IT is an axiom of courtship that a man and a woman can best make love to each other when they are isolated from the rest of the world. The presence of another person inhibits them. Three is a crowd. The crowd, be it three or a thousand, imposes upon lovers a type of conduct to which they may not inwardly consent, and operates upon their minds in a subtle negative way. They recognize this influence and seek to escape from its restraint. Their breaking away is an anti-social gesture of great symbolic significance. Simply by being alone together they defy the world, and protest that in the deepest interests of their lives they desire no intervention by their fellow men. In this anarchic spirit families are born.

Nevertheless, the natural family runs in mesh with the system of conventions which community opinion defines. We continue to be sensitive, in family life as elsewhere, to the opinions of people who personally mean nothing to us. The little sidewalk bully stops tormenting his playmate when the casual passer-by pauses to look at him with disapproval. A wife or husband can be goaded to fury by the remarks and gossip of neighbors. Even the independent spirit who defies criticism or holds himself aloof from praise is still conscious that the community has an opinion of him. The man who delights in shocking [p.64] the neighbors is taking account of the fact that there are neighbors to be shocked. Whoever would escape from the pressure of community opinion must renounce completely the society of his fellow men. But in love life and in family life such renunciation is only partial and incomplete. Vain is the hope of the tenor who proposes to

Find perfect peace
Where joys never cease
And let the rest of the world go by-y-y-y-y!

The two conflicting principles of conformity and independence are present in the organization of every home. On the one hand, there is always the standardized conduct which the community imposes upon family members; on the other hand, there is the privacy of the home which shelters the married couple from the community.

Whenever in the course of the daily adjustments of family life the objection is put, “but people will make remarks,” or the interrogation is heard, “but what will people say?”, the whole subject of the relation of family to society is brought to issue. For in some ways the family must take account of the opinion of the community, and to some extent it must leave society out of the reckoning. It must make some gestures of acquiescence to convention, and it must also withdraw beyond the reach of convention. Where is the line to be drawn?

It is purposed here to set forth three principles which the family may use in dealing with the social conventions; namely, the principle of creative workmanship, the principle of isolation, and the principle of autonomy.

[p.65] The intricate mechanism by which the community imposes its standards upon the household is explained by certain doctrines of sociology. The sociologists happen to he more interested in the social functions of the family than in the functioning of the family itself, but their doctrine is none the less valuable in this connection, for whether we study the significance of the family in society, or of society in the family, we encounter the same basic laws of human behavior and the same fundamental dilemma of conformity versus individual freedom.

Sociological doctrines assume that the opinions and conduct of individuals are largely determined by the influence of other people around them. The white child reared in the Indian camp learns the Indian language and shares the opinions of the tribe. He looks at the world and sees there what Indians see. He forms habits that conform to the habits of those around him. The same child in another environment would have learned a different language, held different opinions, seen other things in the world, and formed different habits. From such simple illustrations as this we form the concept of the socially-given which involves the collateral concepts of the group, the culture, the institution, the social process, and perhaps the social force. There is, in this sense, a socially-given element in the family.

In every culture there are standardized ideals of domestic conduct which each individual learns from his social environment. Society teaches each individual his proper role and status. In our own culture there is the ideal of the stern and just father, the dutiful daughter, the tender wife and loving mother, the obedient son. One learns these standards of conduct just as he learns [p.66] the meanings of words, and in fact these ideals do actually become a part of the language. The word wife or husband includes in its meaning some notion of the standard correct conduct for wife or husband.

Naturally these meanings are distinctive for each culture. Here the wife must fetch food from the market, there she must not be seen on the street; here she must wear a wedding ring, there she must veil her face; here she must give herself to her husband’s guest, there she must he chastely above suspicion: here she must obey, there she may command; and all these notions of what constitutes wifely conduct are incorporated with the meaning of the word wife, by the society wherein they respectively prevail.

Such concepts of rule and status form the socially-determined element of family life. They are the guaranty of uniformity and recurrence in the behavior of individuals; they make a social institution of the family organism which has its origin in an anti-social impulse. The youth who defies his elders in marrying a girl of his own choice nevertheless yields to them unconsciously when he expects in his bride the qualities and behavior they taught him to expect in a good wife.

