November 04, 2010

Family Rules: What Is a Family?

new janis By Janis Prince Innis

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 also 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 between your spouse and his or her parents. Want to bet that this will interfere with the spousal relationship? And if children are born into this fractured situation, how do you imagine all of this might play out? Yes, it will lead to 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 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 familyour most basic unit of societyis 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 being 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? Surebut there are a few guidelines:

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 had better be of a different sex (in most states of the United States, anyway) or you can’t marry.

4. You had better only have one beloved, or at least keep your additional loves outside of marriage. We practice monogamyat least ostensibly. (I’m not endorsing extramarital affairs, simply stating the conditions for marriage in this society.)

5. Your beloved had better not be a family member. (Like almost every other society, we insist on rules upholding exogamy: We prohibit marriage and sex between relatives.)

Can you think of other rules to add to this list?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Family Rules: What Is a Family?:


I think that men can be more jealous then some women, not saying that women dont get jealous too but when a women is married to more the men have to fight for attention with women they can talk and gossip to one another, almost like they like sharing a man.

I really liked your article. I really liked the part with the Sister Wives. It was interesting and I've never really heard of a story like it.

I think that when you marry into a family, each person is then given a specific role to follow in that family. But when there's a strain on a relationship in the family, such as an in-law hating you, you tend to get role conflicts. Why is it that all of this happens when you really just want to be with the person you love? Because they love more than just you; they love their parents and siblings and friends and home just as you do, and there's a sudden expectation for it to be loved by you too. By marrying, you get that achieved status and choose to love it, too.

I think that:A family is a group of people who are important to each other and offer each other love and support.In order to be sensitive to the wide variety of life styles,living arrangements,and cultural variations that exist today,the family can no longer be limited to just parent-child relationships.Family involvement must reach out to include - mothers,fathers,sisters,brothers,grandparents,neighbors,and other persons who have important roles in the lives of people with disabilities.

I like your blog, its very interesting. Family is very important to you and some day it could be the only thing you have let. You should love your family even if you guys argue and fight you should still love them.

I think the show 'Sister Wives' is very much based on social norms in a way that men are considered of a higher status then women when men have more sexual partners.Women are considered disgusting and whores when they are having sexual initmacies with more than one person. I believe those 2 viewpoints are why polyandry is not heard about as often as polygyny. It is socially acceptable for men to have more than one sexual partner. Though it is not considered socially acceptable for polygamy to occur because the definition of marriage is for only 2 individuals, no more.
As far as family goes, it is very important to have your family to run to when you face major struggles in life. Your family should always be willing to accept you as a person and to let you in when you are in need.Life is too short to judge.

I think that in our society there are more cases of polygyny is more common than polyandry because men in the Mormon society have a higher value in society than women therefore it is ok for them to have more than one sexual partner and not be judged for it. If a man has more than one sexual partner they are often looked up too instead of looked down upon by other males much like females our in modern society.

I think that the author of this blog is definitely right when they say that marriage is just as much of a social institution as a legal institution. While you may think that you can just ignore your in-laws if they don't like you, it will never be that easy. Eventually it will get very hard if your family doesn't get along.

I think that Janice Prinns is referring to marriage as something that it is not--all about the legalities. Marriage is supposed to be about love, and romance, and wanting to spend the rest of your life with that one special person. I know this sounds incredibly naive and simple, but why can it not be?
Families are the basic units of sociology, and very important. And when you marry someone, you are making a new family, your own family. I think it is wrong to say that marrying one person is like marrying the whole family. If you really love someone, then what your or their family thinks should not matter. If your mother is your brain at 25...then you should not be getting married.
Marriage is a serious joining, and between loved ones. This post is extremely narrow minded and it does not mention the real purpose of marriage.

I really liked your article. I think people should be able to make their families however they want in society but they should follow the guidelines you have given.

I liked your article a lot. Sister wives seems like a weird show. I would never even consider being married to a guy that already has three wives. Are these four women all legally married to this man? I really don't think that this is right at all and don't see how the four women can function. In my mind this is considered completely wrong if they are all married to this man.

