Studies in the psychology of religion suggest that how one practices religion, or "what kind of religion," is more significant for the quality of family relationships than how strongly one believes in a religion, or "how much religion." Participants with rigid, literalistic or guilt-driven approaches to religion reported an increased emphasis on control, difficulties in communication, and lower levels of marital satisfaction. In contrast, participants who identified with and maintained an open approach to religious sentiment and tended to promote independence in their children, were more likely to have affectionate and warm relationships with their children, and experience increased marital satisfaction.46

While religious faith leads some people to be less accepting of alternative family patterns, it can also promote compassion for people struggling in less than ideal family situations. In every faith, God offers forgiveness to sinners, especially those who sincerely wish to mend past mistakes. There is recognition that the ideal of the God-centered family runs up against the corruption of the human heart due to the Fall of Man, which caused widespread difficulties between men and women, parents and children ever since. Almost all the families in the Bible seem to be dysfunctional to one degree or another, and the protagonist is sometimes challenged to overcome a festering family problem-Jacob and Joseph are two notable examples. Therefore, the centering of marriage upon God and striving to practice true love-divine love-within marriage can be viewed as a redemptive act that opens the way to divine healing and personal growth.47 For believers who practice a life of faith, marriage and family can be a blessing, a restorative relationship to heal the most primal of human wounds and open the way to future hope.

Anthropology looks at family structures

Warm Hearts of the North by Borg Mesch (1917). The Lapland father may measure his wealth in herds of reindeer, in hides and pelts, but the Lapland mother knows that her bright-eyed, smiling baby and her sturdy two-year-old are treasures beyond price.

According to sociology and anthropology, the primary function of the family is to reproduce society, biologically and socially. For children, the family plays a major role in their socialization. From the point of view of the parent(s), the family's purpose is to produce and socialize children within a culture. However, producing children is not the only function of the family. In societies with a sexual division of labor, marriage and the resulting relationship between a husband and wife is necessary for the formation of an economically productive household. In modern societies, marriage entails particular rights and privilege that encourage the formation of new families even when there is no intention of having children.

The structure of families can be classified into four major types: consanguineal, conjugal, patrifocal, and matrifocal. (Note: these are ideal types. In all societies there are acceptable deviations from the norm, owing either to incidental circumstances such as the death of a family member, infertility, or personal preferences.)

  • A consanguineal or extended family consists of a husband and wife, their children, and other members of either the husband's and/or wife's family. This kind of family is common in cultures where property is inherited. In patriarchal societies where important property is owned by men, extended families commonly consist of a husband and wife, their children, the husband's parents, and other members of the husband's family. In societies where fathers are absent and mothers do not have the resources to rear their children on their own, the consanguineal family may consist of a mother and her children, and members of the mother's family.
  • A conjugal or nuclear family consists of a father, mother, and their children. This kind of family is common where families are relatively mobile, as in modern industrialized societies. Usually there is a division of labor requiring the participation of both men and women. Nuclear families vary in the degree to which they are independent or maintain close ties to the kindreds of the parents and to other families in general.
Extended middle-class Midwestern U.S. family of Danish/German extraction.
  • A patrifocal family consists of a father and his children and is found in societies where men take multiple wives (polygamy or polygyny) and/or remain involved with each for a relatively short time. This type of family is rare from a worldwide perspective, but occurs in Islamic states with considerable frequency. The laws of some Arab nations encourage this structure by allowing a maximum of four wives per man at any given time, and automatic deflection of custody rights to the father in the case of a divorce. In these societies, a man will often take a wife and may conceive a child with her, but after a relatively short time put her out of his harem so he can take another woman without exceeding the quota of four. The man then keeps his child and thus a patrifocal structure emerges. Even without the expulsion of the mother, the structure may be patrifocal because the children (often as infants) are removed from the harem structure and placed into the father's family.
  • A matrifocal family consists of a mother and her children. Generally, these children are her biological offspring, although adoption of children is a practice in nearly every society. This kind of family is common where women have the resources to rear their children by themselves, or where men are more mobile than women. Today's single-parent families can be classed in this category.

