The family is the most basic unit of a society. When that unit experiences breakdown or fragmentation, however, the society in which that family functions is gravely weakened. This is occurring all over the United States, potentially drawing the curtain on the family as we have known it. The question is quickly becoming “Does the family have a future?”
The current breakdown of the family unit and the socio-cultural consequences of this breakdown are foreboding. Family fragmentation results from divorce, separation, and non-marital child bearing. Individuals in these families are extremely vulnerable. Nearly half of all children in the United States today are born into cohabiting or never-formed families as 48% of all first births occur outside of marriage.
These children are more likely to be disadvantaged by poverty and instability; they experience more physical and mental health problems and they are disadvantaged educationally. They usually miss out on having a relationship with both their father and their mother. In fact, 44% of children growing up in America today are being raised without their fathers.
Divorce is just as devastating. Half of all American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Of these, close to half will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage. Among the millions of children who have seen their parents’ divorce, one of every ten will also live through three or more parental breakups. These children experience disruption and instability. Following divorce, children are 50% more likely to develop health problems. Family breakdown presents major harms to children and their families.
So what is the current legal environment that has facilitated this breakdown? Generally family lawyers have responded to these concerns with litigation that finalizes and makes permanent the brokenness in the family. Often that litigation is ugly, expensive, and extremely damaging. Those consequences multiply the anguish of family breakdown.
Legislators, judges and policy makers have moved toward protecting the individual rather than the family; even protecting adult interests above children’s interests. They have implemented policies of Social Darwinism which have reduced and even eliminated personal responsibility. This is family destruction.
Based on this current legal environment what can we expect in the next 25 years in terms of family law and the existence of the family as a social unit? I think we can expect three things:
First, there will continue to be an ever increasing individualism which will labor to disintegrate the family as an institution, placing the interests of adult individuals above the interests of children. For example, Jane wants a child and will pursue artificial reproductive treatment to do so, while knowing that her child will likely never know her natural father. Or John will place his needs to move in with his new lover above his children’s needs for stability and protection by preserving his first family with their mother. This focus on individualism will continue to erode personal responsibility.
Second, we can expect an increasing advocacy for social Darwinism in legal policy, which will effectively continue to reduce the moral fiber of family law. According to social Darwinists, an individual’s material nature alone, rather than any moral duty, controls his or her actions. This will create greater family breakdown.
For example, claims of human behavioral and biological evolution will argue that the family is antiquated, and individuals should enjoy legal recognition of marriage regardless of age, or filial relationship, or gender, or number and nature of partners, effectively working to remove any moral basis for marriage. This progression is already being argued as foundational to an individual’s liberty interests in case law; and in a policy context social Darwinism is promoting a removal of any moral basis from family law. We will see more of that over the next 25 years.
But my third point is that there will also be a push back to individualism and social Darwinism – this will manifest itself as a faith-based movement toward family restoration. Some individuals, policy makers, lawyers, and educators see family breakdown, and the harm and instability it brings to children and to society.
This is opening up incredible opportunities to offer new hope to a struggling world through the power of Jesus Christ, particularly in family law. This means that a child’s needs in a fragmented family will become paramount, above adult interests, in some courts and policies. Parents will reconsider divorce based on what it will do to their kids, finding strength to do so in their faith.
It means that some lawyers will see clear to create alternatives to family breakdown by encouraging counseling, separation instead of divorce, agreements instead of litigation. Families will realize that they might be able to work toward accountability and renewed trust; and when families do dissolve, some adults will realize that the children must be spared the conflict of that dissolution as much as possible. These methods bring healing to individuals and families.
The future of the family looks grim from a legal and policy perspective, but it also looks hopeful from a restorative - personal faith perspective. When the law is used to work toward family restoration, there is hope for the future of the family. The right legal training and strategies will make all the difference to help heal the family, and restore it to that complete design God originally intended.
So back to our original question - Does the family have a future? Families that have hope in Jesus Christ and a moral foundation for personal responsibility will lead the way toward family restoration. Christian lawyers, judges, and policy makers will work toward restoring the family, and that will make all the difference for a stronger society. Yes - there still may be a future for the family.