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Divorce in Todays Society

The Impact of Non-Traditional Families in the Twenty-First Century The image of the American family looks and functions very differently than families of the past few decades. Men and women raised in the 1950’s and 1960’s when programs such as “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” epitomized the average family, are likely to find themselves in situations that have changed dramatically. Research claims that many family structures are common: single-parent families, remarried couples, unmarried couples, step families, foster families, multi-generational families, extended families, and the doubling up of two families within the same home. Marriage, divorce, and patterns of childbirth are some of the factors that have contributed to these significant changes in families. With these changes comes the possibility of remarriage and the creation of new families which bring together parents and children without blood ties.

These are called “blended families” and are more prevalent today than thirty years ago because divorce rates are rising and remarriages are much more common (Mahoney 40). These issues are the major factors that have had an impact on the structure of the American family. Significant changes are occurring in marriage patterns in the United States. Individuals are postponing marriage until later in life and more people are choosing not to get married. Current statistics indicate that the marriage rate between 1970 and 1990 fell almost thirty percent (Ahlburg and DeVita 24). Compared with the 1960’s marriages have a shorter average duration. A smaller portion of a person’s life is actually spent in marriage, despite gains in life expectancy. In their research, Dennis Ahlburg and Carol DeVita describe an explanation for these facts: While these facts often lead to speculation that the institution of marriage is crumbling, the number of marriages that occurred throughout the 1980’s was at an all time high. Roughly 2.4 million marriages were performed each year during the past decade. A careful look at marriage trends reveals how marriage patterns are creating new lifestyles and expectations. (21) Another issue which reflects a change of the American family is the trend of divorce. While 2.4 million marriages occurred in 1990, 1.2 million divorces occurred during that same year (Andrew 51). The trend of divorce is certainly not new, but dissolving a marriage has definitely grown more common. In a recent classroom survey, 100% of the students in the classroom responded that either their parents or another family member had experienced a divorce. The rise of divorce rates can be seen as symptoms of erosion of the American family and American values.

Dennis Ahlburg and Carol DeVita contend that “Another way of looking at these statistics, however, is that Americans today place a higher value on forming successful marriages than did earlier generations” (25) The area where change is most apparent centers around patterns of child-bearing. Nearly one-fourth of all births in 1990 were to unmarried mothers (Mahoney 41). Because of the impact of economic stress, couples are also having fewer children. Projections by Decision Demographics show that married couples without children are likely to represent 43% of all families in 2000 if current trends in family formation remain the same (Andrew 50). A much higher percentage of children are also being raised in single-parent homes.

Demographer Larry Bumpass writes: About half of today’s young children will spend some time in a single-parent family…Furthermore, this is not just simply a transitional phase between a first and second marriage. The majority will reside in a mother-only family for the remainder of their childhood. (Boyd and Norris 15) The blended family and other step families of various configurations are becoming the standard issue. In fact, the government estimates that step families will outnumber traditional nuclear families by the year 2007. (Herbert 59) A more inclusive estimate of anyone in any kind of step relationship places the number of people who are steps at about 60% of the population (Stewart 19). In the U.S News and World Report article “When Strangers Become Family,” research by Dr. James Bray from a nine-year study for the National Institutes of Health cites the characteristics of successful step families and discusses the importance of daily communication between husband and wife to prevent and defuse potential problems. The other recommendation that Dr. Bray suggests is that the relationship between the new spouse and children be developed very slowly.

As a part of this research, Dr. Bray also lists the following types of step families and describes the characteristics and success rates of each (Herbert 60). Neo-Traditional Step families These families can be described as the most successful families in the nine-year study. The most striking characteristic of the neo-traditional family is that they take a very realistic and flexible approach to building a family. They accept that they are not a 1950’s version of a nuclear family and don’t try to be. This is also the type of family that after a few years most closely resembles the traditional nuclear family because of the level of intimacy and unconditional support of one another (60). Romantic Step families These families picture themselves as the idealized version of the nuclear family and do whatever they can to fit into that mold.

The results are usually negative as the main problem becomes their impatience to be seen as a traditional family so they push for things that should evolve slowly. For example, in most families, as kids become teenagers there is more time spent apart because teenagers prefer to spend time with their peers. Romantic step families, in direct contrast, spend a lot of time in forced camaraderie, and teenagers are especially quick to detect this falseness. These families also break up at much higher rate than other step families (62). Matriarchal Step families As the name suggests, in this type of step family the mother plays the dominant role. These families often occur when a single mom finally remarries. Since she is used to carrying the full parenting load, she will continue to do so.

These families are more successful when the new stepfather takes a less involved role, especially if the children are teenagers who are just beginning the process of distancing themselves from parental authority. Problems occur when the new father finds himself into a disciplinary role with which he is unfamiliar (66). A variety of studies have shown that there are a sizable number of step families that are not doing well at all. These studies demonstrate that step kids do more poorly on a variety of measures than do kids that live in a traditional, two-parent home, even with adjustments for income level.They are more apt to repeat a grade in school, have disciplinary problems, and drop out of school altogether (Stewart 7).

