Changing Family Patterns

Info taken from:

AQA Sociology Book One (Including AS Level) - written by Webb, Westergaard, Trobe, and Townend

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Marriage - Facts

Fewer people are marrying - in 2012, there were 175,000 first marriages for both partners - less than half the number for 1970

There are more remarriages - in 2012, 1/3 marriages were remarriages for one or both partners

People are marrying later - the average age of a first marriage now stands at 32 for men and 30 for women

Couples are less likely to marry in a church - in 1981, 60% of weddings were conducted with religious ceremonies, but by 2012 this had fallen to 30%

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Marriage - Reasons for Change

1) Changing attitude to marriage - there is now less pressure to marry and widespread belief that the quality of a relationship is more important than its legal status

2) Secularisation - churches are in favour of marriage, but as their influence declines people feel freer to choose not to marry (e.g. the 2001 Census showed that only 3% of young people with no religion were married, while 17% with a religion were)

3) Declining stigma attached to alternatives - cohabitation/being single/having kids outside marriage are all now regarded as acceptable (e.g. in 2012, 42% believed couples who want kids should marry, while in 1989 it stood at 70%)

4) Changes in the position of women - better educational opportunities/career prospects mean women are less economically dependent on men; gives greater freedom not to marry

5) Fear of divorce - with rising divorce, some may be put off marrying to avoid an eventual divorce

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Marriage - Other Reasons

Reasons for other changes in patterns of marriage include the following:

Remarriages - the increase of re-marriages is caused by the rise in the number of divorces

Age on Marrying - the age at which couples marry is rising because young people are postponing marriage in order to spend longer in full-time education/to establish themselves in a career first/ or are cohabiting before they marry

Church Weddings - couples now are less likely to marry in a chuch as fewer people see the relevance of religious ceremony and many churches refuse to marry divorcees

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Cohabitation - Facts

Cohabitation - an unmarried couple in a sexual relationship living together

  • There are about 2.9 million cohabiting heterosexual couples in Britain.
  • About 1 in 8 adults are now cohabiting, double the number in 1996
  • There are an estimated 69,000 same-sex cohabiting couples 
  • About 1/5 of all those cohabiting are 'serial cohabitants' who have had one or more previous cohabitations
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Cohabitation - Reasons for Change

1) Decline in stigma - attached to sex outside marriage. In 1989 only 44% of people agreed that 'premarital sex is not wrong at all', but 65% took this view by 2012. 

2) Young people are more likely to accept cohabitation

3) Increased career opportunities - for women may mean they are freer, financially, to opt for cohabitation

4) Secularisation - young people with no religion are more likely to cohabit than those with a religion

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Cohabitation Vs Marriage

  • Chester - argues that for most people, cohabitation is part of the process of getting married, or a trial marriage e.g...
  • Coast found that 75% of cohabitating couples said they expected to marry one another at some point

Most cohabitors marry if they have children. Sometimes it is a temporary phase before marriage because one or both partners are awaiting a divorce. 

However, some couples see cohabitations as a permanent alternative to marriage. Benjin argues that cohabitation among young people is a conscious attempt to create a more negotiated/equal relationship than conventional patriarchal marriage.

E.g. Shelton and John found that women who cohabit do less housework than their married counterparts. 

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Same-Sex Relationships - Facts

  • About 5-7% of the population today have same-sex relationships
  • Male homosexual acts were dicriminalised in 1967 for consenting adults over 21. More recently, the age has been equalised with heterosexuals
  • Since 2002, cohabiting couples have had the same adoption rights as married couples. 
  • In 2004, the Civil Partnership Act gave same-sex couples similar legal rights to married couples. 
  • In 2014, same-sex couples have been able to marry
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Same-Sex Relationships - Chosen Families

Weeks (1999) agues that increased social independence explains a trend towards same-sex cohabitation and stable relationships resembling those of heterosexuals. He sees gays creating families based on 'friendship as kinship', where friendships become a type of kinship network. He describes these as chosen families

Weston (1992) describes same-sex cohabitation as 'quasi-marriage' and notes that many gay couples are now deciding to cohabit as stable partners - contrasting with gay lifestyle of the 1970s, which favoured casual relationships.

