Social Organization

Chapter 31: Disorganization: The Family

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE mediaeval family, like other mediaeval institutions, was dominated by comparatively settled traditions which reflected the needs of the general system of society Marriage was thought of chiefly as an alliance of interests, and was arranged by the ruling members of the families concerned on grounds of convenance, the personal congeniality of the parties being little considered.

We know that this view of marriage has still considerable force among the more conservative classes of European society, and that royalty or nobility, on the one hand, and the peasantry, on the other, adhere to the idea that it is a family rather than a personal function, which should be arranged on grounds of rank and wealth. In France it is hardly respectable to make a romantic marriage, and Mr. Hamerton tells of a young woman who was indignant at a rumor that she had been wedded for love, insisting that it had been strictly a matter of convenance. He also mentions a young man who was compelled to ask his mother which of two sisters he had just met was to be his wife.[1]


Along with this subordination of choice in contracting marriage generally went an autocratic family discipline. Legally the wife and children had no separate rights, their personality being merged in that of the husband and father, while socially the latter was rather their master than their companion. His rule, however—though it was no doubt harsh and often brutal, judged by our notions—authority in our day; since he was was possibly not so arbitrary and whimsical as would be the exercise of similar himself subordinate not only to social superiors, but still more to traditional ideas, defining his own duties and those of his household, which he felt bound to carry out. The whole system was authoritative, admitting little play of personal choice.

Evidently the drift of modern life is away from this state of things. The decay of settled traditions, embracing not only those relating directly to the family but also the religious and economic ideas by which these were supported, has thrown us back upon the unschooled impulses of human nature. In entering upon marriage the personal tastes of the couple demand gratification, and, right or wrong, there is no authority strong enough to hold them in check. Nor, if upon experience it turns out that personal tastes are not gratified, is there commonly any insuperable obstacle to a dissolution of the tie. Being married, they have children so long as they find it, on the whole, agreeable to their inclinations to do so, but when this point is reached they proceed to exercise choice by refusing to bear and rear any more. And as the spirit of choice is in I the air, the children are not slow to inhale it and to exercise their own wills in accordance with the same law of im-

(358)-pulse their elders seem to follow. "Do as you please so long as you do not evidently harm others " is the only rule of ethics that has much life; there is little regard for any higher discipline, for the slowly built traditions of a deeper right and wrong which cannot be justified to the feelings of the moment.

Among the phases of this domestic "individualism" or relapse to impulse are a declining birthrate among the comfortable classes, some lack of discipline and respect in children, a growing independence of women accompanied by alleged neglect of the family, and an increase of divorce.

The causes of decline in the birthrate are clearly psychological, being, in general, that people prefer ambition and luxury to the large families that would interfere with them.

Freedom of opportunity diffuses a restless desire to rise in the world, beneficent from many points of view but by no means favorable to natural increase. Men demand more of life in the way of personal self-realization than in the past, and it takes a longer time and more energy to get it, the consequence being that marriage is postponed and the birth-rate in marriage deliberately restricted. The young people of the well-to-do classes, among whom ambition is most developed, commonly feel poorer in regard to this matter than the hand-workers, so that we find in England, for instance, that the professional men marry at an average age of thirty-one, while miners marry at twenty-four. Moreover, while the hand-working classes, both on the farms and in towns, expect to

(359) make their children more than pay for themselves after they are fourteen years old, a large family thus becoming an investment for future profit, the well-to-do, on the contrary, see in their children a source of indefinitely continuous expense. And the trend of things is bringing an ever larger proportion of the people within the ambitious classes and subject to this sort of checks.

The spread of luxury, or even comfort, works in the same direction by creating tastes and habits unfavorable to the bearing and rearing of many children. Among those whose life, in general, is hard these things are not harder than the rest, and a certain callousness of mind that is apt to result from monotonous physical labor renders people less subject to anxiety, as a rule, than those who might appear to have less occasion for it. The joy of children, the "luxury of the poor," may also appear brighter from the dulness and hardship against which it is relieved. But as people acquire the habit, or at least the hope, of comfort they become aware that additional children mean a sacrifice which they often refuse to make .

These influences go hand-in-hand with that general tendency to rebel against trouble which is involved in the spirit of choice. In former days women accepted the bearing of children and the accompanying cares and privations as a matter of course; it did not occur to them that anything else was possible. Now, being accustomed to choose their life, they demand a reason why they should undergo hardships; and since the advantages which are to follow are doubtful and remote, and the suffering near and obvious, they are not unlikely to refuse. Too com-

(360)-monly they have no inwrought principles and training that dispose them to submit.

