The Family in America

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Online Edition    [SwanSearch]


 Volume 20  Number 01

Part of the John L. Swan Library of Family and Culture

January 2006 



Getting to the Church on Time

Although the retreat from marriage in the United States, expressed in declining marriage rates and increasing age of first marriage, is well documented, a study by three Mississippi sociologists finds that the extent of that retreat varies considerably according to one's faith tradition. In general, the more "conservative" the faith tradition, the greater likelihood that its members will marry and will marry at an earlier age, relative to their peers from a more liberal faith tradition or no tradition.

The researchers analyzed the first wave of data of the National Survey of Families and Households, working with a sample of more than 10,000 respondents. They found that both men and women who are Mormon, conservative Protestant, or moderate Protestant reveal a "greater propensity" to marry —and to marry at considerably younger ages than the unaffiliated. In terms of the age of first marriage, Mormons marry earlier than conservative Protestants, who marry earlier than moderate Protestants, although the differences between these three groups were not statistically significant.

Although their faith tradition would be considered conservative, Catholics stood somewhere between the early marrying Mormons and Protestants and the later marrying liberal Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated. In fact, the statistical tests yielded no significant differences in marriage timing between Catholics and liberal Protestants. Persons of the Jewish faith, as well as liberal Protestants and the unaffiliated, were found to be the most likely to postpone or delay marriage.

These findings withstood a variety of controls for sociodemographic factors, including education and employment status, that affect marriage timing, leading the researchers to conclude: "The strength and persistence of these patterned associations further demonstrate that there are robust and multifaceted linkages between two prominent social institutions, namely, religion and marriage."

(Source: Xiaohe Xu, Clark D. Hudspeth, and John P. Bartkowski, "The Timing of First Marriage: Are There Religious Variations?" Journal of Family Issues 26 [July 2005]: 584-618.)

The Poetic Truth About Homosexuality  

Since the scandal surrounding British poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, homosexuality has claimed no literary figure more prominent than the 20th-century Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973).  However, after considerable personal experience, Auden delivered a remarkably negative judgment on this kind of sexual activity. 

According to a newly published critical study, Auden made decidedly negative comments about homosexuality during a 1947 conversation with Alan Ansen: "I've come to the conclusion that it's wrong to be queer, but that's a long story.  Oh, the reasons are comparatively simple.  In the first place, all homosexual acts are acts of envy.  In the second, the more you're involved with someone, the more trouble arises, and affection shouldn't result in that. It shows something's wrong somewhere." 

Nor did Auden's perspective on homosexuality grow more favorable in the years that followed.  In 1969, just four years before his death, Auden wrote candidly, "Few, if any, homosexuals can honestly boast that their sex-life has been happy."

(Source: Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005], 172-173.) 

Married Americans Remain Faithful  

Contrary to what the silver screen and television portray, American men and women report high levels of marital fidelity. According to a report published by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), 92.6 percent of married men and 93.4 percent of married women report being faithful to their spouses during the previous twelve months.

The report details findings from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, which was conducted by NCHS, a division of the Centers for Disease Control at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 2002 survey involved face-to-face, computer-assisted interviews with 7,643 women and 4,928 men, ages 15-44, in the household population of the United States.

The study reveals a close association between marriage and monogamy, a concern of the CDC because of the latter's natural protection against sexually transmitted diseases. While 4.5 percent of married men and 3.8 percent of married women reported having engaged in sexual relations with more than one partner in the last twelve months, 30.5 percent of never-married men and 24 percent of never-married women reported the same, as did 15.6 percent of cohabiting men and 15.2 of cohabiting women. Divorcees reported having the highest levels of multiple sex partners (33.6 percent of divorced men and 29.3 of divorced women).

The report also found that the percentage of men who reported having had genital contact with another man in the previous twelve months was small (2.9 percent); the percentage was even smaller (1.6 percent) among men engaging exclusively in such same-sex activity. Among women, the respective same-sex figures were 4.4 percent and 1.3 percent, although with women, the reported activity represented a broader category of behavior: "any kind" of sexual experience with another woman. Yet something more than actual behavior seems to have influenced responses to questions related to sexual desires and attractions, as 8 percent of men and 7.9 percent of women consider themselves as having a non-conventional "orientation," whether homosexual, bisexual, or "something else."

The high levels of marital fidelity and very low levels of homoerotic behavior among men show little change from a 1991 study published in Family Planning Perspectives that found similar results (see New Research, July 1993, p. 1). That national survey of more than 3,300 men found that 95.8 percent of married men had intercourse with only one partner during the previous year. It also found that only 1 percent of sexually active men, ages 20-39, reported engaging in only "same-gender sexual activity" in the previous ten years. Given the paucity of homoerotic acts both then and now, one wonders what drives the media, the courts, and advocacy groups to make homosexuality seem more normative that it really is.

(Source: "Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002," National Center for Health Statistics, Advance Data, Number 362, September 15, 2005.)

