Contemporary American Families Changes That Affect The

Contemporary American Families: Changes That Affect The Structure And Functioning Essay, Research Paper

Contemporary American Families: Changes that Affect the Structure and Functioning

Did you know in a national study of high school seniors, 76 percent said it was “extremely important” to have a good marriage and family life? Did you know a husband-wife family in the U.S. may spend as much as a third of their annual income on a child? Did you know that in 1948, nearly half of the public said there were some racial or ethnic groups with whom they would prefer not to work, including African Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Chinese, Jews, and Italians; in 1993 only 9 percent felt this way? Did you know in 1997, only 17 percent of households conformed to the traditional model of a wage-earning father, a stay-at-home mother, and one or more children? Did you know that nationwide, between 1986 and 1995, the rate of reported child abuse or neglect increased 49 percent, from 33 per 1,000 children to 46 per 1,000? Did you know that 43 percent of all U.S. first marriages end in divorce, compared to two out of five marriages in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden and one in ten in France and other European countries? Did you know that one out of three Americans is now a stepparent, stepchild, a stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily? These are just the beginning of a wealth of facts and ideas found in our textbook, Marriages and Families, by Nijole V. Benokraitis. In this paper, I will use supporting details from our text to discuss the different choices, constraints, and challenges that are faced in many different issues regarding the family and its ever-changing structure and functioning in contemporary American society.

In chapter 18 of our text, many shocking realities and hypotheses are discussed involving the future of the American family structure. It is stated that eventually variations in the family structure will increase in number and forms. It is believed that society will begin to see more families that are multigenerational and made up of unrelated adults, more stepfamilies, a high number of divorces and remarriages, and more legal rights regarding homosexuals which may lead to more household being headed by gays and lesbians. Though, despite all of these inevitable changes, there has been no evidence that the institution of marriage will be replaced. It is estimated that about 95 percent of Americans marry at least once and that the family is still considered to be the primary group to provide nurturance, love, and emotional stability in which people need to achieve happiness, healthiness, and productivity in life.

Marriage is the first issue I would like to discuss. Many of us in American society today choose to get married to people we love, to build families, and to expand our growth as human beings. Some young people delay it, older people get out of it, and some just skip it all together. The biggest stress on marriage in the late 20th century has been the transition from a clear-cut gender-based division of labor to a much less focused one or the “symmetrical family.” (Skolnick, 149-152) Men and women are now sharing roles that were once delegated to one sex or another. The old ideal has been hard to overcome, but as women have sought equal rights in regards to employment and social circumstances the shift has gotten a little easier and both men and women are shedding their old roles. Some positive things that can have been drawn out of marriage include that of married men and women having lower alcohol related problems and health risks then do divorced and widowed people. Men especially seem to reap health benefits from marriage and most experts believe this is because wives often monitor health behavior and also because marriage provides incentives for men to engage in less high-risk behaviors. Children growing up with both biological parents are likely to be more educated, have better job skills, seem to have a more secure sense of themselves, and thus enter adulthood with greater chances of success professionally and personally. (Skolnick, 151)

After marriage, parenthood becomes a new issue in itself for most couples. Most parents experience an unconditional love for their children because no aspect of childhood seems more natural, universal, and changeless than the relationship between parent and child. The shift from and agrarian to an industrial society over the past 200 years has revolutionized parent-child relationships and the terms of child development. Agrarian parents were not supposed to put an emphasis on emotional bonds or the value of their children as individuals; parents and children were bound by economic necessity and children were a needed source of labor as well as providers for the futures of their parents. Today, children are almost all economic liabilities, but are bound by emotions to their parents providing intimacy and genetic mortality between the parents. “Although today’s children have become economically worthless, they have become emotionally ‘priceless’.” (Skolnick, 186) Some constraints, as well as challenges, that the family must undergo when parenthood enters the picture (called the five domains of family life) include changes in identity and inner life, shifts in the roles and relationships within the marriage, shifts in three-generational roles and relationships, changing roles and relationships outside the family, and new parenting roles and relationships. What makes parenthood harder now is the more freedom of choice of whether or not to have children, more suburban communities rather than the rural settings of earlier, women’s changing roles in society, the increased emotional burden, and developing social policies by our government regarding children.

Racial and ethnic families are becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society. This issue is expected to continue growing due to factors such as immigration from abroad and higher fertility rates among African American, some Asian American, and Latino groups contribute to this change. The Population Reference Bureau (1990) states that people of color currently account for 24 percent of the U.S. population and are expected to increase to 30 percent by 2020. As minorities make up a larger share of the population and the labor force, they will have more influence on political, educational, and economic institutions in contemporary and future societies. It is believed that the 21st century may find young minorities working to support an older, white population if older white males continue to dominate and control the government and economy. Racial and ethnic tension may increase in the future because of this across generational lines. Overall, racial and ethnic communities are expected to grow and change in the 21st century. Interracial marriage has been increasing as well, particularly among African American men on the West Coast and second- and third-generation Asian Americans. Intergenerational conflict between children may be created when dating and marriage is incorporated across ethnic and racial lines. As children are becoming more assimilated, the conflict arises among their elders who may try to preserve and maintain ethnic traditions, language, and rituals. (Benokraitis, 508)

Families and work is another issue in contemporary American society. As the economy changes, a big impact is made on the family. Changes affecting the family include most families working harder than their parents did to maintain a modest standard of living and because of an increase in income inequality, poverty, and homelessness during the last 25 years. (Benokraitis, 357) Also, women today have a choice between being full-time homemakers and working outside of the home. According to evidence supported in our textbook, the rich are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the working class is barely surviving. All of these things are created based on the economic makeup of the family. Parents have a variety of economic roles when it comes to work including the two-person single career, househusbands, dual-earner families, trailing spouses, commuter marriages, and wives that may earn more than their husbands. A major constraint of families and work is need for workers for low-paying jobs and long hours and very few people are willing or able to work under these circumstances. (Benokraitis, 361) The major challenges that a working family must overcome include that of the marital quality and the spouse’s welfare and the children’s well-being. The choices that working family members must make to reduce strains on the family are extremely important. The textbook suggests emphasizing the positive, setting priorities, be ready to compromise, separate family and work, be realistic about your standards, organize domestic duties, cultivate a sharing attitude with your spouse, and try to maintain a balance between responsibilities and recreation.