The distraction of choice grievously increases the actual burden and stress upon women) for it is comparatively easy to put up with the inevitable. What with moral strain of this sort and the anxious selection among conflicting methods of nurture and education it possibly costs the mother of to-day more psychical energy to raise four children than it did her grandmother to raise eight.

It would be strange if children were not hospitable to the modern sentiment that one will is as good as another, except as the other may be demonstrably wiser in regard to the matter in hand. Willing submission to authority as such, or sense of the value of discipline as a condition of the larger and less obvious well-being of society, is hardly to be expected from childish reasoning, and must come, if at all, as the unconscious result of a training which reflects general sentiment and custom. It is institutional in its nature, not visibly reasonable.

But the child, in our day, finds no such institution, no general state of sentiment such as exists in Japan and existed in our own past, which fills the mind from infancy with suggestions that parents are to be reverenced and obeyed; nor do parents ordinarily do much to instil this by training. Probably, so great is the power of general opinion even in childhood, they would hardly succeed if they tried, but as a rule they do not seriously try. Being themselves accustomed to the view that authority must appeal to the reason of the subject, they see nothing strange

(361) The fond attention which parents give to their children is often of a sort to overstimulate their self-consequence. This constantly asking them, What would you like? Shall we do this or that ? Where do you want to go ? and so on, though amiable on our part, does the child little good. The old practice of keeping children at a distance, whatever its evils, was more apt to foster reverence.

Among hand-workers, especially in the country, the work being more obvious and often shared by the whole family, the pressure of necessary labor makes a kind of discipline for all, and the children are more likely to see that there are rules and conditions of life above their immediate pleasure. Social play, as we have seen, may also do much for this perception. But this visible control of a higher law has a decreasing part in modern life, especially with the well-to-do classes, whose labors are seldom such as children may share, or even understand.

In this, as in so many other respects, we are approaching a higher kind of life at the cost of incidental demoralization. The modern family at its best, with its intimate sympathy and its discipline of love, is of a higher type than the family of an older regime. "I never," said Thackeray, "saw people on better terms with each other, more frank, affectionate, and cordial, than the parents and the grown-up young folks in the United States. And why ? Because the children were spoiled, to be sure."[2] But where this ideal is not reached, there is apt to be a somewhat disastrous failure which makes one regret the auto-

(362)-cratic and traditional order. Not merely is discipline lacking, but the affection which might be supposed to go with indulgence is turned to indifference, if not contempt. As a rule we love those we can look up to, those who stand for the higher ideal. In old days parents shared some what in that divinity with which tradition hedged the great of the earth, and might receive a reverence not dependent upon their personality; and even to-day they are likely to be better loved if they exact respect—just as an officer is better loved who enforces discipline and is not too familiar with his soldiers. Human nature needs some thing to look up to, and it is a pity when parents do not in part supply this need for their children.

In short, the child, like the woman, helps to bear the often grievous burden of disorganization; bears it, among the well-to-do classes, in an ill-regulated life, in lack of reverence and love, in nervousness and petulance; as well as in premature and stunting labor among the poor:

The opening of new careers to women and a resulting economic independence approaching that of men is another phase of " individualism " that has its worse and better aspects. In general it has, through the fuller self-expression of women, most beneficial reactions both upon family life and society at large, but creates some trouble in the way of domestic reluctance and discontent.

The disposition to reject marriage altogether may be set aside as scarcely existent. The marriage rate shows little decline, though the average age is somewhat advanced The wage-earning occupations of women are mostly of a temporary character, and the great majority of domestic

(363) servants, shop and factory girls, clerks, typewriters and teachers marry sooner or later. There is no reason to doubt that a congenial marriage continues to be the almost universal feminine ideal.

A more real problem, perhaps is found in the excessive requirements, in the way of comfort and refinement, that young women are said to cherish. In the United States their education, so far as general culture is concerned, outstrips that of men, something like three-fifths of our high school pupils being girls, while even in the higher institutions the study of history, foreign languages and English literature is largely given over to women. A certain sense of superiority coming from this state of things probably causes the rejection of some honest clerks or craftsmen by girls who can hardly look for a better offer; and it has a tendency toward the cultivation of refinement at the expense of children where marriage does occur. It need hardly be said, however, that aggressive idealism Oil the part of women is in itself no bad thing, and that it does harm only where ill-directed. Hardly anything, for instance, would be more salutary than the general enforcement by women of a higher moral standard upon the men who wish to marry them.

And certainly nothing in modern civilization is more widely and subtly beneficent than the enlargement of women in social function. It means that a half of human nature is newly enfranchised, instructed and enabled to become a more conscious and effective factor in life. The ideals of home and the care of children, in spite of pessimists, are changing for the better, and the work of women in independent careers is largely in the direction

(364) of much-needed social service education and philanthropy in the largest sense of the words. Any one familiar with these movements knows that much of the intellectual and most of the emotional force back of them is that of women' One may say that the maternal instinct has been set free and organized on a vast scale, for the activities in which women most excel are those inspired by sympathy with children and with the weak or suffering classes.

