Choosing when to start a family

Choosing when – or if – to start a family is one of the major steps of adulthood. The best reason to start a family is wanting to have a child or children for their own sake, not for any other purpose such as to ‘hold together’ a shaky relationship. Truly adult parents do not wish to ‘possess’ their children. Instead they recognize their role as custodians for a quarter of the child’s life. Unconditional love is required: love for the child as an individual, not only when he behaves according to his parents’ preferences; children need to feel that they in no way come second in their parents’ affections.

As the years pass, parents should recognize the signs of maturing in their offspring. By refusing to allow children to grow healthily towards independence, parents risk producing immature adults who will lead unfulfilled lives and perhaps in turn stunt the development of their own children. Domestic stress, whether a feature of a couple’s life together or of a parent-child relationship, is not only harmful in itself, it can also produce vulnerability to many forms of bodily ill-health.

Middle age

As middle age sets in, the young adult’s automatic confidence in his health and physical performance diminishes. Often, however, the wisdom of experience, perhaps including increased technical proficiency in certain activities, can compensate. New sources of tension may arise: the adolescence of one’s children; the aging, dependence or death of parents; weakening links with an extended family; fears of a decline in earning power or eventual retirement. On the other hand, the ripening of adulthood should ideally include the wisdom of maturity. We need to be independent but not excessively so; capable of giving and receiving affection; free from extreme competitiveness; not ruled by self-deception; constructively occupied; able largely to accept the world for what it is, although not unaware of its problems and towards whose solution we can perhaps still contribute. Many of us fail to reach this full maturity, which perhaps indicates that we have far to go before the human race itself can be termed completely ‘adult’.


Adult patterns of cohabitation in the industrialized world have changed in recent decades. Although heterosexual marriage has remained the model for the majority of partnerships, the number of non-married couples living together has increased steadily. The experimental ‘communes’ and ‘collectives’ of the 1960s have not survived in any great number, but they may be credited with the fact that heterosexual marriage is not nowadays the only option chosen by people wishing to live together.


Marriage is largely a social concept, involving public-recognition of the institution as well as an agreed allocation of rights and duties between partners. Every society the world has known has been based on some kind of marriage between members and on family life. These have taken a number of forms: group marriage; polygamy (one male with several females); polyandry (one female with several males); and monogamy. Monogamy, relatively permanent pair-bonding between a man and a woman, has persisted longest and is now the predominant form of marriage worldwide. It may be argued that homosexual ‘marriages’ of either sex are a further feature of a free society.

In Western society the ideal of marriage is that it should be voluntary, monogamous and permanent, although the concept of permanence has changed somewhat. Some people have argued that the developed world is moving towards ‘series polygamy’, in which people may have a succession of spouses. Although traditional patterns of chaste, supervised pre-marital courtship persist for adolescents and young adults in some cultures, flexibility has increased in this area too. Sexual experience and even promiscuity before marriage are now viewed with more tolerance than they were; and sexual experience before marriage is now proportionately more common than marriage between partners who are both virgins. This is perhaps the result of a realistic recognition by society of the problems caused by the strong sex-drive of early adulthood.

Living together

About three per cent of all cohabiting heterosexual couples in the West today are unmarried, and roughly 18 per cent of married couples lived together before marrying. These patterns vary from country to country, with Sweden, for example, at the forefront of the trend away from institutionalized marriage. Living together may be little more than a casual affair, but it is more usually intended to be longer-lasting -perhaps as preparation for marriage or as a ‘trial marriage’. When asked, most cohabitors say they intend to marry at some time, although often later in their lives than average. Roughly half such partnerships lead eventually to marriage, but an increasing percentage resist the pressures of society to marry. Cohabitors tend to have less traditional attitudes and lifestyles than married couples. Often they choose this kind of relationship in order to retain independence and autonomy while at the same time enjoying the closeness and companionship of conjugal life. However, in many ways the similarities between marriage and living together are as significant as the differences: in terms of choice of partner, expectations and roles, for example. The legal systems of many Western countries have gradually changed to take more account of these similarities, but in general the law still favours married couples.

Homosexual partnerships

Despite greater openness about homosexuality, social tolerance of homosexual relationships has not grown as fast as tolerance of heterosexual cohabitation outside marriage. Longer lasting male or female same-sex partnerships are perhaps more widely accepted than transient relationships. Homosexuals of both sexes have said that it is particularly hard for them to maintain a meaningful relationship in a society that offers little or no sanction or support, or which in fact oppresses them. Even so, many homosexual couples succeed in building a life partnership that has many of the positive features – such as mutual respect and loyalty – of a strong heterosexual union.

