The modern day family — whatever that is! Opinion Editorial

Family friendly, family values, nuclear family, traditional family, work-family balance, stronger families…the number of people using the word “family” highlights its importance, but its familiarity hides the fact that one word can have many meanings!

This is perhaps best captured by a current television advertisement for a compact four-wheel-drive vehicle. The advertisement starts with the “perfect nuclear family”, two parents and children, travelling in the vehicle. When the father is left on the road side, the resulting single parent family travels a short distance before being joined by a single dad and his children, highlighting the flexibility of this vehicle in which the seating can be re-arranged to suit the blended family. So the advertisement goes on to the empty nesters and finishes by claiming to be “The 4X4 for the modern day family – whatever that is!”

In a world where marketing is usually trying to sell us our dreams, this advertisement is clever, even humorous, in a self-deprecating kind of way. The irony is apparent, however, when the advertisement appears in breaks during a film that typifies the dreams of many…the heroine meets her love in the face of some great danger which they overcome together. Romance and marriage follow before they set off happily ever after into the future. Despite the reality for many in Australia today, where there is no “happy ever after”, romance, love, marriage and family remain a dream for many men and women.

A number of questions arise from this. Why does the dream persist in the face of what is commonly perceived as reality? Do the perceptions match the facts about modern family structures? Does it matter? Finally, can (and perhaps more importantly, should) the Government be doing anything about it?

Why the dream?

Hugh Mackay writes in Reinventing Australia: “Families are still seen as having the potential to provide the emotional security of permanent relationships, as well as a strong sense of identity arising from those relationships…. Family life is thought to teach us important lessons about loyalty, responsibility and compromise, and many Australians believe the quality of family life is an important index of the quality of life in the wider society…Families are not necessarily expected to be happy, but they are still seen as one of society’s most precious resources.”[1]

This position, which recognises the long term benefits of marriage, was supported by an article in the Australian newspaper on 10 Feb 2005 about a couple who, despite being faced with a range of problems, have remained married for 32 years. The couple hold a view which is shared by many: that while a relationship may not be perfect, long-lasting and meaningful marriages are not only possible, but desirable. The couple interviewed for this article, demonstrate that the process of working through tensions, conflicts and differences (as opposed to avoiding them) can actually add depth and strength to a marriage. They highlight the benefits that their strong relationship has had for their children.

Given the common perception about the demise of marriage, one could be forgiven for thinking that these views no longer represent the views of the majority of Australians. However, research conducted by McCabe and Cummins, and quoted by Parker in “Why Marriages Last—a discussion paper”, indicates that the majority of young people in Australia intend or desire to be married at some stage in their life.[2] Is this just a cultural response, a construction of western society originating in the last century? Some argue that it is but conveniently ignore that fact that the virtues of a healthy family unit were being debated by Aristotle many centuries ago. Aristotle contends that the dream of a man and women to form a relationship for friendship and family is deep seated, saying “There seems to be a friendship between man and woman by nature. For the human being by nature is more disposed to live in pairs than in the polis (the broader state-based community), insomuch as the household is prior in time and more necessary than the polis”[3]. Aristotle gave a pivotal role to the spousal relationship in his account of the development of family and state. In Aristotle’s view, the social basis of political and ethical life is the free and relatively egalitarian relationship of husband and wife as partners in a common life founded on the cultivation and enjoyment of virtue.[4]

In addition to natural predisposition and considered choices, the dream may also persist because of personal beliefs. Despite the perception that the established church is irrelevant, the ABS publication Australian Social Trends 2004 indicates that at least 68% of people affiliated themselves with the Christian faith. Place alongside them the Moslems, Hindus and Jews, all of whom esteem marriage, and there is clearly a substantial base of support for the institution of marriage in our community.

So what are the facts?

Mark Twain is credited with the oft-quoted line “Lies, damn lies and statistics”. Depending on how they are used, statistics can be used to record circumstances factually, but also to communicate a message about the situation with considerable bias.

