This started as a kind of stream of conscious riffing on family and society. It ended up being a long-ass essay about how a society could develop around multi-generational households and group marriages. If you like anthropology, fictional societies or “how stuff works”, read on!
A while back on Quora I was asked to answer “They say that polyamorous families (group marriages) are happier and provide more role models for children than traditional nuclear families, what do you think about it?”
(Un)fortunately, because of Quora’s “Be nice, be respectful” policy, I couldn’t say what I REALLY think about it.
The same day, I also realized that all my old posts about my current WIP (working title: Building Family) are gone now. So I should maybe start talking about it again so folks know what I’m doing!
And I ALSO did some work on the conlang for Building Family, creating the words for different family relationships.
So let’s talk family.
Every society has their own idea of an ideal family. And whatever that “ideal” is, it’s going to have benefits that support that society’s values and beliefs. In modern America the ideal is the so-called “nuclear family” — two parents and their kids living together. While it isn’t usually part of the definition of a nuclear family, I’d argue that the ideal also includes extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — who maintain a connect with the nuclear family through family holiday celebrations, reunions and other occasional interactions.
In Building Family, there are several closely related societies who all share similar ideas about what the “ideal” family looks like. Specifically, they all favor multi-generational households built around group marriages.
Some Family History
The groups who are known as “far-walkers” and the fisherfolk created the family culture in Building Family. The fisherfolk are the cultural descendants of the people who first came to this small continent. They were family groups who lived on their boats and traveled together. The far-walkers are hunter-gatherers who also travel in family groups, coming together for larger gatherings once a year.
Unlike in our world, people in the world of Building Family have a serious incentive to build secure, permanent shelters. Without giving away too much I’ll say in tropical and semi-tropical regions, being out in the sun on a bright summer day, even for a minute or two, can be a REALLY bad idea.
So far-walkers and fisherfolk started building homes where they would spend the summer under roofs. But it never occurred to them to build multiple buildings for a family group. One big building for everyone in the family. Children, parents, grandparents, the occasional great-grandparent all living together.
Overtime, some of these families developed a more sedentary lifestyle. Only the young adults go on the long boat trips and season-long hunting/gathering journeys. The older adults (grandparents and great-grandparents) and children stay in the family home all year. And eventually some become fully sedentary. The boats come into dock every night, or a far-walker family decides to specialize in leatherwork They stay in one place and far-walking families pay them to turn skins and furs into well-tanned leathers. Of course, there are advantages to setting up your permanent residence near other people. And if this goes on long enough, eventually you have a village, a town, or even a city.
And you have a culture that idealizes a family where multiple generations live together under one roof.
But what about marriage? How does that work? Does it work even?
Well, with all property belonging to the family, there’s little incentive for many of the patriarchal practices and attitudes that developed in many real world bronze age cultures. Controlling “your” woman to ensure that you have children to leave your property to is much less of an issue when you don’t have any property. And women needing to stay home and take care of the kids is less of a thing when the grandparents are living right there and expected to take care of the kids while the parents work.
So I decided what the hell. To the best of our knowledge it never happened in the real world, but I’m going to go ahead and make a culture where gender roles don’t exist.
Of course, families still needed to ensure they would have kids to pass their property on to. The continuity of property ownership is kinda a critical thing to any and all societies that have significant property ownership. This right away interferes with “no concept of gender” because families need to be sure that they have a het pairing to have kids, right?
Well, not if group marriage is the norm. And this goes back to those far-walkers and fisherfolk.
Let’s Not Ration Sex
In at least some real world hunter-gather societies, sex was pretty much an open thing between members of the same band. In Building Family, there is no reason for that to change once they started spending time in houses.
With no concern about tracing paternity for the sake of inheritance, there was nothing stopping these folks from developing a custom of group marriages.
Okay, so that’s the structure of the families in this society: multi-generational households and group marriages.
How Do Multi-Generational Households and Group Marriages WORK
We all know the logistics of a nuclear family —
Kids grow up in their parent’s home. The move out, meet someone, fall in love, and start a new home where they raise their own kids. Rinse and repeat.
In a society with a multi-generational household set up, kids don’t automatically leave the family home when they grow up. Some leave, to marry into other families, and some remain in family home. Adding group marriages to the set up complicates things a bit, but not too badly
The Birds and the Bees
First off, several children will need to remain with the family as part of the new generation. However, this means that children born to the same family will be part of the same marriage group. While incest as a cultural issue is defined differently around the world, the biological issues of close relatives marrying remain an issue.
We have evidence that even paleolithic societies were aware of the danger of inbreeding. So these societies are probably aware of them as well and have adopted customs to address them. The simplest would be a taboo against children of the same mother having sexual relationships.
However biology will also help keep the problems to a minimum. As a general rule sexual attraction decreases as familiarity increases. Since people you grow up with tend to be VERY familiar, I doubt inbreeding is a serious issue. Finally, with a large enough group of parents, chances of children who remain with the family being close biological relatives is pretty low.