The ideals are socially-given, but the concrete application to bare fact is left to the individual to accomplish. The conventional code of domestic behavior is a tool which husband and wife may use in fashioning a family organization. It cannot create a family organization; nothing but the personal activity of husband and wife can do that. Those families to which husband and wife bring different ideals of domestic conduct exemplify this fact.

[p.67] Helen, modern and American, marries Henry, old-fashioned and German. Helen wishes to get a job and live in a better apartment. Henry believes that women should confine themselves to the three K’s, Kinder, Kueche, und Kirche. They dispute about it. Helen complains that Henry does not earn enough money to enable them to live decently; Henry replies that Helen is extravagant. When they then go to the divorce court, the social service worker who looks up the case needs but a glance to perceive that their socially-determined conceptions of their respective roles in the family have been so contradictory that they have been unable to collaborate. Or, as we may put it, the tools society gave them for home-building were so badly assorted that they could not construct a satisfactory family.

But suppose they continue to get along nicely together despite their divergent ideals; they melt into tenderness after every quarrel; they meet each situation as it comes along, on some matters fight their way to agreement, on others never reach a compromise. Out of it all they make a successful marriage. It would be difficult to regard this successful family as a thing created for these people by society; rather we would think of it as something they themselves have created, just as truly as a poem or picture is the creation of the poet or artist. It is an achievement of creative workmanship.

Social convention sets before us the language which domestic activity must speak, but not the speaking of the language: society formulates the meanings which attach to wifehood or parenthood, but does not govern the expression of these meanings. Society gives to acts their meanings as symbols, but it does not go behind the sym[p.68]bolic significance nor control the personal attitudes which the symbols express. If a wife lies with her husband’s guest her act receives its meaning from society. The Eskimos call it an act of compliance, the Americans an act of rebellion, just as the syllable nine stands for a cardinal number in English and its sound equivalent nein for a general negative in German. Yet the thing which makes or mars family life is not so much the act as the attitude expressed in the act, not so much overt behavior as personal motive. Any attitude or motive, be it compliance, rebellion, appreciation, or resentment, must have as its source a personality; it cannot originate in society. All that society does is to provide a medium of expression.

Just as each people has its language, so also each culture has its domestic institution. Words are not always necessary for communication; nor is the conventional pattern of a family institution necessary for domestic life. The deepest uniformities of human thought find universal expression in laughter or tears, not in words. That aspect of family life which touches us most nearly may have nothing to do with institutional forms. Soldiers on foreign soil speak of an “international language” of sex – but this is not a socially-given system of symbols; it is something that wells up from beneath socially-given forms.

Luther used this fact to illustrate the nature of faith: “When husband and wife are fond of one another, and live together in love and in confidence in one another, who shall teach them how they should act or not act, say or not say, think or not think?” Who indeed!

This is a truth which liberates us, and makes us masters [p.69] of our domestic destiny. Just as any language can be used by poet or story-teller to create a work of literature, so also any system of domestic institutions affords symbols for the expression of good domestic life. Halide Edib has opened the eyes of Westerners to the fact that the married life of a Turkish woman is not so very different from the married life of a Western woman.

[But] when one compared the married Turkish women with the married American women . . . one saw that, whatever the laws of society are concerning marriage, men and women are home builders by nature and they create social units under the name of family and strive to keep these units as stable and happy as human nature allows them to be. Hence, the position of Turkish women in the family compared not too unfavorably with American women, in spite of the legend of fantastic harems. . . . The setting was different, the characters varied, but it was the some old story. . . .1

These remarks should be conned over by all those who represent to us that they can save the family by tightening divorce laws or loosening them, by raising the age of consent, by requiring the publication of the banns, by giving women extensive property rights, by increasing the penalty for desertion or by legalizing “companionate marriage.” Such changes as these affect the real life of the family only superficially.

It may he that some institutions serve better than others to accomplish satisfactory family life, just as some languages are better adapted than others for literary uses. A modification of existing institutions might or might not provide us with a more useful fabric of symbols [p.70] and meanings than that which we already possess. Such changes can neither save nor destroy the family. The important thing about the family is not its institutional structure, but the use that is made thereof. None of us stand condemned by our institutional system to lead a thwarted or unsatisfactory family life.