The ABCs of Teen Drinking  

Most parents of teenagers know that a problem confined to college campuses a generation ago haunts high school communities today: alcohol use. Yet a study of sophomores in Icelandic secondary schools suggests that the increase of divorce, the lack of parental involvement with their teens, and the decline of church attendance have each strengthened the appeal of the bottle to teenagers.

Parsing data from the 2000 European School Survey on Alcohol and Other Drugs, which obtained responses from 89 percent of all tenth graders in Iceland, three Icelandic and one American sociologist measured both individual and school factors related to alcohol use among teens. In both bivariate and multivariate statistical tests, including what the researchers describe as their "best fitting model," teens living in households without a father, without a mother, or with a stepparent were more likely to drink (all three household arrangements at both test levels were statistically significant). Also statistically significant across the board: Teens were less likely to drink if they reported that their parents knew of their evening whereabouts and if teens reported that they were emotionally close to at least one parent.

Teens also were less likely to drink if they reported that they regularly attended public worship and expressed confidence in getting "support from God" when in need (p< .001 for both variables). While individual parental religiosity did not yield significant correlations with teen drinking in the multivariate tests, among teens that attended schools where parents were more religious, females drank significantly less than did males (p< .05).

For parents anxious about teen vulnerability to drinking, these findings confirm that staying out of the divorce court and taking the family to church each week are powerful tools to keep their teenagers out of trouble.

(Source: Thoroddur Bjarnason et al., "Familial and Religious Influences on Adolescent Alcohol Use: A Multi-Level Study of Students and School Communities," Social Forces 84 [September 2005]: 375-390.)

The Ambiguous Family  

Although the birth of children brings stress to any marriage, children tend to stabilize a marriage and help prevent the likelihood of divorce, especially when a couple has several children. Children pose, however, a different dynamic in stepfamilies, judging from a study by Susan D. Stewart of Iowa State University that documents an inverse relationship between the high level of "boundary ambiguity" in such families and marital quality and stability.

Defining boundary ambiguity as a "lack of clarity as to who is in and who is out of the family," Stewart draws upon the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households to measure the extent of discrepancy between spouses in their perception of what children are "in" their respective families. In her sample of more than 3,350 families representing "first-married, remarried, and cohabiting couples with minor children from previous and current unions with minor step-, biological, or adopted children," the sociologist discovered that boundary ambiguity is significantly more prevalent in stepfamilies than in original two-parent families.

In her multivariate tests, couples with stepchildren were found to have almost three times the odds of boundary ambiguity than couples with only shared biological children. Couples with greater family complexity (having at least two sets of stepchildren and shared children) relative to couples with less complexity (only one set of stepchildren and no shared children) increased those odds of boundary ambiguity. While resident stepchildren lowered the odds, nonresident stepchildren raised the odds, as couples with two sets of nonresident children faced the strongest effect, 44 times the odds. Also contributing to the mix was the union status of the couple, as cohabiting couples faced 40 percent greater odds of boundary ambiguity than married couples.

While it did not appear to affect the perception of marital quality on the part of men, boundary ambiguity did stress women. Stewart found that wives in families with ambiguity reported significantly more disagreements with their husbands and significantly higher chances of separating than their peers in families with no ambiguity (p < .05 for both correlations). Both results included controls for family complexity and parental characteristics, including union status (cohabiting or married), previous marital status, age, race, and education.

While Stewart did not examine the impact of boundary ambiguity on children, her revelation that nonresident stepchildren are often "out of sight, out of mind" underscores that divorce and remarriage while catering to the demands of adults rarely serve the interests of their children.

(Source: Susan D. Stewart, "Boundary Ambiguity in Stepfamilies," Journal of Family Issues 26 [October 2005]: 1002-1029).

Moynihan Saw It Coming  

Though progressive intellectuals branded Daniel Patrick Moynihan a racist when he issued his famous 1965 report on The Negro Family, the evidence continues to mount that he was absolutely right to have sounded the alarm about the baleful consequences of the breakdown of black family life.  The latest evidence vindicating Moynihan's prescient report appears in a study recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family by researchers at the Universities of Washington and Michigan.  Based on national probability data collected for African Americans ages 15 to 54 between 1990 and 1992, this new study clearly indicates that blacks who lack the protection of wedlock are particularly exposed to financial and psychological distress.

In their overall analysis of the data, the Washington and Michigan scholars reach an unsurprising conclusion: "As predicted by the process of social stress theory, financial strain and traumatic events had adverse effects on mental health status."  But more careful parsing of the data reveals that not all African Americans are equally vulnerable to stress, trauma, and psychological malaise. "Compared to married [African American] individuals," the researchers conclude, "unmarried persons report both more financial strain and traumatic events, more negative interactions with relatives, and more depressive symptoms."