Choice of partner

With two world wars, increased geographical mobility, the changing role of women, wider educational opportunity, and the impact of technology that has freed people from traditional constraints, the West has experienced a breakdown of social divisions. This has given people more freedom of choice of sexual partners than ever before. Many people, if their socio-cultural group is large enough, still prefer to find a partner from the same or a similar background; but more and more people are choosing to cross ‘barriers’ of race, income-bracket, occupation, religion, education and age. Although it is sometimes said that this increased freedom is one of the reasons behind the greater incidence of failed marriages, there is no compelling evidence for a direct, causal, link. Marriage or cohabitation is sometimes seen as a type of mutual ‘bargain’ in which two people exchange complementary social or personal attributes – beauty, charm, money, skills and so on. We can better appreciate the possibilities and potential of life-partnerships by recognizing this ‘bargain’ as a starting point only: ideally, each partner intends to learn from the other, so as to acquire in time all the attributes that go to make a healthy individual. As a case in point. Women now increasingly resist the traditional stereotyped dependency roles, so that the marriage transaction is in some ways becoming less unfair than it once was.

In the West, men tend to marry or form life-partnerships during their mid- to late 20s, women in their early to mid-2()s. Those who enter into committed relationships earlier than this have statistically a greater chance of their relationship breaking-up.


Maturity, then, is important for marriage and for all relationships involving loyalty and commitment. Immediate life-long compatibility is achieved only by the exceptionally lucky few; for most of us it is a matter of working steadily towards the goals we and our partner have set ourselves.

Goals and expectations

Forming a lasting partnership is a major turning point for most people. For some, a traditional ‘white’ wedding is still the preferred choice; for others, obtaining a marriage certificate is little more than a bureaucratic formality, for still others marriage is something to be avoided at all costs. What makes a successful or happy partnership, however, is a question the importance of which the majority of adults will recognize whatever their lifestyle. A successful partnership needs more than just an absence of conflict; rather it requires a positive sense of growth and well-being shared by both partners. Both love and sexual fulfilment may be present in a happy relationship, but it is possible to have one without the other. Sexual gratification, for example, may be almost entirely absent. On the other hand, few people would call a union without love a success.

People’s partnership goals also vary considerably. For some, parenthood may be the prime motivation; but whatever the case, most people would probably agree that a committed relationship is intended to bring about personal happiness and fulfilment. Every individual has a different view of how best to achieve happiness within a relationship. Certain objectives will, however, be found to be held in common, such as affection, mutual respect and support, willingness to learn from each other and sharing of chores and responsibilities.

Male and female roles

Definitions of male and female roles have changed during this century, especially during the last 30 years. Whereas extreme positions of aggressive feminism or reactionary paternalism are adopted by some people, in general a gradual loosening of stereotypes has allowed greater freedom for many. The quiet, home-loving male who wants to share his life with a more assertive female partner can now do so with less sense of being considered ‘odd’. Similarly, the ‘career’ woman is less likely to miss out entirely on having a partner and children, if she wants them; and the ‘housewife’ has more opportunities to experience being an independent wage-earner at some time.

Love and love-making

Most people would mention ‘love’ as being at the centre of their relationship with a partner, although they might interpret the word differently. Narrow expectations of love may range from the unrealistic bliss and excitement peddled by popular love stories or Hollywood films, to the dogged sense of duty that was once the lot of many subservient wives. Two elements – personal fulfilment and the capacity to acknowledge another person’s needs – are important if a relationship is to have a more realistic foundation with the aim of mutual, lasting, satisfaction. Love depends on each partner having some freedom to choose, while acknowledging that freedom also involves responsibility.

For most couples, sexual activity is a natural expression of the partners’ feelings of love for each other. Although there are statistical averages for sexual activity, these do not in any sense constitute a ‘norm’. Sexual intercourse several times a week is normal for some couples, whereas for others intercourse is much more infrequent. Either partner may at times ‘go off sex altogether, perhaps through overwork, tiredness or some other cause. On such occasions honesty between partners is essential, so that what is probably just a passing phase does not sow the seeds of lasting misunderstanding. Sexual compatibility may take years for some couples to achieve. Through trust and patience, and perhaps a willingness to experiment, a rewarding improvement in mutual satisfaction can be attained. Open discussion of sexual problems between partners is needed, and if the situation appears insoluble their doctor can recommend specialist advice through sexual or marital counselling.