Allan and Crow argue that, because of the absence of such a framework until recently, same-sex partners have had to negotiate their commitment and responsibilities more than married couples, making these relationships more flexible/less stable than heterosexual relationships.

Einasdottir (2011) notes that, while many gays/lesbians welcome the opportunity to have their partnerships legally recognised, others fear that it may limit the flexibility and negotiability of relationships. Rather than adopt what they see as heterosexual relationship norms, they wish their relationships to be different. 

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One-Person Households - Facts

There has been a big rise in the number of people living alone.

  • In 2013, almost 3 in 10 households contained only one person (7.7 million people) 
  • 40% of all one-person households are over 65. Pensioner one-person households have doubled since 1961, while those of non-pensioners tripled.
  • Men under 65 are the group most likely to live alone.
  • By 2033, over 30% of the adult population will be single (unpartnered and never-married) 
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One-Person Households - Reasons for Change

  • Increase in separation/divorce - creates more one-person households, especially among men under 65, as children are more likely to live with mothers after divorce
  • Decreasing marriage/later marriages - mean more people are remaining single. Many are opting for 'creative singlehood' - the deliberate choice to live alone, yet some are alone because there are few too partners available in their age group. These are mainly older widows. 

LATs (Living Apart Together)

Duncan and Phillips found that 1/10 adults are 'living apart together' - they are in a significant relationship, but neither married nor cohabiting. This is 1/2 all people officially classified as single. 

They also found that some said they could not afford to live together, others actively chose to live apart (e.g. so that they could keep their own home, because of a previous troubled relationship, or because it was 'too early' to cohabit)

Surveys show that 20% of the public see LATS as their 'ideal relationship'

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Parents and Children - Childbeaing

  • 47% of children are now born outside marriage, 2x as many as in 1986
  • Women are having children later - the average age of having a first child is 28
  • Women are having fewer children - the average number of children per woman fell from a peak of 2.95 in 1964 to 1.94 in 2010. 
  • More women are childless - 1/4 of those born in 1973 will be childless when they reach 45. 


1) Decline in stigma - only 28% of 25-34 y.o. think that marriage should come before parenthood

2) Increase in cohabitation 

3) Increased opportunities for women - education, careers, financial independence etc. 

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Parents and Children - Lone-Parent Families

  • Lone-parent families make up 22% of all families with children - 1/4 of children live in a lone-parent family
  • 90% of lone-parent families are headed by women 
  • From the 1990s, never married women became the biggest group of lone-mothers (as opposed to divorced women) 
  • A child living with a lone-parent is twice as likely to be in poverty as a child living with two parents
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Lone-Parent Families (cont.)

Reasons for the patterns

  • More lone-parent families are caused by an increase in divorce/separation and the increase in the number of never-married women having children
  • There has been a decline in stigma attached to births outside marriage

Lone-parent families tend to be female-headed because of a belief that women are suited to an 'expressive' or nurturing role; divorce courts usually giving custody of children to mothers; men being less willing than women to give up work to care for children. 

Many lone-parent families, however, are female-headed because mother's are single by choiceRenvoize found professional women were able to support their child without the father's involvement. Cashmore found that working-class mothers with less earning power chose to live on welfare benefits without a partner, often because they had experienced abuse. 

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Lone-Parent Families - The New Right View

New Right thinker Charles Murray (1984) sees lone-parenthood as resulting from an over-generous welfare state providing benefits for unmarried mothers/children. 

Murray argues that this created a 'perverse incentive' - rewarding irresponsible behaviour (having children without being able to support them).

Benefits create a 'dependency culture' with people assuming that the state will support them. 

The solution is to abolish benefits. This would reduce the dependency culture that encourages births outside marriage. 

Critics of the NR view argue that welfare benefits are meagre and lone-parent families are more likely to be in poverty, due to a lack of affordable childcare preventing lone-parents from working; inadequate welfare benefits; failure of father's to pay maintenance etc. Also, most lone-parents are women, who generally earn less than men. 

