Widening the Family Circle: New Research on Family Communication


Edited by: Kory Floyd & Mark Morman

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part A: Family-of-Origin Relationships

    Part B: Extended Family Relationships

    Part C: Relationships Created Through Divorce, Remarriage, or Adoption

  • Dedication

    To our families, both immediate and extended. Thank you for teaching us first about the power of family relationships.


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    Like many significant projects, a book is a journey. It has its genesis in an idea, and it navigates a path along which it requires many forms of help from many different people in order to arrive safely at its destination. It is our pleasure now to thank those who helped this book traverse that path.

    The impetus for this volume was our observation that although families are diverse, dynamic structures that encompass a broad range of relationships, the discipline of family communication has focused a large proportion of its research on only two: marriage and parent-young child relationships. There can be little argument that these relationships merit in-depth attention, but we believed that the discipline's understanding of the family would be greatly enhanced by “widening the circle” to include other relationships, such as those with grandparents, adoptive parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, siblings, and stepparents.

    We first engaged this idea in a graduate seminar that we taught together at Arizona State University during the spring of 2002. We called the seminar Communication in Under-Studied Family Relationships, and we used it as an opportunity to delve into the literatures of familial relationships other than those between spouses or parents and young children. We were encouraged by the quality of research we found on many of these relationships and we came to believe more strongly that a volume in which much of this literature was brought together would be of use to the field. The graduate students who participated in our seminar offered insightful questions and criticisms about this literature that helped greatly to sharpen our focus for this book, and we are grateful to each of them for their contributions.

    Following completion of our seminar, we began to ask our colleagues in the family communication area to contribute their work on family relationships to the book. Many of the contributors we asked were well known to us beforehand, and some we had the pleasure of meeting as a result of this project. We are so pleased to include in this volume the work of such a fine and diverse set of scholars, and we thank each of them for being willing to share their work with us.

    Of course, no book sees the light of day without the involvement of a skilled editor, and we are profoundly grateful to Todd Armstrong for his willingness to take our vision, refine it, improve on it, and bring it to fruition. Todd, and his assistant, Deya Saoud, have supported this project in every manner possible, and we thank them both for their commitment and encouragement.

    In addition, the contributions of the following reviewers are gratefully acknowledged.

    Michael Arrington

    University of Kentucky

    Nancy J. Eckstein

    Bethel University

    Jonathan Hess

    University of Missouri-Columbia

    Michelle Miller-Day

    Pennsylvania State University

    Barbara Penington

    University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

    Chris Segrin

    University of Arizona

    Lynn H. Turner

    Marquette University

    Amber M. Walker

    Pennsylvania State University

    Introduction: On the Breadth of the Family Experience

    The family is one of nature's masterpieces.

    —George Santayana (1863–1952)

    To call the family an important human institution is to understate its value profoundly. Virtually no other relationship engages us socially, genetically, legally, financially, and intimately with the pervasiveness of the family. Families are with us from beginning to end; we are born into familial relationships and we often leave this life with family members at our side. Families protect us, provide for us, and give us an identity and a sense of belonging. They engage the full spectrum of our emotions, from immeasurable joys to our deepest sorrows, and they enjoy a level of permanence unparalleled by almost anything else in our lives. Indeed, one could easily argue that the family is situated at the focal point of nearly all relational encounters. It is, truly, a masterpiece of the human experience.

    Among the family's many unique attributes is its breadth across the relational landscape. From the nuclear reproductive and parental relationships, the family branches off in nearly innumerable ways to encompass other forms of familial ties. Some relationships, such as grandparents or nieces and nephews, are vertical ties, meaning that they span two or more generations. Others, such as siblings or cousins, are horizontal ties, meaning they represent contemporaries within one's own generation. Many family relationships are genetically bound, however distantly (e.g., aunts and uncles, great-grandparents, second cousins). Others are formed through legal means, such as adoption (e.g., adoptive siblings), marriage (e.g., parents-in-law), remarriage (e.g., stepfamilies), or divorce (e.g., post-Divorce relationships). Still others are formed and maintained purely through social interaction; these fall under the category of “fictive kin,” or family-like relationships that are neither genetically nor legally bound (e.g., godparents, neighbors, or longtime friends who are considered “family”).

