Widening the Family Circle: New Research on Family Communication


Edited by: Kory Floyd & Mark T. Morman

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Dedication

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


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    When we were young scholars, we noticed something perplexing about the family communication field: Although the family is perhaps the most diverse, dynamic relational experience known to humankind, virtually everyone in the field studied only one of two relationships, marriage or parent/young child pairs. There could be little argument that those relationships warranted in-depth attention, but we believed they hardly constituted a full representation of what it means to communicate in a family.

    After all, we reasoned, most families include one or more of many other relationships that we simply cannot understand by studying marriage or parenthood. Families branch out in other directions as well, such as to siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews. They reach across generations, such as to grandparents and grandchildren. And the family tree comes in more than one species, including adoptive and stepfamily relationships. From the vantage point of nearly any theoretic perspective, one would expect unique communication tribulations and triumphs among these various iterations of the family relationship, yet these were barely being explored, let alone understood.

    That observation led us to engage with scholars and scholars-in-training whose interests did lie in diverse family relationships. With their generous cooperation, we published the first edition of this volume in 2006, widening the circle of family communication research in the process.

    We could not have foreseen it at the time, but the book's message evidently touched a nerve in the field. Since 2006, research on previously neglected family relationships has proliferated. At academic conferences now, we regularly hear papers about siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and stepfamilies, whereas that was rarely the case less than a decade ago. In 2011, the Interpersonal Interest Group of the Western States Communication Association sponsored a panel reflecting on the volume “five years out” as a way to acknowledge the many new lines of research it had helped to spawn. Largely as a result of that panel, we realized that the research on family relationships hadn't simply been updated since the publication of our book—rather, it represented a new philosophy about studying the family, one in which the circle had officially been widened.

    It was time, therefore, to follow suit with a new edition of this volume. We have streamlined the presentation a bit, removing commentary to make room for more empirical content. Some new family relationships have joined the mix, such as the discussions of uncles by Robert Milardo, stay-at-home dads by Caryn Medved, gay and lesbian families by Elizabeth Suter and Daniel Strasser, and mother/adult child relationships by Michelle Miller-Day, Carla Fisher, and Jonathan Stube. Those and the returning relational chapters represent state-of-the-discipline reviews that, taken altogether, comprise an unparalleled look at communication in the broad family system.

    We are less young now than when we first noticed the state of the field many years ago. Time has made us more grateful for many things, including the love and support of our own families, without which this new edition wouldn't have come to be. We are also thankful for the expert guidance of our editor at Sage Publications, Matt Byrnie, who was enthusiastic about a second edition from the start and has shepherded this project with efficiency and grace. Gary Beck at Old Dominion University, Rhonda Buckley at Texas Woman's University-Denton, Aimee E. Miller-Ott at the University of Hartford, Kandi L. Walker at the University of Louisville, and Laura L. Winn at Florida Atlantic University all gave selflessly of their time and talents as reviewers of our revision proposal, and we are grateful for their feedback. Finally, we wish to thank all the colleagues and students who have joined us in our journey to widen the family circle over the past several years. Your company has made the trip well worthwhile.

    We hope you will appreciate reading about the joys and complexities of the family as much as we have.

    KoryFloyd, Arizona State University
    Mark T.Morman, Baylor University

    Introduction: On the Breadth of the Family Experience

    The family is one of nature's masterpieces.

    GeorgeSantayana (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 stimulate 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 directions to encompass other forms of familial ties. Some relationships, such as those with grandparents or nieces and nephews, are vertical ties, meaning that they span two or more generations. Others, such as with siblings or cousins, are horizontal ties, meaning they represent generational contemporaries. 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), and divorce (e.g., post-divorce relationships). Still others are formed and maintained purely through social interaction. Those are the so-called “fictive kin,” the family-like relationships that are neither genetically nor legally bound, including godparents, neighbors, and longtime friends who are considered “family.”

