New Family Ties
Staci and Mike married soon after he returned from combat in Operation Desert Storm. Mike was ten years older than Staci and uncertain about fatherhood. She persuaded him that children would bring joy and meaning to their lives and he reluctantly agreed to her dreams of having children. Soon after the marriage, Angela was born, followed quickly by Gwen. At this time, Mike was struggling with uncertainty about his career path and confronting periods of severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Within two years, he asked Staci for a divorce, citing her complete devotion to the girls and distance from him, as well as his need for independence.
After two years of being single, Staci started to date Adam, a colleague at work who had never married. Six months later, Staci and the girls moved in with Adam. Mike seldom contacted his daughters, who quickly became attached to Adam and his extended family; they felt like a real family for the first time. Staci and Adam worked long hours, her career flourished, and she moved quickly up the corporate ladder. After two years of living together, Adam proposed, indicating how much he loved Staci and the girls and how he anticipated adding more children to their lives.
He was devastated to hear that Staci had no interest in having more children and, although they tried to continue their living arrangement, Adam’s pressured pleas “for children of his own” led Staci to announce that she and the girls were leaving. The girls were distraught at losing Adam and, although he tried to maintain contact, Staci discouraged the girls from seeing him.
After six years of career success and struggles as a single parent, Staci married Angelo, a widower with two grown sons, whom she met online. Angelo is considerate of the girls but is mostly distant from them. It is clear to Staci and her daughters that he is looking forward to the time they will leave home so he and their mother can begin a life with just the two of them.
Goals and Finances
Last week, Lacy’s boss announced a company-wide cutback in hours and selected benefits due to poor sales figures and the faltering economy. Lacy feels like she has been punched in the stomach. As a 27-year-old wife and mother of her autistic son, Sean, Lacy is also providing economic support for her mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Any drop in income will create major challenges for Lacy and her family. Lacy’s husband, Will, has a position at a local factory that pays less than her income, but both incomes are necessary to keep the family afloat.
On top of the income loss, Lacy’s company dropped the tuition benefit she has been using to take classes at the local community college to become a registered nurse in respiration therapy. Lacy has four more classes to complete before finishing the program and starting on a new career track that pays better. Graduation would represent a major life milestone as she has been struggling to complete the program for five years, attempting to balance Sean’s needs and therapy, her work, motherhood, home, and school, with little support.
Thankfully, Lacy has her godmother, Belle, in her life. Belle is Lacy’s best friend from the little town where they grew up in a neighboring state. Belle is like an aunt to Lacy and served as a support and sounding board for her as she grew up. Whenever things piled up, Lacy knew she could count on Belle to talk her through the problem and give her practical advice. Lacy had a long chat with Belle today via Skype to pour out her problems. After two hours of talking, Lacy feels better and now has some website links for government-supported tuition and loan programs that might allow her to finish her education and be in a better position to help her family.
Family life is a profound and central aspect of being human, yet no two people share the exact same experience, in part because of the unique communication patterns that emerge in each family system. Even when we share the same family, each of us has our own reactions to family experiences, as you can see in the first case above, which highlights the different ways that Staci and her different partners over the years conceptualize what they want in a family. Because family is such a
powerful influence in our lives, our goal in this book is to examine family interaction and relationships to better understand ourselves and our own family experiences. As you read this book, we want you to ponder how family communication patterns serve to build, reflect, and change your family experience. Through communication, we co-create our families, just as we are co-created by interaction in our families.
As you read this book, you will encounter some content about which you have expertise because you have spent your life in a particular type (or types) of family arrangement. Yet, because you have lived in only one or a small number of family structures, your direct experience is limited compared to the range of potential family experiences. Your reading and personal reflections should expand your understanding of the diversity of family life experience and family communication. In this opening chapter, first we will explore our framework for understanding family communication. Second, we will discuss how we are defining a family. Third, we will talk about understanding the family as a system. Fourth, we will overview the state of the contemporary family. Last, we will reflect on family functions and “the new normal” for family communication.
Throughout this book, you will see a framework for understanding families based on two guiding principles. First, we highlight the family as a system of interconnected relationships
, which we detail in Chapter 1
. Second, we see communication as the primary way families develop, create, maintain, and alter identity
. One of your authors, Kathleen Galvin, explains that contemporary families are discourse dependent,1
meaning they rely on communication to create and define themselves over the life course, which we will discuss fully in Chapter 2
. Keep these two guiding principles in mind as you read the book.
Overview of the Book
Once we better understand family systems and family communication in Chapters 1
, in Chapter 3
we highlight a number of family communication theories, which are practical tools to help us understand, function within, and bring about change in families. In Chapters 4
, we cover important communication processes that create and guide family life. Our goal throughout the book is to help you understand and apply what you learn about communication dynamics to your own family or others’ family experiences. Within each chapter, you will find a box labeled “Family Matters
,” which will summarize one relevant family communication study in more depth. We end each chapter with Discussion Questions
and a list of Key Words
that you will find bold-headed and defined throughout the book.
You will find two case studies
at the beginning of each chapter and short, first-person family communication examples
that were written or suggested by the real experiences of our students and friends. We have, of course, changed the names of the characters to provide anonymity. With all of the examples throughout the book, we encourage you to put yourself in the characters’ situations and apply family communication concepts to your own family or to families you know. Some of the examples will remind you specifically of your own family experiences, whereas others will seem quite different from your own background. We hope these narratives demonstrate the diversity and complexity of today’s families and the multiple ways to communicate and live a functional family life, as in the following example:
I guess you could say I’ve had three “moms” and two-and-a-half “dads.” My parents divorced when my twin brother and I were about 3 years old. My dad remarried and, after two more sons, got divorced again. Then, he remarried and now I have a baby sister young enough to be my daughter. My mom remarried and got divorced again when we were about 7. The “half-father” that we had was a man who lived with us for 10 years, who recently moved out at my mother’s request. The reason my brother and I are still sane is because our mom and dad have always remained friends. We were never treated like pawns in the middle of a battle.
Core Beliefs About Families
All of the authors of this book are family communication teachers, researchers, and, of course, family members ourselves. We hold certain basic beliefs that undergird our writings. Like you, our own personal backgrounds have given us particular perspectives that affect how we view families and their communication patterns. To follow, we share eight core beliefs about families to establish a context for understanding how we approached writing this book:
- There are many ways to be a family. Family life is as diverse as the persons who make up families. The “perfect” family does not exist.
- Each family must work, and at times struggle, to create its own identity as it experiences good and stressful times over many years. All family systems are influenced by the larger context in which they exist.
- Through communication, we construct and reflect family relationships. In words and actions, individuals define their identities and negotiate their relationships with other family members and with the rest of the world. In addition, talk serves to indicate the state of family relationships to family members and, sometimes, to others.
- Communication is the process by which family members create and share their meanings with each other in unique relational cultures.
- Families interact and socialize members to their underlying values and beliefs about significant life issues, such as gender, health, love, and religion, to name a few.
- Families involve multigenerational communication patterns. Members are influenced by the patterns of previous generations even as they create their own patterns, which, in turn, influence future generations.
- Families reflect cultural communication patterns. Racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as other significant in-group memberships, influence choices concerning family beliefs, values, and expectations for behavior, all of which affect the current family experience and future generations, unless they are consciously altered.
- In well-functioning families, members work at understanding and negotiating their communication patterns; they recognize that developing and maintaining relationships takes effort. Family systems have the capacity to adapt, create connections, and manage conflict. In the best of circumstances, families seek to communicate most effectively and productively.
You will notice throughout the book that we avoid presenting prescriptive “how-to” advice and simple solutions for family problems. Rather, we seek t...