Changes in the American Family

How family has changed since 1960.

Posted Apr 27, 2011

The American family is not what it once was. I recently enjoyed an animated discussion about how it has changed since the 1960s. The conversation grew out of a paper written by Professor Ken Fuchsman from the Psychohistory Forum in New York. The main idea was that children now endure more emotional disruption in familial relations than ever before.

The last 50 years have seen a dramatic rise in divorce rates (the U.S. has the highest of any industrialized nation), cohabitation rather than marriage, "blended" families of both gay and heterosexual design, and children born out of wedlock. This marks a shift away from the companion marriage popularized in the early 1920s to self-aspiration, enhanced freedom, and egalitarian relationships.

Is this change indicative of a culture of narcissism or self-actualization and democracy? Since the 1960s, society has become more inclusive and women more financially independent, resulting in increased tension in marriages between individuation and what psychoanalyst Erik Erickson described as "generativity," a concern for the welfare of others.

In marriages of high conflict, such a those with overt emotional abuse or violence, children often benefit when the partnership is dissolved. However, in low conflict marriages, children tend to suffer in school and social relationships in the aftermath of divorce. Adults may bring unresolved conflicts into parenting and romance, reenacting their own childhood dramas and sometimes putting their own needs for gratification before that of their kids. A child may be perceived as a sibling rival. The emotional turbulence of divorce likely leads to feelings of loss, rage, and mourning for all — and frequently the parentification of a child. There can be a lack of generational boundaries that a youngster needs for their own protection and internal control.

One anecdote from the discussion concerned two divorcing parents who vehemently blamed each other over the phone, while their teenage daughter sat alone in a mental hospital after having an LSD-related psychotic break. In the wake of a divorce, it can become hard to trust the ones we love.

In Ken's words, the U.S. "is accumulating a deep psychological national deficit" for future generations. In 2001, adult children of divorce were two times likely to get divorced as those whose parents remained together. "Alloparenting" or collaborative nurturing through diverse forms of childcare is one way to offset the rupture of families. Additional role models (extended family, au pairs) can help children learn to regulate themselves emotionally and teach them frustration tolerance and delayed gratification. Yet couples have kids later in life and, in many cases, extended familial support is not available. There is no village to help raise a child. Society has become more mobile, and aunts and cousins are no longer living across the backyard fence. From my personal experience, I know that if you wait too long to have kids, the grandparents can't keep up with them!

Media becomes a surrogate parent. Perhaps Facebook is the new (bad) breast. The proliferation of technologies like social networking, cell phones, and video games have altered how children relate to significant others. New communications have rudely infiltrated the therapeutic setting as well. One psychoanalyst related the experience of a patient texting someone else during sessions. Psychiatrist Alice Maher was quick to point out that the Internet is not all bad: It also provides a venue that allows us to watch "primary processes" come alive. It's a playing field for our most basic instincts and unconscious mental activities. The computer is a blank screen, says Maher, that allows us to observe collective transference, projection, and regression — and with analytic interpretation, help others see it in themselves.

The rise of dual career, two-income marriages has also transformed domestic arrangements. In 2010, more American women were employed than men. While husbands are more involved in childrearing, the bulk of housework and parenting still falls on women, which translates into a tricky balancing act between caregiving demands, spousal engagement, and job responsibilities. Self-definition can become a heavy burden and self-defeatist when, at the end of the day, there's no home to come home to.

Are women or men the adults today? Are there any adults? What does it mean if you're called one? Ken suggests mature couples' parenting is related to the degree you both can negotiate conflict, fear, and primal anxiety without becoming brittle. A problematic economy with extended work hours complicates parenting in other ways. Sometimes we aggressively act out repressed work hierarchies at home. Add to the mix the seductive power of consumer culture increasing the drive for money: It is sexy walking into Louis Vuitton.

As never before, children's play is tied to the desire for the acquisition of a premade object. We used to play stickball in a back alley and pretend with dolls made from old socks. Consumerism shrinks kids' imaginations, some suggest, and play revolves around the object more than the activity. One colleague mentioned that her granddaughter has a Barbie doll for every day of the week. A historical marker for this psychosocial trend is Mattel's noisy machine gun, "Thunder Burp," introduced in 1955. This noisy plaything was the first toy to have a televised commercial outside of the Christmas season. (In light of the January 8th Arizona shootings of Congresswoman Giffords and others, it is notable that the first merchandised product for kids was a gun.)

Our discussion concluded with some words on healthy adult play and Phyllis Greenacre's notion of having a "love affair with the world." Faced with inadequate nurturance, a child may call on their imagination for protective effect. Imaginative play can soften the blow of family disappointments and work to heal traumatic wounds. Children, like artists, often experience the external world with innate pleasure, even awe. Creative engagement with one's surroundings affords independence from parental figures, giving children feelings of personal power and confidence in their ability to determine reality.

Individuals, at whatever age, engaged in this "love affair" are better able to tolerate mixed emotions and reinvent themselves through creative play. In times of turmoil, my own kids act out stories with motley toys and build elaborate structures like castles and "Snake Jails" using egg cartons, legos, and pipe cleaners.

Finally, our group expressed the collective wish for parents to gain awareness of how their actions and emotions impact their offspring.

The Psychohistory Forum is a scholarly non-profit that looks at history through a psychological lens. Clio's Psyche, its online venue, promotes the care, growth, and relevance of psychodynamic thinking in an Internet age.


Ken Fuchsman, "The Family Romance Transformed: American Domestic Arrangements Since 1960," Clio's Psyche: Understanding the "Why" of Culture, Current Events, History, and Society. vol. 17, no. 4, March 2011.