Main Body

Chapter 14. Marriage and Family

Figure 14.1. With so many unmarried couples living together and having children, is marriage becoming obsolete? (Photo courtesy of Nina Matthews/flickr)

Learning Objectives

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?

  • Describe society’s current understanding of family
  • Recognize changes in marriage and family patterns
  • Differentiate between lines of decent and residence

14.2. Variations in Family Life

  • Recognize variations in family life
  • Understand the prevalence of single parents, cohabitation, same-sex couples, and unmarried individuals
  • Discuss the social impact of changing family structures

14.3. Challenges Families Face

  • Understand the social and interpersonal impact of divorce
  • Describe the social and interpersonal impact of family abuse

Introduction to Marriage and Family

Christina and James met in college and have been dating for more than five years. For the past two years, they have been living together in a condo they purchased jointly. While Christina and James were confident in their decision to enter into a commitment like a 20-year mortgage, they are unsure if they want to enter into marriage. The couple had many discussions about marriage and decided that it just did not seem necessary. Wasn’t it only a piece of paper? And didn’t half of all marriages end in divorce?

Neither Christina nor James had seen much success with marriage while growing up. Christina was raised by a single mother. Her parents never married, and her father has had little contact with the family since she was a toddler. Christina and her mother lived with her maternal grandmother, who often served as a surrogate parent. James grew up in a two-parent household until age seven, when his parents divorced. He lived with his mother for a few years, and then later with his mother and her boyfriend until he left for college. James remained close with his father who remarried and had a baby with his new wife.

Recently, Christina and James have been thinking about having children and the subject of marriage has resurfaced. Christina likes the idea of her children growing up in a traditional family, while James is concerned about possible marital problems down the road and negative consequences for the children should that occur. When they shared these concerns with their parents, James’s mom was adamant that the couple should get married. Despite having been divorced and having a live-in boyfriend of 15 years, she believes that children are better off when their parents are married. Christina’s mom believes that the couple should do whatever they want but adds that it would “be nice” if they wed. Christina and James’s friends told them, married or not married, they would still be a family.

Christina and James’s scenario may be complicated, but it is representative of the lives of many young couples today, particularly those in urban areas (Useem 2007). Statistics Canada (2012) reports that the number of unmarried, common-law couples grew by 35 percent between 2001 and 2011 to make up a total of 16.7 percent of all families in Canada. Cohabitating, but unwed, couples account for 16.7 percent of all families in Canada. Some may never choose to wed (Jayson 2008). With fewer couples marrying, the traditional Canadian family structure is becoming less common. Nevertheless, although the percentage of traditional married couples has declined as a proportion of all families, at 67 percent of all families, it is still by far the predominant family structure.

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?

Photo (a) shows a family walking with a dog on a beach; Photo (b) shows a child in a stroller being pushed by two men.
Figure 14.2. The modern concept of family is far more encompassing than in past decades. What do you think constitutes a family? (Photo (a) courtesy Gareth Williams/flickr; photo (b) courtesy Guillaume Paumier/ Wikimedia Commons)

Marriage and family are key structures in most societies. While the two institutions have historically been closely linked in Canadian culture, their connection is becoming more complex. The relationship between marriage and family is an interesting topic of study to sociologists.

What is marriage? Different people define it in different ways. Not even sociologists are able to agree on a single meaning. For our purposes, we will define marriage as a legally recognized social contract between two people, traditionally based on a sexual relationship and implying a permanence of the union. In creating an inclusive definition, we should also consider variations, such as whether a legal union is required (think of “common- law” marriage and its equivalents), or whether more than two people can be involved (consider polygamy). Other variations on the definition of marriage might include whether spouses are of opposite sexes or the same sex, and how one of the traditional expectations of marriage (to produce children) is understood today.

Sociologists are interested in the relationship between the institution of marriage and the institution of family because, historically, marriages are what create a family, and families are the most basic social unit upon which society is built. Both marriage and family create status roles that are sanctioned by society.

So what is a family? A husband, a wife, and two children—maybe even a pet—served as the model for the traditional Canadian family for most of the 20th century. But what about families that deviate from this model, such as a single-parent household or a homosexual couple without children? Should they be considered families as well?

The question of what constitutes a family is a prime area of debate in family sociology, as well as in politics and religion. Social conservatives tend to define the family in terms of structure with each family member filling a certain role (like father, mother, or child). Sociologists, on the other hand, tend to define family more in terms of the manner in which members relate to one another than on a strict configuration of status roles. Here, we will define family as a socially recognized group (usually joined by blood, marriage, or adoption) that forms an emotional connection and serves as an economic unit of society. Sociologists identify different types of families based on how one enters into them. A family of orientation refers to the family into which a person is born. A family of procreation describes one that is formed through marriage. These distinctions have cultural significance related to issues of lineage.

Drawing on the three sociological paradigms we have been studying in this introduction to sociology, the sociological understanding of what constitutes a family can be explained by symbolic interactionism, critical sociology, and functionalism. Symbolic interactionist theories indicate that families are groups in which participants view themselves as family members and act accordingly. In other words, families are groups in which people come together to form a strong primary group connection, maintaining emotional ties to one another over a long period of time. Such families could potentially include groups of close friends as family. Critical sociology emphasizes that the forms that define the “typical” family unit are not independent of historical changes in the economic structures and relations of power in society. The typical large, extended family of the rural, agriculture-based economy 100 years ago in Canada was much different from the single breadwinner-led “nuclear” family of the Fordist economy following World War II and different again from today’s families who have to respond to economic conditions of precarious employment, fluid modernity, and norms of gender and sexual equality.

In addition, the functionalist perspective views families as groups that perform vital roles for society—both internally (for the family itself) and externally (for society as a whole). Families provide for one another’s physical, emotional, and social well-being. Parents care for and socialize children, a function that prepares new members of society for their future roles. While interactionism helps us to understand the subjective experience of belonging to a “family” and critical sociology focuses on how families configure themselves in response to political-economic pressures and changes, functionalism illuminates the many purposes of families and their role in the maintenance of a balanced society (Parsons and Bales 1956). We will go into more detail about how these theories apply to family in later sections.

Challenges Families Face

North Americans are somewhat divided when it comes to determining what does and what does not constitute a family. In a 2010 survey conducted by Ipsos Reid, participants were asked what they believed constituted a family unit. Eighty percent of respondents agreed that a husband, wife, and children constitute a family. Sixty-six percent stated that a common-law couple with children still constitutes a family. The numbers drop for less traditional structures: a single mother and children (55 percent), a single father and children (54 percent), grandparents raising children (50 percent), common-law or married couples without children (46 percent), gay male couples with children (45 percent) (Postmedia News 2010). This survey revealed that children tend to be the key indicator in establishing “family” status: the percentage of individuals who agreed that unmarried couples constitute a family nearly doubled when children were added.

Another study also revealed that 60 percent of North Americans agreed that if you consider yourself a family, you are a family (a concept that reinforces an interactionist perspective) (Powell et al. 2010). Canadian statistics are based on the more inclusive definition of “census families.” Statistics Canada defines a census family as “composed of a married or common-law couple, with or without children, or of a lone parent living with at least one child in the same dwelling. Couples can be of the opposite sex or of the same sex” (Statistics Canada 2012). Census categories aside, sociologists would argue that the general concept of family is more diverse and less structured than in years past. Society has given more leeway to the design of a family making room for what works for its members (Jayson 2010).

Family is, indeed, a subjective concept, but it is a fairly objective fact that family (whatever one’s concept of it may be) is very important to North Americans. In a 2010 survey by Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., 76 percent of adults surveyed stated that family is “the most important” element of their life—just 1 percent said it was “not important” (Pew Research Center 2010). It is also very important to society. American President Ronald Reagan notably stated, “The family has always been the cornerstone of American society. Our families nurture, preserve, and pass on to each succeeding generation the values we share and cherish, values that are the foundation of our freedoms” (Lee 2009). The dark side of this importance can also be seen in Reagan’s successful use of “family values” rhetoric to attack welfare mothers. His infamous “welfare queen” story about a black single mother in Chicago, who supposedly defrauded the government of $150,000 in welfare payments, was a complete fabrication that nevertheless “worked” politically because of social anxieties about the decline of the family. While the design of the family may have changed in recent years, the fundamentals of emotional closeness and support are still present. Most responders to the Pew survey stated that their family today is at least as close (45 percent) or closer (40 percent) than the family with which they grew up (Pew Research Center 2010).

