Family Communication
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Family Communication

Chris Segrin, Jeanne Flora

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eBook - ePub

Family Communication

Chris Segrin, Jeanne Flora

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This third edition of Family Communication carefully examines state-of-the art research and theories of family communication and family relationships. In addition to presenting contemporary cutting-edge research, it also includes extensive presentation and application of classic theories and findings in family science that have informed current day understandings of essential family processes. With over 2, 500 references, 800 of which are new to this edition, Family Communication represents a current and comprehensive presentation of principled research conducted throughout the world for both students and teachers of family communication. Professionals who work with families and seek an evidence-based understanding of functional and dysfunctional family processes will also find this text useful.The third edition provides instructors and students with a rich set of resources including:

  • Chapter Specific Resource Guides (chapter outlines, guiding questions, multiple choice, essay, and discussion questions, as well as numerous media resources and links)
  • Chapter Specific PowerPoint Slides
  • Sample Syllabus

This edition addresses long-standing questions (e.g., how to maintain a marriage, how to build resiliency in remarriages and stepfamilies) and prioritizes research on a variety of family relationships beyond the couple and parent–child relationship, while also exploring new research on romantic relationship pathways, same-sex marriage and divorce, parenting trends, as well as military families, adoptive families, and families with a transgender member. It also examines the complex relationship between family communication and mental health as well as powerful and potentially surprising findings on the connections between family interaction and physical health.

