Liquid Times – The Individualization of Coupling

Paging Stephanie Coontz, marriage is changing!

“Some are divorced and disenchanted with marriage; others are young couples ideologically opposed to marriage, but eager to lighten their tax burdens. Many are lovers not quite ready for old-fashioned matrimony.

Whatever their reasons, and they vary widely, French couples are increasingly shunning traditional marriages and opting instead for civil unions, to the point that there are now two civil unions for every three marriages.

When France created its system of civil unions in 1999, it was heralded as a revolution in gay rights, a relationship almost like marriage, but not quite. No one, though, anticipated how many couples would make use of the new law. Nor was it predicted that by 2009, the overwhelming majority of civil unions would be between straight couples.

It remains unclear whether the idea of a civil union, called a pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS, has responded to a shift in social attitudes or caused one. But it has proved remarkably well suited to France and its particularities about marriage, divorce, religion and taxes — and it can be dissolved with just a registered letter.”

It is amazing and it reveals a lot about the straitjacket aspects of cultural scripts that this is even newsworthy. It is readily accepted that economies change, political systems change, and many clamor for change in the educational institutions. But somehow, changes in the family institution seems anathema and are treated as the coming apocalypse, or with shock when said apocalypse does not happen.

This reveals several things: (1) a complete lack of historical knowledge. As Stephanie Coontz brilliantly demonstrates in Marriage: A History, family structures have had a great range of variation in the past (even limiting ourselves to the Western societies) and the meaning of marriage has also seen much change. And thus, the article commits the usual fallacy of calling “traditional” marriage, a type of marital arrangement that is actually a social and historical exception more than the norm, thereby reproducing the religious rights frame.

(2) The shock at the lack of social collapse caused by marriage decline is grounded in a patriarchal view of the institution, which is why religious rights folks get apoplectic at the slightest hint of challenge to their preferred structure (one in which the father is the ultimate authority and with whom power lies, with women and children as obedient dependents). That is the source of their opposition to “easy” divorce, contraception, women in the workplace and anything that shifts – ever so slightly – the balance of power.

What one is witnessing in Western Europe, mainly, is the de-patriarchalization of marriage. I explained this elsewhere:

“As Goran Therborn puts it, patriarchy, the law of the father, was the big loser of the twentieth century. Probably no other institution has been forced to retreat as much (2004:73). In other words, the 20th century has seen the rise of de-patriarchalization: the progressive retreat of patriarchal norms and practices. This trend has not been uniform as the various family systems were differently patriarchal to start with. In particular, the second half of the 20th century “was the period of the most rapid and radical global change in the history of human gender and generational relations” (73). Such changes occurred at three moments:

  1. After World War I, mostly in Western Europe and the USA, as well as in the new Communist Russia;
  2. After World War II, especially in East Asia where the Confucian patriarchal order was displaced either by Western influence (such as the American occupation of Japan) or the rise to power of communist regime in China. A similar development occurred in Eastern Europe where communist governments emphasized gender equality, women’s autonomy and workforce participation;
  3. In the late 1960s with a high point with the United Nations’s declaration of 1975 as International Women’s Year and of 1975-1985 as the decade for Women which generated a momentum for pro-women legislations in Western Europe in the areas of reproductive and marriage rights.

As mentioned before, family systems do not change from the inside, they are transformed by the impact of external factors. De-patriarchalization was supported by several major ideological trends: the international feminist movement, the socialist labor movement spearheaded by Communism, the secular liberal movements and the nationalist developmentalist movements all promoted an egalitarian view of the family as well as the notions of autonomy and choice for women. Other structural factors include industrialization and urbanization as well as increased schooling and education, of girls, especially, in the non-Western world.”

(3) A complete lack of understanding of the interconnections between social institutions. It is impossible to have a 21st century economy with a 19th century family structure. And yet, that is what the family values crowd argues for. Well, guess what, the liquification (Bauman) and individualization (Beck) that have taken place in the economy have overflown into the family systems as well.

On individualization of coupling, here is what I wrote as well:

“A great deal of social commentary on the family usually centers on the issues of divorce and remarriage, singlehood (temporary or permanent), same-sex marriage and the changing marital role of women. For instance, a recent New York Times article states that, in the United States, “marriage has been facing more competition. A growing number of adults are spending more of their lives single or living unmarried with partners, and the potential social and economic implications are profound” (New York Times, 10/15/2006).

However, it is important to note that societies of the past did not comprise two clearly defined categories: married and non-married. The boundaries between the two were always blurred and fluid. Different family systems tolerated types of relationships that were neither marriage nor non-marriage: cohabitation while waiting for marriage negotiations to be finalized in the Sub-Saharan system, the taking on of concubines, in addition to legitimate wife, in China, the Muslim Shiite tradition of temporary marriage as short-term contract in Iran, as well as informal marriages in the Creole system. All these practices highlight the fact that the difference between marriage and non-marriage is not as clear cut as it would appear and claims of traditional family forms under threat over both exaggerated and not new.

It does appear that there is a contemporary trend – especially in the Western European system – toward what sociologist Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (2002) calls post-familial families. A post-familial family is a concept that indicates how the family, as an institution, now covers a wide range of organizational forms such as cohabitation, with or without children, and with or without marriage plans, singles and single parent families, conjugal succession (series of marriage, divorce and remarriage) as well as same-sex partnerships among others. Statistically, this means an increase of these family forms and a decline in the proportion of nuclear married families within the larger population of most Western societies.


The post-familial structure is largely a product of socio-economic conditions described in the section on the economy, especially the process of individualization. What does individualization mean in the context of the family? It certainly does not mean that people are becoming more selfish and self-centered, at the expenses of socially indispensable so-called traditional family values. Individualization means that the traditional external constraints on marriage and family (mostly religious and legal) have progressively disappeared and have left individuals to find biographical (individual) solutions to systemic (social) contradictions.

Such an example of contradiction is the idea of creating stable and long-lasting family ties within a rigid family form in a liquid world characterized by a fluid and flexible labor market that no longer provides stability and a political structure that progressively dismantled social safety nets. In this context, as Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (2002) state, the family is no longer a community of needs where individuals are economically interdependent but rather based on elective affinities: partners choose each other on the basis of individual preferences, based on the prospect of mutual fulfillment, for as long as it lasts.

This individualizing trend accompanies the greater workforce participation of women as it is no longer possible to count on marriage for financial security and marriage might actually become an impediment to independence. In this sense, both so-called traditional breadwinner and homemaker family roles have been individualized: in the current economic context, a single male breadwinner is often not enough to financially support a family; similarly, in a context where relationships are not expected to last “until death do us apart,” the homemaker role becomes a very risky one. It is therefore not surprising to find a correlation between the increasing education and workforce participation of women with an increased divorce rate.”

So, it would be nice if once, just once, journalists checked with the available research in social sciences (beyond psychology and economics) to not commit the three fallacies I noted. But I am not holding my breath.

5 thoughts on “Liquid Times – The Individualization of Coupling

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Liquid Times – The Individualization of Coupling | The Global Sociology Blog --

  2. SocProf: re: “family structures have had a great range of variation in the past (even limiting ourselves to the Western societies) and the meaning of marriage has also seen much change”–very true.

    Soc Professor at UNC blogs quite a lot about the changing status and states of marriage as it relates to socioeconomic factors:

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