Alongside the debate surrounding what constitutes a family is the question of what North Americans believe constitutes a marriage. Many religious and social conservatives believe that marriage can only exist between man and a woman, citing religious scripture and the basics of human reproduction as support. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper put it, “I have no difficulty with the recognition of civil unions for nontraditional relationships but I believe in law we should protect the traditional definition of marriage” (Globe and Mail 2010). Social liberals and progressives, on the other hand, believe that marriage can exist between two consenting adults—be they a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and a man —and that it would be discriminatory to deny such a couple the civil, social, and economic benefits of marriage.

Marriage Patterns

With single parenting and cohabitation (when a couple shares a residence but not a marriage) becoming more acceptable in recent years, people may be less motivated to get married. In a recent survey, 39 percent of respondents answered “yes” when asked whether marriage is becoming obsolete (Pew Research Center 2010). The institution of marriage is likely to continue, but some previous patterns of marriage will become outdated as new patterns emerge. In this context, cohabitation contributes to the phenomenon of people getting married for the first time at a later age than was typical in earlier generations (Glezer 1991). Furthermore, marriage will continue to be delayed as more people place education and career ahead of “settling down.”

One Partner or Many?

North Americans typically equate marriage with monogamy, when someone is married to only one person at a time. In many countries and cultures around the world, however, having one spouse is not the only form of marriage. In a majority of cultures (78 percent), polygamy, or being married to more than one person at a time, is accepted (Murdock 1967), with most polygamous societies existing in northern Africa and east Asia (Altman and Ginat 1996). Instances of polygamy are almost exclusively in the form of polygyny. Polygyny refers to a man being married to more than one woman at the same time. The reverse, when a woman is married to more than one man at the same time, is called polyandry. It is far less common and only occurs in about 1 percent of the world’s cultures (Altman and Ginat 1996). The reasons for the overwhelming prevalence of polygamous societies are varied but they often include issues of population growth, religious ideologies, and social status.

While the majority of societies accept polygyny, the majority of people do not practise it. Often fewer than 10 percent (and no more than 25 to 35 percent) of men in polygamous cultures have more than one wife; these husbands are often older, wealthy, high-status men (Altman and Ginat 1996). The average plural marriage involves no more than three wives. Negev Bedouin men in Israel, for example, typically have two wives, although it is acceptable to have up to four (Griver 2008). As urbanization increases in these cultures, polygamy is likely to decrease as a result of greater access to mass media, technology, and education (Altman and Ginat 1996).

In Canada, polygamy is considered by most to be socially unacceptable and it is illegal. The act of entering into marriage while still married to another person is referred to as bigamy and is prohibited by Section 290 of the Criminal Code of Canada (Minister of Justice 2014). Polygamy in Canada is often associated with those of the Mormon faith, although in 1890 the Mormon Church officially renounced polygamy. Fundamentalist Mormons, such as those in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), on the other hand, still hold tightly to the historic Mormon beliefs and practices and allow polygamy in their sect.

The prevalence of polygamy among Mormons is often overestimated due to sensational media stories such as the prosecution of polygamous sect leaders in Bountiful, B.C., theYearning for Zion ranch raid in Texas in 2008, and popular television shows such as HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s Sister Wives. It is estimated that there are about 37,500 fundamentalist Mormons involved in polygamy in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, but that number has shown a steady decrease in the last 100 years (Useem 2007).

North American Muslims, however, are an emerging group with an estimated 20,000 practicing polygamy. Again, polygamy among North American Muslims is uncommon and occurs only in approximately 1 percent of the population (Useem 2007). For now polygamy among North American Muslims has gone fairly unnoticed by mainstream society, but like fundamentalist Mormons whose practices were off the public’s radar for decades, they may someday find themselves at the centre of social debate.

Figure 14.3. Polygamy has a Judeo-Christian tradition, as exemplified by King Solomon, who was thought to have had more than 700 wives. (Photo courtesy of public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Residency and Lines of Descent

When considering their lineage, most Canadians look to both their father’s and mother’s sides. Both paternal and maternal ancestors are considered part of one’s family. This pattern of tracing kinship is called bilateral descent. Note that kinship, or one’s traceable ancestry, can be based on blood, marriage or adoption. Sixty percent of societies, mostly modernized nations, follow a bilateral descent pattern. Unilateral descent (the tracing of kinship through one parent only) is practised in the other 40 percent of the world’s societies, with high concentration in pastoral cultures (O’Neal 2006).

There are three types of unilateral descent: patrilineal, which follows the father’s line only; matrilineal, which follows the mother’s side only; and ambilineal, which follows either the father’s only or the mother’s side only, depending on the situation. In partrilineal societies, such as those in rural China and India, only males carry on the family surname. This gives males the prestige of permanent family membership while females are seen as only temporary members (Harrell 2001). North American society assumes some aspects of partrilineal decent. For instance, most children assume their father’s last name even if the mother retains her birth name.

In matrilineal societies, inheritance and family ties are traced to women. Matrilineal descent is common in Native American societies, notably the Crow and Cherokee tribes. In these societies, children are seen as belonging to the women and, therefore, one’s kinship is traced to one’s mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and so on (Mails 1996). In ambilineal societies, which are most common in Southeast Asian countries, parents may choose to associate their children with the kinship of either the mother or the father. This choice may be based on the desire to follow stronger or more prestigious kinship lines or on cultural customs such as men following their father’s side and women following their mother’s side (Lambert 2009).

Tracing one’s line of descent to one parent rather than the other can be relevant to the issue of residence. In many cultures, newly married couples move in with, or near to, family members. In a patrilocal residence system it is customary for the wife to live with (or near) her husband’s blood relatives (or family or orientation). Patrilocal systems can be traced back thousands of years. In a DNA analysis of 4,600-year-old bones found in Germany, scientists found indicators of patrilocal living arrangements (Haak et al. 2008). Patrilocal residence is thought to be disadvantageous to women because it makes them outsiders in the home and community; it also keeps them disconnected from their own blood relatives. In China, where patrilocal and patrilineal customs are common, the written symbols for maternal grandmother (wáipá) are separately translated to mean “outsider” and “women” (Cohen 2011).

Similarly, in matrilocal residence systems, where it is customary for the husband to live with his wife’s blood relatives (or her family of orientation), the husband can feel disconnected and can be labelled as an outsider. The Minangkabau people, a matrilocal society that is indigenous to the highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia, believe that home is the place of women and they give men little power in issues relating to the home or family (Joseph and Najmabadi 2003). Most societies that use patrilocal and patrilineal systems are patriarchal, but very few societies that use matrilocal and matrilineal systems are matriarchal, as family life is often considered an important part of the culture for women, regardless of their power relative to men.

Stages of Family Life

As we have established, the concept of family has changed greatly in recent decades. Historically, it was often thought that most (certainly many) families evolved through a series of predictable stages. Developmental or “stage” theories used to play a prominent role in family sociology (Strong and DeVault 1992). Today, however, these models have been criticized for their linear and conventional assumptions as well as for their failure to capture the diversity of family forms. While reviewing some of these once-popular theories, it is important to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

The set of predictable steps and patterns families experience over time is referred to as the family life cycle. One of the first designs of the family life cycle was developed by Paul Glick in 1955. In Glick’s original design, he asserted that most people will grow up, establish families, rear and launch their children, experience an “empty nest” period, and come to the end of their lives. This cycle will then continue with each subsequent generation (Glick 1989). Glick’s colleague, Evelyn Duvall, elaborated on the family life cycle by developing these classic stages of family (Strong and DeVault 1992):

Table 14.1. Stage Theory. This table shows one example of how a “stage” theory might categorize the phases a family goes through.


