Families represent a central relational unit within society and a formative context of interdependence throughout one’s life. How family members individually and collectively navigate communicative decisions therefore illustrates a process offering implications for each member within a family. Although various forms and contexts of decision-making might emerge, decisions guiding how family members communicate remain inevitable. Thus, particular importance emerges in understanding the processes and considerations that guide communicative decisions in families. Some decision-making processes might remain implicit, but several communication theories and models illuminate explicit considerations guiding family members’ communicative decisions. The first set of theoretical perspectives provides insights regarding communicative decisions relevant in contexts of uncertainty. The theory of motivated information management, for example, suggests that family members must make decisions regarding how they wish to manage a lack of information and any resulting uncertainty. However, those decisions likely remain guided by how family members assess their individual (or collective) ability to obtain the desired information, as well as cope with the outcomes of obtaining new information. Relatedly, uncertainty management theory illustrates the ways that family members experiencing uncertainty likely face decisions regarding if, as well as to what extent, they wish to acquire more information related to the source of uncertainty. Communication often serves as an information-seeking behavior family members decide to either enact or avoid, depending on how interested they are in reducing their uncertainty. A second set of theoretical perspectives illustrates the decisions family members face regarding if (and how) they communicate “private” information, as well as secrets. When managing private information, communication privacy management theory outlines decisions family members likely confront related to privacy ownership, privacy control, and privacy turbulence. In terms of secrets, the revelation risk model explicates considerations guiding if (and how) individuals decide to reveal secrets to their family members. These considerations include assessments of potential risk, perceived communication efficacy, and the relational closeness between the family members. The cycle of concealment model also examines decisions to reveal secrets, but this model suggests that these decisions also consider elements such as family interaction histories and, similarly, the quality of the relationship shared between the family members. A final theoretical perspective illuminates how health contexts introduce unique considerations that might dictate if (and how) family members decide to communicate about health-related information. Specifically, the disclosure decision-making model proposes that these types of communicative decisions remain guided by more unique considerations, such as (a) the type of information to be disclosed, (b) the relationships among the family members, (c) how a family member is likely to respond to the disclosure, (d) perceived disclosure efficacy, and (e) available strategies to disclose the information. Collectively, these six theoretical perspectives provide a multifaceted understanding of the central processes and considerations that guide communicative decisions in families.
Communicative Decisions in Families
Rudy C. Pett, Kristina M. Scharp, and Yueyi Fan
Conflict in Family Communication
John P. Caughlin and Emily Gerlikovski
Conflict is a common experience in families. Although conflicts can be intense, most conflicts in families are about mundane issues such as housework, social life, schoolwork, or hygiene. Families’ negotiations over even such mundane topics, however, have important implications. Through conflicts with other family members, children typically first learn about managing difficulties with others, and the skills they learn in such conflicts are important to their social lives beyond their families. Yet poorly managed conflicts that become more intense or personal can undermine the well-being of families and family members. Family conflicts are extremely complex, and understanding them requires analysis at multiple levels, including examining the individual family members, dyads and larger groups within the family, and the sociocultural context in which families are embedded. At the individual level, family members’ conflict behaviors (e.g., exhibiting positive affect vs. negative affect), conflict skills (e.g., whether they are able to resolve problems), and cognitions (e.g., whether they make generous attributions about other family members' intent during disputes) all are important for understanding the impact of family conflicts. Examining conflict from the dyadic and polyadic levels recognizes that there are important features of conflict that are only apparent with a broader perspective. Dyadic and polyadic constructs include patterns of behavior, conflict outcomes that apply to all family members involved, and beliefs shared by family members. There are also particular types of relationships within families that have salient conflicts which have drawn considerable scholarly attention, such as parent–child or parent–adolescent conflicts, conflicts between siblings, marital conflicts, and conflicts between co-parents. In addition, families experience various transitions, and the life course of families influences conflict. Some key periods for conflict are the early years of marriage, the period of launching children and empty nest, and a family member navigating the end of life. Finally, family conflicts occur in a larger sociocultural context in which societal events and conditions affect family conflict. Such contextual factors include broad social structures (e.g., societal-level power dynamics between men and women), financial conditions, different co-cultural groups within a country, cross-cultural differences, and major events such as the COVID-19 pandemic that have direct effects on families and also elicit dramatic social responses that affect families. Despite the complexities, it is important to understand family conflict because of its implications for the health and well-being of families and family members.
