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Sociology of the Family

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 17 - Family Strengths and the Future

The good news for fans of family relationships is that the family is here to stay. The family is by far the most enduring and central institution in society and has been throughout all human history. The family, in all its varieties and forms, is extremely salient to the United States as political, economic, religious, educational, and societal institutions that demand consideration by all members of society in the larger social and personal levels of family experience. Family homogeneity is a thing of the past.

Family diversity is the theme of the future. The formation, maintenance, and perpetuation of the family will, I predict, continue as it has for thousands of years. It will adapt itself to changing technologies and economies. It will adapt itself to religious and political influences. And it will adapt itself to scientific discovery. Most importantly, and I repeat myself, it will persist as long as humans persist.

World Values Surveys (WVS) of human values continue to document the selection of family issues as the most important value to people worldwide SOURCE . Billions continue on with traditions of tribal, monogamous, polygamous, matriarchal, and patriarchal family forms. Lesbian and gay couples continue to carve their niche into the mainstream of the various societies in which they live. Poor families, average families, and wealthy families continue to perform the core family functions and create another generation of adult children who will likely do the same by socially reproducing the next generation of fathers and mothers, husbands and wives. But, as the WVS pointed out, there appear to be two dimensions of understanding human diversity that context the cross-cultural experience world-wide:

"Much of the variation in human values between societies boils down to two broad dimensions: a first dimension of "traditional vs. secular-rational values" and a second dimension of "survival vs. self-expression values" (Retrieved 25 June 2014 from Catalogue of Findings).

The traditional family continues to pursue heterosexual families, often in the context of religious traditions, social institutions, gender roles, and patriarchy. The secular family may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, cohabiting, and/or follow a path of employment and career. This dichotomy of traditional v. secular is proving to be the most divisive issue in the United States since the Civil War SOURCE . The ongoing cultural and legal battle between traditionalists (heterosexual marriage only) secularists (many legally allowable diverse marriage structures) has consistently divided and increased contentious separation of followers in each camp. By the year 2021, the US will have emerged triumphant and proud of its resiliency and adaptability when social change challenges the core values and cohesiveness of the collective body, or it may find itself experiencing a cultural (metaphorical not literal) reconstructionist period. Either way, the US and world family will persist but will also be forever impacted by the battle for better or for worse.

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The General Social Surveys are a national survey of U.S. persons that has been conducted from 1972 to present (see www.norc.org, General Social Surveys). When asked if a girl's or boy's chances for a happy family life were better than yours, about the same, or worse than yours, of thousands of respondents, 19 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys said better, 45 percent and 48 percent said about the same, and 36 and 35 percent said worse (retrieved 13 May 2010 from SOURCE). Most see continuity and hope for the family of the future. In this complex society, over 1/3 responding with worry is understandable, especially for those who feel their preferred family form is threatened.

In the U.S., families are a source of satisfaction. When asked another question about how much satisfaction they get from their family life, 43 percent said a very great deal, 34 percent said a great deal, and 11 percent said quite a bit (retrieved 13 May 2010 from http://www.norc.org/GSS+Website/Browse+GSS+Variables/Subject+Index). That was with 24,070 respondents combine in the summary. When asked in general how satisfied they were with their family, 90 percent indicated satisfaction at some level (24% completely satisfied, 42% very satisfied, and 24% fairly satisfied; retrieved 13 May 2010 from SOURCE). In the U.S., most are hopeful and most find family to be a satisfying aspect of their lives.

A more recent report by the Pew Research Center found that the youngest generation of adults is slowly pursuing the goal of traditional marriage in comparison to those in older generations that preceded them. For example, the 18-32 year olds in the youngest generation (Millennials) only had 26 percent who had married while the Gen X generation had 36 percent; the Baby Boomer generation had 48 percent; and the oldest generation Silent) had an enormous 65 percent already married (retrieved 25 June 2014 from "Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends" Resist Family Entropy Original 7 March 2014).

The same report identified the less religious and traditional aspects of the Millennial generation. Unlike the older secularist in society, the younger less-traditional Millennials are grounded on digital technology, surrounded by like-minded people connected together in digital networks, and much less trusting of those around them and society than the older generations proved to be. You likely belong to the Millennials. How do you compare to them? How will their family structures and function compare to those of the previous generations?

You, like many others, will chose a lifestyle that includes a family in one form or another. If so, what can be done to strengthen the family in your own home? Figure 1 lists research-based efforts you and your family members can put forth to strengthen your family in coming years. Let's discuss these points in detail. Ever wonder why Grandma or Mom keeps asking you to attend the family picnic or reunion? What might they know that you don't know? Even though it feels annoying at times, when you do attend, why are you glad you did? Perhaps your mom and grandma know that family rituals, traditions, and holidays are the way to build a connection between generations, to create new memories, and to keep family traditions alive.

Figure 1. Strategies and Efforts That Strengthen a Family.
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Nuclear and extended families have in the past celebrated together and should do so in the future. Scientists have found that reunions and celebrations tend to promote cohesion and adaptability in family systems while offering mutual support between nuclear and extended family members. Rituals are very important to the family. These can be as simple as eating three meals a day together, holding weekly movie parties, buying fresh doughnuts on Saturday morning, or reading to small children at bedtime. Rituals when practiced come to be expected. The ritual of taking driver's education and obtaining a driver's license is a common experience. For many family members, it marks a Rite of Passage, or an event that signifies the transition of a person from one stage in life to another (e.g., non-driver to driver).

