Is the Nuclear Family Extinct? Defining the Modern Day Nuclear Family

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What is the traditional family?


For the past 100 years or so, societies typically thought of the “traditional family” as a Dad, Mom and children.  Dad was the breadwinner while Mom stayed home with the kids.

In fact, for many decades up until the 1950’s and 1960’s, tradition looked down on things like:

  1. Men and women who didn’t marry
  2. Married couples who choose to not have children
  3. Couples who divorced
  4. Gay and Lesbian couples
  5. Interracial couples

Before the industrial revolution, however, families were typically more extended, often living in rural areas. At that time, it was uncommon for kids to move away. Thus extended families often included aunts, uncles & grandparents all working together to keep the family going.

The more “traditional” family came to be as families began to move to more urban areas. Then kids began to attend college and move away from the family homestead. The traditional family, or nuclear family, grew smaller.

But in this day and age, is the so-called traditional family dead?  And if so, what does that mean for families, society, our kids and our future?

Why do they call it a nuclear family?


Nuclear Family is just another term for traditional family. Specifically the term nuclear family is credited with having been invented shortly after World War II. The term was coined by George P. Murdock, a Yale and Pittsburgh anthropologist in 1949.

Specifically, Murdock wrote, “nuclear families are combined, like atoms in a molecule, into larger aggregates.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the same year the Soviet Union exploded it’s first atomic bomb. It was also only 4 years after the United States dropped 2 atomic bombs on Japan. The world was focused heavily on nuclear weapons, and was about to focus on the space race. So it’s not a big surprise that the term nuclear family fell into fashion.

Is the Nuclear Family Extinct?

According to the CDC, the current percentage of the population to get married each year is about 7%.  Conversely, the divorce rate is about 3% of the population each year. Thus we see a net gain of about 4% each year.

In terms of real numbers, that’s about 2 million marriages each year and over 800,000 divorces, specifically in the US.

Compare those numbers to about 11% of the population being married in 1950 and about 2.5% getting divorced, according to InfoPlease.  So while the rate of divorce actually isn’t that much higher, the rate of marriage is notably lower. Inherently enough, divorce rates were at their highest (again in the US) in the early 1980’s and we’ve steadily been getting better ever since.

So while not extinct, the so-called traditional nuclear family has certainly shrunk by about 4.5% (of the total population) since 1950.

I recently spoke with Dr. Loren Olsen, father, grandfather, public speaker and author of a new book called Finally Out – Letting Go of Living Straight and he was quick to point out that “My kids would say that the divorce was harder than my coming out. It wasn’t the life any of us had planned.”

He went on to add that “It worked out much better than I expected, but it takes some work in building those relationships”.

If the possibility of divorce has reared it’s ugly head in your house (been there, done that), take a moment and check out one of my most liked posts called Top 3 Reasons for Divorce and How You Can Avoid Them.

What is the modern nuclear family?

Of course, traditionalists will insist that the nuclear family hasn’t evolved or changed (or shouldn’t). But we have to be realistic. Our world has changed a great deal since the 1940’s when Murdock coined the phrase nuclear family.

In this day and age, we are finally beginning to really follow what the founding fathers of the United States wrote in the Declaration of Independence when they said “all men are created equal”.

I say beginning as there are still plenty of places where 2 men or 2 women can’t legally get married. It can also be harder for gays and lesbians to adopt kids. But we’ve made great strides in those areas in recent years.

It also hasn’t been that long since 1967 when inter-racial marriage became fully legal in the United States.

But however slow and challenging, we are making progress towards allowing EVERYONE to enjoy the same rights as everyone else

Going back to my conversation with Dr. Olson, he came out as gay at age 40 (approximately 30 years ago) and was quick to point out that:

“I wish I could say that things have improved (for gay and lesbian parents), and in many ways they have.  Still, in many cultures and geographic locations, great resistance exists to anything but the traditional family.  But many of those who are not accepting have a divorce rate higher than in the LGBTQ community, so “traditional nuclear families” are less common there than they would have us believe.”