Cognitive and Interactive Mechanisms for Mutual Understanding in Conversation
Ashley Micklos and Marieke Woensdregt
Everyday conversation is, as the term suggests, a frequent and seemingly effortless phenomenon. However, when closely examined, it is seen that the process of achieving mutual understanding in conversation involves both complex social reasoning and finely tuned interactive mechanisms. Referential communication provides an excellent case study for what makes everyday language interactions complex: people recruit an intricate web of cognitive capacities and interactive resources in order to get their message across. In terms of cognitive capacities, reaching mutual understanding in conversation involves social reasoning in order to establish common ground and take into account one’s conversational partner when producing and interpreting utterances. Specifically, people continuously adapt to their conversational partner by keeping track of what information is or is not shared (based on the situational context, preceding discourse, and general knowledge) and adjusting their utterances and interpretations accordingly. In terms of interactive resources, mechanisms that allow us to keep a conversation on track (e.g., backchannels) and the mechanisms that allow us to recover from breakdowns in communication (i.e., repair) contribute to mutual understanding. Specifically, other-initiated repair, a conversational phenomenon that has been documented cross-linguistically and observed in experimental settings, is an interactional resource for (re)establishing intersubjectivity between interlocutors. The historic separation between cognitive capacities on the one hand and interactive resources on the other hand has created an artificial divide, when in fact both mechanisms interact with, and even presuppose, one another. This article puts forward a unified perspective on the cognitive and interactive mechanisms for mutual understanding, moving towards better understanding of the complementary roles of these mechanisms in interaction.
Perceptions of the Childfree
Elizabeth A. Hintz and Rachel Tucker
Being voluntarily childless (i.e., “childfree”) is a growing trend in the United States and around the world. Although most childfree people know early in life that they do not wish to become parents, the decision to forgo having children is an ongoing process that requires childfree people to construct a life that deviates from the normative family life cycle. Increasing rates of voluntary childlessness is a trend spurred by a variety of shifting social, economic, and environmental factors. Yet despite the increasing normalcy of voluntary childlessness, childfree people (and especially childfree women) face social sanctions for deciding not to become parents, being broadly perceived more negatively than childless people (who do not have children but want them) and parents. Such sanctions include social confrontations in which others (e.g., family members) question or contest the legitimacy of their childfree identity. Media coverage of voluntary childlessness forwards the notion that motherhood and femininity are inseparable and that voluntary childlessness is an issue that primarily concerns and affects women. Furthermore, childfree people face discrimination in health care contexts when seeking voluntary sterilization and in workplace contexts when “family-friendly” policies create unequal distributions of labor for those without children. Members of the childfree community use the Internet to share resources and seek support to navigate challenging interactions with outsiders. Beyond this, although some studies have begun to interrogate the roles of geographic location, race, and sexual orientation in shaping the experience of voluntary childlessness, at present, a largely White, wealthy, able-bodied, cisgender, heteronormative, and Western view of this topic is still perpetuated in the literature.
Stepchild-Stepparent Relationships and Resilience
Bailey M. Oliver-Blackburn
Stepfamilies have existed throughout time and refer to families that form after re-partnering when at least one partner brings a child from a previous relationship into the new union. Stepfamilies can be complex, spanning across multiple residences, and may include full biological, half-biological, and step siblings. Although stepfamilies can be found within nearly every culture in the world, they are most prevalent in Westernized cultures such as the United States. Stepparents at one time were most likely the result of the death of a spouse or partner. However, since the 1970s, stepparents have served as an additional kin or family relationship, as remarriage is more likely to follow a divorce than bereavement. As the demographics of stepfamilies have changed over time, so has the stepparent role. Stepfamilies were originally studied for how they fall short of first-marriage, intact family outcomes, and research has well-documented the inherent challenges to stepparent-stepchild relationship development, noting the ambiguous roles, expectations, and boundaries for stepfamily interaction. Stepfamilies lack cultural models to derive these roles and expectations from and thus rely on communication to make sense of the relationships within their family unit, and to externally validate their family to outsiders. Instead of exclusively focusing on their deficits, current research looks to how stepfamilies are developmentally unique yet functional, and how communication can contribute to positive and resilient stepparent-stepchild relationships. Affinity-seeking strategies, remaining flexible in roles, and negotiating boundary and ritual changes can aid in developing positive and resilient stepparent-stepchild relationships over time.
