David Brooks, The New York Times columnist and contributing writer at The Atlantic, can be trusted to present thought-provoking material aimed to help us live better. Brooks’ March 2020 article in The Atlantic with the startling title “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” challenges readers to take stock of the family in America. Building on a socioeconomic analysis of the history of the American family, Brooks assesses and critiques the shifts in family structure in the past two centuries. It appears his goal is to provide a realistic assessment of the current state of the American family in its various forms and to suggest a beneficial path forward.
While socioeconomic factors play an important role in understanding the breakdown of the American family during the past 50 years, there are important relational and spiritual realities driving these shifts as well. They prompt us to ask, “What caused families to break apart? Why did God set us in families to begin with? And how do we build resilience into marriages and families moving forward?” Let us consider all of the evidence before us.
A History of the American Family
American family life for most of the 1800s was dominated by the family business, most often farming, but also managing the mercantile store, blacksmith shop, or other enterprises. Everyone in the family, children included, was likely to contribute labor to the farm or store. Brooks, borrowing vocabulary from Steven Ruggles, professor of history and population studies at the University of Minnesota, labels this family structure as corporate families.
These families usually were large. It is often assumed this was for economic reasons; the more children a couple had, the more labor available to work the farm. While this is one factor, it does not stand alone and is not likely to be the most important consideration of our ancestors. Infant mortality rates were very high, so high that many waited to name their children until after their first birthday. According to Ruggles’ research, so many children died young that it skewed the average life expectancy drastically to 45 years of age, even though many adults lived into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s. It stands to reason that this severe uncertainty whether children would survive the first few years of life was a factor in the desire of couples to conceive as many children as possible.
Families were also multigenerational. According to Ruggles, until 1850 about three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their children and grandchildren. Extended families living together doubled from 1750 to 1900 so that this way of life became more common than at any time before or since.
The tide shifted in the 20th century. Industrialization, having entered in the second half of the 1800s, was now fully entrenched, enticing young people away from the family farm and their small towns to factory jobs in the big cities. By the 1920s, Brooks contends, the nuclear family had replaced the corporate family. By 1960, three-quarters of all children were living with two parents and no grandparents as families became smaller, with fewer children and fewer generations under one roof.
The first half of that century was defined by two world wars with the Great Depression sandwiched between them, but the resilience of Americans led to resurgent hopes and dreams. By 1950, the new typical American family consisted of two parents, with the husband working outside the home and the wife working at home, dedicated to meal preparation, housecleaning, and care of the children. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, birth rates rose, and most people seemed satisfied and content with family dynamics. Most grandparents lived in their own homes. Membership in a family was now defined as two married parents with a small handful of their (usually) biological children. Many thought it was the golden age of the American family.
The destabilization of marriage is complicated and not fully understood, but what is clear is that the resulting widespread fragmentation of the American family was due mostly to the relationship failure of husbands and wives.
Children benefited from this family arrangement. Social science research has shown for five decades that children with married parents are in an advantageous position compared to children in other family structures. These advantages led to greater fulfillment across the spectrum of their lives. But the marriages of the midcentury nuclear families did not hold, disrupting the stability and steady nurturance children experienced in these homes.
The common explanation for the breakdown of the nuclear family is the inequality inherent in this family structure. This is the explanation Brooks provides to make his assessments. According to this view, women sacrificed potential careers to keep the home fires burning. Women found themselves treated like they were lower-class citizens, not just in the marketplace and public square, but in their own homes. The women’s movement responded, exposing women’s discontent to themselves and to society at large.
But there is a crucial inflection point to note. Spouses could have worked together, using the interpersonal connection they enjoyed, to find workable solutions to better balance the roles of men and women in families. Many were able to do just that. But many acted against each other instead. Rather than finding ways to work together for desired change, this group gave up on their relationship. As a result, the divorce rate jumped to previously unimaginable levels. The destabilization of marriage is complicated and not fully understood, but what is clear is that the resulting widespread fragmentation of the American family was due mostly to the relationship failure of husbands and wives. For Brooks, this was all because of inequality, but there is more to the story than his explanation reveals.
