Communication There are probably more self-help books on family communication than on
any other topic. Because communication contributes in such an important way to effective family life, this is probably as it should be. The dynamics of good communication boil down to clarity of perception and clarity of expression. Clarity of perception pertains especially to the receiver of communication. It involves good listening skills, the ability to pick up on the sender’s intonations and body language, and the willingness to ask for clarification when needed. In effective families, members have empathic skills, which include the ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes and to understand what it feels like to be in that person’s situation. This enables the communication to be on target so the receiver can make a response that helps the communicator feel understood and keeps him or her connected.
The more obvious dimension of good communication—clarity of expression—pertains to the sender. In resilient families, members are able to communicate feelings, opinions, wishes, and desires in a forthright and unambiguous manner. Clarity in sending messages is often a result of congruency between the person’s words and body language. Care in this area goes far to ensure effective communication.
Role Structure Each family member has a role to play in the family. The family as a whole
usually defines this role. In a family with two parents and two children, every member has at least two roles: the adults take the roles of spouse and parent, while the children take the roles of child and sibling. And, of course, each person has roles outside the family (student, employee, etc.). One challenge is that roles sometimes become one’s identity: who the person is in the family consists only of what they do in the family. That is why cybernetics is important but is not the most important aspect of family life.
Higher levels of role conflict are a common characteristic in less effective families. Contention arises when the role expectations of one member conflict with the role expectations of another member. For example, conflict is evident if both spouses want to work outside the home and have the other be totally responsible for the housekeeping and childcare. The expectations cause great distress and provide little room for compromise or negotiation. Highly effective families, in contrast, are characterized by expressing and negotiating role expectations. In the case cited above, for example, spouses strive toward a decision that works for both of them. They decide to share responsibility in the home in a way that allows both to be fulfilled by work outside the home. Note that the issue is not who plays a particular role but whether there is mutual agreement about the roles.
A second dimension in regard to role structure concerns the generational boundaries in the family. Strong families are characterized by clear boundaries around the parental subsystem and clear boundaries around the sibling subsystem. However, these boundaries are too diffuse when one sibling begins to play the role of parent to a brother or sister. Of course, in the single-parent home or when Mom and Dad are away, the oldest child may be put in charge. However, this role is relinquished readily when a parent returns home. When the oldest child is saddled with this role and continues to
parent the younger siblings when the adults are present, it becomes a problem. This is a blurring of generational boundaries.
Boundaries in effective families are clear but permeable. This means that family members have the freedom to take on different roles. For example, a parent can become playful and childish at times, while children may sometimes act as nurturers to their parents. For a parent or a child to occasionally break out of a fixed role is a sign of flexibility. A mother may playfully stand on the coffee table and perform for her children, or a child may comfort the parent who comes home discouraged and needs consideration and support. Though these are not their dominant roles, family members have the freedom to take them on occasionally.
Flexibility in roles and permeable boundaries are important, but a problem arises when generational boundaries are crossed. For example, it is confusing when one of the marriage partners assumes the role of parent to the other or when a child becomes a parent to the parent. In a single-parent home, it is quite natural for the oldest child to take on extra responsibility to provide the support needed. However, the single parent must be careful not to overburden the child with adult responsibilities, because taking on inappropriate responsibility infringes on the child’s sibling relationships. Another example is siblings who jump out of their age-appropriate roles and either regress to a younger role or assume an unsuitably older role in their sibling relationships. In another scenario, grandparents may attempt to parent grandchildren, thereby taking over the role that rightfully belongs to the parents. This may occur because the grandparents desire control or because their own adult child has abdicated responsibility. But whatever the case, it can disrupt the relationships among family members.
The biblical basis for family relationships presented in chapter 1 combined with the social-scientific developmental systems approach laid out in this chapter provide the overarching framework for an integrated view of marriage and family relationships. The initial task of integration is delicate. Our Christian presuppositions include values and biases that influence our response to the social-science literature. Likewise, our social-science presuppositions will be present as we attempt to understand how Scripture applies to the contemporary family. We encourage the reader to join with us
in the demanding task of integrating biblical and social-science knowledge about the family.
