ONE who is about to invest his life in marriage has no disposition to look for the consequences which ensue to the race or the world from marriage in general, whereof his own is an inconspicuous instance. That his own marriage, together with billions of others, may perpetuate the race and transmit the social heritage is a fact of meager importance to him. The Occidental does not marry in order to fulfill a public duty. In China, according to Keyserling, these general considerations motivate marriages, but this fact must be interpreted in connection with the submerging of the natural family in the Chinese household. Certainly in the Western World any man who should propose marriage to a girl out of regard for the interests of society or race could hardly expect to have his argument taken seriously. Our own day is especially hostile to the idea of making marriage a matter of duty and obligation; here if anywhere the thing must be done for its own sake.

Marriage is by no means unique in this disparity between the social or racial functions it fulfills and the actual motives and purposes of the individuals who engage in it. The same thing is true of business. A stockbroker does not open his offices in order to aid in the important function of distributing economic goods, nor does a street car conductor take his job in order to assist [p.135] in furnishing transportation to the community. However, there is this significant difference between the attitudes of a man in business and of a man and woman in marriage: that the men in business know exactly what they want, while those who marry are much less clear as to their purposes. The stockbroker wants “to make money,” the conductor hopes “to make a living.” They have been taught from childhood the meaning of business and the purpose of having a job. The bride and groom have received no such instruction; their purposes are more beautiful, more fanciful and more variable than the purposes of broker and conductor, but they are also less clear.

Can we not clarify these purposes, separate the possible from the fantastic, and discover that aim in marriage and that object in family life which have real and direct meaning to young people who are planning their firm? What must marriage give them if they are to regard it as a success?

It is fruitless to discuss the function or purpose of the family without establishing beforehand the point of view from which the discussion is to proceed. From the point of vieW of the human species as a whole, or of civilization in general, it might appear that the family fulfills this or that function. But from the point of view of the family these same alleged “functions” might appear vain and meaningless.

We might imagine ourselves on the top of a high mountain, far removed from the turmoil of actual life, looking down upon countless little homesteads in the valleys below, and asking, “What end do these serve?” Around us would stretch the panorama of nature, its trees and its [p.136] grasses and flowers, and of these we might also ask, “What end do they serve?” And we would recognize the artificiality of our question, for nature has no purposes. Still we might fix arbitrarily upon some fragment of the totality of nature, and ask how all the other things contribute to the persistence of the selected fragment. There are some cows grazing in a little glen, and with reference to these cows we can easily discover the function of the grass, the trees and the homesteads. The grass nourishes the cows, the trees offer them shade, the homesteads supply them with shelter. Or again we can direct our minds to the whole human species, and inquire how all of these things which lie before us contribute to the persistence of the human race. The grass and the cows and the trees all have their importance in this connection, and so also have the homesteads, and the families which inhabit the homesteads. The family, it may be, contributes to the welfare of the race and society, but this does not mean that the welfare of the race and society are intrinsically the ends of the family. It is only the accidental turn of a query, and not the inevitable nature of the family itself, which can fix upon racial or social welfare as “ends” of domestic life.

We have defined the family, not as a social institution, but as something anterior to and independent of society. We are studying it, not as an element of social organization, but as a thing in nature. Hence we cannot judge it as if it existed for the sake of society; we must think of it as existing for itself. We have noted, furthermore, that family life has values which cannot be shared outside its circle. The family stands in isolation, as an autonomous system. Should we from the mountain top assign trans[p.137]cendent ends and purposes to the families, we should be denying the isolation and autonomy of the family. If there is an end toward which domestic life strives, this end must be something immanent within the family, not transcendent and reaching beyond it.

We leave the mountain top; we cease to inquire about the race or society; we come down into one of the cottages of the valley, and see a family sitting around the evening lamp. Here is an object in nature to be studied, as one might study a specimen of algae, a mollusk, a colony of streptococci, or a eucalyptus tree. How can we attribute an end or aim to this entity which is set before our neutral gaze? How can we know whether this family is “successful” or not? We would not ordinarily think of ascribing ends and aims to mollusks and streptococci. These things are what they are, and the only aim we can possibly attribute to them is the aim of continuing stubbornly to be what they are. The separate organs or parts of these things have indeed their functions; the valves, muscles, chlorophyl, cells, sap, neuclei, all have their ends in the maintenance of the organism. Our concept of “organism” permits us to ascribe functions to the parts, but to the organism as a whole, studied in isolation, we can assign no functions whatsoever. Analogously, when we study the family per se the only functioning that we can discover is an interrelated activity of the members, not a service which the total family renders to something else. The functioning of the family is not a matter of what the family does or fails to do for the world, but a matter of what the family members do or fail to do for each other. The only end or purpose which we can properly attribute to the family is one which relates on the [p.138] one hand to the actions, on the other to the intentions of the members thereof.