Religion and Spirituality

When a new driver emerges among the teen children, a new taxi driver emerges as well. Siblings can transport family members around town and provide the entire family with much-needed support. A first date, high school or college graduation, and even marriage are also rituals that serve as rites of passage. There are rituals that take place outside of the family institution that are also important. Religious rituals are found among the world's major religions. Religion is a unified system of beliefs, rituals, and practices that typically involve a broader community of believers who share common definitions of the sacred and the profane. Religions provide meaning to us about what is sacred and what is profane. Sacred is the supernatural, divine, awe inspiring, and spiritually significant aspects of our existence. Profane is that which is part of the regular everyday life experience. These definitions originated from Durkheim's studies of religion (see The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1947, Glencoe Press reprint of 1912). For you religion might be a personal definition of how you feel about your place in the universe. It may also reflect how you understand categories of people who share a common system of beliefs that differ from your own (Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc.).

For sociologists, religion is studied in two typical approaches: first, a cultural approach that evaluates the religious aspects of the culture shared by followers of a certain religion, and second, the theoretical approach to religion including its symbols, functions, exchange-based interactions, and power issues. Religion has always been an important issue at both levels of society -- personal and larger social. Figure 2 shows a pie chart of the CIA's 2010 estimate of the world's composition of religious followers (These estimates were retrieved in 2014, but were only available for the year 2010).

Figure 2. World Percentage of Major Religions: Ranked in Descending Order Clockwise *
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*Taken from Internet on 16 May, 2014 SOURCE

By far, Muslims collectively comprised the largest single religious belief system in the world in 2010. Over the last century, birthrates among Muslims have remained high. By sheer numbers alone, a high birthrate among an estimated 1,300,000,000 people makes birth become a significant factor in the Muslim world growth rate. A less common factor is that in many Muslim nations polygamy continues to be the norm with 1-4 wives being acceptable. Next is the Roman Catholic Church, which has strong membership in Western Europe, Latin America, the United States and other countries and regions. Hindus, which are primarily located in India, come in a close third. Jews, which are daily discussed in the news because of international issues pertaining to Israel, are ranked 12th most common in the world.

Figure 3 shows a pie chart of US religions which coincides with other data. In 2012 the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies produced its 2010 US Religion Census: "Religious Congregations & Membership Study" (see http://www.rcms2010.org/press_release/ACP%2020120501.pdf ).This study’s findings reported that 150,686,156 people belong to a formal religion in the US with 344,894 congregations in which they belong. They reported that: about 50 million belonged to evangelical and conservative protestant groups; nearly 23 million belonged to mainline protestant groups; about 60 million belonged to the Roman Catholic church; nearly 5 million belonged to Black Protestant groups; 6 million belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons); and nearly 8 million belonged to other groups SOURCE.

Figure 3 US Percentage of Major Religions: Ranked Clockwise in Descending Order*
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*Taken from Internet on 26 March 2007 from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2122.html

By far the Roman Catholic Church has the single largest number of followers in the US. In contrast to the Protestant classification, which is comprised of many diverse denominations, the Roman Catholic Christian Church is comprised of only one denomination headquartered in Rome, Italy. The Roman Catholic population in the US has grown for two primary reasons: first, Roman Catholics continue to have higher birthrates than others (yet about the same for Mormons and Catholics); and second, many of our US immigrants since the 1980s come from Mexico and bring their Catholicism with them to the US.. 2007 Estimation of Percentage of United States

The importance of the history of various religions in the world and US cannot be overstated in terms of the religiously-motivated treatment and mistreatment of other human beings in the name of religion. Given the peaceful nature of most of the major religions it is paradoxical to have so many: religiously-based wars, genocides, population transfers, conquest, and other forms of large-scale aggression, which have transpired throughout history. In the Race and Minority Chapter we learned about prejudice and the goal of finding common ground in building bridges and overcoming prejudices. With religions this is particularly difficult to apply.

Many of us believe very deeply in our religious convictions. We change and alter our lifestyles and desires because we believe that our hope, salvation, or existence will be made better because of our sacrifices. It's understandable that we are deeply devoted and passionate. But, we also tend to believe that we belong to the exclusively right or correct faith and that all others are mistaken and perhaps going to hell. Some religious fanatics believe so strongly in the damnation of non-believers that they feel justified in killing others as an act of so called, "saving other people from themselves." This explains in part the rationale of the religiously based conflicts in our current and historical experiences.

The Roman Catholic population in the U.S. has grown for two primary reasons: first, Roman Catholics continue to have higher birth rates than others (yet about the same as Mormons and Catholics), and second, many of our U.S. immigrants since the 1980s come from Mexico and bring their Catholicism with them to the U.S. Also from the CIA data is the fact that about 12 percent were unaffiliated, 4 percent reported no religion, and 3 percent chose not to specify their religion. After that, Mormons were next, with nearly 2 percent. Mormons have a very high birth rate and a strong force of proselytizing missionaries throughout the U.S. and the World.

In fact, religion does shape the attitudes and values of individuals. Gallup Polling Corporation collected US religiosity data during 2008. Religiosity is the measurable importance of religion to a person's life. Religiosity can be measured by considering: how active someone feels in their religion; how often someone attends formal services; how much money they donate; how often they privately worship in their home; and other factors.

Gallup in January 28, 2009 reported that after interviewing 350,000 US individuals, there were some collective religiosity patterns that emerged. According to a recent Gallup Poll released in 2014 there were 11 states that were ranked as being the "Most religious based on percent claiming to be very religious" ( Retrieved 19 June 2014 from "Mississippi Most Religious State, Vermont Least Religious Average religiousness of states continues to range widely" SOURCE. The states reporting the highest percent very religious were (in order): Mississippi, 61; Utah, 60: Alabama, 57; Louisiana, 56; South Carolina, 54%; Georgia, 52%; Arkansas, 51; North Carolina, 50; Oklahoma and Kentucky, each at 49 percent. You may have noticed that 10 of the 11 states were in the Southeastern region of the United States.