Marriage The Foundation of Family
Marriage continues to be the foundation on which the family is established. Family therapist Virginia Satir (1983) refers to the marital partners as the architects of the family. There is certainly deep concern about the state of marriage today and what needs to be done to ensure permanency. The negative impact of marital fragility on our children and our society is increasingly evident. In addition, research indicates that individuals who marry benefit from this relationship in terms of physical and mental health when compared to persons who remain single (Carr and Springer 2010). The crucial question is what must be done to strengthen marriage across the life cycle.
Chapter 3 focuses on the coming together of two individuals and their respective families. The couple who forms a family has already experienced family life prior to their relationship. Each person brings with him or her recollections and experiences from their family of origin that have greatly impacted him or her. The saying that there are “six in the marriage bed” is a way of alerting spouses that each brings a set of parents into their union.
The marriage ceremony proclaims to family, friends, and members of the community that a new union has been formed. The reception provides an opportunity for these groups of people to be introduced to one another in anticipation of their support for the couple. Undoubtedly, the wedding day
can be a stressful time for families. Disparate emotions related to separation, endings, and beginnings acknowledge a change in family dynamics. When both families approve and support the union, the “leaving and cleaving” aspects give the couple the best chance to flourish and establish a firm foundation. Unfortunately, lacking family support means the couple is more likely to start out on shaky ground as they try to achieve a stable marriage.
Chapter 4 is devoted to the process of establishing a firm marriage. The essential supports in a solid foundation include the strengths of the two families of origin, the character strengths that each spouse brings into the marriage, the strength of the relationship itself, and the strength that comes from friends and community. These sources of support are all crucial in establishing a solid foundation. And in Christian homes, of course, the cornerstone is Christ.
Although the foundation is established early in marriage, it is important to recognize that the marital dyad is a dynamic and growing relationship. There is no such thing as a static marriage, because, like any living organism, marriage is in either a state of growth or a state of decline. Chapter 5 presents the constituent elements of a marriage relationship that is based on and grows in accordance with biblical principles.
Mate Selection and Cohabitation
Romance and Reality
Western society has been based on the nuclear family, and the foundation of that family is marriage. This means that the beginning of the family life cycle occurs when a new family is formed, especially by marriage. All societies have a process whereby unmarried people come to be married. This process is called mate selection. While the beginning phase of marriage is technically the first stage of family life, mate selection is a necessary preliminary. Understanding mate selection is an important starting point for understanding all other stages in the life cycle of the family. The traditional understanding of mate selection as a transition to marriage has become much more complex as a result of premarital practices like “‘hooking up,’ internet dating, visiting relationships, cohabitation, marriage following childbirth, and serial partnering” (Sassler 2010, 557). Given the changes and prevalence of cohabitation, some scholars are choosing to eliminate “mate selection” in favor of descriptions such as “relationship formation and development” (see Hadden, Agnew, and Tan 2018).
Few developments related to family life have been as dramatic and controversial as the rise in premarital cohabitation. The majority of marriages in North America and European countries today are preceded by the couples living together as sexual partners sharing a household. Unfortunately, cohabitation as a precursor of marriage is a significant predictor of divorce. Some evidence suggests that for the first year of marriage, cohabitation is associated with increased satisfaction. However, over the long term, cohabitation is associated with increased likelihood of
divorce (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019). Our presentation of the mate- selection process will include the consideration of whether cohabitation is a step toward marriage or an alternative to marriage.
Mate Selection in Traditional Cultures In the United States, selecting a mate is usually an individual matter. Unmarried people date and then choose the person they will marry. Contrary to popular opinion, this approach is actually a fairly recent development. In most societies throughout history, selecting a mate was a decision made solely by the parents, whose age, experience, and cultural heritage brought the wisdom to make this important decision. Often, these arranged marriages included neighbors and communities in the mate-selection process as well.
In societies that practice parental arrangement, mate selection is more a link between two extended families than a uniting of two individuals. There is great variability across cultures in the mate-selection process, extending along a continuum from parent-arranged marriage at one end to total individual free choice at the other. In societies where marriages are arranged by parents, the two dominant approaches are the bride-price system and the dowry system. The bride-price system is the norm in subsistence economies where the labor performed by women is greatly valued and the daughter is seen as the property of her father. In exchange for the bride, the groom’s family gives her family various material goods. The dowry system is the norm in agricultural societies, where organized family units live and work on their own property. A dowry consists of goods that parents give to their unmarried daughter to make her an attractive commodity on the marriage market. In such a system, the wife brings the dowry with her into the marriage.