Out of what combination of intention and achievement, of will and of act, is there compounded this thing which we seek as “success” in marriage?


From the point of view of the individual family member why should one marry at all? What contribution will marriage make to one’s life? What purpose is intrinsic to a marriage project?

To have children? But why have children? From the standpoint of the race, of course, they are necessary, and it is the “function” of the family to produce them. But from the standpoint of those who marry they are simply prospective members of the very organism which is under discussion. Why bring this organism into existence? To say that one marries in order to have children is psychologically less accurate and logically no more satisfactory than to say that one marries in order to have a husband or a wife.

There is indeed that important difference between the status of husband and wife and the status of children: the former are necessary to the existence of a family, the latter only contingent. That which is implicit in the sex side of marriage is not the certainty, but the possibility only, of having children.

The development of a technique of contraception in the Western World has tended to bring about a separation of the idea of marriage from the idea of child-breeding. It is safe to say that if only those couples were allowed to obtain marriage licenses whose primary object in marrying was to beget children, the revenues of county [p.139] clerks and clergymen would be seriously curtailed. But the old fact of contingency remains: the device used to induce fertility, be it a witch-doctor’s charm or a gynecologist’s diet prescription, is just as subject to uncertainty as the device used to prevent conception. And whether children are born of the union or not, the family continues.

It will be necessary to go more deeply than is here possible into the problem of values which confronts those who try to decide whether they want their marriage to be childless or fertile. In the meantime one cannot beg the question by assuming out of hand that the only object of marriage is to beget offspring. It may be that the logic of the marriage situation is such that childless marriages are inevitably failures, and that the procreation of children is a precondition of successful family life. But even a fertile marriage may be a failure. A search must be made for some principles of purpose or function which will encompass the barren marriage along with the fertile, and which will apply no less to the aged families that have had children than to the young families which are about to have them.

It cannot he disputed that the total sex situation, which includes the possibility of children, has given the family its fundamental tone and character. But it may he that the family may have risen above its source, and that out of a child-breeding function it may have created a system of values which can exist without children. If this transmutation has taken place it is only another instance of that general law which Vaihinger once wished to formulate as “the law of the preponderance of the means over the end.” The qualities of family life which originate as a [p.140] means for caring for offspring may have become ends in themselves.

Were it not for the development of a technique of contraception on the one hand, and the so-called “emancipation of woman” on the other, we might never have had to face the problem of discovering some broader and more universal principle of success in family life than the biological principle. Were it not for the appearance in civilized life of vast nonbiological value-systems, aesthetic and ethical, we might not be in a position to appreciate or understand any other function of family life than the biological one. But the facts as they stand in the Western World to-day indicate that the child-breeding function does not suffice to explain the family in terms of the purposes of its members, nor is the fecundity of a marriage an adequate test of its success.

In every civilization much of the actual intention of those who marry reflects the prevailing social code. They marry in order to secure that which they are taught to expect in marriage. This influence of social pressure upon the purposes of family members is evident in the attitude toward child-breeding. Married people tend to reflect in their own minds the community’s appraisal of the importance of having children. In some communities large families are much esteemed and childless marriages looked upon with contempt. In other communities the parents of a large family are pitied, and the childless couple viewed without condemnation. Needless to say, a married pair will be more likely to leave children out of their calculations if the sentiment of the community approves of childless marriages.

In this respect as in others, the sentiment of the com[p.141]munity is often a product of some real social need. Among warlike or colonizing peoples fecundity will usually be highly valued; among peoples who are living near the limit of their food supply, or among those who have developed wide luxury tastes, social approval may be withdrawn from the extremely fecund marriage. This is the situation in some Polynesian communities and in American cities. The modern rationalization of this attitude is a comprehensive doctrine of population growth which teaches that the result of breeding up to the biological potentialities of the race would be unmitigated disaster.

