Against Family Fatalism

With the publication of The Way We Never Were in 1992, Stephanie Coontz became a major spokesperson for the family-change-is-irreversible school of thought. That school includes the view that attempts to retard, stop, or reverse any major aspect of recent family change are futile and thus are at best a waste of effort and at worst downright harmful because they tend to stigmatize persons in single-parent and other increasingly prevalent kinds of families. There are different forms of the irreversibility thesis, and Coontz’s 1990s version of it was one of the less extreme ones, in that Coontz acknowledged that there have been some distinctly negative consequences of family change and took a less absolutist view of irreversibility than did some other commentators. However, she, in common with others of the irreversibility school, argued that the only reasonable way to deal with any negative consequences of family change was to adapt other institutions to the newly prevalent family forms and to ameliorate those consequences by extending the services of the welfare state. A major part of Coontz’s book was devoted to attacking alleged nostalgia for the American family of the 1950s and an alleged desire of many people to recreate that family in the present.

I have major problems with the family-change-is-irreversible school of thought and with Coontz’s 1990s writings, and those are relevant here because near the end of the generally sensible essay by Coontz in this exchange, there is a reprise of some of the more questionable aspects of The Way We Never Were.


For instance, after apparently moving away from a hard-line position that we should do nothing to try to reverse any of the important recent trends in marriage, and after acknowledging that some of those trends have reversed already, she writes,

The right research question today is not “what kind of family do we wish people lived in.” Instead, we must ask “what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?”

To me, putting these different questions in opposition to one another, as though they were mutually exclusive, makes no sense and is inconsistent with what Coontz says earlier. Is there only one right research question? Why not ask both? To follow Coontz’s advice is to put all of one’s policy-relevant eggs in the “cure” basket and none in the “prevention” basket. To ignore family structure, as Coontz apparently would, is to ignore the huge amount of recent social scientific evidence, from hundreds of studies, that family structure matters, and matters to an important extent, especially for children but for adults as well. This evidence, while not absolutely conclusive, is about as nearly conclusive as social scientific evidence ever is, and it is more nearly conclusive than the evidence for any of the causal conclusions that Coontz draws from the social scientific literature. (Her conclusion about the effects of late marriage is based on the findings of only one study.)

The fatalistic position concerning family change that Coontz apparently still embraces is a curious one for liberals to take, because they do not take it in regard to most other kinds of change that can be attributed ultimately to such master trends as industrialization, urbanization, and economic development. Take the case of climate change and environmental degradation — changes attributable ultimately to the same major influences that led to recent family changes. Some commentators do say that those changes are part and parcel of economic development and should be adapted to rather than resisted, but I know of no liberals who take that position. While acknowledging that there is no pre-industrial environmental Golden Age to which we can return, liberals generally believe that some of the negative environmental trends ensuing from economic growth can be and should be slowed, stopped, or reversed. A reasonable question is why liberals don’t consistently take a similar stance in regard to family change.

A second criticism I have of the final paragraphs of Coontz’s essay is that Coontz reverts to her old practice of attacking straw men — that is, of criticizing positions that very few people hold. Her entire major emphasis on alleged nostalgia in The Way We Never Were is of that nature, not because there isn’t considerable nostalgia, especially among persons who experienced the fifties and had a reasonably good family life then, but because the nostalgia usually doesn’t translate into the belief that we can or should try to recreate the family of the fifties in the present. No sophisticated family scholar or commentator could take that position, but Coontz, at least by implication, attributed that view to persons who simply wanted to reverse or retard some specific family trends that they perceived to be destructive. I’ve spent a great deal of time examining survey data collected in the 1980s and early 1990s to see if there is evidence of widespread adherence in the general public of that time to the goal of recreating the fifties family, and I’ve found no such evidence. It seems to me, therefore, that Coontz used an inordinate amount of space to criticize a position that was rather uncommon. In the essay in this exchange, Coontz continues her straw man tradition in such references as those to “fantasies about returning to a mythical Golden Age of marriage in the past” and “the assumption that all long-term commitments and care-giving obligations should be or can be organized through marriage.” Who has the fantasies, and who makes the cited assumption? I’m sure that examples could be found, but I’m equally sure that their numbers are small.

