The article “Divorce Culture: A Quest for Relational Equality in Marriage” can be best seen as a consistent critique of Structural Functionalism. It discusses the disadvantages of “marriage culture,” which predominated in the 1950s and was characterized by traditional gender roles and separation of public and private spheres, and “divorce culture,” which is what we observe nowadays. Structural Functionalism glorified “marriage culture” and prescribed clear roles for each gender: men were supposed to be active in the public sphere as providers for their families, while women had to stay at home and take care of the children. Everything that challenged this model was considered dysfunctional.
However, contemporary families have to change and adapt to new socioeconomic conditions. Structural Functionalism emerged at the heights of the industrial era and is at odds with the postindustrial economy. Nowadays families need two incomes to survive, and both spouses are active in the public sphere; so “men need to combine providing with caretaking just as women have combined caretaking with providing” (Hackstaff, 2006, p. 185).
It follows from the previous statement that women’s main complaint is that men do not perform an equal share of the so-called “marital work” comprising communicating, caretaking, fulfilling needs, adjusting, and planning the future of marriage. In line with Social Conflict theory, relations of inequality will inevitably lead to social transformations. However, such changes should not necessarily be regarded as a negative phenomenon: while undoubtedly painful, they may help society to arrive at a more equitable distribution of resources and responsibilities. Thus, the article argues that the high divorce rate observed nowadays may be a transitional phenomenon. When both men and women deal successfully with the legacy of the Structural-Functional view of a family, they will start creating marital alliances that fulfill their needs in a more meaningful ways.
While some critics decry pervasive “individualism,” it might as well be a laudable thin – especially for women. For them, “contingent marriage” means asserting freedom that has always been implicitly granted to men. Furthermore, the individualistic view of marriage can be seen as a sign of adoption of Social Exchange perspective on relationships: people stay in them just to the point where perceived benefits fail to outweigh perceived disadvantages. While it is a legal requirement that all connections are consensual, such a development can be regarded as contributing to further liberation of society.
The only objection to the Social Exchange perspective on marriage would be that, in many cases, children are involved. However, Structural Functional view again conflicts with modern developments here. Structural Functionalism holds that fathers can only be active parents within the structure of marriage; after divorce, they grow emotionally detached from their children and do not deliver on their parental obligations. It is not right for what Arendell (1995; cited in Hackstaff, 2006) calls “innovative” fathers who can sustain a meaningful connection with their children after separating from their wives. In any case, there is a lack of conclusive evidence that children of divorced parents are significantly worse off than those of married couples. Frequently, other factors come into play, such as income differentials: single mothers are usually poorer than their married counterparts because of persistent gender discrimination in the workplace. So, instead of lamenting the disappearance of “marriage culture,” society should eliminate existing gender disparities in opportunity and income to finish the transition to a new, more egalitarian social order.
Hackstaff, K. B. (2006). “Divorce Culture: A Quest for Relational Equality in Marriage,” in Skolnick, A.S., & Skolnick, J.H. (eds.), Family in Transition, 14th ed., Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 178-190.
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