It is not only with respect to child-breeding that the community tries to define the purposes of family members and to measure the success of families. Many elements of family life are subject to community judgment. Where polygamy is the rule, it may be that the man who has the greatest number of most valuable wives and concubines is accounted to have the most satisfactory family, just as the pair who have the largest brood of children may be looked upon as most successful in the community which approves of fecundity

The principle of conformity to conventional standards, however, is not a satisfactory principle of success in marriage. It is a principle which relates to the family institution, but not to the natural family. The scope and limitations, as well as the mechanism, of the community’s influence upon the family members, have been analyzed in the chapter on Conventions and the Family. It is clear that the must important increments of family life go on beyond the reach of the community.

[p.142] Most of the judgments we actually pass upon some one else’s family are a resultant of our own socially-given standards rather than an attempt to measure an absolute excellence in family life. If we discover that a traveling salesman living at Newark, New Jersey, has an extra wife in Omaha, we jump to the conclusion that his marriages are both failures, whereas it may be, for all one knows, that save for the intervention of the law both marriages are successful. Or again, if a wealthy banker maintains in the same city a wife and several mistresses, we declare without further inquiry that his family life is ruined. But if we lived in another society, we should draw opposite conclusions from the same facts. The Chinese hold that it is correct to yield to the mother-in-law the dominant position in the household; Americans regard such an abdication as lamentable or laughable. Wherever in our judgments on the success or failure of a marriage we find ourselves merely judging conformity to our own institutional rules, our attitude is blind, and leaves us helpless.

For it happens that at the present time our institutional rules [or family life are uncertain; our system of social conventions relative to marriage is changing under the pressure of criticism; the young people may be willing enough to conform and to accept conformity as a test of success, but how are they to choose among the contradictory marriage institutions which demand their conformity?

The ideal of monogamy and of contract marriage rather than purchase marriage they find well enough established in their milieu, but aside from this the conventions are in conflict. What of trial marriage, companionate marriage, [p.143] birth control, woman’s place? To mention any one of the leading problems of magazine is to call to mind another instance where social guidance fails us, and where we must choose between conflicting rules, certain, however we may decide, that some people will approve and others condemn.

Conformity to convention is not a test of domestic values. The conventions which demand conformity are themselves among the things requiring to be tested. The confusion in social guidance which the Western World offers to those who marry is evidenced both directly and indirectly. Directly there is a cross fire of propaganda emanating from different schools and expounding divergent ideals of domestic life. The slogans of free love, eugenics, feminism, and conservatism are irreconcilable. The ideal of eugenics, which stresses the biological significances of marriage, contradicts the ideal of free love, although Ellen Key tried to conceal this contradiction by pretending that children born of parents who loved each other inherited a superior endowment in consequence of the subjective state of the parents at the time of conception. Ellen Key’s hypothesis, of course, has no standing in the science of genetics. The appeal which feminism makes for a sex solidarity among women is basically more opposed to the free love ideal than to the conservative ideal of woman’s domestic sphere. The confusion of ideals is not only a conflict between conservatism and novelty, but also a conflict between contradictory proposals of innovation.

The indirect source of confusion in social standards of domestic life lies in the social, economic, and intellectual [p.144] that the services once rendered to an individual by his family are now rendered to him by other agencies. Professor Ogburn lists seven services which the family rendered to our ancestors, namely:

  1. Economic
  2. Religious
  3. Protective
  4. Educational
  5. Recreational
  6. Status-defining
  7. Affectional

According to Professor Ogburn, it lies at the root of modern family disorganization that six out of these seven functions of the family are lapsing in modern life. People are coming to look elsewhere than to the family for these services, and groups other than the family are assuming these functions. A man’s wife was his business partner in the day of the spinning wheel and in the environment of the milking shed, but not in the day of the can-opener and in the environment of the elevator and dumb-waiter. The religious meaning of the family was greatest when there were household gods to be worshiped; it was still great when the Bible was read by the head of the house while the children sat around the table, in silence; but in these present days religion is usually paid off, so far as the family is concerned, when the minister receives the envelope from the best man, or when the children are sent to Sunday School. The protective service given by husband to wife has been reduced to the formal gesture of escorting her home from the theater alter dark, while for all real protection against danger or violence one turns to [p.145] the telephone and the police. The training of children is committed more and more to a corps of teachers, and takes place more and more in institutions outside the home, from nursery school to college. The movies, the amusement parks, and the public playgrounds replace the home as a play center. Except for a few thousand families who preserve the traditions of a past age, social status is far more a matter of individual achievement than of family connection. There remains that service or function which Ogburn has called “affectional.” Here and here only the domain of the family has not been invaded. No other social organ shows any tendency to usurp this function from the family; on the contrary, business and education are becoming constantly less personal and giving constantly less scope for the play of affection.

