Communication patterns in families refer to repeated interaction styles and behaviors. A single family member’s communication behaviors over time can be patterned, but family communication scholars tend to focus on patterns among family members. Family relationships are typically involuntary and long-lasting (Vangelisti 1993). One usually cannot choose one’s siblings, for instance, and sibling relationships – even strained ones – commonly endure for most of one’s lifetime. The involuntary and lengthy nature of family relations provides myriad opportunities for various communication patterns to emerge.
The meaning of any particular interaction between family members is informed by previously established communication patterns, sometimes even patterns involving previous generations (Vangelisti 1993). Such family communication patterns are so central to family life that some scholars state that the very nature of family relationships is constituted by the ongoing pattern of exchanges (Rogers & Escudero 2004).
Although there is widespread agreement that patterns are important in families, the notion of a pattern can have many different meanings. One reason that conceptualizations of patterns vary is that patterns develop over different temporal periods. Messman and Canary (1998, 122) stated that most of the empirical literature defines patterns as “recurring act-to-act sequences of interaction behaviors.” Yet many meaningful communication patterns take longer to unfold. Crouter and Maguire (1998), for instance, found seasonal patterns in parent–adolescent interaction: parents were more involved with adolescents during the summer than during other seasons. Additionally, there are intergenerational communication patterns; those that develop in one generation appear to influence patterns in the subsequent generation (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002). Individuals who are raised in families that discourage open conflict, for example, tend to expect little conflict in their adult relationships and react negatively when conflict does occur.
Prominent Research Foci and Findings
Although patterns of family communication can be conceptualized in various ways, there are two main clusters of existing research. The first is a typological approach, which focuses on relatively broad patterns of interaction and the rules and norms associated with those broad patterns. The second is a behavioral sequence approach, which examines how behaviors are patterned within particular conversations.
The typological approach has its roots in McLeod and Chaffee’s (1972) research on family types. McLeod and Chaffee identified four general family communication patterns, which were based on two communication dimensions: conceptorientation (i.e., the degree to which open discussion of ideas is encouraged) and socioorientation (i.e., the degree to which harmonious family relations are fostered and emphasized). Fitzpatrick and her colleagues (Fitzpatrick & Ritchie 1994) adapted McLeod and Chaffee’s framework to create the Revised Family Communication Pattern (RFCP) instrument. The more recent conceptualization retains two dimensions that are similar to the original, but concept-orientation has been renamed “conversation orientation” and socio-orientation has been relabeled “conformity-orientation.”
Conversation orientation is the extent to which families foster open interaction among family members about their thoughts and feelings. In families at the high end of this dimension, members interact frequently and for large amounts of time. High conversation orientation is associated with the tendency to engage rather than avoid conflict and the belief that rewarding family life depends on open, frequent, and substantive communication. In families at the low end of conversation orientation, family members interact less frequently and discuss fewer topics openly with one another. Associated with low conversation orientation is the belief that open, frequent, and substantive interaction is unnecessary for family effective functioning (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002).
Conformity orientation is the extent to which families encourage all members to have similar attitudes, beliefs, and values. Interactions in families at the high end of this dimension typically emphasize obedience to parents and the interdependence of family members. Families high in conformity orientation tend to favor hierarchical family structure and conflict avoidance. Conversely, families at the low end of conformity orientation encourage individuality in family members’ thoughts and feelings and tend to be less cohesive. Communication in these families stresses the independence and equality of family members, including children (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002).
The impact of each orientation depends on the degree of the other (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002). Thus, instead of considering conversation and conformity orientations separately, it is useful to conceptualize the two dimensions as underlying four patterns of family communication: laissez-faire, pluralistic, protective, and consensual. “Laissez-faire families” are low in both conversation and conformity orientation. Family members in these families do not communicate often, and when they do, they tend to focus on a few topics without becoming very involved in the conversation (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002). Parents in laissez-faire families tend to believe that all members should be able to make their own decisions, and they demonstrate little interest in their children’s decisions. Children in these families are relatively likely to be influenced by social ties outside of the family (Fitzpatrick & Ritchie 1994).
“Pluralistic families” are high in conversation orientation and low in conformity orientation. Family members interact openly and supportively while exerting little pressure on one another to conform. Parents in pluralistic families encourage their children to autonomously develop their opinions through active participation in family discussions. Children in pluralistic families learn to think independently and to value rational argumentation (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002).
“Protective families” are low in conversation orientation and high in conformity orientation. Family interaction stresses obedience to parents and discounts independent thinking in children (Fitzpatrick & Ritchie 1994). Parents in protective families tend to make family decisions without sensing a need to explain their logic to their children. Children in protective families learn to avoid conflict and not to question authority figures outside the family system (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002).
“Consensual families” are high in both conversation and conformity orientation. Communication in these families attempts to maintain the existing family hierarchy while also considering new ways of expressing thoughts and feelings (Fitzpatrick & Ritchie 1994). Parents in these families engage their children in decision-making discussions although they hold the ultimate decision-making power. Children in consensual families tend to evaluate messages according to how consistent they are with their parents’ attitudes, beliefs, and values (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002).
This typology of families based on family communication patterns is important beyond the theoretical utility of categorization. The predictive power of the typological model is evidenced by a number of studies of children’s outcomes. For example, there is evidence that family communication patterns influence children’s communication apprehension, conflict behavior, and social restraint and social withdrawal (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002).
Another large group of studies examines family communication patterns by focusing on specific behavioral sequences in interaction. Given the wide variety of research on interaction patterns in families, it is impossible to note all the specific patterns that have been examined. Three types of patterns are particularly prominent.