Unfortunately family violence is also another issue facing today’s and future societies. Examples of family violence include marital rape, women who abuse men, elder abuse, and child abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual). Perhaps the worst form of family violence, incest presents major constraints of family or domestic violence. “Forcing or coercing a child into incest is probably one of the most devastating things an adult can do to a child.” (Benokraitis, 403) Unlike physical abuse, the scars may not be severe or permanent, but the psychological scars one can leave can last a lifetime. Unbelievably, some family members are aware of incest occurring in the family, yet do nothing about it. This is usually due to a number of myths including that people think children lie and may fantasize about incest, if the child is not coerced it is not incest, the incest is not harmful if the child is pleasured, the younger the victim the less traumatic, incest happens only in poor and unstable families, incest is usually punished by incarceration, a daughter takes part in incest out of hatred for mother, and a child can be seductive and thus is often responsible for the adult’s sexual arousal. (Benokraitis, 403) All of these things are UNTRUE. It is up to a parent to protect his/her child, not to harm them. The challenges of family violence is verifying accusations and then taking action to correct whatever wrong has been done. This presents a great deal of stress on the family and some families try to hide the violence within them to appear as if nothing is wrong to outsiders and to try to preserve the family that they do have instead of disrupting it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from marriage, we are presented with the issue of divorce. As divorce rates rise, it is being viewed less as a discrete event, but more as a part of a series of family transitions and changes in family relationships. Although the divorce rate doubled between 1960 and 1980, it has leveled off and even declined slightly in the past decade. It is estimated today that half of all marriages will end in divorce and 60 percent of those divorces with involve children. (Skolnick, 164) There are many causes of divorce including disengagement, stonewalling, contempt, denial, and blaming. When a family goes through a divorce, they face many changes and challenges in living situation, custody of children and co-parental relations, income/finances, and adjustment. The most important choice parents can make after the divorce is how they are going to relate with each other. If they end the relationship as perfect pals or cooperative colleagues, they increase the ability for the children to cope with the divorce a little easier. If parents end things as angry associates, fiery foes, or dissolved duos, the transition can be very emotionally draining for every member of the family. (Benokraitis, 427) Constraints of divorce include a few different types of divorces that have long-term effects on the children. These include the disappearing parent, the surprise divorce, the violent divorce, the late divorce, and the protect-the-kids divorce. (Benokraitis, 442) The challenge is being able to move on, accept differences between parents/spouses, and to maintain individual well-being. It is not easy, but because divorce has become more common, being able to overcome these challenges has become more important.

The final issue to be discussed in this paper involves that of marriage and divorce combined into one: remarriage and stepfamilies. This issue encompasses life after divorce and expanding families. As opposed to a first marriage, remarriages differ in several important ways. Role expectations are less defined and family members in remarriages may be a different point in their life cycles. The combination of people from different original families also may create certain kinds of problems and people who remarry may look specifically for partners that offer more than their first partners did. (Benokraitis, 458) Remarriage is very unique because it combines people from at least two families and requires certain process to be undergone including emotional remarriage, psychic remarriage, community remarriage, parental remarriage, economic remarriage, and legal remarriage. Remarriage and stepfamilies tend to be very complex depending on the number of people they involve within the new and old families. One change in today’s society regarding divorce and remarriage includes the new trend of “trophy wives.” Our textbook defines trophy wives as women who older, successful men remarry, replacing their older, loyal, and child-rearing wives. Usually, the trophy wives are younger, thinner, and boost the older man’s corporate image of being successful both professionally and sexually. Many challenges that a stepfamily must overcome involve the “Stepfamily Cycle.” The early stages deal with getting started without getting stuck, the middle stages deal with restructuring and the family, and the later staged deal with solidifying the stepfamily. An interesting choice that must be made within the stepfamily involves the sexual boundaries among family members. Only some states prohibit romantic relationships between non-biologically related members of a stepfamily, but the weakened incest taboo within the stepfamily makes the rules less clear. The problem with romantic relationships within the stepfamily is that they can create confusion, anger, and a sense of betrayal. (Benokraitis, 470)

Families are extremely complex units that are made of a variety of things; people, ethnicities, marriages, parents, violence, remarriages and stepfamilies. The amazing thing is that through time we can see these families grow and we can track distinct changes in American society. The progress we have already made has taken some time, but America has made great strides to move forward more every day to achieve that progress. Until the end of time, family structure and functioning will continue to change and evolve to meet the people of the time’s needs. As long as we move forward as well accepting any and all challenges, we will make progress within our own families as well.

Benokraitis, Nijole V. Marriages and Families: Changes, Choices, and Constraints. 3rd ed.

Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ. 1999.

Skolnick, Arlene S. and Jerome H. Family in Transition. 10th ed. Addison-Wesley

Longman, Inc., NY. 1999.


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