If the Nuclear Family Has Failed, What Comes Next?

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In the cover story of The Atlantic’s March issue, David Brooks charts the rise of the nuclear family as the idealized American household unit. He analyzes the shift over the past century from “big, interconnected, and extended families” to “smaller, detached nuclear families,” arguing that the latter has left many Americans lonelier, with fewer role models, and with a weaker support network to help them in times of need.

Brooks explores the question of what family structures might serve people better, proposing that the answer might resemble the extended families and kinship networks that were more common in earlier eras. Many Americans, he notes, are already a part of such expansive households—two examples being multigenerational homes (with children, parents, and/or grandparents) and “co-housing” arrangements (which combine private quarters and communal spaces).

For decades, Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist, has been studying these and other conceptualizations of family and community, and what draws people to them. Her 2015 book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, was the product of years of interviews with Americans living in nonnuclear ways, and she has since written another book about how single people are unfairly stigmatized.

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I spoke with DePaulo about the pros and cons of making a home outside the conventions of the nuclear family, as well as the society-level barriers that make it difficult to do so. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Joe Pinsker: What comes after the nuclear family—and is it already here?

Bella DePaulo: To me, the decline of the nuclear family isn’t only a story of chaos or trauma. For people who never fit comfortably into those nuclear-family structures, it’s liberating and opens up a whole panoply of options. The way I think about those options is in terms of the big components of our life—getting married, living together, having sex, having kids. It used to be that these components all came packaged together, and now they’ve all come apart. People can pick and choose whatever components they want.

For example, when getting married and living together came apart, we saw the rise of cohabitation, couples living together without getting married. When getting married and living together came apart, we got “living apart together,” in which couples who can be very committed to each other, maybe even married, have spaces of their own. Getting married, staying married, and having kids all came apart, so we see the rise of single parenting. And it now doesn’t feel as obligatory to have kids at all, so we see the rise of couples who have no kids.

One of the family forms that most intrigued me when I started studying this is a parenting partnership: You have a pair of people, sometimes more than that, who live together and raise children, but what gets subtracted out is the romantic connection. So maybe two friends both want to have kids, but they don’t want to be single parents, so they commit to raising children together, in the same house or not. That is such a striking example of how we can create something entirely new once we no longer see these components as all tied up together and obligatory.

Pinsker: How common is it for people to organize their home lives in one of these nonnuclear ways?

DePaulo: When I was researching How We Live Now, the proportion of households in the United States that were made up of married couples and children was less than one in five. If you were to knock on doors at random throughout the country today, you would be more likely to be greeted by someone living alone than by the nuclear family of mom, dad, and the kids. When I wrote my book, the only forms of family or community that seemed to be headed in a downward direction were nuclear families and the old hippie-style communes where everybody lives together. Otherwise, all these other possibilities are growing, including, as Brooks says, the extended-family households.

Pinsker: In the article, Brooks writes that experiments with different household arrangements “suggest that while people still want flexibility and some privacy, they are casting about for more communal ways of living, guided by a still-developing set of values.” What do you think those values are? What are the things people are craving that traditional notions of family aren’t delivering?

DePaulo: I think many people are pursuing a model of relating that looks more like friendship than the nuclear family, or even extended family, does. With friendship, there’s less slotting people into particular roles or hierarchies, and more valuing people based on your own affection for them, or whatever matters to you. We’re expected to think that if you have a romantic partner, that person comes before everyone else, but many people are starting to think about others in a way that’s more expansive—in terms of whatever a person might bring to a situation, which might be just that you click, or that this person makes you happy when you see them and vice versa.

Pinsker: What are the upsides of more communal living arrangements, like multigenerational homes or co-housing, and what parts of them do people tend to find challenging?

DePaulo: The way I think about this is that we are all looking for two kinds of things. One is what Brooks was emphasizing—connection, community, belongingness—and that’s important, but we also, all of us, have some craving for solitude, privacy, autonomy, time to ourselves. And the proportions are really different for different people, so some people really want lots of togetherness—maybe they’re the ones who thought, with nuclear families, Oh my gosh, there aren’t enough people around! Where’s my extended family, my multigenerational family? And they can seek that out and create their own version of that, maybe by living in a big house with other people. On the other end are people who really like a lot of autonomy and solitude, who find time alone to be rejuvenating and relaxing. They’re the people who might live alone and feel liberated by that.

Pinsker: What about the people who fall in the middle of that spectrum?

DePaulo: In between are people who might want to live, for example, in co-housing communities, in which people have their own private dwellings—living alone or as couples or even nuclear families or any combination of people—and those dwellings are arranged around a common space, often a green space, in a way that is conducive to community. These are intentional communities for people who want something like old-fashioned villages, but without as much intrusiveness.

These co-housing communities also include a common area, in addition to everybody’s private dwelling, where people come together now and then for meals. These common spaces might have meeting rooms and music rooms, or play areas if there are a lot of kids there. They also include the mailboxes and washers and dryers, and what that does is bring people together in a kind of informal way, where you get to know people in a way that feels comfortable, natural, and unforced. You don’t have the self-consciousness of meeting someone for the purposes of hoping to become their friend, but instead it’s just in the course of everyday life.

Pinsker: Do you find that people who choose to live by themselves have trouble crafting family-like networks and communities?

DePaulo: There are more than 110 million American adults who are not married, and of course some of them have trouble, but on average, people who are single are usually doing better at this sort of thing than people who are coupled. When people move in together or get married, they become more insular. They have less contact with their parents. They spend less time with their friends. And it’s not just a honeymoon thing, where they’re so besotted with each other when they first get together that they can’t take their eyes off each other. It’s not even about kids, because couples who have kids do this, and couples who don’t have kids do this. There are obviously tons of exceptions, but on average, single people have more friends and do more to maintain the ties that they have with their friends, their neighbors, their siblings, their parents, and their co-workers. So people living alone are not really the lonely end result of the unraveling of the nuclear family.

Pinsker: I’d imagine that a lot of people want to live in some of the ways you described, but don’t feel like they can. What structural features of American society do people run up against when trying to form other types of family and community?

DePaulo: First, there are some laws and zoning codes that make it difficult for people to live with the people who matter to them—you know, a Golden Girls–type situation. So if you have a group of friends, or maybe a group that includes friends and relatives, and you want to live together in some big house, and each have your own rooms but you get together for meals, you can have a really hard time finding a place that allows you to do that. That’s because there are zoning restrictions in some places where only a certain number of unrelated people, often two, can live together.

Another example is who is covered by laws that allow us to care for the people who matter to us. In workplaces covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, you can take unpaid time off to care for children or parents, and if you’re married, a spouse. But if you’re a single person, no one gets to fill that spouse slot, so I can’t take time off to care for a close friend, and that close friend can’t take time off to care for me. To become a more connected, caring society, it would help to have laws that recognize the people in our life that matter to us beyond just a spouse, or our own biological or adopted children.