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Part I
Introducing Family Communication and Basic Family Processes
Defining Family Communication and Family Functioning
It is often said that there are no individuals in this world, only fragments of families. This idea reflects the fact that interactions and experiences in the family shape the course of our entire lives and are forever carried with us. Shortly after most people physically depart from their family of origin, they initiate a new family of orientation. The family is therefore an unending cycle in which people are constantly involved at multiple levels.
The study of family communication has a long tradition. Some of the most influential works in the field were conducted around the time of World War II and are still influencing the way scholars think about families today. In recent decades, exciting new developments in the field of family communication have fundamentally reshaped the way people think about functional and dysfunctional family interaction. New developments are providing badly needed information about current family problems. With recent attention and increased focus on problems such as divorce, child abuse, domestic violence, and mental health problems, scholars, therapists, members of the clergy, and students of communication have begun to realize that these problems are in fact communication problems. If not caused by communication, these issues certainly affect the course of family communication. By better understanding the forms, functions, and processes of family communication, people hope to be able to comprehend how and why these problems exist, and perhaps begin to take steps toward preventing them in the future. In addition to concerns about family problems, people also hope to understand issues such as what makes for a happy marriage, what parenting techniques are associated with positive child outcomes, and how to maintain meaningful relationships with family members over the entire lifespan. These too are fundamentally communication issues.
Although personal experience is a valuable teacher, and there is often a kernel of truth in cultural folklore and media portrayals of family, we believe that answers to many pressing questions about family communication are evident, or emerging, from the scientific research conducted by family communication scholars. Indeed, as we illustrate throughout this book, the evidence from scientific studies regarding family interaction sometimes contradicts the messages people receive from the media or other sources. In this book, we carefully examine state-of-the art research and theories, as well as classic research and theories that contribute to the understanding of complex family interactions.
In the past decades, literally thousands, if not millions, of families, parents, stepparents, spouses, partners, children, siblings, grandparents, and in-laws from all walks of life have been studied by family researchers. One primary theme stemming from this research is that there is no “one” version of the American family. Further, there is not one path to healthy family relationships. The concept of equifinality refers to the fact that the same end state may be reached in many different ways. For example, there may be common themes to satisfying marriages, but there are many different ways couples can go about their courtship, negotiate roles, or deal with conflict and still achieve a satisfying marriage.
In this opening chapter, we address basic questions about families and family interaction. We explore “What does the word ‘family’ mean?” and “Why is it important to define family?” This analysis will show there is not one universally accepted definition of family, but each definition has distinct advantages, disadvantages, and implications. In studying definitions of family, we encounter other questions, such as “What tasks and resources are family members expected to perform and provide for one another?” “What kind of interaction defines ‘family’?” and “How is family interaction different from interaction in other relationships?” In answering these questions, we also discuss how communication constitutes family and is situated at the heart of family processes. Next, we present demographic data and highlight family trends related to family form and size, marriage and partnering, as well as parenting and family lifespan transitions. We point to diverse family contexts and experiences that we will explore in more depth in later chapters of the book. From our discussion of the demographic data and family diversity, we also prompt consideration of whether media portrayals of family are representative of demographic trends. Finally, people often ask, “What makes for optimal family interaction or family functioning?” In this chapter, we present two models of family functioning, Olson’s circumplex model and the McMaster model, both of which start us on the path toward answering this question.
Examining Definitions of Family
What is family? Must members be related by blood? Is a legal or religious ceremony necessary or sufficient to the definition of family? Are children necessary or sufficient for family? Is a certain degree and type of affection or interaction necessary for family? What makes a family group different from any other social group we belong to? Answers to these questions vary dramatically by individual. Our goal is to describe different ways family is defined. In doing so, we illustrate that defining family depends on the context, goal, and person or organization. Further, how family is defined has serious legal, scientific, and social implications.
Types of Family Definitions: Structural, Task, and Transactional Definitions
Wamboldt and Reiss (1989) classified definitions of family into three types, distinguished by their attention to form, function, and interaction. Structural definitions define family by form, addressing who is “in” the family and by what objective biological or legal means they are connected (e.g., marriage, blood, adoption). Structural definitions tend to be the most exclusionist, narrow, and in many cases traditional (Powell, 2014). Task-orientation definitions apply the label of family to people who perform family tasks and functions expected by society. They tend to stress behavior more than blood/legal ties or interaction/emotions. Transactional definitions define family primarily by the communication and emotional processes that connect, establish, and maintain family relationships. Scholars often study the discourse that families use to establish these relationships. Transactional definitions rely mostly on discourse, or language, to name and establish members as family. This means of defining family is critical, especially for people who feel the validity of their family ties is questioned by others and that traditional structural definitions are not fitting (e.g., Galvin, 2006). Transactional definitions are the most subjective, inclusionist, and broad (Powell, 2014).
As we discuss in the next pages, most people use aspects of each of these types of definitions of family when they define family. Similarly, research by social scientific scholars and decisions in the legal system reflect an increasing level of awareness for how aspects of each of these types of definitions intersect as people construct their meaning of family (Suter, Baxter, Seurer, & Thomas, 2014).
