The decline and fall of the nuclear family presents no menace to the couple norm

2011-02-15 The good citizen is no longer necessarily married – nor heterosexual, for that matter – but he or she most likely lives in a long-term, stable and monogamous relationship, often including children. This is the outcome of the large EU research project FEMCIT which recently held its concluding conference.

One of the six aspects of citizenship studied by the recently concluded research project FEMCIT is intimate citizenship. It deals with how Europeans organise their private lives today, what relations and family constellations they live in as well as how these have changed since the 1960s and onwards. Researchers focused on both sexual and non-sexual relations as they interviewed individuals living outside of the conventional family, e.g. singles, people who live alone, homosexuals and those living in communal housing of various kinds.

By way of examples from Portugal, Norway, Bulgaria and the UK researchers established that the past couple of decades have seen an increasing number of citizens who spend longer periods of their lives outside of the heterosexual nuclear family. The number of married couples has declined in all the studied countries, whereas the number of divorces has gone up dramatically, more children are born out of wedlock, and the number of single parents and single households as well as women who do not have children has risen. The hegemony of the modern Western nuclear family is furthermore challenged by migration and the ever-increasingly multicultural Europe.

Couples are privileged

But despite major changes, research shows that the couple constellation has retained its position as the privileged form of intimate coexistence.

– We were surprised by the fact that the couple norm remains so strong, said head of the research team, Sasha Roseneil, at the conference in Oslo on January 20, 2011.

Tone Hellesund conducted the Norwegian part of the research, and she agrees.

– The couple norm illustrates a common cultural heritage. It stands strong across the studied nations, but also across the various ethnic groups we interviewed. All share a similar view of the couple norm, she says.

This may appear striking, seeing that the four countries subjected to scrutiny are rather different: post-communist Bulgaria, right-wing and conservative ex-dictatorship Portugal, social democratic Norway and the liberalist UK.

– But our research shows that all these societies have shared fairly similar ideals with the couple as their norm, states Tone Hellesund.

Cultural exclusion

According to the researchers, the couple norm is ingrained in legislation and welfare arrangements, but it is first and foremost as cultural norm that the couple is privileged over all other forms of coexistence. Those who break with the couple norm primarily face cultural exclusion. This becomes evident in e.g. interviews with singles.

– They experience subtle forms of discrimination. Their life stories include feeling like failures, being looked down on and being viewed with pity as someone to feel sorry for. They are not invited to parties or various couple-based social gatherings. One of the interviewees related how her life at twenty was regarded as an exciting life with lots of friends, travelling and action. After she turned thirty, however, her friends – who had settled down in stable relationships – no longer thought of her life like that. Now they rather felt sorry for her, recounts Tone Hellesund.

The couple norm and the straight norm

As far as homosexual rights are concerned, the team of researchers notes major changes within recent years. On many levels, also same-sex couples have gained a place in the sun, and homosexuals have obtained the right to marry or register their partnerships and start a family. Does this mean that it is harder to break with the norm of two than with the straight norm today?

The couple norm has not been dissolving to the same extent as the straight norm. Photo: Colourbox.

– Among the majority population in Norway and the UK, the norm of two is probably often stronger than the straight norm. Turning to Bulgaria, however, and some of the ethnic minority groups, the straight norm remains extremely pervasive. And the consequences of breaking with the straight norm may prove so much more severe than if one breaks with the couple norm. As Tone Hellesund points out, there are no hate crimes targeting singles.

A question permeating the entire FEMCIT project has been about the influence of the women’s movement on social change and the shape of politics. In their research on intimate citizenship, Tone Hellesund and her colleagues have looked at the ways in which social movements have influenced gender equality and equal sexual rights. And as regards challenging the straight norm, needless to say the organised gay movement has had a vast significance. But a similar social movement opposing the couple norm does not exist, and neither in the women’s nor in the gay movement has the criticism of the couple norm gained momentum.

– Even though a few people expressed an interest in discussing and questioning the couple in the seventies, the Norwegian women’s movement has focused on family and work life and women’s right to have both. This focus is at the forefront throughout the entire Nordic region.

– Also the gay movement has witnessed some disagreement over this issue. In the seventies, one was to work explicitly to dismantle the privileged status of the couple. In the late eighties and during the nineties, however, partnership became the gay movement’s main cause, says Tone Hellesund.

Anti-relationship not on anyone’s agenda

– If one looks to the UK, one finds a much harsher criticism of the couple than in Norway. Among other things, this has meant that Norway passed a Partnership Act ahead of the UK. Of course the political climate has something to say, but also the much more pronounced disagreement over the couple – and whether it is worth fighting for – within the British women’s and gay movements played a role in this.

The couple norm remains strong, and there are no signs that this is about to change. On the contrary. Tone Hellesund has a feeling that the romantic couple is being promoted to the ultimate form of coexistence – and the only way that you might realise yourself. And tellingly, anti-relationship is not really on anyone’s agenda.

– In Norway we have e.g. Ensliges Landsforbund (a national association for single people) looking out for single people’s interests, but it is not a social movement. For a social movement to achieve the highest degree of success, such as the gay movement has managed to, it seems that it has to be an identity movement. And research documents that single life is an existence that most singles wish to leave behind. No wonder that it is hard to establish an identity movement, she says.

By Jennie Westlund

Additional information:

  • The team of researchers examining intimate citizenship counts Sasha Roseneil (UK), Isabel Crowhurst (UK), Ana Cristina Santos (Portugal), Mariya Stoilova (Bulgaria) and Tone Hellesund (Norway).
  • Director of NIKK Solveig Bergman has headed a sub project on social citizenship which examines the impact of various women’s movements on the shaping of child care and parental leave.
  • Read more about work package 6: Intimate Citizenship in a Multicultural Europe: Women’s Movements, Cultural Diversity, Personal Lives and Policy.
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