Family Matters: An Essay

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by William Deatherage, Executive Director of Clarifying Catholicism

The following essay has been featured after receiving a grade of A- or higher from a professor. For more information on the subject matter, check out the video below which inspired this essay.

            For centuries across Western culture, the family’s composition remained fairly static and stable, consisting of one man and one woman formally bound for the rest of their lives. Recently, though, several movements have swiftly mobilized to redefine what exactly it means to be a family. This has yielded shocking results that many social scientists believe have had far-reaching effects on the wellbeing of both individuals and society. This paper will synthesize several reports that address various alternative family models that are currently in the normalization process and their impacts on children. The primary subjects of this analysis will be single parents, same-sex unions, cohabitating households, and divorced couples. The evidence provided will illustrate that traditional family remains the most efficient way to raise children and provide for their wellbeing. That said, it is important to note that it is absolutely possible for alternative family models to flourish and thrive. The purpose of this essay is not to encourage policy that will prevent non-traditional families from existing, rather it is meant to raise awareness of the difficulties that such units face. Thus, the family archetype of one man and one woman who stay married in a stable household seems to foster a more virtuous upbringing of children, which should be promoted and preserved through passive hard power and active soft power.

            Since the dawn of social science, the family’s importance as an integral institutional authority has been touted by many academics. One such contributor to this research is Alasdair Macintyre, who writes about the importance of “reasoning together with others”[1] and how the family promotes the growth of virtue at the most basic level of society. Macintyre’s Dependent Rational Animals works to dispel the Enlightenment-era notion that human beings are solitary individuals who seek to provide only for themselves. Instead, he argues that people are far more reliant on each other than once was thought, and that such dependencies are healthy for a society to function well. Concerning the relationships that foster practical reasoning, he writes, “We receive from parents and other family elders, from teachers and those to whom we are apprenticed, and from those who care for us when we are sick, injured, weakened by aging, or otherwise incapacitated.”[2] Because the seeds of virtue are sown at a young age, parents and guardians are charged with the important task of protecting and educating their children. However, several movements in recent history have portrayed the traditional family as either unimportant or even restrictive to the flourishing of individuals. On the other hand, Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, two social scientists who specialize in data analysis, emphasize the importance of normative roles in family life. Their study, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, cites several large scale studies that they conclude “[…] suggest that more traditional beliefs and practices regarding gender play a positive role in the quality and expressive character of many women’s marriages, even apart from the dramatic shifts in gender role ideology in the last few decades.”[3] Thus, the question is raised if alternative family models can actually fulfill the same tasks as the traditional one.

            The first claim that traditional family supporters often make is that two parents are required to raise children. Wilcox and Laurie DeRose, writing in The Cohabitating go Round: Cohabitating and Family Instability Across the Globe, find that the highest family instability rates are found in countries where children are born to and raised by single mothers.[4] The study primarily analyzes the United States and sixteen European countries, comparing them to several non-Western nations as well. While the emotional effects of single parenting vary based on gender of child, there are both economic and psychological impacts that the absence of a second parent can lead to. DeRose and Wilcox note that there is a severe lack of stability in single parent households, especially those of single mothers, across all countries analyzed. They measure that less than 10% of almost every country they surveyed experiences stability in single mother households. [5] It is also estimated that children born to single mothers are nine times more likely to experience a maternal transition and four times more likely to experience two transitions by age twelve than those in cohabitating structures.[6] The reason the authors focus on mothers specifically is because they face the burden of not only birthing and raising their children but providing for them too. Therefore, it appears that a plethora of problems plague single parents, as the task of providing both economic and emotional support are incredibly difficult for only one person to compensate for.

            It is not enough that couples simply live with each other to raise children, as there are great merits in the formalized unity that marriage can provide. Wilcox and DeRose address the rising rates of cohabitation, and their correlation with negative effects on families. In the seventeen countries surveyed, kids raised in cohabitating households were more than twice as likely to experience familial transition in comparison to married ones.[7] For example. It is estimated that up to 22% of cohabitating couples split before their children turned twelve in Romania.[8] This transition has been described as negative, as children show signs of emotional turbulence and distress during such situations. And while cohabitation may be on the rise in Western countries, its most devastating effects can be seen in impoverished nations. DeRose and Wilcox report that countries with a greater Human Development Index score tend to have more kids who live with biological parents.[9] This indicates greater levels of transition and lack of stability for children across African and Central American countries, who are often not assured the constant support of two parents working together throughout their lives. At the same time, first world countries have been regressing into cohabitation, and its effects, like in Romania, appear harmful to the emotional stability of children. This leads to the next factor.