I'm in a sociology class right now and I feel like you've really helped me understand the concepts of polygyny. I also really like how in your article there was the interview with the stars of that show. I was impressed with how people think it's wrong because our social norms tell us it is. GOOD JOB. In America, monogamy is usualy practiced, so to get someone that's breaking the norms it immediatly puts us on guard and irratated. It just Amazes me. Good job agian.

Ashlyn Mancini

You make a lot good points about gay marriages and the different shows out there that fuel the fire about a lot of the main issues today. We just had a disscussion about gay marriages and what would be the implications of allowing a man and a man or a woman and woman get married. I think it the pros out weigh the cons because a person can't help who they love or attracted to and if they want to marry that person, so be it.

I agree with what you are saying, and found it very intersting how you explained about the consqeunces of a rushed marriage, or even the other types of marriages such as polygamy and polyagny. Very well done.

Thanks for all the feedback!

(And no, the women are not all legally married to the man in the polygamous family mentioned.)

The rules concerning what is a family have changed over the years in the public eye. I tend to think that most of the behavior that is categorized as strange has been going on for years and has just now found its way into the public eye. It is a known fact that the majority of people have a hard time with accepting change. In this case is the change really necessary or needed? There have been family traditions that have been carried out for a countless number of years. Who is to say that these new practices are not one of them. When it boils down to it, it is a personal preference to what time of family you would like to raise, grow up in, and become a part of in the future.

I really like the way you addressed this controversial topic. I think it is interesting that we live in a "free nation" but there are still ridiculous restrictions on families and what defines one.

I agree that once a man and woman commit themselves to each other through marriage, their choice will affect everyone in the family. Once they have children, things will change because they now have to offer love towards one another and their children. When a couple has children it becomes easy to loose site of the love they hold for each other. So once a couple is married they must remember to take time for themselves to build on their bond and also take time for them. I believe just because you fall in love and get married, it is important to not loose your own identity. Then when it comes to polygamous families I will never understand because your giving the love that was meant for one to numerous people and that breaks the vows.

I really liked this article. I also really liked the part about "Sister Wives". I have never heard of anything like that before. I agree that people should be able to make there family how they want to but they should follow the guidlines that you provided.

I liked the article but I think that marriage is a relationship that should be between two people not one man and three women and not the other way around. If you truely love someone it should be only one person you truely should share the love with.

I found it very interesting how you suggest that our romantic lives are not just "ours" but also everyone else involved in our own personal lives. I believe this is very true and you were very clear in all of your ideas as well as the way that you portray how other people in our lives can affect the way that a marriage or relationship can play out.

I really enjoyed this article! I have heard about the sister wives show, and it seems very controversial. Its good for me, as a teenager to hear different sides of the story. I really learned a lot by reading this article, so thanks!

I enjoyed this article, but for some reason in my mind stories like "The Sister Wifes" are sickening. Not only is polygamy illegal, but I dont feel that any of those children can possibly get the love and one on one time they need with their father. In my mind that is not a family.

Great post if onyl the world could see this, families are being torn apart now more than ever, it seems like. I think that people shouldnt start a family unless they are sure they want to make that commitment. Anways great post it was really interesting and kept me reading.

I think that there should be no polygyny. One man should only be married to one woman and that is it.

Marriage is odd in a general sense. There are so many controversies centered around marriage that it has become quite difficult to actually know what marriage actually entitlies. Is it solely a union between one man and one women? Or is it a union between any two people? Or is it could it be considered even more than that? I suppose that question can only be answered depending on your specific religious beliefs.

This is a very interesting article. It is kind of amazing how different societies have different views on marriage and relationships in general. Our society has made it so that if you don't follow the norms, you are no longer accepted. I think that society has broadened their views on these topics, but I think in the future this could change and everyone will be more acceptable of people who live differently than the majority.

I dont know how the women in sister wifes can stand it. I personally dont like the idea of the guy im dating to even flirt with other girls let alone marrying them along with me. I also think that if you marry into a family where the mother hates you she is going to try to get along with you a bit if it makes her child happy. I think you made some great points on how our romantic relationships are not only our relationships.

