Britain’s Changing Families

Graham Allan, Sheila Hawker, Graham Crow. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

In this chapter, we explore the ways in which family relationships and domestic circumstances have been changing in Britain over recent years. The intention is to provide some, albeit limited, basis for comparison with the other chapters in this book, which focus principally on North America. The chapter starts by discussing the recent radical transformations in household and family demography in Britain, highlighting the diversity there now is in “family” pathways. As well as considering the growth of new family forms resulting from increasing rates of divorce and lone parenthood, it examines how routes into partnership have been altering over the last generation as cohabitation has become more prominent.

The chapter then considers why these changes have arisen, drawing on theoretical accounts of the growth of individualization within the transition to late modernity. These accounts highlight the changes that have taken place in gender relationships, especially the comparatively greater freedoms open to women as a result of social, economic, and technological innovation. The emergence of modified patterns of dependency between partners has in their turn fostered new understandings of the character of commitment within partnerships. In particular, the idea of partnership commitment as lifelong and irrevocable ceases to carry the moral force it once did.

In turn, the new understandings of commitment in normal partnerships have had considerable implications for the routine organization of other “family” relationships. The last part of the chapter explores some of these ramifications, suggesting that the increased diversity in aspects of partnership formation and dissolution has rendered family practices (Morgan, 1996), as well as family boundaries, more complex and negotiable. Building on a study of stepfamily kinship, the chapter concludes by arguing that in common usage the idea of family is becoming increasingly “fuzzy,” with aspects of “family as kinship” and “family as household” overlying emergent patterns of family solidarity and commitment.

Demographic Shifts

Throughout much of the 20th century, trends in family and household composition in Britain and many other European countries followed a relatively predictable trajectory. Changes occurred, but they did so in ways that, outside wartime, were generally consistent. Thus, in Britain between 1900 and 1970, for example, the rate of marriage for single women increased systematically from 45 per 1,000 unmarried women to 60 per 1,000; age at first marriage declined from 25.4 to 23.2 for men and from 24.0 to 21.3 for women; divorce rates remained relatively low; the number of children born within the average marriage declined from approximately four to less than two; and relatively few children were brought up by lone parents (Coleman, 2000; Marriage and Divorce Statistics, 1990). Similarly, there was a degree of consistency in the demographic changes occurring in other European countries, though the specifics of the changes differed depending in part on religious and welfare policies.

In sociological rather than demographic terms, two features characterized the period. First, there was a consistency in the routine family pathways or “careers” that were constructed. In this sense, it was a highly conventional period in family terms, most people’s experiences followed a broadly similar route. Most married, had and raised children, and then lived as a couple until one or the other spouse died. Second, and very much linked to this first point, there was a clear moral and empirical connection between sex, marriage, and childbearing (Kiernan, Land, & Lewis, 1998). Indeed, the relationship between these three elements served as the cornerstone of what constituted “family life.” What was understood as their inherent connection symbolized and framed the ordering of “proper” family organization.

In the last part of the 20th century, these patterns, so rooted in what “family” was previously taken to be, began to change, raising a host of intriguing conceptual and theoretical issues for analysts and policy makers concerned with understanding contemporary patterns of family life (Jensen, 1998; Schoenmaeckers & Lodewijckx, 1999). As in the United States, a common model of family experience could no longer be assumed (Murphy & Wang, 1999). Where there had previously been predictability, now there was increasing diversity, so that what had been taken for granted could no longer be assumed. Importantly too, the diverse patterns that were emerging could not be explained as a consequence of subcultural behavior associated with distinct groups, whether defined religiously, ethnically, or economically. Instead a sea change was occurring throughout society, though influencing patterns of sexual and familial behavior in different ways for different groups (see, e.g., Berrington, 1994).