    As suggested by the metaphor of the tree—often used to represent family relationships—families exist at once 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 step of his or her own tree. Certainly, some of these relationships seem socially inconsequential, particularly if they involve relatives who are distant genetically, geographically, or both. There is relevance in those relationships, however, that often goes unacknowledged by family communication scholars. For instance, genetic relatives (both within and outside the nuclear family) are often the first to be called on for emotional or economic support during times of crisis (Burnstein, Crandall, & Kitayama, 1994). Greitemeyer, Rudolph, and Weiner (2003) even demonstrated that in life-or-death crises, people help family members who are responsible for their own plight more often than innocent acquaintances. 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 non-nuclear family members through mechanisms such as e-mail (Braithwaite, McBride, & Schrodt, 2003).

    What We Know and Don't Know About Communication in Family Relationships

    Despite their clear relevance, family relationships other than marriage and parent/young child relationships have gone largely unscrutinized in research by many scholars in the fields of family communication, family psychology, and personal relationships. A decade ago, family scholars Karen Fingerman and Elizabeth Hay (2002) published a content analysis of nearly a thousand research articles appearing in family and personal relationships journals from 1994 to 1999. Their analysis found that more than 4 in 10 articles (44.3%) focused on marriage and roughly a quarter (25.6%) focused on parents' relationships with young children. By comparison, most other family relationships received virtually no scholarly attention at all. Even siblings, a component of the nuclear family, were studied in only 4.1% of the research.

    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. Married people live longer, happier, and healthier lives than never-married people (Pinquart, 2003), and the termination of marriage through divorce (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1988) or bereavement (Irwin, Daniels, Smith, Bloom, & Weiner, 1987) brings pronounced declines in physical well-being. The parental relationship may be even more consequential for well-being, given the advanced state of dependency into which humans are born. Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans (and all sexually reproducing species) have evolved through the pressures of natural selection to give primacy to the health 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). The importance of the parent-child bond is also reflected in the magnitude of grief that parents routinely 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, losing a child is associated with pronounced increases in parental post-traumatic stress disorder (Murphy, Johnson, Chung, & Beaton, 2003) and parental mortality (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 relationship, Fingerman and Hay (2002) surveyed a sample consisting of relationship scholars, those with advanced degrees in other fields, and other adults. They asked participants to indicate which family relationships they considered applicable to themselves and then to rate their importance. Although spousal and parent/young child relationships were understandably rated highly on both counts, other relationships were also considered highly applicable, including cousins (95%), aunts and uncles (92%), nieces and nephews (85%), siblings-in-law (80%), siblings (75%), parents-in-law (63%), and grandparents (50%). Moreover, participants rated all of these relationships, with the exception of cousins, above the midpoint of the scale for importance.

    Those findings merely quantify what we suspect many people would say on their own: Although spousal and parental relationships are extremely important, they are but two of the 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. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles can serve as important allies and confidants in ways that parents may not. Cousins may act as surrogate siblings and may be particularly influential in the lives of only children. Adoption opens the door to parenthood for those who cannot or choose not to reproduce. 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.

    Have We Widened the Family Circle?

    In the years since the publication of Fingerman and Hay's (2002) review and the first edition of this volume, have researchers systematically explored a wider range of family relationships? Family scholars Glen Stamp and Carolyn Shue (2013) recently analyzed 261 journal articles on the topic of family communication published between 1990 and 2009. Among the characteristics Stamp and Shue documented within each article were the family relationships being examined. An informal comparison to Fingerman and Hay's results provides reason to believe that the family communication discipline is indeed widening its focus. In particular, Stamp and Shue's survey shows that more research has emerged in the past decade on divorced family relationships, parent/adult-child relationships (especially father/adult-child), grandparent-grandchild relationships, in-laws, siblings, and stepfamilies.

