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Alternative Lifestyles

Lifestyles that were considered ‘‘alternative’’ in the past are becoming less unusual and increasingly normative. Many people, for example, experience cohabitation, divorce, and remarriage. Other lifestyles, such as singlehood, gay and lesbian relationships, or remaining childfree may not be rising drastically in frequency, but they are less stigmatized and more visible than they were in recent decades.

It was during the 1960s and 1970s that the utility and the structure of many social institutions were seriously questioned. This included the institution of the family. What was the purpose of family? Was it a useful social institution? Why or why not? How can it be improved? The given cultural milieu of the period, such as resurgence of the women’s movement, concerns about human rights more generally, and improvements in our reproductive and contraceptive technology, exacerbated these questions. In increasing numbers individuals began to experiment with new and alternative ways in which to develop meaningful relationships, sometimes outside the confines of marriage. Literature soon abounded among both the academic community and the popular press describing and deliberating on these new lifestyles. In 1972, a special issue of The Family Coordinator was devoted to the subject of alternative lifestyles, with a follow-up issue published in 1975. The subject was firmly entrenched within the field of family sociology by 1980 when the Journal of Marriage and Family devoted a chapter to alternative family lifestyles in their decade review of research and theory.

Despite the increased visibility and tolerance for a variety of lifestyles during the 1990s, concern is voiced from some people over the ‘‘demise’’ of the family. The high divorce rate, increased rates of premarital sexuality, cohabitation, and extramarital sex are pointed to as both the culprits and the consequences of the deterioration of family values. Popenoe and Whitehead write about cohabitation, for example: ‘‘Despite its widespread acceptance by the young, the remarkable growth of unmarried cohabitation in recent years does not appear to be in children’s or the society’s best interest. The evidence suggests that it has weakened marriage and the intact, two-parent family and thereby damaged our social well-being, especially that of women and children’’ (1999, p. 16). What do the authors mean by ‘‘society’s best interest’’? And what type of family relationship would be in our ‘‘best interest’’? What invariably comes to mind is the married, middle-class, traditional two-parent family in which the father works outside the home and the mother stays at home to take care of the children, at least while they are young. This monolithic model, however, excludes the majority of the population; indeed, a growing number of persons do not desire such a model even if it were attainable. It is based on the false notion of a single and uniform intimate experience that many argue has racist, sexist, and classist connotations.

This distress about the demise of the family is not particularly new. For at least a century American observers and social critics have warned against the negative consequences of changes in the family. Yes, the family has indeed changed, but the vast majority of the population, both then and now, still prefers to marry, have children, and live in a committed, monogamous relationship. The most profound changes to date have not occurred in alternatives to marriage but rather in alternatives prior to marriage, and alternative ways in structuring marriage itself, while keeping the basic institution and its purposes intact. For example, nonmarital sex, delayed marriage and childbearing, and cohabitation are practiced with increasing frequency and are tolerated by a larger percentage of the population than ever before. And within marriage itself, new behaviors and ideologies are becoming increasingly popular, such as greater equality between men and women (although gender equality is more an ideal than a reality in most marriages).

Never-married Singles

A small but growing percentage of adult men and women remain single throughout their lives. In the United States, approximately 5 percent never marry (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). These individuals experience life without the support and obligations of a spouse and usually children. While often stereotyped as either ‘‘swingers’’ or ‘‘lonely losers,’’ Stein reports that both categorizations are largely incorrect (1981). Instead, singles cannot be easily categorized and do not constitute a single social type. Some have chosen singlehood as a preferred option, perhaps due to career decisions, sexual preference, or other family responsibilities. Others have lived in locations in which demographic imbalances have affected the pool of eligibles for mate selection. And others have been lifelong isolates, have poor social skills, or have significant health impairments that have limited social contacts.

Attitudes toward singlehood have been quite negative historically, especially in the United States, although change has been noted. Studies report that during the 1950s, remaining single was viewed as pathology, but by the mid-1970s singlehood was not only tolerated but also viewed by many as an avenue for enhancing one’s happiness. In the early 1990s, when asked about the importance of being married, approximately 15 percent of unmarried white males and 17 percent of unmarried white females between the ages of 19 and 35 did not agree with the statement that they ‘‘would like to marry someday.’’ The percentage of blacks that did not necessarily desire marriage was even higher, at 24 percent and 22 percent of black males and females, respectively. Interestingly, the gap in attitudes between males and females was the largest among Latinos, with only 9 percent of Latino males, but 25 percent of Latina females claiming that they did not necessarily want to marry (South 1993).