The history of religions in the world and the U.S. cannot be overstated in terms of the influence that formal religions exert of family systems. There are numerous religious rituals, including circumcision, blessing a newborn, baptism, rites of passage into womanhood or manhood, ancestral ceremonies, religious holiday observances, marriage, a solo quest of self-discovery, new years, festivals and commemorations of religious founders and gods, public reading of scripture or other forms of worship, and many other practices.

Statistically, the most celebrated world holidays are Christmas and then Ramadan. Christmas is the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth (about 2+ billion). Ramadan is the holy month of fasting and worship adhered to my Muslims worldwide (about 1.4 billion). Jews celebrate Pesach or the Feast of the Passover (about 120+ million). Hindus celebrate Hana Matsuri or the birth of Gautama the Buddha (about 700+ million see this April 2014 report by Pew for more details SOURCE ).

There are many more religious holidays, but suffice it to say that religiously based family rituals are often a source of strength to families who use them for tradition and family cohesion. Many families also have spiritual rituals independent of formal religion. There are family fasts, family prayers in behalf of others, family offerings made in hopes of receiving blessings, and family outings designed to get family members in touch with nature and the forces of peace and creation.

Family History

One tradition utilized by many families is that of oral histories. My family, when together for a reunion, will tell stories as a form of entertainment and bonding (Jeff Foxworthy started out in his family doing the same thing). I have many stories about my parents when they were children and about my own childhood and young adult experiences. What surprised me was how interested my own children were in them. As a young father, I was certain my children would roll their eyes if ever I shared one. One day, my wife asked me a question about growing up in Georgia. I shared a few humorous stories. She enjoyed them (one of the reasons I married her is that she thinks I'm funny as a comedian). I never dreamed my children would, but I have been a hit with my own children, who repeat my stories to their friends at times. I want to share one story with you to illustrate this point.

Just before cancer took my grandfather, Frank, I found myself in his backyard helping him with his chores. He was showing me his hybrid corn that had 16 rows of kernels on extremely large cobs. We shucked the corn as the sun set behind us and the cool evening breeze blew in. Grandpa knew I loved to fish, so he asked me if I'd ever heard about the world record catfish he caught when he was a young man. When I told him I hadn't heard about that one, he sent my Granny into the house get the photo album while he began to tell me his story. He said,

"When I was 17 I heard tell of the monster catfish that swam the bayous of Louisiana. My two buddies and me went down there to see if there was any truth to the tales. We drove for nearly a day, with three hours of it being on the dirt roads between swamps, with snakes and alligators in every ditch. When we got to the bait-and-tackle store, it was the end of the road. We rented a flat-bottom wooden boat with deep-sea fishing rigs mounted to it. At about midnight, we started out into the bayou."
"The store owner had told us the way back into the deep waters of the swamp. We spent most of that night swattin' mosquitoes and shewin' bats. Not one bite all night long. Just as dawn broke, a thud vibrated through the entire boat that woke up my buddies. My pole bent over so far I thought it'd break for sure. We pulled up anchor and reeled in the other two lines. We'd caught a fish! That monster drug our boat all over the swamp, scratchin' us into thorn bushes and trying to break the line around tree stumps. Five hours passed before we got that catfish alongside the boat. I wore him out, but he made me pay for it. I still got scars in my hands from the blisters. I could never have done it alone. It was the three of us working together like a team that beat him."
"Well, anyway, he was too big to pull into the boat, so we shot him in the head until he quit flippin' around so much. We took the anchor chain from the boat and run it through his gills, makin' sure he didn't somehow fall off our boat and disappear into the swamp. We wanted to show everybody what we'd caught. At six that night we rowed back up to that bait-and-tackle shop and they'd been waitin' for us to see if they needed to go call the sheriff for a rescue. They all pitched in and we finally got that catfish up on a tow line and hoisted him up on a deep-sea fish scale. He was a new world record fish."

Of course at this point I asked, "How much did it weigh, Grandpa?" He grinned and said, "I ain't sure anymore with my memory bein' bad and all. But he was so big that the picture they took of him came in at a weight of 32 pounds." I do hope you enjoyed that tale. "'Twasn't true," my Grandpa would say after everyone stopped laughing. My Granny was in on this too. She would go into the house to pretend to get a picture of it to help with building the suspense. Two weeks after we shucked, boiled, and ate that corn on the cob, Grandpa passed. This story was my last experience with him, and it seemed to be just what he and I needed to say our good-byes to one another. As of this writing, my Granny is still alive. She was 96 in 2010, legally blind and mostly deaf, but clear in her mind and thinking as anyone my age.

She has challenged me to outlive her someday, and I'm planning on doing it. My Granny was a factory mill girl, working with her hands, a laborer who toiled for decades in a mill that no longer exists. She was a World War I widow. One of my favorite stories she ever told was about how her grandfather hid a family of "black folk" who were former slaves in his own wagon and drove a team of horses clear up into Tennessee, where sympathetic people would help them escape the KKK. My Granny was the matriarch of the family and the glue that held three generations of family together during wars, divorces, premature deaths, lost jobs, and many other challenges. She has lived long enough to experience what in her words is "the hardest thing life has to offer," the death of all but one of her children. Her stories are the stories I tell. She eventually died after living to be 101 years old.

Telling stories has become a lost art in some families. Professionals tell stories, and there are even storytelling festivals around the U.S. if you'd like to go. But for your family, you would be the best storyteller because your children and grandchildren would feel connected to the characters since they were part of their own ancestral heritage. By the way, if you are one of the last survivors of the generation the story is told about, who will know if you embellished a bit for entertainment purposes? I get away with that all the time.