    Importantly, Stamp and Shue included only national and regional communication journals (Communication Monographs, Communication Quarterly, Communication Studies, Human Communication Research, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Journal of Communication, Southern Communication Journal, and Western Journal of Communication) in their survey, therefore excluding other relevant communication journals (e.g., Journal of Family Communication) as well as extra-disciplinary journals that publish family research (Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Journal of Family Psychology). These sources, and others, are represented in the chapters that follow, which reflect a coming together of the most up-to-date, contemporary research on communication in the broad family system. The focus of the research addressed in each chapter is relational communication, broadly construed to include various patterns of meaning-making. Each chapter details one family relationship and offers either a critical review of existing literature, a presentation of original data pertaining to communication in that relationship, or both. Each chapter then ends with questions for discussion and reflection. 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 updated collection is twofold. 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/young-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 revised contributed volume is to continue to encourage the exploration of these and other family relationships. As the experience of family continues to evolve in our society, so must our efforts to understand it. We hope this collection will illuminate the dynamics of diverse family relationships and will provoke students and scholars toward their continued exploration.

    About the Editors

    Kory Floyd is professor and associate director of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. He holds a PhD from University of Arizona, an MA from University of Washington, and a BA from Western Washington University. His research focuses on the communication of affection in families and other close relationships and on the interaction of communication, physiology, and health. He has written or edited 12 books and more than 90 journal articles and book chapters. He is a past chair of the Family Communication Division of the National Communication Association, a previous editor of Journal of Family Communication, and the current editor of Communication Monographs.

    Mark T. Morman is director of graduate studies and professor of communication at Baylor University. He holds both MA and PhD degrees from the University of Kansas and a BS 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, has served as chair of the Family Communication Division and the Interpersonal Communication Division of the National Communication Association, has served on the editorial boards of Journal of Family Communication and Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and currently serves on the editorial board of Communication Monographs.

    About the Contributors

    • Tamara D. Afifi is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Iowa. She received her PhD in 1999 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
    • Dawn O. Braithwaite is a Willa Cather professor and department chair of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She received her PhD in 1988 from the University of Minnesota.
    • Colleen Warner Colaner is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She received her PhD in 2011 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
    • Shardé Davis is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She received her MA in 2012 from UC Santa Barbara.
    • Laura L. Ellingson is a professor in the Department of Communication and the Women's & Gender Studies Program at Santa Clara University. She received her PhD in 2001 from the University of South Florida.
    • Carla L. Fisher is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University. She received her PhD in 2008 from The Pennsylvania State University.
    • Kathleen M. Galvin is a professor in the Communication Studies Department at Northwestern University. She received her PhD in 1968 from Northwestern University.
    • Mei-Chen Lin is an associate professor and coordinator of the graduate program in the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University. He received his PhD in 2003 from the University of Kansas.
    • Caryn E. Medved is an associate professor at Baruch College with the City University of New York. She received her PhD in 1998 from the University of Kansas.
    • Anne Merrill is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of California Santa Barbara. She received her MA in 2011 from UC Santa Barbara.
    • Alan C. Mikkelson is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Whitworth University. He received his PhD in 2006 from Arizona State University.
    • Robert M. Milardo is professor of Family Relations at the University of Maine. He received his doctorate in Human Development in 1981 from The Pennsylvania State University.
    • Michelle Miller-Day is a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Chapman University. She received her PhD in 1995 from Arizona State University.
    • Mary Claire Morr Serewicz is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Denver. She received her PhD in 2002 from Arizona State University.
    • Paul Schrodt is the Philip J. and Cheryl C. Burguières professor and graduate director in the Department of Communication Studies at Texas Christian University. He received his PhD in 2003 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
    • Jordan Eli Soliz is director of graduate studies and an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He received his PhD in 2004 from the University of Kansas.
    • Patricia J. Sotirin is a professor of Communication in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. She received her PhD in 1994 from Purdue University.
    • Daniel S. Strasser is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Rowan University. He received his PhD in 2012 from the University of Denver.
    • Jonathan Stube is a PhD candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision at The Pennsylvania State University. He received his MEd in 2011 from The Pennsylvania State University.
    • Elizabeth A. Suter is an associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Denver. She received her PhD in 2001 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
    • Christina G. Yoshimura is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Montana. She received her PhD in 2004 from Arizona State University.
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