Families are the most controversial social institutions (Gilding 1997). Each of us has connections to a ‘family’. We each have a biological mother and father, and most of us grow up within proximity of one or both of our parents. The idea of the family has connections that are embedded in our cultural, religious and linguistic history. When we speak of the ‘family’, we refer to relationships with what is familiar or well known to us within a household.
Historically, we are born into a culture whereby marriage is considered to be part of the ‘natural’ progression of life. We get married and become part of a ‘nuclear’ family, defined as consisting of two generations of biologically related people, typically a man and woman who marry, maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and have one or more children (Murdock 1949).
Today however, the idea of the ‘family’ as a monolithic notion has been replaced with the assumption that the structure of families is fluid and changeable. Contemporary families are inclusive of single parent families, blended families, step-families and homosexual families to name a few. To define the concept of the family as consisting of one pattern of attributes leads to controversial discussions pertaining to the ideologies of marriage, divorce, sex and children. The family is no longer a concept that can be contemplated within an essentialist notion, rather the concept of the contemporary family has evolved into a fluid ideology that is constantly shifting and changing throughout society.
Since the 1960s, Australians have seen the concept of the family change rapidly to include gay couples, childless couples and de-facto families. Such changes have not only occurred due to the shifting trends, expectations and norms of society, but have also occurred as a result of wars, economic depressions, changes in the identify of women and the decline in birth rate. Such changes, subsequently led to changes in other concepts such as ‘marriage’.
Since the 1970s, Australians have been rethinking marriage and the ways in which the ‘family’ is managed. More people are delaying marriage or simply opting not to get married and more people are having fewer children. Additional to those who are still making the choice to get married; more people are also getting divorced whilst others are journeying through cycles of marriage, divorce and re-marriage.
While marriage continues to remain popular, more people are opting to remain in de-facto relationship prior to getting married, with many never actually making it down the aisle. Statistics indicate that in 1975 only 15. Further reports reveal that by 1998, two-thirds of Australians had accepted that de-facto relationships were an alternative rather than a prelude to marriage. These statistics continue to rise, with more people delaying marriage or simply accepting the ideology of the de-facto status to be inclusive of the definition of the ‘family’.
The concept of the family has changed to incorporate the changes that have occurred within society and the attached ideologies. Marriage is no longer considered to be an identity marker that sets precedent for one to be part of a family, rather it has become a formality that excrete other social markers affiliated with status, class and power. To be ‘married’ or to be part of a ‘married’ family indicates stability and normality. Thus, it is easy to see why so many people embark upon marriage in order to gain a sense of belonging, and to be deemed ‘normal’ only to later realise that the marriage is far from normal.
The changes we see within the idea of the family and the concept of marriage will continue to remain fluid and changeable. We live in a society whereby change is inevitable. Whilst the idea of the ‘nuclear’ family remains popular, it is important to understand that modern families are diverse. We will continue to see a variety of ways in which people work individually and collectively. Today’s family incorporates a variety of notions, all of which fit within the definition of the family.