All of us have an ancestral heritage. Family History is the process of documenting and cataloging one's own ancestral heritage. Millions of family members worldwide have begun personal family histories to pass down to their children and grandchildren. It is easy to start. You simply write down your birth date and place and your parents' names, birth dates, and places. Then, write down your mother's parents' birth dates and death dates if they apply. Ask your parents to provide you with names, dates, and places of your grandparents. Got any photographs or newspaper clippings? It tells a better story and means a bit more if you can visualize your ancestors and what they looked like.

Years ago, I read that Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey had a DNA test performed to discover their genealogical heritage at the biological level. I saved my money and went to the same website and ordered a DNA test of my own SOURCE. All it took was a cheek swab (no needles) that I mailed back into the company. Within six weeks I discovered the geographic origin of my particular ancestral line. Most of my genes came from the people who lived in the British Isles (British, Scottish, and Irish). About 20 percent came from the Middle East and about 12 percent came from Southeast Asia. I was very surprised to know about the Middle East and the Asia connection (this test is 95 percent accurate and can be submitted as legal evidence if needed).

I had heard from my parents that I was one-thirty-second Cherokee Indian, which was a source of great pride for me. But my results indicated that in fact there were no Native American genetic markers in my DNA. My son was 7 at the time of my test. He nearly cried when he discovered he was not even a part American Indian. The next day, he came back from school excited because when he told his teacher he was part Asian, she informed him that China was part of Asia. He loved China, and knowing that he might be related to the Chinese helped him to feel cool again. Parents who share stories with their children help them to form their developing identities.

On the Internet, genealogy and family history searches account for the many Internet search topics today (retrieved 25 June 2014 SOURCE ). Family history buffs can trace their ancestors back to the 1500s before records become sparse. After the 1500s, only European royalty have such records. There are a number of family history websites to help you get started if you decide to do so (go to ancestry.com for one of the largest and most comprehensive sites). Many who study and write down their family history share it with their children and grandchildren, creating bonds of unity that span the generations. If you have absolutely no family records or photos, start a shoe box for your own family with newspaper clippings, photos, and dates and places. Who knows, someday this might bond your own descendants to you.

Quality Family Time

Another key strategy is spending quality time together as a family. Work, school, friends, recreation, and entertainment exact a tremendous toll on family cohesion and adaptability, because they distract them from taking time to simply be together. Family members need time together, not just doing electronic stuff, but being bored, doing chores, cleaning, or even cooking together. When we get bored, we get talkative and start opening up to one another. We then get an idea of what's going on in each other's life and become aware of the details that make us who we are. We know each other's hopes and fears, concerns, and aspirations. Watching TV together is time spent together. Sometimes that works perfectly for certain family members. Other times, conversation and interaction are needed to reinforce loyalties and affirmations of one another.

As mentioned before, doing mundane household tasks is a practical way to create a socially interactive moment. During the 1980s and 90s, as more and more women entered college and the labor force, a great deal of literature focused on which was best, quality or quantity time in the family. In other words, was it better to have truly meaningful and briefer time or was it better to have average meaning and more time? The answer was simple: yes to both. Husbands and wives, partners, parents, and children all need time together, and in today's busy lifestyles it will not happen unless you are purposeful about it. It simply takes time to experience family relationships.

All of the rituals, traditions, holidays, and spiritual approaches mentioned above are valuable because of the intimate bond that persists between family members. Work diligently to nurture and reestablish that bond throughout your life. The concept of marital entropy was presented in an earlier chapter wherein couples have to work diligently against the forces of decay and chaos that wear down their marital bond. Here, I want to mention that Family System Entropy is the process of decay within a nuclear family system that is facilitated by the diverse roles and demands placed on family members as they travel their life courses together. Children are very close to their parents before their teen years. It is essential to connect with children and establish a strong bond before they hit age 13.

Around the time of puberty, rational thinking processes mature, self-consciousness increases, and the importance of peer acceptance increases. All this happens while teens prefer their friends over their family, especially over their parents. That is not to say that teens hate their parents. Typically the opposite is true -- they need their parents -- but they crave peer acceptance and interaction. After your children hit this point in their maturation, it is crucial to become friends with their friends, to know their friends' names, feed them (I know), and host them in your home. Accepting your teens' friends increases your bond to your teens.

Of course you wouldn't accept a destructive friend who might influence your child in self-destructive ways. Most teens are not like that anyway. Here's a suggestion that my wife and I did that may help you. Just before your children turn 12, take them on a special parent-child trip. It doesn't matter where, but it works great if it's a place they'd really like to visit. Get sitters for the other children and make this a special getaway, where your child gets a special time in which they bond and make memories with their parents. In our family, it became a big deal, with each child looking forward to their turn.

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We went to Alaska to pan gold, San Diego to Sea World, Washington D.C. to the National Mall, San Jose to watch whales out in the bay, Seattle to see the city and drive to Mount St. Helens, and Jacksonville to attend sporting events and spend time on the beach. Yes, we have six children (5 boys and 1 girl). As a parent, I truly enjoyed this quality time and it established patterns of being close to each child that pay great dividends now that the youngest three are all teenagers. Throughout the life course, it requires efforts on every family member's part to renew and nurture the bond of connectedness.

Make sure to control your technology and don't let it control you. Remember that technology demands attention. While you use it, your attention is distracted from people. Experts have even found that driving while talking on the cell phone impairs your judgment because you are distracted mentally from the details of driving. The same is true for being distracted by TV, video games, texting, GPS, Blue Tooth, MP3 & IPod, and the computer. It is safe to assume that all our electronic gadgets are a distraction to us and they have the potential to undermine our relationships if not managed. Some families declare a techno-free day on which all the electronic gadgets are turned off for 24 hours and family together time is shared.