Take for example the prevalence of marriage today as compared to in “former generations”. Ask most people and they would respond that fewer people are getting married these days and may even refer to “some report” they have heard about, which highlighted the decreasing rate of marriage. Now if you talk rates, and particularly rate of change, they may be correct. But let’s take a look at context. In 1901, just over 46.4% of the population in Australia was married. In 2001, not only was the percentage higher (54.6%) but given that Australia’s population was also larger, the total number of people in marriage was far larger. When it comes to understanding context, demographics also play a significant role. Early last century, the patterns and reasons for immigration meant that there were some 115 men for every 100 women and society was coming out of the depression of the 1890’s. Demographers cite these reasons along with mores of the day to explain why the marriage rate was so low. Today, a closer look at context will identify that there are also factors which may explain why the rate of people in marriage as a percentage of the total population has reduced from the peak in 1971 of 64.5%. Some of those include the fact that people are getting married later and living longer. This means that while the total number of people in marriage may still be increasing, the percentage in marriage may not correspondingly climb due in part to the growing number of people at both ends of the normal distribution of population (ie: those yet-to-marry and widowed).

So where do the facts leave the traditional family unit? In a democratic system, where an electoral win by a few percent on a two-party preferred basis is seen as a strong mandate, one could contend that marriage is still looking pretty good! The 2001 census reveals that of all Australian households, 72.5% consisted of families. Of those, 82.5% were couples of which 87.6% were legally married. Of those couples that had dependant children, 90.1% were families where both biological parents were present.[5]

There appears to be a considerable gap therefore between the modern family structures that exist (and are in the main desired by our community) and the perceptions we hold about them.

Does this discrepancy matter?

In a word, yes. William James, an American philosopher born in 1842, is credited with the quote: “Belief creates the actual fact.” Our society, aiming to be egalitarian, generally tries to operate on the basis of fact. When a perception becomes so widely accepted as to become fact in people’s minds, it can gradually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the case of marriage, despite the large numbers of people desiring and choosing to wed, overt support for their decision is reducing in contemporary Australia. This is due in no small part to the belief-become-fact that marriage and the traditional family is in crisis and should now be viewed as just one of a number of equally valid lifestyle options. The problem is compounded because the perception, operating in a politically correct environment, has led to the view that all relationship forms are not just equally valid, but equally desirable. To say otherwise may appear discriminatory. So the perception indeed starts to determine fact as it undermines multi-cultural, multi-generational mores which have upheld marriage as something worth fighting for. Why would a person enter into or indeed stick at something that at times is just plain hard work if the alternative (cohabitation or divorce) is being held to be an equally desirable outcome. There would not be an issue if in fact the outcomes were equally desirable, but in the majority of cases they are clearly not.

Just as the perception avoids the facts about the strong support for marriage in the community, the statistics hide the true impact of relationship breakdowns. While not seeking to devalue the compelling reasons that lead some couples to separate (and some individuals to never marry in the first place), there is a growing body of evidence that those who work at remaining married have better mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.[6] Mental health issues in particular are doubled for divorced men and women as compared to those who remain married.[7] The high and rising rate of suicide in Australia also has strong links to the effect of marriage breakdown. Divorced women take their own lives at a rate four times that for married women, while the suicide rate for divorced men is up to three times the rate for married men.[8] In the vast majority of cases, both parents and children are also better off financially when the marriage remains intact. AMP and NATSEM highlight the different impacts on men and women with respect to income, equity, debt levels and long-term wealth potential but conclude “From a financial perspective, divorce is a loss-loss outcome.”[9] The taxpayer also suffers when a marriage ends. The Department of Families and Community Services estimates that for an average family with two children, on an average income of $35000, government support rises from $8800 to over $22000 following separation.[10] In 2001, 53400 children were affected by their parents divorcing. Assuming an average of two children per family, this equates to an additional $352,440,000.00 each year in support provided by the taxpayer.

