There is no denying the universality of the family unit (defined as at least a mother, father, and their children). Attempts to do without the family as a basic socialising agency have been abandoned.
As for marriage, a number of important functions may be identified:-
- to regulate sexual relationships
- to provide the core of family life
- to contribute to personal and social well-being
- to provide stable and enduring relationships
Patterns of marriage
Marriage has not only sexual, but economic, aspects. It entails co-habitation and therefore the emergence of a ‘home’ in which the next generation is protected and socialised.
George Murdock, in Social Structures, surveyed 250 societies and found the nuclear family to be the basic and universal social grouping. The family, he found, was characterised by common residence, economic co-operation, and reproduction.
Societies restrict sexual privilege, canalising the sex drive in predictable and social useful ways. But not every community restricts sexual intercourse to married partners. One study of 400 societies found on 66 with the monogamous pattern. 376 allowed polygyny, and 31 polyandry.
Talcott Parsons declared that the incest taboo is universal in human societies. This has, of course, important social and genetic implications.
Sexual regulation and cultural advantage
J.D. Utting, in his 1934 book Sex and Culture, drew the following conclusions:-
- The cultural condition of any society is conditioned by its methods of regulating the relations between the sexes.
- Productive social energy is only displayed if a new generation inherits a social system under which sexual opportunity is reduced to a minimum.
Thus, the western Christian norm is supported. Supported too are the gloomy observations of Freud, who believed that only by communal renunciation of instinctual gratification could civilizations arise and a society continue to exist. In other words, it is impossible to enjoy both cultural achievement and sexual license.
For centuries, societies have recognised this. Implications include the prevention against endless strife and rivalry, the socialisation of children, and the solemn joy of marriage rituals.
Experimental marriages turn out to occupy the unstable middle ground. Society is uncertain how to treat such couples; they will be uncertain of each other; they will remain in ignorance of what marriage is really like.
How marriages are established
Many societies practice arranged marriage. Western practice, however, emphasises marriage based on mutual attraction. For at least two centuries European literature and sensibility has promoted the ideal of ‘romantic love’. But love, in this context, means both intense physical attraction and delighted pre-occupation. Lewis, in The Four Loves, distinguished between ‘Venus’ – carnal sexual desire, and ‘Eros’, which regards the beloved as a unique person. ‘Venus’ wants ‘it’; ‘Eros’ wants the person. Today, Venus never had it so good.
Sex, of course, has an important place in marriage. It is a natural expression of live. Marriage is ordained to regulate its expression. But mere Venus is no adequate basis for choosing a partner, since it provides no guarantee of compatibility over time. In the past, parental influence provided some kind of check on suitability. Even today, like tends to marry like, with respect to class, race, religion, age, intelligence and education.
The sexual act itself can be the vehicle for many different feelings: ‘lust, vanity, and self-assertion, doubt and curiosity, possessiveness, anxiety, hostility, anger or indifferent release from boredom’ (van den Haag).
The permanence of marriage is further supported by the idea that marriage exists for the family, not vice-versa.
The basis of marriage contains elements and emphases from three different sources: sexual, personal and social.
Internal dynamics of marriage
These depend on the number of spouses, the number of progeny, wider kinship affiliation, age and environmental status of spouses, social background, together with other cultural factors.
To consider our own society:-
Marriage always involves role differentiation. Marital role definition has its roots in the basic physical differences between males and females. It finds its expression in traditional male/female role expectations.
There is dispute as to whether personality and attitude traits are due nature or nurture. But the differences are there anyway: females perform better on verbal tests, arithmetical tasks, clerical skills, some kinds of verbal reasoning, rote memory and fine manual dexterity. Men do better on spatial tasks, mechanical and practical tasks, and mathematical problem-solving. As far as personality traits are concerned, surveys show that women tend to be tender-hearted, dependent and sensitive, whereas men tend to be assertive, independent, aggressive, competitive and stubborn.
Feminists find such patterns to be deplorable. But whether they are to be deplored or not, problems occur due to recent changes of attitude. The qualities which made, for instance, a good nurse will no longer be looked for in half the population. The abolition of the stereotype leads to role confusion within marriage. And the stereotype had its uses. It prevented severe identity crises, provided models, channeled affection, directed instincts, protected certain sensitive area from harmful experiment and hence avoided friction. It also, alas, institutionalised a species of male dominance which could deny basic liberties and possibilities of personal growth and social usefulness to women.’
The potential richness of marriage may be indicated by referring to its cognitive and emotional aspects. Cognitively, the partners begin to form a new perception of the world together. This suggests the need for communication -and much family therapy is aimed at restoring this communication.
Based on O.R. Johnston, Who Needs The Family? ch. 2.