Studies collectively indicate that stepchildren do about as well as kids who live with a single parent, which remains much worse than kids in traditional nuclear families (Mahony 40). According to extensive research by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson of McMaster University in Ontario, stepchildren are more likely to be abused, both physically and sexually, and even more likely to be killed by a parent-one hundred times as likely-compared with kids being raised by two biological parents (Boyd and Norris). Another study confirms that stepchildren are less likely to go to college and to receive family financial support if they do (Herbert 62). The real reason that these families fare so poorly as a group is a matter of dispute. It’s widely accepted that kids from single-parent families have troubles usually because the parent, often the mother, has financial problems after a divorce. Facing these financial problems, the mother is more likely to be absent, physically or emotionally (Feifer 9). But as the research shows, remarriage doesn’t seem to eliminate all the problems.

One issue that is being studied is the differences in families that have a full-time stepmother versus those families with a stepfather. So far the research has shown that families with a full-time stepmother fare far worse than those with a stepfather (Herbert 62). It might be that step mothering is just more difficult, because the children’s bond with the biological mother is very powerful. For the most part, a man can be a good stepfather simply by being a provider and a “nice” guy, but a stepmother is usually called upon to establish empathy and attachment, traits that are very difficult to establish, and impossible to fabricate.

Other research shows that stepchildren are less likely to be provided for. Studies confirm that biological mothers around the world spend more family income on food-particularly milk, fruit, and vegetables-and less on tobacco and alcohol, compared with mothers raising non-biological children (63). Whatever the reasons, stepmothers and stepchildren are the losers in these reconfigured families. The issues surrounding step families have launched a conservative assault supporting the indictment of step families. This assault is fueled by the support of “evolutionary psychologists” who contend that parents have evolved over time to care only about the welfare of their own genetic offspring (Feifer 13).

These ideas are being used as a way to lobby for stronger “pro-family” social policies. If step families are so unnatural from a genetic point of view, they believe, then something should be done to preserve traditional families and to prevent divorce. This includes a number of resolutions for the “marriage movement” group such as pro-marriage tax policies to the so-called “covenant marriages” that are intended to make divorce (and remarriage) much more difficult (Herbert 66). Other social critics contend that if there is a genetic disposition that favors biological children it is only a predisposition and not destiny. To create social policies that keep unhappy families trapped in the same house would be wrong and much more risky psychologically than life in a step family (67). This view believes that what is necessary is not more stigmatizing of step families, but rather policies that strengthen step families and reduce any risks that might exist. Changes in legal status are a possibility that is being considered. Stepparents currently have almost no legal standing in most states.

This means that even when they assume responsibility for their stepchildren-emotionally or financially, for example-they have no corresponding rights. If the marriage ends, the stepparent has no legal standing to ask for custody or visitation. Stepchildren rarely have rights as well, for life insurance benefits, or if the marriage ends to continued support or inheritance. Many family experts are now trying to pass legislation that explicitly spells out both the rights and responsibilities of stepparents. The law would give stepparents that have been married to a child’s parent for at least two years the right to petition the court for a “residence order” which contains many of the same rights and responsibilities as the biological parents (66).

The theory is that giving the stepparent enhanced status will improve the legitimacy of this role in the family and in society. Ultimately, for all types of non-traditional families, the changes will only come from shifts in cultural prejudices. This kind of change will be slow, but there are signs that some preliminary movement is beginning to take place. One of the places this change is evident is in the marketplace. In a sign of the times, the Hallmark greeting card company recently launched a new line of cards devoted entirely to non-traditional families. The cards never use the word “step” but most of the “Ties That Bind” cards are clearly aimed at people that have come together by remarriage. All are aimed at the vast and growing group of people who don’t identify with the old definitions of family, and who are finding ways to make their new families work.

Ahlburg, Dennis and Carol J. DeVita. “New Realities of the American Family.” Population Bulletin. Aug. 1992: 20-28. SIRS. Family, 4, 96. Andrews, Jan. Divorce and the American Family. New York: Library of Congress Catalog, 1978. Boyd, Monica and Doug Norris. “Leaving the Nest? The Impact of Family Structure.” Canadian Social Trends. 15 Oct. 1995: 14-17. SIRS. Family, 5, 58. Feifer, George. Divorce: An Oral Portrait. New York: The New Press, 1995. Herbert, Wray. “When Strangers Become Family.” U.S. News and World Report 29 Nov. 1999: 59-67. Mahoney, Rhona. “Divorce, Non-traditional Families and Its Consequences For Children.” Leland Stanford. [email protected]. 20 Nov. 1997: 40-42. Stewart, Gail B. Teens and Divorce. San Diego: Lucent Books Inc., 2000.

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