To the continental European, accustomed to a society in which the functions and conventions of men and women are sharply distinguished and defined by tradition, it seems that Americans break down a natural and salutary differentiation, making women masculine and men feminine by a too indiscriminate association and competition. No doubt there is some ground for distinct standards and education, and in the general crumbling of traditions and sway of a somewhat doctrinaire idea of equality some " achieved distinctions " of value may have been lost sight of. Like other social differentiations, however, this is one that can no longer be determined by authority, but must work itself out in a free play of experiment. As Mr. Ellis says, "The hope of our future civilization lies in the development, in equal freedom, of both the masculine and feminine elements in life."[3]

Perhaps, also, the masculine element, as being on the whole more rational and stable, should be the main source of government, keeping in order the emotionality more commonly dominant in women: and it may appear that this controlling function is ill-performed in America. It

(365) should be remembered, however, that with us the emancipation of women comes chiefly from male initiative and is a voluntary fostering of das ewig Weibliche out of love and respect for it. And also that most European societies govern women by coercive laws or conventions and, in the lower classes, even by blows. Americans have almost wholly foregone these extrinsic aids, aiming at a higher or voluntary discipline, and if American women are, after all, quite as well guided, on the whole, as those of Europe, it is no mean achievement.,

There are in general two sorts of forces, one personal and one institutional, which hold people together in wedlock. By the personal I mean those which spring more directly from natural impulse, and may be roughly summed up as affection and common interest in children. The institutional are those that come more from the larger organization of society, such as economic interdependence of husband and wife, or the state of public sentiment, tradition and law.

As regards affection, present conditions should apparently be favorable to the strength of the bond. Since personal choice is so little interfered with, and the whole matter conducted with a view to congeniality, it would seem that a high degree of congeniality must, on the whole, be secured. And, indeed, this is without much doubt the case: nowhere probably, is there so large a proportion of couples li-ving together in love and confidence as in those countries where marriage is most free. Even if serious friction arises, the fact that each has chosen the other without constraint favors a sense of responsibility for the

(366) relation, and a determination to make it succeed that might be lacking in an arranged marriage. We know that if we do not marry happily it is our own fault, and the more character and self-respect ~ e has e the more ~ e try to make the best of our venture. There can hardly be a general feeling that marriage is one thing and love another, such as may prevail under the rule of convenance.

Yet it is not inconsistent to say that this aim at love increases divorce. The theory being that the contracting parties are to be made happy, then, if they are not, it seems to follow that the relation is a failure and should cease: the brighter the ideal the darker the fact by contrast. Where interest and custom rule marriage those who enter into it may not expect congeniality, or, if they do, they feel that it is secondary and do not dream of divorce because it is not achieved. The woman marries because her parents tell her to, because marriage is her career, and because she desires a wedding and to be mistress of a household; the man because he wants a household and children and is not indifferent to the dowry. These tangible aims, of which one can be fairly secure beforehand, give stability where love proves wanting.

And while freedom in well-ordered minds tends toward responsibility and the endeavor to make the best of a chosen course, in the ill-ordered it is likely to become an impulsiveness which is displayed equally in contracting and in breaking off marriage without good cause. The conditions of our time give an easy rein to undisciplined wills, and one index of their activity is the divorce rate. Bad training in childhood is a large factor in this, neglected or spoiled children making bad husbands or wives, and

(367) probably furnishing the greater number of the divorced. Common observation seems to show that the latter are seldom people of thoroughly wholesome antecedents.

It may not be amiss to add that personal affection is at tile best an inadequate foundation for marriage. To expect that one person should make another happy or good is requiring too much of human nature. Both parties ought to be subject to some higher idea, in reverence for which they may rise above their own imperfection: there ought to be something in the way of religion in the case. A remark which Goethe made of poetry might well be applied to personal love: "It is a very good companion of life, but in no way competent to guide it " ;[4] and because people have no higher thought to shelter them in disappointment is frequently the reason that marriage proves a failure.


As regards institutional bonds there is of course a great relaxation.

Thus economic interdependence declines with the advance of specialization. The home industries are mostly gone, and every year more things are bought that used to be made in the house. Little is left but cooking, and that, either as a task of the wife or in the shape of the Domestic Service Question, is so troublesome that many are eager to see it follow the rest. At one time marriage was, for women, about the only way to a respectable maintenance, while to men a good housewife was equally an economic necessity. Now this is true only of the farming population,

(368) and less true of them than it used to be in the towns the economic considerations are mostly opposed to married life.