Despite this gender gap, single males are viewed more favorably than are single females. Males are stereotyped as carefree ‘‘bachelors,’’ while single women may still be characterized as unattractive and unfortunate ‘‘spinsters.’’ In the popular card game ‘‘Old Maid,’’ the game’s loser is the one who is stuck with the card featuring an old and unattractive unmarried woman. Oudijk (1983) found that the Dutch population generally affords greater lifestyle options to women, and only one-quarter of his sample of married and unmarried persons reported that married persons are necessarily happier than are singles.

Shostak (1987) has developed a typology in which to illustrate the divergence among the never-married single population. It is based on two major criteria: the voluntary verses involuntary nature of their singlehood, and whether their singlehood is viewed as temporary or stable. Ambivalents are those who may not at this point be seeking mates but who are open to the idea of marriage at some time in the future. They may be deferring marriage for reasons related to schooling or career, or they may simply enjoy experimenting with a variety of relationships. Wishfuls are actively seeking a mate but have been unsuccessful in finding one. They are, generally, dissatisfied with their single state and would prefer to be married. The resolved consciously prefer singlehood. They are committed to this lifestyle for a variety of reasons; career, sexual orientation, or other personal considerations. A study of 482 single Canadians reported that nearly half considered themselves to fall within this category (Austrom and Hanel 1985). They have made a conscious decision to forgo marriage for the sake of a single lifestyle. Small but important components of this group are priests; nuns; and others who, for religious reasons, choose not to marry. Finally, regretfuls are those who would rather marry but who have given up their search for a mate and are resigned to singlehood. They are involuntarily stable singles.

While the diversity and heterogeneity among the never-married population is becoming increasingly apparent, one variable is suspected to be of extreme importance in explaining at least some variation: gender. Based on data gathered in numerous treatises, the emerging profiles of male and female singles are in contrast. As Bernard (1973) bluntly puts it, the never-married men represent the ‘‘bottom of the barrel,’’ while the nevermarried women are the ‘‘cream of the crop.’’ Single women are generally thought to be more intelligent, are better educated, and are more successful in their occupations than are single men. Additionally, research finds that single women report to be happier, less lonely, and have a greater sense of psychological well-being than do their single male counterparts.

One reason why single women are more likely to be the ‘‘cream of the crop’’ as compared to men is that many well-educated and successful women have difficulty finding suitable mates who are their peers, and therefore have remained unmarried. Mate-selection norms in the United States encourage women to ‘‘marry up’’ and men to ‘‘marry down’’ in terms of income, education, and occupational prestige. Thus, successful women have fewer available possible partners, because their male counterparts may be choosing from a pool of women with less education and income. A second reason for the gender difference is that some highly educated and successful women do not want what they interpret as the ‘‘burdens’’ of a husband and children. Career-oriented women are not rewarded, as are career-oriented men, for having a family. Someone who is described as a ‘‘family man’’ is thought to be a stable and reliable employee; there is no semantic equivalent for women. Thus, well-educated, career-oriented women may see singlehood as an avenue for their success, whereas well-educated, career-oriented men may see marriage as providing greater benefits than singlehood.

Demographers predict that the proportion of singles in our population is likely to increase slightly in the future. As singlehood continues to become a viable and respectable alternative to marriage, more adults may choose to remain single throughout their lives. Others may remain single not out of choice but due to demographic and social trends. More people are postponing marriage, and it is likely that some of these will find themselves never marrying. For example, the number of women between the ages of forty and fortyfour today who have never married is double the number in 1980, at approximately 9 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). Some of these women may marry eventually, but many will likely remain unmarried. Moreover, the increasing educational level and occupational aspirations of women, coupled with our continued norms of marital homogamy, help to ensure that the number of never-married single persons—women in particular—is likely to increase somewhat into the twenty-first century.


