Family Rules: What is a Family?
When I learn of friends and families who have decided to live together, I wonder about the legal implications—especially when the couple decides to buy a home or share some other large financial undertaking. In fact, when I hear of some couples getting married, I often think about the legal implications of those unions. Does she really want to be legally bound to that guy? Is he sure about legally joining with such a woman?
The romantic notion of marriage is that it is a union between a man and woman (or if you’re more liberal—this definition could include two people of the same sex). Have you ever been married or even involved in a long-term serious relationship? If so, then you know that these relationships are not ever just between two people!
I’m sure you’ve heard things like: I don’t care what his mother thinks because I’m not marrying her! Really? Marriage and similar relationships are not only legal institutions but social institutions that define who our family is. And trust me, your family of origin (the one into which you were born) has a lot to say and do with your family of (pro)creation (the one you create through marrying and having children).
At a basic level, think about the quality and nature of family relationships if your in-laws hate you! Imagine the friction this could cause between you and your spouse and/or between your spouse and his or her parents. Want to bet that interferes with the spousal relationship? And when/if children are born into this fractured situation how do you imagine all of this might play out? Yep. Another area of battle: “Your mother hates me! Why would I let her watch the baby?”
The truth is that although we like to think about our romantic lives as just that “ours”, they exist in a much wider context. Wearing my family therapist hat, I could discuss the many ways that your past influences your mate selection. But thinking as sociologist, I know the family-- our most basic unit of society-- is important too.
I had never heard of the Sister Wives until I saw it showcased on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but it illustrates some important issues about family formations in this society. The show is about a polygamous family (one in which three or more people are married). Actually, it features a polygynous family—one man with more than one wife; this is the most common form of polygamy. How come? Why is polyandry—one woman married to at least two men—not at least as common as polygyny? How come fundamentalist Mormons practice polygyny, but not polyandry? Do you think that in a society of single women outnumbering single men, these double standards are a surprise?
In a society in which we have double standards about sexual mores and behaviors that constrain female sexuality, polyandry would be an even bigger stretch than polygyny. (In fact, the husband in the show referred to the idea of his first wife in a polyandrous relationship as “vulgar.”) This is an example of how much more prescriptive we can be about the numbers of sexual partners women have than men.
During the show, one of the “Sister Wives” asked a question worth considering: Given that all of the women entered into this relationship freely, why can’t they be left alone? (I think the comment was made in the context of the husband facing felony charges for bigamy.) Good question. Why can’t society leave people to form families as they like? Or do you think you’re free to stay single, mingle as you want to, or marry whomever you choose? Sure. Just a few guidelines though:
1. Be single if you want to, but you’ll miss out on the tax and other incentives that married couples enjoy.
2. If you’re cohabiting, be glad you didn’t live in a time when it was illegal to do so as you would not have been able to rent a place together. And if you live in Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina or Virginia, be careful as these five states still have anti-cohabitation laws on the books! According to a legal expert I consulted, these laws have not been enforced in years and are thought to have been made unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) which gave gay couples a constitutional right to be intimate—and therefore, gives heterosexual cohabitants the same right.
3. Your beloved better be of a different sex (in most states of the U.S. anyway) or you can’t marry.
4. You better only have one beloved, or at least keep your additional loves outside of marriage. We practice monogamy… at least ostensibly. (Hey, I’m not endorsing extramarital affairs, simply stating the conditions for marriage in this society.)
5. Your beloved better not be a family member. (Like almost every other society, we insist on upholding rules upholding exogamy: We prohibit marriage and sex between relatives.)
Can you think of other rules to add to this list?