Resist Family Entropy

By far and with few exceptions, the marital bond is the core of a nuclear family system. Married couples are decidedly better off than singles in a number of key quality-of-life areas. Table 1 shows the benefits to marrieds (same as in chapter 9). Couples may not be aware of how much their quality of life is enhanced by being married. Awareness in this case hopefully will bring a strong commitment to resist marital entropy (couples have to work diligently against the forces of decay and chaos that wear down their marital bond). The family system functions much better when the married heads of the family have strength and unity in their marriage.

Table 1. Ten Benefits of Being Married in Contrast to Being Single
  • Better physical and emotional health
  • more wealth and income
  • Positive social status
  • More and safer sex
  • Lifelong continuity of intimate relationships
  • Safer circumstances for children
  • Longer life expectancy
  • Lower odds of being crime victims
  • Enhanced legal and insurance rights and benefits (tax, medical, and inheritance)
  • Higher self-reported happiness

Figure 4 shows the metaphor of "the escalator" as it relates to marriage. I will discuss the remainder of the efforts that strengthen the family as I focus specifically on how to strengthen the marriage. The forces that work against marriage in our complicated daily lives are like an escalator that is always descending. As a couple we walk upward, united against these forces. At the top of the escalator is marital strength. At the bottom is marital chaos and decay. If we don't purposefully work to improve our marriage and to resist the downward and decaying forces that work against it being resilient, adaptable, strong, and pleasurable, then we may find ourselves sadly disappointed at our marriage's final destination. When couples decide to end a marriage, they could if so desired chose to get back on the escalator and try to rescue their relationship (Google "Divorce Busters"). But it is the small, daily supportive and preventative efforts that work better, long before things have fallen apart for the couple. A marriage is never truly lost if each spouse is sincerely making a go at staying together and improving things. The best literature on marital permanence and quality indicates that it must be intentional, concerted, and purposeful.

Figure 4. The Efforts Couples Can Make to Resist Entropy and the Forces that Bring Decay to Their Marriage
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Look to the right side of Figure 3 and notice the stressors that come with being parents, employed, and related to extended family. Couples in their 40-50s face tremendous burdens from these areas. They have teens and young adults, expenses and startup cost for their children, and their own middle lives. The burdens are very heavy during this stage of parenting, even though things may lighten in a matter of months once children start leaving home and forming their own families. If couples were prudent with their finances and refused to spend the equity in their homes and cars, they could easily find themselves relatively free to do many things they'd like to do.

But many couples spend a bit more than they make and sometimes pin themselves down with debts that came with a more luxurious lifestyle than the couple could afford. We work hard for our money, but work has become more and more stressful. During recent recession-based efforts to reduce expenses, many companies fired or laid off employees and never replaced them. They simply shifted the fired person's duties to others who were still working. Thus, more work is expected with the same or less pay.

If a couple does not strategize diligently against it, the numerous demands on their time and energies can land them in a long-term fatigued state. Once exhausted, they find it very difficult to nurture their marriage, because they are running on an individual deficit. Add to this the fact that in the middle years, health declines settle in on the husband and wife. These declines could be met in a united effort and adjusted to the same way so that they strengthen rather than undermine the relationship.

Extended family may be a blessing or a curse. Or, most of the extended family may be a blessing while a relatively small portion of the family may be the curse. I know an elderly couple with a daughter in prison. They are in their 80s and are raising their grandchild, more like the grandchild's parents than her grandparents. I also know of a friend my age whose father is disabled and whose mother suffers dementia. He and his wife are moving closer to his parents' home to assume the role as caregivers, even though they still have children at home. Some of these extended family matters can be ignored or refused as far as an added burden. Others make the couple seriously consider their values and eventually lead to more responsibility for one or both spouses (typically the wife).

Electronic distractions can be avoided if that is the couple's desire. If family members are not careful, these can interfere with resolving critical issues or renewing bonds. Some couples who have issues about their sexual relationship may use TV or other electronic distractions as a tool in the effort to avoid dealing with those issues. I remember when Johnny Carson did the Late Show, a psychologist studied how couples who stayed up late to watch him felt too tired for sex by the end of the show. The article claimed that Johnny was interfering with married couple's sex lives. Outside the bedroom, video games, online entertainment, movies, texting, and other electronic distractions can keep us apart by demanding our undivided attention.

For husbands and wives, the concept of parallel lives may be a crucial factor to understand. You see, when newlyweds marry and go through college they set a goal to get a good job, have children and raise them, buy a house, and get a retirement going. For many couples this takes place as planned. But for some, they get lost once the plans are in motion. He is the main breadwinner and is absorbed in his work. She works for pay as well and is the mother, focusing her energies in those two arenas of life. Yeah, they sleep in the same bed, but they begin to live lives that are heading in the same direction but are on different tracks -- his work versus her work and home life. They travel parallel lives in the same direction and for the same long-term goals. If not careful, they begin to grow apart and feel like strangers -- like they were driving on the West and East frontage roads that parallel the freeway. Strange as it may appear, some couples set out on a lifelong journey to reach a destination yet fail to remain a team and sometimes decide not to continue on together or even to the original destination.

Marriages and families can be neglected without us even realizing it. Have you ever walked into your garage and found that years of careless storage and unfinished projects had piled up to create an unmanageable mess? I have. Our modern family lives are often like a cluttered garage. Sometimes when we get into the motion of daily-life activities and goals we fail to realize that we as a family are overscheduled and are putting money, time, and effort into things that may not be worth it. Sometimes it is wise to sit down and assess what all the family is doing and if it really is in sync with the goals and aspirations of individuals and the family as a whole.

