Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

11.1: Family Relationships

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Learning Outcomes
    • Differentiate among various definitions of the word “family.”
    • Describe the term “family communication patterns” and the two basic types of family communication patterns.
    • Explain family systems theory and its utility for family communication researchers.

    We interact within our families and begin learning our family communication pattern from the time we are born. Families are comparable to cultures in that each family has its own beliefs, customes, practices, rituals, and values. Interactions with other families reveal that there are vast differences between families. You may notice that the family down the street yells at each other almost constantly. Yelling is their baseline interaction, whereas another family never raises their voices and may seem to speak so infrequently that it appears that they have nothing to talk about within their family unit. These differences and our tendency as humans to make comparisons cause individuals to assess the value of the various styles of family communication.

    Defining Family

    One of the biggest challenges for family researchers has been to define the term “family.” The ambiguity of the term has often been seen in the academic literature. The definition of the family developed by Ernest W. Burgess was the first widely used definition by academics.1 The term “family” was described as “two or more persons joined by ties of marriage, blood, or adoption; constituting a single household; interacting and communicating with each other in their respective social roles of husband and wife, mother and father, son and daughter, brother and sister; and creating and maintaining a common culture.”2 According to Burgess, a family must be legally tied together, live together, interact together, and maintain a common culture together. The first three aspects of Burgess’ definition are pretty easy to conceptualize, but the concept of common culture deserves further explanation. Common culture consists of those communication interactions (day-to-day communication) and cultural tools (communication acts learned from one’s culture previous to the marriage) that each person brings into the marriage or family. The various tools and interactions form a unique and individual subculture that exists within the context of the new family. A couple can pick and choose from their various backgrounds which communicative acts are most important to them and integrate those into the family unit. If a couple has communicative acts that are polarized, then a couple will need to negotiate and form new ways of communicating. Burgess’ definition of the family was useful because he was the first to examine the family structure’s attempt to maintain a common culture, but it also has many serious problems that cannot be ignored. Burgess’ definition of the word “family” excludes single parent families, commuter families, bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgendered/transsexual families, and families who do not choose to, or are unable to, have children.

    Statistical Definition of ‘Family’ Unchanged

    By David Pemberton (2015, January 28)

    What is the Census Bureau’s definition of “family”?

    Printed decennial census reports from 1930 to the present are consistent in their definition of “family.” The 2010 version states: “A family consists of a householder and one or more other people living in the same household who are related to the householder by birth, marriage or adoption.”

    The 1930 version is strikingly similar: “Persons related in any way to the head of the family by blood, marriage or adoption are counted as members of the family.”

    But prior to 1930, the definition of a family was quite different.

    The 1920 version went like this: “The term ‘family’ as here used signifies a group of persons, whether related by blood or not, who live together as one household, usually sharing the same table. One person living alone is counted as a family, and, on the other hand, the occupants or inmates of a hotel or institution, however numerous, are treated as a single family.”

    The 1900 Census announced: “The word family has a much wider application, as used for census purposes, than it has in ordinary speech. As a census term, it may stand for a group of individuals who occupy jointly a dwelling place or part of a dwelling place or for an individual living alone in any place of abode. All the occupants and employees of a hotel, if they regularly sleep there, make up a single family, because they occupy one dwelling place …”

    The older definition is closer to the current use of the term “household.”

    Enumerator instructions beginning in at least 1860 and extending at least through 1940 emphasize this older definition of family.

    Here is an example from the 1860 instructions: “By the term ‘family’ is meant either one person living separately and alone in a house, or a part of a house, and providing for him or herself, or several persons living together in a house, or part of a house, upon one common means of support and separately from others in similar circumstances. A widow living alone and separately providing for herself, or 200 individuals living together and provided for by a common head, should each be numbered as one family.”

    The 1870 instructions add the element of eating together as one defining element of a family: “Under whatever circumstances, and in whatever numbers, people live together under one roof, and are provided for at a common table, there is a family in the meaning of the law.”

    By 1930, the concept of a “household” had become more important and by implication was separated from the term “family”: “A household for census purposes is a family or any other group of persons, whether or not related by blood or marriage, living together with common housekeeping arrangements in the same living quarters.”

    In 1960, the concepts of household and family were even more clearly delineated: “A household consists of a group of people who sleep in the same dwelling unit and usually have common arrangements for the preparation and consumption of food. Most households consist of a related family group. In some cases, you may find three generations represented in one household. Some household members may have no family relationship to the central group — boarders and servants, for example — but they should be included with the household if they eat and sleep in the same dwelling unit.”

    In summary, the definition of family before 1930 was more similar to today’s definition of household. However, since 1930, the definition of family has remained the same, and includes those who are related to the householder by birth, marriage, or adoption.

    After examining the flaws of Burgess’ definition of the word “family,” an anthropologist, George Peter Murdock, attempted to define the family, “Social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.” 3 Once again, this definition only allows for heterosexual couples who have children to be considered a family because of the “socially approved” sexual relationship clause.

