The Contemporary American Family: A Dialectical Perspective on Communication and Relationships


Teresa Chandler Sabourin

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    The completion of this book came about through the support and encouragement of many people. First, I would like to thank my colleagues in the Department of Communication at the University of Cincinnati: Gail Fairhurst, Steve Depoe, Barbara Reckers, and Nuha Nasrallah. I am also indebted to the graduate and undergraduate students who have shared their wisdom and diversity with me.

    Special thanks go to my Sage editor, Margaret Seawell, for her continuing interest and confidence in this project. I would also like to thank Claudia Hoffman, my production editor, and Cheryl Adam, my copy editor, for their help in getting the manuscript into top form.

    I wish also to thank my family of origin, the Chandlers. My parents, Mary Lou and Harry, who both passed away in the time since I began this project, always valued and supported my academic goals. My sister and best friend, Julia, has been unwaveringly loyal through both good times and bad. My brother Steve has given me consistent encouragement to follow in our dad's footsteps through my writing. I am also grateful to my sister Susan, whose graciousness has always provided a refuge from life's harsher realities. From afar, my brother Mike has continued to be a source of warmth and light.

    Finally, I am grateful beyond belief for being able to share my life with Gary and Clay Sabourin. Throughout this project, they have been constant sources of inspiration, perspective, and good humor.


    How I Came to Write this Book

    For many of us, the inspiration for studying interpersonal communication originated in the history of our own personal relationships. We were drawn to interpersonal studies because we wanted to understand, explain, or improve our friendships, marriage, families, and other long-term relationships. At one time or another, most of us have paused to consider how (or why) some people are drawn together, some stay together, and some pull apart.

    Bochner, Cissna, and Garko, 1990, p. 16

    Four experiences encouraged me to question the traditional portrayal of families.

    The first happened about 10 year ago when an older student challenged my choice of a text and my emphasis on white, middle-class, nuclear families. At the time, I wasn't the least bit aware of my bias. I considered myself to be an innovator, unafraid to challenge societal norms. Instead, I came to realize that I was a purveyor of the myth of homogeneity. Uncomfortable with and unsure of how to adjust my teaching, I was nonetheless sure I needed to find a way to answer this student's challenge.

    My perspective on family life broadened further when I entered a spiritually based recovery program. Here, I found a part of the piece that was missing. I discovered that families affected by chemical dependencies (alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, and others) did not develop or communicate in the same logical ways that were described in the mainstream literature. In my weekly recovery group meetings, I identified more personally with the stories of family life than I ever did during my years of formal study. In the academic literature, a family was one of two things: functional or dysfunctional. There was no in-between. In my own life and the lives of the students that I was teaching, there seemed to be a lot of in between. These gray areas spurred me on to find a way to combine in a meaningful way what I was learning in recovery with my academic knowledge of family life.

    The next step on my path was coming across the dialectical way of thinking about family life. During my doctoral program and during subsequent teaching and research as a professor, I found myself specializing in the study of abusive families. From the rational approaches that I had studied formally, abusive families really did not make sense. How can family members both abuse others in their families and care about them at the same time? The literature on men who batter their wives and my forays into the public to discuss abuse as an expert almost always led to the same question: “Why does she stay?” The answers from dualistic approaches did not satisfy.

    Then I came across Rawlins's (1992) book on a dialectical approach to friendship. As soon as I read about this perspective as a way to embrace—rather than solve—relational contradictions, I knew I had found my missing piece. I began to read everything I could find on dialectical approaches to friendship. I have since broadened my understanding through reading the works of others who have adopted this way of seeing, and I have applied a dialectical view to my own research and teaching. Even my students, who tend to shrink in the face of theory, can tell that this way of thinking, which validates all manifestations of family structure and culture, has intrinsic merit.

    The fourth change that I happened into that again altered my sense of certainty about the ways in which families should be, was to remarry at the age of 35. The man that I married had his own unique background and family experience that did not conform to my prior convictions about how families are. The diversity factor was kicked into even higher gear when our son was born 13 years ago. Parents know how having children makes academic literature seem incomplete as a guide to effective parenting.