Family Type



Marriage Family



Procreation Family

Children ages 0 to 2.5


Preschooler Family

Children ages 2.5 to 6


School-age Family

Children ages 6–13


Teenage Family

Children ages 13–20


Launching Family

Children begin to leave home


Empty Nest Family

“Empty nest”; adult children have left home

The family life cycle was used to explain the different processes that occur in families over time. Sociologists view each stage as having its own structure with different challenges, achievements, and accomplishments that transition the family from one stage to the next. For example, the problems and challenges that a family experiences in Stage 1 as a married couple with no children are likely much different than those experienced in Stage 5 as a married couple with teenagers. The success of a family can be measured by how well they adapt to these challenges and transition into each stage. While sociologists use the family life cycle to study the dynamics of family over time, consumer and marketing researchers have used it to determine what goods and services families need as they progress through each stage (Murphy and Staples 1979).

As early “stage” theories have been criticized for generalizing family life and not accounting for differences in gender, ethnicity, culture, and lifestyle, less rigid models of the family life cycle have been developed. One example is the family life course, which recognizes the events that occur in the lives of families but views them as parting terms of a fluid course rather than in consecutive stages (Strong and DeVault 1992). This type of model accounts for changes in family development, such as the fact that today, childbearing does not always occur with marriage. It also sheds light on other shifts in the way family life is practised. Society’s modern understanding of family rejects rigid “stage” theories and is more accepting of new, fluid models. In fact contemporary family life has not escaped the phenomenon that Zygmunt Bauman calls fluid (or liquid) modernity, a condition of constant mobility and change in relationships (2000).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Evolution of Television Families

Whether you grew up watching the Cleavers, the Waltons, the Huxtables, or the Simpsons, most of the iconic families you saw in television sitcoms included a father, a mother, and children cavorting under the same roof while comedy ensued. The 1960s was the height of the suburban American nuclear family on television with shows such as The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best. While some shows of this era portrayed single parents (My Three Sons and Bonanza, for instance), the single status almost always resulted from being widowed, not divorced or unwed.

Although family dynamics in real North American homes were changing, the expectations for families portrayed on television were not. North America’s first reality show, An American Family (which aired on PBS in 1973) chronicled Bill and Pat Loud and their children as a “typical” American family. Cameras documented the typical coming and going of daily family life in true cinéma-vérité style. During the series, the oldest son, Lance, announced to the family that he was gay, and at the series’ conclusion, Bill and Pat decided to divorce. Although the Loud’s union was among the 30 percent of marriages that ended in divorce in 1973, the family was featured on the cover of the March 12 issue of Newsweek with the title “The Broken Family” (Ruoff 2002).

Less traditional family structures in sitcoms gained popularity in the 1980s with shows such as Diff’rent Strokes (a widowed man with two adopted African American sons) and One Day at a Time (a divorced woman with two teenage daughters). Still, traditional families such as those in Family Ties and The Cosby Show dominated the ratings. The late 1980s and the 1990s saw the introduction of the dysfunctional family. Shows such as Roseanne, Married with Children, and The Simpsons portrayed traditional nuclear families, but in a much less flattering light than those from the 1960s did (Museum of Broadcast Communications 2011).

Over the past 10 years, the nontraditional family has become somewhat of a tradition in television. While most situation comedies focus on single men and women without children, those that do portray families often stray from the classic structure: they include unmarried and divorced parents, adopted children, gay couples, and multigenerational households. Even those that do feature traditional family structures may show less traditional characters in supporting roles, such as the brothers in the highly rated shows Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and Half Men. Even wildly popular children’s programs as Disney’s Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody feature single parents.

In 2009, ABC premiered an intensely nontraditional family with the broadcast of Modern Family. The show follows an extended family that includes a divorced and remarried father with one stepchild, and his biological adult children—one of who is in a traditional two-parent household, and the other who is a gay man in a committed relationship raising an adopted daughter. While this dynamic may be more complicated than the typical “modern” family, its elements may resonate with many of today’s viewers. “The families on the shows aren’t as idealistic, but they remain relatable,” states television critic Maureen Ryan. “The most successful shows, comedies especially, have families that you can look at and see parts of your family in them” (Respers France 2010).


14.2. Variations in Family Life

The combination of husband, wife, and children that 80 percent of Canadians believes constitutes a family is not representative of the majority of Canadian families. According to 2011 census data, only 31.9 percent of all census families consisted of a married couple with children, down from 37.4 percent in 2001. Sixty-three percent of children under age 14 live in a household with two married parents. This is a decrease from almost 70 percent in 1981 (Statistics Canada 2012). This two-parent family structure is known as a nuclear family, referring to married parents and children as the nucleus, or core, of the group. Recent years have seen a rise in variations of the nuclear family with the parents not being married. The proportion of children aged 14 and under who live with two unmarried cohabiting parents increased from 12.8 percent in 2001 to 16.3 percent in 2011 (Statistics Canada 2012).

Figure 14.4. One in five Canadian children live in a single-parent household. (Photo courtesy of Ross Griff/flickr)

Single Parents

Single-parent households are also on the rise. In 2011, 19.3 percent of children aged 14 and under lived with a single parent only, up slightly from 18 percent in 2001. Of that 19.3 percent, 82 percent live with their mother (Statistics Canada 2012).

Stepparents are an additional family element in two-parent homes. A stepfamily is defined as “a couple family in which at least one child is the biological or adopted child of only one married spouse or common-law partner and whose birth or adoption preceded the current relationship” (Statistics Canada 2012). Among children living in two parent households, 10 percent live with a biological or adoptive parent and a stepparent (Statistics Canada 2012).

In some family structures a parent is not present at all. In 2010, 106,000 children (1.8 percent of all children) lived with a guardian who was neither their biological nor adoptive parent. Of these children, 28 percent lived with grandparents, 44 percent lived with other relatives, and 28 percent lived with non-relatives or foster parents. If we also include families in which both parents and grandparents are present (about 4.8 percent of all census families with children under the age of 14), this family structure is referred to as the extended family, and may include aunts, uncles, and cousins living in the same home. Foster children account for about 0.5 percent of all children in private households.

In the United States, the practice of grandparents acting as parents, whether alone or in combination with the child’s parent, is becoming more common (about 9 percent) among American families (De Toledo and Brown 1995). A grandparent functioning as the primary care provider often results from parental drug abuse, incarceration, or abandonment. Events like these can render the parent incapable of caring for his or her child. However, in Canada, census evidence indicates that the percentage of children in these “skip-generation” families remained more or less unchanged between 2001 and 2011 at 0.5 percent (Statistics Canada 2012).

Changes in the traditional family structure raise questions about how such societal shifts affect children. Research, mostly from American sources, has shown that children living in homes with both parents grow up with more financial and educational advantages than children who are raised in single-parent homes (U.S. Census Bureau 2010). The Canadian data is not so clear. It is true that children growing up in single-parent families experience a lower economic standard of living than families with two parents. In 2008, female lone-parent households earned an average of $42,300 per year, male lone-parent households earned $60,400 per year, and two-parent families earned $100,200 per year (Williams 2010). However, in the lowest 20 percent of families with children aged four to five years old, single parent families made up 48.9 percent of households while intact or blended households made up 51.1 percent (based on 1998/99 data). Single parent families do not make up a larger percentage of low-income families (Human Resources Development Canada 2003). Moreover, both the income (Williams 2010) and the educational attainment (Human Resources Development Canada 2003) of single mothers in Canada has been increasing, which in turn is linked to higher levels of life satisfaction.

In research published from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, a long-term study initiated in 1994 that is following the development of a large cohort of children from birth to the age of 25, the evidence is ambiguous as to whether having single or dual parents has a significant effect on child development outcomes. For example, indicators of vocabulary ability of children aged four to five years old did not differ significantly between single- and dual-parent families. However, aggressive behaviour (reported by parents) in both girls and boys aged four to five years old was greater in single-parent families (Human Resources Development Canada 2003). In fact, significant markers of poor developmental attainment were more related to the sex of the child (more pronounced in boys), maternal depression, low maternal education, maternal immigrant status, and low family income (To et al. 2004). We will have to wait for more research to be published from the latest cycle of  the National Longitudinal Survey to see whether there is more conclusive evidence concerning the relative advantages of dual- and single-parent family settings.