Cohabitation, or the sharing of a household by unmarried intimate partners, is quickly becoming commonplace in the United States. Some people suggest that it is now a normative extension of dating. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the number of cohabiting couples topped 4 million in 1997, up from less than one-half million in 1960. Approximately one-half of unmarried women between the ages of twenty-five and thirtynine have lived with a partner or are currently doing so, and over half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation. Approximately onethird of these unions contain children (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). Cohabitation is now seen as an institutionalized component to the larger progression involving dating, courtship, engagement, and marriage.

Given the attitudes of even younger persons, we expect trends in cohabitation to continue to increase in the United States. Nearly 60 percent of a representative sample of high school seniors ‘‘agreed,’’ or ‘‘mostly agreed’’ with the statement ‘‘it is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along’’ (Survey Research Center, University of Michigan 1995).

Cohabitation is not a recent phenomenon, nor one unique to the United States. In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, for example, cohabitation has become so common that it is considered a social institution in and of itself. It is a variant of marriage rather than of courtship; approximately 30 percent of all couples in Sweden who live together are unmarried (Tomasson 1998). People who cohabit have the same rights and obligations as do married couples with respect to taxation, inheritance, childcare, and social welfare benefits. Many of these unions have children born within them, and there is little stigma attached to being born ‘‘out of wedlock.’’ Another study of eighty-seven Canadian couples, located through newspaper wedding announcements, reported that 64 percent of the couples had cohabited for some period, 43 percent of these for over three months. In contrast, cohabitation is relatively rare in more traditional and Roman Catholic nations such as Italy.

Cohabitors tend to differ from noncohabitors in a variety of sociodemographic characteristics. For example, cohabitors tend to see themselves as being more androgynous and more politically liberal, are less apt to be religious, are more experienced sexually, and are younger than married persons. Although cohabitors may argue that living together prior to marriage will enhance the latter relationship by increasing their knowledge of their compatibility with day-to-day living prior to legalizing the union, such optimism is generally not supported. While some studies indicate no differences in the quality of marriages among those who first cohabited and those that did not, others find that those people who cohabit have higher rates of divorce. This may, however, have nothing to do with cohabitation per se but rather may be due to other differences in the personalities and expectations of marriage between the two groups.

A wide variety of personal relationships exist among cohabiting couples. Several typologies have been created to try to capture the diversity found within these relationships. One particularly useful one, articulated by Macklin (1983), is designed to exemplify the diversity in the stability of such relationships. She discusses four types of cohabiting relationships. These include:

(1) temporary or casual relationships, in which the couple cohabits for convenience or for pragmatic reasons;

(2) going together, in which the couple is affectionately involved but has no plans for marriage in the future;

(3) transitional, which serves as a preparation for marriage; and

(4) alternative to marriage, wherein the couple opposes marriage on ideological or other grounds.

Although attitudes toward cohabitation have become increasingly positive, especially among younger persons, Popenoe and Whitehead (1999) remind us that cohabitation was illegal throughout the United States before 1970 and remains illegal in a number of states based on a legal code outlawing ‘‘crimes against chastity’’ (Buunk and Van Driel 1989). These laws, however, are rarely if ever enforced. In the Netherlands, or in other countries where cohabitation is institutionalized, the majority of the population sees few distinctions between cohabitation and marriage. Both are viewed as appropriate avenues for intimacy, and the two lifestyles resemble one another much more so than in the United States in terms of commitment and stability.

The future of cohabitation, and the subsequent changes in the attitudes toward it, is of considerable interest to sociologists. Many predict that cohabitation will become institutionalized in the United States to a greater degree in the near future, shifting from a pattern of courtship to an alternative to marriage. Whether it will ever achieve the status found in other countries, particularly in Scandinavia, remains to be seen.

Childfree Adults

There is reason to believe that fundamental changes are occurring in the values associated with having children. As economic opportunities for women increase; as birth control, including abortion, becomes more available and reliable; and as tolerance increases for an array of lifestyles, having children is likely to become increasingly viewed as an option rather than a mandate. Evidence is accumulating to suggest that both men and women are reevaluating the costs and benefits of parenthood. Approximately 9 percent of white and African-American women and 6 percent of Latina women indicate that they would like to have no children (U.S Bureau of the Census 1998).