The first and most obvious change concerned divorce rates. With only slight exaggeration, divorce remained morally charged and comparatively rare throughout most of western Europe until the last quarter of the 20th century, at least outside Scandinavia. Marriage was defined as a lifelong institution that conferred social, economic, and legal rights on individuals but that in return committed them again socially, economically, and legally to one another. In this sense, marriage was quite highly institutionalized, with spouses’ responsibilities and obligations to each other being governed by relatively rigid rules, sanctioned through religious and social codes, that informed appropriate behavior. Gradually this changed, so that rather than being defined popularly within an institutional framework, marriage came to be seen as an essentially negotiated partnership given special legal recognition and privilege. In Britain, this shift from what Farber (1973) termed a “natural-family” paradigm to a “legal-family” one, was captured quite explicitly in the 1967 Divorce Reform Act. Before this legislation, divorce was available only if one of the spouses could demonstrate that the other had broken the marriage contract through adultery, desertion, or unreasonable behavior. Legally, the quality of the marital tie was of no consequence. In contrast, the 1967 legislation placed prime emphasis on relationship quality, emphasizing “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage as the key criterion for divorce. Adultery, desertion, and unreasonable behavior were still to be used as indicators of such breakdown, but so too was a period spent living apart, effectively making divorce a matter of individual or joint choice.

The result of these changes in legislation and social climate has been a very significant rise in divorce rates. The numbers of divorces in England and Wales increased from a little over 6,000 in 1938 to more than 45,000 in 1968. Between 1968 and 1998, they increased further to over 145,000 a year, an increase in the crude divorce rate from 3.7 per 1,000 marriages to over 12.9 per 1,000 marriages (Marriage and Divorce Statistics, 1990; Marriage, Divorce and Adoption Statistics, 2000). Although the British divorce rate is among the highest in Europe, increases are also evident in other countries (Coleman & Chandola, 1999). Thus, the divorce rate between 1970 and 1990 trebled in France and Holland and doubled in Belgium (Goode, 1993). It has been estimated that throughout northern Europe approximately one in three marriages will currently end in divorce (Prinz, 1995). The divorce rates in predominantly Roman Catholic countries are less but are nonetheless rising.

One of the consequences of rising rates of marital separation and divorce has been a growth in lone-parent households. In Britain, the numbers of such households increased from 570,000 in 1971 to 1.6 million in 1996 (Haskey, 1998). Importantly, this rise was not just a consequence of divorce; it reflects a much broader change in social and moral constructions of appropriate reproductive behavior and the interests of children. Thus, as well as marital breakdown leading to increasing numbers of lone-parent households, there has been a particularly marked rise in the number of unmarried (though not necessarily unpartnered) mothers. In 1976, some 54,000 children were born out of wedlock (9.2% of all births); by 1998, this had increased to over 240,000 (37.8% of all births) (Birth Statistics, 1978, 1999).

Although these figures clearly indicate that social understandings of the relationship between marriage and childbirth have altered, they are part of a broader transformation in “marital” behavior. Throughout Europe, there has been a noticeable decline in the popularity of marriage (Jensen, 1998; Pinnelli, 1995). In part, this is a result of later marriage (Kuijsten & Strohmeier, 1997)in England and Wales, mean age at first marriage increased from 22.4 to 27.0 for women and from 24.4 to 28.9 for men between 1970 and 1998 (Marriage and Divorce Statistics, 1990; Marriage, Divorce and Adoption Statistics, 2000)but it is also a consequence of more people choosing not to get married. Thus, again using England and Wales as an example, only 87% of women and 80% of men aged 40 had ever been married in 1998, compared to 95% and 91% in 1975.

Equally significant has been the very rapid rise in cohabitation as a form of partnership. Initially most common in Britain among those who had been divorced (as well as gay couples), it has over the last 20 years become an entirely normal and routine mode of living for many people (Haskey, 1999; see also Manting, 1996). Although still opposed by some ethnic and religious groups, the stigmaboth personal and, importantly, institutional once attached to “living in sin” has almost entirely disappeared. In other European countries with stronger Catholic traditions, the change may not have been quite so rapid, but it is nonetheless developing in the same direction (Kiernan, 1999b). In Britain, a period of cohabitation has become the dominant form of engagement among couples planning to marry. More recently, and in line with the decline in rates of marriage, increasing numbers of couples are choosing informal cohabitation rather than legal marriage as the most appropriate mode of constructing their relationship, even after the birth of children (Berrington, 2001; Ermisch & Francesconi, 2000).