The increase in separation and divorce does not just affect the parents. The Democrats Youth Survey results which were released in August 2005, highlight that the single most important issue of concern to young people (64%) was family matters such as divorce and separation.[11] These results correspond closely to the Kids Help Line data sets, which reveal that family relationships (the fear of disputes between parents leading to separation) were the top reason that children sought help.[12] The weight of evidence is that across a range of measures, children of parents who divorce do not do as well as those who remain together.[13] With up to 1 million Australian children having a natural parent living elsewhere,[14] the impacts of divorce are far reaching.

The facts also give lie to the perception that alternate forms of relationship, such as cohabitation, are differentiated from marriage by just a piece of paper.[15] There are a number of types of cohabiting relationships, but should they be considered a desirable lifestyle alternative to marriage? de Vaus highlights that, as compared to marriage, a higher percentage of cohabiting relationships break up, experience domestic violence, have issues with mental health and suffer from decreased geographic stability.

The discrepancy between the perception and reality of marriage is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy which is undermining support for a key institution in our society. The cost of this can be measured in lives, dysfunction and dollars and the impact is far more widespread than just the couple involved.

Can anything be done?

The bias in reporting and public discussion which leads to the existing perception, needs to be overcome. This is addressed in part by Parker who proposes that we should get over the pre-occupation with analysing why marriages break down and change focus to why they survive.[16] Parker reports in some depth on various relationship models such as Karney and Bradbury’s Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation framework to explain changes in marital quality and stability across time and across couples.[17] Within the scope of my contribution to this discussion, suffice to note that there is a common theme to many of the models. Karney and Bradbury, for example, identify three key elements that affect the survivability of marriages:

  1. Enduring vulnerabilities brought by each partner such as personality, belief and attitudes about marriage, family of origin and social background.
  2. Stressful life events or incidents, transitions and circumstances encountered by the couple that create tension or stress, and
  3. Adaptive processes, that is, how the couple communicate, support each other, respond to conflict and the way they think about each other.

Gottman (who developed the cascade theory of marital dissolution) takes a different approach, but arrives at a similar conclusion. He concludes that a “lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.”[18]

The viability of a marriage therefore is not so much about the circumstances that surround a couple. Rather, it hinges firstly on their willingness to decide that the relationship is worth the work to resolve the issues and secondly, on their ability to work through the tensions and conflicts to reach a resolution. The willingness to make such a decision to work at the marriage means that each individual must have either the belief or the motivation to do so. Secondly, each individual needs the tools to establish the adaptive processes that will facilitate them working constructively with their spouse to navigate through life’s events. While these skills come naturally to some (perhaps as a result of role-modelling by their parents) for others it is an outcome achieved by learning. In any case, the dynamics of each particular relationship mean that there will be an element of learning involved for each couple as they adopt a mutually acceptable process of adaptation.

So there is much that can be done. The first requirement could be met by a sustained awareness campaign similar to the ongoing anti-smoking advertisements which appear in all forms of media. Most Australians accept that a car needs regular maintenance and a top tennis player still needs coaching, yet there is a reluctance to accept that each of us can benefit from accessing support for our relationships. Highlighting the fact that all relationships have good and bad times, but emphasising the mental, emotional, health and financial benefits of marriage could help provide the motivation to choose to work at a relationship. Such sustained campaigns have certainly made a difference to attitudes and motivation to tackle even problems such as nicotine addiction. Smoking rates amongst Australians over 14 years of age have decreased by 40% since 1985 when the National Campaign against Drug Abuse (now known as the National Drug Strategy) was launched.[19]

The need for support to develop adaptive processes can be met through the provision of a broad and accessible range of resources, giving couples the tools they need to address the elements identified by researchers such as Karney and Bradbury. Marriage preparation, for example, helps couples become aware of the relationship implications of things each of them brings to the marriage such as personality, belief and attitudes about marriage, family of origin and social background. It may sound obvious but having led such courses, I am constantly amazed at how little some couples consider or discuss these things. Just being aware of them, however, can help establish a framework for working constructively through the tensions such differences can bring. Support at critical milestones (such as the first wedding anniversary and birth of the first child) can help update couples with the new skills needed to cope with transitions into new phases of life.