This trend is occurring not only in the United States but in many industrialized countries in Europe as well. The decline in childbearing there has been referred to as the ‘‘second demographic transition’’ (Van de Kaa 1987). Davis (1987) posits that features of industrial societies weaken the individual’s desire for children. He lists several interrelated traits of industrialization, including the postponement of marriage, cohabitation, and high rates of divorce, claiming that these trends decrease the need for both marriage and childbearing.

Remaining childfree is not a new phenomenon, however. In 1940, for example, 17 percent of married white women between the ages of thirtyfive and thirty-nine were childfree. Some of these women were simply delaying parenthood until their forties; however, many remained childfree. This percentage began to drop considerably after World War II, and by the late 1970s only 7 percent of women in the thirty-five to thirty-nine age group did not have children. Today the figure has risen to over 13 percent among this age group (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). This increase is due to a multitude of factors: delayed childbearing, infertility, and voluntary childlessness.

An important distinction to make in the discussion of childlessness is whether the decision was voluntary or involuntary. Involuntary childlessness involves those who are infecund or subfecund. For them, being childfree is not a choice. Unless they adopt or create some other social arrangement, they are inevitably committed to this lifestyle. Voluntary childlessness, the focus of this discussion, involves those who choose to remain childfree. Large differences exist within members of this group; early articulators have made their decision early in their lives and are committed to their choice. Postponers, on the other hand, begin first by delaying their childbearing, but wind up being childfree due to their continual postponement. Early articulators generally exhibit less stereotypical gender roles, are more likely to cohabit, and enjoy the company of children less than do postponers. Seccombe (1991) found that among married persons under age forty who have no children, wives are more likely than their husbands to report a preference for remaining childfree (19 percent and 13 percent, respectively).

Despite increasing rates of voluntary childlessness, most research conducted within the United States documents the pervasiveness of pronatalist sentiment. Those who voluntarily opt to remain childfree are viewed as selfish, immature, lonely, unfulfilled, insensitive, and more likely to have mental problems than are those who choose parenthood. In the past, females, persons with less education, those with large families of their own, Catholics, and residents of rural areas were most apt to judge the childfree harshly. However, more recently, data from a nationally representative sample suggest that women are more likely to want to remain childfree than are men (Seccombe 1991).

Most studies report that those persons who opt to remain childfree are well aware of the sanctions surrounding their decision yet are rarely upset by them (see Houseknecht 1987 for a review). In her review of twelve studies, Houseknecht found only three that reported that childfree individuals had trouble dealing with the reaction from others. Sanctions apparently are not strong enough to detract certain persons from what they perceive as the attractiveness of a childfree lifestyle. Houseknecht (1987), in a content analysis of twentynine studies reporting the rationales for remaining childfree, identified nine primary motivations. These are, in order of the frequency in which they were found:

(1) freedom from child-care responsibilities: greater opportunity for self-fulfillment and spontaneous mobility;

(2) more satisfactory marital relationship;

(3) female career considerations;

(4) monetary advantages;

(5) concern about population growth;

(6) general dislike of children;

(7) negative early socialization experience and doubts about the ability to parent;

(8) concern about physical aspects of childbirth and recovery; and

(9) concern for children given world conditions.

Gender differences were evidenced in a number of areas. Overall, females were more likely to offer altruistic rationales (e.g., concern about population growth, doubts about the ability to parent, concern for children given world conditions). The male samples, conversely, were more apt to offer personal motives (e.g., general dislike of children, monetary advantages).

The consequences of large numbers of persons in industrialized societies forgoing parenthood are profound. For example, the demographic structure in many countries is in the process of radical change; populations are becoming increasingly aged. More persons are reaching old age than ever before, those persons are living longer, and birth rates are low. The cohort age eighty-five or older, in fact, is the fastest-growing cohort in the United States. The question remains: Who will care for the elderly? Some Western European countries provide a variety of services to assist elderly persons in maintaining their independence within the community as long as possible. But social policies in other countries, including the United States, rely heavily on adult children to provide needed care to elderly parents. Formal support services, when available, tend to be uncoordinated and expensive. The question of who will provide that needed care to the large numbers of adults who are predicted to have no children has yet to be answered.

