Surviving relationships after cheating without children

Family and family politics

Johannes Huinink

To person

is Professor of Sociology with a focus on "Theory and Empirical Social Structure" at the Institute for Empirical and Applied Sociology at the University of Bremen. His research areas are social structure research and the sociology of the life course, in particular the sociology of the family and forms of life.

Contact: [email protected]

The family as the core of human coexistence has been subject to social change over the centuries. The modern concept of family now encompasses many forms of life: they all have in common that children live in the household.

A family with two children runs on a dirt road in Gaiberg near Heidelberg. (& copy AP)


In recent years, family and parenthood have become a top topic of public discussion in Germany. The increase in illegitimate lifestyles and the low birth rate have played a major role in this. However, the question is also asked whether families can still do justice to their tasks today: namely to look after and bring up the children or to support each other within the generations in solidarity in everyday life. Politicians and the population have become aware that the family and its importance for people's life planning have changed over the last few decades. All areas of our society are affected and we must therefore respond appropriately.

The following chapter first clarifies the basics and initial questions that are important for this discussion: What makes a family, and what forms does it take today? How have the social significance as well as the forms of families and everyday family life changed in Europe over the centuries? What tasks does the family still have, and what services does it currently provide for people?

Family concept and family forms

Most people still think of a family as the long-term cohabitation of a mother and a father with their children. The constitutional fathers and mothers also had this model in mind when they placed marriage and the family under the "special protection of the state" in Article 6 of the Basic Law. In fact, according to the Federal Statistical Office, in 2007 about three quarters of all families had underage children with their married and mostly biological parents. But in just under a fifth the children lived with only one parent. Parents are also increasingly refraining from marrying: Almost 60 percent of all births in 2007 in East Germany were illegitimate, in West Germany this proportion was around 24 percent. In 17.4 percent of families in East Germany and a good five percent of West German families, the parents lived together unmarried in 2007. In a still small but increasing number of reasons, same-sex partners now also have a family. These figures correspond to the fact that in 2005 around 53 percent of women and men aged 35 to 44 lived together with children. Between six and seven percent in this age group were single parents.

Family forms with at least one minor child who grows up in the parental household
The above-mentioned "conventional" concept of a family is still applicable in many cases. But it no longer fully does justice to the variety of different family constellations today. In our society, since the "golden age of marriage" of the 1950s and 1960s, when many marriages of the conventional pattern were still concluded, the proportion of "non-conventional" family relationships, which can be very complex, has been increasing in our society.

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Life in the XXL family

[...] 323,000 families with an average of six to seven members between Flensburg and Garmisch-Partenkirchen make around two million people who live in large families, unaffected by economic downturns and the loss of births. Two million, roughly the same as the population of Slovenia. Seen in this way, the large families in this country form a mini-state for large families in the shrinking paradise of small families.

[...] "My hobbies are my children and chatting with my girlfriend", this is how Anne K., the mother of eight boys and four girls, introduces herself on the Internet homepage for XXL families. The husband cooks at Ikea, enjoys cycling and fishing. With around 1,500 euros net and child benefit, which is roughly the same, they pay the rent for the row house in Salzgitter, electricity, insurance for two cars, cell phones, computers, MP3 players and game consoles.
For breakfast, school sandwiches and sandwiches in the evening, around three kilos of bread are used per day, and five pounds of pasta for a meal. The K.s drink 60 liters of milk per week. There are twelve chocolate baskets at Easter. [...]
The K.s have their situation under control despite modest means. Anoraks and snowsuits move from the older to the younger siblings. Once a year, the native of Flensburg rents a holiday home on the coast for her entire team: "The sea is our passion."
The mood in the house with the green and orange butterflies on the wall is decisive for family well-being. Whether boy or girl: whoever comes in, first of all picks up a cuddle unit from their mother. "Of course we fight," says Aylysa, 13, "but it's great that you always have someone to play and talk to." The rather quiet Angelo, 10, is sometimes quite annoyed by the long-term exposure. Fortunately, everyone, except for the two youngest ones, has a room to themselves. "The kids are friendly, helpful and socially much more mature than others," says Silke Giese, who goes to kindergarten with the youngest descendants of the clan, "and the woman," she rolls her eyes in admiration, "is just incredibly relaxed." [...]
Large families are used to a lot when dealing with clichés and prejudices. Anyone who has four or more children in tow in Germany is at best looked at with condescension and often contemptuously, following the motto that today you don't have to get pregnant anymore. [...]
It seems easier to choose more children when there are already some. [...] Unfortunately, however, the question of whether men and women want to have children at all has to be decided before couples have learned that raising children is much more fun than not having one - a fact that affects them Population statistics press as well as the meaningfulness of each individual. [...]

