The Contemporary Family: Less Statutory And More Relational
The increase of financial autonomy (particularly among women), reinforced social protection, widespread use and mastery of female contraception, and a more permissive atmosphere have all helped to promote people's desire to have more freedom within the family. The family of the 1950s was thus seen as constraining, rigid, and even an obstacle toward self-realization.
For young people in the twenty-first century, family and sexual matters are under less social control from the older relatives and have instead become private issues. Parents are not encouraged to interfere in their child's choice of partner. Feeling is seen as the only legitimate factor for forming a couple. L. Roussel wrote: "The institution [of the family] has stopped being a determinant reality due to the fact that it has not been internalized as a legitimate norm" (1980). The relational family implies that the bonds in this type of family are defined less by statute than they are by free consent. "[T]he form of private life that everyone chooses hardly needs any external legitimacy, any conformity to an institution or even any morality. It is structured above all on the mutual recognition and respect of the people living together" (de Singly 1996).
Relationships between men and women within the couple have become more equal. The type of strict authoritarian model has been replaced one in which autonomy and personal fulfillment are favored (Kellerhals et al. 1991). This model is more prominent in middle-class families; parents tend to be more rigid and coercive among the lower classes. Generations living together are less and less common, but living in separate houses does not necessarily exclude "solidarity from a distance." Indeed research on intergenerational solidarity (sometimes four generations, since life expectancy reached 74.6 years for men and 82.3 for women in 1997) unanimously underlines the vitality of family life (Attias-Donfut 1995; Segalen et al. 1998).
This evolution also has its darker side. When the married couple stays together solely because of feelings of love, conjugal differences can more easily lead to a break-up than was formerly the case. Some sociologists have thus spoken of contemporary divorce as "a 'normal' component of the modern marriage model" (Kellerhals et al. 1985). Along these same lines, in an article with the enlightening title "Guilty Love?" ("L'amour coupable?"), F. de Singly writes: "Divorce is an integral part of a marriage based on love" (1992). Yet it is known that, after a divorce, there is almost always a decrease in the standard of living for the person who has custody of the children (Martin 1997), particularly if this person is a woman, which is usually the case. Also, almost half of the children of divorced parents either no longer see their fathers or see them on a very irregular basis (Léridon et al. 1994). A separation may only slightly affect well-educated single mothers who work, but this is not the case for those women who do not work and who have limited cultural knowledge and academic training. By placing those who were already vulnerable before the separation in an even more precarious position, divorce tends to aggravate the existing social inequalities (Le Gall and Martin 1993).
What seems to be most worrisome is that the family has become little more than a network of emotions and feelings. One result of trying to move away from the collective rules that create and give meaning to the family, individuals may find themselves with a somewhat artificial freedom? According to Théry, "The specificity of the family group as an institution has been completely abandoned. Yet since the dawn of humanity, no society has ever reduced the family to a mere biological reality or a simple question of tastes—the family group is not a group like any other" (1996). What are the society's reference points when the collective framework becomes ephemeral, and the individual believes himself or herself capable of building a sense of self within the intersubjectivity of a group that tends to be a mere emotional network (Le Gall 1997).
Beyond all these changes that have affected the family institution is this evolution, which, for some, seems problematic at a time when the economic crisis makes people more vulnerable and when the conjugal bond is more fragile than before. Reconstituted families are a good illustration of this. If a stepparent, a supplementary social actor in the "family deal," finds it difficult to obtain his role or his place (Le Gall, Martin, 1997), could it not be due to the lack of societal help (Cherlin 1978)? Should this evolution, which satisfies the desire for freedom, continue, delicate problems will arise: "Individuals who must take care of everything themselves no longer have a statutory place which allows them the possibility to free themselves from the here and now of life in order to master their destiny. The ideal of self-government becomes dependence. Private life, when it accepts no reference other than itself, becomes a place of slavery" (Théry 1996). How is it possible to establish an unconditional bond from free mutual choice, since a bond based on choice is revocable by definition?