem areas we have considered, one central theme emerges: a developing concern for the rights, privileges and, well-being of the individual as over against the maintenance of traditions. That development is brilliantly illustrated in Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, the village milkman, struggles with tradition versus freedom. "On the one hand," he says, "parents should arrange their children’s marriages." But on the other hand, he sympathizes with the freedom sought by his daughters to choose their own husbands -- to marry the men they love. He experiences enormous dissonance coping with the erosion of tradition; he sees the whole of family and society collapsing around him, culminating finally in the decision of his youngest daughter to marry a gentile rather than a Jew.

If we probe for the why of family change and the symptoms that inevitably accompany it, we discover that the changes result from the erosion of ancient traditions -- traditions that favored the family as an institution over its individual members. During past eras, the institution had priority over the individual; and for the sake of the institution the individual was called upon to sacrifice. Even today some observers continue to perceive family as being larger than life -- larger than people. They see the family as a pattern into which people are fitted. It’s like getting on a bed in a cheap motel -- if your legs are longer than the bed, trim your legs; if your legs are shorter, stretch them. But while some people believe in trimming the person, others believe in trimming the bed.

Something similar has been happening to the family for the past 200 years. We’ve been trimming here, adding there, modifying that, elaborating this, and so forth. If there was any sort of unconscious intention through all of this, it was to make family the servant of people, rather than to have people serve family.

Marriage and Divorce

In the 17th century, John Milton insisted that God did not create human beings for marriage; rather, God created marriage for human benefit. Therefore, said Milton, how much sense does it make to assert that a loving God forces people to suffer in an arrangement that God originally designed for their happiness? "No sense at all," he concluded, arguing that the churches and government of his day should allow divorce on the grounds of what we now call "mutual incompatibility."

In fact, it took more than 200 years for Milton’s ideas to permeate the thinking and behavior of ordinary people. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that divorce became relatively common in America; and immediately, certain critics began to predict the extinction of family and society. Interestingly enough, many critics connected the rising divorce rate with feminism and its goal of suffrage (Divorce in the Progressive Era, by W. L. O’Neill [Yale University Press, 1967]). But, of course, feminism was and is much more than that: it is the right to be an autonomous person -- one who acts out of self-determination and for self-actualization. Milton says that marriage should serve the person; the feminist argues that marriage has ill served women (as well as men) and that marriage must change to better serve the needs of women (as well as men). The logical outcome of the argument is that if a particular marriage doesn’t change, it becomes legitimate to leave rather than to endure it.

As marriage has changed to accommodate individual rather than traditional interests, Milton’s ideas have become increasingly acceptable. During prior decades, for instance, men married for sex, but they also wanted their family’s life style to be a showcase proving to themselves and to the world that they were worthy providers. Women, on the other hand, married mostly for companionship and to have a provider. But since World War II, certain demands have been added to marriage. Women want satisfying sex out of marriage, and they want intimacy -- deep friendship. Some men are beginning to want intimacy as well.

Furthermore, increasing numbers of women want their marriages to facilitate their occupational efforts in the same way that marriages have made it possible for men to pursue their occupations. Many women see occupational involvement as the only sure means to guarantee their autonomy. Given this enlarging range of significant demands placed upon marriage, it’s no puzzle that there are so many divorces. Perhaps we should ask why there aren’t more.

But plainly, divorce is a symptom of underlying changes. It is a painful symptom that no one welcomes.

Patterns of Violence

The same basic reasoning that explains changes in divorce patterns also explains changes in patterns of family violence. Recent research has shown that next to the police, the family is the most violent institution in American society. Most murders are committed by people who know their victims personally, and a great proportion of these involve the killing of a family member. Besides guns, those who engage in family violence use an assortment of other weapons, including knives, boiling water, and just plain old fists. But since men are generally stronger than women, they almost never lose a fist fight. Hence, the term "battered wife" has entered the English language during the past decade. While the term is new, battered wives have been around for a long time.