Nevertheless, what the data show is that the key factors in children’s quality of life are the educational levels and economic condition of the family, not whether children’s parents are married, common-law, or single. For example, young children in low-income families are more likely to have vocabulary problems, and young children in higher-income families have more opportunities to participate in recreational activities (Human Resources Development Canada 2003). This is a matter related more to public policy decisions concerning the level of financial support and care services (like public child care) provided to families than different family structures per se. In Sweden, where the government provides generous paid parental leave after the birth of a child, free health care, temporary paid parental leave for parents with sick children, high-quality subsidized daycare, and substantial direct child-benefit payments for each child, indicators of child well-being (literacy, levels of child poverty, rates of suicide, etc.) score very high regardless of the difference between single- and dual-parent family structures (Houseknecht and Sastry 1996).


Living together before or in lieu of marriage is a growing option for many couples. Cohabitation, when a man and woman live together in a sexual relationship without being married, was practised by an estimated 1.6 million people (16.7 percent of all census families) in 2011, which shows an increase of 13.9 percent since 2006 (Statistics Canada 2012). This surge in cohabitation is likely due to the decrease in social stigma pertaining to the practice. In Quebec in particular, researchers have noted that it is common for married couples under the age of 50 to describe themselves in terms used more in cohabiting relationships than marriage: mon conjoint (partner) or mon chum (intimate friend) rather than mon mari (my husband) (Le Bourdais and Juby 2002). In fact, cohabitation or common-law marriage is much more prevalent in Quebec (31.5 percent of census families) and the northern territories (from 25.1 percent in Yukon to 32.7 percent in Nunavut) than in the rest of the country (13 percent in British Columbia, for example) (Statistics Canada 2012).

Cohabitating couples may choose to live together in an effort to spend more time together or to save money on living costs. Many couples view cohabitation as a “trial run” for marriage. Today, approximately 28 percent of men and women cohabitated before their first marriage. By comparison, 18 percent of men and 23 percent of women married without ever cohabitating (U.S. Census Bureau 2010). The vast majority of cohabitating relationships eventually result in marriage; only 15 percent of men and women cohabitate only and do not marry. About one-half of cohabitators transition into marriage within three years (U.S. Census Bureau 2010).

While couples may use this time to “work out the kinks” of a relationship before they wed, the most recent research has found that cohabitation has little effect on the success of a marriage. Those who do not cohabitate before marriage have slightly better rates of remaining married for more than 10 years (Jayson 2010). Cohabitation may contribute to the increase in the number of men and women who delay marriage. The average age of first marriage has been steadily increasing. In 2008, the average age of first marriage was 29.6 for women and 31 for men, compared to 23 for women and 25 for men through most of the 1960s and 1970s (Milan 2013).

As shown by these population pyramids of marital, more young people are choosing to delay or opt out of marriage (Milan, Anne. 2013; Population pyramids courtesy of Statistics Canada).
Figure 14.5 As shown by these population pyramids of marital status, more young people are choosing to delay or opt out of marriage (Milan, Anne. 2013; Population pyramids courtesy of Statistics Canada).

Same-Sex Couples

The number of same-sex couples has grown significantly in the past decade. The Civil Marriage Act (Bill C-38) legalized same sex marriage in Canada on July 20, 2005. Some provinces and territories had already adopted legal same-sex marriage, beginning with Ontario in June 2003. In 2011, Statistics Canada reported 64,575 same-sex couple households in Canada, up by 42 percent from 2006. Of these about three in ten were same-sex married couples compared to 16.5 percent in 2006 (Statistics Canada 2012). These increases are a result of more coupling, the change in the marriage laws, growing social acceptance of homosexuality, and a subsequent increase in willingness to report it.

In Canada, same-sex couples make up 0.8 percent of all couples. Unlike in the United States where the distribution of same-sex couples nationwide is very uneven, ranging from as low as 0.29 percent in Wyoming to 4.01 percent in the District of Columbia (U.S. Census Bureau 2011), the distribution of same-sex couples in Canada by province or territory is similar to that of opposite-sex couples. However, same-sex couples are more highly concentrated in big cities. In 2011, 45.6 percent of all same-sex sex couples lived in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, compared to 33.4 percent of opposite-sex couples (Statistics Canada 2012). In terms of demographics, Canadian same-sex couples tended to be younger than opposite-sex couples. Twenty-five percent of individuals in same-sex couples were under the age of 35 compared to 17.5 percent of individuals in opposite-sex couples. There were more male-male couples (54.5 percent) than female-female couples (Milan 2013). Additionally, 9.4 percent of same-sex couples were raising children, 80 percent of whom were female-female couples (Statistics Canada 2012).

While there is some concern from socially conservative groups, especially in the United States, regarding the well-being of children who grow up in same-sex households, research reports that same-sex parents are as effective as opposite-sex parents. In an analysis of 81 parenting studies, sociologists found no quantifiable data to support the notion that opposite-sex parenting is any better than same-sex parenting. Children of lesbian couples, however, were shown to have slightly lower rates of behavioural problems and higher rates of self-esteem (Biblarz and Stacey 2010).

Staying Single

Gay or straight, a new option for many Canadians is simply to stay single. In 2011, about one-fifth of all individuals over the age of 15 did not live in a couple or family (Statistics Canada 2012). Never-married individuals accounted for 73.1 percent of young adults in the 25 to 29 age bracket, up from 26 percent in 1981 (Milan 2013). More young men in this age bracket are single than young women—78.8 percent to 67.4 percent—reflecting the tendency for men to marry at an older age and to marry women younger than themselves (Milan 2013).

Although both single men and single women report social pressure to get married, women are subject to greater scrutiny. Single women are often portrayed as unhappy “spinsters” or “old maids” who cannot find a man to marry them. Single men, on the other hand, are typically portrayed as lifetime bachelors who cannot settle down or simply “have not found the right girl.” Single women report feeling insecure and displaced in their families when their single status is disparaged (Roberts 2007). However, single women older than 35 report feeling secure and happy with their unmarried status, as many women in this category have found success in their education and careers. In general, women feel more independent and more prepared to live a large portion of their adult lives without a spouse or domestic partner than they did in the 1960s (Roberts 2007).

The decision to marry or not to marry can be based a variety of factors including religion and cultural expectations. Asian individuals are the most likely to marry while black North Americans are the least likely to marry (Venugopal 2011). Additionally, individuals who place no value on religion are more likely to be unmarried than those who place a high value on religion. For black women, however, the importance of religion made no difference in marital status (Bakalar 2010). In general, being single is not a rejection of marriage; rather, it is a lifestyle that does not necessarily include marriage. By age 40, according to census figures, 20 percent of women and 14 of men will have never married (U.S. Census Bureau 2011).

Bar Friends Chicago
Figure 14.6. More and more Canadians are choosing lifestyles that don’t include marriage. (Photo courtesy of Glenn Harper/flickr)

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Deceptive Divorce Rates

It is often cited that half of all marriages end in divorce. This statistic has made many people cynical when it comes to marriage, but it is misleading. A closer look at the data reveals a different story.

Using Statistics Canada data from 2008 that show a marriage rate of 4.4 (per 1,000 people) and a divorce rate of 2.11, it would appear that slightly less than one-half of all marriages failed (Employment and Social Development Canada 2014a, 2014b). Similar United States data for 2003 showed more or less exactly 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce (Hurley 2005). This reasoning is deceptive, however, because instead of tracing actual marriages to see their longevity (or lack thereof), this compares what are unrelated statistics: that is, the number of marriages in a given year does not have a direct correlation to the divorces occurring that same year. American research published in the New York Times took a different approach—determining how many people had ever been married, and of those, how many later divorced. The result? According to this analysis, American divorce rates have only gone as high as 41 percent (Hurley 2005).

Another way to calculate divorce rates is the total divorce rate, which projects how many new marriages would be expected to fail after 30 years based on the divorce rate by marriage duration observed in a given year. In Canada, the total divorce rate figure reached a high of 50.6 percent in 1987 after the Divorce Act was amended to allow divorces after just one year of separation (rather than the mandatory three years previously). Since then, the total divorce rate has remained steady at between 35 percent and 42 percent. In 2008, 40.7 percent of marriages were projected to end before their 30th anniversary (Employment and Social Development Canada 2014a).

