Not Going Nuclear: So Many Ways to Live and Love

Increasingly, households and personal communities are not anchored by couples.

Posted Jan 15, 2010

Nuclear family homes are shrinking in numbers, but they still command a place of status in our cultural imaginations. The married mom and dad and their kids, living together under one roof (with no one else included) - that's still the reigning image of human togetherness and connection.

The intense quest for admission to the Married Couples Club among many in the GLBT community adds to the prestige of that one specific form of community. So do all the claims to the "family" label - as, for example, when a group of trusted friends are more important to you than biological family members, and are then called a "family of choice."

These high-profile attempts to grab onto a piece of the "family" power are masking a much more intriguing contemporary trend - ways of living and loving that do not mimic the family form that has a sexual couple at its center.

Perhaps "families of choice" shouldn't be called families at all. Maybe they should proclaim their true identities - they are communities of friends, or personal communities that include friends, relatives, neighbors, mentors, and other important people - with sex and living under the same roof not required.

There are differences that go beyond the element of choice. Personal communities are more likely to be comprised of people who consider one another roughly equal. Age and gender roles may have less clout than they do in nuclear families. There may be a greater sense of affection and reciprocity, and a lesser sense of obligation. (Nuclear families have their own strengths, too, but they do not go unrecognized.)

Shows such as Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City contribute to the perception that communities of friends are for the young, or maybe the youngish. They are. But increasingly, they are for other adults, too. A New York Times piece described one version of the trend as "a modern answer to the commune." "Intentional communities," and groups of long-time friends who make plans to retire together in the same community or even the same big home are other examples.

Sometimes the people who live together ARE family members - they are just not conjugal couples. There are siblings, for instance, who build lives together, and not just as elderly widows or widowers. Following the recommendations of a report called "Beyond Conjugality: Recognizing and Supporting Close Adult Relationships," Canada came close to offering legal protections to interdependent relationships not based on sex.

Even couples are increasingly living in less traditional ways, as when the two people do not share one home. The number of commuter marriages has been steadily growing. Often, the partners in those marriages are separated by necessity - as when unyielding job requirements demand dual residences. But another marital form, called "living apart together" (LAT), is also making its mark on our demographic map. In many instances, the people in LAT partnerships WANT their own places.

Many, of course, still are living the nuclear family life. But peek inside a nuclear household, and what you will find at the turn of the 21st century is different than what you would have found 20 years previously. Today's couples are less enmeshed. As Paul Amato and his colleagues noted in their book, Alone Together:

"Couples in 2000 were substantially less likely than couples in 1980 to eat together, visit friends together, go out for leisure activities together, or work on projects around the house together" (p. 67)...Couples in 2000, compared to those in 1980, also had "fewer friends and group memberships in common" (p. 201).

What are the unconventional communities or living arrangements that you've experienced or observed? Do you agree that we should stop trying to fit every possible personal community under the "family" label and start recognizing what makes them distinctive?