But why is the term so new, if the behavior is so ancient? The answer has to do with a change in traditions, with the individual coming to be valued as much as, or more than, the institution. While wife-beating has apparently always been common, it was in earlier times accepted as being a "normal" part of family life. As long as most women believed that tradition, they never complained about their beatings, nor dared talk about them openly with other similarly abused women. But that tradition is being eroded. It is being replaced with the idea that protecting a woman’s body is more important than holding a family together, that violence need not be tolerated for the sake of perpetuating a marriage.

Today virtually every city in America has a shelter where battered women can go to flee their husbands. In many cases the husband pursues his wife and wants her back -- not that he intends to stop beating her, but chiefly because he insists on holding his family together. Consequently, because women are rejecting the idea that family itself is more important than one’s own physical well-being, the violence that has been hidden for centuries is finally being talked about, and emerging into public view, And that’s the very sore "problem" called "family violence" of which we’re becoming increasingly aware. But the emergence of the "problem" is symptomatic of underlying changes -- changes away from traditions that made the family pre-eminent over the individual, and gave the man unquestioned authority over his wife -- all in the name of family stability. And in place of those former traditions, the care of the woman’s body and of her human dignity have come to be regarded as more significant than the institution itself.

That same shift -- from institutional pre-eminence to individual rights -- also applies to sexuality. Just as family violence was tacitly accepted during former times, so was violation of community sexual standards -- especially by men. While they had the privilege of discreetly looking for sex both before and after marriage, women were not supposed to have that privilege. That "double standard," along with the Victorian idea that women were passionless, placed 20th century men at a substantial advantage over women. But why did men have these freedoms while women did not? There were many reasons, but the idea that "nice virtuous women" were the foundation of the family and of society had much to do with women’s sexual limitations. These limitations were defended in the name of the family as an institution.

But throughout the past 25 years we’ve seen that tradition being replaced by the idea that women have the same sexual rights as men, Moreover, if sexual liberties are indeed a threat to the family, as some critics maintain, the current idea is that men are as responsible for the situation as women. Increasingly, women refuse to be the sole moral guardians of family -- insisting instead that if the family requires "moral guardianship," then men have to become co-partners with women in that enterprise.

Perhaps the most troubling byproduct of this increasing sexual freedom is the steep rise in the numbers of unmarried adolescent mothers. More and more teen-age females are having intercourse at an increasingly younger age. Yet the males with whom they’re having sex seem to feel little responsibility to protect their partners from pregnancy. These teen-age males seem to be the last bastion in the long history of the sexual exploitation of women. Adolescent women have accepted the idea that they have the right to enjoy sex. Unfortunately, they don’t have the sense of autonomy that would lead them to refuse sex if their own life-chances (as well as those of their as-yet-unborn children) are in danger of being damaged by male reluctance to use the simple means of contraception readily available.

Among adults, a troubling byproduct of increasing sexual liberty is the discovery that sex does not equal intimacy. Gay Talese’s recent best seller Thy Neighbor’s Wife, filled with page after page of extramarital affairs, including his own, missed the distinction completely. While in years gone by the kinds of marriages held together solely by the tradition that "stability is the best policy" often lacked intimacy, relationships held together solely by sex may be equally devoid of intimacy. And yet, as part of the pursuit of individual rights that is changing the American family, intimacy is coming to be valued as highly as sex.

Children’s Interests

The difficulty of balancing differing interests also emerges in the last of the four "problem areas." Critics worry that while adults are busy pursuing their own rights, children get left in the backwash. There are, for example, the alleged negative effects on children of divorce and of working mothers. More recently, the question of children’s own rights has come into sharper focus. What demands can children legitimately make on their parents? Some children in their 20s have gone to court to sue their parents, alleging that they were not raised properly, were mistreated as children, and as a result suffer from poor self-esteem. Recently we have read of the case of Walter Polovchak, the 12-year-old son of Russian immigrants who in 1980 refused to leave America when his parents decided to return to the Soviet Union. The U.S. government granted the boy temporary asylum, but some critics disagreed with that decision. As one put it, "I think it’s a bad precedent to let a 12-year-old boy tell his parents what he wants to do."