    Another problem with this definition deals with the required inclusion of children for a couple to be labeled as a family. Many couples are unable to have children. Yet other couples opt not to have children. Does this really mean that they are not families? Couples, with or without children, should be considered as family units. All in all, this definition gave more direction than the Burgess one, but it is still extremely ambiguous and exclusive.

    Another anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, was looking at tribal familial structures all over the world at the turn of the century and defined the family as having 1) boundaries, 2) common residence, and 3) mutual affection for one another.4 Malinowski’s definition deals primarily with the fact that in different cultures around the world, a family member may include anyone from the immediate family of origin who gave birth to a person, to any member of the society into which one is born. Many African tribes see the tribe as being the family unit, and the tribe takes it upon itself to raise the children.

    The United States’ societal concept of the term “family” became very rigid during the 1950s when the family was depicted by social norms and the media as a mother, father, 2.5 offspring, and the family dog living together behind a white picket fence in the suburbs.5 Though this is currently what many Americans picture as the typical 1950s’ family, the reality was considerably different. According to Steven Mintz and Susan Kellog the family structure was very weak in the 1950s.6 Women started using tranquilizers as a method for dealing with normal household duties, and the divorce rate skyrocketed when compared with the 1940s. Currently, only around seven percent of U.S. families participate in the so-called “traditional” 1950s-style family with Ozzie, the breadwinning father, and Harriet, the happy homemaking mother, enjoying their first marriage, which has produced two or more school-aged children.7

    During the 1970s, a variety of psychologists attempted to define the term “family.” Arthur P. Bochner defined the family as “an organized, naturally occurring relational interaction system, usually occupying a common living space over an extended time, and possessing a confluence of interpersonal images which evolve through the exchange of messages over time.”8,9 Though this definition is broad enough to allow for a variety of relationships to be considered families, the definition is too vague. It has allowed almost anything to be considered a family. Take, for example, individuals who live in a dormitory setting either at a college or in the military. The first part of Bochner’s definition of family is that it has an organized, naturally occurring relational interaction system. In essence, this means that any group that has organization and interacts through various relationships accomplishes part of what it means to be a family. People who live in dormitories interact through various relationships on a regular basis. Whether it be relating with one’s roommate or with the other people who live in the rooms next to you, people in dorms do interact. Dormitories are generally highly organized. People are required to listen to complex directors and Resident Assistants (on a collegiate level). Also, with the myriad of dormitory softball teams and other activities, interaction occurs regularly.

    The second part of Bochner’s definition of the family deals with occupying a common living space for an extended period. People who live in college dormitories do so for around a year. To many transient people, this can be seen as an extended period. The extended time clause is very awkward simply because of its ambiguity.

    The last aspect of Bochner’s definition of the family deals with the possession of interpersonal images that evolve through communication. Many people who live in the same space will start to acquire many stories and anecdotes concerning those people with whom they are in close proximity. Whether it be remembering the night that a group went on a beer run or the time when everyone pulled together to win the intramural softball competition, a variety of interpersonal images will be created through communication.

    As can be seen through the previous discussion, dormitories are facilities where people cohabitate with others for extended amounts of time and share interpersonal images that change over time. The people who live in dorms under this definition could be considered as a family unit. These groups of people should not be considered as a family unit because dorm residents lack the permanence that is needed within a family structure. Once an academic year is over, the people go their directions, and many people will never see or talk to those people with whom they once lived. A family has an ongoing relationship that is constantly functioning even when the individuals are forced to live apart from the family of origin. Once again, here is a definition that does not allow for a concise explanation that can be easily applied when analyzing a family unit.

    To understand the concept of a family, the definitions should be combined in such a way that all types of family structures (e.g., single parent, LGBTQIA+, non-married parents) are included. For our purposes a family is defined as two or more people tied by marriage, blood, adoption, or choice; living together or apart by choice or circumstance; having interaction within family roles; creating and maintaining a common culture; being characterized by economic cooperation; deciding to have or not to have children, either own or adopted; having boundaries; and claiming mutual affection. This does not necessarily say that all types of families are healthy or legal, but that all cohabiting groups that consider themselves to be families should be researched as such to understand the specific interactions within the group. Though one may disagree with a specific family group, understanding the group through a family filter can lend itself to a better understanding than could be reached by analyzing the group through an organizational filter. To understand this definition of family, an analysis of the various aspects of this study’s definition shall be done to help clarify this definition.

    Marriage, Blood, Adoption, or Choice

    The first part of the definition says that a family is “two or more people tied by marriage, blood, adoption, or choice.” This part of the definition allows for a variety of family options that would not be accepted otherwise. This definition also allows for children who become part of a foster family to have a family that they can consider their own, even if they are switched from family to family. Nonmarried couples who consider themselves a family should also be researched as such. This aspect of the definition does open itself to some family types that are seen as illegal (e.g., family members marrying each other). This definition does not attempt to create a legal definition of family as much as it attempts to create a definition under which the family can be studied. As mentioned earlier, not all forms of family are necessarily healthy or legal. This part of the definition broadens the field of family study while the remaining criteria narrows the focus so that not just any group can call itself a family.


