Nuclear Family Privilege: Naming It and Slaying It


Our organization is called Unmarried Equality for good reason. Those two words should go together. Only they don’t. If you are unmarried, you are unequal. Unequal under the law, unequal in the workplace, unequal in the marketplace, and unequal in everyday life.

For well over a decade, I’ve been documenting the biases and discrimination faced by individual single people. For example, in Singlism, 28 other contributors and I explained what singlism is, why it matters, and how to stop it. Rachel Buddeberg and I wrote a long article for Truthout putting the concept of “marital privilege” (and not just the courtroom type) on the map. Then Christina Campbell and Lisa Arnold joined us in creating a list version, “Check your marital privilege.”

A recent article by Mia Birdsong and Nicole Rodgers made the important point that single people are not just disadvantaged as individuals – their families, and the important people in their lives, are also relegated to second-class citizenship. The authors named this potent form of privilege “nuclear family privilege.” All unmarried people are excluded from it.

“How do nuclear families benefit from unearned privilege?,” Birdsong and Rodgers ask. Here is a sampling of their answers, which I’ve converted to bullet points:

  • “From tax breaks and employment policies to medical care and media representation.
  • …schools engage in Father’s Day celebrations even though 25 percent of children are raised in homes without their fathers.
  • Women over 35 get looks of pity when others learn they are unmarried.
  • Bereavement policies provide no time off for the death of an aunt, even if she is the one who raised you.
  • Workplaces regularly hold evening events without considering the childcare needs of single parents.
  • Long-term childfree couples are treated as not quite a family because they are not married and don’t have kids.
  • Fathers—particularly, poor and/or black fathers—who are not married to the mothers of their children, are incorrectly believed to be ‘absentee.'”

Slaying singlism, marital privilege, and nuclear family privilege would be important even if the vast majority of Americans were married and living in nuclear family households. But they aren’t.  When Alternet reprinted Birdsong and Rodgers’ article (originally in Salon), they did so under the title, “Time to end ‘nuclear family privilege’ – Let’s overcome irrational nostalgia for a version of family long since transformed.”

Here are some of the ways Americans are not going nuclear anymore, as documented by the authors:

  • Only 22% of kids live in nuclear-family households in which the dad is employed and the mom is not in the labor force (as compared to 65% in the late 1950s)
  • “Forty-one percent of babies born in the U.S. today have parents who are not married, and among millennials, it’s over half.”
  • Today, “more individuals live alone,
  • There are more families with married parents who are both employed,
  • More single-parent homes,
  • Children living with grandparents,
  • Children living with unmarried, cohabiting parents, and
  • Households composed of people who are not biologically related or legally bound.”

For my new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I traveled around the country to interview people in their homes and see for myself what contemporary “lifespaces” look like. I also scoured the scholarly journals to learn more about the statistics on different kinds of households and families.

Among the many ways of living I discovered, in addition to all of the examples noted by Birdsong and Rodgers, were:

  • Couples who live apart in places of their own, not because they are not committed to the relationship or because they want to cheat with impunity or because far-flung jobs keep them apart, but because they prefer to have homes of their own. They are described as “Living Apart Together” (LAT), or, alternatively, “dual-dwelling duos.”
  • Multigenerational households, with a contemporary flavor.
  • Single-mother families who live with other single-mother families; they find each other in the CoAbode
  • Single people who are care deeply about raising children, and seek out other single people with the same wishes and values, to commit to parenting children together at least until the children become independent. Romance and marriage are not part of the package. They find each other on sites such as Family by Design and Modamily.
  • People living solo and in all different family types who come together with other community-oriented people to create a neighborhood that is like a village (as, for example, in cohousing communities).

Of all of the many ways of living that I researched, only two seem to be decreasing in popularity in contemporary American society:

  1. nuclear family households
  2. old-style communes, in which people share everything (even clothes) and are assigned jobs as part of the communal economy.

Those of us who live any way other than in nuclear family households or communes have numbers on our side. We are in the majority, by an overwhelming 4-to-1 margin. Yet, as Birdsong and Rodgers also note, we do not have public sentiment in our corner and we surely do not have the attention or respect of people in power – or people clamoring for public office.

We cannot even count on progressive voices to validate our quest for fairness. In my first UE column (here, for a version with links), I took on the disturbing new trend of forces from the left joining with those from the right to advocate for marriage. These marriage opportunists distort the data, but that does nothing to undermine their access to money, media, power, and influence. Those of us who want fairness for all individuals and households and families are going to need to be resolute, and to commit for the long haul.

[Note: This is one of my monthly columns. The views expressed here are my own and not the official positions of Unmarried Equality.]

About the author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at

Previous columns:

#6 Is marriage a greedy institution?

#5 Housing Discrimination against People Who Are Not Married: What We Just Don’t Get

#4 Now It’s Really Time for Unmarried Equality

#3 3 Roads to Social Justice – For Lasting Change, We Must Follow Them All

#2 The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)

About Bella DePaulo


  1. As I near 34 years old I feel this odd pressure. I’ve been fine my whole life believing I don’t need anyone to complete me or to bear children. Strange majority culture pressures. I don’t want TV and I am not mainstream yet these majority culture messages still creep in. I know I’ve been discriminated against for my race, my gender identity, my perceived sexual orientation, and my status as living solo. It is a discriminating world in this upside down world.

  2. Ken Karpinski says:

    October 12, 2015’s “Nuclear Family Privilege: Naming It and Slaying It” needs the left quote mark, “, deleted from Today, more individuals live alone

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