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Parents and Children - Step-Families

Step-families are often referred to as reconstituted families

  • They account for 10% of families with dependent children
  • In 85% of step-families, as least one child is from a woman's previous relationship; in 11% at least one is from the man's previous relationship

Ferri and Smith found that while step-families are similar to first families in that the involvement of step-parents in childrearing is positive, step-families are also at greater risk of poverty

Allan and Crow state that step-families face problems about contact with non-resident parents, which causes tension. 

Ribbens and McCarthy say there is diversity among these families - we should speak of 'step-families' (plural), not 'the step-family'. Some have few tensions, while for those that do, the tensions are not so different from those in 'intact families'. 

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Step-Families - Reasons for Patterns

An increase in step-families is due to...

  • Increased divorce and separation
  • More children in step-families are from the woman's previous relationship as they are more likely to remain with their mothers after parental breakups
  • Step-families are at greater risk of poverty because there are often more children and the step-father may also have to support (e.g. pay maintenance towards) children from a previous relationship.
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Ethnic Differences in Family Patterns

Black Families 

  • In 2012, 50% of families with dependent children headed by a black person were lone-parent families. This is compared with 1/9 Asian families and 1/4 for the population as a whole.
  • This can be taken as evidence of family disorganisation, traceable back to slavery or high rates of unemployment. 
  • Under slavery, children stayed with the mother, establishing a pattern of family life that persists today. Male unemployment may also mean black men are less able to provide for their family, resulting in desertion. 

Mirza argues that the higher rate of lone-parent families among blacks rather reflects the high value place on independence. 

Reynolds argues many 'lone' parents are in fact in stable, supportive but non-cohabiting relationships (LATs).

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Ethnic Differences in Family Patterns (cont.)

Asian Families

  • Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian households are larger than other ethnic groups, with 4.4, 4.3 and 3 persons per household respectively, compared with 2.4 for Black Caribbean/ White British households
  • Larger household sizes result from the younger age profile of British Asians - a high proportion are in the childbearing age groups 
  • Larger Asian households also reflect the value placed on the extended family in Asian cultures, as well as practical considerations, such as the need for assistance when migrating to Britain, e.g. Ballard found extended family ties provided support among Asian migrants during the 1950s and 60s, which meant that relatives often live nearby today. (Today, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus are still more likely than other ethnic groups to live in extended family units.)
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The Extended Family Today

Parsons argued that the extended family was dominant in pre-industrial society, but in modern industrial society has been replaced by the nuclear family...

Charles' (2008) study in Swansea found that the classic three-generation family all living together under one roof is now 'all but extinct'. The only significant exceptions she found were among the Bangladeshi community

Despite this, Willmott (1988) argues that it continues to exist as a 'dispersed extended family' in that relatives are geographically separated but maintain frequent contact through visits and phone calls. 

Similarly, Chamberlain's (1999) study of Caribbean family found that, despite being geographically dispersed, they continue to provide support.

The extended family still performs important functions, e.g. Bell's research found that there was more financial help from father to son; among working-class families there was more domestic help from mother to daughter.

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The Extended Family Today - 'Beanpole' Families

Beanpole Families extended vertically through three or more generations; grandparents, parents, and children, but not extended horizontally: it doesn't involve aunts, uncles, cousins etc. They are often described as 'long and thin'.

Why might Beanpole Families exist?

  • increased life expectancy - grandparents and great-grandparents still alive
  • smaller family sizes - fewer siblings and thus fewer horizontal ties

Obligations to Relatives

Despite the rise in the beanpole family, many still feel a sense of obligations to help wider extended kin. Finch and Mason found that 90% of people had given/received financial help, and 1/2 had cared for a sick relative. However, they also found that more is expected of females than of males, and that reciprocity (returning the help to avoid indebtness) is important. 

Cheal argues that when it comes to help with household tasks... "help should be given: first, by a spouse; second, by a daughter; third, by a daughter-in-law; fourth, by a son; fifth, by other relatives; and sixth, by non-relatives."

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