Family units are formed by application, with one man, one woman, one boy, and one girl, and are temporary.
The first thing you need to understand about the community is that a family is not the same situation as your usual definition of a family.
For the first step, a man or a woman decides that he or she wants a family unit. Most adults are expected to have one. It is considered part of your duty to society. Remember, there is no romance involved here. It is more of a business decision. Every adult in this community has been taking pills for Stirrings since puberty. There is no desire.
Even the Matching of Spouses was given such weighty consideration that sometimes an adult who applied to receive a spouse waited months or even years before a Match was approved and announced. All of the factors--disposition, energy level, intelligence, and interests--had to correspond and to interact perfectly. (Ch. 6)
So, a man and a woman have filled out an application. The community Elders decide that they are compatible. That basically means that they get along. They will live together for a while to make sure, but not too long, because the whole purpose of the family unit is to raise the children. If you lack the “essential capacity to connect with others” then you do not even get a spouse, and you go live with the Childless Adults (Ch. 1). Most of the Childless Adults have already raised children though.
Once a family unit has had a child for a few years, they are expected to apply for another one. The rules are very specific about the fact that every family unit is supposed to have one boy and one girl (though not necessarily in that order). The family usually waits a few years between children, but not too many, so that the children are not too far apart in age.
Though Jonas had only become a Five the year that they acquired Lily and learned her name, he remembered the excitement, the conversations at home, wondering about her: how she would look, who she would be, how 13 she would fit into their established family unit. (Ch. 2)
The idea is to make sure that the family unit runs smoothly. Jonas’s parents waited four years before they got their second child. Asher’s parents waited a bit longer, because apparently Asher was a handful.
Within the family unit, the parents’ job is to provide guidance for the children. There are so many rules for the community, and the entire community is watched nonstop, so this is really not an issue. There is a Speaker that talks to everyone no matter where they are, and they even seem to have surveillance within the houses. It seems like a lot of the parenting is done for them.
Parents are expected to reinforce the community’s values and protocol, and of course follow the community’s rules. They ensure that the rituals are followed, such as the Telling of Feelings every night to make sure a feeling doesn’t go unnoticed, and the Telling of Dreams in the morning in case one lingered somehow. They also ensure older kids begin Stirrings pills.
As soon as the children are old enough to leave the house, the family unit disbands.
Oh, of course." Jonas had forgotten The Giver's obvious age. When adults of the community became older, their lives became different. They were no longer needed to create family units. Jonas's own parents, when he and Lily were grown, would go to live with the Childless Adults. (Ch. 13)
The two adults, the “mother” and “father” no longer have those roles any more. The Giver tells Jonas that his former “spouse” lives with the Childless Adults and he never sees her. The family unit is a temporary, utilitarian device to provide stability for the children. It is a holdover from the days when real families existed, and the community must see it as a better way of raising children than sticking them together.
Jonas asks The Giver if he should apply for a spouse, and The Giver is honest with him. It’s likely not a good idea.
"You'll be able to apply for a spouse, Jonas, if you want to. I'll warn you, though, that it will be difficult. Your living arrangements will have to be different from those of most family units, because the books are forbidden to citizens. …” (Ch. 13)
Books seem to be the least of the problem. The real problem is that one person is capable of feeling, and the other one is not. How would that work? It would be hard to live a lie when you live that closely with someone.
The family units are really foster families for taking care of the genetically engineered offspring of the community. The “parents” have no biological connection to their children, and the children have no connection to each other. No one has any emotional attachment either. Everything exists for practical purposes only. It is sad really. It is almost as if the community is lying to itself, calling them families. The families are missing the most important component: love.