Brooks, while detailing the crumbling of the American family, notes that “when hyper-individualism kicked into gear in the 1960s, people experimented with new ways of living that embraced individualistic values. Today,” he continues, “we are crawling out from the wreckage of that hyper-individualism — which left many families detached and unsupported — and people are experimenting with more connected ways of living, with new shapes and varieties of extended families.”
But Brooks neglects to acknowledge that the American family crumbled because marriages broke down. Hyper-individualism was a major contributing factor to the huge leap in the divorce rate in the middle of the 1960s, continuing for a half-century. Hyper-individualism on the part of both men and women led to divorce, which led to family breakdown. Family breakdown cannot be understood without understanding marriage breakdown and the relationship between the two.
Changes in attitudes about marriage reduced the stability of marriage and the steady nurturing of children embedded within in. Brooks quotes sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, who say that marriage “is no longer primarily about childbearing and childrearing. Now marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment.”
The first reality, that marriage is no longer about childbearing and childrearing, creates terrible problems for children. The nuclear family is no longer a safe haven for them. It cannot be if children are excluded from the purposes of marriage. Raising children requires focused attention, listening with curiosity, and consistent face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and heart-to-heart contact. This level of relationship is required to model healthy communication for children — one of the most important gifts parents provide their children. This is challenging when it is your top priority. It is barely possible when it is not a priority at all.
The second reality — marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment — is frightening. Seen through the lens of individualism, what is really being said here becomes clear: Marriage is about me.
It is misleading to say we are crawling out from under the wreckage of hyper-individualism. We will not do so as a people until we reject the me-first attitude that dominates our culture. But the people of our culture do not appear prepared to make that change of heart.
Leaving children out of the purpose of marriage, combined with parents’ intensified commitment to self-fulfillment, dictates the nature of relationships in our families. Relationships are less personal. David Elkind, psychologist and child-development expert, noted that parenting is no longer based on intuition, which requires focused attention to choose a response that fits the child’s current experience. Parenting is now based on technique, which does not require the same personal interaction. Parenting is less personal; it has become more professional.
One of the most feared experiences in life is abandonment. By decreasing personal attention to children, parents open the door to feelings of abandonment. Such feelings, even if small, can become major, long-lasting issues. Such feelings intensify when they are repeated regularly. Children in such relationships often feel alone. Usually they do not identify the feeling with words; they cannot think about it. They only feel it. Such feelings become embodied, remembered physically and feared, but not well-remembered cognitively. So they are left alone with their aloneness, which complicates their emotional life, presently and into the future.
Other factors contributed to family fragmentation. The rise in families formed without marriage occurring at all disadvantages children. The rapid rise of unmarried mothers occurred alongside the increase of divorced mothers and fathers. Also, there was an increased level of father absence from family households. Father absence occurs both in situations where parents were never married and when parents are divorced. Even when custody arrangements allow for joint parenting, the parent-child relationships are seldom what they were or could have been in a two-parent home, where parents and children have more time together. All of these factors disadvantaged the children in these homes.
Was the problem that led to the demise of the nuclear family really the inequality of roles of men and women? No, not on its own. And it was not the primary problem. The crux of the problem was that people stopped trying to work together to craft a life together. That is what marriage actually is. Marriage is two people working together to create a life together, where all members of the family thrive. There will be sacrifices, but we work together to assure no one sacrifices more than their fair share. Will it be perfect? No. But the glory is not in the perfect or even the good. The glory and satisfaction are in working together.
When things go awry, we regroup, listen to one other, and try again. Family life and marriage are made of the same stuff — other-focused relating together in order to get along with those you live with on earth. For relationships to work, each person needs to be at least 51% focused on the other. The main problem that led to the demise of the nuclear family was reduced focus on others — and its twin, increased focus on self.
Leaving children out of the purpose of marriage, combined with parents’ intensified commitment to self-fulfillment, dictates the nature of relationships in our families.
