Variations in Family Life

Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the variations of marriage and family life in the United States over time

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual America’s Families and Living Arrangements, 69 percent of America’s 73.7 million children under age 18 live in families with two parents in 2016. [1] In 1960, that 88 percent of kids lived in two parent homes. This is a decrease from 77 percent in 1980 (U.S. Census 2011). This two-parent family structure is known as a nuclear family, referring to married parents and children as the nucleus, or core, of the group. Recent years have seen a rise in variations of the nuclear family with the parents not being married. Seven percent of children live with two cohabiting parents (U.S. Census 2011).[2]

Chart with 4 bar graphs titled, "Living Arrangements of Children Under Age 18", from the U.S. Census Bureau. This chart shows that 50.7 million live with two parents, 17.2 million live with only their mother, 2.8 million live with no parent present, and 3 million live with only a father.

Figure 1. Living arrangements of children of under the age of 18 shown along with the percentages of those who live with siblings or grandparents.

An adult and a child are seen from behind walking hand in hand in a forest.

Figure 2. More than one quarter of U.S. children live in a single-parent household. (Photo courtesy of Ross Griff/flickr)

Single Parents, Blended Families, and Foster Families

Single-parent households are on the rise. In 2017, 32 percent of children lived with a single parent only, up from 25 percent in 2008. Of that 32 percent, 21 percent live with their mother. Four percent live with their father, which is a percentage that is growing in share; in 1968, for example, only one percent of children lived with a solo father, and three percent lived with a solo father in 2008 (Livingston 2018).

About 16 percent of children are living in blended families, those with step parents and/or step-siblings. This number has remained relatively stable since the 1980s when the Census Bureau began reliably measuring it. Four percent of children live in families with couples who are not married. (That number is partially composed of parents in same-sex relationships who were previously prohibited from getting married.)

In some cases, parents can no longer care for their children. In 2018, three million children lived with a guardian who was neither their biological nor adoptive parent. The causes range from parental mental health issues, drug use, or incarceration, as well as physical or sexual abuse of the children by the parent, or abandonment by the parent. The wide array of causes leads to a similarly wide array of arrangements and types of people and organizations involved. About half of these children live with grandparents, and about 20 percent live with other relatives (ChildStats 2019). Sometimes a grandparent or other relative temporarily assumes care of children, perhaps informally, while other times the arrangement is longer term and the state or city child welfare or similar department is involved.

25 percent of children who do not live with an adoptive or biological parent live with nonrelatives, including foster parents, temporary guardians, or people in other types of relationships with the child or the child’s parents. Non-relative foster parents are state-certified adults, who care for children under the guidance and supervision of a relevant agency. Foster parents comply with guideline and are provided with financial support for the children they care for. (Sometimes the term foster parent refers to a relative who cares for the children under agency guidelines, and sometimes these “kinship” foster parents are also provided financial support.)

When children are placed into foster care or other non-parental care, agencies and families usually do their best to keep siblings together. Brothers and sisters usually provide each other with someone to navigate social challenges and provide continuity over time. Studies have shown that siblings placed together show more closeness to their foster caregivers and like living in the foster home more than those not placed with a sibling (Hegar and Rosenthal, 2011). Separating siblings can cause them to worry about each other or their birth families, and slows acceptance of their new home (Affronti, Rittner, & Semanchin Jones, 2015).

Siblings sometimes play more of a parental role themselves, especially when there are large age gaps or if there are very young children involved. These older siblings may take on some parental responsibilities during a divorce or when children are sent to live with others. “Parentified” siblings may have trouble navigating the complexities of parental roles when they themselves are often still very young. These experiences can actually be traumatic and lead to compulsive disorders as well as lifelong issues with relationships and self-care (Lamothe 2017)

Changes in the traditional family structure raise questions about how such societal shifts affect children. U.S. Census statistics have long shown that children living in homes with both parents grow up with more financial and educational advantages than children who are raised in single-parent homes (U.S. Census 1997). Parental marital status seems to be a significant indicator of advancement in a child’s life. Children living with a divorced parent typically have more advantages than children living with a parent who never married; this is particularly true of children who live with divorced fathers. This correlates with the statistic that never-married parents are typically younger, have fewer years of schooling, and have lower incomes (U.S. Census 1997). Six in ten children living with only their mother live near or below the poverty level. Of those being raised by single mothers, 69 percent live in or near poverty compared to 45 percent for divorced mothers (U.S. Census 1997). Though other factors such as age and education play a role in these differences, it can be inferred that marriage between parents is generally beneficial for children.

