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privacy as the major base of family relationships. This has eroded the resilience of the family and its ability to withstand crises (Hareven, 1992, p. 317).

Whether or not this change is a good one depends on our personal values, but undoubtedly, higher rates of divorce will be one of its outcomes.


Divorce has been on the rise in American society since 1860 (and accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s). The divorce rate has leveled off in the 1980s and 1990s, but it does not seem to be going down considerably. About half of today’s marriages in the United States will end in divorce. This is one of the highest rates in the world, but other industrialized nations are rapidly catching up to us. Many observers attribute the high rates to industrialization and urbanization—more specifically, to the ethic of individualism accompanying these developments. In addition to this, increased equality in the marriage relationship means that both parties have an equal voice in whether the marriage lasts, and higher expectations for marriage as well as longer life spans for the partners put additional strains on marriage.

Over time, as people turn to divorce as a solution to an unsatisfactory marriage, divorce becomes more of an acceptable solution; divorce becomes a legitimate institution.

Children and Socialization in the Family

In most societies and in most periods of history, to marry was to have children. Indeed, for most human beings, children are a central part of life. Modern Western industrial society is different. Having children, like most other things, has become an option; it is not (especially with the new birth control technology) something taken for granted. In an age of individualism, people will calculate rewards and costs associated with having and raising children, and many will decide that the cost is too high. One of the results is the trend toward smaller families (two children) in society; another is the rising number of childless marriages.

The family remains a very important agency for the socialization of children. We take on human qualities through interactions in the family. The family teaches us symbols, helps shape our self, constitutes our first role models and our first introduction to the rules of society, and forms our earliest perspectives on the world. The family teaches us who we are and gives us the love and security necessary to make us independent adults. Through it all, most of us become social beings, members of society who are able to cooperate with others, and who act according to a conscience heavily influenced by rules we learn within the family. The family remains central to both the individual and society. It is still, to the language of sociologists, THE primary group.

Individual Choice and the Changing Family

The modern American family is undergoing profound and rapid change. This is not simply because of a conspiracy by some group trying to destroy our society, nor is it simply caused by television, declining morality, or declining schools. And this change is not simply the result of the declining importance of the family, either. The real change is toward a state of deinstitutionalization (toward a society in which personal choice in how to live prevails) rather than an end to the family itself. People are deciding what to

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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