There are other typologies of family structure. One important distinction is the extent to which marriage is exogamous or endogamous.

  • Exogamy is the custom of marrying outside a specified group of people to which a person belongs. In addition to blood relatives, marriage to members of a specific clan(s) or other group(s) may be forbidden.
  • Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a social group which may include close relatives such as cousins.

The family as the basis of society

French sociologists Frédéric Le Play (1806-1882) and Emmanuel Todd have studied the connection between family type and social values. Le Play developed a four-fold typology of the family, each which inculcated a certain set of values. These values are passed on as each generation unconsciously absorbs the values of their parents. Todd added some additional types and went on to demonstrate that a country's adoption of a particular political ideology-liberal democracy or communism or fascism-correlated with its family system; and he even hypothesized "the ideological system is everywhere the intellectual embodiment of family structure."48

Thus, a people's love of liberty or acceptance of authority is determined by the relationship between fathers and sons in the family. If a grown child continues to live with his parents after marriage, forming a vertical relationship within the extended family, such a family is regarded as 'authoritarian'. Within the family and within the society respect for authority has a high premium. On the other hand if a grown child leaves his family, marries and sets up an independent household, this family model is regarded as 'liberal' as it, and the society composed of such families, puts a high premium on individual independence.

Furthermore, the relationship between brothers inculcates the ideal of equality or acceptance of inequality as the natural order of things. If inheritance is by custom the equal division of the parent's property among the sons, they form egalitarian relationships. If the inheritance is by custom weighted towards the eldest son, so that brothers naturally accept the inequality among them, the values of the society include an acceptance of inequality.

Todd found a surprising correspondence between Le Play's typology of family structures with the country or region's dominant social and political values and institutions:

  1. Liberal and inegalitarian-these values characterize the absolute nuclear family, the family type most prevalent in Anglo-Saxon countries such as England, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and also in Holland. In these countries adult children do not live at home and parents have little authority over them. Parents divide up their inheritance in any way they choose. In such countries individual freedom is highly prized and social inequality is accepted as normal. These societies have been politically very stable and easily adapted to industrialization and modernity. The normal system of government is liberal democracy, while fascist and communist parties and ideas have never been popular as their values did not resonate with the values passed on through the family. On the other hand these countries have recently seen a high degree of family breakdown and social disintegration as the love of freedom has degenerated into selfish individualism.
  2. Liberal and egalitarian-these values characterize the egalitarian nuclear family, the family type most prevalent in northern France, Latin America, northern Italy, Greece, Poland, Romania Ethiopia and much of Spain and Portugal. In these countries married children do not live with their parents but the equality of brothers is laid down by rules of inheritance. The societies are often unstable as they are based on the contradictory values of liberty and equality. The political systems of these countries are unstable and seem to oscillate between phases of liberalism and dictatorship. It is noteworthy that the European country that led the overthrow of communism was Poland.
  3. Authoritarian and inegalitarian-these values characterize the patriarchal three-generation family, the family type most prevalent in Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, and Korea. This group also includes traditional Jews, Basques, Catalans, Walloons and Gypsies. In these countries rules of inheritance decree an unbroken patrimony to one son, usually the eldest. Often the married heir lives together with his parents. Parents have a lot of authority over their children even after they have grown up. At the same time the children are treated unequally and are raised to know their place in the pecking order. These countries have tended to be resistant to universalism and are often involved in ethnic conflicts to assert their independence and particularism. They may regard themselves as superior to others. They have a tendency to slide into authoritarian government such as fascism.
  4. Authoritarian and egalitarian-these values characterize the exogamous community family, the family type most prevalent in Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, China, Vietnam, Cuba, central Italy and north India. Married sons live together with their parents and the inheritance is divided up equally. Such families are quite unstable as it is difficult to maintain peace and harmony when all the children live together with an authoritarian father. Hence the tendency for the brothers, who are all equal, to gang up on their father. All the old world countries that produced spontaneous communist revolutions were all of this family type. This is because the values of communism - equality and authority - resonated with the family type of these countries. Communism in practice though has led to changes in family structure so that it destroyed its own anthropological base.
  5. Islamic family-the endogamous community family (an additional family type described by Todd) which is characterized by equality between brothers, cohabitation of married sons with their parents and frequently marriage between cousins (endogamy). This family type is found in the Arab world, North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia. All these countries are Muslim. The countries which historically resisted Islam - Armenia, Ethiopia and northern Spain had different family types. The Qur'an unlike the Bible does not outlaw the marriage of cousins. This makes this community family more stable than the exogamous community family where sons marry women who are not relatives and thus bring their own traditions into the family causing instability.
  6. African family-traditional African households are polygamous and unstable. To maintain demographic balance there is frequent remarriage as well as the inheritance of wives. In the African polygamous family the woman has her own hut with her children while the father is often absent. This results in a dilution of paternal authority. The strongest relationships are between brothers. The dominant political force in most African countries is the army, which replicates the family based on brothers.

