Competing Conceptions of the Family

By Robert Ferrer

Archivist and Principle Researcher, Children’s Rights Council of Illinois

The traditional view of the nuclear family where Mommy stays home with the children and Daddy is off at work has given way to a more dynamic structure where it is not unusual for both parents to be working and taking care of the children. It is also not unusual for extended families to be significantly involved in caretaking.

As a result, our courts and state statutes seem to be operating on two competing, perhaps irreconcilable conceptions of divorce (Parkinson, P. (2006). Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood. Family Law Quarterly , 40, 237).

The Substitution Model emphasizes post-separation autonomy. The Enduring Family Model recognizes that because of children the lives of the parents remain inextricably interconnected.

Divorce, under the Substitution Model, means that the child is raised by one parent, usually the mother, and the other parent is given visiting rights. Post-separation autonomy means for the most part, a clean break among divorcing couples.

This conception is characterized by the binary nature of custody law and practice. The court determines who will raise the child as the sole custodial parent.

Divorce, under the Enduring Family Model, means the end of the relationship as spouses but not as parents. The family is not dissolved but reorganized. No distinction is made between custodial and non-custodial parents. Joint parental authority endures.

Nothing underscores the schism among the competing conceptualizations of divorce more than the issue of relocation. If divorce represents a clean break then shouldn’t the custodial parent be permitted to move at will? After all, shouldn’t the court be primarily concerned with protecting the relationship between the custodial parent and the child?

However, if the view is of the enduring family concept then it is generally acknowledged that the child’s best interest is served by maintaining a meaningful relationship with both parents. But how can the child maintain such a relationship at a distance?

I strongly believe that this schism is a product of the lack of focus in comporting policy with current research in child development and divorce studies.

What does the research say in regards to the child’s needs in maintaining a meaningful relationship with both parents? Does it matter? What is a meaningful relationship? Minimally, what amount and distribution of time are necessary for visitation to afford any benefits to the child? What is reasonable visitation and how does one determine it?

In subsequent months, topics I would like to address include:

1.     Differing conceptualizations of divorce: enduring family vs. clean-break paradigms

2.     The meaning of meaningful relationship

3.     How family law and de facto practice comport or undermine current research in family trends, divorce studies and child development

4.     ALI’s Approximation rule

5.     Domestic violence and child abuse

6.     ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution)

7.     Relocation

8.     PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome)

9.     Joint Custody

10.   Decision Making

11.   Parental Time

12.   Parentage

13.   Child Support: Dead-beat or dead-broke?

14.   Orders of Protection

15.   The Concept of Primary Parent

I look forward to sharing ideas with you. Your feedback is appreciated.


shared parenting advocateMy name is Robert Ferrer. I am a researcher and archivist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Although it is in Computer Science, I also apply the same heuristic principles in my interests in child development and family law. As such I’ve been working with the Children’s Rights Council of Illinois and Illinois Fathers in providing the background information in law and child development research for various endeavors. I have been collecting, reading and pondering the wealth of information dealing with divorce and children from many perspectives, including child development, family studies and law.

I’ve been attending the sessions of the Illinois Family Law Study Committee where they are currently reviewing current statutes for massive revisions. I’ve been in communications with many of its members and have established a collegial relationship. I have attended conferences on Contemporary Families, PAS and ADR. I have written several proposals in the attempt to mitigate parental loss, more fully integrating current research with proposed policy.

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3 comments on “Competing Conceptions of the Family

    Archivist and Principle Researcher, Children’s Rights Council of Illinois
    Dear Bonnie:

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights.

    I certainly agree that post-divorce parents need to meet periodically in a group or counselling setting to do a status check and to work out new issues. It also provides much needed support.

    I recently attended a workshop, Restorative Circles.
    It is a way for family members as well a community participants to deal with conflict. I found it very enlightening, and I am looking for ways to apply its principles for reorganized families.

    I really like your concept of ‘accountability’. It is unfortunate that the current legal paradigm deals with this strictly in punitive terms, also known as holding someone in contempt or grounds for modification. Accountability is a way of continuously keeping the relationships in check and dealing with issues before they become intractable.

    This comment is in response to the article, Competing Conceptions of the Family by Robert Ferrer. Although I am not familiar with all of the terminology used in this article, I do understand the gist of it. I am definitely a proponent of the Enduring Family Model and can testify that it has made all the difference in my children’s lives. I would add a word and concept that has been key in the fairly(not always) amicable separation and divorce of my children’s father and I and that would be “accountability.” I believe he(my ex) would agree that without it we would most likely have fallen under the Substitution Model, which would mean he would be off living his life and I would be off living mine. Although at this time we live in separate places, actually separate countries, our children are very much part of an Enduring Family Modeland are thriving because of it. How did this happen? Accountability. We were part of a group as a couple and continued to be after our separation to hold ourselves accountable. I hired a counselor strictly to hold me accountable for my actions when I found out there was “another woman”. We belonged to a progressive and closely-connected church community who supported us both,and our children, unconditionally, until this day. There is no reason that a group model could not be required for all couples with children who are separating. It doesn’t need to be “religious” it only needs to be a place to get perspective. It’s easy for many people to find family and friends who will confirm for them that their ex is a jerk or b%@*ch, in fact, most people are in such pain from their own issues that they would be happy to drag you down and commisserate. A group brings a reality check. What about the kids? This is their mom and dad whom they love. I never wanted to use the words “my ex” before but somehow it seems a fitting reminder. He’s “my” ex not my kids. They deserve to have him in their lives as much as they have me.

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