The Nuclear Family: An Endangered Species?

For thousands of years the family unit has stood as the most important social group. It gave warmth, support, guidance, discipline and comradeship to all who belonged. It also provided structure, consistency and set a protocol for dealing with those of different age groups simply through the necessities and proximity of living in a communal space. But in our contemporary society something has changed. Different generations no longer share the same roof. The younger generations yearn for freedom from authority. Parents look for private space and “me-time.” Grandparents look for answers as to why they are no longer listened to let alone consulted for their life wisdom and even banished to “rest homes.” Everyone seems to have become infected with a need for “self-improvement” and independence. The cohesiveness that once held a family together is now seen as more of a hindrance than an aid. To date there have been only a smattering of discussions concerning the disappearance of the nuclear family and its role as being a base of operations and support for multilateral generations. What understood is the financial and materialistic support that has been lost due to the family’s dissolution. What is understood is that the influence of “proximity” living that has existed for thousands of years within the nuclear family has been, throughout history, a mostly unrecognized educational platform for learning how to socially handle ourselves between generations. But, more importantly, the unrecognized beneficial self-validation that comes with being part of a multi-generational environment. We may have gained more undisturbed opportunities to consciously pursue “self-improvement” and the freedom of movement that comes with gaining independence. But there are things that have been lost that have gone unnoticed, perhaps, because of the subtleties of their effects.


The most prominent advantage to living in a multi-generational environment is the opportunity for children to observe examples of how to handle various differences in perspectives and values that come up between generations. More importantly, they also learn how to deal with public exposure of their innermost personal issues due to living in such close quarters where personal contact is unavoidable and privacy is at a premium. Through their observance within that environment they learn to handle personal exposure in a graceful and tactful way rather that resorting to anger and violence which is usually the first reaction the newer generations exhibit to being exposed and feeling that they must defend their projected image.

The first, and I believe the most contemporarily influential, advantage of having a family is the availability of intimacy. For those of us who are a little older, this will be a little easier to comprehend since we’ve lived through both “time zones.” For the younger generation, this may feel like a foreign language.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re twelve years old and living at home with your family. The house is fairly large. Living together are your parents, brother and sister, a pair of grandparents and an aunt and uncle. The house has four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Your parents live in one room, you and your siblings share the second, your uncle and grandfather the third and your grandmother and aunt in the fourth. In one house this will be close quarters, especially with nine people sharing two bathrooms. In the 1940s and 50s and before, this was not uncommon.

With so many people living together, especially scattered through three generations, everyone would be privy to many more varied aspects of each other’s lives than we know are in our contemporary settings with everyone living in separate homes. If we were to “throw back” to living in that type of environment, most of us would feel extremely uncomfortable with the feeling that our privacy is being challenged. And, there’s a reason for this. Privacy and our luxury of having it involuntarily regulates our potential for intimacy. How? Living apart, there are aspects of our lives that are not exposed to other members of our family. This is precisely the point that has enabled intimacy to change by virtue of the disappearing nuclear family and how it is that we perceive it today.

The fact that living as an extended family together in one house does expose many of its members to each other’s private business is the catalyst that enables the necessity and our opportunity to learn, grow and become intimate with each other. If we live in close quarters with other members of our family, we are going to see and learn things about them that we wouldn’t have had we lived apart. This “enforced proximity” makes it necessary to develop behaviors and social protocols so everyone can comfortably live together without the threat of what we now perceive as a fear of embarrassment or exposure. Learning to be intimate in this way develops not only depth but comfortability in dealing with close personal matters that family members who live apart might never have the necessity or opportunity to experience with each other. The fear of exposure that I speak of is not only the fear of having someone know intimate details about us but the fear of them being able to use those details to manipulate us, much like being blackmailed. However, this fear has much deeper roots in leaving us feeling out of control with intimacy issues because we haven’t learned to handle them. Had we lived in close proximity with other family members when we were growing up it would have taught us how to deal with them almost to the point where handling them would become second nature. The younger generations have never been trained how to deal with the embarrassment that comes with feeling exposed or out of control.

We should also note that the development of humility is a quality that comes with being trained to deal with embarrassment and with the loss of intimacy which has all but disappeared from our socially learned pantheon of recognized behaviors. Machismo and posturing have taken their place as a defense mechanism and as a distraction from the exposure of our perceived embarrassment or exposure. Due to the loss of becoming unable to experience or understand intimacy, almost all measures of humility, compassion and appreciation have rapidly been replaced with feelings of entitlement, outrage, persecution and belittlement. This operates as a distraction from our perceived exposure simply because we’ve never learned to handle the intimacy that allows for their integration and development. Most of the younger generations are now afraid of intimacy since their inability to handle it now signals such a threat for embarrassment through the exposure of their sensed but unrecognized lack of experience in handling it. Additionally, because the younger generation hasn’t had the experience of living in the close proximity with an extended family and learning how to deal with intimacy, their perception and scope of it has been reduced to seeing and feeling it solely as an expression of sex.

A second dimension that is enhanced by living within a nuclear family structure and having a close interweave with intimacy is effective role modeling whether constructive or detrimental. Our family and its structure usually provide first hand examples. The advantage of having the training within the family structure is that the results of the role model’s behavior can be directly observed within the family structure. There is available an immediate validation. We are able to quickly digest and incorporate the pros and cons of adapting any particular role or behaviors that our family members might exhibit.