Besides making husband and wife less necessary to each other, these changes tend to make married women restless. Nothing works more for sanity and contentment than a reasonable amount of necessary and absorbing labor; disciplining the mind and giving one a sense of being of use in the world. It seems a paradox to say that idleness is exhausting, but there is much truth in it, especially in the case of sensitive and eager spirits. A regular and necessary task rests the will by giving it assurance, while the absence of such a task wearies it by uncertainty and futile choice. Just as a person who follows a trail through the woods will go further with less exertion than one who is finding his way, so we all need a foundation of routine, and the lack of this among women of the richer classes is a chief cause of the restless, exacting, often hysterical, spirit, harassing to its owner and every one else, which tends toward discontent, indiscretion and divorce.

The old traditional subordination on the part of the wife had its uses, like other decaying structures of the past; and however distasteful to modern ideas of freedom, was a factor in holding the family together. For, after all, no social organization can be expected to subsist without some regular system of government. We say that the modern family is a democracy; and this sounds very well; but anarchy is sometimes a more correct description. A well-ordered democracy has a constitution and laws, prescribing the rights and duties of the various members of the state, and providing a method of determining con-

(369)-troversies: the family, except as we recognize within reasonable limits the authority of the husband and father, has nothing of the sort. So long as the members are one in mind and feeling there is an unconscious harmony which has nothing to do with authority; but with even slight divergence comes the need of definite control. What would happen on shipboard if the captain had to govern by mere personal ascendancy, without the backing of maritime law and custom? Evidently there would be mutinies, as among pirate crews, which only an uncommonly strong man could quell; and the family is often in a similar condition.[5]

The relaxation of moral sentiment regarding marriage by migrations and other sorts of displacement is easily traced in statistics, which show that divorce is more frequent in new countries, in cities—peopled by migration —and in the industrial and commercial classes most affected by economic change. To have an effective public opinion holding people to their duty it is important that men should live long in one place and in one group, inheriting traditional ideas and enforcing them upon one

(370) another. All breaking up of old associations involves an "individualism" which is nowhere more active than in family relations.

The same principles go to explain diminished control by the law and the church. Thus we notice that the states of the American Union, having made their marriage laws in comparative independence of the English tradition and in harmony with a relaxing public sentiment, have much divorce; while in Canada the restraining hand of that tradition has kept the law conservative and made divorce difficult and rare. The surprising contrast in this regard between the two sides of the Detroit or St. Lawrence rivers is only partly explained by the different social traits of the people.

Christian teaching is the chief source of the ideal of marriage as a sacred and almost indissoluble bond, and church organization has been the main agent in enforcing this ideal. The Roman Catholic church has never admitted the possibility of absolute divorce, and to her authority, chiefly, is due its absence in Spain and Italy; while in England the Established Church, not much behind Rome in strictness, has been perhaps the chief cause of conservatism in English law and sentiment. And the other Protestant churches, though more liberal, are conservative in comparison with the drift of popular feeling. So the fact, needless to discuss in this connection, that the disciplinary authority of the church has declined, makes directly for the increase of divorce.

The relaxation of the family is due, then, to changes progressive on the whole, but involving much incidental

(371) demoralization; being in general those arising from a somewhat rapid decay of old traditions and disciplines and a consequent dependence upon human impulse and reason.

The evil involved is largely old evil in a new form; it is not so much that new troubles have arisen between husband and wife as that a new remedy is sought for old ones. They quarreled and marriage vows were broken quite as much in former times as now, as much in England today as in America: the main difference is in the outcome.

Moreover, the matter has its brighter side; for divorce though full of evils, is associated with a beneficent rise in the standing of women, of which it is to a certain degree the cause. The fact that law and opinion now permit women to revolt against the abuse of marital power operates widely and subtly to increase their self-respect and the respect of others for them, and like the right of workmen to strike, does most of its good without overt exercise.


  1. French and English, 357.
  2. Philip, chapter 28.
  3. Man and Woman, 396.
  4. Die Muse das Leben zwar gem begleitet, aber es keineswegs zu leiten versteht.
  5. That the increase of divorces is due chiefly to the initiative of the wife is seen in the fact that as they become more numerous an increasing proportion is granted at the instance of the woman. Under the old regime the divorcing of a husband was almost unknown, the first ease in England oeeurring in 1801. (See the essay on Marriage and Divorce in Mr. Bryce's Studies in History and Jurisprudence.) In the United States a great preponderance are now granted to wives, and the greater the total rate the greater this preponderance. In those states where the rate is highest the proportion iB from two-thirds to three-fourths. It is not far wrong to say that the old idea of divorce was to rid the husband of an unfaithful wife, the new is to rid the wife of an uncongenial or troublesome husband.

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