Online Sunday Service: The Family That Stays Together… hmmm

So when asked about doing a talk on the family, I just remember thinking how broad this idea of the family is.  So I started thinking….

What are all the ways the word “family” is used?

 I ran off a list, though this is far from complete.  Nuclear family, extended family, work family, religious family, Earth family, spiritual family, ancestral family, biological family, adopted family, foster family, mafia family… and many other ways we refer to “family”.  You get the idea.

How has the concept of “family” evolved over time?  Perhaps the idea of the nuclear family has become so diluted that it is almost meaningless anymore.  If we stop and think about it, how many of us are actually part of a family where there is one mother and father with their own biological children who are full siblings (the so-called traditional family)?  How many of us are part of a single parent family?  A childless family?  A straight, gay, or lesbian family?  A blended family with step-parents and step-children? A family of pets and people (or a person).  I know a few people who live alone, but with multiple pets.  Can there be a family of one?

The website “Fast Company” provides a brief article by Charlie Sorrel.  He states that the data says that, and I quote

“the nuclear family is still the most common set-up, edging out non-nuclear families 54 to 46 percent.  Nuclear is defined by the United Nations as any of these: a married-couple family, with or without children, or a father (or mother) with children.  Other kinds of household include siblings living together, extended families of three generations living together, or people living with friends and/or relatives. The nuclear family remains dominant, but not really in the sense we understand it.  We might think of a nuclear family as two parents, plus one or more kids, but the definition is a lot broader than that, encompassing anything from a married couple to a lone parent and child.  Considered like this, perhaps the very definition of nuclear family has become useless because it really doesn’t really mean much anymore.” (End quote)

I will add that there are plenty of arrangements, including aunts and uncles who raise their sibling’s children, or grandparents who raise their grandchildren, that don’t fit into the UN’s definition of a nuclear family, but still involve families living together.  Grandparents parenting their children’s children have become quite a phenomenon in contemporary culture.  These could also be considered nuclear family arrangements, despite the UN definition.

In addition, we must consider married families vs. non-married families.   Pope Francis has recently blessed civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, legitimizing another family arrangement.  It may be that the Pope and the Catholic church intend to maintain the more restricted idea of marriage by keeping it exclusive to a male/female bond. 

So who are the families that don’t constitute nuclear families? For our purposes here, I would say that these would be any sort of family experiences that do not occur under one roof where people actually live together.  No doubt, we could make arguments about this as well, but for the sake of this talk, we will draw the line between nuclear and non-nuclear in that way. 

Yet returning to nuclear families for the moment, we do know that the average age for first marriage in the United States is at an all-time high for both men (30) and women (28).  About 48% of all adults in the United States report being married.  There has been a striking decline in the number of people married in the U.S. over the last several decades.  72% of Americans were married in 1960.  Think about that. A 24% decline in the number of Americans married over the last 60 years.  Divorce rates and a larger percentage of never marrieds are part of the changing patterns.  In addition, over 50% of couples who marry will cohabitate first.  And then there are cohabitating couples who never marry.  We must consider how the experience of “family” includes all these couples.  In my own couple’s counseling practice, I lose track sometimes of who is married and who isn’t.  The bonding, connection, and conflicts often don’t seem all that different.  Whether to marry or not is often not an issue worthy of discussion anymore.  

So there are all kinds of non-nuclear families, those that don’t live under the same roof.  While some of these are biologically connected, many are not.  Many of us see our “work family” as a very important part of our lives.  We are often with these people more hours in a day than we might be with our own nuclear family.  Work families seem to be highly compartmentalized.  In other words, we typically do not interact with work colleagues outside of the work settings.  It seems rather rare to do so anymore.  At one time this was more common.  Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” (2000) chronicles the fragmentation of American society over the last several decades.  Things such as groups, clubs, and other forms of interactive experiences with others (often providing a feel of “family”) are not nearly as common or as represented as they used to be.  It may be true that other forms of grouping are more common now.  Take children’s sports, such as soccer.  But it also may be that these involvements still are primarily within the nuclear family and interactions with other families may remain superficial for the most part.