The Age of GrandFamilies

What do Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jack Nickolson, 50 Cent, Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, Maya Angelou, and Carol Burnett all have in common? They were raised by their grandparents!

A 2018 article in The Atlantic titled “The Age of Grandparents is Made of Many Tragedies” states “The proportion of children living in ‘grandfamilies’ has doubled in the U.S. since 1970, and has gone up 7 percent in the past five years alone—an increase many attribute to the opioid epidemic” [3]. The number, 2.6 million grandparents, is stable, but the reasons have changed over time and include something short and temporary like military deployment or joblessness, or something more lasting or devastating such as mental illness, divorce, incarceration, death, or substance abuse (Henig, R. 2018). One-fifth of these 2.6 million grandparents have incomes below the poverty line and one-quarter have a disability [4]. Nine percent of all children live with a grandparent, and in nearly half those cases, the grandparent maintains primary responsibility for the child (U.S. Census 2011).

What are the emotional and economic costs involved with grandfamilies? These kinship networks can prevent children from going into foster care with a nonrelative, which is not only costly but is also often temporary, as the goal is to reunite children with one or both of their biological parents. While grandparents can apply for some aid from the state to offset the cost of raising the child, it can be a difficult bureaucracy to navigate. In fact, some states have set up “kinship navigators” to help grandparents find available resources. This type of support system has received bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

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Living together before or in lieu of marriage is a growing option for many couples. Cohabitation is when a man and woman live together in a sexual relationship without being married. In 2018, 15 percent of young adults ages 25-34 live with an unmarried partner, up from 12 percent 10 years ago (Gurrentz 2018). This surge in cohabitation is likely due to the decrease in social stigma pertaining to the practice. 69 percent of surveyed Americans believe it is acceptable for adults to live together if they are not currently married or do not plan to get married, while 16 percent say it is acceptable only if they plan to get married. (Horowitz 2019).

Cohabitating couples may choose to live together in an effort to spend more time together or to save money on living costs. Many couples view cohabitation as a “trial run” for marriage. 66 percent of married couples who cohabited but were not engaged saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage. And 44 percent of cohabiting adults who are not yet engaged or married see moving in with their partner as a step toward marriage (Horowitz 2019).

While couples may use this time to “work out the kinks” of a relationship before they wed, the most recent research has found that cohabitation has little effect on the success of a marriage. In fact, those who do not cohabitate before marriage have slightly better rates of remaining married for more than ten years (Jayson 2010). Cohabitation may contribute to the increase in the number of men and women who delay marriage. The median age for marriage is the highest it has ever been since the U.S. Census kept records—age twenty-six for women and age twenty-eight for men (U.S. Census 2010).

Cohabitation is now more prevalent than living with a spouse among 18-24 year-olds in 2018, with 9 percent cohabiting compared to 7 percent who live with a spouse; in 1968, only .1 percent of 18-24-year-olds cohabited.[5]

This graph titled, "Living Arrangements of Young Adults Ages 18 to 24" with subheading, "A higher proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds live with an unmarried partner than a spouse". It shows that in 1968, 39.2 percent were living with a spouse, and 0.1 percent were living with a partner. By 2018, 9.4% lived with a partner, while 7.3% lived with a spouse.

Figure 3. With declining marriage rates and the initial age of marriage, in 2018, more 18- to 24-year-olds lived with an unmarried partner than a spouse.

