WHEN the two authors of this treatise set their minds to the making of a theory of family life they hoped to free themselves from false standards, and to discover a consistent inner meaning in married life in terms of which they could measure their hopes and their achievements. If there is an art or a technique in marriage as there is in dentistry or civil engineering, it should be possible to know a good family from a bad one as one knows a good dentist from an incompetent practitioner. The trouble with so many of these classifications of families is that they fix upon the fortuitous and inconsequential aspects of domestic life, and miss its essential core.

There are, of course, as many ways of classifying families as there are conceptions of family function. The fecund marriage can be contrasted with the barren, or we can contrast the families which conform to our institutional requirements with those that fail to conform. Or from a broader point of view we can contrast various marriage institutions: polygyny, polyandry, monogamy. We can take happiness or unhappiness, these ultimate categories of psychology and ethics, and use them as ultimate categories of domestic life. We can classify families as rich and poor. But these classifications do [p.157] domestic excellence. None of them take note of the presence or absence (through time) of domestic interaction. The principles of domestic theory imply a new order of domestic types, a new way of envisaging success in marriage.

Let us go back to our original concept of the natural family as a kinship group consisting of husband and wife with possible children, held together in a relationship of personality. This family functions to the extent that its members manifest toward each other the domestic type of behavior; domestic activity on the one hand, appreciation on the other. The distinction between functioning and nonfunctioning families is the fundamental distinction for us.

In the course of time each family develops an individual character or system, made up of interrelated habits and mutually understood meanings. Domestic behavior can enter to a greater or lesser extent into the formation of these family systems. The extent to which a family is functioning is thereby registered in its habit system.

There are four principal levels upon which the functioning of the family can proceed. These four levels correspond to the four ways in which it is mathematically possible to combine the two modes of domestic behavior. We will call these four levels of domestic interaction: (1) symmetrical, (2) asymmetrical, (3) unilateral, and (4) nondomestic or economic. Behavior upon each of these levels tends to develop its distinct species of domestic system, which can be known as (1) the romantic, (2) the pseudo-patriarchal (or pseudo-matriarchal), (3) the pseudo-parental or biological, and (4) the impersonal. These levels of behavior and these domestic systems are [p.158] ideal types which actual families approach but do not attain. They serve us, thereby, as standards wherewith to measure achievement and success in marriage. They afford us a scale by which we can evaluate different factors in a marriage situation. They give us a common measure by which we can compare different family institutions.

The four levels of domestic behavior can be illustrated by diagram. (See page 159.)

If each member of the family acts domestically and appreciates the domestic activity of the other, the family is functioning on a symmetrical level, and developing a romantic character; if only one member acts domestically, and the other merely appreciates his activity, the functioning is asymmetrical. If a member acts domestically, but his activity goes unappreciated, the functioning is on the unilateral level, and the resulting system is called pseudo-parental because it resembles the natural relationship of a parent to an infant. The lowest level is the nonfunctioning level. The relationship among the members is lacking in all domestic quality. The life of the family goes on as if the home were merely a market for the exchange of services. There may be equality between the members, but there is no manifestation of the domestic attitude.

In O. Henry’s charming Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi, the husband sells his watch to buy a comb for his wife’s hair, while the wife sells her hair to buy a chain for his watch. When both melt together in mutual appreciation of the sacrifice that each has made for the other, they share in the mystical gift of the Wise Men. This story illustrates domestic behavior on the highest symmetrical level, where there is cherishing and appre[p.160]ciation on both sides. Out of such conduct as this a family develops a romantic character.




Activity ↣ Appreciation
Appreciation ↢ Activity

Illustration: O. Henry’s story; “The Gift of the Magi”


Activity ↣ No response
No response ↢ Activity

This is an unstable variant of the Romantic System.


Activity ↣ Appreciation


Activity ↣ No response
Appreciation ↢ Activity

Shaw’s “Candida”; Ibsen’s “Doll’s House”; Barrie’s “What Every Woman Knows”. The ideal family of the Victorian age.