This support does not need to be the conventional evening lecture in a cold, grey venue but can be adapted to accommodate the pressures of our contemporary lifestyle. The popularity of programs such as Super Nanny, shows that reaching couples today can be achieved through a wide range of means (internet, cable TV, radio, self-help products such as DVD’s and audio CD’s as well as support groups where appropriate). Reviews of existing Government-sponsored Family Relationship Support Program services highlight that such support is almost universally welcomed by those who access it. Similar positive stories are commonplace regarding support from the community and Church-based providers of support. These same reviews however highlight that the take-up of the services is not widespread, indicating a need for incentives for couples to access the services or at the very least, an awareness campaign as to the benefits such support can bring to all families.

One thing for certain is that no marriage is perfect, but with help it can be functional, supportive and a healthy place for both parents and children. The methods to provide this support are there, but the question is should the Government be providing the means?

What should be done – is there a case for change?

Given that there are now a range of family models existing in contemporary Australian society, does the Government have a role to support or advocate any particular one of them as a desirable goal? As stated above, Australia seeks to be an egalitarian nation that operates for the good of all on the basis of fact, rather than particular philosophy or theology. Is there an accepted precedent where the Government has acted in the national interest when there are harmful consequences resulting from individuals’ legal actions which impact not only on themselves but also on those around them, on society at large and on the taxpayer?

The Quit campaign against smoking is one such case. Nobody denies an individual the right to smoke if they so desire, but even at the risk of being discriminatory the Government has chosen to respond to the damage that smoking causes. Actions by individuals were causing harm to themselves and those around them and the health consequences were costing everyone money. Even though the majority of people (71% in 1985) chose not to smoke, there was not a widespread call for action. Nevertheless, the Government acted to bring in a range of measures which affected people financially and limited their freedom of action. In time, these initiatives have brought about a significant change in culture as well as positive health outcomes.

When it comes to family relationships, there is likewise a case to justify Government action to prevent, where possible, the broad impacts of marriage breakdown. Commenting on this case for change which is supported by an increasing range of studies, researcher Professor Linda Waite said: “I am not being political, moral or prescriptive. I am a demographer. I simply count. But these results have important consequences for public health.”[20] The impact of relationship breakdown has been shown to have an adverse impact on each individual’s health and well-being as well as that of their family. The incidence of relationship breakdown also affects the individual and the broader community through direct and indirect costs. As stated above, in 2001 the additional direct cost of family separation to the taxpayer was in the order of $350,000,000.00. This figure does not take into account the indirect costs of coping with increased demand on health services, the legal system, remedial education, contact orders programs etc. Given that this support will be cumulative over the life of each child until 18 years of age, on financial grounds alone, there is a strong case for Government action.

The Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the US Dept of Health and Human Services Wade Horn makes a similar case for action in the USA. He quotes the results of research by 12 social scientists who conclude “marriage is more than a private emotional relationship. It is also a social good. Not every person can or should marry. And not every child raised outside of marriage is damaged as a result. But communities where good-enough marriages are common have better outcomes for children, women and men than do communities suffering from high rates of divorce, unmarried child bearing, and high-conflict or violent marriages.”[21]

The historical context of this case is underscored by the work of sociologist and historian Dr. Carle Zimmerman. His 1947 book Family and Civilization reviewed the decline of multiple civilizations and empires. Zimmerman found eight patterns of domestic behaviour that signalled the decline of a civilization. The first of these is that marriage loses its sacredness and is frequently broken by divorce. The second is that the traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony is lost. One could ask what significance the marriage ceremony has to the state of Australian society in 2005*? In the context of Karney and Bradbury’s work, quite a bit. For many couples, this ceremony remains the point in time at which they willingly enter into a contract to love, respect and support each other, for life, through all circumstances. This moment of deliberate choice becomes a benchmark against which they can evaluate future decisions. It provides couples who see their marriage as a contract, a powerful motivation to choose to work together to obtain the skills required to establish the framework that they will use to cope with whatever life brings. With divorce and separation perceived to be so prevalent however, marriage vows are now seen more commonly as an optional extra, a choice to be made along with which dress and flowers. For couples who merely go through the form of this ceremony but do not embrace and live out the substance of it, the loss of meaning of the marriage ceremony can indeed be a precursor to further dysfunction and cost to both individuals and society at large.