We are confused about the human condition. If you ask a crowd to define the human condition, they are likely to talk of struggle, courage, pain, and striving to overcome. If you ask a church crowd the same question, you’re likely to get a modified answer. They might talk of struggle with sin, faith in the Cross, pain from the brokenness of this world, and striving to trust in Jesus. It is a better answer than the first one, but I am not sure it is the best answer.
The creation story suggests that we were made for relationship. Relationship with God and one another is a source of growth for us. Relationships nurture us, our whole person — head, heart, and embodied soul. Through relationship, we continue to grow into more of what God made us to be. God made us to be people who are human, and to be human is to live well with others on earth. That is the human condition.
Made for Relationship
We became less human where we needed to be the most human of all, in our homes with the ones we love most. Fueled by self-centeredness, we forgot how to love.
The provocative title “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” seems like encouragement to give up on the family — as though Brooks assumes the family is never going to work well. But that is not what he believes. In fact, Brooks may be our best help in understanding how we could turn marriage and the family around. He presents a positive vision of marriage in his 2019 book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.”
The third section of his five-part book is dedicated to marriage. Brooks paints a beautiful picture of “the maximum marriage.” A beautiful marriage is not dramatic; it is built on subtle attention to what others need and want, serving in small ways “in which you show you understand her moods, you cherish his presence, that this other person is the center of your world.” This depends on a certain choice, a choice to make true a certain reality. Brooks summarizes, “At the end of the day there is the brutal grinding effort of surrendering the ego to the altar of marriage, giving up part of yourself, the desires you have, for the larger union.”
What happened to our marriages? We chose differently; we chose to not surrender, to not give up a part of ourselves, to not give up our desires. What happened to our families? Our marriages did.
Brooks is specific about the challenges that ultimately broke so many marriages and the family too. He identifies three things. First, in a culture of high divorce, many people adopt a “safety first” attitude. “Many people who have been hurt by divorce prioritize self-protection over complete vulnerability,” he writes. Playing it safe takes many forms. Some hide in a cautious approach to relationships; others do anything they can to please; some erect walls of toughness to make sure their tender hearts are never exposed to mistreatment.
Second, if people find themselves in marriage that is “less than great,” they make do. Usually they shift their energies, making work and parenting higher priorities than marriage. Third, “individualism undermines the maximal definition of marriage.” The needs of the self take priority over all other needs. Brooks contrasts two competing visions of marriage: “If the maximal definition of marriage is to be flesh of my flesh, then the individualist definition of love is autonomy but support.” Marriage, it has been said, is about becoming the right person for your spouse. That process of ongoing transformation is impossible if the desires for the self are prioritized over the desires of the spouse.
Brooks’ final chapter on marriage in “The Second Mountain” advises looking at marriage as a school you build together. “A marriage survives when the partners agree to take lifelong courses together — in subjects like empathy, communication, and recommitment.” Empathy, the ability to feel what another feels and to know what you feel about it, grows in the context of relationship togetherness. Communication improves through conversations laced with curiosity and the humility to know you cannot help by fixing things. Recommitment requires patience.
Why Togetherness Matters
Over time, many families have evolved to desire autonomy more than togetherness. Brooks names this truth, but it is not a new observation. David Elkind observed this change in family values in his 1994 book, “Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance.”
What does the Bible have to say about togetherness? Consider Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” Moses writes. God is the subject of the sentence. God reveals He is a person. You may not be accustomed to thinking about God as a person. He does not have a body. He is a spirit. He has emotions, but they are never out of His control, unlike persons you and I know. Nevertheless, God reveals that in the beginning He acted and that is what persons do. God, in revealing His actions, is relating to us, entering our space, emphasizing that the person of God was acting for our benefit, another thing persons do. In this simple first sentence, God introduces us to the truth of the importance of relationship.