The relational control perspective holds that relationships are self-regulating systems characterized by three dimensions: trust, intimacy, and control (for a review, see Rogers & Escudero 2004). Control is the primary focus of the relational control perspective. The perspective recognizes three types of messages, or control maneuvers. One-up movements attempt to gain control of the exchange; e.g., ordering or commanding another family member to do something counts as a one-up message. One-down movements allow the other person to control the definition of the situation; e.g., indicating support for and acceptance of another’s command is a one-down message. Finally, one-across maneuvers attempt to neutralize control; e.g., extending another person’s assertion by simply continuing with the theme of that statement is considered a one-across message. One-across messages neither assert control nor grant it to the other person.
A series of control maneuvers forms a control configuration, or pattern. In a symmetrical pattern of control, interaction partners respond similarly, using the same type of message. Symmetrical configurations can be competitive (one-up/one-up), submissive (one-down/one-down), or neutral (one-across/one-across). In a complementary pattern, partners respond differently, using opposite (one-up/one-down or one-down/one-up) types of messages. In a transition pattern, one partner uses a one-across message.
The relational control perspective characterizes family relationships on the basis of two continua. The first dimension – i.e., rigid vs flexible – refers to the extent to which the same individual remains in control or different individuals gain control over time. The other continuum – i.e., stable vs unstable – refers to the extent to which control shifts are predictable or unpredictable. Several studies have indicated that relational control patterns are associated with marital satisfaction (for a review, see Rogers & Escudero 2004). For example, rigid dominance by either partner (i.e., when one person consistently responds to their partner’s one-up messages with one-down messages) is related to dissatisfaction in marriage (Rogers & Escudero 2004).
Extensive empirical research based on a variety of definitions and coding schemes suggests that family relationships tend to be dissatisfying when they are characterized by exchanges of negative behaviors (e.g., defensiveness, expressions of negative affect, complaints). The inverse correlation between negative reciprocity and relational satisfaction holds even after controlling for overall negativity rates (Gottman 1979). This connection between negative reciprocity and dissatisfaction has been established with measures focusing on nonverbal behaviors, verbal behaviors, and a combination of both verbal and nonverbal assessments (for a review, see Messman & Canary 1998). Although some studies have suggested that the verbal exchange is less important than the affective aspect of negative reciprocity (Pike & Sillars 1985), the link between negative reciprocity and marital dissatisfaction is one of the most consistent findings in family communication research (Messman & Canary 1998). There is also a link between negative reciprocity in marriage and eventual divorce (Messman & Canary 1998).
In the demand/withdraw pattern of communication, one relational partner nags, complains, or criticizes while the other person avoids the demanding partner. No particular order of behavior is implied in the pattern’s label. Indeed, sequential analyses indicate that withdrawal can lead to demands just as demands can lead to withdrawal (Klinetob & Smith 1996). Additionally, both men and women sometimes play the role of demander and withdrawer in relationships (Eldridge & Christensen 2002). Although most demand/ withdraw research has been conducted in the context of marriage relationships, it also occurs between other family members, including between parents and adolescents (Caughlin & Malis 2004).
Numerous studies have confirmed the importance of this pattern to family well-being. An inverse association between the demand/withdraw pattern and concurrent marital satisfaction has been established through both observations and participant reports of demand/withdraw (Heavey et al. 1993). The prospective outcomes associated with demand/ withdraw are somewhat less clear. Demand/withdraw (particularly woman-demand/ man-withdraw) often predicts declining relational satisfaction (Heavey et al. 1995) and marital dissolution (Gottman & Levenson 2000). Some studies, however, have failed to replicate such findings (Heavey et al. 1993), and demand/withdraw also can presage increasing relational satisfaction (Heavey et al. 1995). More longitudinal research is needed to clarify the impact of demand/withdraw over time in marital relationships.
In addition to being linked to dissatisfying relationships, demand/withdraw is associated with other important outcomes. A rigid pattern of husband-demand/wife-withdraw, for instance, may be associated with spousal abuse (Eldridge & Christensen 2002). Also, demand/withdraw between parents and adolescents is correlated with low self-esteem and high drug use among the adolescents, even after controlling for overall level of parent– adolescent conflict (Caughlin & Malis 2004). Future investigations should continue to examine the implications of demand/withdraw apart from the well-documented connection with concurrent marital satisfaction.
The research on family communication patterns is already quite varied and has produced important advances. Still, future research could yield even greater insights. One possibility involves investigating different combinations of patterns and communication behaviors in families. Research on patterns is often rooted in a systemic perspective (Rogers & Escudero 2004), which implies that the impact of various patterns needs to be understood within the larger communicative context. There is evidence, for example, that the aversive influence of demand/withdraw in marriage is moderated by affectionate communication (Caughlin & Huston 2002). More research ought to examine the interplay among various types of patterns as well as the impact of this interplay.
Another potentially important direction would be to pay more attention to behavioral patterns involving multiple family members. The important literature on alliances and coalitions indicates that alliances, especially intergenerational alliances in which a parent turns to a child rather than a spouse, are associated with poor well-being for the child (Jacobvitz & Bush 1996). Overly strong mother–father coalitions can also be problematic (Vuchinich & Angelelli 1995). Compared to the voluminous work on dyadic patterns like negative reciprocity, the research on alliances and coalitions has not been a dominant focus, particularly within the communication discipline. However, the research that has been completed demonstrates the potential utility of focusing on patterns in triads and even larger groups of family members.
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