These findings from anthropology seem to support the view that the family is the foundation of society and its values. Todd theorized that social and political arrangements such as are found in liberal democracies or in socialist states are, "a transposition into social relations of the fundamental values which govern elementary human relations" in the family.

Is there an ideal family structure?

Family arrangements in the United States have become more diverse with no particular household arrangement representing half of the U.S. population.49

Today, many people tend to idealize the two-parent nuclear family as the ideal family structure. The man typically is responsible for income and support, the woman for home and family matters. Social conservatives often express concern over a purported decay of the family and see this as a sign of the crumbling of contemporary society. They look with alarm at the dramatic increase in households headed by single mothers and by same-sex couples. Yet anthropologists point out that these are merely variations on family types that have existed in other societies.

Even when people bypass the traditional configuration of father, mother, and their biological children, they tend to follow its patterns anyway, showing the fundamental need they feel for its structure. Couples live together and raise children, even children from previous relationships. Same-sex couples assume masculine and feminine roles and demand legal recognition of their unions; many seek to adopt children. Homeless children tend to congregate in gangs that serve as surrogate families. On the other hand, as families universally are built around the marriage bond and the responsibilities for raising children, there would seem to be some rationality to giving preference to the two-parent nuclear family-particularly over family structures headed by only one parent. As James Q. Wilson has stated:

In virtually every society in which historians or anthropologists have inquired, one finds people living together on the basis of kinship ties and having responsibility for raising children. The kinship ties invariably imply restrictions on who has sexual access to whom; the child-care responsibilities invariably imply both economic and non-economic obligations. And in virtually every society, the family is defined by marriage; that is, by a publicly announced contract that makes legitimate the sexual union of a man and a woman.50

In other words, while single-parent and matrifocal families form a recognizable type, they are not the first choice where there is the possibility of forming stable two-parent families. However, where men are not strongly bound to the family unit, i.e., where a culture does not support lasting marriage or where economic hardships cause men to be apart from their wives for long periods of time, this family type becomes prevalent.

By the same token, societies where patrifocal families are the norm are vulnerable to movements for women's rights and human rights that attack marriage arrangements that do not give wives equal status with their husbands. This may lead, in the long run, to the decline of polygamy.

In many cultures, the need to be self-supporting is hard to meet, particularly where rents and property values are very high, and the foundation of a new household can be an obstacle to nuclear family formation. In these cases, extended families form. People remain single and live with their parents for a long period of time. Generally, the trend to shift from extended to nuclear family structures has been supported by increasing mobility and modernization.