When I looked online at what is happening with our work families, I immediately saw tips on “maintaining boundaries” with work colleagues.  This got me to thinking.  Is being in a “healthy boundary” culture driving us away from the bonds of family? (Read again for emphasis.) Whatever family we might be referring to?  Now let me just say that, if this is true, I am one of the worst instigators.  I’ve read books on healthy boundaries and I talk about this often in my psychology practice.  I make no bones about it.  The message in popular culture is that healthy boundaries lead to a better life.  Unhealthy boundaries lead to misery.

 Now, of course, you don’t need to be a mental health professional to embrace the “value” of healthy boundaries.  Most modern people, at least in this country, embrace boundaries as well.  Incidentally, I never remember hearing anything about relationship boundaries when I was growing up in my nuclear and extended family.  But we still managed to mostly get along.

Of course, the answer is not to abolish the concept of relationship boundaries.  I would guess that most of us believe they serve a real purpose.  Yet it is interesting that popular culture has grabbed onto a concept that creates space more than concepts that create connection.  For example, family therapists address both issues of enmeshment as well as disengagement with family members.  Both are problematic, but popular culture seems to pay more attention to problems with enmeshment and the need for proper boundaries.  Yet we know that being disengaged, or “cut off” from family remains a very real problem that leads to lots of loneliness, isolation, and alienation.  (To be fair, rigid boundaries are considered unhealthy, just like loose boundaries, but they don’t seem to get the attention they deserve in popular culture.)

It may be inevitable that in a society that values and even worships individualism, family bonds are often in jeopardy.  We wrestle with what to do when it comes to the question of our own well-being vs. the well-being of the group.  As we know, other societies have been known for their commitment to family and prizing the well-being of the group above all else.  Still, there is evidence that the American way of life has had an influence in other parts of the world, so perhaps other societies and cultures are dealing with this conflict as well.

So what are the implications of “family” for UUs?  Compared to the church I grew up in, I have noticed that the Casper UU church is represented by broader and more flexible family structures and dynamics.  This could be merely reflective of the broader family structures in our society in the present age.  Then again, perhaps there is something unique about UUism and its emphasis on the individual that shapes at least some UU churches.  Consider the 4th principle “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.  This seems to value the individual over the group, or the family. 

Might we even say that Unitarian Universalism is not “family friendly” based on the strong emphasis on the individual?  This is likely an unfair assessment given the efforts many UU churches put into children’s programming and other things.  Still, I can only speak for myself, but I was mainly thinking of myself when I explored UUism.  In those days our Casper group was sort of a coffee room discussion format for reflective adults.  I don’t remember seeing any children around and heard some complaints that we weren’t “kid friendly”.  That was fair.  I’ve watched our group over the years take a few steps forward and a few steps back with regard to an RE program.  It has become an established part of the Casper UU church at this time, but certainly wasn’t always so.

To even suggest that Unitarian Universalism is not “family friendly” certainly strikes a lot of nerves.  Maybe it’s just that the idea of family in UU, like so many other ideas, is just so much more fluid than static.  It seems that more traditional Christian churches are less likely to struggle with ambiguity around such a concept as “family”.  What’s the old saying “The family that prays together stays together”.  This is hardly a UU sentiment.  We’re more likely to feel puzzled, asking more questions than answers, just like this talk I’m giving today.  One thing is for sure.  We UUs are very good at taking something seen as basic and demonstrating why it is so much more complex.

Also, we maintain an acute concern for people and groups that are marginalized, excluded from what is basically accepted.  When other churches or groups promote family, or especially family values, we rise to the defense of those individuals and groups that end up being judged or alienated.  Whether this falls along the lines of racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic class, religious differences, disability, or other demographic characteristics, we raise our voices in both protest and an affirmation of these very souls that have been pushed out.  We concern ourselves with the proverbial “red-headed step-child” of the family and for this we should be proud.

So maybe our UU vision of family is the highest family value.  Inclusive, not exclusive.  We all know that “family values” typically refers to a narrow set of values, even an agenda perhaps.  The program “Focus on the Family” in Colorado Springs is pretty clear with its agenda.  There seems to be little room to celebrate and support families that do not fit the definitions that are based on conservative Biblical interpretations.