May and December
The next problem is age span within generations. Even in monogamous marriages, children can be born over a span of up to twenty years. An aunt or uncle can be the same age as or even younger than their niece or nephew. This will be even more true of group marriages.
Not only will this hugely complicate any society set up along generational lines, but it really complicates the issue of how long people will be joining a group marriage. Any society that doesn’t have modern technology is living one disaster away from starvation. And that means stability is the holy grail of family life. As any person whose been in a polyamorous relationship can tell you, when someone new joins the network, everything shifts and adjusts a bit. At some point, most marriage groups in a bronze age society are going to want to say “Enough, we’re done.”
So the oldest and youngest members of a generation are encouraged to marry-out into other families, keeping the members of a given marriage group all around the same age. And each marriage group decides how many people they want in their group. Has the family grown a bit to big to support? Smaller marriage group this generation. Is the family doing well and ready to expand a bit? Bigger marriage group this generation.
The average is probably around 10 people to a marriage group. Thirty people would be a good sized group for a boat-based family or a hunter-gather band, and that’s the template these societies was built on.
Let’s Follow One Generation And See How It Works
Every Generation Starts as Children
Kids are mostly raised by grandparents while the parents focus on working to support the family, be it on a farm, on a fishing boat, or at a trade.
When the kids are old enough to run around without direct adult supervision, their families encourage them to spend time with kids from other families. The oldest and youngest kids try to find another family they would like to marry-out to. Kids in the middle of the age range try to find kids from other families they’d like to marry-in to their family.
During this time they also start learning trades, either from their birth family or from the families they are interested in marrying-out to.
Children, of course, Grow Up
If all goes well, the oldest and youngest kids (now young adults) find other families to marry-out to. Ideally families where they feel comfortable with their spouses, with the family traditions/culture, and are able to contribute to the family trade. In reality, a prospective spouse’s skill at the family trade is often the deciding factor. More than one family has had some frowned-upon age discrepancies in their marriage groups when the kids with the most skill in the family trade were the oldest and youngest, so the middle kids ended up marrying-out!
While their older and younger siblings are looking for a place to belong, the middle kids are finding kids from other families they want as part of their marriage-group-to-be.
From the time a marriage group starts forming until the first child is born, the marriage group settles. Different members will take roles within the family, usually unofficial but still very real. This roles can be based in specializing in a certain area of the family trade (ie, a fisherfolk family might have one person who focuses on learning navigation and another who specializes in keeping the boat in good repair). Or they can be based in social roles (leader, in charge of dealings with other families, etc). Or any other set up that works for the given family.
At the same time the prospective marriage group is settling into their relationships, they continue learning the family trade from their parents. This is usually the most profitable time for a family. Two generations are working the trade at the same time with no young children to care for. Many families use this time to stockpile resources against the possibly-lean years ahead.
And Become Parents (Hail the New Generation!)
Ideally (there’s that word again) the first child of the new marriage group is born only after the marriage group is complete. With the birth of the first child, the parents of the new marriage group, now grandparents, retire. They are now responsible for the children and home.
The group marriage practice addresses one reason many pre-industrial societies expected large numbers of children: to work the farm. Whether a literal farm or a smithy, one adult simply couldn’t do all the work to ensure survival. So people had kids to help with the work. With multiple adults available to do the work, the family doesn’t need to rely on child labor. As a result adults who are able to become pregnant do not face the same pressure to have a child as often as possible that was common in many pre-modern societies.
However infant and child mortality is still an issue. The family will need an average of 4-6 children from each parent who can give birth. Death in child birth is also a frequent occurrence, though not AS frequent as many people might assume. (Childbed fever is much less of a factor when the “midwife” is a family member who only attends one birth at a time and not a doctor who goes from birth to birth, not bothering to wash his hands in between.)
The lower expectations re: pregnancies allows pregnancies to be spaced further apart. The result is health benefits for parents and children. And all parents can remain active in the family trade (to varying extents).
Some marriage groups set a specific goal for how many children they want to have. When the family has enough children over the age of five, they stop trying to have more kids. This is considered a somewhat risky choice–plagues and disasters happen. But it frees the entire marriage group to focus on trade and increasing the families resources, ensuring the survival of the family in a different way. As a bonus, it keeps the age range for the next generation down to a more manageable level.
Parents Become Grandparents
Eventually, the marriage group’s children form a new marriage group. Then the marriage group “retires” to become the stay-at-home grandparents and caretakers for the family home. They keep the equivalent of “kitchen gardens”, teach the children the basics of the family trade, and represent the family in whatever the local political set up is.
You get the idea by now. Any of a marriage group that survive to become great-grandparents are revered elders. They are cared for by the younger generations and valued for the wisdom they have learned over their long lives.
If you are interested in unusual families and fictional societies, check out my fantasy novel The Bargain.