Still, some argue that the extended family, or at least the three-generational family including grandparents, provides a broader and deeper foundation for raising children as well as support for the new parents. In particular, the role of grandparents has been recognized as an important aspect of the family dynamic. Having experienced the challenges of creating a family themselves, they offer wisdom and encouragement to the young parents and become a reassuring presence in the lives of their grandchildren. Abraham Maslow described the love of grandparents as "the purest love for the being of the other."51

The emotional pull of these intergenerational encounters remains strong even for those who have split off to form nuclear families. Individuals who leave the village and their extended families for the economic benefits of life in the city may feel a sense of isolation and a longing for the thick relationships and warm love of the extended family of their origin. This suggests that, economic issues aside, people are happiest living in extended families, or in nuclear families that treasure close bonds with their kinfolk.


A strong nuclear or extended family provides a haven of love and intimacy. It offers maximum opportunities for personal growth through its matrix of relationships-with spouse, parents, grandparents, siblings, and children. A strong family provides a social support network that its members are able to rely on in times of stress. The rise of single-parent households due to the absence of husbands represents reversion to a different family structure, one that is prone to isolation and provides weaker social support.

The two-parent family is important in the development of children and beneficial to their mental and emotional health. A strong conjugal bond between the parents provides the child security and a model for conjugal love to which he or she can aspire. The father's steady and responsible provision for the family provides a positive male role model for boys and a model of an ideal husband for young girls. Thus from an early age, children gain a positive sense of self-worth, sexual identity, and confidence about their future. Divorce or the chronic absence of one parent teaches the opposite lesson: that life is insecure, that the child is not lovable, that the child cannot hope for a successful marriage, that men are irresponsible and unsuitable as marriage partners, and so on. Statistically, children of single-parent families have a higher incidence of criminality, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and depression.

The extended family provides a superior alternative to the nuclear family in many cultures, expanding the family dynamic intergenerationally. Grandparents offer a unique form of support to the family, both to the parents and to the children. When a newly married couple moves far away from their parents, establishing their own nuclear family, isolation from their extended family may prove stressful. Families in which three generations interact in close harmony provide the greatest support for successfully raising children, connecting them to their family traditions and giving value to their lineage.