    As suggested by the metaphor of the tree—often used to explicate family relationships—families exist in both nuclear and greatly extended forms. Any given person is linked, in some form or another, to every person on every other limb, branch, and stem of his or her own tree. Certainly, many of these relationships may seem at times to be socially inconsequential, particularly if they involve relatives who are distant genetically, geographically, or both. There is relevance in these relationships, however, that often goes unacknowledged by family communication scholars but is nonetheless operative. For example, genetic relatives (both within and outside the nuclear family) are often the first to be turned to for emotional or economic support during times of crisis, sometimes being preferred even over close friends (see Burnstein, Crandall, & Kitayama, 1994; Essock-Vitale & McGuire, 1985). Similarly, it is almost always genetic relatives to whom assets are allocated in wills, and in some cultures, nieces and nephews are preferred over children in the allocation of property (Smith, Kish, & Crawford, 1987). People are even likely to communicate regularly with nonnuclear family members through mechanisms such as e-mail (Braithwaite, McBride, & Schrodt, 2003) or holiday cards (Fingerman & Griffiths, 1999).

    What We Know and Don't Know about: Communication in Family Relationships

    Despite their relevance, family relationships other than marriage and parent-child relationships have gone largely unscrutinized in research by many scholars in the fields of family communication, family psychology, and personal relationships. In a content analysis of nearly a thousand research articles published in family and personal relationships journals from 1994 to 1999, family scholars Karen Fingerman and Elizabeth Hay (2002) reported that parental and spousal/romantic relationships were by far the most common topics of the research. Specifically, 16.6% of the articles focused on relationships with parents, and 25.6% focused on relationships with young children. Moreover, roughly a quarter (25.2%) focused on romantic ties, and more than four in ten (44.3%) focused specifically on marriage.1

    In sharp contrast, many other family relationships received almost no scholarly attention at all. Relationships with aunts and uncles, siblings-in-law, cousins, and great-grandchildren, for instance, were the focus of only 0.1% of the research surveyed. Even siblings, a component of the nuclear family, were studied in only 4.1% of the research. Stepfamilies, grandparents, and parent-in-law relationships were similarly infrequently studied. It appears, then, that relative to marriage and parent-child relationships, all other family relationships can reasonably be described as “understudied.”

    That marital and parental relationships should so frequently be the focus of academic research is entirely understandable, given their importance in the human social agenda. The marital bond is perhaps the principal and most socially significant of all human attachments. It engages people in nearly every dimension of their lives, including physically, economically, legally, sexually, emotionally, reproductively, in terms of their individual identity, and in terms of their social and personal networks. Married people live longer, happier, and healthier lives than never-married people (Lillard & Waite, 1995; Pinquart, 2003), and the termination of marriage, either through divorce (Kiecolt-Glaser, Kennedy, Malkoff, Fisher, Speicher, & Glaser, 1988) or bereavement (Irwin, Daniels, Smith, Bloom, & Weiner, 1987), brings with it pronounced declines in physical well-being. Indeed, data from national surveys indicate that being happy with one's marriage is far more important to one's ratings of overall happiness than anything else, including satisfaction with careers or friendships (Glenn & Weaver, 1981).

    Undoubtedly, many of the same points could be made with respect to the parent-child relationship (at least, to the relationship between parents and young children). Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans (and all sexually reproducing species) have evolved through the pressures of natural selection to give primacy to the health and well-being of their offspring, and that this creates ingrained motivations to love, protect, and provide for one's children more than for nearly anyone else in one's social circle (see, e.g., Workman & Reader, 2004). These motivations manifest themselves in the innumerable ways that parents invest in their children's well-being. One such way is reflected in the considerable economic resources parents willingly provide their children. Indeed, in its most recent annual report on the Expenditures on Children by Families, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion estimates the cost of raising a single child to age 18 to be as much as $261,270 (Lino, 2005). This figure includes the major child-rearing expenses of housing, food, transportation, clothing, education, child care, and health care, as well as miscellaneous expenses such as entertainment or personal care. The importance of the parent-child bond is also reflected in the magnitude of grief that parents typically experience at the premature loss of a child. Researchers have known for decades that the death of a child is among the most potent of all psychological stressors (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). Indeed, contemporary research indicates that losing a child is associated with pronounced increases in parental Post-traumatic stress disorder (Murphy, Johnson, Chung, & Beaton, 2003) and parental morality (Li, Precht, Mortensen, & Olsen, 2003).