So from Aristotle to Zimmerman, there is a consistent message that we ignore at our peril.


In summary, the facts do not support the perception that marriage is no longer relevant. This unchallenged perception is undermining overt support for marriage even though 90% of families remain intact and the cost of separation can increasingly be quantified. Mackay’s contention that the family teaches us “important lessons about loyalty, responsibility and compromise” highlights the central role families have in nurturing the very skills that inform and equip future couples to choose to stay together. When combined with a lack of direction and support from society, the compounding, long term effects of family dysfunction provide considerable urgency for us to act.

In acting we need to:

  • recognise that our current hands-off approach to marriage is contributing to a very real human and financial cost,
  • acknowledge that the best place for a child is in a family where their mum and dad love
    and respect each other and are committed to working together to keep their relationship
    healthy through life’s changes,
  • make it a priority to invest in a sustained awareness campaign to inform popular
    perceptions and attitudes, and finally
  • invest in providing relevant, accessible relationship education and support.

There is much that can be done to make this investment effective and to encourage couples to choose to make their marriages stronger. The starting point however, I believe is clear. While affirming that we will support all people, regardless of the form of their relationship, we need to publicly acknowledge and openly advocate the benefits that a functional, healthy marriage relationship brings to husband and wife, their children and society at large.

The modern day couple deserves to have a vision of what their modern day family can be and the confidence of knowing that they have the support of community and Government to help them as they work towards it.


  1. Mackay, Hugh, Reinventing Australia, pp 61-62, Angus and Robertson, 1993
  2. Parker, Robyn, Why Marriages Last – A Discussion of the Literature, pg 1, Research Paper No. 28, Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2002
  3. 12.1162a16-29 Saxonhouse WHPT 84 quoted in 
  4. Vernon L. Provencal,
  5. de Vaus, David, Diversity and Change in Australian Families, pg 5, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2004
  6. Waite, Linda, ibid, pg 1
  7. de Vaus, David, ibid, pg 227
  8. ABS (2000), Suicides 1921-1998 (Cat No 3309.0), pp. 8-9
  9. AMP:NATSEM Financial impact of divorce in Australia. pg 14, Income and Wealth Report Issue 10, April 2005
  10. Child Support Agency Business Analysis Group, Disposable income tables: Demonstrating Family income before and after separation, pg 17, July 2004
  11. The Democrats Youth Poll,
  12. Kids Help Line caller data on Suicide related calls, pg 7,
  13. de Vaus, David, ibid, pg 224
  14. de Vaus, David, ibid, pg 232
  15. de Vaus, David, ibid, pg 123
  16. Parker, Robyn, ibid, pg 3.
  17. Parker, Robyn, ibid, pg 4
  18. Parker, Robyn, ibid, pg 6
  19. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Statistics on drug use in Australia 2004, AHIW, Canberra 2005
  20. Waite, Linda. quoted by Kate Legge in The Australian newspaper, pg 4, 10 Feb 2005.
  21.’why%20marriage% 20matters%2021%20conclusions%20from%20the%20social%20sciences’

*This article was originally written in 2005, while Senator David Fawcett was the Federal Member for Wakefield, South Australia (2004-2007).

David served in the Australian Defence Force for over 22 years. As an Army pilot, he flew helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and was the Senior Flying Instructor at the School of Army Aviation in Queensland. Graduating as an experimental test pilot from the Empire Test Pilots’ School (UK), he finished his full time career in Defence as the Commanding Officer of the RAAF Aircraft Research and Development Unit.

Elected to the House of Representatives as the Member for Wakefield (SA) in 2004, he served in the Parliament until 2007. David continued to fly as a test pilot and ran a small business working in the Defence and Aviation sectors prior to being elected to the Senate in 2010, 2016 and again in 2019. In the (45th) Parliament, David was sworn as the Assistant Minister for Defence. He currently serves as the Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.