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6.5: Family

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    Learning Objectives

    1. To explain the characteristics of a family.
    2. To describe and explain how our early concept of family influences us in the future.
    3. To examine whether and how our view of the family still shapes our expectations and behaviors.

    What is a Family?

    The third primary type of interpersonal relationship we engage in is that of family. Unlike friendships and romantic relationships, which are usually voluntary relationships, we have no choice in our family of birth. What is family? Is family created by legal ties, or the bond of sharing common blood? Or, can a family be considered people who share a commitment to one another? In an effort to recognize the diversity of families we define family as two or more people related by marriage, blood, adoption, or choice, who live together for an extended period of time.  Families are characterized by relationships among family members.  Family relations are typically long-term. 

    Characteristics of a Family

    Pearson suggests that in families, members tend to play predictable roles, form a relational transactional group, share a living space for prolonged periods of time, and create interpersonal images of family that evolve over time. (Pearson, 1992) Let’s take a few moments to unpack these characteristics:

    Each Family Member Plays a Predictable Role 

    Most family members take on predictable individual roles (parent, child, older sibling) in our family relationships. Similarly, family members tend to take on predictable communication patterns within the family. For example, your younger brother may act as the family peacemaker, while your older sister always initiates fights with her siblings.

    Families Are Characterized by Relationships Among Members

    Not only is a family made up of individual members, but it is also largely defined by the relationships among the members. A family that consists of two opposite-sex parents, an older sister, her husband and three kids, a younger brother, his new wife, and two kids from a first marriage is largely defined by the relationships among the family members. All of these people have a role in the family and interact with others in fairly consistent ways according to their roles.

    Families Usually Occupy a Common Living Space Over an Extended Period of Time

    One consistent theme when defining family is recognizing that family members typically live under the same roof for an extended period of time. We certainly include extended family within our definition, but for the most part, our notions of the family include those people with whom we share, or have shared, common space over a period of time. 

    We Learn Cultural and Personal Values From Our Family

    From our families, we learn important cultural and personal values concerning intimacy, spirituality, communication, and respect. Parents and other family members model behaviors that shape how we interact with others. From our family, we form an image of what "family" means and may try to keep that image or ideal throughout our lifetime. As an adult, you may define family as your immediate family, consisting of your parents and a sibling. However, your romantic partner may see family as consisting of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Each of you performs different communication behaviors to maintain your image of family. This can even filter down to the way you view holidays and expectations for family get-togethers.

    Key Takeaways

    • Family is defined as two or more people related by marriage, blood, adoption, or choice, who live together for an extended period of time.  Unlike friends and romantic partners which are voluntary, most of us have no say in the family we are born or adopted into.
    • Families have common characteristics in that each member tends to play a predictable role; families are characterized by relationships among members; families share a living space for prolonged periods of time; and families are the primary means through which we are educated about cultural and personal values.

    Discussion Topics

    1. If you have siblings, think about and explain the communication roles taken on by each of you.
    2. Think about your own family.  In what ways, if any, do you seek to maintain the view of family you had as a child?  In what ways do you want your future family to be different?  Has your view of the family ever created conflict with your romantic partner, or can you see it doing so in the future? For instance, does your partner have a different expectation for holidays or other events?

    Topics for Further Research

    • Differing cultural viewpoints on the role and status of elder family members 
    • Research the effects of social media on family relationships
    • Research Multiracial Families and some of the challenges or stressors they might face.


    CC licensed content, Shared previously

    6.5: Family is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.