A Theory on the Rise and Fall of the Suburban Nuclear Family Ideal

Teal Deer

TL;DR

Some musings on why people found the suburban nuclear family ideal of the 1950s and 1960s so hellish and eventually rejected it. In particular, we posit that the suburban nuclear family ideal was an attempt to emulate the planter class aristocracy but collapsed because the social dimensions of emulating that lifestyle were ignored.

Note: This was written with my partner, the Sooty Empiric. Neither of us are anything like experts on the history regarding the nuclear family ideal. This is mainly conjecture on why the suburban nuclear family became an ideal in the 50s and 60s, then crashed and burned hard in the 70s and 80s, based on casual knowledge (personal experiences, media portrayals, advertising trends, knowledge of second-wave feminism, etc.) as well as reading other people’s analyses of marriage norms in the U.S. such as Marriage Markets. It’s very speculative, and should be understood as just a musing on a possibility.

Sometimes you will encounter people who advocate for reviving “traditional marriage”. By this they often mean specifically the suburban, white picket fence, Leave It to Beaver-style, company-man-breadwinner + domestic-housewife combination that was so Aesthetic in 1950s advertisements.

1950s
1950s advertisement from The Advertising Archives

Proponents of this form of “traditional marriage” often view modern notions of family and relationships (acceptance of untraditional/single-parent families, increased gender equality/working women, and sexual liberation) as having undermined the traditional norms of marriage (which were working well), leading to a breakdown of lifelong monogamous marriage in modern society — widespread divorce, disjointed families, single-parent households with serial marriages, and so on. However, this view of marriage ignores a big part of the breakdown of the “traditional marriage” norm: the ideal of the suburban nuclear family broke down in large part because people who were in those marriages (either as the spouses/parents, or having been raised in them as children) rejected them en masse from within. Without addressing the tensions and frustrations created by these suburban nuclear families, the promise to “save marriage” risks having to be very authoritarian in coercively forcing an unpleasant norm on a population, or reinstituting traditional marriage only to have people revolt against it en masse again.

Where the norm of the suburban nuclear family came from

The ideal of the suburban nuclear family seems to be an emulation of an earlier ideal of aristocratic marriage. The marriages of the aristocracy of the UK and the planter class of the U.S. involved a lord and lady overseeing a large rural manor — plenty of land, a horse and carriage, and servants. The lord and lady have different roles/spheres, but are the ruler of their own sphere in their private little fief (there is also hierarchy between the lord and lady where final authority ultimately rests with the lord).

In America, after World War II, there was a lot of post-war prosperity and production that opened up something like this kind of lifestyle to a section of the middle class. Ownership of a large home in the suburbs became the equivalent of a rural manor; ownership of a new car became the equivalent of a horse and carriage; hiring servants was still out of people’s budgets, but technological innovations made it possible for a housewife to automate a lot of tiring domestic work (e.g. washing dishes and clothes), bypassing some of the need for servants. Aggressive advertising by urban planners, car companies, and appliance manufacturers were instrumental in selling people this image of “the good life”.

Because the image of “the good life” was based on the nuclear family of the earlier aristocrat families (a family unit consisting of parents and non-adult children), the nuclear family structure became normative for the rising post-war middle class as well. But note that other times and cultures have organized their family units differently. It’s fairly common in other parts of the world to have a family compound — a large house where multiple generations or all the adult siblings in a single generation (plus their children) live. The small size of the nuclear family unit turns out (we conjecture) to be critical in why people ended up rejecting the suburban nuclear family ideal.

What happened to those living the suburban nuclear family ideal

Prosperity and wealth seemed to bring the aristocratic lifestyle within reach, but one key component was missing: the servants or slaves. In general, people have the bad habit of undervaluing the labor and contributions of people who occupy the lower rungs of society, and that was very much the case here: One major thing that went wrong in implementing the suburban nuclear family successfully was undervaluing the role that domestic servants served as the main support network for the manor lord and lady. Adults who live in or close to a house and spend most of their working in or around the house provide social interaction, help manage crises, serve as confidantes and advisers, and so on. Technology provides no real substitute to the emotional labor that these people provided — emotional labor that was entirely taken for granted and not deemed important when it came to implementing the suburban nuclear family. If the family unit were a bit larger, or if the family had not retreated from urban centers where an external social network would be easier to form, this could have been dealt with, but it wasn’t.

In addition, the strict gender norms and division of labor by gender was bound to make people unhappy, even after they’d successfully achieved the suburban nuclear family ideal. Some people enjoyed the role that life assigned to them on the basis of their gender — working outside the home, or domestic child-rearing — but inevitably there were men who would have preferred to stay home with the children if given the choice, and women who would have preferred to keep working after marriage and build a career if given the choice. The strict gender norms of “traditional marriage” denied them that choice.

Contrary to what proponents of returning to “traditional marriage” think, traditional marriage was not brought down by external agitators or cultural outsiders who hated traditional marriage. It was brought down by the people who had bought into the ideal and had lived it for themselves. For women trapped in a house alone during the day and forced to be subservient to her husband, and for men spending most of their time at work and having only their wife as a support network at home, problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic infidelity, nervous breakdowns, and emotional repression reared their heads before the Pill and the sexual revolution came knocking on the door. And their children were witnesses to all this happening, to the misery of the suburban nuclear family.

Where we are now

Since the 50s and 60s, there have been major changes to the marriage ideal. Like in the 50s, the ideal is still lifelong monogamy, but notably, (1) there are less strong gender norms about how work in the marriage should be distributed, making people less confined by restrictively proscribed social roles, and (2) families are moving back to the cities (a trend of reurbanization and gentrification), which allows them closer contact and relationships with people outside their family. As Marriage Markets lays out, at the upper echelons of society — in dual-income, college-educated families — this model is working well and there are low rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth.1 It is in these sectors of society that the institution of marriage is experiencing a rebirth after a partial collapse in the 70s. As many people have pointed out, the legalization of gay marriage has not destroyed or cheapened the institution of lifelong monogamous marriage but has made this lifestyle an option to a greater number of (dual-income, upper-middle class) people.

However, as Marriage Markets also touches on, a serious problem is that these kinds of lifelong monogamous marriages are basically only attainable for a small segment of the population. In particular, one thing we think contributes to the exclusivity of this lifestyle is the fact that, despite all the shakeups marriage and marriage norms have experienced in the last 50 years, the nuclear family unit has remained the norm. The nuclear family — two adult caregivers and non-adult children only — is one of the smallest family units one can have, which means that when someone in the family unit runs into hard times, there are few other adult members of the family unit to fall back on. Lacking an external support network (either in the local community or implemented by the government), it is especially difficult for low-income nuclear families to continue to function when faced with a crisis. In this way, the nuclear family ideal interacts with societal inequality to make lower-class families particularly precarious.

Conclusion

For people who claim to be proponents of “traditional marriage”, it is important to reckon with the reasons why the suburban nuclear family ideal broke down, even among people who managed to achieve the ideal. A lesson to be learned from the demise of this ideal is that it is important to understand the benefits of community and to not just copy what the rich do. And for people who want more people to be involved in lifelong monogamous marriages, it’s important to compensate for the factors that make achieving those kinds of marriages difficult (such as the lack of a support network for low-wage families).


1 There are still significant differences in gender roles in marriage, so there is a lot of room to make marriages more flexible in terms of work allocation. As gender norms get weaker, we should expect dual income elite marriages to become even more stable.

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