    The second part of the definition of family indicates that the cohabitants may live together or apart by choice or circumstance. There are a variety of married couples who are not able to live in the same place because of occupation. According to Naomi Gerstel and Harriet Engel Goss, a commuter family is such a family:

    The existence of marriages in which spouses separate in the service of divergent career demands at least suggests a need to question both the presupposition that coresidence is necessary for marital viability and its corollary that husbands and wives necessarily share economic fates. Dubbed “commuter,” “longdistance” or “two location” families, these marriages entail the maintenance of two separate residences by spouses who are apart from one another for periods ranging from several days per week to months at a time.10

    These marriages, seen as nontraditional by many, are becoming an increasingly common occurrence within the United States. Any member of the military who is stationed in the United States and sent to other parts of the world without their family experiences the problems caused by commuter marriages. Just because these families are not able to live under the same roof does not mean that they are not a family.

    Family Roles

    The third criterion of the definition of “family” suggests that the persons interact within family roles. These roles include such terms as mom, dad, son, daughter, wife, husband, spouse, and offspring. When an adult decides to be the guardian either by birth, adoption, or choice, the adult has taken on the role of a father or mother. When a group takes on the roles of parental figures and child figures, they have created a family system within which they can operate. Some of these roles can be related to the understanding of extended family as well, such as grandmother, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, and the like. These roles and the rules that cultures associate with them have a definite impact on how a family will function.

    Common Culture

    The fourth aspect, creating a common culture, stems directly from Burgess’ definition.11 Couples bring other aspects (communicative acts, history, cultural differences, etc.) of their lives into the family to create the new subculture that exists in the new family. This can be done whether you have two men, a mother and daughter, or a husband and wife. When a couple joins to create a family unit, they are bringing both of their cultural backgrounds to the union, thus creating a unique third family culture that combines the two initial family cultures.

    Economic Cooperation

    The fifth trait of a family deals with economic cooperation, or the general pooling of family resources for the benefit of the entire family. Economic cooperation is typically thought of in the context of nuclear families, but in commuter families both units typically pool their resources in order to keep both living establishments operational. Even though the family is unable to live together, the funds from both parties are used for the proper upkeep and maintenance of each location. In many instances, overseas military men and women will send their paychecks to their families back in the States because they will not need the money while they are out at sea or abroad, and their families still have bills that must get paid. Economic cooperation allows families who have dual earners to establish a more egalitarian relationship between the spouses since no one person is seen as the worker and the other as the non-worker.


    The sixth component of the definition of a family deals with children as a part of a family. Many researchers (Burgess, 1926; Murdock, 1949; Bailey, 1988) have said that for a family to exist, it must have offspring.12 This would mean that a couple who is infertile and only wants to raise children if they are biologically related would not be considered a family. This also prevents couples who do not desire to have children from achieving a family status. There are many unions of people who are not able to have children or do not desire to have children who are clearly families.

    Established Boundaries

    The seventh characteristic of a family deals with the need for the family to establish boundaries. Family boundaries is a concept that stems from family systems theory. According to Janet Beavin Bavelas and Lynn Segal, boundaries are those aspects of a family that prevent the family from venturing beyond the family unit.13 Boundaries function as a means for a family to determine the size and the scope of family interactions with the greater system or society. The family can let information into the family or exclude it from the family.

    An example of this can be seen in religious parents/guardians who are coming to terms with the fact that their son is gay. These parents/guardians often reject information from the family system that would indicate that homosexuality is natural. In this example, the parents/guardians draw an informational boundary and refuse to let information that could contradict their position into the family system. Also, families do not function entirely in conjunction with the system of which they are a part. Families must filter information or risk information overload. Families have naturally occurring and created boundaries that decide how a family should and should not operate. Many families create boundaries that deal with religious discussion, or they do not allow for any rejection of the family’s religious beliefs on any level. This is an example of a boundary that a family can create. Conversely, there are boundaries that a family must respect because of societal laws. Understanding these boundaries is necessary because it allows the researcher a greater understanding of the context in which the family lives.

    Love and Trust

    The eighth, and final, trait of a family, mutual affection, deals with the concept of love and trust that a family tends to possess to help them journey through conflict situations. Mutual affection also means that an individual must have a desire to be within the family or possess the freedom to leave the family system when they are of age. Families are not coercive entities but entities in which all participants can freely make personal decisions to belong. Leaving the family system does not guarantee that a member of a family will be able to lose all connections to the family itself. Besides, the family will have had an impact on members that will affect them even if they leave the family of origin and cut all ties.

    Understanding the definitions presented about the family and their obvious limitations will help in understanding of the usefulness of this new definition. Too often, definitions of the word “family” have been so narrow in scope that only some families were studied, and thus the research into the family came from only a very narrow and rigid perspective. Defining what constitutes a family is a difficult task, but without a clear definition, the study of family communication cannot be done effectively.