A role model, which contributes to a child’s opportunity for emulation, is a relatively easy concept to comprehend and integrate into our psyches, especially; when we can see familial behaviors immediately play out within our purview. We can then make a clear and confident decision about who we would and wouldn’t like to emulate. What we don’t immediately comprehend in having the example occur so closely is the quality of vulnerability and its importance in establishing a quality of depth in the role we might want to emulate. That is, in having the role model so close we can see the fallibility and vulnerability we will face in taking on a family member’s persona. In contrast, when we view a media role model we almost never see their human or fallible side. We don’t see them in situations other than those that accentuate the particular characteristics we’d want to personally integrate. We never see where they are vulnerable except where their projected excellence is concerned. So, with Superman, we learn about kryptonite. With Batman, we see his risk of identity exposure. With Bronson, we see the murder of his wife as his drive and passion. But we never see their feelings. We never see what they’re afraid of. We never see how they interact in their “ordinary” lives. We don’t see their personal vulnerabilities. For us, their characters are incomplete. We never see what makes them human; what makes them like us when they’re not being the hero. As real people, we may be unaware that Dirty Harry and Bronson actually have feelings that we’re never allowed to see. We don’t see the integration of their vulnerabilities in their character. Hence, our emulation of media role models becomes ineffective, incomplete, and cardboard. When we see role models “up close and personal” as in our family, that vulnerability, that humanity, that fallibility is distinctly palatable and visible. We get a complete picture of how our emulation might progress. When we lose our family involvement our perception of that vulnerability is lost. Without a family history, we must depend on one-sided and incomplete media heroes on which to select from who we wish to emulate. We then literally go off “half-cocked.”

A third dimension that becomes advantageous to us when we grow up within a family structure is having an instant reflection for how we choose to interact with the world and other family members. If we adapt the behavior of one family member that other members have a problem with, we receive an immediate response to our “trial” behavior from other family members. We receive “instant karma” if you will. Because we see, imitate and receive an immediate response, we realize instantly how our behavior will be received by others in the outside world. Obviously, close proximity is one of the factors influencing the immediacy of the response we receive. If we don’t have the close proximity of a family member to emulate and reflect our trial behaviors, we must look to others in our environment that may choose to escape their reflection through us rather than confront a challenging reflection we might tentatively project at them. This has the effect of leaving us unanswered and without a clean reflection for knowing who we are, who we wish to become and whether our trial behavior will actually be effective in the world for us or not. So, living in close proximity to a family enhances the speed of our developing emotional “maturity.” Without being raised within a family structure we become emotionally slowed, inexperienced and even stunted in handling social issues compared to those who have.

Of course, there are other reasons being raised in an extended family structure that might have advantages. One more, which is self-explanatory, is having a family member mentor us in some life endeavor in which we have yet to have experience in. The advantages of them providing us with personal insight and experience are tremendous.

There is another dimension of the disappearing family structure that needs to be realized. We can all understand that our western culture, especially in the United States and other comparably “advanced” nations, fosters a shared ideal of becoming independent in our personal growth, success and autonomy as in previously covered High Context cultures. The progress we’ve had in technology has contributed tremendously to our becoming so while the media sells to us using our fear of personal dependency and perceived helplessness as a motivation toward buying their tools, products and skills. Through these they reinforce the heightening of our need for independence and autonomy. We can also see that the media has jumped on board providing us with role model heroes that heighten our desire for autonomy and “lone-wolfmanship.” The underlying force there is our growing assumption that strength comes from independence and a lack of our having any obligations to anyone else owing to our “success.”

Low Context cultures, which includes most of the immigrating cultures we are receiving today, run totally contrary to the extremes of independence that our media and technology have been driving us toward. They presently are and have been primarily family focused. However, while the older immigrant generations continue to hold out, the younger generations are slowly being assimilated into the frenzy for the High Context independence and autonomy through what’s left of the American Dream. As our struggle for survival becomes more difficult through social and corporate compression, our fear of destitution and loss of control are becoming much more significant factors contributing toward our developing a High Context perspective. Incidentally, if a primary ploy for defeating an adversary is to divide and conquer, our media, corporations and government are right on target with their strategies. Dissolving the family structure through elevating independence weakens our personal defenses and social support structure toward our being able to recognize, let alone counteract, whatever they would like to sell us or enslave us with. On some level, some businesses are recognizing that these that these misdirected trends and business policies have led them toward becoming more heavily invested in promoting teamwork or, essentially, the establishment of a business family to compensate for the ineffectiveness and anarchy that personal independence and its promotion by the media inevitably leads us to. This feeling of destitution and lack of family support is also what drives many kids to join gangs to find substitute love and support.

The dissolving of the family structure, whether planned or unintentional is responsible for creating a more technologically informed, but less emotionally mature culture. There are way too many factors that contribute and need to be discussed relative to the rapidly expanding extinction of the nuclear family. The tremendous wave of illiterate immigration may set us back technologically on an individual level but perhaps their influence will begin to renew family ties once we begin to realize that it still holds many benefits that we’ve lost and can regain and, like the animal kingdom, are still needed for our survival; physically AND emotionally.