            A common theme across these various alternative family models appears to be stability and the issues that arise from familial transition. So, it appears that children fare best when marriage is a lifelong commitment, as opposed to a temporary affair. Paul Amato and Bruce Keith, researchers at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and West Virginia University, respectively, have studied the harmful effects that divorce has on children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that children of divorced households experienced more economic burdens than their counterparts.[10] However, the byproducts of divorce extend far beyond finances. In Parental Divorce and the Well-being of Children: A Meta-Analysis, the authors compare children of divorced households to those of at least one deceased parent. They conclude that children whose parents divorce exhibit similar habits and emotional conditions to those whose parents have died. [11] For example, while both groups fared worse academically than those of intact families, children who experienced death of a parent performed better academically than those of a divorced unit.[12] Therefore, it seems reasonable that divorce negatively impacts children, thus adding another qualification to the ideal model of marriage.

            The final, and perhaps most challenged, requirement of a stable family is the idea that marriage should ideally consist of one man and one woman. Harkening back to Macintyre’s emphasis on parents serving as role models to children, minors require both male and female influences who can better stabilize their emotional health. Dr. Paul Sullins, a social scientist from The Catholic University of America, ran a thorough study that analyzed the impact same sex marriages had on the children the couples adopted. The study, Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression among Adults with Same-Sex Parents, follows a set of same sex raised kids from ages fifteen to twenty eight. It initially tracked over 20,000 adolescents using data from the National Study of Adolescent to Adult Health in its first phase, and was impressive for its massive scope and size.[13] The results show delayed onset of depression, as well as other detrimental effects to their emotional and even physical health.[14] Even at age fifteen, a whopping 89% of same-sex raised children already experienced anxiety, in contrast to 56% of opposite sex raised ones. 93% felt distant to one or both parents, while only 35% of their opposite sex counterparts reported this. Finally, obesity ratings for opposite sex raised were at 30%, whereas it was 13% for the latter.[15] At age twenty two, 92% of same sex raised reported a form of abuse at some point in their life, while 58% of opposite sex did. The most staggering results were reported around age twenty eight, at which point 51% were depressed, versus 19% of opposite sex raised. 30% had fostered suicide ideation, versus 7%. Additionally, 36% developed a stigma against them, versus 7%. Finally, 71% felt distant from one or both parents, versus 37%.[16] This suggests that there is a great importance in not only gender role models in the family but the stigma that same sex raised kids experience is difficult to overcome. Thus, it is wise that children are raised by one of each gender, as their mental and social health could be negatively impacted by alternative models.

            One man and one woman, formally bound for the rest of their lives: this traditional archetype of the family has been challenged both legally and culturally, meaning there are now political and social hurdles that need to be overcome by passive hard power, or government-led initiatives, and active soft power, non-government led ones. Regarding the former, two issues traditional families face right now are the collapse of religious freedom and the rise of incentives that encourage alternative family models. Recently, many challenges have been made against religious freedom laws, which is why the government should take a more passive approach to marriage, allowing for exterior institutions to shape the practice. Pierpaolo Donati, an Italian social scientist, echoes the importance of non-government actors and their ability to influence the populous: “First, we see that the common good coincides neither with the state, nor with the state-market compromise, but it is the product of a system of social action, involving a plurality of subjects orienting themselves on the basis of reciprocal solidarity and subsidiarity.”[17] This is precisely why policy should not hinder the social organizations that uphold family models. Francis Fukuyama cautions about government intervention in matters of social capital, which are primarily generated by the family. He writes “First, states do not have many obvious levers for creating many forms of social capital. Social capital is frequently a byproduct of religion, tradition, shared historical experience, and other factors that lie outside the control of any government.” [18] It is one thing to allow for these archetypes to exist. It is another to incentivize them to spread by granting them the same status as the traditional unit. So, perhaps the government should stay out of defining marriage, possibly use a different term, and let the public debate what marriage means.

            To supplement the aforementioned proposal, an active effort is required from the public to ensure the family’s preservation. The idea of a “normative” family model, or normativity in general, has recently been frowned upon by the media and influencers. Wilcox and Nock, on the other hand, defend the notion that there should exist certain static structures that are encouraged by culture. The family is one of these, as they state “We also find evidence for the institutional model of marriage, which stresses the importance of social and normative support for marriage.”[19] Additionally, while government influence mostly relies on taxation, benefits, and services, there is a non-monetary element to marriage that affects children. So, changing laws to adjust benefits for traditional family units may not be enough. Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, two economists who investigate the family, write “We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.”[20] Instead, a broader cultural shift is required above everything else. To change the family, social institutions, unhindered by the government, must make their own analysis, judgments, and decisions in an active demonstration of soft power. In a democratic-republic, the culture of citizens must form the greatest check on government authority. This is needed now so the government does not gain a stronghold over marriage and potentially upend the institution entirely.