    Family Communication Patterns

    Two communication researchers, Jack M. McLeod and Steven H. Chaffee, found that most models of families relied on dichotomous ideas (e.g., autocratic/democratic, controlling/permissive, modern/ traditional).14 Instead of relying on these perspectives, McLeod and Chaffee realized that family communication happens along two different continuums: socio-orientation and concept-orientation. In a series of further studies, David Ritchie and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick identified two family communication patterns: conformity orientation and conversation orientation.15, 16


    To McLeod and Chaffee, socio-oriented (conformity oriented) families are indicated by “the frequency of (or emphasis on) communication that is designed to produce deference, and to foster harmony and pleasant social relationships in the family.”17 Families high in socio-orientation tend to communicate a similarity of attitudes, beliefs, and values. Similarity and harmony are valued while conflict s avoided. Family members maintain interdependence within a hierarchical structure. One of the authors comes from a family where similarity and harmony were valued to the extent that any amount of disagreement was frowned upon. The parents never (literally) argued or disagreed in front of the children. Despite the desires of her parents, the personalities of the children soon emerged and revealed that neither child could go along with total similarity and harmony. One child dealt with this difference by learning to keep his opinions to himself. The other sibling, who happened to be the oldest child, never learned to keep her opinion to herself. Her communication style simply did not align with the conformity orientation and friction was the result. You may have similar experiences if your communication style is different from your family’s communication orientation.


    To McLeod and Chaffee, concept-oriented (conversation oriented) families use “positive constraints to stimulate the child to develop his own views about the world. and to consider more than one side of an issue.”18 High concept-orientation families engage in open and frequent communication. Family life and interactions are perceived to be pleasurable. Self-expression is encouraged when attempting to make family decisions. Parents/guardians and children communicate in such a way that parents/guardians socialize and educate their children. Understanding the communication pattern within a family can lead to the ability to adapt to the family communication pattern rather than consistently communicating in a manner that is uncomfortable within the family structure.

    Four Combinations

    To further explain the concepts of socio- and concept-orientations, Jack M. McLeod and Steven H. Chaffee broke the combinations into four specific categories (Figure 11.1.1).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Family Communication Pattern


    The first family communication pattern is the consensual family, which is marked by both high levels of socio- and concept-orientation. The term “consensual” is used here because there is a tendency in these families to strive for or have pressure for agreement between parents/guardian and children. Children are encouraged to think outside the box as long as it doesn’t impact the parents/guardians’ power or the family hierarchy. However, “These conflicting pressures may induce the child to retreat from the parent/ guardian-child interaction. There is some evidence of ‘escape’ by consensual children, such as strikingly heavy viewing of television fantasy programs.”19


    The second type of family communication pattern is the protective family, which is marked by high levels of socio-orientation and low levels of concept-orientation. In these families, there tends to be a strong emphasis on child obedience and family harmony. As such, children are taught that they should not disagree with their parents/guardians openly or engage in conversations where differences of opinion may be found. McLeod and Chaffee noted that parents/guardians strive to protect their children from any kind of controversy, which may actually make them more vulnerable to outside pressures and persuasion because they have not been taught how to be critical thinkers.


    The third type of family communication pattern is pluralistic, which is the opposite of the protective family and marked by high levels of concept-orientation and low levels of socio-orientation. In these families, “The emphasis in this communication structure seems to be on mutuality of respect and interests: the combination of an absence of social constraint plus a positive impetus to self-expression should foster both communication and competence.”20 Some parents/guardians worry that this type of openness of thought actually creates problems in their children, but McLeod and Chaffee noted that these families have children who are more likely to say they want to grow up and be like their parents/ guardians than the other three types.


    The final family communication pattern, laissez-faire, is marked by both low concept- and socioorientations. In these families, there tends to be a lack of parent-child interaction or co-orientation. Instead, these children are more likely to be influenced by external factors like the media, peers, and other forces outside of the family unit. McLeod and Chaffee said that these children are more like a control group in an experiment because of the hands-off nature of their communicative relationships with their patterns. As such, it’s somewhat difficult to discuss the effectiveness of this study of family communication.

    Research Spotlight

    Research Spotlight.PNGIn a 2018 study by Kelly G. Odenweller & Tina M. Harris, the researchers set out to examine the relationship between family communication patterns and adult children’s racial prejudice and tolerance. The researchers used a mostly college-aged sample of 190 adults.

    Parental use of socio-oriented family communication patterns was positively related to an adult child’s reported levels of prejudice and bias towards their own group, and negatively related to being racially tolerant. As for concept-orientation, there were no relationships found at all.

    Ultimately, a parent’s conformity oriented family communication style can affect their children’s racial biases.

    Odenweller, K. G., & Harris, T. M. (2018). Intergroup socialization: The influence of parents’ family communication patterns on adult children’s racial prejudice and tolerance. Communication Quarterly, 66(5), 501–521.

