The Evolution of Family Structures

By Themba Dlamini

Only 100 years ago, a family was defined as a married couple and their children, but things have changed tremendously.

The mother, father, son and daughter with 2 dogs family structure is no longer the standard and several variations on family have been created. There are eight specific types of family structures identified by society today.

The following types of families exist today. Some families may fall into multiple categories. For example, a single parent family who lives in a larger, extended family. As laws and norms change, so do family structures.

The Nuclear Family

Also called the traditional family, the traditional family remains surprisingly strong today. Surprisingly because divorces are on the rise and the stigma once attached to single mothers has largely disappeared.

Living apart together

About 10% of UK adults have opted for this family structure. A structure where a couple chooses not to cohabitate (or are not currently cohabitating).

“As laws and norms change, so do family structures.”

Same Sex Couples

Of course, there are really a number of different same-sex family structures, not just one. Same-sex couple implies a couple living without children (coupling describes this household structure for both heterosexual and homosexual couples) but there are also same-sex families where there are children (either naturally the children of one or other parent or adopted). The sad thing is that same sex marriages are illegal in most African countries with South Africa being one of the very few countries that has legalised it.

Grandparent family

There are many situations where grandparents step in and assume care of their grandchildren. For example, the natural parents might be too young to assume such responsibility or be unfit due to many possible reasons.

Single-parent families

One parent living with one or more children describes the single-parent family, a model that has been steadily rising over the past decades. There are several reasons why one parent is left to care for the kids alone: divorce, death of the partner, or having a child without a stable partner.

A single-parent family is one where the bonds between parent and children are quite strong, as are those between siblings. This happens as, in many cases, the family struggles and this generates an us vs. them mentality.


With a stepfamily, also known as a blended family, young children may live with a stepparent and even acquire stepsiblings. The most difficult part is the adjustment period when the new stepmom or dad has to carve out her or his place in the new family. There can be a lot of resentment, especially following an acrimonious divorce when children are in a tug of war between their biological parents.

A child may perceive a stepparent as an intruder, especially if the ex is not supportive of the blended family. While the stepparent can develop an amazing bond with the youngster, there are also families where children won’t ever truly accept this person into their lives.


Polygamy is a type of relationship that typically involves a person marrying more than one partner.  South African traditionalists have been well known to practice polygamy and the topic has been a serious political issue in the past several years

All types of family structures have their strengths and weaknesses. What is important is that people understand and respect families that seem so different from their own.

Exempts from; and

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