In other words, our vision of family embraces the existential power of “belonging”.  It has been my experience in my counseling practice and in my life that a sense of belonging is essential for survival.  We want to belong to something and that can mean a lot of things.  In thinking about why people come to UU churches, some may seek belonging to a spiritual community, while others are looking for social belonging.  There are those who simply want a loving community and the belonging that it brings.

However we perceive our associations as UUs, we are “family” (to borrow from Sister Sledge).  Even our seven principles invoke concepts like “human relations”, “acceptance of one another”, “democratic process”, “world community”, and “interdependent web”.  We are often a bunch of “independents” interacting with each other.  We are pretty good about respecting each other’s boundaries (there’s that word again), perhaps too much.  Yet when we display our neediness, which may not be as often as those in other churches might, UUs are absolutely there to help.   

So how is “family” relevant for the current times?  Take my wife and I.  We’ve never used the same doctor.  We do not have the same dentist or hair stylist.  I don’t even know if “family doctors” still see all family members anymore.  I know that when I was a young child, my family had a family doctor.  It has been suggested that millennials are less likely to see the need for a family doctor, preferring convenience like walk-in clinics.  This certainly seems once again to suggest the dissolution of the older ideas and structures that defined family.  On the other hand, the fluid and flexible way we experience a sense and feeling of family is not limited. 

How do we assess the state of family life and relationships during the pandemic?  I’m dealing with a need to see my elderly father in Ohio at Thanksgiving, but am faced with the dilemma of whether I should take such a trip.  There was an article in the Casper paper a few weeks ago from a resident at one of the assisted living facilities.  She made a very articulate plea for the lifting of visitation restrictions, saying she and many of her fellow residents would rather die of COVID-19 than isolation.  That article gives us all pause.  We know that depression rates have risen significantly during this time.  There are some estimates that one out of two people in the world feel that their mental health has suffered in some way.  People are feeling fragmented, not receiving the amount of family and social support that they need.  A lack of social support is a major factor in reasons people attempt suicide.  We seem to be having to walk a difficult line between not spreading the virus and not sinking into loneliness, alienation, and despair.

I can’t help but wonder if my talk would have more value to you if we were all in the same room, the sanctuary of our church perhaps.  Some of you may agree with that.  Others may find this remote video platform to be just as good.  Others of you may say “It doesn’t matter.  It would be boring both ways.”  LOL

Seriously, these are challenges we are facing.  There are those who can feel the feeling of family and belonging through the digital highways, while others find very little hope or inspiration in technological connection.  Maybe it’s time to consider the value of our “cyber” families during this pandemic.  While a lot of criticism has been leveled at online friendships, it may be these folks who are having the most success these days at maintaining feelings of connection with others.  It is certainly something worthy of investigation.

So is the institution or the concept of “family”  in danger of extinction, or at least radical transformation?  Are there benefits and refreshing possibilities that can come with these changes?

The idea of the extinction of the family is a lofty prediction that I am in no way qualified to speculate on.  But perhaps radical transformations have already been occurring in the ideas mentioned here.  There are those that want to preserve the family as it once was.  Strangely enough, the idea of the “wholesome family” conveniently ignores the problems that have often been hidden in families and rarely brought to light until more recent times, such as child abuse, spousal abuse, etc.  As a progressive, I generally welcome the inherent value of change, but this doesn’t mean that all change is good.  There are often a series of missteps before we find our way, such as in how families are constituted.   Astronomical divorce rates do create a lot of pain and suffering, but the other side of this may be the opportunities for a more positive life that people can obtain.  I would say that the fundamental belief in change in a larger sense is the point, even when changes along the way create struggle and even setback.

Of course, change is inevitable.  Efforts throughout history to stop it have typically failed.  The human being is an individual and a social animal.  It is within this vital tension that families are created, defined, and redefined.  As we continue to grow in how we come to terms with the individual and the social, our efforts will be informed by how we experience family and how it must change in accordance with the current realities of our lives and the times we are living in.  Thank you.

Reference  (Charlie Sorrel)

Putnam, Robert.  (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community