    Family Systems Theory

    At the turn of the 20th Century, philosophers started questioning how humans organize things and our understanding of organizing. One critical theorist was Belarusian-born Alexander Aleksandrovich Bogdanov, who wrote a philosophical treaty on the nature of organization in 1922.21 Bogdanov’s ideas ultimately influenced Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory. In a series of works, Bertalanffy conceptualized what has become known as general systems theory.22 Bertalanffy defined a system as “sets of elements standing in interrelation.”23 A classic mechanical system is a non-digital watch. Figure 11.1.2 shows the basic layout of a watch’s innards.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Watch System

    In this illustration, we see how the balance wheel causes the fork pin to move, which turns the escapement wheel. The escapement wheel turns the third wheel (seconds), which turns the second wheel, which turns the first wheel (minutes), which turns the reduction gear, which turns the hour wheel. All of these different parts must work together to tell time. If a problem arises at any part of this process, then it will effect the entire system and our ability to tell time accurately.

    So, how does this ultimately help us understand family communication? A psychiatrist named Murray Bowen developed family systems theory in the 1950s while working at the National Institute of Mental Health. His theory stemmed from the work of general systems theory discussed by Bertalanffy.24 Like Bertalanffy, Bowen’s theory started by examining how everything exists within nature and is governed by natural processes. Two of these processes, individuality and togetherness, became central to these ideas.25 Individuality is a “universal, biological life force that propels organisms toward separateness, uniqueness, and distinctiveness.”26 Togetherness, on the other hand, is “the complementary, universal, biological life force that propels organisms toward relationship, attachment, and connectedness.” 27 This essential dialectical tension creates an organism’s differentiation, or its drive to be both individualistic while maintaining intimate connections with others in the larger environment. This more ecological view of how humans exist becomes a central tenant of Bowen’s family systems theory. Bowen argues that human behavior was not greatly determined by social-construction or intra-psychically generated. Instead, Bowen believes that a great deal of human behavior is habitual and rooted in billions of years of evolutionary history.

    In his earliest work, Bowen examined schizophrenic patients as he was interested in the development and treatment of schizophrenia. Instead of focusing just on the schizophrenic patient, Bowen started analyzing the broader range of relationships within the individual family units. Ultimately, Bowen argued that schizophrenia might be an individual diagnosis, but is in reality, “a symptom manifestation of an active process that involves the entire family.”28 Dr. Bowen goes on to rationalize, “When schizophrenia is seen as a family problem, it is not a disease in terms of our usual way of thinking about disease…When the family is viewed as a unit, certain clinical patterns come into focus that are not easily seen from the more familiar individual frame of reference.” 29 In essence, when we stop to think about a family as a system, it’s much easier to understand the manifestations of behaviors of family members.

    Characteristics of Family Systems

    Over the years, numerous researchers have furthered the basic ideas of Murray Bowen to further our understanding of family systems. Part of this process has been identifying different characteristics of family systems. According to Kathleen Galvin, Fran Dickson, and Sherilyn Marrow,30 there are seven essential characteristics of family systems: interdependence, wholeness, patterns/regularities, interactive complexity, openness, complex relationships, and equifinality.


    The term interdependence means that changes in one part of the system will have ramifications for other parts of the system. For example, if one of the gears in your watch gets bent, the gear will affect the rest of the watch’s ability to tell time. In this idea, the behaviors of one family member will impact the behaviors of other family members. To combine this idea with family communication patterns described earlier, parents/guardians that are high in socio-orientation and low in concept-orientation will impact those children’s willingness and openness to communicate about issues of disagreement.

    On the larger issue of pathology, numerous diseases and addictions can impact how people behave and interact. If you have a family who has a child diagnosed with cancer, the focus of the entire family may shift to the care of that one child. If the parents/guardians rally the family in support, this diagnosis could bring everyone together. On the other hand, it’s also possible that the complete focus of the parents/guardians turns to the ill child and the other children could feel unattended to or unloved, which could lead to feelings of isolation, jealousy, and resentment.


    The idea of wholeness or holism is to be able to see behaviors and outcomes within the context of the system. To understand how a watch tells time, you cannot just look at the fork pin’s activity and understand the concept of time. In the same way, examining a single fight between two siblings cannot completely let you know everything you need to know about how that family interacts or how that fight came to happen. How siblings interact with one another can be manifestations of how they have observed their parents/guardians handle conflict among themselves or even extended family members like aunts/ uncles, grandparents, and cousins.

    Holism is often discussed in opposite to reductionism. Reductionists believe that the best way to understand someone’s communicative behavior is to break it down into the simplest parts that make up the system. For example, if a teenager exhibits verbal aggression, a reductionist would explain the verbally aggressive behavior in terms of hormones (specifically testosterone and serotonin). Holistic systems thinkers don’t negate the different parts of the system, but rather like to take a larger view of everything that led to the verbally aggressive behavior. For example, does the teenager mirror their family’s verbally aggressive tendencies? Basically, what other parts of the system are at play when examining a single behavioral outcome.