Interestingly, the more couples there are who choose cohabitation rather than marriage as the appropriate form of partnership for them, the more pressure there is for legal recognition to be given to cohabitation as a mode of commitment. As with gay couples, issues concerning property distribution on separation, pension entitlements, and inheritance rights need legal resolution, thereby requiring formal regulation, the absence of which was initially part of the attraction of cohabitation for many. In turn, the growth of cohabitation as an alternative to marriage influences changing cultural understandings of marriage. In particular, the perception of cohabitation as a lifestyle choice rather than a relationship premised on legal contract effectively fosters the view that marriage is also a lifestyle choice, a perception that consequently fuels the belief that marriage too should be sustained only for as long as it provides satisfaction. Clearly, both marriage and (longer-term) cohabitation involve the couple in forms of mutual emotional and material commitments that are often complex to dissolve (Jamieson, 1998; Smart & Neale, 1999). It is interesting here that as cohabitation becomes more established, so marriage and (longer-term) cohabitation appear to be moving toward one another as forms of relationship, both being a lifestyle choice with no guarantee of permanence and both requiring regulation for the protection of individual rights.

Paralleling some of these changes, there has also been a significant increase in stepfamilies, though precise estimates of the trends in this are more difficult to obtain, partly because of definitional problems over what really counts as a stepfamily. As with lone parenthood, the issue is whether the definition of stepfamily is taken as having a “household” or “family” frame. Thus, Haskey (1994) estimated that approximately one in eight children lived in a household with a stepparent for some period of time. But in addition, many others living in lone-parent households will be involved to differing degrees in stepfamily ties as a result of their nonresidential parent’s new partnership. Furthermore, some children will have had “serial” stepparents as a result of their parents’ various partnerships, though it would appear rare for children to continue to have active relationships with their parents’ ex-partners. As modes of cohabitation become more common, and with increasing legal and social encouragement for the continuation of parent-child involvement after separation, what constitutes step-parenthood becomes increasingly complex. Certainly, stepparenthood can no longer be understood as replacement parenting in any simple manner.

Various other changes have also been occurring in the demographic fashioning of the familial/domestic realm. There is, for example, a greater incidence, and a greater acceptance, of gay households and families. The extent to which this has occurred varies both within and across the countries of western Europe, but the trend overall is one of more openness and tolerance, even though many gay individuals and couples continue to experience stigma and abuse in their personal lives. There has also been an increase in the number of single-person households, partly as a result of divorce and widowhood, but also as a consequence of choice (Hall, Ogden, & Hill, 1999). Similarly, more young people than previously now live for shorter or longer periods in shared housing (Kenyon, 2002). So too there has been an increase in the number of couples “living apart together” couples who are committed to one another but who live separately, usually for some period each week (Lesthaeghe, 1995). Though often a result of employment constraints, for some it is a decision aimed at sustaining a degree of independence while still recognizing a shared commitment. Such patterns seem most common among the middle class in northern European countries, especially Scandinavia, but given the changes already occurring in other countries, they are likely to become a more common experience throughout Europe.

Another level of diversity in family patterns has been added by the increasing levels of migration into European societies from countries and regions with quite distinct religious and ethnic traditions. The migration process, which often involves some family members moving a considerable time before others, can itself generate disrupted family and household patterns (Ballard, 1994). More importantly in the longer run, the movement of people with different cultural and religious traditions into the countries of western Europe has further diversified the modes of family and household organization that are seen as morally appropriate. Though forms of adaptation can modify later generations’ commitment to “traditional” ways, nonetheless the maintenance of familial standards, whether these concern sexual relationships outside marriage, partner selection, care of elderly people, common residence, or the breadth of kinship solidarities, is often of major concern in defining and protecting a valued cultural heritage and affirming the moral standing of those involved.

What all these developments represent is a far greater degree of diversity in family and domestic arrangements than existed throughout most of the 20th century. And as a result, notions like “family” and “household” can now no longer be understood in as simple a manner as they once were. The whole question of “Who is a family member?” now raises substantial issues that were of minor consequence two generations ago. For example, when does a cohabiting partner become a member of your family, and when does he or she become a member of your children’s, your parents’, or your siblings’ families? Does this happen when the two of you marry, or has the rise in, and legitimacy of, cohabitation altered this? When does a stepfamily become socially recognized as such? Is this a household determination (i.e., a matter decided by domestic living arrangements), or is it a family matter (i.e., one based upon notions of a common kinship)? With increasing separation and divorce, complicated further by repartnering, it is evident that many parents and children have different “families” in ways that did not arise at all frequently two generations ago. So too, the term household contains a range of elements that makes it necessary to recognize the permeability of household boundaries rather than assume that membership can be categorized in an unproblematic way. Indeed, people may be thought of as members of different households for different activities or alternatively may be members or partial members of households for some periods of the day or week but not others (Allan & Crow, 2001; Morgan, 1996).

