Government, families, and homes
In the house where I grew up, when you walked through the door you had a choice of three options. You could turn right and you would immediately be in the “family room.” Or you could turn left and go into the “living room.” Or, you could go straight ahead to the hallway, which would usher you to all the other rooms of the house.
I never tended to spend much time in the living room, except during holidays when my dad would set up an electric train around the Christmas tree. Apart from those times, there wasn’t much to do in the living room. I much preferred to go into the rooms that facilitated activities.
I once asked my mother why the living room was called that. She replied it was because it was a place to live. The concept intrigued me. Never before had I thought of living as a separate activity that people did, abstracted from everyday life. I then asked my mother why the family room was called the family room. She replied that it was because that was the room where we went in to be a family.
I recently learned that the concept of the family room originated from guidelines that the government issued in the middle of the 20th century when specifying how homes could qualify for insurance. A new model of the home emerged which deliberately detached it from labor and functionality. Government planners urged architects and home-owners to get rid of walls and doors, to eliminate various work rooms like the sewing room and the pantry, and to focus the house instead around the type of domestic bonding that was supposed to occur in rooms like the family room. As the 20th century progressed, this de-functionalized view of housing came to be the dominant view.
This shift was only possible because of the fruition of certain trends that had been put in place at the time of the industrial revolution.
Home and the industrial revolution
In some of Allan Carlson’s fascinating books, such as Conjugal America: On the Public Purposes of Marriage and Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies - And Why They Disappeared, Carlson shows that in pre-industrial eras, the economic life of the family was tightly bound to the home. In fact, prior to 1800, the vast majority of people around the globe lived and worked in the same place. Whatever else a couple’s relationship may have involved, they were quite literally in business together. The home, in turn, was not a place where people “lived” as a passive activity when they were not doing other things. Rather the home was a small factory, a bustling hub of productivity.
The geographical proximity of home and work had an impact on how couples thought of their relationship to each other. A man and wife did not think of their relationship as something that could be abstracted from their mundane life together in the world, any more than I was able to imagine living abstracted from the actual activities that make up human experience. Sexual activity and economic activity were closely bound together, and both were situated within an ecosystem of obligations, responsibilities, priorities and expectations that were bigger than the couple’s relationship. Because marriage was understood to be bigger than the relationship itself, this helped to anchor marriage in a narrative external to the two participates.
By contrast, at the time of the industrial revolution the locus of economic activity was outsourced away from where people lived. Central power sources like water and steam increasingly drew people to work locations away from the home. But that was just the beginning, as more and more activities that were once performed in the home were gradually outsourced. Gardens shriveled and disappeared as growing was outsourced. Eventually even schooling was industrialized, taken away from the home and from apprenticeship relationships. What began to emerge was a division between the home, on the one hand, and people’s lived experiencing in the world, on the other.
In the early 20th century, American sociologist and novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman observed that the home economy had been stripped of everything except cooking, cleaning, and child care. She saw this as an inevitable result of our economic system and predicted that eventually capitalism would claim even these last vestiges of the home economy. The advent of packaged meals and industrialized child care has proved Gilman to be something of a prophet.
As Gilman and others foresaw a time when the home would be stripped of its functionality, not everyone thought that this would be a bad thing. William Fielding Ogburn argued that it would be great for the home to be left with no meaningful functions except love, friendship, and relationship.
While the home is still the location of plenty of activities, and while the advent of the computer is allowing many to return to their homes to work, Gilman’s predictions generally hold true. The home now does tend to be associated more with relationships rather than our lived experiences in the world. The home is no longer integrally connected to economic life as it was in pre-industrial eras. As already mentioned, governments helped this process along through housing policy that penalized economic functionality.
Marriage and relationships
These changes created new plausibility structures for how we understand relationships in general and marriage in particular. (If you are unfamiliar with the concept of “plausibility structures”, see my article “How Gay ‘Marriage’ became Plausible.”) A more abstract concept of marriage began to emerge that was sustained less by the husband and wife’s shared experiences and more by the relationship itself and the emotional fulfillment it promised to give. As Ken Myers noted in his Mars Hill audio journal when summarizing the findings of Allan Carlson:
“Carlson argues that the Industrial Revolution changed the shape not simply of the economy at large, but of family life, in so far as the economic life that was once tightly bound to the home was gradually sourced out of the home. The de-functionalization of the home rendered the home increasing[ly] void of the substance of what people did in life. Governments were complicit in this transformation of the home through housing policy and regulations that incentivized structural changes in the home corresponding to the loss of economic functionality. As family and home life was reduced to places of mere emotional bonding, the public understanding of marriage followed suit. Consequently, acceptance of sexual relations based solely on emotional fulfillment (as well as of the breaking of those relations when emotional needs were not being met) became socially normative.”
Another way of putting this last point would be to say that the modern notion is that the couple’s relationship derives no meaning from anything outside itself. It is the couple who define their marriage and what it ultimately means to them. As such, the relationship is bigger than the marriage rather than the marriage being bigger than the relationship. This leads to an inflated, even idolatrous, valuation placed on emotional bonding as an end in itself.
It would be simplistic to blame all these changes on the industrial revolution. Many other social changes have contributed to the idea that marriage is sustained by the relationship rather than the other way round. However, industrialization certainly helped to create the notion of “domesticity” as something detached from life in the world which, in turn, contributed to the notion that marriage, like the home itself, is a place for shear relationality sustained only by the conditions internal to the relationship itself.
What’s the difference between having a marriage defined by the relationships of the people involved, rather than relationships defined by the idea of marriage? Ask some of your Christian friends about this. How do they understand the relationship between relationships and marriage? Which has the priority? Why? Share Robin’s article with your friends, and set up a time to discuss the implications of what’s happening to marriage, families, and homes as a result of this change of emphasis.
For further insight into this topic, see "The Cost of a Permissive Society." Also browse the collection of books by David Blankenhorn in our online store, or Amazon’s collection of books by Allan Carlson.