    However important marital and parental relationships are to the human social agenda, though, they represent only a narrow slice of the family experience. As we noted above, familial relationships beyond marital and parental bonds have been relatively neglected by scholars in the family and personal relationships fields. One of the principal problems with this imbalance in academic attention is that it belies people's actual familial experiences. After content-analyzing the family and personal relationships journals to quantify the amount of focus on each family relationship, Fingerman and Hay (2002) surveyed a sample of adults consisting of relationship scholars, those with advanced degrees in other fields, and those with less education. They asked participants to indicate which family relationships they considered applicable to themselves and then to rate their importance. Although spousal and parent-child relationships were understandably rated highly on both counts, other relationships were also considered highly applicable, including cousins (95%), aunts or uncles (92%), nieces or nephews (85%), siblings-in-law (80%), siblings (75%), parents-in-law (63%), and grandparents (50%).2 Moreover, participants rated all of these relationships, with the exception of cousins, above the midpoint of the scale for importance.

    These findings merely quantify what we suspect many people would say on their own: although spousal and parental relationships are extremely important, they are only two among myriad relationships that make up the experience of family. Indeed, many other relationships engage people in ways that spouses, parents, and children do not. Siblings, for instance, are usually our most longstanding life companions; we typically enter sibling relationships early in life and, barring premature death, they are the people at the end of our lives whom we have known the longest. Moreover, grandparents or aunts and uncles can serve as important allies and confidantes in ways that parents may not. Cousins may serve as surrogate siblings and may be particularly instrumental in the lives of only children. Adoption opens the door to parenthood for those who choose not to reproduce biologically or who are unable to. Still other relationships are notable because they can be tremendously supportive, yet are often the sources of pronounced stress, such as stepfamilies or parents-in-law. Indeed, the diversity of the familial experience is great, and a focus on marital and parental relationships—critical though they are—prevents us from appreciating the rich tapestry that is a family.

    Widening the Circle of Family Communication

    This book represents a coming together of contemporary research on many of these lesser-studied family relationships. The focus of the research covered herein is relational communication, broadly construed to include various patterns of meaning-making. Each chapter details one understudied relationship and offers either a critical review of existing literature, a presentation of original data pertaining to communication in that relationship, or both. The goal of each chapter is to illuminate why the focal relationship is consequential and to describe its important communicative attributes.

    Our mission with this collection is two-fold. An immediate objective is to offer a resource for students and scholars of family interaction to learn of the research done on relationships outside the nuclear reproductive and parental unions. Such a view certainly is not intended to replace a focus on marital and parent-child relationships but rather to augment it, allowing students and scholars a broader appreciation of existing knowledge about family communication. Our longer-term objective with this contributed volume is to encourage the additional exploration of communication in these and other family relationships. We believe this will become ever-increasingly important as the continued evolution of the family within the human social experience makes previously unusual familial relationships more mundane.

    We have divided the book into three sections, the first of which addresses relationships rooted in the family of origin. This section begins with a chapter on the mother-daughter relationship, which, although it is a parental relationship, is relatively understudied in its adult form (i.e., when the daughters are adults, as opposed to children). The second chapter focuses on the adult sibling relationship, which is understudied in general and is particularly so among young and middle adult siblings. The final chapter in the first section addresses the meaning of “sonhood,” or the relationship men have with their parents.

    Whereas the chapters in the first section address relationships that are more often studied in other forms (e.g., parent-child relationships with young children), those in the second section address relationships that are beyond the nuclear family configuration. Addressed in this section are the grandparent-grandchild relationship, the relationship of aunts with their nieces and nephews, the parent-in-law/child-in-law relationship, and the relationship of siblings-in-law. These topics represent a mixture of vertical and horizontal ties and a blend of genetic and legally bound relationships. The final section focuses on relationships that are formed through the processes of divorce, remarriage, and adoption. Considered first in this section are the relationships of parents with their adopted children. Next discussed are post-divorce relationships. Finally, stepfamily relationships (which include parent-stepchild as well as other step-relationships) are addressed.

    Concluding each of these sections is a commentary by one of three distinguished family communication scholars: Anita Vangelisti, Fran Dickson, and Beth Le Poire. Each commentary reflects on the themes and information addressed in the chapters in that section and identifies important areas of inquiry for future research. Similarly, this volume concludes with a summary and extension provided by family communication scholars Lynn Turner and Richard West, who use the research explicated herein as a starting point to describe what the field of family communication knows—and what it has yet to learn—about communication in family relationships.

