Family Life

What you’ll learn to do: recognize variations in family life

A man is holding a little girl in the foreground. They are both smiling and the girl is laughing and hugging the man.

As a reminder, marriage and family are social institutions but that does not mean that people’s concepts of marriage and family in the United States are static. As discussed in the previous sections, increases in cohabitation, same-sex partners, multiple divorces and remarriages, and singlehood are altering of our ideas of marriage. Similarly, single parents, same-sex parents, cohabitating parents, and unwed parents are changing our notion of what it means to be a family. In fact, only 46% of children today live with two parents who are both on their first marriage.

Learning outcomes

  • Understand the variations of marriage and family life in the United States over time
  • Differentiate between theoretical perspectives on marriage and family

Variations in Family Life

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]

Single Parents

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.

Next to the nuclear family, the second most common living arrangement is a female-headed household (single mom), which comprise 23 percent of families with children under 18 in 2016. Between 1960 and 2016, there was a sharp increase in the percentage of children living with only one parent—single moms went from 8 to 23 percent and single dads increased from 1 to 4 percent; of these 10 percent live with the cohabitation partner of their parent (U.S. Census, 2016).

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)

Blended Families

Stepparents are an additional family element in two-parent homes. Among children living in two-parent households, 9 percent live with a biological or adoptive parent and a stepparent with the majority (70 percent) living with a stepfather. Family structure has been shown to vary with the age of the child. Older children (fifteen to seventeen years old) are less likely to live with two parents than adolescent children (six to fourteen years old) or young children (zero to five years old). Older children who do live with two parents are also more likely to live with stepparents (U.S. Census 2011).

Alternate Arrangements

In some family structures a parent is not present at all. In 2016, three million children (4 percent of all children) lived with a guardian who was neither their biological nor adoptive parent, an increase from 3 to 4 percent from 1960-2016. Of these children, 54 percent live with grandparents, 21 percent live with other relatives, and 24 percent live with nonrelatives. This family structure is referred to as the extended family, and may include aunts, uncles, and cousins living in the same home. Foster parents account for about a quarter of nonrelatives. The practice of grandparents acting as parents, whether alone or in combination with the child’s parent, is becoming widespread among today’s families (De Toledo and Brown 1995).

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 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. 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.

Changes in the traditional family structure raise questions about how such societal shifts affect children. While U.S. Census statistics have 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). 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). The benefits of marriage are sometimes coined the “marriage premium” due to some monetary benefits like increased income for married spouses, with married men out-earning similarly qualified unmarried men[5] The marriage premium for children in avoiding poverty tend to be the highest for those whose mothers have high school degrees or who are in their early-to-mid 20s.[6] 

Try It


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.[7]

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 Americans cohabiting and approximately 10 percent of the 18-24 and 35-49 age groups were 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.

Cohabiting 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. Variables such as educational attainment, social class, race, and age at first cohabitation and length of cohabitation can be used as independent variables to predict marriage and/or relationship stability.  

Same-Sex Couples

Measuring same-sex couples in the United States has been challenging in part because the U.S. Census did not allow respondents to specify that they were part of a same-sex couple. This will change in the 2020 Census allowing for more accurate reporting.

The American Community Survey reported 935,229 same sex households in 2017 with a standard deviation of 7,754 (in other words, give or take 8,000) compared to 776,943 same-sex households in 2005, which is an 83 percent increase. What has changed? How have formal norms (laws) changed in the 21st century with respect to same-sex marriage?

On June 26, 2016, 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 resulting in the legalization of same-sex marriage in all fifty states.

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 40.6 percent and 27.4 percent for opposite-sex couples, respectively (ACS 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 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 [8]

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?

Try It

Theoretical Perspectives on Marriage and Family

Theoretical Perspectives on Marriage and Family

Sociologists study families on both the macro and micro level to examine this important and universal social institution. Sociologists may use a variety of theoretical perspectives to explain events that occur within and outside of the family.


When considering the role of family in society, functionalists begin with the importance of families as important social institutions that play a key role in stabilizing society. They also examine the statuses and roles that family members take on in a marriages and/ or families. The family—and its members—perform certain functions that facilitate the prosperity and development of society.

Sociologist George Murdock conducted a survey of 250 societies and determined that there are four universal residual functions of the family: sexual, reproductive, educational, and economic (Lee 1985). According to Murdock, the family included adults of both sexes of at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship and one more more children (including any adopted children), which is a traditional definition of a nuclear family. Here is a snapshot of these functions: 

  1. Sexual: families regulate sexual relations between individuals and offers a socially legitimate sexual outlet for adults;
  2. Reproductive: the sexual outlet within a family gives way to reproduction, which is a necessary part of ensuring the survival of society;
  3. Educational: the family plays a vital role in training children for adult life and as the primary agent of socialization and enculturation, the family teaches young children the ways of thinking and behaving that follow social and cultural norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes. The educational component includes gender roles.
  4. Economic: economic roles within the (nuclear) family are related to physical and psychological differences between males and females, with females being better suited to domestic work.