Sociologists can also calculate divorce rates through a cohort study. For instance, we could determine the percentage of marriages that are intact after, say, five or seven years, compared to marriages that have ended in divorce after five or seven years. Sociological researchers must remain aware of research methods and how statistical results are applied. As illustrated, different methodologies and different interpretations can lead to contradictory, and even misleading, results.


Theoretical Perspectives on Marriage and Family

Sociologists study families on both the macro and micro level to determine how families function. Sociologists may use a variety of theoretical perspectives to explain events that occur within and outside of the family. In this Introduction to Sociology, we have been focusing on three perspectives: structural functionalism, critical sociology, and symbolic interactionism.


When considering the role of family in society, functionalists uphold the notion that families are an important social institution and that they play a key role in stabilizing society. They also note that family members take on status roles in a marriage or family. The family—and its members—perform certain functions that facilitate the prosperity and development of society.

Sociologist George Murdock conducted a survey of 250 societies and determined that there are four universal residual functions of the family: sexual, reproductive, educational, and economic (Lee 1985). In each society, although the structure of the family varies, the family performs these four functions. According to Murdock, the family (which for him includes the state of marriage) regulates sexual relations between individuals. He does not deny the existence or impact of premarital or extramarital sex, but states that the family offers a socially legitimate sexual outlet for adults (Lee 1985). This outlet gives way to reproduction, which is a necessary part of ensuring the survival of society.

Once children are produced, the family plays a vital role in training them for adult life. As the primary agent of socialization and enculturation, the family teaches young children the ways of thinking and behaving that follow social and cultural norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes. Parents teach their children manners and civility. A well-mannered child reflects a well-mannered parent.

Parents also teach children gender roles. Gender roles are an important part of the economic function of a family. In each family, there is a division of labour that consists of instrumental and expressive roles. Men tend to assume the instrumental roles in the family, which typically involve work outside of the family that provides financial support and establishes family status. Women tend to assume the expressive roles, which typically involve work inside of the family, which provides emotional support and physical care for children (Crano and Aronoff 1978). According to functionalists, the differentiation of the roles on the basis of sex ensures that families are well balanced and coordinated. Each family member is seen as performing a specific role and function to maintain the functioning of the family as a whole.

When family members move outside of these roles, the family is thrown out of balance and must recalibrate in order to function properly. For example, if the father assumes an expressive role such as providing daytime care for the children, the mother must take on an instrumental role such as gaining paid employment outside of the home in order for the family to maintain balance and function.

Critical Sociology

Critical sociologists are quick to point out that North American families have been defined as private entities, the consequence of which historically has been to see family matters as issues concerning only those within the family. Serious issues including domestic violence and child abuse, inequality between the sexes, the right to dispose of family property equally, and so on, have been historically treated as being outside of state, legal, or police jurisdiction. The feminist slogan of the 1960s and 1970s—“the personal is the political”—indicates how feminists began to draw attention to the broad social or public implications of matters long considered private or inconsequential. As women’s roles had long been relegated to the private sphere, issues of power that affected their lives most directly were largely invisible. Speaking about the lives of middle-class women in mid-century North America, Betty Friedan described this problem as “the problem with no name”:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” (1963, p. 15).

One focus of critical sociology therefore is to highlight the political-economic context of the inequalities of power in family life. The family is often not a haven but rather an arena where the effects of societal power struggles are felt. This exercise of power often entails the differentiation and performance of family status roles. Why are women expected to perform the “expressive” roles in the family while the men perform “instrumental” roles, and what are the implications of this division of labour? Critical sociologists therefore study conflicts as simple as the enforcement of rules from parent to child, or more serious issues such as domestic violence (spousal and child), sexual assault, marital rape, and incest, as products of power structures in broader society. Blood and Wolfe’s classic (1960) study of marital power found that the person with the most access to value resources held the most power. As money is one of the most valuable resources, men who worked in paid labour outside of the home held more power than women who worked inside the home. Disputes over the division of household labour tend also to be a common source of marital discord. Household labour offers no wages and, therefore, no power. Studies indicate that when men do more housework, women experience more satisfaction in their marriages, reducing the incidence of conflict (Coltrane 2000).

The political and economic context is also key to understanding changes in the structure of the family over the 20th and 21st centuries. The debate between functionalist and critical sociologists on the rise of non-nuclear family forms is a case in point. Since the 1950s, the functionalist approach to the family has emphasized the importance of the nuclear family—a married man and woman in a socially approved sexual relationship with at least one child—as the basic unit of an orderly and functional society. Although only 39 percent of families conformed to this model in 2006, in functionalist approaches, it often operates as a model of the normal family, with the implication that non-normal family forms lead to a variety of society-wide dysfunctions. On the other hand, critical perspectives emphasize that the diversity of family forms does not indicate the “decline of the family” (i.e., of the ideal of the nuclear family) so much as the diverse response of the family form to the tensions of gender inequality and historical changes in the economy and society. The nuclear family should be thought of less as a normative model for how families should be and more as an historical anomaly that reflected the specific social and economic conditions of the two decades following the World War II.

Symbolic Interactionism

Interactionists view the world in terms of symbols and the meanings assigned to them (LaRossa and Reitzes 1993). The family itself is a symbol. To some, it is a father, mother, and children; to others, it is any union that involves respect and compassion. Interactionists stress that family is not an objective, concrete reality. Like other social phenomena, it is a social construct that is subject to the ebb and flow of social norms and ever-changing meanings.

Consider the meaning of other elements of family: “parent” was a symbol of a biological and emotional connection to a child. With more parent-child relationships developing through adoption, remarriage, or change in guardianship, the word “parent” today is less likely to be associated with a biological connection than with whoever is socially recognized as having the responsibility for a child’s upbringing. Similarly, the terms “mother” and “father” are no longer rigidly associated with the meanings of caregiver and breadwinner. These meanings are more free-flowing through changing family roles.

Interactionists also recognize how the family status roles of each member are socially constructed, playing an important part in how people perceive and interpret social behaviour. Interactionists view the family as a group of role players or “actors” that come together to act out their parts in an effort to construct a family. These roles are up for interpretation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a “good father,” for example, was one who worked hard to provided financial security for his children. Today, a “good father” is one who takes the time outside of work to promote his children’s emotional well-being, social skills, and intellectual growth—in some ways, a much more daunting task.

Symbolic interactionism therefore draws our attention to how the norms that define what a “normal” family is and how it should operate come into existence. The rules and expectations that coordinate the behaviour of family members are products of social processes and joint agreement, even if the agreements are tacit or implicit. In this perspective, norms and social conventions are not regarded as permanently fixed by functional requirements or unequal power relationships. Rather, new norms and social conventions continually emerge from ongoing social interactions to make family structures intelligible in new situations and to enable them to operate and sustain themselves.

14.3. Challenges Families Face

As the structure of family changes over time, so do the challenges families face. Events like divorce and remarriage present new difficulties for families and individuals. Other long-standing domestic issues such as abuse continue to strain the health and stability of families.

Divorce and Remarriage

Divorce, while fairly common and accepted in modern Canadian society, was once a word that would only be whispered and was accompanied by gestures of disapproval. Prior to the introduction of the Divorce Act in 1968 there was no federal divorce law in Canada. In provincial jurisdictions where there were divorce laws, spouses had to prove adultery or cruelty in court. The 1968 Divorce Act broadened the grounds for divorce to include mental and physical cruelty, desertion, and/or separation for more than three years, and imprisonment. In 1986 the Act was amended again to make “breakdown of marriage” the sole ground for divorce. Couples could divorce after one year’s separation, and there was no longer a requirement to prove “fault” by either spouse.

These legislative changes had immediate consequences on the divorce rate. In 1961, divorce was generally uncommon, affecting only 36 out of every 100,000 married persons. In 1969, the year after the introduction of the Divorce Act, the number of divorces doubled from from 55 divorces per 100,000 population to 124. The divorce rate peaked in 1987 after the 1986 amendment at 362 divorces per 100,000 population. Over the last quarter century, divorce rates have dropped steadily reaching 221 divorces per 100,000 population in 2005 (Kelly 2010). The dramatic increase in divorce rates after the 1960s has been associated with the liberalization of divorce laws (as noted above) and the shift in societal makeup including the increase of women entering the workforce (Michael 1978) and marital breakdowns in the large cohort of baby boomers (Kelly 2010). The decrease in divorce rates can be attributed to two probable factors: an increase in the age at which people get married, and an increased level of education among those who marry—both of which have been found to promote greater marital stability.