Bettina Musall, "A house full of children", in: SPIEGEL special, No. 4 of August 7, 2007, p. 22ff.



Nuclear family

In order to do justice to this change, the Federal Statistical Office adapted its concept of family to the changed circumstances in 2005. So-called parent-child communities are recorded as families in the new way of life of the microcensus: This means married couples, illegitimate and same-sex unions or single mothers and fathers who live together with unmarried children in one household. The children can be biological children, stepchildren, foster children or adopted children of both or one of the two parents. This family concept corresponds to the model of the nuclear family. If both parents do not belong to a household, it is referred to as a single-parent family. It may have arisen because the child lived with a parent without a partner from the start or because the parents separated after a while and may have entered into a new relationship later.

In vitro fertilization techniques and the availability of sperm banks expand the possibilities for parenthood. They not only help infertile married couples to fulfill their desire to have children, but also enable family constellations that had never existed before. However, the efforts of so-called reproductive medicine to bring about a pregnancy in a way other than natural have still required a lot of money and patience from those involved due to the relatively low success rates and can also mean a high psychological burden for them.

The nuclear family is a two-generation family that consists only of the parents' and children's generations. If the (great) grandparents are included as additional members of the family, it is a so-called three- or four-generation family. Any further degrees of kinship are usually not taken into account for the family term, unless it is still used as a synonym for the clan or the gender. One then also speaks of the kinship family.

Cross-generational community of solidarity

The people who live together as a family - whether for two or more generations - in one household also form a household family. Today, this understanding of the family is viewed as too narrow. After all, as already mentioned, life partners with common children do not necessarily have to run a common household. The grandparents also very often do not live with their children or grandchildren, or not all of the time, and can still be counted as part of the family. It is crucial that those involved see themselves as part of a cross-generational community of solidarity and that they also live it in practice, that is, help and stand up for one another. According to this broader understanding of the family, the members of a family can also live in different households. Family researchers consider the "multi-local multi-generation family" to be the family model of the future.

The sociologist Rosemarie Nave-Herz emphasizes the special bond and solidarity between the family members in her family definition. Family is characterized by:
  • Assumption of the reproductive and socialization function (reproduction and upbringing of the offspring),
  • social tasks that differ depending on the culture (biological-social dual nature),
  • Generation differentiation (presence
  • different generations: great-grandparents / grandparents / parents / children) and
  • a specific cooperation and solidarity relationship between its members, which assigns them specific roles (mutual support and a sense of responsibility).
Legal and social perspective

The family can therefore be viewed from two perspectives: one that takes legal aspects and social conventions (tradition and agreements) into account, and one that focuses on the social, lived interaction relationships.

Legally, family membership is determined by rules of parentage, legally anchored forms of parenthood (adoption, care, step-parenthood) as well as social conventions, customs and norms. The law defines who can start a family and when, and regulates the rights and obligations between parents and children as well as the relationship between parents. This so-called solidarity requirement can be found in Section 1618a of the German Civil Code (BGB).

The social perspective emphasizes that members of a family have a special personal relationship with one another. The family is a protected space in which the children are raised and educated by their parents and made familiar with social rules of conduct. Conversely, parents gain new experiences and perspectives through their children. Children give them self-affirmation and identity. The relationship between family members is usually characterized by trusting relationships based on solidarity. As a rule, parents and children are not indifferent to one another.