Functionalists examine the division of labor within a family by distinguishing between instrumental and expressive roles. Instrumental roles typically involve work outside of the family that provides financial support and establishes family status. Expressive roles typically involve work inside of the family which provides emotional support and physical care for children (Crano and Aronoff 1978). In many societies, males assume the instrumental role and females assume the expressive role; however, as the structure of the family has changed over time, as well as changing values and norms related to gender roles, these roles are not so easily identifiable by gender.

According to functionalists, the traditional differentiation of the roles on the basis of sex, as in Murdock’s heterosexual nuclear family, ensures that families are well balanced and coordinated. When family members move outside of these roles, the family is thrown out of balance and must recalibrate in order to function properly. For example, if the father assumes an expressive role such as providing daytime care for the children, the mother must take on an instrumental role such as gaining paid employment outside of the home in order for the family to maintain balance and function.

Critiques of this theory are that it does not adequately address today’s family structure. In single parent homes, same-sex couples, and in grandfamilies, these roles are not neatly divided by gender; however, the family is not dysfunctional and there are many ways to fulfill the four universal functions of the family in these variations.

Conflict Theory

Just as functionalists are examining the ways in which a particular social institution operates and fulfills important tasks or functions for societies, conflict theories are looking at the mechanisms through which these same social institutions reproduce systems of inequality at a macrosociological level. Within families, conflict theorists highlight the role of power in family life and contend that the family is often not a haven but rather an arena where power struggles can occur. This exercise of power often entails the gender role performances described above. Conflict theorists may study conflicts as simple as the enforcement of rules from parent to child, which in turn perpetuate gender inequalities. For example, boys may be negatively sanctioned for crying while girls are positively sanctioned for the same act. Conflict theorists, particularly feminist theorists, examine domestic violence (spousal and child), sexual assault, marital rape, and incest and theorize how these disproportionate, violent acts against women and girls provide a home for sexism and violence that we see in society.

The first study of marital power was performed in 1960. Researchers found that the person with the most access to value resources held the most power. As money is one of the most valuable resources, men who worked in paid labor outside of the home held more power than women who worked inside the home (Blood and Wolfe 1960). Conflict theorists find disputes over the division of household labor to be a common source of marital discord. Household labor offers no wages and, therefore, no power. Studies indicate that when men do more housework, women experience more satisfaction in their marriages, reducing the incidence of conflict (Coltrane 2000). In general, conflict theorists tend to study areas of marriage and life that involve inequalities or discrepancies in power and authority, as they are reflective of the larger social structure. Arlie Hochschild’s research on couples led her to publish The Second Shift (1989), which described a second shift, or the labor performed at home in additional to labor in the traditional work sectors. Basically, she found that in couples where both men and women work outside the home, women came home and started a second shift that included cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and a variety of other domestic tasks. In contrast, male partners completed their first shift and typically came home and did not do much additional work. This type of imbalanced division of labor helped sociologists to explain the shifting dynamics in a home where both adults work outside the home and the ways in which gender roles norms are contested.

Symbolic Interactionism

Interactionists view the world in terms of symbols and the meanings assigned to them (LaRossa and Reitzes 1993). The family itself is a symbol. To some, it is a father, mother, and children; to others, it is any union that involves respect and compassion. Interactionists stress that family is not an objective, concrete reality. Like other social phenomena, it is a social construct that is subject to the ebb and flow of social norms and ever-changing meanings.

Consider the meaning of other elements of family: “parent” was a symbol of a biological and emotional connection to a child; with more parent-child relationships developing through adoption, remarriage, or change in guardianship, the word “parent” today is less likely to be associated with a biological connection than with whoever is socially recognized as having the responsibility for a child’s upbringing. Similarly, the terms “mother” and “father” are no longer rigidly associated with the meanings of caregiver and breadwinner. These meanings are more free-flowing through changing family roles.

Interactionists also recognize how the family status roles of each member are socially constructed, playing an important part in how people perceive and interpret social behavior. Interactionists view the family as a group of role players or “actors” that come together to act out their parts in an effort to construct a family. These roles are up for interpretation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a “good father,” for example, was one who worked hard to provided financial security for his children. Today, a “good father” is one who takes the time outside of work to promote his children’s emotional well-being, social skills, and intellectual growth—in some ways, a much more daunting task.

Watch It

Watch the selected clip from this video to review how each of the schools of thought think about family and marriage.

Try It


expressive roles:
roles that typically involve work inside of the family which provide emotional support and physical care for children
extended family:
a household that includes at least one parent and child as well as other relatives like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins
instrumental roles:
roles that typically involve work outside of the family that provide financial support and establish family status
nuclear family:
two parents (traditionally a married husband and wife) and children living in the same household
second shift:
labor performed at home in additional to labor in the traditional work sectors

  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. Institute for Family Studies (August 2017). Household Specialization, Millennials, and the Marriage Premium. Retrieved from
  6. Kearney, Melissa S. and Levine, Phillip B. (March 2017). The Economics of Non-Marital Childbearing and The "Marriage Premium for Children". NBER Working Paper No. 23230. Retrieved from
  7. Gurrentz, Benjamin. 2018. "Living with an Unmarried Partner Now Common for Young Adults." U.S. Census.
  8. Wood, Johnny. 2018. "The U.S. Divorce Rate is Dropping, Thanks to Millennials." World Economic Forum.