But the social conventions relating to marriage in the Western World have not yet adapted themselves to the new situation. People are therefore required to choose among competing standards, and cannot merely accept a prevailing standard. Were it not for this practical problem of choice, we might not have felt the need of searching for an absolute standard of excellence in family life, nor need we have occupied ourselves with the problem of defining the functions of the natural family.

Upon what universally valid principle can we act in choosing that system of conventions to which we will purpose to conform, and by which we will judge the success of a family? If, confronted by this question, we turn upon ourselves for counsel, a native urge impels us to grasp at one of the things that seems to us ultimate – happiness. Let us by all means be happy; let us conform to the rules of that marriage institution which will make [p.146] us glad, and turn aside from those conventions which sadden us. With happiness as a working standard we may go a little way, but we cannot go far, for happiness is not the kind of thing one can measure in a test tube. There is the happiness of the bacchante and the happiness of the contented cow. How can these be measured in and weighed against each other?

The test of happiness is difficult to apply. If marriages are happiest in which girls are “married young, treated rough, and told nothing,” let us accept this as one of our marriage conventions, and let us then condemn the failure of those who marry mature women, treat them gently, and impart information to them. If the monogamous marriage is conducive to more gayety of spirit than the group marriage, let us convert the Polynesians to the Christian point of view and induce them to give up their heathenish practices. If, on the other hand, it appears that the group-marrying Polynesians get more joy out of the thing than the missionaries, let the missionaries be converted. If we observe that young people who practice birth control are gay, while those unacquainted with the technique are morose and serious, we conclude that the practice of birth control is a commendable addition to the line of conduct which society shall demand of married people. If virginity before marriage results in unhappy sex life, we will adopt the more hilarious practices of the numerous primitive peoples who do not permit virgins to marry, and we will condemn chastity before marriage as unsocial and unconventional conduct.

We may, if we wish, apply this test of happiness to all the marriage systems of the world and compare the joy of being a Borneo bride with the pleasure of being an [p.147] Eskimo husband. But our results will be inconclusive in two ways. First of all, the test of happiness is particularly hostile to the tradition of Christian marriage, for the Christian marriage has always been a compromise with sin, and has looked with contempt upon the mere joy of sex.

And then again, an institution cannot confer happiness. Happiness is a thing achieved by people individually. Let these young people accept whichever of the conflicting standards of conduct they see fit to choose – the problem of happiness remains unsolved for them. They still stand before life without any solid guarantee that happiness will be their reward for living according to the rules they have chosen.


If we no longer raise the question of conformity to socially-given rules, and the parallel question of selecting among contradictory rules, we are still tempted to judge the success of a married life by the happiness it grants. We wish to estimate the amount of pleasure enjoyed by the members of a family, and conclude that if this amount is large, the family is a success; if it is small, the family is a failure. We will discard all other classifications. We will not ask whether there were children, but only whether husband and wife are happy together. We will not inquire whether it is polygamous or monogamous, old-fashioned or companionate, but only whether the husband and wife enjoy themselves.

In connection with the scientific research conducted by Dr. G. V. Hamilton, a working definition of the happy marriage was drawn up by rating those persons as happily wedded who expressed satisfaction with their married [p.148] state. This definition proved to be useful in classifying and evaluating the experiences of the two hundred married persons whose testimony was taken as a basis of the research. From the retrospective standpoint this, after all, is the only test of a happy marriage. As a general ideal the concept is definite enough to be opposed to Keyserling’s theory that marriage is essentially a tragic situation. But the definition is quite unserviceable in orienting the purposes of those who are planning to marry. Certainly the bride and groom intend so to conduct themselves that they will later be satisfied with what they have done. But what are the desires which marriage can satisfy? How are we to restrain those who demand too much of marriage, and thereby foredoom themselves to disappointment? How are we to educate those who fail to appreciate at their just worth the things that marriage offers, and thereby remain dissatisfied with their married life because they are blind to what it does for them? To propose as a solution to those problems the judgment that the thing men seek in marriage is happiness and that by happiness is meant the feeling of being satisfied with the married state, is to mock the whole quest for guidance by arguing in a circle.