    Families, like any natural organism, like balance and predictability. To help with this balance and predictability, systems (including family systems) create a complex series of both rules and norms. Rules are dictates that are spelled out. Many children grow up hearing, “children are to be seen and not heard.” This rule dictates that in social situations, children are not supposed to make noise or actively communicate with others. Norms, on the other hand, are patterns of behavior that are arrived at through the system. For example, maybe your mother has a home office, and everyone knows that when she is in her office, she should not be disturbed.

    Of course, one of the problems with patterns and regularities is that they become deeply entrenched and are not able to be changed or corrected quickly or easily. When a family is suddenly faced with a crisis event, these patterns and regularities may prevent the family from actively correcting the course. For example, imagine you live in a family where everyone is taught not to talk about the family’s problems with anyone outside the family. If one of the family members starts having problems, the family may try to circle the wagons and ultimately not get the help it needs. This is an example of a situation that happened to one of our coauthors’ families. In this case, one of our coauthor’s cousins became an alcoholic during his teen years. We’ll call him Jesse. Very few people in the immediate family even know about Jesse’s problems. Jesse’s mother was a widely known community leader, so there was a family rule that said, “don’t make mom or our family look bad.” When Jesse’s parents found out about his alcoholism (through a DUI), they circled the wagons and tried to deal with the problem as a family. Unfortunately, dealing with a disease like alcoholism by closing ranks is not the best way to get someone treatment. One night Jesse’s mother was called out to an accident at a local night club where a drunk driver had hit several people. When Jesse’s mother showed up, it was only then that she learned that the drunk driver had been her son.

    In this case, the rule about protecting the family’s image had become so ingrained, that the family hadn’t taken all of the steps necessary to get Jesse the help he needed. Although no one died in the accident, one young woman hit by Jesse was paralyzed for the rest of her life. Jesse ended up going to prison for several years.

    Interactive Complexity

    The notion of interactive complexity stems back to the original work conducted by Murray Bowen on family systems theory. In his initial research looking at schizophrenics, a lot of families labeled the schizophrenic as “the problem” or “the patient,” which allowed them to put the blame for family problems and interactions on the schizophrenic. Instead, Bowen realized that schizophrenia was one person’s diagnosis in a family system where there were usually multiple issues going on. Trying to reduce everything down to the one label, essentially letting everyone else “off the hook” for any blame for family problems, was not an accurate portrayal of the family.

    Instead, it’s important to think about interactions as complex and stemming from the system itself. For example, all married couples will have disagreements. Some married couples take these disagreements, and they become highly contentious fights. These fights are often repetitious and seen over and over again. Mary asks Anne to take out the trash. The next day Mary sees that the trash hasn’t been taken out yet. Mary turns to Anne at breakfast and says, “Are you ever going to take out the trash?” Anne quickly replies, “Stop nagging me already. I’ll get it done when I get it done.” Before too long, this becomes a fight about Anne not listening to Mary from Mary’s point-of-view, while the conversation becomes about Mary’s constant nagging from Anne’s point-of-view. Before long, the argument devolves into an argument about who started the conflict in the first place. Galvin, Dickson, and Marrow argue that trying to determine who started the conflict is not appropriate from a systems perspective, instead, researchers should focus on “current patterns serve to uncover ongoing complex issues.”31


    The next major characteristic of systems is openness. The term openness refers to how permissive system boundaries are to their external environment. Some families have fairly open boundaries. In essence, these families allow for a constant inflow of information from the external environment and outflow of information to the external environment. Other families are considerably more rigid about system boundaries. For example, maybe a family is deeply religious and does not allow television in the home. Furthermore, this family only allows reading materials that come from their religious sect and actively prevents any ideas that may threaten their religious ideology. In this case, the family has a very rigid and closed boundary. When families close themselves off from the external environment, they essentially isolate themselves. Children who are reared in highly isolated family systems often have problems interacting with other children when they come into contact with them in the external environment (e.g., school). Some families will choose to homeschool their children as another tool to close the family system to foreign ideas and influences.

    Complex Relationships

    It’s important to remember that all family systems also have multiple subsystems. One of the areas that Murray Bowen became very interested in was how family subsystems develop and function during times of crisis. In Bowen’s view, a couple may be the basic unit within an emotional relationship. Still, any tension between the couple will usually result in one or both parties turning to others. If there are not others within the family itself, partners will bring external people into the instability. For example, James and Ralph just got married. After a recent argument, Ralph ended up talking to his best friend, Shelly, about the argument (Figure 11.1.3). Bowen argues a two-person system under stress will draw in a third party to provide balance, which ultimately creates a two-helping-one or a two-against-one dynamic. It’s also possible that James decides to talk to his mother, Polly, which creates a different triangle.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Nature of Three

    Families are filled with relationship triangles. We could describe Ralph and James as parents and Shell and Polly as their daughters just as easily. These triangles are always being created and defined within a family unit when there is instability between two people. During times of crisis, these triangles take on a solution to the instability in the two-person relationship. Unfortunately, this “solution” is either two-helping-one or a two-against-one.32 Basically, in a triangle, there are now two people on one side and one on the other, so it gives a sense of balance. The more family members we start to include, the more complicated these triangle structures become.


