Lecture Notes

Alternative Lifestyles

Over the past thirty years, demographers have observed that the U.S. population has shifted away from traditional family households. The authors discuss how changing family and household arrangements reflect adaptation to evolving technologies, economic conditions, and social trends. Pluralism is recognized as a central dynamic in family formation. The text discusses the following four types of domestic arrangements: singlehood, heterosexual cohabitation, lesbian and gay households, and commuter marriage.



A. The Decline of Family Households

The percentage of the U.S. population in nonfamily households has increased dramtically, from 15% of all housholds in 1960 to 30% in 1991. Both "no families" - adults avoiding marrige and parenthood, and "new families" - more egalitarian families, are on the rise.


B. Macro Structural Changes and Option for Alternatives

The increase in nontraditional domestic arrangements illustrates vthe interaction of social structure and human agency. While individual choice is an important aspect of alternative household and family formation, the structural conditions that lie beyond individual choice help explain the long term trends. Contemporary divorce and remarriage patterns, economic transformations, and the cultural emphasis on individual fulfillment are important factors in the rise in alternative domestic arrangements.


C. How to Think about Non-Traditional Alternatives

1. Are conventional families disappearing? - The answer is "no." While at a particular point in time, most adults are not living in traditional families, at some point, most do. The authors suggest that family arrangements be viewed as a continuum, with individuals living in various hosehold arrangements on that continuum at differerent stages of their lives.


2. What are alternative lifestyles?

The term lifestyle often implies an alternative to the norm of family living. Variations are better seen as domestic arrangements in their own right. Some lifestyle variations represent adaptations less advantaged members of society have made to restricted life chances; other lifestyle variations proceed from choices made by the more privileged members of society as they seek personal fulfillment.



Adults in all age groups are more likely to be single today than they were in 1970.

A. The Singles Population

The term single refers to the never married, the divorced, the separated, and the widowed. The rise of singlehood has its roots in the urbanization and industrializaiton of the 19th century. Women's economic independence has made singlehood an increasingly viable option.


B. Gender, Race, and Class

More women than men marry at some point in their lives. Yet, demographic and cultural factors combine to create a "marriage squeeze" that increases the number of single women over the life course. The pool of eligible men shrinks as women age, especially for professional women. The proportion of never married women in greater among Blacks than among Whites and Hispanics. Freedom is a major theme in the stories of women who remain single long-term.


C. Lifestyles of Singles

Two persistent stereotypes of singles are that they are lonely and that they are "swingers." Research shows that many married individuals express loneliness similar to singles, and that the "swingin" stereotype is more characteristic of divorced singles than those who have never married. A diverse network of enterprises has sprung up to meet the social needs of singles.



4% of the adult U.S. population are now cohabitating; 25% have cohabited at some point during their adult life.


A. The Rise of Cohabitation

Several factors may explain the increase in cohabitation: changing sexual norms, postponement of marriage, reduced confidence in marriage, and women's greater financial independence. Economic considerations of partners and increasing parental acceptance of the lifestyle also contribute to the growth in cohabitation.


B. Who are Cohabitors?

In the past, cohabitation was most common among the poor. Contemporary cohabitors are primarily never-married young adults, alhough 34% are divorced. Cohabitation remains an ambiguous relationship, which for most couples is not a permanent commitment.


C. Cohabitation and Traditional Courship

Cohabitation is often viewed as a new stage in the courtship process. The major differences between cohabitation and traditional courship are less parental approval of cohabitation, and the continuous intimacy it allows.


D. Cohabitation Compared with Marriage

Cohabitation differs from marriage in two main ways: first, presumptions regarding the length of the relationship; and second, cohabitation is a private relationship without institutionalized supports or expectations.


E. Gender

Definitions of cohabitation vary by gender: men view it more pragmatically, and women view it more as a step toward long-term commitment. Formerly-married women are less eager to remarry than their male counterparts in cohabitation relationships. Cohabiting relationships are likely to include a traditional gender-based division of household labor.


F. Cohabitation and the Future of Marriage

Variation exists among cohabiting couples. Broadly, they can be categorized along a continnum of those with no intention of marrying to those who expet an enduring relationship. Cohabitiation does not lessen the likelihood of divorce. Cohabitation is best seen as a temporary alternative to legal marriage, which does not threaten marrage as a social institution.



Over the past twenty-five years, homosexuals have achieved recognition as a distinct social group, a situation that has worked both to their advantage and disadvantage. While there is some evidence of greater tolerance and certain court decisions have been encouraging, homosexual individuals continue to experience prejudice and discrimination. Homophobia remains rampant in the U.S.


A. Defining homosexuality

When discussing homosexuality, the term "sexual orientation" is more presice than "sexual preference" because "sexual preference" implies a sense of choice that most people do not experience. In social science literature essentialists and social constructionists debate whether homosexuality has genetic or social origins. Unfortunately, the polarization caused by this debate makes it difficult for many to see these factors operating in tandem. Homosexuality does not refer only to behavior, but to a culture, with norms and values. Four to ten percent of the adult population are believed to be homosexual.


B. Couples, Households, and Familes

Bell and Weinberg divide homosexuals into five categories: closed couples, open couples, functionals, dysfunctionals, and asexuals. They found that black male homosexuals were younger, less educated, and had lower occupational status than White homosexuals. Lesbian couples are more likely to live together than gay male couples.


1. Gender

Putting aside stereotypes , we see that lesbian and heterosexual women are more alike than different, as are gay and heterosexual men. The tendency for gay men to be less sexually exclusive than lesbian women parallels the difference in heterosexual males and females. Homosexual couples tend to be more egalitarian than heterosexual couples. Research consistently refutes the "butch/femme" notion. Research also dispels stereotypes that suggest that homosexuality overrides other aspects of individuals' identities.


2. Voluntarily Chosen Kinship Networks

Conventional understandings of families as heterosexual have dissociated homosexual individuals from the family realm. Homosexuals are broadening the definition of family to include domestic partnerships and friendship networks. Weston's research finds that the gays and lesbians "choose" families of friends and lovers.


3. Homosexual parents

Increasing numbers of lesbians and gays are choosing to adopt or bear children. Research finds that society's fears that such children will be "damaged" by their upbringing are without foundation.


C. The Domestic Partner Movement

Homosexuals are denied significant legal and economic benefits by the prohibition on homosexual marriage. The domestic partner moovement works to secure for homosexuals some of the legal benefits accorded married heterosexuals. Cohabiting heterosexuals also benefit from domestic partner plans.



Marital separation is not entirely new, but in the past these lifestyles have not generally required separate households. New commuter arrangements are largely the result of women's increased entry into professional occupation. Estimates rae that about one million, mostly White middle and upper-middle-class couples are involved in commuter marriages. Most couples believe the strains are outweighed by individual rewards, but they must compartmentalize their lives into work and marriage. Commuter marriages work best for established couples whose children are grown.


A. Gender

Evaluation of the commuter relationship varies by gender, with women, in general, less negative about the arrangement. Women miss the emotional protection of their husbands, but are able to increae the amount of time spent on professional work . Men are dissatiisfied by the arrangement, in part, because of their additional domestic responsibilities.