Activity ↣ No response

Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”.


Neither Benevolent Activity nor appreciation / Neither Benevolent Activity nor appreciation

Marriage of State; marriage for family alliance, for duty, for convenience.

[p.160] It is a matter of record in many family case histories that young people infused with romantic feeling toward each other will sometimes devote all their thought and energy to the service of each other, quite without noticing the benefits that they are receiving from each other. Eventually each one notices that his good works are unappreciated. The result is a disillusionment which lowers the level upon which the family functions, even to the extent of killing all domestic activity. This variant of the romantic system is therefore very unstable. The danger is especially threatening to the family which consists of two extraverts.

An illustration of the pseudo-patriarchal system is found in that family in which the husband is deemed the fount from which all good things flow, while the wife, incapable of any substantial contribution, receives the good things bestowed upon her and responds with appreciation. Domestic behavior is especially likely to run on the pseudo-patriarchal level if one member of the family has a pronounced superiority to the other, physically, culturally, or economically. In this situation we find the clinging-vine wife whose economic dependence has become so morbidly overemphasized that she actually becomes a moral dependent, unable to face the most insignificant decision in her personal life without referring to her husband. There is also the hired-entertainer type of husband whose wealthy wife drags him around as a social ornament. If one member is for a long time an invalid in the care of the other, the level of domestic behavior is likely to be asymmetrical, with all the activity [p.161] on one side and all the appreciation on the other. The Victorian family, with its pale women and bewhiskered men, was likely to develop a pseudo-patriarchal character.

When it comes to be accepted in any family that all initiative must come from the husband, while the wife’s role is merely to perform her set of customary duties and render thanks, then the level of domestic behavior is pseudo-patriarchal. If these roles are reversed as between husband and wife, the system is pseudo-matriarchal. A marriage between an introvert and an extravert is likely to function on this level.

When the level of domestic behavior is unilateral, the relationship of husband and wife approaches that of a parent and infant. The man who serves a selfish and unappreciative wife will excuse her faults as he would those of a naughty child; the wife who lavishes her love upon an unresponsive or irresponsible husband is playing the part of a mother to him, and satisfies the maternal side of her nature in her unthanked efforts. Sometimes domestic behavior drops to the unilateral level because of the profound preoccupation of one member of the family with some outside interest – the husband with his business, the wife with social affairs. A not uncommon instance of unilateral behavior is that of the family in which the wife, because of excessive attention given to the children, has come to neglect her husband, who none the less goes on making sacrifices for her. Generally speaking, however, the unilateral system is extremely unstable unless the relationship is assimilated to that of parent and child.

When domestic behavior is quite absent from the life of the family, the marriage is placed frankly on a profit[p.162]ivity basis. The husband is the meal ticket, the wife the housekeeper or plaything. Each one gets what he pays for and pays for what he gets. It may happen, just as it happens in the business world, that one member will occupy the more advantageous position, and may be able to exact more and give less than the other. In the extreme case the woman is a purchased slave, bought and paid for, and maintained at a profit to her master.

These levels of benevolent interaction are comparable to the marks on the levees which indicate the height to which the water has risen. And it is one of the complexities of the technique of marriage that it can apply itself both to navigating upon the level of domestic interaction that happens to exist and to manipulating the level. The married pair are like voyagers upon a stream of their own creating. The level of the water limits in some ways the possibilities of their voyaging. When the water is low and shallow there are many places they cannot reach without going aground, and perhaps there are great dangers from rocks and snags upon the river bottom. All these things are to be taken into account by the prudent navigator.

If, then, he runs aground, it may be that nothing will save him but an opening of flood gates to raise the level. Such episodes are common enough in domestic life; a disaster suffered by one serves to shake the other out of selfish habits and to release a flood of sympathy and benevolence. Many of the stories of married life which are recounted more or less from experience by the professional novelists and the amateur gossips are simply accounts of changes in the behavior level of some family.