Ningxin Wang, Wanming Ning, and Anran Mao
Support seeking refers to the communication process through which individuals elicit supportive actions from their social networks. Although the bulk of research on supportive communication has focused on support provision, theories and emerging evidence suggest that the support seeker may play a critical role in influencing the process of supportive exchange and the quality of support provided. Research on support seeking has addressed several key questions. First, what factors are inhibiting or driving individuals’ support-seeking behaviors? Individuals are more likely to seek support when they feel capable of doing so, and when they anticipate the benefits of seeking support to outweigh the costs of it. Gender and culture are among the most widely studied factors that affect the likelihood of support seeking. Second, what communication strategies do people employ to seek support, and how do they decide what strategies to use? The sensitive interactions systems theory serves as an important guiding framework for the conceptualizations of support-seeking behaviors. Most existing research has examined support-seeking strategies along the dimensions of direct-indirect, verbal-nonverbal, and approach-avoidant. The choice of support-seeking strategy is determined by the support seeker’s communication ability and subjective evaluation of the costs and benefits of using certain strategies. In particular, the literature has highlighted several factors that could increase perceived costs of direct support seeking and thus drive the use of indirect or avoidant support-seeking strategies, including perceived stigma of the stressor, dispositional qualities (e.g., insecure attachment style, low self-esteem), and collectivistic cultures. Last, how do different support-seeking strategies impact the outcomes of supportive interactions? There is some empirical evidence that direct support seeking, compared to indirect, avoidant means of seeking, is more effective in terms of eliciting helpful support and facilitating personal coping. Findings revealed a phenomenon called “the paradox of indirect support seeking” that describes an irony where individuals may strategically choose to seek support indirectly due to face needs or fear of rejection, yet the indirect strategies backfire, leading to the rejection and the unhelpful responses that they dread. Overall, support seeking maintains an area that attracts growing scholarly attention. There are opportunities for new insights on the message features and interactive process of support seeking.
Memorable Messages in Families
Haley Kranstuber Horstman, Ellen Jordan, and Jinwen Yue
Families are (one of) the first and most influential socializing agents of our lives. Among the innumerable messages family members convey to each other, a select few are regarded as “memorable.” Memorable messages are “distinct communication units considered influential over the course of a person’s life.” Those messages that are most memorable are typically brief, direct, oral messages delivered by a higher-status, older, and likable individual to the recipient during their teen or young adult years. Although memorable messages were initially regarded as having positive implications for the receiver’s life, newer research has provided space for the negative implications and perceptions of these messages. Nonverbal communication elements and relational contexts and qualities are influential to the receptivity of memorable messages. Although memorable messages often originate from a family member, the sources of memorable messages can also be friends/peers, teachers, coworkers, or, in some cases, the media. Research on memorable messages has been largely concentrated in health and interpersonal/family communication contexts; organizational and instructional contexts have also been explored. Memorable message research in families has focused much on health topics (i.e., mental health, sexual health, body image and weight), socialization (i.e., around school, work, race, other topics), and coping with hardship. In these studies, memorable messages have largely been investigated through mixed-method survey-based research, but also through purely quantitative (i.e., survey-based) and qualitative (i.e., interview) methods as well. This research has been largely atheoretical but has been grounded in control theory and, more recently, the theory of memorable messages and communicated narrative sense-making theory. Future research and practical applications of family memorable message research include informing health campaigns and family life education programming.
Aging Grandparents and Grandchildren and Communication
Grandparents and grandchildren report their relationships with one another are meaningful in many respects, including having the opportunities to exchange affection, receive support, and learn new things from one another. Since 2000, theoretically grounded communication research on grandparent–grandchild (GP–GC) relationships has notably increased. This research has been largely centered in three theoretical domains: research using affection exchange theory (AET), communication accommodation theory (CAT), and communication theory of identity (CTI). AET is a bioevolutionary theory that holds that giving and receiving affectionate communication help facilitate viability and fertility. Consistent with this theory, grandparents have reported better mental health when they express more affectionate communication for their grandchildren, and grandchildren have reported better mental health when they receive more affectionate communication from their grandparents. Researchers can advance the study of GP–GC affectionate communication in the future by examining if affectionate communication is indirectly associated with health outcomes via certain indices of relational solidarity (e.g., shared family identity, relational closeness, perceived availability of social support). CAT is an intergroup and interpersonal communication theory that describes the adjustments speakers make during interaction, as well as the ramifications of those adjustments for receivers. Receivers might interpret a speaker as overaccommodating them (i.e., going too far in the adjustment necessary for appropriate interaction, such as patronizing talk) or underaccommodating them (i.e., not going far enough in the adjustment necessary for appropriate interaction, such as engaging in painful self-disclosures). When grandchildren receive more overaccommodation and underaccommodation from their grandparents, they report more negative prejudicial attitudes toward older adults as a whole. Future researchers should examine how perceptions of accommodation and nonaccommodation in GP–GC relationships are associated with other types of prejudice, such as religious prejudice. Finally, the CTI posits that people hold four frames of identity: personal identity (how people internally view themselves), enacted identity (how people behave or perform their identity), relational identity (how people perceive that their relational partners view them and how people define themselves as in relationships with others), and communal identity (how large social collectives are broadly defined, such as in the mass media). These identity frames can contradict one another, creating identity gaps. Both grandchildren’s and grandparents’ identity gaps (personal-relational and personal-enacted identity gaps) have been indirectly associated with lower intentions on the part of grandchildren to provide care for their grandparents via grandchildren’s reduced communication satisfaction. Future researchers would be well served to examine identity gaps between three or four frames of identity. In sum, many insights have been generated by GP–GC communication research informed by these three theories, and there are numerous ways to continue these lines of research in the future.
