Family Life Stages and Traditions: Courtship, Marriage, Child Rearing & Aging

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  • 0:05 Basic Stages of Family Life
  • 1:05 Stage One: Courtship
  • 3:20 Stage Two: Marriage
  • 5:14 Stage Three: Child Rearing
  • 6:13 Stage Four: Aging
  • 8:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
In this lesson, we discuss the four stages of traditional family life that sociologists study. Although the concept of family has changed with time, these four stages remain prominent in our culture.

Basic Stages of Traditional Family Life

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:

  1. Courtship
  2. Marriage
  3. Child Rearing
  4. Aging

Stage One: Courtship

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Arranged marriages may seem odd and outdated to modern Americans.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.

Stage Two: Marriage

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.

Stage Three: Child Rearing

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.

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