Togetherness is important because relationship with each other is at the center of all things, and it has been from the beginning. You know the story. God creates, then evaluates, pronouncing it good. Over and over. But then there is a snag. God declares that something is not good. Man is alone. God could have fixed that problem immediately, and all would have been just fine. But that is not the story. He gives Adam a job to do, naming the many animals of creation. And Adam does, and as he does the animals come two at a time, female and male. This brings home to Adam the truth that he is alone. It is stated clearly in the story, “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” This is clear to us, which might lead us to overlook important things that are happening here. God was tuned in to Adam. He knew him; He knew what he needed. And He knew it was best for Adam that the problem not be solved simply and quickly.
God invited Adam into an experience, naming all those animals, from which he could come to know for himself the truth that he was alone. This awareness created longing in Adam, longing that prepared him for the gift that was to come. With this context in mind, we can better understand Adam’s response when Eve is presented to him. “This at last …” which sounds like, “Finally!” Adam continues, “… is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam had a relationship with God, but it wasn’t enough. Relationship that captivates us requires one who is like us. Why? Because God made it that way. Maybe God made it that way because God is that way. He is Trinity, three distinct persons of our one God ever relating without losing distinction and without losing oneness. So why is togetherness important? Togetherness is important because relationship with each other is at the center of all things, and it has been from the beginning.
Togetherness is felt in a variety of ways and at different levels. Sometimes it is unnoticed, like dipping your toes in a brook, hardly noticing the coolness of the water as you take in the beauty of a special summer day. Often togetherness is obvious and appreciated; it causes you to pause and slow down. You notice and even study the experience to commit to memory that feeling of being held by invisible arms of attention, acceptance, and understanding. Sometimes, togetherness runs even deeper. You have witnessed it, that special moment when a 6-month-old child sees her mother come into view. She raises her arms, smiles, makes a sound meaningless to all but her mother. And her mother responds, of course, with her own gestures, her own smile, her own unintelligible sound. And her daughter understands. She has been seen. She is worthy to be seen. She is loved, and she is worthy of it.
Why is that moment so special? The interchange of love? Yes, of course. The power of it? Yes, but there is more to it. Child and mother bid for and give attention to each other. Focused, undivided, there-is-no-one-else-in-the-world attention. That kind of attention flows to the deepest level of the person receiving it and the person giving it. It is reciprocal. Sometimes we call it empathy. This level of connection is below words, overpowering our cognitive minds, overflowing our emotional depths, watering our souls. And we grow into more of what God made us to be when we experience it. Relationship, like the one witnessed between a young child and her mother, is both the context and the means for our continued growth as human persons.
Why is togetherness important? It is what we are made for. It is what makes us who we are. It grows us into more of who God intends us to be. We become human persons in and through relationships and the togetherness produced in them. And we become persons in whom love grows.
A Guide to Relational Living
So how do we learn the skills that knit us together in relationship? The first task is comprehending the power of conversation. Conversations are the lifeblood of relationships — they have power to shape and influence our lives. But words alone, no matter how right and how deep they might be, have little power to nurture our souls. The content shared in conversations can shape our minds. But the impact of being felt, seen, and understood in conversation shapes our hearts and our souls. Conversations, to be the full-force tools they are intended to be, require us to show up fully available, fully present, open, and honest.
Conversation must be more than the exchange of information. Sue Johnson, a leading marriage therapist, focuses on helping partners share their emotions. Johnson tells us every married person is asking if their spouse is there for them. Is their spouse accessible, responsive, and engaged? These questions cannot be answered once and for all. The meaningful assurances found in conversation must be refreshed regularly. Unanswered bids for attention result in doubts of one’s worthiness of it. The damage from unanswered bids must be repaired. This repair’s purpose is less about rebalancing accounts, as if attention is a commodity to be banked, but more about restoring trust that the relationship is safe, and that the other person will be there when needed. The repair needed is repair of emotions — disappointments, hurts, and fears — expressed through emotion-laden words of understanding. The one who created disappointment, hurt, or fear must embrace responsibility for doing so and express remorse. Those humble enough and honest enough to do this can repair the damage they have done.