    To be certain, not all lesser-studied family relationships are addressed in the chapters herein. One evident challenge in offering a collection such as this is that because the focus is on a wide variety of family relationships, many relationships that were potential topics simply had received too little academic attention to facilitate their inclusion in this book. Despite this limitation, we believe there is much to be learned about the family—and about family communication—by broadening our perspective to include relationships outside of those traditionally studied by family scholars. We hope this collection will illuminate the dynamics of family relationships and will provoke scholars toward their continued exploration.


    1. The percentages sum to greater than 100 because some studies focused on more than one type of relationship.

    2. Percentages for siblings, parents-in-law, and grandparents are averaged between the two sexes. For example, Fingerman and Hay asked separately about grandmothers (48%) and grandfathers (52%); we averaged these to report a 50% figure for grandparents.

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    About the Editors

    Kory Floyd is Associate Professor of Human Communication, Director of the Communication Sciences Laboratory, and Director of the graduate M.A. program in Human Communication at Arizona State University. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, an M.A. from the University of Washington, and a B.A. from Western Washington University. His research focuses on the communication of affection in families and other intimate relationships and on the interplay between communication, physiology, and health. He has written or edited five books and more than 60 journal articles and book chapters, is currently chair of the family communication division of the National Communication Association, and is currently editor of Journal of Family Communication.

    Mark T. Morman is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Baylor University, where he serves as faculty advisor for the Lambda Pi Eta communication honor society. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Kansas and his B.S. from Southern Utah University. His research focuses on affectionate communication within families and close relationships and on persuasive messages relevant to men's health issues. He has published several articles in both regional and national communication journals, is currently vice chair of the family communication division of the National Communication Association, and serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Family Communication and Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

    About the Contributors

    Tamara D. (Golish) Afifi (Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Lincoln) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. Her research interests include information regulation (e.g., privacy, avoidance, secrets) in families and communication processes in families experiencing difficult life transitions. In particular, she is interested in communication characteristics that promote risk and resilience in postdivorce families.

    Karen Anderson (Ph.D., University of Kansas) is Assistant Professor and Basic Course Director of Communication Studies at the University of North Texas. Her primary research area is intergenerational communication with a particular focus on age stereotypes, media representations of older adults, and the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Her recent work appears in Human Communication Research, Communication Reports, and Journal of Family Communication.

    Leslie A. Baxter (Ph.D., University of Oregon) is F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. She has published four books and close to 100 articles and book chapters on family communication, relational communication, and research methods. Her scholarly awards include the Berscheid-Hatfield Award for Mid-Career Achievement (INPR), the Gerald R. Miller Book Award (NCA), the Franklin H. Knower Article Award (NCA), and the Legacy Theory Award (CSCA).

    Dawn O. Braithwaite (Ph.D., University of Minnesota) is Professor of Communication Studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her research focuses on communication in personal and family relationships. She studies relational dialectics, rituals, and social support in the context of stepfamilies, elderly couples, and people with disabilities. She has published three books and 50 articles and chapters. She is past president of the Western States Communication Association and is the director of the Research Board of the National Communication Association.

    Fran C. Dickson (Ph.D., Bowling Green State University) is Associate Professor and Chair of Human Communication Studies at the University of Denver. Her research focuses on communication and intimacy within later-life couples, communication and aging, and the later-life family member. She has published over 25 journal articles and book chapters and is a past chair of the Family Communication Division for the National Communication Association.

    Laura L. Ellingson (Ph.D., University of South Florida) is Assistant Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. Her research interests include health care provider-patient communication, interdisciplinary communication, health care teamwork, communication and gender, and feminist theory and methodology. She is the author of Communicating in the Clinic: Negotiating Frontstage and Backstage Teamwork (Hampton Press) and has published articles in Health Communication, Journal of Aging Studies, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Women's Studies in Communication, and Communication Studies. Currently, she is conducting an ethnography of team communication in a dialysis clinic.

    Carla Fisher (M.A., Arizona State University West) is a doctoral student in communication arts and sciences at the Pennsylvania State University. Her primary research interests are in family communication with focuses on how communication in intergenerational relationships evolves over the life span and how families respond to change. A pilot study of the research discussed herein was presented at the 2004 Western Communication Association Conference in Albuquerque, NM.

    Kathleen M. Galvin (Ph.D., Northwestern University) is Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on the communication patterns in adoptive families and the role of discourse in the identity development of families not fully formed through biological or adult legal ties. She is the senior author of Family Communication: Cohesion and Change, currently in its sixth edition. She has authored seven other books, developed a PBS teleclass in family communication, and serves on the editorial board of Journal of Family Communication.