Crude Divorce Rate in Canada, provinces and territories: 1961-2005. After peaking in 1987 there has been a steady decrease in divorce rates. (Source: Kelly (2010). Table courtesy of Statistics Canada)
Table 14.2 Crude divorce rate in Canada, provinces, and territories: 1961-2005. After peaking in 1987 there has been a steady decrease in divorce rates. (Source: Kelly (2010). Table courtesy of Statistics Canada)

So what causes divorce? While more young people are choosing to postpone or opt out of marriage, those who enter into the union do so with the expectation that it will last. A great deal of marital problems can be related to stress, especially financial stress. According to researchers participating in the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, couples who enter marriage without a strong asset base (like a home, savings, and a retirement plan) are 70 percent more likely to be divorced after three years than are couples with at least $10,000 in assets. This is connected to factors such as age and education level that correlate with low incomes.

The addition of children to a marriage creates added financial and emotional stress. Research has established that marriages enter their most stressful phase upon the birth of the first child (Popenoe and Whitehead 2001). This is particularly true for couples who have multiples (twins, triplets, and so on). Married couples with twins or triplets are 17 percent more likely to divorce than those with children from single births (McKay 2010). Another contributor to the likelihood of divorce is a general decline in marital satisfaction over time. As people get older, they may find that their values and life goals no longer match up with those of their spouse (Popenoe and Whitehead 2004).

Divorce is thought to have a cyclical pattern. Children of divorced parents are 40 percent more likely to divorce than children of married parents. And when we consider children whose parents divorced and then remarried, the likelihood of their own divorce rises to 91 percent (Wolfinger 2005). This might result from being socialized to a mindset that a broken marriage can be replaced rather than repaired (Wolfinger 2005). That sentiment is also reflected in the finding that when both partners of a married couple have been previously divorced, their marriage is 90 percent more likely to end in divorce (Wolfinger 2005).

Figure 14.7. Bartenders are among the professions with the highest divorce rates (38.4 percent). Other traditionally low-wage industries (like restaurant service, custodial employment, and factory work) are also associated with higher divorce rates. (Aamodt and McCoy 2010). (Photo courtesy of Daniel Lobo/flickr)

Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying that getting married a second time was “the triumph of hope over experience.” In fact, according to the 2001 Statistics Canada General Social Survey, 43 percent of individuals whose first marriage failed married again, while 16 percent married again after the death of their spouse. Another 1 percent of the ever-married population aged 25 and over had been married more than twice (Clark and Crompton 2006). American data show that most men and women remarry within five years of a divorce, with the median length for men (three years) being lower than for women (4.4 years). This length of time has been fairly consistent since the 1950s. The majority of those who remarry are between the ages of 25 and 44 (Kreider 2006).

Marriage the second time around (or third or fourth) can be a very different process than the first. Remarriage lacks many of the classic courtship rituals of a first marriage. In a second marriage, individuals are less likely to deal with issues like parental approval, premarital sex, or desired family size (Elliot 2010). Clark and Crompton suggest that second marriages tend to be more stable than first marriages, largely because the spouses are older and more mature. At the time of the Statistics Canada General Social Survey, 71 percent of the remarried couples surveyed were still together and had been for an average of 13 years. Couples tend to marry a second time more for intimacy-based reasons rather than external reasons and therefore enjoy a greater quality of relationship (Clark and Crompton 2006).

Children of Divorce and Remarriage

Divorce and remarriage can be stressful for partners and children alike. Divorce is often justified by the notion that children are better off in a divorced family than in a family with parents who do not get along. Others argue that parents who divorce sacrifice their children’s well-being to pursue their own happiness. Research suggests that separating out particular factors of the divorce, especially whether or not the divorce is accompanied by parental conflict, is key to determining whether divorce has a significant negative impact on children (Amato and Keith 1991). Certainly while marital conflict does not provide an ideal childrearing environment, going through a divorce can also be damaging. Children are often confused and frightened by the threat to their family security. They may feel responsible for the divorce and attempt to bring their parents back together, often by sacrificing their own well-being (Amato 2000). Only in high-conflict homes do children benefit from divorce and the subsequent decrease in conflict. The majority of divorces come out of lower-conflict homes, and children from those homes are more negatively impacted by the stress of the divorce than the stress of unhappiness in the marriage (Amato 2000). On the other hand, Amato and Keith have argued that the overall the effect of divorce on children’s well-being is relatively weak and has been declining over time (Amato and Keith 1991).

Children’s ability to deal with a divorce may depend on their age. Research has found that divorce may be most difficult for school-aged children, as they are old enough to understand the separation but not old enough to understand the reasoning behind it. Older teenagers are more likely to recognize the conflict that led to the divorce but may still feel fear, loneliness, guilt, and pressure to choose sides. Infants and preschool-age children may suffer the heaviest impact from the loss of routine that the marriage offered (Temke 2006).

Proximity to parents also makes a difference in a child’s well-being after divorce. Boys who live or have joint arrangements with their fathers show less aggression than those who are raised by their mothers only. Similarly, girls who live or have joint arrangements with their mothers tend to be more responsible and mature than those who are raised by their fathers only. Nearly 70 percent of the children of parents who are divorced have their primary residence with their mother, leaving many boys without a father figure residing in the home. Another 15 percent of the children lived with their father and 9 percent moved back and forth between both parents equally (Sinha 2014). Still, researchers suggest that a strong parent-child relationship can greatly improve a child’s adjustment to divorce (Temke 2006).

There is empirical evidence that divorce has not discouraged children in terms of how they view marriage and family. In a survey conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, about three-quarters of high school students said it was “extremely important” to have a strong marriage and family life. And over half believed it was “very likely” that they would be in a lifelong marriage (Popenoe and Whitehead 2001). These numbers have continued to climb over the last 25 years.

Violence and Abuse

Violence and abuse are among the most disconcerting of the challenges that today’s families face. Abuse can occur between spouses, between parent and child, as well as between other family members. The frequency of violence among families is a difficult to determine because many cases of spousal abuse and child abuse go unreported. In any case, studies have shown that abuse (reported or not) has a major impact on families and society as a whole.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a significant social problem in Canada. One in four victims of violent crime in Canada was victimized by a spouse or family member in 2010 (Sinha 2012). Domestic violence is often characterized as violence between household or family members, specifically spouses. To include unmarried, cohabitating, and same-sex couples, family sociologists have created the term intimate partner violence (IPV). Women are the primary victims of intimate partner violence. It is estimated that 1 in 4 women has experienced some form of IPV in her lifetime (compared to 1 in 7 men) (Catalano 2007). In 2011, women in Canada had more than double the risk of men of becoming a victim of police-reported family violence (Sinha 2012). IPV may include physical violence, such as punching, kicking, or other methods of inflicting physical pain; sexual violence, such as rape or other forced sexual acts; threats and intimidation that imply either physical or sexual abuse; and emotional abuse, such as harming another’s sense of self-worth through words or controlling another’s behaviour. IPV often starts as emotional abuse and then escalates to other forms or combinations of abuse (Centers for Disease Control 2012).

Figure 14.8. Over the past 30 years, the rate of spousal homicides against females has consistently been about three to four times higher than that for males (Statistics Canada 2011). What does this statistic reveal about societal patterns and norms concerning intimate relationships and gender roles? (Photo courtesy of Kathy Kimpel/flickr)

In 2010, of IPV acts that involved physical actions against women, 71 percent involved physical assault (57 percent were common assault including punching, slapping, and pushing, while another 10 percent were major assaults involving a weapon or causing major bodily injury); 3 percent involved sexual assault; 10 percent involved uttering threats; 5 percent indecent or threatening phone calls; and 9 percent criminal harassment or stalking (Sinha 2012). This is slightly different than IPV abuse patterns for men, which show that 79 percent of acts of IPV take the form of physical violence and less than 1 percent involve sexual assault (Sinha 2012). Interestingly, in 2011, a slightly larger proportion of physical assaults against male intimate partners resulted in injury (55 percent) compared to female intimate partners (51 percent) (Sinha 2013). IPV affects women at greater rates than men because women often take the passive role in relationships and may become emotionally dependent on their partner.  Perpetrators of IPV work to establish and maintain such dependence in order to hold power and control over their victims, making them feel stupid, crazy, or ugly—in some way worthless. Between 2000 and 2010, nearly one-quarter of women murdered by their intimate partners were murdered for reasons of jealousy (compared to 10 percent of male victims) (Sinha 2012).