The critical fact in marriage, in so far as convention is concerned, is, therefore, the agreement or disagreement of husband and wife upon these conventions, whatever they may be. The “emancipated woman” and the “old-fashioned woman” have each an adequate equipment in ideals; each can work out in her own way a satisfactory life, provided her partner in marriage is a man who understands and sympathizes with her ideals. When two who marry have acquired widely different ideals, it is necessary for them to make a special effort to understand one another. Just as one can write best in a language with which he is familiar, so they can construct the best family life who best understand the meaning of each other’s acts and aspirations.

Thus the principle of creative workmanship is applied to family life. The family organization is created by using social convention as a tool.

The community brings about conformity to its standards, not only by instilling ideals of conduct in the minds of family members but also by imposing its will directly upon a household. If husband and wife are always wrangling and scolding in loud tones, the neighbors will criticize and ridicule the quarrelsome pair. To avoid this direct, external pressure, the family can withdraw into itself.

The isolation of the family cannot withdraw it, how[p.71]ever, from the influence of those ideals of domestic conduct which we have acquired from the community and which have become a part of ourselves. It can merely serve to assure us an opportunity to apply these ideals in our own way. The principle of isolation is thus a corollary of the principle of creative workmanship.

It sometimes happens, in a crisis of domestic life, that one spouse appeals to society against the other. The domestic relations court is a forum especially created to hear such appeals. And every community, every circle of gossips and story-tellers, is, in effect, an informal domestic relations court, before which aggrieved wives and husbands lay their causes and complaints. When an appeal is made to society, whether formally to a court of law or informally to the moot court of neighbors, the privacy of the home is sacrificed, and the family ceases to be a sanctuary within which one can shield himself from the tyranny of the community. He incurs a heavy responsibility for domestic disaster who thus lets down the barriers and exposes his home life to the neighbors.

It is inevitable that husband and wife should reckon with their community, but in this reckoning they must regard themselves as conspirators who plot together against an opponent, not as litigants who appear before a judge. They may conspire to impress their neighborhood, but they must not call it into their house as umpire. “Do not confide the interior of your home to any one,” wrote Diderot to his daughter upon her marriage, “I do not wish myself to know whatever it would be that you would tell me; let it then be a mystery to all others.”

The principles of creative workmanship and isolation express respectively the use which the family makes of [p.72] convention, and the resistance which it offers thereto. These two principles taken together constitute the principle of autonomy, the principle that each family is, within a certain range of activity, a law unto itself.

Our analysis of the natural family as a pre-social unit has prepared us to understand that no social code of domestic behavior could be exhaustive. Neither the ideals which society subtly instills into its youth nor the standards of behavior which it overtly enforces upon families can cover every move and gesture of domestic life. There is always a field of domestic life which society makes no pretension to control. Within this margin of freedom husband and wife face each other unguided, and have their destiny completely in their own hands.

Among those things over which the community exercises no supervision are included some of the most important marital affairs. As regards coitus, for instance, conventions require that it shall not be public; beyond that there is no code. So long as public scandal is avoided and discussion suppressed, it makes no difference to society whether the sex life of the family is a matter of violence and rape or of love and mutual desire. Concerning other matters the community insists on imposing standards. The neighbors do not permit it to go unchallenged if the wife takes a job while the husband stays home to mind the baby. In other civilizations these rules may be drawn differently. Nowhere are they drawn to cover completely the whole of domestic existence.

We flatter ourselves that our institutions encourage freedom and expression of personality in marriage, but this is true only in a relative sense. If our ideals of con[p.73]duct are more vague, and our rules and conventions more uncertain, it follows therefrom that more play is left for personality and freedom. But freedom and personality cannot be a social contribution to family life; they are rather the consequence of a more complete abdication of society with respect to domestic affairs. If the family relationship is essentially personal, this is not due to a dictum of society but is rather a welling up of a more elementary fact, which derives from a biological situation and not from social convention.

Thus we return to the deep divergence between the family as a fact in nature and the family as a social institution. If our fabric of social rules does not cover everything of importance in family life, this is no temporary accident. It is not a passing situation due to some dislocation in modern society and destined to disappear when certain inconsistencies in our social standards shall have been removed and certain articles of our code of domestic behavior more fully elaborated. It is rather due to an incompatibility of the inner nature of society with the inner nature of the family. The excellence of the former is in regularity and recurrence and imitation. The excellence of the latter is in its distinctiveness and originality and creation.

It follows that the important field of domestic activity is precisely that field which society makes no pretense at ruling. This basic incompatibility of society and family is reflected in the contradictory assumptions of sociological thinking on the one hand, and courtship on the other.