Some of our family members' activities are pursued with little thought to the family down-time needs and the marital renewal needs. Much of this clutter could be canceled, allowing those valuable family resources to be allocated to a slower-paced yet more connected nuclear family. It is easier than one might think to reduce the complexity of our family schedules to a more reasonable level. Distractions that may or may not contribute to the long-term goals of individuals and the family as a whole can be eliminated or reduced with thoughtful planning. I know of a family that bought a new truck, boat, and trailer because sometimes the family ended up camping and boating together. Eventually the father and mother decided that with the maintenance, licensing, payments, and storage, it was easier in the long-term to rent the boat for a day or two than to own it. They de-cluttered their yard and their lives and saved money.

Family life is prone to crises because we deeply care about our family and what hurts one family member may be felt by all family members. Each of us has faced crises and will again. A crisis can unite a family if they have the capacity to adapt and remain cohesive. So many families struggle to do that because their lives are weighed down by superfluous activities. As mentioned in previous chapters, the family has to rally resources and garner support when a crisis happens. For some, the crisis will force them to simplify their family demands in order to make it. For others, the crisis may render the family system fragile and easily damaged by other life stressors.

Grudge holding can be very destructive to relationships. Truly forgiving another family member or friend relieves the victim who was wronged from the burden of being a victim. I heard a man talk about his younger brother who fell asleep at the wheel and the car rolled off the road, killing his father. It took nearly a decade for all the family to forgive and forget when truly this was a case of misjudgment and carelessness rather than a criminal act. The impact the grudge-holding had on the brother is still haunting him to this day. Sometimes, even when mean intention was part of the offense, growth will only come after the grudge is let go. When a grudge is held, the perpetrator is still the perpetrator and the victim is in the victim role. Many survivors find freedom in releasing the offender from the role of being the offender by forgiving him or her and by choosing to move on with life.

Ultimately the family that sits down together and annually creates a goal that is written and posted for everyone to see on a regular basis has the direction needed to eliminate unnecessary burdens on the family. For example, the family that sets a goal to spend every other weekend in an activity that will allow them to spend time together, building bonds that endure, may decide to forgo the season tickets to a professional team in exchange for more quality down-time together. Conversely, the family who anticipates the departure of a high school senior to college may purchase the season tickets if it meets the family goal of experiencing the joy of supporting the team one last season together. Extraneous activities can be kept or dismissed. Careful planning can keep them from continuing without notice or consideration for their impact on the family system.

Third-party distractions occur when unexpected intruders crash the family routines. It could be as simple as a telemarketer or survey taker calling during meal time. It can be a friend of one of the family members who regularly drops by to "hang out." It can be family, coworkers, or other associates who might do just as well at your house or somewhere else. It is acceptable to set boundaries for limiting interrupters so that they don't undermine the efforts at meeting the needs of the family. There are those who interrupt who feel entitled to do so and could care less about the impact their presence may have on the family. Again, it is acceptable to set clear boundaries, even if it takes a stronger effort to do so.

In the U.S. and other societies, there are persons who feel that if they want something they have the right to get it regardless of the impact it may have on family members. At the extreme, abusers are this way. For most, the issue of entitlement is less sinister than abuse. A family member may want to make purchases he or she cannot afford and thereby strap the family with debt. A person may want to portray a status that is pretended more than real and may sacrifice family stability to do so. For example, there is the country club member who can't pay the bills because he or she is living on the salary of a doctor when they have only the income of a school teacher. Family members as individual consumers are nurtured in their entitlement by eager marketers who lure them into financially unsustainable circumstances. Entitlement values continuously land family members into trouble, because accountability eventually catches up in one form or another.

Now let's look at the positive efforts a couple can do to resist the decay of their marriage (left side of Figure 3). Couples should date regularly. Plan dates together and sacrifice less-important activities so that there is ample time to go out and enjoy each other as friends. Some suggest a weekly date while for others a bi-weekly or monthly date is more meaningful. I urge any of my students with children to at least get an overnighter date in once every 3-4 months. Getting away to be a couple can be extremely rejuvenating. Courtship does not have to end after the wedding. True, when you were single you courted with the eventual goal to "catch someone" and settle down. Courting for marrieds is more of a "keeping someone" and enjoying life effort that makes the journey together more meaningful. A self-help book such as The Five Love Languages (Gary Chapman) can be a valuable tool in helping you know how best to speak the language of love as you try to most efficiently continue a courtship with your spouse (you can take a free online test).

Daily couple time is crucial. It is acceptable to go to bed even while others are awake in the house. Once there, pillow talk, next-day planning, and do-nothing time can be very supportive of the relationship. This is one effort you can use to protect and nurture your sex life. With all the forces of entropy and stress bearing down on the couple, it is easy to put sex and the renewal that accompanies it to the side. Many have documented the value of protecting that time and expression together, even as though it is sacred time. Whatever distracts, fatigues, annoys, or interferes with needed sexual expression should be evaluated and managed so that needs and wants can be met and bonds can be reestablished. Part of this is the ongoing romance of one another. Couples who are committed to sex and romance find ways to show and speak their love far away from the marriage bed and beyond the sexual interactions they enjoy.

One might do the tasks of the other during the week in order to express love and support. Another might bring home a flower or treat. Still another might cancel plans to just spend time together when needed. Romance burns as bright and hot as we want it to burn. It can be kindled and renewed and for some couples can lead to healing from deep issues and wounds. Sexual intimacy is simultaneously healing and bonding spiritually, socially, emotionally, and physically. Family and work stressors can minimize or eliminate this marital benefit if left unchecked.