I enjoyed your article. I think that if you marry a person you also marry there family. But I think when someone gets married and certain family members don't like the person you married then you have to get over it. You should be happy that your family member is happy with the decision that they made. Family is an important thing. They are the ones there for you all the time. But they need to be happy with the decision that you have chosen.

I am not a member of the Mormon church, but I find it insulting to suggest that fundamentalist Mormons believe in polygamy at all. It is a practiced that has been looked down upon by the church since the 1800s. And the church excommunicates anyone engaged in the practice, a policy taken up in 1904. It doesn't take much research to Google "mormonism and polygamy" and find decent information. We wouldn't slander Islam on this blog by ignorantly feeding into the stereotype that Muslims walk around blowing up stuff to get 72 virgins. Let's not do this with any religion, Christian or not. This narrow-minded slander had more impact on me than the rest of Innis's post.

But yes, people don't fully recognize the legal or social implications of marriage. Perhaps the U.S. would best think of two different marriages: The archaic Christian institution of marriage that we still base a lot of our system on, and the legal marriage that people actually care about. If we stopped giving tax incentives to those who engage in the Christian definition of marriage and save all of our financial incentives for marriage for those who would like to join in a legal marriage then we might have more equality.

Just think,the Church can keep all of its laws on marriage (strictly heterosexual, till death do you part, etc.) and the government can make its own laws for marriage based on equality (allow homosexual marriage, only two partners, etc.) The tax incentives will be given only to those in a legal marriage. If you would like to have both types of marriages, you must comply with the rules of both the church and the state. But it's silly that those two institutions haven't been seperated yet, even after all of this friction of the state trying to impose its laws on the church and vice versa.

I do feel like when you're in a serious relationship with someone or planning to marry someone you are also in the relationship with their family. I also think that families should stay out of a couple's business though sometimes. There is such thing as friendly adivce but there is also not-so-friendly advice.

I like your opinion on marriage now being between two people. I have never been married but I have seen couples argue over other family members. When looking for a suitable husband you should look at his family as well. The idea about sister wives scares me. I can't believe these women do not get jealous. I could never share a guy! I do not know how these women do this.

A family should be defined as a group or groups of supportive people , that allow growth and enrichment, be added to a persons life , through lifes up and downs.

Good blog, it is very interesting that the bondage of two people involves many more other than the two. What I don't understand is why so many people have problems with homosexuality but have not problem with polygyny. If you are going to have problems with one you better have a problem with the other or you're being hypocritical.

I think it is bad that our sense of family is deteriorating. There are many problems that can be linked to the breakdown of family. I thnik that polygamy is bad for the children because they won't get as much attention from their father because of all of his wives and all their kids. The parents may be okay with the marriage setup, but the children did not voluntarily enter that situation.

I think it’s ridiculous that the Brown’s may go to jail for their polygyny. All four of those women went into the marriage knowing what was going on, so I really don’t see a problem with it. And as one woman stated in the video that it wasn’t a good environment for the children to live in, well bull to that. I see many positives to it. Having one mother could be great. More attention, although it’s probably hard with 16 kids, but still, it’s not like the kids are being neglected or hurt. I believe you should marry whoever makes you happy. May it be the opposite sex, or the same sex or multiples of either, as long as you’re both happy, than I say go for it.

I'm in a sociology class currently and we are talking about family dynamics. It was interesting to read about polygyny in your article. I had heard of the show "Sister Wives" before, but hadn't really known what exactly was going on in it. I also enjoyed your point about how marrying someone does not mean you are just marrying your significant other. When you marry you have to be involved with your spouse's family as well. This is a really good point!

In my sociology class, we have been learning about the family unit and marriage. I agree that the relationship formed by marriage is bigger than two individuals. The old saying "when you marry someone, you marry their family" really does hold true. I think failure to realize this before marriage may cause strain on a relationship. Although I am more liberal, I do find the television show Sister Wives distasteful. The relationships involved do not seem equal to me when a man with three wives is appalled at the idea that a women could do the same. To me, polygyny promotes gender inequality. The women that are not the first wife are not legally married to the husband. They have no legal protections. While I understand that it can be difficult when others judge a person's relationship, they are on a reality television show. If they had wanted to be left alone, they would have never sought to be on television. They chose to make the details of their life extremely public.