Sociologists since Comte have recognized that in the science of society “the individual” must be regarded as [p.74] an abstraction, if “society” is to be regarded as real. There is always a bias in sociological thinking against attaching importance to the unique and nonrecurrent. Separate individual facts have meaning in sociology only in so for as they can stand as symbols for general laws; distinct biological individuals are of interest only in so far as they participate in the phenomena of group life.

The academic sociologists are not the only ones who make use of this type of thinking. Every tourist who visits a foreign country comes back with a string of stories about the way “they” do things over there. If he has seen a woman pulling a plow in a field, or a peasant’s house which is shared by some of the live stock, or some example of striking courtesy or immorality or poverty, he interprets these sights sociologically. He thinks from the point of view of one who makes a study of customs. The real importance of the sight of the woman plowing, to his mind, is that it indicates that all women, or many women, plow in the fields of the region.

In courtship and marriage, the point of view is the reverse. “The thing about you and me is that we’re so different from the rest!” Is this not the theme of every courtship? Whereas every study of society, whether it be by a casual tourist or an academic specialistY proceeds on the assumption that we do not differ from the rest except in insignificant details, the lover’s thought takes it for granted that the important things about us are those wherein we differ. This attitude is implicit in the selective function of mating. When a man says to his “girl friend,” “You are just like the [p.75] other girls,” he speaks less as a lover and more as one making a study of customs.

The same divergence between family and society are evidenced when we contrast the conception of personality which courtship takes for granted with that which an observer of society must use. Since society does not take account of individuals as such, sociology is hampered in its study of personality. It cannot take account of personality without first re-defining the term and giving it a special and restricted meaning, which does not correspond to the meaning we usually give to the word. If personality is to enter into sociological calculations it must first be re-defined as “the subjective aspect of culture” (Thomas), and envisaged as a social product. Here, for instance, is a sociological definition of personality taken from an introduction to sociology:

The person is an individual who has status. We come into the world as individuals. We acquire status and become persons. Status means position in society. The individual inevitably has some status in every social group of which he is a member.2

Such definitions serve to obscure but not to overcome the incompatibility of personality and society, and the limitations of sociological theory. Even after sociology has newly defined personality as individual plus status, it is still limited in that it can only explain and describe so much of a person’s conduct as reflects his status; it cannot explain or describe conduct that reflects individuality.

The amateur sociologist touring Europe falls into a [p.76] similar way of thinking. If he strolls along the quay at Naples he is looking for types of fishermen or beggar girls; he sees them as individuals with status. And so it is with nine-tenths of the persons we meet: we think of them in connection with their position in the community. We see the iceman and the mayor’s wife and the high school principal. Their position seems to he an important part of them, whereby we identify them in our minds.

But in a love affair another way of thinking prevails. The rationale of biological selectivity requires it. In courtship and marriage such expressions as “I love you for yourself alone” imply a conception of personality diametrically opposed to that which a student of society must use. From the standpoint of sociology the lover’s concept seems mystical; from the standpoint of courtship the sociologists’ concept seems unreal.

It is difficult here to do justice to the intricacy of our way of thinking. Of course the lover is seen by his beloved to have his status as lover, the wife is seen by her husband to have the wifely status. But the mind quickly passes beyond the consideration of status and dwells more intently upon the unmeasurable and inexpressible fact of personality, which alone gives rise to everything that is of importance in family life.

The principle of autonomy makes it seem obvious that it cannot be an aim of domestic life merely to conform to convention. Conformity to convention can be only a means to an end. If we say of our Bohemian friends that in their family life they are “unconventional” we are adverting to a conspicuous but none the less unimportant aspect of their domestic life. It is as if we [p.77] should describe their new car by saying that it bears no license plates, and leave unsaid whether it is a Ford or a Cadillac, whether it runs well or ill.

The significant facts of family life are worked out in an inner domain where social influence does not reach. The external resemblance of one family to another is not a matter of importance. For families do not duplicate each other in their essential structure. Each family works out for itself, beyond the range of convention, some peculiar way of life. This sell-organization, whatever it may be, is the one thing that really matters in terms of human life.


  1. Halide Edib, “A Turkish Feminist Views Women Here,” New York Times Magazine, October 7, 1928.

  2. R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (University of Chicano Press, Chicago, 1924), p. 55.