So how does change impact the modern day nuclear family?


It means accepting that we live in a world where some families look more like this:

  • Step-parent families
  • Blended Families
  • Families with 2 Dads or 2 Moms
  • Single-parent families

Now for those traditionalists out there, I want to say it’s OK if you don’t like or agree with that.  Just as it’s OK for progressives to not agree with your views.

But what is the one truth about human beings we can all agree upon?

That we make mistakes. We believe things that sometimes aren’t correct. And we sometimes change our minds based on new information.

Thus, all of us have to accept we might be wrong in our opinion of others.

Personally, I’d love to get to a place where all of us accept that we don’t have to agree with each other on everything. But just because we don’t like the opinion of someone else doesn’t mean we have to hate the person. And it certainly doesn’t mean we have to take physical action against them.


Why expanding our definition of nuclear family is important

It’s important to accept that the nuclear family has grown beyond the original concept. Why is it important?

Because what really matters in any family?


That’s right.  In any family of any configuration, the most important thing is the children. Now traditionalists might cry that a “traditional” nuclear family is the best way to raise kids.

However, to me the most important things for children would be parents who:

  1. Love their kids
  2. Have a harmonious marriage or relationship with their spouse or partner
  3. Put their own needs below the needs of their kids (at least a lot of the time)

Dr. Olson also noted quite rightly that “Just being opposite-sex parents does not automatically make parents GOOD parents as some would have us believe.  Good parenting is about far more than the gender of the parents.”

I also asked him if he had come out at a young age if he still would have wanted to be a father.

He responded very courageously “Being a father was one of my highest priorities.  I lost my father when I was three years old and I had promised myself to be the best father I could possibly be.  Part of what delayed my coming out was a fear that I was abandoning my relationship with them and breaking a promise I’d made to myself.”

But he added “Some have said to me, “Don’t you regret coming out so late? Look at all the fun you missed.” I have no regrets. Being a father remains one of the greatest joys in my life.”

And in support of single parents, I would also say one loving devoted parent is better than 2 parents constantly fighting and arguing. And one loving parent is certainly better than two where one isn’t fully present or has issues with substance abuse.

So if a family is serving the needs of the children, why do we care if that family doesn’t look the same as ours?

Why is different worse?

And if parents aren’t hitting the mark of being great parents, that probably has more to do with who the parents are as people than any category we might want to label them by.

Going back to my conversation with Dr. Olson, he also said with regards to his marriage to his husband Doug, “When I asked one daughter if she was coming to the wedding and what she would tell the grandchildren, she replied, “We’ll tell them that two men who love each other very much will be getting married.”

With my own late father (my relationship I detail in a post about growing up with a gay father) and his husband Tom, my wife and I have always taken a similar approach in talking about them with our daughters.


Still not convinced that gay and lesbian parents can be as effective at raising children as straight couples?

While there is evidence that low income families and single parents can  have a challenging impact on kids, a recent study by the University of New Hampshire concluded that “the body of research exploring the effects of lesbian and gay parents on their children’s development strongly indicates that . . .  children are not at any developmental risk directly resulting from their membership to a non-conventional family.”

In my own family, I grew up with a number of challenges, ranging from divorces, constant moves and an alcoholic step-father . To say that I was affected by all of those things would be a vast understatement, but the fact that my Dad was gay was one of the least impactful things on my development and happiness.

Ultimately 99% of all human beings want the same things. 

Most of us want to:

  • Live our lives happily
  • Make a decent living
  • Raise great kids
  • Be in a relationship with someone we love
  • Enjoy that relationship without scorn
  • To live in a world at peace where we aren’t in danger or living in fear

You see, where people differ is usually not in our goals.  Where people differ is in HOW we achieve those goals.

So if we accept that most of us really do want most of the same things, what if we just accepted that some of us just have different means of getting there.  And that’s OK.

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Photo credits (that aren’t mine or which require attribution):
Same sex marriage vote in the Minnesota Senate – by  Fibonacci Blueis licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market.

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