The most common age cohort to cohabit are the 25-34 age group, with 14 percent of those Americans cohabiting, as compared to approximately 10 percent of the 18-24 and 35-49 age groups cohabiting (Stepler 2017).

A graph titled, "Living Arrangements of Young Adults Ages 25 to 34" with the subheading, "Cohabitation has become more common among 25-34 year olds". This line graph shows that in 1968, 81.5% in this age group lived with a spouse, but only 40.3% did in 2018. Living with a partner rose from 0.2% in 1980 to 14.8% in 2018.

Figure 4. Cohabitation is on the rise, while living with a married spouse is declining.

Same-Sex Couples

Phyllis Siegel and Connie Koplev embrace on a New York City street while people look on. Kopolev holds a document and sits in a wheelchair.

Figure 5. After being together for 23 years, Phyllis Siegel (standing) and Connie Kopolev were the first same-sex couple to marry in New York City. (Credit: TJ Sengal/flickr)

Measuring same-sex couples in the United States has been challenging in part because the U.S. Census has not previously allowed respondents to specify that they were part of a same-sex couple. This will change in the 2020 Census, allowing for more accurate reporting. Nevertheless, the reported number of same-sex couples has grown significantly in the past decade. The American Community Survey reported 980,276 same-sex households in 2019 compared to 776,943 same-sex households in 2005, an increase of over 25%.[6] This increase is a result of more coupling, the growing social acceptance of LGBTQ people, and a subsequent increase in people’s willingness to share more about their identity.

What else has changed? How have formal norms (laws) changed in the 21st century with respect to same-sex marriage? On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the decision that any ban on same-sex marriage was a violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage in all fifty states. Nationally, same-sex couple households make up 1.5 percent of the total partner-headed households in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau 2020). When the 2015 Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, all federally mandated spousal rights and benefits began apply to same-sex married couples. These have impacts on Social Security and veterans benefits, family leave, and so on. For example, when same-sex marriage was not legal, an LGBTQ person couldn’t take the same type of family leave as an opposite sex spouse could if their partner became ill, and could even be prohibited from visiting their partner in the hospital.

In terms of demographics, same-sex couples are not very different from opposite-sex couples. Same-sex couple households have an average age of 52 and an average annual household income of about $107,000; opposite-sex couple households have an average age of 59 and an average household income of $97,000. Same-sex couples are less likely to have children under 18-years-old, with a rate of 14 percent compared to 38 percent of opposite-sex couples; note these include both married and unmarried couples (Census Bureau 2020). Furthermore, same-sex couples tend to be better educated than opposite-sex couples (both married and not married) with 32.2 percent of same-sex couples both having at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 27.4 percent for opposite-sex couples (ACS 2017).

In an analysis of 81 parenting studies, sociologists found no quantifiable data to support the notion that opposite-sex parenting is any better than same-sex parenting. Children of lesbian couples, however, were shown to have slightly lower rates of behavioral problems and higher rates of self-esteem (Biblarz and Stacey 2010). Prior to the nationwide legalization, studies also showed that the rate of suicide among high school students declined in states where same-sex marriage was legal. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among high school students, and it is a tragic outcome for LGBTQ teenagers who feel unaccepted or vulnerable. The evidence indicates that the legalization of same-sex marriage had positive outcomes for the emotional and mental wellbeing of LGBTQ people (Johns Hopkins University 2017).

Link to Learning

Check out this interactive link from the UCLA Williams Institute School of Law to see what same-sex and couple demographics look like in your city and state.

While there is some concern from socially conservative groups regarding the well-being of children who grow up in same-sex households, research reports that same-sex parents are as effective as opposite-sex parents. In an analysis of 81 parenting studies, sociologists found no quantifiable data to support the notion that opposite-sex parenting is any better than same-sex parenting. Children of lesbian couples, however, were shown to have slightly lower rates of behavioral problems and higher rates of self-esteem (Biblarz and Stacey 2010).

Photo of 3 silhouetted figures drinking at a bar.