Accounting for Change

Why have these transformations in the domestic and family realm occurred? Socially and economically, why has the relationship between sex, marriage, and childbearing altered to this degree? How is the greater diversity emergent in family and household patterns to be explained? One of the more influential lines of theorizing here focuses on the process of individualization within late modernity. Associated in particular with the writings of Beck (1992, 1997) and Giddens (1991, 1992), this approach is concerned with the ways in which developments within industrial and commercial economies have altered the character of the dependencies in which people are embedded. For example, the shifting requirements of a global economy, the increased involvement of women with children in paid labor, the growth of a somewhat “degendered” citizenship, and the greater control of reproductive behavior have all contributed to women’s experiencing fewer economic and social constraints than previously. In particular, the nature of their dependency on men as partners and husbands has altered in ways that have had profound impacts on patterns of couple, family, and household solidarities.

In his work with Beck-Gernsheim (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 1995), Beck holds that because of increased labor market participation, together with control over fertility, women are less economically dependent on men than previously. With alternative sources of incomestate benefits as well as employment and increasing opportunities for social participation, women are less trapped in the traditional domestic division of labor than previous generations were. As a consequence, marriage and the standard nuclear model of family structure and domestic organization become less a matter of routine, constrained practice and more a matter of lifestyle choice. From this viewpoint, contemporary social and economic organization allows women to be increasingly active in constructing and negotiating their personal lives, their partnership commitments, and the forms of domestic organization in which they are involved. Though gender differentials clearly continue to be of consequence, women have a degree of choice over these matters that was largely absent for their grandmothers, if not their mothers.

In a somewhat similar vein, Giddens (1992) has argued that there has been a growth in “pure relationships” based upon “confluent love.” Unlike romantic love, which is understood to involve a “once and for always” commitment associated with traditional marriage, confluent love is far more contingent, being rooted more firmly in the continuing emotional satisfactions and pleasures that the relationship provides. Like Beck, Giddens sees this new form of commitment as emerging from shifts in women’s dependencies on men, which in turn relate to broader economic, social, and technological change. In particular, he highlights the pervasive labor market restructuring of the late 20th century, the growth of women’s control over reproduction, and increased rights of citizenship. Whereas in earlier periods the division of labor inside and outside the home made women highly dependent on their husbands with marriage representing both a form of “protection” and a site of oppression under contemporary conditions the structural framing of partnership has shifted.

As a result, a new mode of “pure” relationship emerges, sustained less by economic constraint or social convention but more by choice and intrinsic satisfaction. In this regard, these relationships are highly expressive, in theory negotiated and structured to suit each individual’s needs and desires as they develop. Most importantly, they embody a different “relational morality” to that dominant in earlier eras, with the individual being prioritized more evidently. These relationships are not expected to continue if, for whatever reason, they cease to deliver the satisfactions desired by one or both partners. Though there is a sense that established relationships should not be jettisoned too readily, equally there is little value placed in staying in relationships that have “broken down” and now provide little or no intrinsic satisfaction. From the pure relationship/confluent love perspective, the individual is free and morally right to leave a relationship that is no longer rewarding. It is better to seek a different relationship or live alone than to stay bound or trapped in one that has become moribund.