However, this is not only true in a positive sense, but also - albeit mostly only temporarily - in a negative sense. There are arguments in families and personal arguments. This can also lead to psychological injuries and violence. Extreme examples that get public cause constant consternation. Since the family is nowadays seen as a place of private intimacy and has no unhindered access from outside, violence in the family is often not discovered and those affected find it difficult to evade it. In order to secure the individual rights of parents and children to respect for their personal dignity and physical integrity, the state is empowered to intervene in intra-family relationships. Physical and emotional violence against children is forbidden and socially frowned upon. If parents fail to fulfill their duty of care for the children, their custody can be withdrawn to ensure the best interests of the child. Since 1997 there has been a criminal offense of rape in marriage in Section 177 of the Criminal Code, whereby wives are supposed to be guaranteed the right to sexual self-determination. In view of the legal changes in recent decades, one can certainly speak of an increasing legalization of family relationships.

Regardless of this, the family is still a special social group, the members of which have certain "social positions" that are important for the "functioning" of the group. These positions are associated with certain behavioral expectations of their owners; one also speaks of social roles. In the family, a distinction is made between mother, father, child, sibling or grandparent role. The role of parents, for example, includes the fact that parents take care of their children and take responsibility and that they assume a position of authority over the children, which they can shape in different ways. In return, they can expect their authority to be recognized by the children - which in turn is part of their role.

Family relationships and membership in a family are not immutable or indissoluble. Parental relationships can be legally terminated - for example through the adoption of a child by another person, which means that the child moves from one family to another. Much more often, however, family memberships and structures change when the parents' relationship ends with a separation and divorce. The parents can then start a new relationship or found a new partnership. Depending on the course of the separation process, the social relationships between the parents and the child or between the parents remain or are dissolved, and new constellations of social parenthood can arise ("post-divorce family"). As a rule, however, the relationship between a child and its two parents, who are now separated, remains intact. The child thus belongs to several families at the same time, which sometimes poses difficult life situations for children of divorce.

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Life in patchwork

[...] Family M .: Father Reinhold, 37, a train driver, mother Anja, 35, educator on maternity leave. You live with Laureen from a previous relationship of the woman and now have little Sophie together. And then there is Marvin, eight years old, who, like his father, is an avid footballer and lives with his former partner. [...]

A blended family. How beautiful such a "patchwork quilt" can be is demonstrated by the coexistence of the M.s in the Nordend in Frankfurt am Main. [...]
Life is not a highway. Turning off, accelerating and taking off - that's not how family works. Anja M. knows both perspectives. She was left alone with Laureen when their first partnership failed. Dragged water boxes, dragged her daughter, repaired lamps, in short, took care of everything that would have been a little easier with a man in the house.
And now she lives with Reinhold M., whom she met six years ago on the Frankfurt "Ebbelwei-Express", the historic excursion tram. They have been married for a year. [...] The mother emphasizes that love and trust carry the new community. "Without that, nothing works, be it patchwork or not."
Everyday life. Sophie crows in the morning, Laureen is not exactly a late sleeper either. And the cat Tipsi, meanwhile 16 years old and definitely in need of care, is also creeping out of some feathers. Breakfast, take Laureen to school, look after Sophie. Sometimes the grandparents or Reinhold's sisters step in. "It all works out well for us because we organize ourselves brilliantly," says Reinhold M. Most of his engine driver shifts start in the middle of the night. Only Marvin is often too far away for him. [...]
The M.s cannot imagine living without children. He: "Without this joy and this laughter, everything would have little meaning." She: "We simply couldn't afford any more offspring, but the two, or three with Reinhold's son, who exist, get everything from us." [...]
If there are children from previous relationships, there is always a risk of jealousy, the M.s admit. However, they want to oppose it so that the familiar patchwork quilt can grow closer and closer together. [...]

Petra Mies, "A beautiful patchwork carpet", in: Frankfurter Rundschau from September 3, 2007