Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Families in the Legal Ecosystem: Thinking Globally, How Do We Act Locally?

Guest Blogger

Robert Emery

For the book symposium on Clare Huntington, Failure to Flourish: How Family Law Undermines Family Relationships (Oxford University Press, 2014)

I am awed by Clare Huntington’s sweeping and impressively detailed analysis of how the legal ecosystem, especially “negative family law,” pollutes contemporary family life. Huntington argues that the law shapes family forms and family relationships in ways far beyond the obvious. Of course, she highlights essential influences like education, childcare, marriage, and divorce policy. But Huntington argues that families also are affected by a myriad of other factors such as job opportunities and demands, neighborhoods, health care, and taxes.

In one sense, Huntington’s systemic perspective is not new. Sociologists, economists, and historians often argue that families are shaped by the broad forces of society, making a living, and history. Yet, no one has focused a lens more sharply than Huntington in identifying how the contemporary network of laws not only shapes but undermines stable, loving relationships across a diversity of family forms.

I am convinced by Huntington’s arguments, which she buffers with careful, detailed analysis of evidence from at least a dozen fields of study. Like her, I have been captivated by the positive psychology movement, and I want to join Huntington in her quest to promote a new, positive family law.

And yet, I am daunted in my awe. As I sometimes feel when reading about global warming – or the myriad of peer and media influences on my children, I wonder: What can I do? It’s all so much. Where do I begin?
Systemic perspectives like Huntington’s remind us that everything matters. But we cannot change everything. I wish she could offer a clear, simple call to action for promoting positive family law, perhaps a slogan equivalent to “think globally, act locally.” I do not know how to stop global warming, but I can learn to recycle, turn down the thermostat, and drive less.

I would love it if Huntington used this forum to offer the guidance that I seek.

In making this request, it seems only fair to try to answer my own question. Like many others, when I “think locally” about promoting healthy families, I focus on marriage. Empirical evidence, and lived experience, convinces me that long-term, happy marriage – in a diversity of forms including same-sex marriage – benefits the partners, their children, and society.

As same-sex marriage advocates have wisely reminded us, many legal policies do promote marriage, ranging from health insurance to (at least some) tax benefits to parenthood presumptions. Yet marriage is eroding in the United States and many industrialized countries. So we need to think globally about marriage and ask questions like: What are hidden costs of marriage?

Perhaps some of the hidden costs of marriage circle back to Huntington’s negative family law. I suspect that many young people avoid marriage as a way of avoiding the painful costs of a potential divorce. If so, we might actually promote happy marriage by making divorce easier, not harder.

I am not sure of my own argument, but this possibility is a reminder of the benefits of thinking globally even as we act locally. Huntington offers masterful global thinking in Failure to Flourish. I am eager for more direction about how she wants us to act locally.

Robert Emery is Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia. He may be contacted at

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