Clearly, the question of how to do right by today’s children is an unsettled one. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the basic trend of changing relationships between adult men and women can simultaneously be enormously beneficial to the rights and well-being of children. The desire of growing numbers of women to seek autonomy through activities outside the household can be a great boon to children if, alongside this trend, there occurs a corresponding move to bring men into the household -- to involve them as fully as women in child care and child nurture. Films such as Kramer vs. Kramer help to impress the public with the fact that some men want to be deeply involved in parenting; moreover, they can be just as good at it as women.

The tradition that every male must be a successful achiever dies hard. Nevertheless, some men are coming to realize that for decades they’ve been cheated by being cut off from child nurture. It was thought that the family as an institution would suffer if men gave up their work roles for parenting roles. But once again we observe the force of individual rights changing the family. As men come to believe that they personally will be better off if they get more involved in child nurture, and that the children will be better off as well, we can expect greater numbers of men to begin pursuing those kinds of benefits. And if men actually do change their parenting patterns, while women change their occupational behaviors, the positive consequences of that kind of parental symmetry could be profoundly beneficial for the family.

Balancing the Individual With the Family

"But," responds the critic, "with all this talk about individuals having their rights and ‘doing their thing,’ is there any place for the family as an institution? Is there any sense in which family traditions and family obligations remain important in today’s world?" Of course there is, and the trick is to balance the well-being of the institution with the wellbeing of the individuals that make it up.

But how can that be done? Freud said many things that today we totally reject. But now and again, he made statements that remain simple yet timeless. One of these classic insights was his assertion that more than anything else, adults need to work and to love (Themes of Work and Love in Adulthood, by N. J. Smelser and E. Erikson [Harvard University Press]). And we might add that children need to love and they need to learn to work. Therefore, to identify the optimal conditions under which the family can be a prosperous and robust institution, and to establish the kinds of traditions that will best meet the needs of its members during the decades ahead, we need to consider Freud’s insights. The ideal family institution is one that provides maximum opportunities for all its members to love and to work to the fullest extent possible.

Traditional family structures have prohibited most women from enjoying meaningful work experiences. Their labors were generally limited to the home, even if their talents would have permitted them to enjoy the rewards of paid employment. And those same family structures have prohibited men from enjoying meaningful love experiences. They were too busy making money to learn to love and to share themselves, and to participate fully in the nurturing of family relationships. And who suffered from these limitations on both sexes? Women suffered, not only because they lacked meaningful work, but also because they didn’t get the kind of love from their men that they needed and deserved. Men suffered because they couldn’t enjoy the release from financial anxiety that comes from having a co-provider in the household, and also because they were unable to receive and participate fully in the love their wives and children held out to them. And children suffered because they grew up repeating the same dreadful patterns.

Those patterns sprang from traditions in which the whole assumed more importance than its parts. We are heading now toward new traditions that balance individual with institutional well-being. That balance comes about through the total involvement of all family members in meaningful work and intense love and caring.

What can our churches do to help achieve that balance? First, they must resist the temptation to doomsaying: "Never ask ‘Oh, why were things so much better in the old days?’ It’s not an intelligent question" (Eccl. 7: 10, TEV). Second, they should encourage married persons to analyze their own marriages and consider whether they are governed either by traditionalism or by some form of individualism. In either case, couples should then ask themselves whether theirs is a satisfactory arrangement, or whether a richer marriage might be possible through a greater balance of the two poles. For those seeking greater balance, the challenge is to provide practical suggestions for involving all family members in meaningful work and love opportunities.

It is also vital that the local church become a support group -- a caring community -- for persons struggling with these sorts of difficult but not insuperable tasks. Often churches are faulted for following instead of leading society. In this case, however, the church may be the one institution in our society uniquely suited to raise aspirations aimed at new family traditions, and to provide a framework for their attainment.