Estrangement and Impact on Family Communication
Kristina M. Scharp
Family estrangement occurs when at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally distances themselves from another family member because of an often ongoing negative relationship. Similar to divorce, parent–child estrangement can be an intergenerational issue; this means that adult children who distance themselves from their parents might eventually be distanced from their own children. Although it can be a healthy solution to an unhealthy environment, research suggests that estrangement can be complicated (e.g., marked by on-again/off-again cycles), uncertain, disenfranchised, stigmatized, and unsupported. Considering families are interdependent systems, the impact of family distancing can affect each and every member of the family, regardless of whether a person is directly involved. Nevertheless, parents, children, immediate family members, and siblings have varying and nuanced perspectives. For example, parents often desire reconnection and reconciliation, whereas adult children often do not. Siblings often face a different dynamic considering the power relationships between siblings are more horizontal than vertical. This means that siblings often have the same amount of power (i.e., horizontal) compared to parents and children (i.e., vertical), in which there is a greater power difference. Overall, the study of family estrangement is relatively new regardless of discipline; more research will be needed to characterize this experience and test related outcomes. Indeed, even though there is hardly any research at all, there is even less quantitative research. Continuing the study of family estrangement is important, however, considering it calls into question the inevitability of family relationships, which, albeit concerning to some, opens up the possibility to reconceptualize family to de-emphasize biological ties and emphasize care and communication.
Relational Dialectics Theory
Kristina M. Scharp
Relational dialectics theory (RDT) is a postmodern critical theory of meaning. Based on the writing of Russian philosopher, RDT attunes researchers to the ways that discourses (i.e., ideologies) compete to make meaning of particular semantic objects (e.g., identities, phenomena, processes, etc.). Of note, not all discourses hold the same amount of power. Some discourses are dominant (i.e., centripetal) whereas others are marginalized (i.e., centrifugal). RDT researchers, then, are primarily interested in exploring how these discourses, with unequal power, compete. This focus on the competition of discourses for power and the ability of RDT to call out the ideological forces that disenfranchise some groups while enfranchising others holds promise for practical applications such as debunking misconceptions and better understanding where privilege comes from and how it is perpetuated. When discourses compete, they might do so within or across a set of utterances. Utterances are turns in talk and serve as the primary unit of analysis in RDT research. Utterances, however, are not standalone entities. Rather, they are connected by different links to form an utterance chain. Some links of the utterance chain pertain to time (what has been said before and what response an utterance can anticipate) whereas the other links of the utterance chain pertain to the relationship level (some pertain to the culture at large whereas other only to an idiosyncratic relationship). Overall, discursive competition takes place across a continuum of interplay. At one end of the continuum is monologue. Monologue represents the absence of meaning. Next are discursive enactments (i.e., closure) that reinforce the dominant discourse and shut down alternatives (see entry for complete list). Diachronic separation occurs when the dominance of a discourse changes across time. Diachronic separation can take two forms: (a) spiraling inversion or (b) segmentation. Synchronic interplay is next and occurs when two discourses compete within a given utterance. When RDT researchers examine a text for synchronic interplay, they often look to see how a marginalized discourse (a) negates, (b) counters, or (c) entertains the dominant discourse. Finally, on the other end of the continuum of interplay, is dialogic transformation. Dialogic transformation occurs through either (a) discursive hybridity or (b) an aesthetic moment whereby discourses suspend their interplay to create new meanings. Conducted using RDT’s corresponding method, contrapuntal analysis, researchers using this theory work to disrupt hegemonic, taken-for-granted assumptions about how things are and call attention to voices overlooked in the past. To date, this theory has been taken up primarily by family, interpersonal, and health communication scholars, although many scholars have used this theory throughout the discipline.