The purely hedonistic standard of domestic achievement is valid enough as a part of a general hedonistic philosophy of life. If we judge everything under the sun by estimating its contribution to our pleasure or our pain, we are justified in weighing marriage in the same scale. The arguments for and against this general hedonistic doctrine have been the commonplaces of ethical theory since the time of the Stoics and Epicureans. It is unnecessary to discuss them here, for they have no [p.149] precise bearing upon marriage as distinguished from other things in life. If we declare that the successful family is the happy family in the same sense that the successful plumber, doctor, lawyer, or admiral is the one who is happy, we have learned nothing of the special character of domestic achievement.

Sometimes this hedonistic view of marriage is offered, not as a part of a general philosophy of pleasure, but as a special analysis of marriage alone. It is made to appear that the production of happiness is the special duty of the family. If any one is seen to be happy, let his family life receive the credit for his good fortune, and if he is observed to be sad, let his family take the blame. This is, of course, an exorbitant demand to make upon marriage. If one of these dour men who rarely smile and never laugh is married, do we require that his character must change before he can be credited with success in his domestic existence? And must we regard all these merrily irresponsible people as proficient in marriage simply because of their unfailing good humor? These constant factors of character operate to make people predominantly joyful or sad, regardless of how well they are married and irrespective of whether they are married at all.

Moreover, there are always a number of independently variable external influences which operate to make people glad or unhappy. Can we demand of marriage that it counteract the effects of toothache or bankruptcy? When affliction comes from an outside source, it may be more painful to a good husband or wife than to a bad one. A man may feel a failure more poignantly because he sees that it affects his family. A personal attachment always [p.150] involves the risk that we may have to share sympathetically in pain which would not touch us otherwise. A family is a hostage given to fortune, which makes us more sensitive than we would otherwise be to the buffetings of an unkind world. How unfair, therefore, to require of marriage that it guarantee happiness to us. The hedonistic classification is misleading. Keyserling does well to warn us that marriage may be an essentially tragic situation. However desirable a happy marriage may be, we cannot accept the distinction between happy and unhappy marriages as the most significant one for those who wish to see clearly into the nature of marriage,

The purely economic distinction between richer and poorer families is a crude variant of the hedonistic classification. When people say of a girl that she is happily married, they often mean nothing more than that she is married to a man who is supporting her in comfort, and when they say of a marriage that it did not turn out well, they often mean simply that the family cannot pay its grocery bills. Inasmuch as a certain minimum of economic success is always necessary in order to lift human life above the brute level, there is a material precondition to the functioning of the family. This fact must be taken seriously into account by young lovers, however impatient they may be of material obstacles to their desires. But once the subsistence level is reached, any further variation in the prosperity of the family has only a superficial relation to true domestic excellence. Dr. Hamilton, in his research on marriage, reached the conclusion that dis- contented wives or husbands who complain of money troubles in the home are usually making use of the money trouble as a peg upon which to hang some resentment [p.151] which results from a deeper cause, and that there is no significant correlation between financial success and marriage satisfaction.

If neither the biological principle nor the principle of conformity to convention nor the hedonistic principle adequately defines the functioning or measures the success of the natural family, where is a more adequate criterion to be found? Such a criterion is actually implicit in the definition of marriage and family, and needs only to be deduced from premises already established.

Marriage, it will be recalled, is a sex relationship considered in its aspect of duration. The time element enters into marriage as an essential part thereof, whereas children are only a contingent consequence. The roughest and simplest test of a good marriage is actually the endurance test. The first function of a marriage is to last. If the purposes of those who marry do not include the intention that the relationship is to persist through a period of time, there is actually no marriage at all.