    The final characteristic of family systems is equifinality. Equifinality is defined as the ability to get to the same end result using multiple starting points and paths. Going back to the basic definition of “family” discussed earlier in this chapter, there are many different ways for people to form relationships that are called families. Within family systems theory, the goal is to see how different family systems achieve the same outcomes (whether positive or negative).

    Mindfulness Activity

    Mindfulness Activity.PNGResearch has demonstrated that parental mindfulness has an indirect impact on children’s internalizing or externalizing of problems.33 As such, mindful parenting is an extremely useful tool when raising children (specifically being attentive, non-judgmental, and non-reactive). Furthermore, Jill Suttie recommends three specific factors for successful mindful parenting:

    1. Noticing your own feelings when you’re in conflict with your child,
    2. Learning to pause before responding in anger,
    3. Listening carefully to a child’s viewpoint even when disagreeing with it.34

    Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn define mindful parenting as “Seeing if we can remember to bring this kind of attention and openness and wisdom to our moments with our children. It is a true practice, its own inner discipline, its own form of meditation.”35 The essence of mindful parenting is about being present in one’s day-to-day interactions with their children. For this activity, answer the following questions. If you are not a parent, think about how your own parents and/or guardians would answer these questions.

    1. When you are spending time as a family, are you free from distractions (e.g., cell phones, television)?
    2. Does your family have a clear schedule that creates a stable routine (e.g., family mealtimes, bedtimes for children)?
    3. Does your family engage in “family time” that does not involve technology?
    4. How often do you dedicate time to focus purely on your child’s needs?
    5. When engaging in a conflict with your child, do you remove yourself when you start to get angry (taking a “time out”)
    6. How often do you apologize to your child when you’re wrong?
    7. When watching your children’s behavior, do you find yourself observing them or judging them? 8. When was the last time you considered your intentions, judgments, and attitude towards your child during an interaction?

    Mapping Family Systems

    One of the revolutionary tools created by Murray Bowen to understand complicated family relationships is the genogram. A genogram a pictorial representation of a family across generations. Unlike a traditional family tree, a genogram is designed to detail family data and not just basic demographic information (biological sex, birth dates, death dates, etc.). When used effectively, you can track generations of family interactions, medical issues, psychological issues, relationship patterns, and any other variable a researcher or clinician may be interested in studying.36

    The standard genogram starts with a couple pairing of some kind. In a genogram, males are represented by squares and females are represented by circles. Figure 11.1.4 is a key for common elements in a genogram. Please understand that this is not an exhaustive list. Researchers commonly add symbols to illustrate specific issues of interest. Furthermore, not all of the symbols below are necessarily agreed upon by all researchers who utilize genograms. As such, it’s essential to know the key an individual is using when attempting to understand a genogram.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Genogram Key

    As you can see in Figure 11.1.4, your basic genogram allows individuals to look at various basic characteristics of individuals within a family, the types of relationships, types of relationship interactions, and any physical/mental illness and other diseases. When thinking about your average family, many people think of the idyllic family represented in Figure 11.1.5. In this genogram, we have two heterosexual couples who each have a boy and a girl, who then turn around and have a boy and a girl of their own (and, of course, one dog and one cat). However, most families don’t look like this. Families are complicated and messy.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Idyllic Family

    To help us understand genograms, let’s look at your typical family, The Skywalkers (Figure 11.1.6). As you can see, there is a lot going on in this genogram. We have three general familial lines in play within this genogram: The Solo’s (to the left), the Skywalker’s (in the middle), and the Naberrie’s (to the right). We have four generations represented within this genogram. For our purposes, the “index person” is Luke Skywalker (highlighted in the yellow box). For those of you who are unaware, the first trilogy of Star Wars centers around Luke Skywalker, so it makes sense to see him as the index person for our genogram.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The Skywalkers

    Let’s examine some of the family interactions. Let’s start with Luke and Leia. They are fraternal twins who were separated by birth. Luke is adopted by his uncle Owen Lars and his wife Beru Whitesan. Leia, on the other hand, is adopted by Bail Prestor Organa and Queen Breha Organa. Ultimately, the two do find each other and establish a close relationship as adults, which is why the “cut off repaired” symbol was used between them. Luke also happens to be best friends with Leia’s future husband Han Solo. Han has an interesting life before Leia. From what we know, he may have been previously married to Sana Starros (she said they were, he said they weren’t). There’s also the possibility that Han had an affair with an unknown woman and had a child out of wedlock named Danielle Kieran.