            A heated battle is being waged, both politically and socially, over the future of the family. Pundits and protestors continue to assert that alternative family models are just as effective as their traditional counterparts, but large-scale studies seem to suggest otherwise. It is important to note that correlation does not always demonstrate causation, nor does such data mean it is impossible for such alternatives to flourish. However, the evidence in favor of the traditional family’s impact on well-being is quite difficult to ignore and deserves attention and research. At the very least, familial type appears to have some effect on the physical, emotional, and social status of children, and both policy makers and moral advocates should pay attention to the effects that the restoration of the family could have in correcting so many injustices that society faces today. Again, the goal of these studies is not to stigmatize or demonize alternative family models, rather it is to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses so they can be addressed in the future. Banning certain family types from a political standpoint may prove to worsen conditions, as family types can be situational (e.g. a teen close with their homosexual grandparents whose parents died and requires guardians). Thus, the solution to restoring the traditional family should not rely as much on government intervention, whose primary purpose should be to allow for social institutions that mediate marriage and run adoption agencies, like the Church, to do their work and make their own judgments about the family. The state of the family, the most important unit in all of society, is crumbling, but by trusting the social sciences and pursuing more research, the very challenges that have plagued marriage could actually prove to be a greater affirmation of the institution.




Amato, Paul and Keith, Bruce.  “Parental Divorce and the Well-Being of Children: A Meta- Analysis”, Psychological Bulletin, 1991, 110:1.

DeRose, Laurie and Wilcox, Bradford. The Cohabiting-Go-Round: Cohabiting and Family Instability Across the Globe. Social Trend Institute. 2017.

Donati, Pierpaolo, “What Does “Subsidiarity Mean?” The Relational Perspective, Journal of Markets and Morality, December 2, 2009.

Fukuyama, Francis, “Social Capital and Civil Society”, IMF Working Paper.

Kahneman, Daniel and Deaton, Angus, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being”, Center for Health and Well-being, Princeton University,        Princeton.

MacIntyre, Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals.

Nock, Steven L. and W. Bradford Wilcox, “What’s Love Got to Do with it? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality”, Social Forces, 84:4, 2006.

Sullins, D. Paul. “Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression Among Adults with Same-Sex Parents.” Depression Research and Treatment, 2016.



[1] Alasdair Macintyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 99.

[2] Macintyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 99.

[3] Steven L. Nock and W. Bradford Wilcox, “What’s Love Got to Do with it? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality”(Social Forces, 84:4, 2006), 1342.

[4] Laurie DeRose and W. Bradford Wilcox, The Cohabiting-Go-Round: Cohabiting and Family Instability Across the Globe, (Social Trend Institute, 2017), 5.

[5] DeRose and Wilcox, The Cohabiting-Go-Round: Cohabiting and Family Instability Across the Globe, 12.

[6] DeRose and Wilcox, The Cohabiting-Go-Round: Cohabiting and Family Instability Across the Globe, 20.

[7] DeRose and Wilcox, The Cohabiting-Go-Round: Cohabiting and Family Instability Across the Globe, 9.

[8] DeRose and Wilcox, The Cohabiting-Go-Round: Cohabiting and Family Instability Across the Globe, 12.

[9] DeRose and Wilcox, The Cohabiting-Go-Round: Cohabiting and Family Instability Across the Globe, 18.

[10] Amato, Paul and Keith, Bruce, “Parental Divorce and the Well-Being of Children: A Meta-Analysis,” (Psychological Bulletin, 1991, 110:1.), 38.

[11] Amato and Keith, “Parental Divorce and the Well-Being of Children: A Meta-Analysis,” 27.

[12] Amato and Keith, “Parental Divorce and the Well-Being of Children: A Meta-Analysis,” 27.

[13] Paul Sullins, “Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression Among Adults with Same-Sex Parents,” (Depression Research and Treatment, 2016), 2.

[14] Sullins, “Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression Among Adults with Same-Sex Parents,” 3.

[15] Sullins, “Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression Among Adults with Same-Sex Parents,” 3.

[16] Sullins, “Invisible Victims: Delayed Onset Depression Among Adults with Same-Sex Parents,” 3.

[17] Pierpaolo Donati, “What Does Subsidiarity Mean?” (The Relational Perspective, Journal of Markets and Morality, 12:2, 2009), 228.

[18] Francis Fukuyama, “Social Capital and Civil Society”, (IMF Working Paper), 1.

[19] Nock and Wilcox, “What’s Love Got to Do with it? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality,” 1340.

[20] Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being”, (Center for Health and Well-being, Princeton University, Princeton), 1.

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