IPV affects different segments of the population at different rates. The rate of self-reported IPV for aboriginal women is about 2.5 times higher than for non-aboriginal women (Sinha 2013). The severity of intimate partner violence also differed. Nearly 6 in 10 aboriginal women reported injury as a result of IPV compared to 4 in 10 non-aboriginal women. As a result, aboriginal female victims were also much more likely to report that they feared for their lives as a result of IPV (52 percent compared to 31 percent of non-aboriginal women) (Sinha 2013). On the other hand, visible minority and immigrant groups do not have significantly different levels of self-reported spousal violence than the rest of the population (Statistics Canada 2011).

Those who are separated report higher rates of abuse than those with other marital statuses, as conflict is typically higher in those relationships. Similarly, those who are cohabitating or living in a common-law relationship are more likely than those who are married to experience IPV (Statistics Canada 2011). American researchers have found that the rate of IPV doubles for women in low-income disadvantaged areas when compared to IPV experienced by women who reside in more affluent areas (Benson and Fox 2004). In Canada, the statistics do not bear this relationship out. Household income and education levels appear to have little effect on experiencing spousal violence. Regardless of income level, the proportion of reported spousal violence was between 1 and 2 percent. However, rates of IPV were nearly double in rural Canada than in the major metropolitan areas (542 incidents per 100,000 population compared to 294). Overall, women ages 25 to 34 are at the greatest risk of physical or sexual assault by an intimate partner (Statistics Canada 2011).

Accurate statistics on IPV are difficult to determine, as less than one-quarter of victims report incidents to the police (Statistics Canada 2011). It is not until victims choose to report crimes that patterns of abuse are exposed. Two-thirds of victims in Statistics Canada self-reported victimization studies stated that abuse had occurred more than once prior to their first police report. Nearly 3 in 10 stated that they had been abused more than 10 times prior to reporting (Statistics Canada 2011).

According to the Statistics Canada General Social Survey (2009) , victims cite varied reason why they are reluctant to report abuse, as shown in Table 14.3.

Table 14.3 This chart shows reasons that victims give for why they fail to report abuse to police authorities (Statistics Canada 2011).
Table 14.3 This chart shows reasons that victims give for why they fail to report abuse to police authorities (Statistics Canada 2011).

IPV has significant long-term effects on individual victims and on society. Studies have shown that IPV damage extends beyond the direct physical or emotional wounds. Extended IPV has been linked to unemployment among victims, as many have difficulty finding or holding employment. Additionally, nearly all women who report serious domestic problems exhibit symptoms of major depression (Goodwin, Chandler, and Meisel 2003). Female victims of IPV are also more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, suffer from eating disorders, and attempt suicide (Silverman et al. 2001).

IPV is indeed something that impacts more than just intimate partners. In a survey, 34 percent of respondents said they have witnessed IPV, and 59 percent said that they know a victim personally (Roper Starch Worldwide 1995). Many people want to help IPV victims but are hesitant to intervene because they feel that it is a personal matter or they fear retaliation from the abuser—reasons similar to those of victims who do not report IPV.

Child Abuse and Corporal Punishment

Children are among the most helpless victims of abuse. In 2010, more than 18,000 children and youth under the age of 17 were victims of police-reported family violence in Canada, accounting for nearly a quarter of all violent offences against children and youth (Sinha 2012). Child abuse may come in several forms, the most common being neglect, followed by physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological maltreatment, and medical neglect (Child Help 2011). Whereas the overall rate of violent crime involving children and youth is lower than the rate for the population as a whole, the rate of sexual assault is five times higher (Sinha 2012). Level 1 sexual assault (not involving a weapon or aggravated assault) comprised 75 percent of these offences, while child-specific sexual crimes including sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching, luring a child via a computer, and corrupting children comprised another 22 percent. Girls were 37 percent more likely than boys to be the victim of family violence (and almost twice as likely by the time they reached ages 12 to 17). In large part this is because girls are almost four times as likely to be a victim of sexual assault by a family member than boys are.

Twenty-five percent of all violent crime against children and youth was perpetrated by a family member (parent, sibling, extended family member, or spouse), while another 54 percent involved an accused known to the victim (casual acquaintances, close friends, or dating partners) (Sinha 2012). Fifty-nine percent of family violence against children was committed by parents, 19 percent by siblings, and 22 percent by other family members (Statistics Canada 2011). Understandably, these figures vary with the age of the child. As Sinha (2012) notes, “among youth aged 12 to 17 who had been victimized, about one in five (18%) were violently victimized by someone within their own family network. This compares to 47% of child victims aged 3 to 11 years, and 70% of infant and toddler victims under the age of 3 years” (p. 58).

In terms of child abuse reported to provincial and territorial child welfare authorities, infants (children less than 1 year old) were the most victimized population with an incident rate of 52 investigations per 1,000 children (compared to 43 per 1,000 for 1 to 3 year olds, the next highest category) (Public Health Agency of Canada 2010). Infants younger than 1 year are also the most vulnerable to family homicide, 98 percent of which were committed by parents (27 per million between 2000 and 2010, compared to 9 per million for 1 to 3 year olds, the next highest category) (Sinha 2012). This age group is particularly vulnerable to neglect because they are entirely dependent on parents for care. Some parents do not purposely neglect their children; factors such as cultural values, standard of care in a community, and poverty can lead to hazardous level of neglect. If information or assistance from public or private services are available and a parent fails to use those services, child welfare services may intervene (Public Health Agency of Canada 2010).

subdural hematoma
Figure 14.9 The arrow indicates subdural hematoma or bleeding between the dura mater and the brain, one cause of death from shaken-baby syndrome. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Infants are also often victims of physical abuse, particularly in the form of violent shaking. This type of physical abuse is referred to as shaken-baby syndrome, which describes a group of medical symptoms such as brain swelling and retinal hemorrhage resulting from forcefully shaking or causing impact to an infant’s head. A baby’s cry is the number one trigger for shaking. Parents may find themselves unable to soothe a baby’s concerns and may take their frustration out on the child by shaking him or her violently. Other stress factors such as a poor economy, unemployment, and general dissatisfaction with parental life may contribute to this type of abuse. Shaken-baby syndrome was attributed as the cause of nearly one-third (31 percent) of family-related homicides of infants less than 1 year between 2000 and 2010 (Sinha 2012).

Making Connections: Social Policy and Debate

Corporal Punishment

News reports in June 2013 broke the sensational story of dozens of children being apprehended by Child and Family Services from a small Old Order Mennonite community in southern Manitoba. Several members of the community were charged by police with assault when they received reports that children had been disciplined using a leather strap, whip, and cattle prod (Hitchen 2013). At one point, all the children except for one 17 year old had be apprehended by authorities (CBC News 2013). The 1892 law that permits the use of corporal punishment for children in Canada was upheld by a Supreme Court ruling in 2004 within certain restrictions, but corporal punishment remains a controversial issue in Canada (CBC News 2004).

Physical  abuse of children may come in the form of beating, kicking, throwing, choking, hitting with objects, burning, or other methods. Injury inflicted by such behaviour is considered abuse even if the parent or caregiver did not intend to harm the child. Other types of physical contact that are characterized as discipline (spanking, for example) are not considered abuse as long as no injury results. The Supreme Court ruling stated that teachers and parents can use reasonable corrective force against children between the ages of 2 and 12 years old as long as the force is “minor” and of “a transitory and trifling nature” (CBC News 2004). The court ruled that it was unacceptable to strike a child with an object, like a strap or whip, and striking a child in the head was also unacceptable.

