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Posted on Fri, Jan 13, 2012 : 9:39 a.m.

Marriage: How does your ideal family stack up with these?

By Wayne Baker

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week, Dr. Baker is discussing marriage; do you think it's becoming obsolete?.

0110 ov TV families from Nelsons to Sopranos.jpg

Can you identify these families?

What defines “a family”?

Think about these iconic TV families. Starting in the 1950s and through today, millions of Americans welcomed regular visits from the Nelsons, the Bunkers, the Addams, the Jeffersons, the Huxtables and the Sopranos. You can see four of those families in the photos, at right. But, can you spot what defines every TV family on this list?

Answer: A married husband and wife with kids.

Is that required in your definition of a family today? Marriage is on the decline, as we discussed yesterday. Along with this trend, the definition of a family is in flux, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Before I tell you the results, consider each of the following living arrangements. Which ones should be considered a family?
Which should not?

A married man and woman with children
A married man and woman without children
A single parent with children
An unmarried man and woman with children
A same-sex couple with children
A same-sex couple without children
An unmarried man and woman without children

Here are the results from Pew:
This list is organized from most to least support for the arrangements that qualify as a family. Almost everyone (99 percent) agrees that a married man and women with children is a family. But this still leads a lot of room for variation, as my television examples illustrate!

Large majorities agree that the next three living arrangements should also be considered a family. Almost nine of 10 (88 percent) of Americans say a married man and woman without kids is a family. Almost as many (86 percent) say a single parent with children is a family. And, eight of 10 (80 percent) say an unmarried couple with children is a family.

Support for what arrangement constitutes a family falls after that. A majority (63 percent) say that a same-sex couple with kids should be considered a family. Less than a majority of Americans defines the last two living arrangements as a family. Forty-five percent say a same-sex couple without children can be considered a family. And, 43 percent believe an unmarried man and woman without children is a family.

What do you think of the list?

How do you define a family?

Is marriage essential?

Are children essential?

Can you guess who calls marriage obsolete?

Do you think marriage is obsolete? Many factors could explain the declining number of marriages we discussed Monday. One is the belief that marriage is an outdated institution.

How prevalent is that belief?
Overall, four of 10 Americans (39 percent) agree that marriage is becoming an obsolete social institution, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s a big increase from the 1970s, when 28 percent felt the same way. But beliefs about marriage as an institution are not uniform across American society.

What groups express this view?
Younger Americans, for example, are more likely than older Americans to think so. Forty-four percent of Americans age 18-29 say the institution is obsolete, compared with 32 percent of Americans 65-plus. There are also differences by race. Black Americans and Latinos are more likely to say the institution is outdated, compared to white Americans. But the differences are not that big.

Education appears to play a major role in attitudes about marriage. Only one in four (27 percent) of college-educated Americans say the institution is outdated, compared with 41 percent of those with some college and 45 percent of those with a high school education or less.

Do these findings surprise you?

Do you believe marriage is an archaic institution?

Are we better or worse off without marriage?

Please add a comment below ….
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Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

Dr. Wayne E. Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.