The “Tribe-ing” of America

Headshot of Emily Brenner

Attorney at Law MA, LPC, NCC

As I reflect on the trends I saw in our divorce and family law practice in 2018, I decided to write about a phenomenon that I calltribe-ing. “Tribe-ing” is the word I have for the accidental tribal form of many of our modern families.

“This Modern Tribe is Alarmingly Dysfunctional.”

Centuries ago, in biblical times (and still in some societies), our families were tribes that looked like this:

– They were headed by a patriarch who had multiple spouses and concubines, each producing children. One head who made the rules; always a patriarch.

– Marriage was an arranged business deal, and often, people had no choice in who they would marry.

– A contract signed before the marriage set out what the children of each wife or concubine got in terms of inheritance even before they were born, and everyone knew the rules.

Somewhere in time, we decided that it was not cool to be married by arranged marriages. Somewhere in time, we decided that marriage was not a business, it was a monogamous romance. We wanted to marry (and divorce) whomever we please and rules be damned.

Given all the freedom we could relegate to ourselves, we evolved to…yes…wait for it… the tribe. But this modern tribe is alarmingly dysfunctional.

Let me introduce you to a tribe that recently showed up in my office (names and some features changed to protect confidentiality). Tom and Suzie came to visit me because they have a problem. Suzie is five months pregnant, and the two are talking about getting married. The problem is that Tom owes his ex-wife $7,000.00 in back child support, and would prefer not to pay it.

Suzie has two children from her previous marriage. Her ex-husband also had a child out of wedlock when he was younger, and that child used to come to visit every other weekend. Now her two children live with her and they see their father and half-brother every other weekend. Her ex-husband pays child support, pays for private school for the children and gives them enough to have extra-curricular activities that are fun.

Now that Suzie is living with Tom, her former husband wants to pay less in child support. He resents that some of what he pays benefits Tom’s children. It benefits Tom’s children because they live at Tom and Suzie’s slightly less than half the time, and truth be told, food is food, water is water, and so on.

Tom has three children with his ex-wife, and he has fallen behind in his child support payments because he lost his job last year. Suzie’s children get nicer clothes, go to a better school and have different rules than Tom’s children. Sometimes they live together and sometimes they don’t. They are siblings by marriage, kind-of siblings, in a loosely structured arrangement that surely confuses them. Do they think that their respective parents now love them differently from how they did before the divorces and new arrangements? Do they act out because it is so unfair that the different kids have different rules and benefits?

When I ask Tom and Suzie about what brought them into the office, Suzie looks at me and says, “If he (gesturing toward Tom) ever wants to get any again, he will take care of my child (pointing to her belly) before he takes care of her children.” I immediately think of the biblical Sarah saying (of Isaac) to Abraham, “My son will not inherit with the son of that Egyptian bondwoman!”

This is the plight of the new American family tribe. Is it fair to Tom’s first three children to get less than they were promised because Tom got someone else pregnant? Or should Suzie have come into the relationship with the understanding that the child support and parenting plan with his previous wife are etched in stone? Similarly, how should the child support paid by her ex-husband be parsed? And perhaps more importantly, should there be a requirement that Tom and Suzie reach out to all the tribal elders to try to set up something that is more consistent for the children?

I write this post as I learn of an attempted suicide by a teen-age boy who was forbidden to associate with his “brother by marriage”, someone with whom he shared a bedroom for five years, when the adults had a nasty separation.

I doubt that there is a one-size-fits-all answer to the problems that face today’s loosely confederated families. I do think we have to spend more time and effort thinking about how the behavior of the grown-ups affects the children.

If you live in a modern tribe, I am curious to learn about your experiences, both the problems and the solutions. Please write to me at I will keep all responses confidential, but will write more based on what readers tell me.

Brenner Law Group

The award-winning boutique family law firm providing trusted advocacy to Metro-Atlanta families for over 30 years.