Growing in Patience
You may have noticed that God works at His own pace. If you are young, that probably is not as clear now as it will be later. In my case, I can no longer call myself young or middle-aged. There are advantages to being in your seventh decade of life, not the least of which is the perspective you gain. God’s pace moving in our lives matches the pace of growth. Both are slower than we would hope them to be. Rather than this slowness being a frustration, now I find it to be a relief. The relief comes as I see God’s current movement in my life to be a return of His care worked decades before. He was not absent after all back then. He was present, acting, caring, supporting.
This helps me to be patient. God is patient. God has been patient with me through the years and still is. God’s patience is clearer to me because I see how much He has tried to grow me up and how slowly I have actually done so. This has helped me be more patient with myself, and with others.
David Brooks rightly declares that to have the best marriage possible, you and your spouse must practice recommitment on a regular basis. The crisis may be small, or it may be life-changing. Either way, when in crisis you may choose to retreat from the fray marriage often is. Retreat to find peace alone can be attractive. But it is alone, and human persons do not grow when alone. To recommit is to remember you are in marriage for the whole of it, and for the long of it. It is a slow walk on a long road. To recommit is to take a step toward instead of away. To remember marriage is a long road takes patience. Doing so also gives patience. And the patient will see growth — steady, real, certain growth.
Becoming a Relationist
The concluding chapter of “The Second Mountain” outlines a path to return to living according to relationship. Brooks’ “Relationist Manifesto” offers an outline of the features of this way of life — a godly way of living, I suggest. A few of those points are offered here.
• Relationists measure their lives by the quality of their relationships and the quality of their service to those relationships.
• Relationists operate in life by the belief in inverse logic: I possess only when I give. I lose myself to find myself. When I surrender to something great, that’s when I am strongest and most powerful.
• Relationists resist hyper-individualism in all its forms, including the logic that says I make myself strong and I get what I want.
• Relationists embrace the process of becoming a person. This includes knowing we are not primarily thinking creatures; we are primarily loving and desiring creatures. The movement toward becoming a person is downward and outward. Downward is to peer deeper into ourselves to find the yearnings for others, then outward in relationship with others.
Brooks finishes with a “Declaration of Interdependence,” including these final lines: “When relationships are tender, when commitments are strong, when communication is pure, when the wounds of life have been absorbed and the wrongs forgiven, people bend toward each other, intertwine with one another, and some mystical combustion happens. Love emerges between people out of nothing, as pure flame.”
How to Begin
We must start with our relationship with God. Most of what you and I have been taught our whole lives are facts about God. Relationship with God, we were taught, was knowing about Him and reading the Bible and praying regularly. This has left me unsure of what a relationship with God actually is.
Was the problem that led to the demise of the nuclear family really the inequality of roles of men and women? No, not on its own.
But that has been changing for some time now. Knowing that God is a Person, and He is relating to us as persons do, I have been learning to trust Him. It is slow going. My mistrust is deep, starting with the death of my father when I was 5 years old, followed by other abandonments and betrayals. I keep others at a safe distance. God, too. But He never goes away. He is very patient. He nudges, teaches, leads, grows.
Two things will be needed to allow God to have a fuller relationship with you. Times of silence. And listening.
I have found that having a friend join you in these times of silence and listening is a big help. My friend has training as a spiritual director. That is a nice advantage. That role began in the Roman Catholic church many years ago. It has been adopted in our Protestant churches, including training programs sponsored by trusted seminaries.
I am not suggesting a new theology or a different Gospel. I am encouraging slowing down, leaving distractions aside, waiting for God. He is waiting for you.
The changes that are needed for our marriages to become all that God intends them to be are changes in the heart. This inner heart change will flow outward through our relationships with others: our spouses, children, extended families, friends, and our communities.
Should we give up on our families? No, that would be giving up on ourselves and our God who is with us, working to grow us into the loving people He made us to be.
Dan Zink has taught at Covenant Seminary since 1995, as well as serving as adjunct professor in counseling and the director of student services from 1990 to 1995. He previously served for 11 years as a family counselor, caseworker, and supervisor of public children’s services in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri. Zink has been involved in the Christian education programs of four churches and has served as an assistant pastor.