A third problem I have with the Coontz essay is its implication that the historical evidence leads logically to the hard-line family-change-should-not-be-resisted position with which the essay seems to conclude. It is of course true that no exact configuration of family characteristics that existed in any society in the past is going to be replicated in any society in the future and that it is impossible to impose a pre-industrial or early industrial family system on a post-industrial society. However, there are numerous historical examples of reversals in specific marriage and family trends, including, for instance, in trends toward either permissive or restrictive sex norms. In recent decades there has been a resurgence of the ideal of marital fidelity in American society, and while I suspect that Coontz is correct in not expecting a similar resurgence of the ideal of premarital chastity, even that is not inconceivable. Coontz talks about the recent increase in the success of marriages of well-educated persons in this country but does not mention that anyone who took seriously even the relatively soft version of the family-change-is-irreversible thesis in The Way We Never Were would not have expected such a change. History tells us, among other things, to expect the unexpected.

My view of the future of marriage in this country is not radically different from Coontz’s but is more optimistic. Coontz mentions some favorable trends, such as a decline in divorce, during the past decade or so but seems to think that they will not go much farther. I’m beginning to think that they probably will. No one knows for sure why marriages have recently become more successful among highly educated Americans, but there is at least tentative evidence of a re-institutionalization of marriage at that level of society. The old norms based on a rigid gender division of labor are gone, but new egalitarian norms have emerged that are in some ways just as constraining. As previously mentioned, the ideal of marital fidelity has staged a comeback, as has the ideal of marital permanence and even the once rapidly disappearing view that under certain circumstances unhappily married parents should stay together for the sake of their children. These attitudes are now considerably more prevalent among well-educated persons than among others, but they are likely to be disseminated downward to the lower socioeconomic levels where, in spite of negative economic influences on marriage, they should have more than a negligible effect. Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion here of the marriage education movement and the associated national and state healthy marriage initiatives, but I predict that they will be at least moderately successful unless the marriage initiatives fail to survive the current wave of political change. If moderate liberals can get over feeling that they must oppose anything associated with the Bush Administration and will inform themselves of what the marriage initiatives are really doing — which doesn’t include trying to recreate the fifties family — they will find a lot to like about those programs and are likely to support them.

Overall, the essay by Coontz shows that she has modified her views in response to very recent trends in marriage, and has done so more than have some of the more dogmatic adherents of the family-change-is-irreversible school. However, I don’t think that she has modified her position enough.

Norval D. Glenn is the Ashbel Smith Professor of Sociology and the Stiles Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, briefly lays out the history of marriage to understand its present and future. “Today, when a marriage works,” Coontz argues, “it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before.” However, “the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation.” Instead of trying to resurrect a bygone ideal of marriage, those of us interested in encouraging healthy families now need to focus on what makes unmarried co-parents, single parents, cohabiting couples, as well as contemporary marriages successful on their own terms.

Response Essays

  • Kay S. Hymowitz, the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that Stephanie Coontz’s sketch of the state of marriage is badly incomplete, failing to acknowledge the class divide in marriage and childrearing. “This marriage gap,” she writes, “has profound implications for our political, social and economic prospects for one simple reason: overall, children do better in life if they are raised by their own married parents.” According to Hymowitz, “The de-linking of marriage and childrearing is a particular dilemma in the Unites States … [W]hat you have is a recipe for entrenched, trans-generational poverty, inequality, racial disparities …, reduced social and economic mobility, and — libertarians take note! — demands for government taxes to fund programs to correct the mess.”

  • Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the Univesity of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “re-frame Coontz’s careful history of the family in the language of economics,” exploring the economic forces underlying changes in marriage. Modern marriage, Stevenson and Wolfers argue, is marked by “a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption.” Modern marriage, which they call “hedonic marriage,” is more centered on love and companionship. Marriage as such isn’t doomed, they claim, but “marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed,” especially as women’s educational levels begin to surpass men’s. Attempts to “re-regulate” the family to fit a classic ideal, they argue “may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family.”

  • In his reply, University of Texas sociologist Norval D. Glenn, identifies Stephanie Coontz as a member of the “family-change-is-irreversible school of thought,” which he says “includes the view that attempts to retard, stop, or reverse any major aspect of recent family change are futile and thus are at best a waste of effort and at worst downright harmful…” But, Glenn asks, don’t liberals generally think policy can mitigate the consequences of economic change? Moreover, is anyone really asking to return to some Golden Age of marriage? There is evidence, Glenn submits, that marriage trends will further improve and that policy interventions, like marriage education, can help.