    Jake Harwood (Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara) is Professor of Communication and Chair of the Gerontology Program at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on intergroup communication with a particular focus on age groups and grandparent-grandchild relationships. He has published more than 50 articles in professional journals, with recent articles in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Journal of Communication, Journal of Applied Communication Research, and Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

    Beth Le Poire (Ph.D., University of Arizona) is Professor of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has published more than 40 journal articles and book chapters cutting across various areas of applied interpersonal research in the family, including the communication of stigma, early parental and subsequent romantic attachment, and the effects that partners of substance abusers can have on continued substance abuse. Recently, she has completed an editorship of Communication Reports, and she is currently the chair of the interpersonal division of the International Communication Association.

    Mei-Chen Lin (Ph.D., University of Kansas) is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University. Her research and teaching interests are in aging; group and intercultural communication, specifically communication and aging across cultures; age identity; intergenerational communication; and grandparent-grandchild relationships. Her research has appeared in Communication Monographs, Journal of Communication, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and Journal of Aging Studies.

    Tara McManus (M.A., University of Cincinnati) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. Her primary area of research is family communication, with an emphasis on relational maintenance during times of stress and uncertainty.

    Alan C. Mikkelson (M.A., Arizona State University) is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Whitworth College. He holds an M.A. in human communication from Arizona State University and a B.A. in speech communication and religion from Whitworth College, and is currently completing his Ph.D. in human communication at Arizona State University. His current research focuses on the communication of closeness in adult sibling relationships.

    Michelle Miller-Day (Ph.D., Arizona State University) is Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on interpersonal and family communication processes related to problem behaviors such as drug use and suicide. She has authored two books, the most recent titled Communication AmongGrandmothers, Mothers, and Adult Daughters: A Qualitative Study of Maternal Relationships (Lawrence Erlbaum).

    Mary Claire Morr Serewicz (Ph.D., Arizona State University) is Assistant Professor of Human Communication Studies at the University of Denver. Her research focuses on in-law relationships, privacy, and the initiation of romantic relationships. Her work has been published in journals including Communication Monographs, Communication Research, and Communication Quarterly.

    Paul Schrodt (Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Lincoln) is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Kansas. He specializes in family and relational communication and instructional communication. His research explores communication cognitions and behaviors that facilitate family functioning, specifically examining co-parenting and stepparenting relationships in stepfamilies and the associations among family communication schemata and family functioning. His research has appeared in Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, and Communication Education.

    Jordan Eli Soliz (Ph.D., University of Kansas) is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His teaching and research interests are in interpersonal and family communication, with an emphasis on intergenerational interactions, intergroup and intercultural dynamics within the family, group differences in supportive interactions, and communication and intergroup prejudice. His research has appeared in the Journal of Applied Communication Research.

    Patricia J. Sotirin (Ph.D., Purdue University) is Associate Professor of Communication at Michigan Technological University. Her research focuses on relational communication, gender, and work. She has published in such journals as Women & Language, Text and Performance Quarterly, and Organization.

    Lynn H. Turner (Ph.D., Northwestern University) is Professor of Communication Studies at Marquette University. Her research areas of interest include interpersonal, gendered, and family communication. She is the coauthor or co-editor of more than 10 books as well as several articles and book chapters. She has served in a number of different positions: director of graduate studies for the College of Communication at Marquette University; president of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender; president of Central States Communication Association; and chair of the Family Communication Division for the National Communication Association.

    Anita L. Vangelisti (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin) is Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interested in interpersonal communication among family members and between romantic partners. She is co-editor of the Cambridge University Press book series on advances in personal relationships, was associate editor of Personal Relationships, and has served on the editorial boards of numerous journals. Dr. Vangelisti has coauthored and edited several books and is presently working on two more volumes.

    Richard West (Ph.D., Ohio University) is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Southern Maine. His research seeks to understand the intersection of family communication, classroom communication, and culture. Rich is the coauthor of several book chapters, articles, and books, and he serves as an editorial board member for a number of communication journals. He has served as chair of the Instructional Development Division and is director-elect of the Educational Policies Board for the National Communication Association. He is also the president-elect of the Eastern Communication Association. Rich is the recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Awards from both Illinois State University and Ohio University.

    Christina G. Yoshimura (Ph.D., Arizona State University) is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Interpersonal Communication at the University of Montana. Her research interests address the communication behaviors used by families in response to challenging dynamics such as maintenance of the work/family tension and the entrance or exit of family members.

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