Back To CourseSociology 101: Intro to Sociology
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Families are an important part of our society. Almost everyone is a member of, or identifies with, a family. Families are all around us, in our personal lives and in media and entertainment. The concept of the family tends to be different across cultures and has certainly changed over time. However, there is an expected familial pattern in our society that has remained the same for hundreds of years: couples get together, marry, have children, and then age while their children restart the cycle.
Obviously, not everyone goes through this process in the exact same order. Some people never experience this cycle at all. However, these four steps, in this order, are considered the basic stages of traditional family life in sociology:
Courtship refers to the stage of family life during which a couple develops a relationship before marriage. It is specifically about finding someone to marry. In this lesson, we'll discuss the two most common types of courtship: romantic love and arranged marriages.
In our society, we celebrate romantic love as the basis of marriage. For us, courtship is used to seek 'the one' - that special person we are destined to love, marry, and spend the rest of our lives with. We find it hard to imagine a marriage without love and passion, and popular culture - from fairy tales to television shows and movies - depicts them as the keys to a successful marriage. However, a well-known statistic is that nearly half of American marriages end in divorce. This suggests that romantic love can be a less stable foundation for marriage than the social and economic considerations behind arranged marriages.
Arranged marriages may seem odd and outdated to modern Americans. However, in some cultures, courtship is considered too important to leave up to the young. Arranged marriages, although more common during ancient times, still exist in some countries and even in some worldwide religions. They are often used to create an alliance between two families or to provide a number of economic benefits. They tend to have a much lower rate of divorce and separation.
Regardless of the emphasis on romantic love or arranged marriages, homogamy is common in all societies. Homogamy is a marriage between people with the same social characteristics. Potential mates who have similar backgrounds and other characteristics are generally considered the most attractive. For example, arranged marriages typically occur between two families who have similar social statuses. Likewise, even in couples who marry because of romantic love, it is extremely common for individuals to find mates within their same social class.
Regardless of how one finds a mate, the result of traditional courtship is marriage. Marriage refers to the stage of family life during which a couple legally unite and begin a life together. In our society, not only do we idealize romantic love, but we tend to also idealize marriage as 'happily ever after.' Fairy tales that are used over and over again, romance novels, romantic comedies...many of them show marriage as the epitome of happiness. The wedding industry appears to profit quite well from this. Not only is it booming, but the average cost of a wedding today is around $25,000!
After the wedding, of course, comes the honeymoon - a time of endless romance and sexual gratification. However, there's a reason why 'the honeymoon is over' is a fairly popular phrase in depicting the reality of marriage. A fairly significant percentage of marriages don't quite meet the high expectations of the ideal marriage once the 'honeymoon phase' ends.
As we previously discussed, nearly half of American marriages end in divorce. The high U.S. divorce rate has many causes, one of which is the fading of ardor and sexual passion with time. At greatest risk of divorce are young couples who marry after only a brief courtship, since they lack emotional maturity and seem to idealize marriage more than anyone else. Many young people end a marriage in favor of renewed excitement and romance with a new partner. However, even magazine articles and self-help books will tell you that a successful marriage requires more than just love and sexual compatibility - it requires trust, honesty, respect, and hard work.
The next step for successful marriages in the traditional family cycle is child rearing, which is the stage of family life during which a married couple bear and raise their children. Despite the demands children make on us, American couples overwhelmingly identify raising children as one of the life's greatest joys. Today in the U.S., two or three is typically considered the ideal number of children. This is different from just two centuries ago, when eight children was the average.
Big families are advantageous in preindustrial societies, because children supply needed labor. However, industrialization impacts the birth rate dramatically. For example, several factors have brought about a decline in the birth rate in the U.S., which is at a record low. Economic costs, birth control technology, higher employment of women, and higher education are just a few of those factors.
Once the children are grown, a married couple's relationship and responsibilities change significantly. Aging refers to the stage of family life after one's children have become independent. I'm sure you've heard the metaphor 'spread their wings and fly,' referring to children leaving their parents' home. The empty nest is when parents are left with empty space in the home after their children leave. Any major life change requires some adjustment, and it may take time for a married couple to adjust to living by themselves again. Some couples experience significant grief and depression when this happens, and this is referred to as 'empty nest syndrome.'
However, around this age, some adults may begin to take care of their elderly parents. This can help decrease the negative effects of an empty nest.
The final transition in married life comes with the death of a spouse, and it tends to be the hardest to cope with. Increasing life expectancy in the U.S. means that couples who stay married do so for a longer time. However, women usually have a greater life expectancy than men and thus can expect to spend some years as widows.
The potential for elder abuse is one very disturbing aspect of older adulthood. It is usually discussed in the context of elderly persons living with or near their children, which is a common part of this last family stage. Elder abuse is the neglect or abuse of dependent elderly persons. Physical and/or psychological abuse, financial exploitation, medical abuse, and neglect are all forms that elder abuse can take. Although it certainly doesn't happen in every household, the rates of elder abuse are disturbingly high and a topic of study for sociologists.
In summary, family is an important topic of study for sociologists. Although much has changed over the years, there is still an expected familial pattern in society. There are four basic stages of traditional family life.
The first is courtship, during which a couple develops a relationship before marriage. In our society, we use romantic love to find a mate, but some societies and worldwide religions use arranged marriages. Homogamy is a marriage between people with the same social characteristics, and is common in all societies, regardless of the emphasis on romantic love or arranged marriages.
The second stage is marriage, during which a couple legally unite and begin a life together. Like romantic love, our society tends to idealize marriage as 'happily ever after.' However, after the honeymoon is over, reality sets in, and marriage can take a lot of hard work to avoid divorce.
The third stage is child rearing, during which a married couple bear and raise their children. Many adults consider raising children to be one of the life's great joys. However, the birth rate in the U.S. is the lowest it has ever been due to a number of factors.
The final stage is aging, which is family life after one's children have become independent. Some adults experience significant grief and depression when their children leave the home, which is known as the empty nest syndrome. Later, the final and hardest transition in married life is the death of a spouse.
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Back To CourseSociology 101: Intro to Sociology
14 chapters | 126 lessons | 10 flashcard sets