Figure 5. More and more people in the United States are choosing lifestyles that don’t include marriage. (Photo courtesy of Glenn Harper/flickr)

Staying Single

Gay or straight, a new option for many people in the United States is simply to stay single. In 2016, there were 110.6 million unmarried individuals over age eighteen in the United States, accounting for 45.2 percent of the total adult population (U.S. Census 2017). One in seven never-married adults say they don’t want to get married, according to a 2017 Pew Research study. “Single by choice” is a phrase that increasingly reverberates throughout popular culture. In 1960, 72 percent of U.S. adults were married whereas in 2016 50 percent are married (Parker and Stepler 2017). Single, or never-married, individuals are found in higher concentrations in large cities or metropolitan areas, with New York City being one of the highest.

The decision to marry or not to marry can be based on a variety of factors including religious and cultural expectations. Asian individuals are the most likely to marry while African Americans are the least likely to marry (Venugopal 2011). Additionally, individuals who place no value on religion are more likely to be unmarried than those who place a high value on religion. For Black women, however, the importance of religion made no difference in marital status (Bakalar 2010). In general, being single is not a rejection of marriage; rather, it is a lifestyle that does not necessarily include marriage. By age forty, according to census figures, 20 percent of women and 14 of men will have never married (U.S. Census Bureau 2011).

Deceptive Divorce Rates

It is often cited that half of all marriages end in divorce. This statistic has made many people cynical when it comes to marriage, but it is misleading. Let’s take a closer look at the data.

Using National Center for Health Statistics data from 2003 that show a marriage rate of 7.5 (per 1000 people) and a divorce rate of 3.8, it would appear that exactly one half of all marriages failed (Hurley 2005). This reasoning is deceptive, however, because instead of tracing actual marriages to see their longevity (or lack thereof), this compares what are unrelated statistics: that is, the number of marriages in a given year does not have a direct correlation to the divorces occurring that same year.

In 2016, the U.S. divorce rate was down to 3.2 percent. Sociologist Philip Cohen posits the falling divorce rate is attributable to changing millennial patterns that involve waiting longer to get married, being more financially stable, and increased rates of cohabitation (prior to marriage and in lieu of marriage). Greater financial security results in millennial marriages lasting an average of ten years longer than baby boomer marriages [7]

Research published in the New York Times took a different approach—determining how many people had ever been married, and of those, how many later divorced. The result? According to this analysis, U.S. divorce rates have only gone as high as 41 percent (Hurley 2005).

Another way to calculate divorce rates would be through a cohort study. For instance, we could determine the percentage of marriages that are intact after, say, five or seven years, compared to marriages that have ended in divorce after five or seven years. Sociological researchers must remain aware of research methods and how statistical results are applied. As illustrated, different methodologies and different interpretations can lead to contradictory, and even misleading, results.

Think It Over

  • Explain the different variations of marriage and family and the changes over time.
  • Why are some couples choosing to cohabitate before marriage? What effect does cohabitation have on marriage?

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extended family:
a household that includes at least one parent and child as well as other relatives like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins
nuclear family:
two parents (traditionally a married husband and wife) and children living in the same household, thereby creating a “core” unit


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  1. "The Majority of Children Still Live in Two Parent Households," 2016. U.S. Census.
  2. Pew Research Center (December 2015). The two-parent household in decline. Retrieved from
  3. Henig, Robin Morentz. 2018. "The Age of Grandparents is Made of Many Tragedies," The Atlantic.
  4. Cancino, Alejadra. 2016. "More Grandparents Are Raising Their Grandchildren." PBS.
  5. Gurrentz, Benjamin. 2018. "Living with an Unmarried Partner Now Common for Young Adults." U.S. Census.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau. “U.S. Census Bureau Releases CPS Estimates of Same-Sex Households.” The United States Census Bureau. Accessed September 22, 2020.
  7. Wood, Johnny. 2018. "The U.S. Divorce Rate is Dropping, Thanks to Millennials." World Economic Forum.