It may perhaps be the best advice one could ever give to newlyweds: Learn how to forgive and forget. (This ties directly back to refusing to continue as a victim and move on with life). Every spouse has mortal flaws. Every spouse will suffer to one degree or another because of the inconsideration and/or misbehavior of the other. Forgiveness makes it possible to work through these issues together, learn from them, and move on with renewed cohesion. Forgiveness is an act of grace wherein the offender is held harmless by the offended spouse in matters of the offense. Forgiveness is not pretending that an offense never occurred. Forgiveness works best after the offense is considered and resolved to the satisfaction of both spouses.

Tracking is not forgiveness. There are some who claim to forgive, yet they keep a mental record of current and past offenses. Tracking the offenses of a spouse means that you document and remember the offensive behavior and others like it and regularly bring past "forgiven" issues back up as though they just occurred and were never dealt with.Tracking can build an entire "case" against a spouse so that he or she feels overwhelmed and hopeless about working through the problem. To hold the grudge or refuse to let the memory of an offense fade is to interfere with recovery efforts in the marriage.

One who is offended may chose to remain a victim and by so doing create a long-term perpetrator out of the other spouse. Victims can assume some of the blame or none of it at all. In other words, he can say, like one of my students said in a class, "My wife cheated on me with my brother. I had nothing to do with it." When confronted by another student about some of the comments he made about women being untrustworthy, he also confessed that he and his wife and brother were using heroine at the time and were addicts. "But my wife left me and is now married to my brother," he argued.

"You can't grow if you can't learn from your own mistakes," added a single mother of three. She explained, "My ex-husband beat me down every day in one form or another. I finally got up the courage to leave him, and the police had to keep him from killing me. After I was finally divorced and safe, I learned in therapy that I'm not responsible for his violence. But I had to acknowledge the fact that I chose him as my spouse and I chose to stay with him for a long time after his violence became known to me. Once I owned up to that much, I could change how and who I chose for an intimate relationship."

"Wow!" I sat listening to her as she instructed the student whose wife had married his brother. I felt amazed for her wisdom at such an early age in life. She told him to quit being a victim, forgive, and move on. She is correct in saying that he has to decide what if anything he can do to avoid repeating such a scenario in the future.

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As I've mentioned in other chapters, I am a huge fan of written goals, of taking good ideas and turning them into tangible expectations. "A goal unwritten is just a good idea," one of my very successful college buddies told me when I asked him how he came to make so many millions of dollars in his twenties. Then he and his wife set a goal, they put it on the fridge and in the bathrooms and the entire family worked together to attain it.

Seeking consensus and finding common goals is a unity-building activity that yields direction to the family as a whole and to the individual family members. For example, a family may consult together and set a goal to save their money by cutting back on the extras. Once enough money is saved, they would then take a high-canopy rain-forest tour in Costa Rica. To remind everyone of the goal and to inform them of the progress, they might put a sheet of paper on the fridge that keeps an ongoing record of their money saved and the remaining funds needed. Such a goal and effort would create a wonderful and uniting family outing even as the family escaped some of the stresses of everyday life.

Stress is very common in U.S. families today. Stress has a deadly physiological influence on individuals and families. The economic standards we set for our lifestyles require tremendous sacrifice and effort to attain. Parents and spouses have to exert leadership in minimizing unnecessary stressors and in coping with unavoidable ones. Stress can render the flexibility and adaptability of a family into dysfunctional levels. Many families eliminate the nonessentials. Others ensure that the family gets renewal time at the individual and family systems levels. Like goals, a family can discuss stress, family values, and stress management strategies. These too can be written and displayed to remind family members about strategies.

Once stress levels are too high, conflict and tension levels go up. This often leads to hurt feelings and heartache. John Gottman (2004) wrote of accepting bids. To Gottman a Bid is an effort in repair or reinforcing the spousal relationship that is extended in good will from one spouse to another. Accepting a spouse's bid is highly associated with strong marriages (see John Gottman, www.gottman.com and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, NY: Three Rivers Press).

Judith Wallerstein also wrote about the ability a strong married couple has to support and nurture one another and to manage the daily wear and tear on the marriage and family (with Sandra Blakeslee, The Good Marriage, 1995, Warner Books). Rescuing one another is one of the duties and benefits that come with marriage. Today the husband may help her get through difficult times. In a few years she may reciprocate and support him. The key is to take the time, sacrifice the needed resources, and be your spouse's number-one support, especially when the chips are down. This, when done consistently, is part of the explanation about the 10 marital benefits mentioned above in Table 1.

Wallerstein (1995) also talked about using humor and having fun with and without your children. When a couple discovers one another, they establish a relationship filled with fun, romance, and togetherness. Once married and pursuing their goals, married life bears down so heavily at times that it becomes easy to forget those early attractions that made courting and marrying so much fun. Fun can be free or it can cost millions. Make sure to enjoy the bounty that is available to all of us in this country, our states, and the community in which we reside. When fun gets pushed out of our lives, adapt your family to cope with the demands and eliminate the disposable demands.

There are persons who are alone, bored, and intrusive who would intrude into your marital time. Work at keeping them at bay and managing the intrusive influence they have. My wife and I once took a Thanksgiving holiday five minutes down the road, where we stayed in a hotel with the children. We ate out, swam in the pool, stayed up to the late hours watching cartoons, and toured fun places in town. Our children remember this as one of their favorite holidays ever. We came home to 63 phone messages and over 100 emails from people who just wanted to touch base. Interestingly, some of them were angry because they didn't know where we were. Once we told them, their anger subsided. My wife and I also have a pattern of escaping together. She and I attend professional conferences together. We escape to another county or state. We even get away if we really need to disagree and want to be uninterrupted.