The finding that unmarried blacks are subject to more financial strain, more traumatic events, and more depression than married peers would hardly have surprised Moynihan.  And the finding that unmarried blacks experience distinctively more negative relationships with their relatives than do married blacks casts serious doubt on an argument often advanced by progressives who discounted Moynihan's report.  For that finding undercuts the argument that black extended families have compensated for the disappearance of intact black nuclear families.  It would appear that even in their relationships with their extended families, divorced and never-married blacks are significantly worse off than their married black peers. 

(Source:  Karen D. Lincoln, Linda M. Chatters, and Robert Joseph Taylor, "Social Support, Traumatic Events, and Depressive Symptoms Among African Americans," Journal of Marriage and Family 67 [2005]: 754-766.)

Confucius Would Smile  

Because the peoples of Eastern Asia have been influenced by centuries of Confucian culture, their attachment to family is widely recognized and understood.  Surprisingly, though, young Americans even in the 21st century are just as likely as their East Asian counterparts to look to their families as their primary source of life satisfaction.

The evidence that young Americans resemble their Asian peers in viewing the family as their prime source of life meaning appears in a study recently published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology by a team of researchers from the University of Rhode Island and the University of South Carolina.  When comparing survey data collected from 488 Korean students ages 12 to 17 with survey data collected from 571 American students of comparable ages, the researchers limn a clear pattern of convergence in family attitudes.  "The family domain," the researchers remark, "was the strongest contributor to global L[ife]S[atisfaction] for both U.S. and Korean adolescents."

The authors of the new study interpret their results as a clear indication that "regardless of culture, positive family expectations are essential to adolescent well-being."  In other words, "Across cultures, the importance of family in one's life seems to be universal."

(Source: Nansook Park and E. Scott Huebner, "A Cross-Cultural Study of the Levels and Correlates of Life Satisfaction Among Adolescents," Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 36 [2005]: 444-456.)

Parents or Coaches?  

Some Americans suppose that adolescents can learn their most important life lessons not at home from parents, but rather in sports from coaches.  But teens who spend a lot of time under the guidance of coaches rather than parents may be headed for trouble.  The risks of replacing parents with coaches stand out clearly in a study recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence by Professor Siu Kwong Wong of Brandon University.

By analyzing survey data for 578 public school students enrolled in grades 5 through 12, Wong has established that sports and family life have remarkably disparate effects on adolescents' lives.  "Family-related activities," Wong finds, "strengthen the social bond and reduce delinquent association and delinquency."  In marked contrast, "the amount of time playing sports increases delinquency and violent offenses in particular" (p<0.05). 

Why does "doing things with the family" reduce adolescent delinquency while participating in sports actually fosters such delinquency?  "Activities comprised of primarily peer participants," Wong reasons, "compared to those involving family members or conventional adults, tend to have less-positive effects on the social bond."

This new study should foster skepticism about proposals for reducing teen criminality by launching new tax-funded sports programs.  It appears that no one wins when teens spend more time learning how to pass a ball to a teammate than they do in learning how to plant a garden with parents and siblings.

(Source: Siu Kwong Wong, "The Effects of Adolescent Activities on Delinquency: A Differential Involvement Approach," Journal of Youth and Adolescence 34 [2005]: 321-333.)

Avoiding Wedlock or Just Postponing It?   

Demographers have marveled at the remarkable "retreat from marriage" witnessed in recent decades in the United States and other industrialized countries. However, in a new study published in Population Studies, researchers at Pennsylvania State University conclude that though many young Americans are postponing marriage, relatively few are actually avoiding wedlock.

The Penn State scholars acknowledge that in the fall of the marriage rate during the final decades of the 20th century, many have discerned "a sea change in the social and demographic behaviour of Western populations ... brought about by fundamental shifts towards ideologies that emphasize individual autonomy."  These scholars' own analysis, however, suggests that the retreat from wedlock is actually more pronounced in Europe than in the United States, where almost all young adults still do eventually marry, even though at later ages than in the past.

That Americans are older when marrying than in the past is very clear: the Penn State researchers calculate that in 2000 the average age at first marriage was 28.3 years for grooms, 26.3 years for brides, compared to 23.0 years for grooms and 20.8 years for brides in 1970. However, the Penn State scholars' statistical model indicates that even though Americans coming of age at the turn of the 21st century have postponed wedlock, the overwhelming majority 89% of men and 91% of women will eventually marry.

Past generations of Americans, it is true, saw a higher percentage of men and women marry: among Americans who came of age at the end of the Sixties, 97% of men and 97% of women married. Thus, though the data do indicate "a real decline in marriage" in the United States, that decline is "considerably smaller" than it has appeared to demographers who have prematurely misinterpreted numbers indicating delayed marriage as evidence of permanent singleness. Properly adjusted, the numbers still attest to the abiding if somewhat belated attraction of marriage for 21st-century American men and women.

(Source: Robert Schoen and Vladimir Canudas-Romo, "Timing effects on first marriage: Twentieth-century experience in England and Wales and the USA," Population Studies 59 [2005]: 135-146.)





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