THE SLOW DEATH OF THE FAMILY
The increasing erosion of the functions of the family by modern technology should, by now, have caused some signs of its weakening. However, this is not absolutely the case. Though the institution is archaic, artificial cultural reinforcements have been imported to bolster it: Sentimental sermons, manuals of guidance, daily columns in newspapers and magazines, special courses, services, and institutions for (professional) couples, parents, and
child educators, nostalgia, warnings to individuals who question or evade it, and finally, if the number of dropouts becomes a serious threat, a real backlash, including outright persecution of nonconformists. The last has not happened only because it is not yet necessary.
Marriage is in the same state as the Church: Both are becoming functionally defunct, as their preachers go about heralding a revival, eagerly chalking up converts in a day of dread. And just as God has been pronounced dead quite often but has this sneaky way of resurrecting himself, so everyone debunks marriage, yet ends up married.
What is keeping marriage so alive? Ї have pointed out some of the cultural bulwarks of marriage in the twentieth century. We have seen how the romantic tradition of nonmarital love, the hetairism that was the necessary adjunct to monogamic marriage, has been purposely confused with that most pragmatic of institutions, making it more appealing—thus restraining people from experimenting with other social forms that could satisfy their emotional needs as well or better.
Under increasing pressure, with the pragmatic bases of the marriage institution blurred, sex roles relaxed to a degree that would have disgraced a Victorian. He had no crippling doubts about his role, nor about the function and value of marriage. To him it was simply an economic arrangement of some selfish benefit, one that would most easily satisfy his physical needs and reproduce his heirs. His wife, too, was clear about her duties and rewards: ownership of herself and of her full sexual, psychological, and housekeeping services for a lifetime, in return for long-term patronage and protection by a member of the ruling class, and—in her turn—limited control over a household and over her children until they reached a certain age. Today this contract based on divided roles
has been so disguised by sentiment that it goes completely unrecognized by millions of newlyweds, and even most older married couples.
But this blurring of the economic contract, and the resulting confusion of „sex roles, has not significantly eased woman’s oppression. In many cases it has put her in only a more vulnerable position. With the clear-cut arrangement of matches by parents all but abolished, a woman, still part of an underclass, must now, in order to gain the indispensable male patronage and protection, play a desperate game, hunting down bored males while yet appearing cool. And even once she is married, any overlap of roles generally takes place on the wife’s side, not on the husband’s: the “cherish and protect” clause is the first thing forgotten—while the wife has gained the privilege of going to work to “help out,” even of putting her husband through school. More than ever she shoulders the brunt of the marriage, not only emotionally, but now also in its more practical aspects. She has simply added his job to hers.
A second cultural prop to the outmoded institution is the privatization of the marriage experience: each partner enters marriage convinced that what happened to his parents, what happened to his friends can never happen to him. Though Wrecked Marriage has become a national hobby, a universal obsession—as witnessed by the booming business of guidebooks to marriage and divorce, the women’s magazine industry, an affluent class of marriage counselors and shrinks, whole repertoires of Ball-and – Chain jokes and gimmicks, and cultural products such as soap opera, the marriage-and-family genre on TV, e. g., I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best, films and plays like Cassavetes’ Faces and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—still one encounters everywhere a defiant “We’re different” brand of optimism in which the one good (outwardly exemplary, anyway) marriage in the community is habitually cited to prove that it is possible.
The privatization process is typified by comments like, , “Well, I know I’d make a great mother.” It is useless to
point out that everyone says that, that the very parents or friends now dismissed as “bad” parents and “poor” marital partners all began marriage and parenthood in exactly the same spirit. After all, does anyone choose to have a “bad” marriage? Does anyone choose to be a “bad” mother? And even if it were a question of “good” vs. “bad” marital partners or parents, there will always be as many of the latter as the former; under the present system of universal marriage and parenthood just as many spouses and children must pull a bad lot as a good one; in fact any classes of “good” and “bad” are bound to recreate themselves in identical proportion. Thus the privatization process functions to keep people blaming themselves, rather than the institution, for its failure: Though the institution consistently proves itself unsatisfactory, even rotten, it encourages them to believe that somehow their own case will be different.
Warnings can have no effect, because logic has nothing to do with why people get married. Everyone has eyes of his own, parents of his own. If he chooses to block all evidence, it is because he must. In a world out of control, the only institutions that grant him an illusion of control, that seem to offer any safety, shelter or warmth, are the “private” institutions: religion, marriage/family, and, most recently, psychoanalytic therapy. But, as we have seen, the family is neither private nor a refuge, but is directly connected to—is even the cause of—the ills of the larger society which the individual is no longer able to confront.
But the cultural bulwarks we have just discussed—the
.confusion of romance with marriage, the blurring of its economic functions and its rigid sex roles, the privatization process, the illusion of control and refuge, all of which exploit the fears of the modern person living within an increasingly hostile environment—still are not the whole answer to why the institution of marriage continues to thrive. It is unlikely that such negatives alone could support the family unit as a vital institution. It would be too easy to attribute the continuation of the family structure solely to backlash. We will find, I am afraid, in reviewing marriage in terms of our four minimal feminist demands, that it fulfills (in its own miserable way) at least a portion of the requirements at least as well as or better than did most of the social experiments we have discussed.
1) Freedom of women from the tyranny of reproduction and childbearing is hardly fulfilled. However, women are often relieved of its worst strains by a servant class—and in the modem marriage, by modern gynecology, “family planning,” and the increasing takeover, by the school, daycare centers, and the like, of the childrearing function.
2) Though financial independence of women and children is not generally granted, there is a substitute: phys-. ical security.
3) Women and children, segregated from the larger society, are integrated within the family unit, the only place where this occurs. That the little interplay between men, women, and children is concentrated in one social’unit makes that unit all the more difficult to renounce.
‘ 4) Though the family is the source of sexual repression, it guarantees the conjugal couple a steady, if not satisfactory, sex supply, and provides the others with “aim- ‘inhibited” relationships, which are, in many cases, the only long-term relationships these individuals will ever have.
Thus there are practical assets of marriage to which people cling. It is not all a cultural sales job. On a scale of percentages, marriage—at least in its desperate liberalized version—would fare as well as most of the experimental alternatives thus far tried, which, as we have
seen, also fulfilled some of the stipulations and not others, or only partially fulfilled all of them. And marriage has the added advantage of being a known quantity.
And yet marriage in its very definition will never be able to fulfill the needs of its participants, for it was organized around, and reinforces, a fundamentally oppressive biological condition that we only now have the skill to correct. As long as we have the institution we shall have the oppressive conditions at its base. We need to start talking about new alternatives that will satisfy the emotional and psychological needs that marriage, archaic as it is, still satisfies, but that will satisfy them better. But in any proposal we shall have to do at least one better than marriage on our feminist scale, or despite all warnings people will stay hooked—in the hope that just this once, just for them, marriage will come across.