Thus, it can be argued, processes of individualization have had a significant impact on sexual and domestic partnerships (see also Lesthaeghe, 1995; Schoenmaeckers & Lodewijckx, 1999). Certainly, whether or not credence is given to the detailed theorizing of writers like Giddens and Beck, especially concerning gender equality in the expression and practice of intimacy (see Jamieson, 1999, for a powerful critique of Giddens’s claims), the types of demographic transformation outlined earlier in this chapter appear compatible with the idea that new forms of sexual, domestic, and familial commitment are developing. There can be little doubt that people now experience greater freedom and choice over the construction of their personal worlds and are less willing than in the past to tolerate the continuation of what have become unsatisfactory relationships, whether based on marriage or cohabitation. To this degree, there is a higher level of reflexivity about these relationships and a stronger sense that they should be intrinsically rewarding. Culturally too, there is more tolerance of diversity in personal life and less acceptance of a single normative model as inherently better than others, although some still believe strongly that personal life should be governed by particular religious injunctions. For many, however, these issues are seen as matters of lifestyle choice rather than moral imperative. Indeed, as states adapt policies in recognition of increased cohabitation, as births outside marriage become “legitimated” socially, and as the stigma of divorce disappears, so “traditional” ways, including marriage itself, lose their moral force. That is, what were once matters requiring public regulation become transformed into private issues.

Commitment: Partnerships and Families

In these regards, there is a resonance between Giddens’s analysis of shifts in understandings of intimacy and contemporary partnership behavior. Commitment is no longer organized in the standard ways it was dating, followed by engagement, followed by marriage. Cohabitation now enters into this process at different stages for different couples, effectively rendering the construction of commitment less formal (Manting, 1996). Noticeably, cohabitation lacks the ritual and ceremony that mark the way engagement and marriage are celebrated. Indeed, the beginning of cohabitation is often private and sometimes gradual, occurring without much social reporting or recognition unless it overlaps with an announcement of engagement. For some couples, the start of cohabitation signifies a long-term commitment. Like engagement, this represents for them a relationship that they hope and expect to last, ideally for the rest of their lives. For other couples, however, cohabitation does not represent this in any real sense. It is defined as a relationship for now, one to be enjoyed and valued but not seen as necessarily signifying a long-term future commitment.

However, whatever the sense of commitment at the beginning of a long-term relationship, it is clear that increasingly promises about the future are being interpreted as desires, hopes, ambitions, and aims but not and this is the crucial change as inevitably binding in the way they were in earlier periods. In other words, younger couples are recognizing the potential instability of the unions they are forming. There is a recognition that no matter what they feel and believe now, circumstances change. There can be no certainty that their dreams will come to fruition. Precisely because the relationship they are constructing is predominantly founded on issues of continuing self-fulfillment, happiness, and mutual reward, there can be no guarantee as to its future. Happiness and self-fulfillment are not issues that are understood as being simply a matter of will. They are states that are emergent within the relationship, dependent on its quality. Moreover, it is not just new couples who are generating these understandings of partnership. These cultural shifts infuse longer-term relationships too, reframing the way they are understood and the tolerances individuals have for different levels of dissatisfaction (Allan & Harrison, 2002).

Though understandings of partnership commitment have been altering, the breaking up of established relationships is still usually problematic. There may be more acceptance of it as a solution to relationship problems, but it nonetheless frequently generates major difficulties for those involved emotional, practical, social, economic, and legal. Of course, the extent to which this happens depends on the nature of the relationship. Those that were always defined as short term, and in which there was relatively little shared investment, are more easy to end without recrimination or rancor. But other ties, established over time, involving shared property, imagined futures, and a deep emotional commitment, are rarely ended without disharmony, pain, and friction, sometimes over a prolonged period. Such difficulties are clearly exacerbated when children, especially dependent children, are involved. Separation and divorce remain traumatic for most people, usually involving a powerful sense of loss. What this indicates is that although the character of partnership commitment has altered with individualization and associated structural changes, the development of commitment continues to tie people together socially and materially, as well as emotionally.

In other words, when people form partnerships they become enmeshed and embedded in modes of living that are inevitably constraining. At times, it appears that Giddens sees confluent love as able to escape such enmeshment. All that matters is each individual’s self-fulfillment and emotional satisfaction. Clearly, though, over time relationships come to involve far more than this, so that ending them involves processes of “dis-embedding” and “de-meshing” lives that have, to a degree, become “as one” (Jamieson, 1998). Research into what might be termed the “domestic economy” of long-term cohabitation is sparse throughout Europe, but analyses of separation processes are notably absent (Haskey, 1999). However, there is little reason to think that for those who have cohabited longer term the issues involved are radically different from those faced by married couples separating. Indeed, some issues may be made more complex through the absence of a legal framework regulating the separation. However, this is an area about which we have very little knowledge.