Gay and Lesbian Relationships

Not long ago homosexuality was viewed by many professionals as an illness or a perversion. It was only as recently as 1973, for example, that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders. Today, due in large part to the efforts of researchers such as Kinsey and associates (1948, 1953), Masters and Johnson (1979), and to organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front during the late 1960s, homosexuality is slowly but increasingly being viewed as a lifestyle rather than an illness. The work of Kinsey and associates illustrated that a sizable minority of the population, particularly males, had experimented with same-sex sexual relationships, although few considered themselves exclusively homosexual. Thirty-seven percent of males, they reported, had experienced at least one homosexual contact to the point of orgasm, although only 4 percent were exclusively homosexual. Among females, 13 percent had a same-sex sexual contact to the point of orgasm, while only 2 percent were exclusively homosexual in their orientation.

Obviously not all people who have had a homosexual experience consider themselves to be gay or lesbian. Most do not. One national probability sample of adult males interviewed by telephone found that 3.7 percent reported to have either a homosexual or bisexual identity (Harry 1990). Others suggest that the percentages are higher, that perhaps 3 to 5 percent of adult women and 5 to 10 percent of adult men are exclusively lesbian or gay (Diamond 1993).

Cross-cultural evidence suggests that the majority of cultures recognize the existence of homosexual behavior, particularly in certain age categories such as adolescence, and most are tolerant of homosexual behavior. Culturally speaking, it is rare to find an actual preference for same-sex relations; a preference tends to occur primarily in societies that define homosexuality and heterosexuality as mutually exclusive, as in many industrial countries.

There still remains a tremendous degree of hostility to homosexual relationships by large segments of society. Many regions in the United States, particularly in the South and in the West, still have laws barring homosexual activity among consenting adults. The results of national polls indicate that the majority of adults believe that homosexuals should still be restricted from certain occupations, such as elementary-school teacher, and should not be allowed to marry. Gays and lesbians report that their sexual orientation has caused a variety of problems in securing housing and in the job market. They often report that negative comments or acts of violence have been levied on them in public.

This contrasts sharply with the view toward homosexuality in the Scandinavian countries. In 1989 Denmark lifted the ban on homosexual marriages, the first country to do so. Norway and Sweden followed suit in the 1990s. These changes extend to gays and lesbians the advantages that heterosexual married couples experience with respect to inheritance, taxation, health insurance, and joint property ownership.

There is a growing amount of research illuminating various aspects of homosexual relationships, such as gender roles; degree of commitment; quality of relationships; and the couples’ interface with other relationships, such as children, ex-spouses, or parents. However, because of unique historical reactions to gays and lesbians, and the different socialization of men and women in our society, it is important to explore the nature of lesbian and gay male relationships separately. Gender differences emerge in homosexual relations within a variety of contexts; for example, lesbians are more apt to have monogamous, stable relationships than are gay men, although the popular stereotype of gays as sexually ‘‘promiscuous’’ has been exaggerated. The majority of gay men, just like lesbians, are interested in monogamous, long-term relationships. The lack of institutional support for gay and lesbian relationships and the wide variety of obstacles not encountered among heterosexuals, such as prejudice and discriminatory behavior, take their toll on these relationships, however.

The AIDS epidemic has had an enormous impact on the gay subculture. While the impact on lesbians is significantly less, they have not been untouched by the social impact of the devastating medical issue, despite the slow response of the world’s governments.

Dvorce and Remarriage

Throughout most of history in America, the primary reason that marriages ended was because of death. In 1970, the trends were reversed, and for the first time in our nation’s history, more marriages ended by divorce than by death (Cherlin 1992). The United States now has the highest rate of divorce in the world, at approximately 20 divorces per 1,000 married women aged fifteen and over in the population (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). This is twice as high as the divorce rate found in Canada, four times that of Japan, and ten times as high as Italy. But, it’s important to note that the divorce rate has actually leveled off, or even declined somewhat in the United States after peaking in the early 1980s.

