In the early 1960s, amid the civil rights movement, Bob Dylan wrote “the times, they are a changing,” and he advised us to “keep [our] eyes wide,” “heed the call” and “start swimming” before we sank. Since those days, America has at times seemed to swim for its life and at other times merely treaded water. We have witnessed movements for women’s and LGBT+ rights, the end of the Cold War and the beginning of others, the onset of the digital age and the social media revolution and a host of other sociocultural transitions that have markedly changed life in this country. As a microcosm of the larger society, these changes are perhaps nowhere so vividly reflected than in the family system.
Historically, the traditional American family was an economic, social and political unit related through biology, adoption or marriage with gender-specific spheres of influence. In the 1950s, clear societal expectations considered the “normal” modern family to consist of a husband, a wife, their biological children and possibly extended family members. In today’s world, one would be hard pressed to identify “normal” when looking at the breadth of family forms and ethnic cultural backgrounds in present-day American society. As a result of unprecedented social changes fueled by rapid technological advances, the increasing diversity and complexity of families represent a new “normal,” whereby the contemporary American family is a “locus not of residence, but of meaning and relationship” (Walsh, 2012).
In the 21st Century, rather than one shared conception of the “good life” that has predictable rules and norms, American society is moving toward embracing a wide range of subcultures, in which people construct their identities in varied ways according to different values relevant to their own sociocultural context. Despite the persistent myth of the “normal family,” well-functioning American families can take many forms including the nuclear family unit, single-parent families, blended/remarried families, multigenerational families, multi-racial/ethnic families, same-sex couples and LGBTQ+ families, cohabitating couples, families formed through adoption or in-vitro procedures or many other alternative pathways. Further, the swift pace of technological advancement in personal computers/phones and the internet over the last 25 years has outpaced the research regarding the psychological effects of electronic communication and unlimited information access. There is no doubt, however, that these developments have transformed our patterns of work, family, parenting and recreation.
Some would argue that the rising cultural relativity, globalization and daily “social media-tion” have made our lives significantly more unpredictable and confusing; for better or worse that is yet to be seen, but like most transitions there will likely be a mix of positive and negative outcomes that depend on many other factors, including the family network. The ongoing evolution of the American family requires new ways of conceptualizing family processes and providing treatment. In the context of rapid social change, anxiety is common and adaptability is the key to well-functioning families. Psychologists can provide education and guidance to couples and families, reassurance that there are multiple “right” ways to raise children (and some wrong ways too) and assistance in finding a workable balance for their particular family given their specific environmental circumstances. Psychologists who work with postmodern diverse families may also increase their client’s comfort and trust with simple vocabulary substitutions that replace terms like “normal” or “pathological” with “functional” or “unworkable.”
The magnitude of the sociocultural changes in recent decades, however, seem to require a more extensive paradigm shift that considers multiple levels of the family system and acknowledges that healthy functioning will depend fundamentally on what works in the context of larger societal and cultural systems the family lives in. Given common misunderstandings in the general public regarding what is optimal or normal for families, Div. 43 has an obligation to educate society about diverse family systems and the effects of social and governmental policies on families with diverse circumstances and cultural backgrounds. With the systemic knowledge and background to assist with this transition, couple and family psychologists can lead the way in family advocacy by providing an authoritative consensus statement regarding healthy and unhealthy families that recognizes the continually expanding definitions of family and cultural diversity and can usefully inform social policy.