Though it can be recognized that the nature of partnership commitment has been altering, what about other forms of family commitment and, in particular, the commitment between parents and children? Have individualization and similar macro-level processes also influenced the solidarities evident between parents and children? More specifically, has the rise in marital and other partnership separation influenced the character of these ties? The picture here is complex and diverse, though some underlying patterns are evident. Many analysts have pointed to the changes in childhood experience over the 20th century (Qvortrup, Bardy, Sgritta, & Wintersberger, 1994). Ideologically and practically, parents appear to be focusing more attention than previously, and for longer periods, on the well-being of their children. More concern is expressed about their emotional development, their educational achievement, and the quality of their childhood experiences than at any time in the past. They are seen as needing nurturing in ways that would have been highly questionable even two generations ago, representing a clear shift in the balance between “spoiling” and “caring.” This is apparent in the growth of markets for different goods and services catering for children and adolescents. Moreover, in Britain and other European countries, there is now greater diversity in youth transitions than there was previously. As with family course, whereas for much of the 20th century there tended to be uniformity in the pathways people took to adulthood, though allowing for class and gender differences, recently this transition has become far more variable (Wallace & Kovatcheva, 1998).

Yet although it can be argued that dependent children have become an increasingly significant project for parents both culturally and economically, at the same time demographic trends make this problematic for growing numbers of parents (Ribbens McCarthy, Edwards, & Gillies, 2000). In particular, nonresidential biological parents, predominantly fathers, frequently need to construct relationships with their children that do not mesh well with cultural ideals. Indeed, in the past in Britain, credence was given to the idea that children were best served by the same “clean break” that applied to divorce resolution. In other words, the tendency, especially if children were young at the time of parental separation, was for many of these fathers to play little effective part in their children’s lives. Despite the growth of research on lone-parent families, estimates of paternal contact are problematic, partly because of sampling difficulties and partly because of problems of measuring adequately what concepts like effective contact really mean (Bradshaw & Millar, 1991; Bradshaw, Stimson, Skinner, & Wilson, 1999a, 1999b). However, recent social and legal changes in Britain and other European countries are likely to have had a significant impact on these issues. In Britain, for example, the 1991 Child Support Act introduced a consistent, though highly complex, framework for calculating the financial obligations of nonresidential biological parents. Although not regulated in this way, behind this legislation lay a recognition that, socially as well as financially, biological parenting should, in principle, continue even after the marriage/partner relationship ends (Smart, 1999). Clearly, such policy initiatives both reflect and inform contemporary cultural understandings of postseparation parenting. Exactly how much they have altered the quality (and quantity) of nonresidential parenting is difficult to know. This is another area where more research is badly needed, though for Britain some evidence of change is reported in recent studies by Bradshaw et al. (1999a, 1999b).

The growth of “repartnering” and the formation of residential and nonresidential stepfamilies further complicates these issues. One consequence of the shifts in cultural and policy constructions of nonresidential parenting is that the symbolic and physical boundaries around both one-parent and stepfamily households become more permeable. As the emphasis on continued parental involvement is realized, and as variants of a co-parenting model develop, parents are encouraged to sustain a relationship despite no longer living together or wanting each other involved in their lives. As Smart and Neale (1999) have shown in their study of parenting following separation in England, this often creates a degree of tension between the parents that is less liable to occur under the “clean break” model. In the case of stepfamilies, it also often diversifies the modes of “parenting,” and especially “fathering,” that children experience. As a result, too, many children are now incorporated into more complex kinship networks than previous generations were, with implications for the ways in which concepts like family and kinship are understood.

Family and Kinship

Thus, although analysts like Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) may be right in pointing to the ways individualization has encouraged demographic heterogeneity and diversified the lifestyle options available to people, the destabilization of traditional family and household patterns has an impact on the construction of kinship networks and what people understand their family to be. Importantly too, it generates greater diversity than previously in the family networks of people who belong to the “same” family. This is most easy to see in the case of stepfamilies, but it applies to other new family formations too. Consider as an example the case illustration in Figure 17.1, taken from a recent study of stepfamily kinship (Allan, Crow, & Hawker, 1999). In this, Emma has been cohabiting with Nick for 3 years. She was previously married to Simon, with whom she had three children, Adam, Bob, and Jimmy, who now live with her and Nick. Nick was also married previously and has two children from that partnership, Alan and John, who spend alternate weeks with Nick and Emma and with his ex-wife Tammy and her new partner, Clive. Tammy and Clive also have two children of their own, Elizabeth and Brad.

