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?