Structural definitions. Structural definitions lay out specific, objective criteria that make it clear who is in the family and who is not (Fitzpatrick & Badzinski, 1994). Most structural definitions do not depend on the quality of the family interaction or task performance, and they are not dependent on subjective feelings of group identity or affection. Rather they define family simply by form. The U.S. Census Bureau relies on a structural definition of family: “A family consists of a householder and one or more other people living in the same household who are related to the householder by birth, marriage or adoption” (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015, p. 1). In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of family has remained relatively unchanged since 1930. Interestingly, the 1870 census definition of family was more fluid in structure than the 1930 definition. The 1870 definition of family read: “Under whatever circumstances, and in whatever numbers, people live together under one roof, and are provided for at a common table, there is a family in the meaning of the law” (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015, p. 1). However, by 1930 there was a desire to distinguish a “household” from a “family.” The objective and verifiable blood and legal ties of the 1930 structural definition of family made the monumental task of defining and counting families easier. The simplicity of structural definitions makes them appealing to people who are forced to make external decisions about what family is, how to count family on a large scale, and how to award rights without much information about the inner fabric of the family. Structural definitions have thrived with demographers, policy makers, and those in the legal arena. Popenoe’s (1993) narrow definition of family, “a relatively small domestic group of kin (or people in a kin-like relationship) consisting of at least one adult and one dependent” (p. 529), stands as another example of a structural definition that makes the task of counting families easy, but arguably does not capture what family means to many people.
It is common for lay people and scholars to use labels that identify families based on structure. Just a few examples of these labels include the following. The label, single-parent family, refers to a parent, who may or may not have been married, and one or more children. The term stepfamily refers to spouses, at least one of whom was previously married, living with the child(ren) of at least one of the spouses. Some people also use the term blended family to reflect a family, with or without children, in which at least one of the spouses was previously married, either with or without children (DeGenova & Rice, 2002). The term nuclear family usually refers to two parents and one or more children, with the label traditional nuclear family often insinuating a heterosexual, married relationship. The term extended family is used to describe family, whether legal or fictive, who are beyond the immediate partner or children. Finally, the term family of origin refers to the family into which one is born and/or raised. A family of orientation is thought of as the family one chooses (e.g., mate) and/or creates (e.g., a child).
Just as the simplicity of structural definitions and labels seems useful, limitations are very apparent. People get left out. Common structural definitions have not been adequate enough to encompass some family forms, for example nonresidential stepfamilies, foster families, or intimate partners or caretakers without a legally recognized relationship. In turn, some people get counted in as family structurally, even though they do not seem to deserve the honor of being labeled as family due to negative behavior or frequent absence. This feeling in itself hints at the social and cultural privilege associated with the label “family.”
Task-orientation definitions. Are objective criteria sufficient for defining family? Perhaps “behavior trumps biology” in defining family (Sappenfield, 2002). Task-orientation definitions define family by how the members behave: the functions or the tasks they perform. Many examples of task-orientation definitions view family as at least one adult and one or more other persons who perform certain tasks of family life such as socialization, nurturance, development, and financial and emotional support. In one classic example of a task-orientation definition, Lerner and Spanier (1978) define family as a social unit that accepts responsibility for the socialization and nurturance of children. According to this definition, there are no structural limits on the social unit that accepts responsibility for the child. The social unit may involve one mother, two grandparents, or an adult who is not even related to a child biologically or legally.
What becomes controversial for many task-orientation definitions is deciding what tasks must be performed, for what members, and how well they must be performed in order to term someone family or to maintain legal status as family. Sociologists are credited with first viewing the family as a social institution that functions to meet the needs of the individual and society. Nurturing and socializing children have traditionally been viewed as primary functions of the family (Murdock, 1949; Reiss, 1980). Traditional task-orientation definitions are often focused on task expectations for raising children. Provision of at least basic care and support is not only a biological necessity, a social and moral expectation, but also a legal obligation because the legal system can remove a child from a family, or certain family members, if they do not provide sufficient care. Compared to other animal species, human beings have one of the longest periods of abject dependence on a caregiver in order to survive and develop (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Upon birth and for many years beyond, children rely on their families for food, clothing, and shelter. Emotional support provides family members with a sense of belonging, love, affection, kinship, companionship, and acceptance.
While the courts may step in to remove a child from a family for neglecting tasks of basic care in a way that threatens a child’s well-being, there is much less consensus regarding tasks expected in the care of other family members, such as adults or elderly members. In addition, expectations regarding parental responsibility for provision of care after divorce can become complicated. Child support laws attempt to spell out legal expectations and requirements for parents. Divorcees who actively co-parent must negotiate how to share the parenting tasks.
Besides basic tasks of care and support, families are often expected to socialize members, although this is a sociocultural expectation and not a legal obligation. For certain, there is considerable variance in how and whether children are socialized. Some children receive socialization in the form of basic manners, social skills, or early education (e.g., learning ABCs or how to count). Recreation is even a form of socialization in which children learn important roles for functioning inside and outside the family. Parents also pass on a variety of cultural traditions and values, including cultural stories, holiday rituals, political ideologies, or religious convictions.
It is important to note that not all families fulfill expected functions of care and socialization. As a result, educational, governmental, and religious organizations have taken on some tasks once left exclusively to the family (Ganong & Coleman, 1999; Hareven, 1991). Many children rely exclusively on their school for breakfast and lunch, before and after school care and emotional support, along with socialization and intellectual development. The debate between public and private responsibility for the young and old remains charged.
Transactional definitions. Transactional definitions represent a third approach to defining family, and they give central importance to the communication among individuals and the subjective feelings generated by interaction. Burgess and Locke (1953) proposed one of the first transactional definitions when they defined family as “a unit of interacting personalities.” Naturally, many family communication scholars favor the transactional definitions. Transactional definitions do not intend to ignore the tasks demanded of family members. Rather, they extend the task-orientation definitions, arguing that a family is more than a group of people who perform certain tasks and behaviors for one another. Although the distinction is not perfect, task-orientation definitions place more emphasis on the instrumental role of family, and transactional definitions highlight the interaction and subjective feelings among members. For example, Wamboldt and Reiss (1989) define family as “a group of intimates [whose interaction generates] a sense of home and group identity; complete with strong ties of loyalty and emotion, and an experience of a history and a future” (p. 728). The meaning and boundaries of family...

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