This issue is rather controversial among modern-day Canadians. While some parents feel that physical discipline, or corporal punishment, is an effective way to respond to bad behaviour, others feel that it is a form of abuse. According to a 2005 study of mothers with preschoolers in Manitoba and Ontario, 70 percent of respondents reported using corporal punishment. One-third of them used it at least once a week. A poll conducted by the Globe and Mail in 2007 found that 78 percent of Canadian parents with children under 18 believed that parents do not discipline their children enough and another 42 percent believed spanking benefited child development (Pearce 2012).

However, studies have shown that spanking is not an effective form of punishment and may lead to aggression by the victim, particularly in those who are spanked at a young age (Berlin 2009). A meta-analysis of research conducted over two decades published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that spanking was no better than other parenting methods at eliciting compliance in children and was in fact linked not only to increased levels of childhood aggression but also to long-term effects such as depression, emotional and behavioural problems, and drug and alcohol use in adulthood (Durrant and Ensom 2012). This research led the editor-in-chief of the journal to call for the repeal of the spanking law from the Criminal Code. “It is time for Canada to remove this anachronistic excuse for poor parenting from the statute book” (Fletcher 2012, p. 1339).


Key Terms

ambilineal a type of unilateral descent that follows either the father’s or the mother’s side exclusively

bigamy the act of entering into marriage while still married to another person

bilateral descent the tracing of kinship through both parents’ ancestral lines

cohabitation when a couple shares a residence but is not married

extended family a household that includes at least one parent and child as well as other relatives like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins

family socially recognized groups of individuals who may be joined by blood, marriage, or adoption and who form an emotional connection and an economic unit of society

family life course a sociological model of family that sees the progression of events as fluid rather than as occurring in strict stages

family life cycle a set of predictable steps and patterns families experience over time

family of orientation the family into which one is born

family of procreation a family that is formed through marriage

fluid modernity a condition of constant mobility and change in relationships within contemporary society

intimate partner violence (IPV) violence that occurs between individuals who maintain a romantic or sexual relationship; includes unmarried, cohabiting, and same-sex couples as well as heterosexual married couples

kinship a person’s traceable ancestry (by blood, marriage, and/or adoption)

liquid modernity see fluid modernity

marriage a legally recognized contract between two or more people in a sexual relationship who have an expectation of permanence about their relationship

matrilineal descent a type of unilateral descent that follows the mother’s side only

matrilocal residence a system in which it is customary for a husband to live with his wife’s family

monogamy when someone is married to only one person at a time

nuclear family two parents (traditionally a married husband and wife) and children living in the same household

patrilineal descent a type of unilateral descent that follows the father’s line only

patrilocal residence a system in which it is customary for the a wife to live with (or near) her husband’s family

polyandry a form of marriage in which one woman is married to more than one man at one time

polygamy the state of being committed or married to more than one person at a time

polygyny a form of marriage in which one man is married to more than one woman at one time

shaken-baby syndrome a group of medical symptoms such as brain swelling and retinal hemorrhage resulting from forcefully shaking or impacting an infant’s head

total divorce rate projects how many new marriages would be expected to fail after 30 years based on the divorce rate by marriage duration observed in a given year

unilateral descent the tracing of kinship through one parent only.

Section Summary

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?
Sociologists view marriage and families as societal institutions that help create the basic unit of social structure. Both marriage and a family may be defined differently—and practised differently—in cultures across the world. Families and marriages, like other institutions, adapt to social change.

14.2. Variations in Family Life
Canadians’ concepts of marriage and family are changing. Increases in cohabitation, same-sex partners, and singlehood are altering of our ideas of marriage. Similarly, single parents, same-sex parents, cohabitating parents, and unwed parents are changing our notion of what it means to be a family. While many children still live in opposite-sex, two-parent, married households, these are no longer viewed as the only type of nuclear family.

14.3. Challenges Families Face
Families face a variety of challenges, including divorce, domestic violence, and child abuse. While divorce rates have decreased in the last 25 years, many family members, especially children, still experience the negative effects of divorce. Children are also negatively impacted by violence and abuse within the home, with 18,000 children victimized by family violence each year.

Section Quiz

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?
1. Sociologists tend to define family in terms of

  1. How a given society sanctions the relationships of people who are connected through blood, marriage, or adoption
  2. The connection of bloodlines
  3. The status roles that exist in a family structure
  4. How closely members adhere to social norms

2. Research suggests that people generally feel that their current family is _______ than the family they grew up with.

  1. Less close
  2. More close
  3. At least as close
  4. None of the above

3. A woman being married to two men would be an example of:

  1. Monogamy
  2. polygyny
  3. polyandry
  4. cohabitation

4. A child who associates his line of descent with his father’s side only is part of a _____ society.

  1. Matrilocal
  2. Bilateral
  3. Matrilineal
  4. Patrilineal

5. Which of the following is a criticism of the family life cycle model?

  1. It is too broad and accounts for too many aspects of family.
  2. It is too narrowly focused on a sequence of stages.
  3. It does not serve a practical purpose for studying family behaviour.
  4. It is not based on comprehensive research.

14.2. Variations in Family Life
6. The majority of Canadian children live in ______.

  1. Two-parent households
  2. One-parent households
  3. No-parent households
  4. Multigenerational households

7. According to the study cited from Statistics Canada, children who live with ______ grow up with more advantages than children who live with ______.

  1. One unwed parent; one divorced parent
  2. One divorced parent; two married parents
  3. One grandparent; two married parents
  4. One divorced parent; one unwed parent

8. Couples who cohabitate before marriage are ______ couples who did not cohabitate before marriage to be married at least 10 years.

  1. Far more likely than
  2. Far less likely than
  3. Slightly less likely than
  4. Equally as likely as

9. Same-sex couple households account for _____ percent of Canadian households.

  1. 1
  2. 10
  3. 15
  4. 30

10. The median age of first marriage has ______ in the last 50 years.

  1. Increased for men but not women
  2. Decreased for men but not women
  3. Increased for both men and women
  4. Decreased for both men and women

14.3. Challenges Families Face
11. Current divorce rates are _______.

  1. At an all-time high
  2. At an all-time low
  3. Steadily increasing
  4. Steadily declining

12. Children of divorced parents are _______ to divorce in their own marriage than children of parents who stayed married.

  1. More likely
  2. Less likely
  3. Equally likely

13. In general, children in ______ households benefit from divorce.

  1. Stepfamily
  2. Multigenerational
  3. High-conflict
  4. Low-conflict

14. Which of the following is true of intimate partner violence (IPV)?

  1. IPV victims are more frequently men than women.
  2. One in 10 women is a victim of IPV.
  3. Aboriginal women are nearly 2.5 times more likely to be a victim of IPV than non-aboriginal women.
  4. Rape is the most common form of IPV.

15. Which type of child abuse is most prevalent in Canada?

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Neglect
  3. Shaken-baby syndrome
  4. Internet stalking

Short Answer

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?

  1. According to research, what are Canadians’ general thoughts on family? How do they view nontraditional family structures? How do you think these views might change in 20 years?
  2. Explain the difference between bilateral and unilateral descent. Using your own association with kinship, explain which type of descent applies to you.

14.2. Variations in Family Life

  1. Explain the different variations of the nuclear family and the trends that occur in each.
  2. Why are some couples choosing to cohabit before marriage? What effect does cohabitation have on marriage?

14.3. Challenges Families Face

  1. Explain how financial status impacts marital stability. What other factors are associated with a couple’s financial status?
  2. Explain why more than half of intimate partner violence goes unreported? Why are those who are abused unlikely to report the abuse?

Further Research

14.1. What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?
For more information on family development and lines of descent, visit the Library and Archives Canada “Genealogy and Family History” website to find out how to research family genealogies in Canada.

14.2. Variations in Family Life

For more statistics on marriage and family, see the Statistics Canada report based on the 2011 census:   Portrait of Families and Living Arrangements in Canada: Families, households and marital status, 2011 Census of Population.

14.3. Challenges Families Face

To find more information on child abuse, visit the Canadian Child Welfare Research portal at


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Solutions to Section Quiz

1. A  |  2. C  |  3. C  |  4. D  |  5. B  |  6. A  |  7. D  |  8. C  |  9. A  |  10. C  |  11. D  |  12. A  |  13. C  |  14. C  |  15. B

Image Attribution

Figure 14.9. This CT scan is an example of Subdural haemorrhage caused by trauma by Glitzy queen00 ( is in the public domain (


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