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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Myth of the Happy American Family--What's Normal in the USA?

my family

I used to get really depressed around the holidays. My family is dead or estranged, and as the cultural scream that “family is everything” reaches its annual deafening pitch, I have often found myself feeling defective. I spent years in therapy trying to evaporate that self-image, and I have made enormous progress. So now, at the age of 62, I can honestly say I have what I’ve always wanted—a mostly peaceful contemplative life as a single woman. But still, around the holidays, that gets challenged by media and social media's lauding of the idealized family. So I wondered, what is true statistically? Do most Americans have great families where they love and support each other? Is “happy” the American family norm and am I some kind of an outlier?

To find the statistical truth about how many people experience a happy American family, I did simple Internet searches:

    • marriage and divorce statistics (at present, heterosexual only)


    • substance abuse statistics


    • poverty statistics


    • domestic violence statistics


    • child abuse and neglect statistics

I offer the results in the interest of a more authentic point of view about life in America.

Divorce Statistics

    • 45% to 50% of marriages end in divorce. (Jennifer Baker, Forest Institute of Professional Psychology)


    • 80.6% of women who divorce are age 29 or younger (http://www.divorcestatistics.org/)—the age of birthing.


    • 50% of all marriages of brides who are 25 or older result in divorce. (National Center for Health Statistics)


    • “Children of divorce have a higher risk of divorce when they marry, and an even higher risk if the person they marry comes from a divorced home. One study found that when the wife alone had experienced a parental divorce, her odds of divorce increased to 59 percent. When both spouses experienced parental divorce, the odds of divorce nearly tripled to 189 percent.” (Journal of Marriage and the Family)

Unscientific Conclusion: Divorce isn’t fun. It is usually not conducive to a happy family unit (although it can be better than perpetuating the unhappy unit it blows asunder). Approximately 50 percent of marriages with children will produce this un-fun situation. And most of the kids from these marriages will go on to repeat the cycle.

Substance Abuse Statistics

    • “Abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs is costly to our nation, exacting over $600 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and healthcare.” (http://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics#costs)


    • “In 2012, 49.30 percent of people age 26 and older used illicit drugs in their lifetime. Nearly 58 percent of people age 18 to 25 used illicit drugs in their lifetime and 36.30 percent used in the past year. (National Survey on Drug Use and Health, http://www.drugabuse.gov/national-survey-drug-use-health)

Unscientific Conclusion: More than a third of people in the prime of their birthing life are using drugs. Drugged people don’t make great parents. Drugged parents produce unhappy families. From this statistic alone (discounting the other areas listed here), there is a possibility that one-third of American families are experiencing drug-related behaviors.

Poverty Statistics

    • In November 2012 the U.S. Census Bureau said more than 16 percent of the population lived in poverty in the United States, including almost 20 percent of American children.


    • According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States), “Most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75.”


    • Poverty affects access to good education. Twenty percent of American kids are locked out of the influences they need to break the poverty cycle.


    • Females in poverty are more likely to become pregnant at a young age. They often drop out of school.


    • Many surveyors believe these statistics are understated and that poverty is much more prevalent than the numbers indicate. A 2012 study quantified 38 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck.

Unscientific Conclusion: When you don’t have enough money for food or shelter, you cannot have a happy family experience. You are in a constant state of stress. Stressed and traumatized adults cannot support and nurture stressed and traumatized children—20 percent of our population—who may then continue the cycle due to lack of nurturing.

Domestic Violence Statistics

    • Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. (“Violence Against Women, A Majority Staff Report,” Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, October 1992, p.3.)


    • One woman is beaten by her husband or partner every 15 seconds in the United States. (Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1991)


    • One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. (Tjaden, Patricia & Thoennes, Nancy. National Institute of Justice and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, “Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey,” 2000; Sara Glazer, “Violence, Against Women” CO Researcher, Congressional Quarterly, Inc., Volume 3, Number 8, February, 1993, p. 171; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute of Justice, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence, July 2000; The Commonwealth Fund, Health Concerns Across a Woman’s Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women’s Health, 1999)


    • 25 to 45 percent of all women who are battered are battered during pregnancy.


    • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a national survey that 34 percent of adults in the United States had witnessed a man beating his wife or girlfriend, and that 14 percent of women report that they have experienced violence from a husband or boyfriend.


    • Nearly three out of four (74%) of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. Thirty percent of Americans say they know a woman who has been physically abused by her husband or boyfriend in the past year. (Allstate Foundation National Poll on Domestic Violence, 2006. Lieberman Research Inc., Tracking Survey conducted for The Advertising Council and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, July—October 1996)


    • Many batterers learned violent behavior growing up in an abusive family.

Unscientific Conclusion: When one-quarter of families experience violence, they do not have a happy family experience and often the children of such families will continue the cycle. Perhaps some of these kids will join another statistic—people who do not wish to be part of families. Rather than call them defective, I would call them aware—of their impulses and influences—and sane. And again, the one-quarter of families who experience violence are merely those families who sought help through police, social workers, etc. I would wager one-quarter is the tip of the iceberg, as most people would rather do anything than air their pain this way.

Child Abuse & Neglect Statistics

    • In 2011, official reports of child abuse in 51 states totaled 676,569 victims of abuse and/or neglect. Or 9.1 victims per 1,000 children in the US population. The unique count of child victims counts a child only once regardless of the number of times he or she was found to be a victim during the reporting year. For FFY 2011, more than 3.7 million (duplicate count) children were the subjects of at least one report.


    • There were 73.9 million children (age 0–17) in 2011. (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports),

Unscientific Conclusion: Twenty percent of children in the USA in 2011 were officially reported as abused or neglected. How many unreported?

So What Is the Normal American Family?

I don’t know a scientific answer to that, but I sincerely doubt that it is overwhelmingly happy. How many adults who suffered abuse or neglect, reported or more likely never reported, are now producing dysfunctional families? How many feel as if they are out of step, when in fact they are far more normal than the media would lead us to believe?

As a culture we are invested in a view of ourselves as happy or potentially happy. And part of that idealized image requires a picture of loving, nurturing families as the norm. The greeting card business requires this mass delusion to maintain its $7 to $8 billion sales, and we believe what they’re selling. Why? Because we cannot bear to hear a story like the one on the news the other night about a father throwing his three-year-old off a high-rise and then jumping after him in order to wreak revenge on his ex-wife. That must be an anomaly, we say. A tragedy. Most people love their children, we say. Maybe so. But love and hate are flip sides of the same coin. If a man cannot support his family, he may flip into hate. If a woman feels so depleted she cannot feed her children, she may recycle her shame into hating the object she blames for it.

Twenty percent of children are reported as abused or neglected and the same number were reported to live in poverty; 25 percent of women get beaten up by husbands or boyfriends—any correlation? More than a third of people who are in their prime birthing years choose to self-medicate. Thirty-eight percent of families cannot count on filling their stomachs or having a permanent roof over their heads. One thing we know: these statistics only surface when there is interference. And most cases of unhappiness are not reported to authorities. So, on the theory of “as above, so below,” how about if we double these statistics?

That would mean that 50 percent of women and children are abused; 66 percent of birthing-age adults are drugging themselves; and 75 percent of American families are having financial and survival difficulties.

So what is normal?






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