Thus in the life history of a family there may be [p.163] progress from a lower to a higher level of domestic behavior, or there may be retrogression. The marriage which is made on a purely business basis may develop a romantic level of behavior. The marriage which starts out romantically may deteriorate to a mere economic level of existence. The true measure of achievement and success in marriage is the level of domestic behavior attained and the type of family system developed. The most successful marriage is that which most continuously maintains domestic behavior at the symmetrical level and most nearly approaches the romantic system in its organization.

This gives us a scale of values wherewith we can compare individual families. We can use the same standard in comparing domestic institutions because these may exert pressure toward a higher or lower level of family life, although they cannot guarantee any achievement. This scale of values is not a mere expression of the current prejudice of the younger generation in the Western World; it is a scale of values which inhere in marriage itself, as a universal fact in nature, independently of transitory institutional changes or shifting habits of thought.

Let us consider a case history. All of Ellen’s friends declare that her marriage was a great mistake, and those who knew Dick in college lament the evident fact that his marriage was a failure. These are the facts. Dick was brilliantly completing his advanced work in biology in a university, when he met Ellen. They married. He planned to go on with his work, while she helped to support the two of them. They planned not to have a child until Dick should have completed the work for his degree, [p.164] but their plan miscarried, Ellen’s baby came a year after the marriage, the financial plans of the household were wrecked. Dick had to give up his college work and went into the crockery business as a wholesale salesman where he made just enough to keep Ellen and the baby in comfort. But Ellen was distressed. It hurt her that the marriage had caused Dick to sacrifice his career. She determined to find work, and save money, in order to make it possible for Dick to pick up his scientific work again. By taking a secretarial position, and paying part of the salary to have the baby cared for during the day, she was able to save several hundred dollars in the course of a year. But the strain was too much for her; her health broke down, all the savings were consumed in caring for her, and the family came out of the episode heavily in debt, with the possibility of Dick’s returning to his profession much dimmer than it had been before, and Ellen’s health rendered permanently delicate. Dick adjusted himself to the new situation, put his best efforts into his lob, and had risen to a position of some responsibility when his wife’s illness made it imperative to move to a different climate. He sold his equity in his house, borrowed money from a friend, and set up as a small farmer in Arizona. There wife, and child blossomed in health, despite the poverty and hard work of the farm. It seemed that the child, now ten years old, was compensation for the life aims that had been surrendered on his account. The father saved enough to buy a microscope; the boy became interested in biology. And then, just fourteen years after the marriage, the boy was killed in an automobile accident.

There they are, no longer young, and their perfect [p.165] loyalty to each other has borne nothing but bitter fruit. A soft-paunched preacher may speak of their deeper joys, of their more profound satisfactions, but such language merely insults despair. We know this situation for what it is – a cold tragedy of reality, and no buncombe will convince us that it is otherwise. Judged by the test of happiness this marriage did not succeed. By the economic test it was an evident failure. Even biologically it has turned out to be barren in result, for these two people are left alone, to grow old together. But the family life of this pair persists throughout on the romantic level. It has been a succession of sacrifices made by one member in the interests of the other. Dick gave up his scientific career; Ellen used herself up in the fruitless attempt to restore it to him. With failure patent on the surface, the success of this family lies only in that domain where motive, not overt accomplishment, is the essence of things. Despite all its clear failures, this family has maintained the highest level of domestic behavior. It has done that thing which it is the special function of the family to do.

In the immortal dialogue at the house of Cephalus, Socrates undertook to prove that the just man in misery, whom every one thought to be unjust, was better off than the unjust man who had prosperity and good reputation. Proof of such a thesis requires that it be established that justice and injustice lie on a different dimension from pleasure and pain. No amount of pleasure constitutes justice; no amount of pain is equivalent to injustice. The two things are different as sound differs from light. They obey different laws, and we measure them by different measures. And so it is also with domestic behavior, [p.166] and the functioning of the family. It is a level of experience and achievement which has its own excellence peculiar to itself. To identify its excellence with some other is to try to judge the apple tree by the quality of the figs that grow upon it.