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The Way We Never Were

The Way We Never Were, by historian/author Stephanie Coontz, yanks the traditional American family out of its gauzy haze.

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mr. Grant famously said, “I hate nostalgia. I hated it then. I hate it now.”

In 1992, with the publication of her book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, historian/author Stephanie Coontz ran with that anti-sentimental sentiment and yanked the “traditional” American family the hell out of its gauzy haze.

The study caused a major disruption in the gooey, force-fed nostalgia that keeps us longing for the good old days that never really were. We claim we know fact from fiction, but ultimately, nostalgia can make us feel like shit and keep us sort of ignorant.

Wrong, wrong and wrong: the “typical American family” tells us — in its passive-aggressive way —  that we may not measure up, or that we may not be normal enough, and that we fall below expectations of what is “typical.” And if only we can be as happy as the people on social media appear to be (welcome to the new nostalgia trap!).

As well, the culture war over “family values” may be well intentioned, but perhaps a tad askew. Take a hard look at the way it really was, says Stephanie, and see how what we believe gets in the way of the realities of now.

What better time to revise and update the original edition, now containing a fresh look at how much family life and gender relationships have changed — and even improved — in the last quarter century. And yet, our American myths remain so embedded in our collective worldview that our perceptions and opinions are thwarted and crippled.

The book exposes the nuclear family of the 1950s (think The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best) as smoke and mirrors, and proves, over and over again, that this structure was not traditional or typical at all. It was more aspirational, but what if our attempt was a total fail?

Furthermore, despite the rally cry, single mothers are not a sudden and new epidemic, the original function of marriage wasn’t really about love and romance, and money actually could buy happiness (when it comes to federal funding).

Make sure you take the quiz down below, and see how much you know about the American family — or how much you think you know.


Demographics are showing an increase in adults who are single/never married as well as a rise in single-parent households. Should the bridal industry be concerned? 

There has certainly been this huge surge in singlehood. The way I look at is that our old distinctions between “married” and “single” are breaking down. The idea is that people are postponing marriage for much, much longer. The average age of marriage for women is almost 27, but the spread is so much greater than it used to be. Women are marrying for the first time in their 40s, 50s and 60s. And even though divorce rates are falling, they are rising for older Americans. They have tripled for people over 65. So people live for long parts of their lives and make important decisions outside of marriage.

It’s crazy for society to make all of its assumptions on the grounds that the only people who need dependence and support systems are married people, but it also means that single individuals are making different kinds of demands.

Should we once again turn to the Millennials to see the root of this revolution? 

I do think there has been a tremendous generational change. If you look at [research], you see that most younger people do not think you need to be married to lead a happy life, and they put marriage further down on their list of priorities. But, at the same time, most of them say that they do eventually want to get married. There is still a sense in our society that marriage is the highest form of commitment. And it does make a difference, the expectations that are attached to it. People are still attracted to it.

Is the dream of the suburbs dying? People are now gravitating toward the urban core, not the split-level with the white picket fence. 


Yes. If you look back at how the suburbs developed, they are a classic example of both the benefits and dangers of government subsidies. The frontier farm family has the honor of being the most subsidized family in American history, but the 1950s suburban family has run a close second. The government built the roads to get them there. It was government financing that created all the prefabricated housing. The banking system was set up so that you could transfer funds out of urban areas and invest them in suburban areas. It was set up so that you got federal funding and support only for new building; not for repairs, all of which were great for families who were moving to the suburbs, but it really hurt the families who were left behind, in decaying inner-cities.

Now, of course, the same sort of policies and practices are actually hurting the suburbs. There is no investment in its infrastructure.

Also dying: The 9-5 rat race routine, getting a job in a corporate center and working at that same gig for years or even decades. Job security: gone. Corner offices and cubicles: gone. Is the new office-space culture better for our psychological health? 

It is only a minority of people who are getting the positive alternative to offices. The top-earning Americans are actually becoming more and more isolated, both at work and in where they live, from the rest of America. This is a real problem because — we talk about the increase in concentrated poverty neighborhoods — there has also been an increase in concentrated wealthy neighborhoods. The middle-income and lower-income neighborhoods don’t even get any trickle-down effect. We’ve seen this huge proliferation of really low-wage, temp, contingent jobs, just horrendous. So you are really seeing a hollowing out there. There are these ideal [MicroSoft/Google-type] environments, but the people who clean those buildings are finding it harder and harder to get by.

The gig economy offers increased flexibility at a cost of long-term security.