Thank you for your very interesting article. The television show "Sister Wives" is different and I've noticed that it has causes quite an uproar in our society. I believe that it is their choice to be in that type of relationship, although it is hard for a lot of people to understand. They all freely chose to have the lives they do, so we should just leave them alone.
Also, I never thought about just how bad it would be to be legally bound to someone that wasn't exactly responsible. Good article!

I like your article, I am currently in a serious relationship and talking about marriage when I get back from boot camp for the United States Army. This article shines some light onto my relationship and they way we're thinking about things. Maybe we are going too fast and we should slow things down and not rush into a marriage.

This is a great piece! I think its interesting how you went about thinking that when you are with one person, you are actually involved with a lot more people like that person's familly. That is completely true. A lot of people have broken up because the other person's family was too much to handle. Sad, but true. I also thought the part about Sister Wives was interesting. That is a very interesting show. I honestly don't know how those women deal with sharing a husband, but like they said, they went into it freely so I guess they want to deal with that whole situation. This was very interesting.

Starting a family or marrying into a family is a huge deal. You are making a commitment that you will have to deal with for the rest of your life. You need to make sure that you can deal with all of your loved one's "baggage" before you enter into such a commitment with them. Sometimes the in-laws can be overwhelming and you have to make sure that, that is something that you can deal with for the rest of your life. If you have any doubt in your mind about the fact that you are going to be able to deal with them, then you should just step back and take a look at the situation that you are in and see if it is worth carrying on with.

I like the point that you made about a relationship between two people being about much more than two people. When my brother got married, it had a big impact on many people, not just him and his wife.

I found this article very interesting. I never thought about all the rules for marrying or not marrying before, i thought your article showed that society can be a bit harsh sometimes when it comes to the rules of marriage, such as with homosexual couples. I never gave much thought before to the fact that marriage isn't just between the couple but now that I do i completely agree.

I agree with what you are saying. I think that a family should be one together and communicate. That is what a real family is.

This article provided a unique perspective about the legalities of marriage, because most often, only the romantic, lovey-dovey perspective is spoken of in today's society. Of course, love is one of the strongest reasons two people come together, but there are many laws and legal intricacies behind the binding. Perhaps if people thought more seriously about that aspect of marriage, divorce rates would be lower. Also, people need to have a realistic view when they enter a marriage because the fact of the matter is there are more people involved and impacted by the relationship than just the spouse! If people don't want to accept that as reality, their marriage will probably have issues. If there are issues with in-laws, the ideal solution would be to come to agreement and compromise so it wouldn't affect the rest of the family dynamics.

As to polygamy versus polyandry, it just goes to show yet another double standard slanted toward men in this society. Men can get away with having multiple partners, and in cases other than marriage, most often, they may actually be encouraged to do so! It's frustrating from a woman's perspective to view these kinds of double standards not because I want women to be able to get away with polyandry, but because of the simple fairness and equality issue is presents.

This is a very interesting article! You bring up a good point about how marriages usually involve more than just the couple because families are so interconnected that often the parents and such are involved. In regards to families forming in the way they like, I believe this should happen! As long as the family is formed on strong relationships, a commitment to caring, and a secure foundation for any future children, the family should be able to exist. I think that as long as the members fully know what they are getting into and the public scrutiny they might face that it should be allowed. However, if the relationship causes the children or spouse (such as in polygamous relationships where enough attention may not be given as deserved) to suffer emotionally, then red flags should go up.

i like your's very inspiring and interesting..hope to read more of your blogs..thank you and God bless.. ;))

I have always found it odd that polygyny is more widespread than polyandry. Despite the fact that monogamy is the most commonly accepted form of marriage, polygyny is still in existence even in the United States while polyandry is found almost nowhere. I think this furthers the idea that a woman's purpose is to please her husband and have children. A man with multiple wives can have many more children than a woman with multiple husbands. But perhaps as women become more empowered and having children becomes a much less important factor in marriage, polyandry and women having multiple partners in general will slowly become more accepted.