Who divorces? Research has shown that those at greatest risk for divorcing are people who marry young, especially after only a brief dating period; those who have lower incomes, although very highearning women are also more likely to divorce; African Americans, who are about 25 percent more likely to divorce than whites; people who have been divorced before or whose parents divorced; and those who are not religious or claim no religious affiliation. The likelihood of divorce is particularly high among couples who marry in their teens because of an unplanned pregnancy. Women are almost twice as likely as men to petition for divorces, reflecting the fact that women are more often dissatisfied with their marriages than are men.

There are a variety of reasons why the rate of divorce has increased so dramatically in many Western nations during the twentieth century:

(1) there is increasing emphasis on individualism and individual happiness over the happiness of the group—or a spouse and children;

(2) divorce is more socially acceptable and less stigmatized than in the past;

(3) divorce is easier to obtain, as ‘‘fault’’ is generally no longer required;

(4) women are less financially dependent on men, on average, and therefore can end an unhappy marriage more easily;

(5) there is an increase in the number of adult children who grew up in divorced households, who are more likely to see divorce as a mechanism to end an unhappy marriage; and

(6) today’s marriages experience increased stress, with outside work consuming the time and energy people used to devote to their marriages and families.

One of the consequences of divorce is that many children will live at least a portion of their lives in single-parent households. Single-parent households are becoming increasingly normative, with approximately half of all children under age eighteen spending some portion of their lives living with only one parent, usually their mother. Single-parent households are more likely to be poor and often lack the social capital available in two-parent households, and consequently place the child at greater risk for a variety of negative social and health outcomes. Commonly the absentee parent does not pay the child support that is due, and fails to see the children with regularity.

Although divorce has become common in many industrialized nations, it would be incorrect to assume that this represents a rejection of marriage. Four out of five people who divorce remarry, most often within five years. Men are more likely to remarry than are women. This difference is due to the greater likelihood that children will be living with their mothers full-time, rather than their fathers; the cultural pattern of men marrying younger women; and the fact that there are fewer men than women in the population in general.

Remarriage often creates ‘‘blended families’’ composed of stepparents and possibly stepsiblings. It is estimated that approximately one-third of all children will live with a stepparent for at least one year prior to reaching age eighteen. Despite the increasing commonality of this type of family, it has been referred to as an ‘‘incomplete institution’’ because the social expectations are less clear than in other family structures. There are no wellestablished rules for how stepparents and children are supposed to relate, or the type of feelings they should have for one another. Without a clear-cut set of norms, blended families may be seen as ‘‘alternative lifestyles,’’ but yet they are becoming increasingly common in modern industrialized societies where divorce is common.

Concluding Comments

There is considerable accumulating evidence to suggest that family lifestyles are becoming more varied and that the public is becoming increasingly tolerant of this diversity. The data indicate that traditional marriage itself per se may be less important in sanctioning intimacy. The review by Buunk and Hupka (1986) of seven countries reveals that individualism, as expressed by following one’s own personal interests in intimate relationships, was more prevalent in affluent democratic countries such as the United States and in most of Western Europe than in poorer and nondemocratic nations.

This does not mean, however, that people are discarding the institution of marriage. In the United States, as elsewhere, the vast majority of the population continues to endorse marriage and parenthood in general, and for themselves personally. Most still plan to marry and have children, and optimism remains high that theirs will be a lasting union despite high national frequencies of divorce.

Alternative lifestyles are not replacing marriage. Instead, they are gaining acceptance because they involve, for some, modifications of the family structure as an adaptation to changing conditions in society. The lifestyles discussed here, as well as others, reflect the broader social changes in values, relationships, and even technology that are found within society as a whole. As Macklin notes, the family is not disappearing, but ‘‘continuing its age-old process of gradual evolution, maintaining many of its traditional functions and structures while adapting to changing economic circumstances and cultural ideologies’’ (1987, p. 317). This process has merely accelerated during the past several decades, and these changes have caught the attention of the general public. College classes and their corresponding textbooks within this discipline of sociology are still often titled Marriage and the Family, as if there were only one model of intimacy. Yet perhaps a more appropriate title would be Marriages, Families, and Intimate Relationships. This would reflect not only the diversity illustrated here but would also acknowledge the tremendous ethnic and class variations that make for rich and meaningful personal relationships.

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