Applying this test roughly to the marriages that we know, we ask of them: Do they last? If the marriage ends in a divorce court, we consider it a failure. Whenever other things are equal, the success of a marriage is directly proportioned to its permanence. A period of time is necessary in order that the family may gain an individual character and develop a distinctive organization by the successive laying down of new strata of habit. The qualities which are legitimately sought in domestic life are time-given qualities. The ideals and purposes which are proper to marriage are those which permit of permanence. True enough, people do not all live at the same tempo; it is possible that some marriages which last [p.152] only a few years may be productive of more positive domestic achievement than others which last till death. But aside from differences in the rate of living, the social convention or individual purpose which limits the duration of a marriage limits also its excellence.

For instance, there are the conventional ideas of the Moors of the Sahara, according to which frequent divorce is required. It is considered a disgrace to remain long married to the same person. One who has failed to divorce his wife after a reasonable time conceals the fact as the young American in a small town conceals the evidence of an illicit love affair. And again, there is a famous beauty whose merest flirtation is followed eagerly by the international press. Every two or three years she divorces one husband and marries another. It is hardly credible that this woman’s ideals of marriage are such that she enters upon every one of these marriages with an identical aspiration toward permanence, and that two or three years suffice in each case to disillusion her anew. Much more probably her ideal and purpose is such that marriage is to her a thing that burns itself out quickly. In so far as the time factor is concerned, the social convention of the Moors and the personal attitude of the actress are definitely inferior to conventions and ideals which seek permanence. This judgment is based upon an absolute and universal quality of marriage.

The time element, however, is not the only factor in absolute domestic excellence. There is at least one other aim which family life should attain. This additional aim is deduced from the personal character of the family relationship, just as the permanence aim is deduced from the temporal quality of marriage.

[p.153] Given the natural family, what is the necessarily characteristic activity or interrelation of parts to which we can give the name of function, and by which we can measure success?

Because the family consists of determinate members, the interrelation of its parts follows the laws of a personal relationship. This would be impossible if the family membership were substitutive.

Since the characteristic behavior of the family follows the laws of personal relationship, it is free, that is to say, it arises within total, unitary personalities and is not imposed by external circumstances.

Arising within a total personality this behavior is necessarily motivated, for it is in motivated behavior that the personality operates as a principal cause.

The quality of the motive in this behavior is also determined by the laws of personal relationship. It necessarily envisages another member of the family as an end-in-himself, a complete object of value and loyalty.

Thus benevolent activity, arising from a sentiment of paramount loyalty, is the characteristic activity of the family members. The success of a family can be judged by the degree in which it manifests this characteristic mode of conduct.

These deductions are, of course, implicit in the whole system of definitions thus far presented and discussed. The domestic man naturally appears as the ideal of conduct within the family. The success of a family is to be measured by the degree to which the members approximate in their conduct the behavior of the domestic man.

This is, after all, neither more nor less than that “affectional” function which, according to Professor Og[p.154]burn, is the one service the family continues to perform for the young people of the Occident. Let us imagine a family in which no members have the domestic attitude, and each acts solely for himself. If there is any exchange of services between family members the exchange takes place on a strictly measured basis of barter and price. No one allows the interests of any other member to enter into his personal calculations. Judged by external signs, this family is normal. The neighbors report no scandal, a biologist observing the family notes the presence of children to whom, as the sociologist would testify, the social heritage is being regularly transmitted. An economist may contribute the information that the family pays its bills, and a wandering novelist may search in vain in this home for the sense of tragic unhappiness. But domestic theory is not satisfied. In the eyes of domestic theory, this family does not fulfill its functions. It may suffice as a breeding establishment, a school, or a hotel, but as a family it leaves the important things undone.

The normal young men and women of our day think first of affection when they think of marriage. Children come later; the economic argument is usually against marriage rather than in favor of it. Marriages are launched in affection with the purpose that the affection shall last. This function (described by lovers in an infinite number of ways) is for us the true function of the family.

In setting the purpose and estimating the success of a marriage two principal factors are therefore to be computed. On the one hand the intensity of domestic interaction; on the other hand the duration of the marriage. [p.155] These are two independent variables. A marriage might last long with a minimum of domestic interaction, or it might be quickly terminated, although it had been during its brief existence a field for the intensive play of benevolent activity and appreciation. The best marriage is that which is at once most permanent and most highly charged with domestic interaction.