The legalization of gay marriage, the attention paid to transgender issues, and the overall acceptance of alternative lifestyles have been swift and loud, especially on social media. The old standard of “normal” has been shattered. Is this a good thing? 

That’s been a stunningly rapid change. It’s one of these interesting contradictions that we’re seeing. There is an equality revolution, at least in terms of the idea that nobody ought to be discriminated against because of their lives or their race or their gender or their sexuality. But at the same time, we’ve also had an inequality revolution.

Social media has basically changed everything, hasn’t it?

Yes, but both for good and for ill. The stuff that gets the attention: online predators and bullying, for example — there’s not a lot of evidence that it’s really worse than before. What scares researchers the most is the exposure of babies and toddlers to [social media]. We know that they really need real people to interact with them. I’m not an alarmist about technology, but the research is absolutely clear that hearing voices and seeing faces that are not real just do not activate the same neurological pathways.

We think so much about these outside dangers to children, but the real dangers are the ones that are the biggest conveniences in our own lives.

TV series like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver gave a distorted view of American life. Did it reflect society or influence it? 

The more I look at the history of how people bought into this, the more I can sympathize. They’ve just gone through the Depression and World War II, and tremendous hardships and trauma. Even for the GIs who came home supposedly healthy and happy, the adjustment was very difficult for them.

This idea of “normality” was an aspirational idea. The TV shows said, “this is what it could be like.” In addition, there really was an economic time period when young men, age 25-29, until 1973, earned more in real wages than their parents and grandparents. This gave them a sense of hope, of “going up, just keep going in the same direction. Look how much better off we are than our parents and grandparents.” So I think that helped them see the consumer-driven images as goals that they could and should strive for, because then they could get rid of all of those hardships and difficulties of family life that their parents had experienced.

Single motherhood was once considered a stigma; now it’s practically mainstream and barely raises an eyebrow. We’ve come a long way from Dan Quayle chastising Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock. How is the single-mother demographic fitting into modern life now that it’s not as stigmatized? 

I think there are some real concerns, but not the concerns that people initially thought.

In 1992, when my book first came out, everybody was yelling that the increase in divorce and single motherhood would cause a wave of crime. What happened? Juvenile crime fell by 60% between 1992 and today. The murder rate in 2013 was lower than at any time since they started keeping records in 1960.

We have studies that show that all the dangers of single motherhood occur to mothers who don’t have education or financial resources. There is nothing per se about single motherhood that dooms kids. Single motherhood could actually be a very positive choice for an educated, single woman who plans it carefully. What we’re learning about single motherhood is that it’s challenging, yes, but everybody faces lots of challenges.

A woman or man with an education and economic security with a planned approach to life can easily overcome [obstacles]. But the other problem is that single motherhood is most prevalent — not among people who have those resources — but among people who feel desperate and unable to enter stable relationships.

So I just want to thread a needle here, and say, yes, there is concern that so many kids have been raised in neighborhoods that have been devastated by unemployment and economic insecurity, and only have one parent to cope with all of those challenges. But is it the one-parent that is causing all the problems that these kids have, or is it the problems of those communities that tend to make single parenthood more likely? And, the next step being, what can we do to help?

We can provide high-quality preschool, which has huge [positive] effects. And we can give money. Contrary to the American myth that throwing money at a problem doesn’t help, is that it does help. I have masses of studies that show that when parents have more money, they spend more on education and more on nutrition, and on average, they spend less on temporary stress reducers like alcohol and cigarettes.

Millennials are rejecting many staples of American life, like fast-food and processed food, shopping malls, logos, and even new cars. However, we can’t count out corporate America just yet; they won’t take this lying down. What will happen to our love of consumerism? 

We know for a fact that people are happier when they get experiences rather than things, but there is also a lot of research that shows that, when people feel insecure about their prospects, when they feel that they are falling behind other people, when they don’t think they are moving in a positive direction, they then find “things” especially comforting. Even people who start out with really good values and who don’t necessarily want to go along with the corporate advertisers, they are more likely to be seduced by the prospects of “things.” America has income volatility and a worse social safety net. My grandmother would say, “get what you can, can it and sit on the can.”

Do we have reason to be optimistic about our country’s future, or should we head for the hills? 

