8.4 Family Relationships

A drawing of family holding hands. The dads are on each side and the kids are in the middle.
Family Image by geralt on Pixabay

The third primary type of interpersonal relationship we engage in is that of family. What is family? Is family created by legal ties or the bond of sharing common blood? Or can a family be considered people who share commitment to one another? In an effort to recognize the diversity of families, we define family as an arranged group, usually related by blood or some binding factor of commonality, where individual roles and relationships modify over time. Family relations are typically long term and generally have a period in which common space is shared.

Pearson suggests that families share similar characteristics as they tend to be in a shared living space for prolonged periods of time and reflect a mixture of interpersonal images that evolve through the exchange of meaning over time. Let’s take a few moments to unpack this definition.

Families Are Organized. All of us occupy and play fairly predictable roles (parent, child, older sibling) in our family relationships. Similarly, communication in these relationships can be fairly predictable. For example, your younger brother may act as the family peacemaker, while your older sister always initiates fights with her siblings.

Families Are a Relational Transactional Group. Not only is a family made up of the individual members; it is largely defined by the relationships between the members. Think back to our discussion of systems theory in the chapter about communication theory. A family that consists of two opposite-sex parents, an older sister, her husband and three kids, a younger brother, his new wife, and two kids from a first marriage is largely defined by the relationships among the family members. All of these people have a role in the family and interact with others in fairly consistent ways according to their roles.

Families Usually Occupy a Common Living Space Over an Extended Period of Time. One consistent theme when defining family is recognizing that family members typically live under the same roof for an extended period of time. We certainly include extended family within our definition, but for the most part, our notions of family include those people with whom we share, or have shared, common space over a period of time. Even though you may have moved away to college, a large part of your definition of your family is the fact that you spent a great deal of your life sharing a home with those you call your family.

Families Possess a Mixture of Interpersonal Images That Evolve through the Exchange of Meaning Over Time. From our families, we learn important values concerning intimacy, spirituality, communication, and respect. Parents and other family members model behaviors that shape how we interact with others. As a result, we continually form images of what it means to be a family and try to maintain that image of family in our lives. You may define family as your immediate family, consisting of your parents and a sibling. However, your romantic partner may see family as consisting of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Each of you perform different communication behaviors to maintain your image of family.

Many families have children as part of their makeup. Olson and McCubbin discuss seven stages of the family life cycle that families with children go through as they progress through life. Families without children will not follow all of these stages, and blended families, where one parent does not have primary custody of children, may experience fewer extreme shifts between stages.

The first stage of family development is Establishing a Family. In this stage, couples settle into committed or married life and make necessary changes in acknowledgment of their new legal, relational, and social status. If they did not live together prior to marriage, they may need to work out details of shared space, money, and time. Often, this stage involves establishing a first home together as a couple.

The second stage of family development is Enlarging a Family. In this stage, a couple decides to expand their family with the addition of children. While a time of joy and celebration, this is also a period of great stress and change for parents as they figure out new roles as parents.

Time for friends, work, and one another is often decreased as the demands of a new child become the primary concern and focus of the couple’s attention and resources. In this stage, the relationship is no longer defined in terms of two people but includes the children that are now part of the family.

The third stage of family development is Developing a Family. As children grow, their needs change from primarily physical (feeding, changing diapers, and sleep) to more cognitive and emotional ones. Parents become the primary source of instilling cultural and spiritual values as well as fostering a child’s individual personality. This period takes a tremendous amount of time and commitment from parents as the children remain the focus of daily interactions. Think of the family that runs around taking children to soccer, baseball, piano lessons, church, and guiding their educational development. In this stage, the personal development of children is of high importance to the family.

The fourth stage of family development is Encouraging Independence. Around the teen years, children begin the process of naturally pulling away from their parents as a means of establishing and securing an independent identity. You might recall that this period contained periods of stress and frustration for your parents as well as you. Children may feel their parents are being overly protective or nosy about their friends and activities, while parents may feel abandoned and concerned for their child’s safety as they spend more time away from home. These are often referred to as the rebellious years in which children engage in behaviors for the purpose of establishing independence from their parents.

The fifth stage of family development is Launching Children. Over the course of raising children, couples experience a relationship with one another where children are often the central focus rather than each other. In the Launching Children stage, each member of the couple must now relearn their role as the grown children eventually leave home for college, a career, or their own marriage and family. If one of the parents gave up a career to raise children, she may wonder what to do with the free time. While the empty nest syndrome can be stressful, it is also a chance for new possibilities as parents have more time, money, freedom, and energy to spend on each other, hobbies, travel, and friends. Many experience excitement about being able to focus on each other as a couple after years of raising children in the home.

The sixth stage of family development is Post-launching of Children. Depending on how a couple handles stage five, the post-launching of children can be filled with renewed love or can produce great strain on the marriage as a couple learns that they do not know how to relate with one another outside the context of raising children. Some couples fall in love all over again and may renew their wedding vows as a signal of this new phase in their relationship. Some parents who may have decided to stay in a marriage for the sake of the children may decide to terminate the relationship after the children have left the family home. For some couples, with no birds left in the nest, the family dog becomes the new center of attention and inadvertently takes on the role of one of the offspring and continues to regulate and restrict the couple’s actions as the dog demands rearing. Some parents pick up new hobbies, travel around the world, and maintain multiple date nights each week.

The seventh stage of family development is Retirement. Similar to the launching of children, freedom from work can be an opportunity for growth and exploration of new relationships and activities. Simply having more time in the day can facilitate travel, volunteer work, or continuing education. Conversely, people in this stage might experience a reduction in income and the loss of identity that came with membership in a profession. The family may also experience new growth during this stage, as grown children bring their own relational partners and grandchildren in as new members of the family.

Communication patterns within the family and between a couple are continually changed and revised as a family progresses through the above stages. The fact that a couple generally spends less time together during stages two and three and more time together in stages five through eight requires that they continually manage dialectical tensions such as autonomy and connection. Management of these tensions may manifest itself as conflict. All relationships have conflict. Conflict is natural. How we think about and manage conflict is what is important.

Interpersonal Communication Summary

Interpersonal communication is communication between individuals that view one another as unique. Quite often, interpersonal communication occurs in dyads. In order for interpersonal communication to occur, participants must engage in self-disclosure, which is the revealing of information about oneself to others that is not known by them. As we self-disclose, we manage our relationships by negotiating dialectical tensions, which are opposing needs in interpersonal relationships. We use a variety of strategies for navigating these tensions, including neutralization, separation, segmentation, and reframing.

As we navigate our interpersonal relationships, we create communication climates, which are the overall feelings and moods people have for one another and the relationship. When we engage in disconfirming messages, we produce a negative relational climate, while confirming messages can help build a positive relational climate by recognizing the uniqueness and importance of another person.

The three primary types of interpersonal relationships we engage in are friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships. Each of these relationships develops through a series of stages of growth and deterioration. Friendships and romantic relationships differ from family relationships in that they are relationships of choice. Each of these relationships requires commitment from participants to continuously navigate relational dynamics in order to maintain and grow the relationship.

Finally, all relationships experience conflict. Conflict is often perceived as an indicator that there is a problem in a relationship. However, conflict is a natural and ongoing part of all relationships. The goal of conflict is not to eliminate it but to manage it. There are five primary approaches to managing conflict, which include dominating, obliging, compromising, avoiding, and integrating.


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Fundamentals of Communication Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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