When couples disagree, they should remove distractions such as electronics and newspapers and isolate themselves so that they can finish a thought or a sentence and think more clearly. It may take concerted efforts, but persist even if it takes one or more consultations together to get the issue resolved. I will always remember my six little children standing with noses pressed against the sliding glass door while my wife and I sat in the car out in a rain storm. We had tried to talk in our bedroom, but the interruptions were incessant from children and telephones. We talked for nearly an hour until we felt good about our strategy. The issue was one of the most important we ever discussed together. The children were so happy when we went back into the home. For parents with preschool and elementary-aged children, an early bedtime is advisable so that the couple can have a daily time to talk and relax together.

Why not seek help when you need it? Studies have shown that some people will never go see a dentist, doctor, or therapist. They are treatment-avoidant and refuse to seek these professional services. Couples often seek professional help after things have gotten to a critical point in the relationship. Although many couples can work out most of their issues together, it is advisable to learn to recognize early those issues that might be a deep threat to the stability of the relationship. If the issue is persistent and keeps coming up, if the issue deals with one or both spouses' commitment to the relationship, if the issue has to do with the core role of husband or wife or the core agreements on what each should be or do in those roles, or if the issue is very important to one spouse and he or she feels that professional help may be needed, then professional assistance should be considered. It is not a failure to seek professional medical, dental, therapeutic, accounting, mechanical, or other services. A student of mine was in a divorce and was ordered to go through pre-divorce mediation because of the children. He told me that during mediation with his ex they learned valuable communication skills and decided to postpone the divorce. He told me that the state should order mediation or counseling when things can be fixed, not once the divorce starts. Of course states would not order such a thing, but spouses can voluntarily seek the help.

I have taught in higher education for nearly 30 years now. I can name five colleagues who worked until their retirement and once retired died within 3-18 months. It became an uncomfortable topic among us here at UVU and we began to make jokes about needing that somebody needed to change that pattern -- to retire and live another 30 years. We work so long to secure our later years with the necessities we desire. What a waste to die so soon after reaching that point. In marriages, similar things happen but in a slightly different way. The young couple sets valiant long-term goals so that they can raise children, establish assets, and eventually retire together. But many couples forget that marriage requires constant attention and upkeep. In the pursuit of these goals, they grow apart, lose intimacy, and get lost in child-rearing. After the last child launches into adult roles, some couples find themselves waking up to a person they barely know or get along with.

I also know of four elderly couples who divorced after retirement. In each case, one of the spouses told me that they just grew apart over the years. To them it was as though they started a journey, progressed well together, and lost interest in one another along the way. The husband-and wife-relationship is the engine that drives the married family system forward. Nurturing, protecting, and enhancing the maintenance of the marriage benefits the couple and the family.

Finally, families can be the most fun, most meaningful, and most rewarding social groups we belong to in our lives. Many elderly rate their family relationships as being among the most satisfying aspects of their golden years. The family experience can be valued or endured, cherished or loathed, essential or distracting. Regardless of the circumstances we face in life, our efforts to build and enjoy the family as individuals, couples, and other family members will most likely be rewarding to us throughout our entire lives. If neglected, just the opposite could prove to be true. As a final thought, I wrote this book as a service to my students at UVU and other students everywhere. It has decades of teaching experience and mountains of research built into each chapter. My goal is to inform, not modify values. I hope that if this text was too liberal for your taste or too conservative that it was still of use to you. I find joy in being a lifelong student of families and how to make them work better. I hope you found a bit of that joy for yourself. I have a deeply held conviction of the resilience of the family even though its structure and function changes and looks less familiar to many of than it did before. The United States will resolve its cultural war over legal definitions of marriage and the family in the US will persist alongside the billions of families world-wide in being the most salient and desirable social institution which sustains the other social institutions in providing the safety, continuity, connection, and economic and relational foundations upon which all societies depend.

Additional Reading

Search the keywords and names in your Internet browser

  • 10 Ways to Show Your Wife You Care LINK
  • 10 Ways to Show Your Husband You Care LINK
  • Video-5 Tips To Save Your Marriage LINK

Marriage Transitions

  • Does Divorce Make People Happy?: Findings From a Study of Unhappy Marriages LINK
  • Should I Try to Work it Out? LINK
  • Research-based Online Marriage Counseling Alternative LINK
  • Marriage Map LINK
  • Why Change LINK
  • 6 Reasons to Remarry After Divorce LINK
  • Marriage After Divorce LINK
  • 10 Tips For Those Considering Remarriage LINK
  • Secrets To A Successful Second Marriage LINK
  • 11 Reasons to Give Marriage Another Shot After Divorce LINK
  • How Divorce Works LINK
  • Remarriage and Blended Families LINK
  • Defusing The Family Feud LINK
  • Family Studies LINK and/or LINK
  • Helpful Strategies to Deal with Ex-Partners in Remarriages LINK
  • Article Tools to succeed: Decreasing divorce by strengthening marriages LINK
  • 7 Steps to Deciding if Divorce is right For You LINK

Faith-Based Support for Marriages

Religions and participating in religions have been found to support and strengthen families, couples, children and other family members. These links may be of interest in understanding how and why.

  • Focus on the Family LINK
  • Building Christian Ministries to Support Marriage LINK
  • National Conferences of Catholic Bishops LINK
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints LINK
  • MARRI Marriage and religion research institute LINK
  • Godly Marriages LINK
  • The Hindu Marriage LINK
  • Support for Islamic Marriages and Families LINK
  • Support for Sikh Marriages and Relationships LINK
  • A Happy Married Life A Buddhist Perspective LINK
  • The Nurture of Quaker Marriage LINK
  • Support for Jewish Marriages LINK
  • Positive Orthodox Jewish Marriages LINK
  • Marital Intimacy Focus on the Family LINK
  • Jewish marriage Fund LINK
  • For interfaith couples LINK
  • BYU for Interfaith Couples LINK
  • Preparing for a Lutheran Marriage LINK
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