There are some ways in which I’m very optimistic. I think individuals have learned immensely. Just look at the changes in male-female relationships. The attitudes toward gender equality have gotten so much better. Domestic violence has declined. Suicide rates have fallen. Men have tripled their amount of childcare, doubled their amount of housework. We find that men are much less threatened by egalitarian or even more educated women than they used to be. There used to be all this terror that if women were getting all this education, they would not be able to find husbands. It used to be, in the 1960s and 1970s, that if a woman had more education than her husband, then it was a higher risk factor for divorce; now it’s not.

There are all of these great changes that individuals are making, but at a certain point, they run up against the wall of a complete lack of family support systems. Only 13% of American workers have paid leave. The lack of affordable childcare, they run up against that. And, at the same time, they are increasingly hammered by this economic inequality and insecurity. That’s the part of it that’s scary; what’s frustrating is [the perception is that] family changes — most of which were actually positive — are the actual cause of the problems that we’re facing.



1. What was the LEAST traditional family arrangement in history?

A. Monogamy

B. Polgyny

C. Polyandry

D. The male breadwinner family

E. Unmarried cohabitation

2. What was the earliest historical function of marriage?

A. To feed and protect women and children.

B. To provide a labor force for the male household head.

C. Neither of the above.

D. Both of the above.

3. In most of 19th century America, at which age could an unmarried woman legally consent to sex?

A. 7

B. 12

C. 17

D. 21

E. Never

4. Which of the following statements are false?

A. When a woman marries a man with less education than she has, this is a risk factor for divorce.

B. When two people cohabit and have a baby together before getting married, they have a higher risk of divorce than when they wait until after marriage to have a child.

C. Women who marry for the first time at an older age than average have a heightened risk of divorce.

D. Men report lower levels of work-family stress than women.

E. Couples who share housework and childcare equally have less sex and lower rates of marital satisfaction than couples with a more traditional division of labor.

5. What was a common medical treatment for Victorian middle-class wives thought to be suffering from hysteria or nervousness?

6. Which of the following changes occurred during the first five years after each American state adopted no-fault divorce?

A. A feminization of poverty – with women falling into poverty at a higher rate than men.

B. A decline in wives’ suicide rates.

C. A drop in the murder of husbands by wives.

D. A decline in domestic violence. 

7. Which of the following statements are true?

A. When a wife goes to work, that raises a couple’s risk of divorce.

B. The workplace is the major source of stress for women.

C. Women’s entry into the workforce has decreased parents’ time with kids.

D. Informal, home-based childcare arrangements are better for children than center-based care.

E. None of the above.

F. All of the above.

8. Which of these statements is true about divorce trends?

A. Marriages are lasting longer than they did in the 1970s and 1980s.

B. The divorce rates of people over 65 have tripled.

C. Neither of the above.

D. Both of the above.

9. Which of the following differences have research studies found between children raised in same-sex families and children raised by married heterosexuals?

A. Children in same-sex partnerships have more academic problems than children raised in heterosexual families.

B. Children raised by lesbian partners have several emotional advantages over children raised in heterosexual families.

C. There are no significant differences in outcomes between the two.

D. All of the above.

10. Over the past 100 years, Americans have become more tolerant of a much wider variety of sexual behavior. True or False?



1. D

2. C. (The earliest function of marriage had very little to do with the relationship between the individual partners. Marriage was a way of getting in-laws.)

3. B. (If you said 7, you must be from Delaware.)

4. All these statements USED to be true, but since the early 1990s they have all CEASED to be true.

5. Having a physician massage them to orgasm, either by hand, or with a mechanical device such as water hydration or a vibrator.

6. B, C, and D. The feminization of poverty occurred in the 1950s-1970s. Since then men have been falling into poverty at a faster rate then women, although women (usually never-married mothers) comprise the majority of the extremely poor. Divorce hurts both partners financially, especially women who were homemakers. But over time, a majority of women end up better off, either through work or through remarriage.

7. E.

8. D.

9. D. All of these findings have been reported, but the first two were based on skewed sources. The first study compared children of divorced couples, where one partner had come out as gay or lesbian, to children in still intact heterosexual families. The second took a convenience sample of lesbian partners who volunteered to have their children evaluated, which probably produced an especially favorable sample. Now that researchers have compared two random and representative samples, controlling for divorce, they find no significant differences in adjustment, achievement, or emotional stability between children of same-sex and heterosexual parents.

10. False. Americans have become more tolerant of consensual non-marital sex, but define consent more narrowly than in the past. They are more disapproving of infidelity and much less tolerant of non-consensual sex. Until the 1970s, every state in America defined rape as a man’s forcible intercourse with a woman OTHER than his wife.


Find out more about Stephanie Coontz and her books.

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