I really enjoyed reading the points in this article. It looked at a family from a couple different perspectives which is important because if you can't understand those multiple perspectives, you can't really have a stable life with a family. I liked how you mentioned the romantic stance as being between two people and then how the other perspectives can become more of a social aspect. Many people are involved in a family even if they aren't directly related to it.It is difficult to really understand the rules that come along with families and especially what type of family is being spoken of. Family is a complicated tie of people and I always think of the saying "You can't live with them, you can't live without them." Seems to fit very well at times.

Thanks for sharing this! I find it quite interesting that there’s a bigger picture to a marriage than just the two people having their own marriage. The facts are nonfictional and truthful though. It’s always important to look deeper into family ties that you have with the other family because that could arouse numerous issues throughout the expansion of the marriage. Also, I find this entire article extremely interesting along with your example on polygamous families. Once again, thanks for sharing.

I like the conversation. This is article is true to so many people. When a man and a women get into a relationship they need to think about the people that are around them and how they are going to be affected. Their relationship is about them, but it also affects others and they need to make choices that will make everyone happy or compromise. Also, couples jump into things way to fast and then later on they learn that they really don't know each other and their families. Then they get into trouble after that. In this country there should be a marriage between a man and a women or (man and a man and visa versa). But more than one spouse is wrong and they can go to another country if they want to have multiple ones.

I think every person in a family has a specific role to play, wheather it is providing for the family, or doing housework, each person has something to do, and they help each other do what needs to be done. I also believe that relationships and marriage should be between one man and one woman. Nothing else!

I would agree 100% that marriage is more than just a legal union. I know that when my parents used to argue and bad mouth each other, i definitely felt the strain on the relationship. Thank God they never divorced, but i couldnt help being deeply affected by what and why they were arguing. As one said bad things about the other i would feel it too because i am a part of both of them and it discounts me as well. Also the fact that some men would marry more than one women kind of disturbs me and it should be considered illegal.

Your article is so so interesting. Your section talking about the family and the in-laws is so truthful. As much as people think that a relationship is only between two people the truth is that it involves much more than just themselves. Then your example of the Sister Wives is so fascinating because as a person who comes from a family of one man and one women marriage to see that that isn't always the case is really interesting.

I agree that we should be allowed to choose who are family is, even if it is against the norms of society. It is the decision of the individual, and if others do not want to be married to many different people, or be married to someone of the same sex, then they do not have to. Perhaps if society was more flexible with the marriage choices allowed, a lot of problems would be solved.

I really enjoyed this article-America lives in a society where one man and one women having children is a family or in some cases a homosexual couple with kids. But your article made me think of what the defination of a family really is-is it what society thinks it should be or can it be any kind of bondship and cohabitiation? It really get you thinking.

I think the views on marriage has changed very much over the years. I dont really agree on the polgamy marriage. When your married it should be to the one person you love.One man to one women.They should not start a family if they are not willing to commit to one person.

I really liked this article thank you! I think anyone can get married no matter what their beliefs or sexual orientation are. If thats what the people on the Sister wives want, thats fine! I agree that when two people get married it involves so many more people than just those two and sometimes people forget that.

With all the laws that say who us citizens can and cannot marry or live with, our government is practically deciding our future for us. There's so much talk about gender socialization, and our government has a lot to do about it as well. I find it quite ironic that in that particular religion polygamy is okay, but when it comes to polyandry it is described as "vulgar". Our government should allow citizens to do as they wish, rather than be interfering sociologically.

Polygamy is wrong. You should not be married to more than one person, I don't know how someone could love more than one person at a time.

In my opinion, families are about the love they share for each other and the way the support each other and lift each other up.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

The Real World

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More

The Family

Learn More


Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

« Managing Hearts in the Happiest Place on Earth | Main | Crossword Puzzles and the Null Hypothesis »