    Of course, the bulk of the original trilogy of Star Wars movies centers on the triangle relationship between Luke, Leia, and their father, Anakin Skywalker (also known as Darth Vader). To put it mildly, Vader is a slightly distant father figure and prone to acts of violence. His acts of violence are not only targeted at his children, but also at anyone he perceives to get in his way. During one of his more dramatic acts of violence, Darth Vader destroys the entire planet of Alderaan, which kills Leia’s adopted parents in the process. Of course, this is after he gives the order to kill his half-brother Owen and his wife, who were Luke’s adopted parents. As we said earlier, families are complicated and messy.

    Now, we used the Star Wars world as a tool to help illustrate how genograms can help us breakdown family histories and understand family dynamics. Let’s look at a genogram from a real family. The following genogram is created without names, but all parts of the genogram represent an actual family (Figure 11.1.7).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Real Family Genogram

    Take a few moments and look at this genogram. What do you see? How would you characterize this family? You have a number of close relationships. You have two children who were adopted. Both of whom have repaired the relationships with their birthmothers, but have no apparent connection with their birth fathers. You have single adults with pets. You have three marriages that ended in divorce. For a couple of people, we have no information, which is why we have question marks for two males in the genogram. We have a situation where two male siblings had an intense hatred for their stepmother. We have one gay man who is single and a bisexual woman who is now living with another bisexual woman. We also have one male suspected of alcohol abuse.

    We show you this genogram because it’s more realistic of how modern families look. Modern family systems aren’t always clean and easy to follow. Sure, we could put all of these people on leaves in a family tree, but you would only get a fraction of the picture of what this family looks like. Genograms are an excellent tool for getting a bird’s eye view of how a family functions.

    Research Spotlight

    Research Spotlight.PNGIn 2014, Justin Parent, Jessica Clifton, Rex Forehand, Andrew Golub, Megan Reid, and Emily R. Pichler set out to examine the relationships among parental mindfulness, relationship quality, and parental firm control (“degree to which the parent consistently regulates and monitors the child’s activities and conduct”37). For this study, the researchers specifically examined Black children who had a single mother and the mother had a cohabitating male partner (CMP) who lived with them. The average age of the children participants was 13 years old; the average age of the mother was 39; and the average age of the CMP was 41.

    First, the research did not find a relationship between a mother’s mindfulness and her CMP’s mindfulness. For the mothers, mindfulness was positively related to relationship quality, and positively related to parental firm control. For the CMP, mindfulness was positively related to relationship quality, but was not related to parental firm control. We should also mention that mother and CMP relational quality was positively related, and there was a positive relationship between mother and CMP use of parental firm control.

    The researchers used family systems theory to help explain the CMP’s role within the family system. Specifically, the researchers argue, “It is also important to note that the MCP’s role in different family subsystems may be, at least in part, determined by how a mother defines her male partner’s role. For example, his main role may be to meet her relationship needs and/or contribute to completing general household responsibilities (e.g, grocery shopping, cleaning) rather than setting limits on an adolescent aged child.” 38

    Parent, J., Clifton, J., Forehand, R., Golub, A., Reid, M., & Pichler, E. R. (2014). Parental mindfulness and dyadic relationship quality in low-income cohabiting black stepfamilies: Associations with parenting experienced by adolescents. Couple & Family Psychology, 3(2), 67–82.

    Key Takeaways
    • Although there are numerous definitions for the term “family,” this book uses the following definition: two or more people tied by marriage, blood, adoption, or choice; living together or apart by choice or circumstance; having interaction within family roles; creating and maintaining a common culture; being characterized by economic cooperation; deciding to have or not to have children, either own or adopted; having boundaries; and claiming mutual affection. The family structure is represented by single-mothers, single-fathers, two-parents, and adults living together without children. The idea of family has shifted away from the notion that a family is made up of a mother, father, and children.
    • Jack M. McLeod and Steven H. Chaffee originally coined the term “family communication patterns” and broke the concept into two different patterns of family communicative behavior: socio-orientation and concept-orientation. Concept-orientation is the pattern of family communication where freedom of expression is encouraged, communication is frequent, and family life is pleasurable. Conversely, socio-orientation is the pattern of family communication where similarity is valued over individuality and self-expression, and harmony is preferred over expression of opinion.
    • Murray Bowen’s family systems theory is an extension of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory. Bowen argued that human behavior is not determined by social-construction or intra-psychically generated, but is habitual and rooted in billions of years of evolutionary history. As such, to understand how someone behaves or communicates today, it’s important to see how this behavior/ communication can be understood through generations of family members.
    • Reflect on your experiences as a family member. How does your own family compare to other families in communication patterns and structure?
    • Describe your idea of the ideal family. How would your ideal family communicate? Is this different from your own family?
    • Use conformity orientation and conversation orientation to describe two families you know.
    • Create your own genogram for your family, including at least three generations. You can create this using a pen and paper, graphic arts software, or genogram software. The genograms used in this book were created using Genogram Pro, There is also a paired down free version of this software:

    This page titled 11.1: Family Relationships is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.