At issue here is how the various members of this network construct their family and how this differs depending on their location within the network in ways that are much more diverse than in family networks where there has been no marital disruption. So, for example, the family relationships of Alan and John include sibling ties with Elizabeth and Brad, though Elizabeth and Brad are not part of Emma’s or Nick’s family any more than Adam, Bob, and Jimmy are part of Tammy’s or Clive’s family. Whether Alan and John are part of Adam’s, Bob’s, or Jimmy’s family is moot and depends on the distinctions those involved make between “household” and “family” and, in the longer run, on what happens to the partnership between Emma and Nick. Similarly, the overlap between Emma’s family network and Nick’s family network is less strong than would be the case if they were in a long-lasting marriage. Moreover, the recognized family relationships of Emma’s, Nick’s, Tammy’s, and Simon’s parents are complicated by the presence of stepgrandchildren as well as the complex domestic circumstances of their biological grandchildren.

Within this context, analyses of the “negotiation” of kinship relationships (Finch, 1989; Finch & Mason, 1993) becomes particularly interesting. The essential premise of this theoretical perspective is that kinship solidarities are not normatively determined but are negotiated in a variety of ways over time within networks of family relationships. Sometimes these negotiations are overt, but more frequently they are implicit and emergent. Either way, they shape the ways in which responsibilities, solidarities, and connections are constructed. In “traditional” families, negotiations around these issues certainly occurred, but the calculation of family membership was more straightforward, even allowing for complexities about, say, which in-laws were really “family” and where lateral extension of “family” ended (e.g., under what circumstances second cousins would be recognized as family). With new modes of family, the spheres around which negotiation occurs become broader, but, as importantly, the degree to which “family” frames the negotiation of solidarity and responsibility within these “family-relevant” relationships itself becomes part of their negotiation.

So, for example, how is “fatherhood” negotiated in “families” where there are two or more fathers a nonresidential biological father, a (nonresidential) ex-stepfather, and a current stepfather, say? How is “stepgrandparenthood” negotiated? Who is considered family under what circumstances and with what consequences? In recent years, researchers have attempted to resolve some of these issues by making clear-cut analytical distinctions. In particular, as family and domestic complexity have increased, it has become more important than ever to distinguish between family and household, the one involving a set of kinship relations and the other a set of relationships based on a common, or linked, domestic economy. Yet although this distinction is extremely useful for many issues, not least in analyzing household patterns where no claim is based upon notions of family connection, in other regards it misrepresents the reality it is trying to clarify. That is, in everyday constructions the overlay between the notions of “family,” “home,” “household,” and “domestic” is marked. To some degree, each makes sense only within the contexts of the boundaries of the others. Thus, “family” is not the same as “home,” but to share a domestic economy in a household in which other relationships are premised upon “family connections” rather than “nonfamily” ones renders those relationships within it in which “family connection” is moot more rather than less familylike.

As family patterns become more diverse and complex, the parameters around the notion of family become more “fuzzy” (Simpson, 1998). Moreover, such fuzziness cannot be resolved by analytically tighter definitions of what family “really” is and what it is not. The point about the changes occurring is that family actually is becoming more fuzzyin Bauman’s (2000) terms, more “liquid” and less “solid.” As Morgan (1996, 1999) has developed, there are a range of “family practices” that involve different senses, different constellations, and different involvements of “family.” Increasingly, because family relationships need to be understood as process, as flux, rather than as an established, given structure, the process of negotiation around family practices comes to the fore, although of course such negotiation is itself structured by past family practices and negotiated outcomes. To draw on Giddens’s expression, there is a greater “contingency” than was apparent in the past around family relationships in general. In part, this is based on the reduced certainty informing the construction of couple relationships, but it is more than just this. It is a broader potentiality for the demography or configuration of “family” to alter in ways that are not predictable. Events lead to the reconstitution of the complex of household, family, and, consequently, kinship in a manner that is not understood as part of a foreseeable narrative in the same way that constructions around the “nuclear family” were in the past.