  1. ↑ Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
  2. ↑ Maxine B. Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen. Diversity in American Families (Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1998, ISBN 006047372X).
  3. ↑ James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Free Press, 1993), 162-163.
  4. ↑ Faith and Family in America Survey, Poll: Americans Idealize Traditional Family, Even as Nontraditional Families Are More Accepted, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, October 19, 2005. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  5. ↑ Margaret Mead and Ken Heyman, Family (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 77-78.
  6. ↑ Gabriel Moran, Religious Education Development: Images for the Future (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1983), 169.
  7. ↑ Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (W. W. Norton, 1993).
  8. ↑ Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Free Press, 1988).
  9. ↑ William Goldfarb, "Psychological Privation in Infancy and Subsequent Adjustment," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (1945): 15.
  10. ↑ Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 293.
  11. ↑ Benjamin Spock, Baby and Child Care (New York: Pocket Books, 1987), 411.
  12. ↑ Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, The Good Marriage (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 64.
  13. ↑ Marshall Fightlin, "Conjugal Intimacy," New Oxford Review 51/1 (Jan.-Feb. 1984): 8-14.
  14. ↑ James Nelson, "Varied Meanings of Marriage and Fidelity," in Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader, ed. Kieran Scott and Michael Warren (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 101.
  15. ↑ Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, The Good Marriage (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 329.
  16. ↑ Blaine J. Fowers, "Psychology and the Good Marriage," American Behavioral Scientist 41/4 (January 1998): 516-542.
  17. ↑ David Elkind, The Hurried Child (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1981), 26-27.
  18. ↑ Brian Volck, "Welcoming a Stranger: A New View of Parenting," America 76/20 (1997): 7-9.
  19. ↑ Frad Barnes, "The Family: A Reader's Digest Poll," Reader's Digest (July 1992): 50.
  20. ↑ Diane Baumrind, "Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior," Child Development 47 (4): 887-907.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Erik H. Erikson, Joan M. Erikson, and Helen Q. Kivnick, Vital Involvement in Old Age: The Experience of Old Age in Our Time (New York: Norton, 1986), 53.
  22. ↑ Glenn T. Stanton, Why Marriage Matters for Adults, Focus on the Family, January 1, 1996. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  23. ↑ James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 16.
  24. ↑ Robert T. Michael, et al., Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994), 124-129; Edward O. Laumann, et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 364; Andrew Greeley, Faithful Attraction: Discovering Intimacy, Love and Fidelity in American Marriage (New York: Tom Doherty Association, 1991), ch. 6.
  25. ↑ Mary Parke, “Are Married Parents Really Better for Children?” Center for Law and Social Policy Policy Brief, May 2003. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  26. ↑ Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 47.
  27. ↑ Deborah Dawson, “Family Structure and Children's Health and Well-Being: Data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 573-584.
  28. ↑ Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, “Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990s,” Progressive Policy Institute Report, September 27, 1990: 14-15.
  29. ↑ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, The Relationship Between Family Structure and Adolescent Substance Use (Rockville, MD: National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, 1996).
  30. ↑ Dawn Upchurch, et al., “Neighborhood and Family Contexts of Adolescent Sexual Activity,” Journal of Marriage and Family 61 (1999): 920-930.
  31. ↑ Irwin Garfinkel and Sara McLanahan, Single Mothers and Their Children: A New American Dilemma (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 1986), 30-31.
  32. ↑ Michael Gordon, “The Family Environment of Sexual Abuse: A Comparison of Natal and Stepfather Abuse,” Child Abuse and Neglect 13 (1985): 121-130.
  33. ↑ Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, “Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990s,” Progressive Policy Institute Report, September 27, 1990: 12.
  34. ↑ National Center for Health Statistics, Married Adults are Healthiest, New CDC Report Shows, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 15, 2004. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  35. ↑ Linda J. Waite, "Does Marriage Matter?" Demography 32 (1995): 483-507.
  36. ↑ Harold Morowitz, "Hiding in the Hammond Report," Hospital Practice (August 1975): 39.
  37. ↑ J. S. Goodwin, et al., “The Effect of Marital Status on Stage, Treatment, and Survival of Cancer Patients,” Journal of the American Medical Association 258(21): 3125-3130.
  38. ↑ Robert Coombs, "Marital Status and Personal Well-Being: A Literature Review," Family Relations 40 (1991): 97-102.
  39. ↑ Jan Stets, "Cohabiting and Marital Aggression: The Role of Social Isolation," Journal of Marriage and Family 53 (1991): 669-680; "Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1992," U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (March 1994), p. 31, NCJ-145125.
  40. ↑ Daniel Goleman, "75 Years Later, Study is Still Tracking Geniuses," New York Times, March 7, 1995.
  41. ↑ Janet Wilmoth and Gregor Koso, "Does Marital History Matter? Marital Status and Wealth Outcomes among Pre-retirement Adults," Journal of Marriage and Family 64 (2002): 743-754; Linda J. Waite, "Does Marriage Matter?" Demography 32 (1995): 483-507.
  42. ↑ Michael G. Lawler, "Marriage in the Bible," in Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader, ed. Kieran Scott and Michael Warren (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21.
  43. ↑ I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud (New York: Soncino Press, 1948).
  44. ↑ Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius (New York: Random House, 1938).
  45. 45.0 45.1 Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, "The Marrying Kind: Which Men Marry and Why," The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America 2004 (Piscataway, NJ: National Marriage Project, Rutgers, 2004).
  46. ↑ Kate Miller-Wilson, How Religion Affects Family Cohesion. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  47. ↑ Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001).
  48. ↑ Emmanuel Todd, The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985, ISBN 0631137246).
  49. ↑ Brian Williams, Stacey C. Sawyer, and Carl M. Wahlstrom, Marriage, Families, and Intimate Relationships (Boston: Pearson, 2005 ISBN 0205366740).
  50. ↑ James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Free Press, 1993), 158.
  51. ↑ Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1987 ISBN 0060419873), 183.


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