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Changing Perspectives on Marriage and Family Building in Modern Society

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Marriage and family have undergone significant transformations in the past few decades, shaped by various factors such as class, age, and race. These changes have led to a decline in traditional marriage and the rise of new family forms. In this article, we will explore the different perspectives on marriage and family in modern society, considering the insights provided by various sociological theories. From functionalism to conflict theory and symbolic interactionism, each theoretical perspective offers a unique lens through which we can understand the complexities of marriage and family dynamics.

Theoretical Perspectives on Marriage and Family


Functionalists view the family as a formative social institution that plays a vital role in stabilizing society. They emphasize the systemic functions performed by families, such as the regulation of sexual relations, reproduction, education, and economic support. According to sociologist George Murdock, the nuclear family, consisting of a heterosexual couple and their children, is the traditional definition of a family. However, functionalists also recognize the changing nature of family structures and the need to adapt the definition to include diverse family forms.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists focus on the power dynamics within families and how they contribute to systems of inequality. They highlight the role of power struggles in family life, often resulting in the perpetuation of gender inequalities. Conflict theorists analyze various aspects of marriage and family, such as the enforcement of gender roles, domestic violence, and imbalances in household labor. They argue that these conflicts reflect broader social structures and inequalities.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionists view the family as a social construct that is subject to changing social norms and meanings. They emphasize the role of symbols and the meanings assigned to them in understanding family dynamics. Symbolic interactionists recognize that the definitions of family roles and relationships are not fixed but rather shaped by social interpretations. They explore how these meanings evolve over time and how individuals within families interpret and negotiate their roles based on these symbols.

The Class-Based Decline in Marriage

Marriage rates have significantly declined over the years, particularly among those on the lower socio-economic ladder. While adults with higher education and good income still adhere to traditional marriage norms, economic security has become a crucial factor for those in less-advantaged groups. The desire to marry remains strong across all groups, but financial stability is seen as a prerequisite for marriage, which many may not meet. This class-based decline in marriage underscores the growing income gap in the United States.

Changing Attitudes Towards Marriage

Attitudes towards marriage have also shifted, particularly among younger generations. In the past, marriage was the norm for young adults, with the majority getting married in their twenties. However, the trend has changed significantly, with a much smaller percentage of today’s youth opting for marriage. Cohabitation without marriage, same-sex marriage, and interracial marriage are viewed more positively by the younger generation. These changing attitudes reflect a broader shift in societal values and acceptance of diverse family forms.

The Ambivalent Public

The public’s response to changing marital norms and family forms is a mix of acceptance and unease. While there is concern over the rise of single women having children and the absence of both parents in a child’s life, there is relatively more acceptance towards cohabitation without marriage, unmarried couples raising children, and same-sex couples raising children. The level of acceptance varies across different demographic groups, with the young, secular, liberal, unmarried, and Black populations generally more accepting of emerging family arrangements.

The Resilience of Families

Despite the decline in traditional marriage, families remain resilient and continue to play a central role in people’s lives. The vast majority of adults consider their own family to be the most important and satisfying element of their lives. Families have evolved to encompass a broader definition, with people recognizing non-traditional family structures as valid and meaningful. The presence of children plays a significant role in defining what constitutes a family, and marriage continues to hold importance in shaping societal perceptions of family.

The Impact on Children

The changing dynamics of marriage and family have implications for children. The share of births to unmarried women has risen dramatically, and the number of children raised by a single parent has also increased. Society acknowledges that children of single parents, gay and lesbian couples, and divorced parents may face additional challenges. However, it is essential to note that these challenges do not necessarily imply dysfunction or negative outcomes. Supportive environments, regardless of family structure, can mitigate potential challenges and promote healthy child development.

Changing Spousal Roles

Spousal roles within the family have evolved, reflecting the changing social and economic landscape. Traditionally, gender roles in marriage were divided based on instrumental and expressive roles. However, as women increasingly enter the workforce and men take on caregiving responsibilities, these roles have become more fluid. The division of household labor has been a common source of conflict, with studies showing that a more equitable distribution of housework contributes to greater marital satisfaction.

The Rise of Cohabitation

As marriage rates decline, cohabitation has become more prevalent. Cohabitation, or living together as unmarried partners, has nearly doubled since 1990. Many individuals view cohabitation as a step towards marriage, while others choose cohabitation as an alternative to marriage. Cohabitation offers flexibility and allows couples to test their compatibility before committing to marriage. However, it also presents unique challenges related to legal rights, financial stability, and social recognition.

The Definition of Family

The definition of family has expanded to include diverse family structures beyond the traditional nuclear family. People recognize that a family can consist of a single parent and child, an unmarried couple living together with a child, or a gay or lesbian couple raising a child. The presence of children and the commitment between partners play crucial roles in defining what constitutes a family. Marriage continues to be a symbol of family, with the majority considering a childless married couple as a family unit.

The Importance of Love in Marriage

When considering reasons for marriage, love, commitment, and companionship are consistently rated as more important than financial stability or having children. This finding reflects a shift in societal values, emphasizing emotional connection and personal fulfillment in marriage. Unmarried adults share similar perspectives, highlighting the significance of love and commitment in relationships irrespective of marital status. The belief in a single true love for each person varies among individuals, with less than a third of survey respondents agreeing with the notion.


The changing perspectives on marriage and family in modern society reflect evolving social norms, values, and attitudes. Different theoretical perspectives provide valuable insights into the complexities of marriage and family dynamics. While functionalism highlights the systemic functions of the family, conflict theory examines power dynamics and inequalities within families. Symbolic interactionism emphasizes the social construction of family roles and meanings. As society continues to evolve, it is crucial to embrace the diversity of family forms and support environments that promote healthy relationships and child development.