Of course, many couples remain together; some family networks are relatively stable in this regard. But increasingly people’s sense of family is less certain, more contingent than it was. Changes in partnership formation and dissolution are central to this precisely because of their impact outside the couple on family networks and family practices. Movements out of partnerships into lone and nonresidential parenthood and into new partnerships across family or kinship networks capture the potential there now is for flux and reconfiguration in “family” relationships. One lay response to this has been a differentiation of what “family” really is, with an emphasis on blood as the defining criteria. For example, distinctions are often made in stepfamilies between “real” family and other family. People speak of their “real” father or “real” siblings in contrast to a stepfather or stepsiblings, who are not defined as family in this sense. Arguably, such notions of family and kinship being “in essence” about “blood” will become more prominent. As we have seen, this, after all, is the message behind ideas that parents retain parental responsibilities even when they no longer live with their child(ren). Yet as noted, such blood ties are by no means always sustained following separation. Some fathers, in particular, have little involvement in their children’s lives, and the fathers’ kin may also have little involvement. Other relationships, however defined, do enter the family realm and become involved in family practices, especially when co-residence is involved. Thus, residential stepparents over time come to embody aspects of parenting, and co-resident stepsiblings aspects of siblinghood. So too, stepgrandparents may act like grandparents, at least to those step-grandchildren residing with their (adult) child. However, as our own research into stepfamily kinship demonstrated, these relationships are often understood to be highly contingent on the continuation of the intermediary partnership. If and when the partnership ends, then so most typically do the step-kin ties that it engendered. In other words, the sense of family commitment that develops in these step-kin relationships is distinct because of this underlying contingency from the more enduring commitment normatively expected of blood kinship (Allan et al., 1999).


It is evident that major changes have been occurring to family patterns in Britain and other western European countries over the last 30 years, changes that were not predicted at the time, despite the research interest there was then (as now) in family life. The roots of these changes are structural; they lie in the transformations in the social and economic order occurring in late modernity. More specifically, though, the changes constitute new understandings of the relationship between sex, marriage, and childbearing. Throughout Europe, as elsewhere, there has been a dissociation between what might be termed relationship-based sexual activity and marriage. Equally, there has been a weakening of the association between marriage and childbearing, with Britain standing out for its high levels of “unpartnered” births (Kiernan, 1999a). Although there are differences in detail, broadly similar shifts can be discerned in patterns of partnership formation and dissolution in many European countries.

Such demographic trends are congruent with an increase in individualism and the (relatively) reduced economic and social dependence of women on men as husbands. Certainly in Britain, there has been a highly significant change in people’s “family careers.” The uniformity evident for much of the 20th century has been replaced by increased diversity, especially with regard to partnership formation and dissolution. Clearly, these changes alter the experience of “family” that individuals have, whether these individuals are directly or indirectly involved. Thus, as the nature of relationship commitment among adults has been shifting, so more people construct forms of serial commitment, and so more children experience diverse forms of parenting. In turn, however, these changes affect cultural constructions of what family is. Whereas once this could be taken for granted as (largely) unproblematic at a lay level, this is no longer so. The boundaries between “family” and “nonfamily” are less tightly constructed.

In turn, though there is a clear distinction to be made between “family” and “household,” for many people the realms of family practices have become more blurred. For many, the whole complex of family/household activities now crosses household boundaries, but equally it incorporates into “family” people whose status as family members is less securely based. At times, the response to this is to tighten definitions of family and fall back onto notions of blood connection. Here, ideas of “real” family come to the fore, supported in part by cultural understandings of genetic “certainty” resulting from new scientific developments. However, at a day-to-day level, more diverse and complex forms of solidarity (and antagonism) develop between people who have familial involvement with one another. Stepfamilies provide classic illustrations of the working out of these matters, but so too the rise in cohabitation as a form of adult commitment, together with shifts in marriage and divorce, has altered the ways in which family relationships are negotiated. Analyzing how these changing family-relevant processes are constituted over time should ensure the vibrancy of British and European family research well into the future.