    As communication experts have evolved in their methods of studying intimate relationships, they have moved from using primarily linear self-reported descriptions of relationships to using more dualistic, observer-based views of dyadic interactions. Although the latter is an improvement on the former, we need to go even further to satisfy our “curiosity about the perplexing dilemmas of social life” (Bochner, Cissna, & Garko, 1990, p. 16). The dialectic perspective, I believe, provides a way to view these dilemmas and gives a direction to proceed in our evolution.

    This book is about diversity and the dilemmas of living in families with competing demands. The dialectical approach is a map but not the territory, a powerful tool that allows us to answer the increasing calls that diversity will make on us in the 21st century.

    Audiences for the Book

    Perhaps it is fitting that diverse sources motivated me to write this book. As a teacher of family communication for 18 years, I have been blessed with students of all cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Other texts do not adequately address the diversity I find in my students. I wrote this book for them, and for myself as a teacher so that I could consolidate the materials I have found valuable in our journey of learning about families with diverse structures and cultures.

    I also wrote this book because I felt called to take a stand on our society's need to embrace and honor the emerging diversities of our families’ structures and cultures. As I teach, I cannot help but recognize that the quality of my students’ family experiences does not depend on their families’ structural or cultural backgrounds. It would be presumptuous at best and ignorant at worst for me to teach them otherwise. I believe that professionals who work with families—counselors, social workers, ministers, therapists, and others—will find this book thought-provoking and relevant to their concerns about diversity.

    Another source of motivation has been my participation in a spiritually based recovery program. There I have heard many stories of family life that defy the neat and tidy descriptions found in most textbooks. Though they come from every type of structural and cultural background imaginable, these families’ successes in finding creative ways to deal with potentially devastating adversity have extended my formal education invaluably. I also wish to share my own experiences and understandings with them.

    I also hope, in writing this book, to stimulate discussion among scholars and encourage further research on issues of family diversity. As we grow into the new millennium, cultural and structural variations in family life are bound to multiply, and we will need to focus our attention on how to best study and explore these changes.

    I hope readers will see this book as an invitation for discussion rather than an argument for “the truth.” Although I am very passionate about the materials presented here, I know that they will change and improve as others consider them. If you are a student of the family and want to view contemporary family life in America, this book is for you.


    I organized the book around seven topics, each related to the main subject of family diversity. Chapter 1 outlines the theoretical perspective of dialectics, adopted here for its eloquence and its power to embrace diversity. Chapter 2 introduces criteria that can account for diversity in definitional procedures. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with some specific examples of structural and cultural diversity, highlighting nuclear, single-parent, and blended families and those families whose members vary in religion, race, or sexual orientation. In Chapter 5, we look at developmental diversity, including both predictable and unpredictable models of family change. Chapters 6 and 7 introduce the concept of functional diversity, which is another way to express how families can become more or less dysfunctional through their life experiences. Chapter 6 focuses on the “dark side” of family life and examines how alcoholism, abuse, and divorce affect the American family. In Chapter 7, we view some of the ways that families’ spiritual beliefs and practices serve as resources for facing structural and cultural challenges.

    Taken together, these chapters provide a cohesive examination of real families: our diversity, our ways of functioning, our structural makeup, and the communicative resources we use to simultaneously hold our families together and to let them move apart.

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    About the Author

    Teresa Chandler Sabourin is Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Cincinnati. She received her Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1986. Her study of family communication began with a course taught by Edna Rogers at Cleveland State University, where she received her B.A. and M.A. degrees. She continued her formal study at Purdue and completed her doctoral dissertation on family violence. Since coming to the University of Cincinnati in 1984, Teresa has taught family communication several times a year. In addition, she has continued to do research on family violence and has published her work in journals such as Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, and Applied Journal of Communication. She has also written several book chapters for edited collections on the topic of family violence. Teresa lives with husband Gary and son Clay in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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