Moral Talk Across the Lifespan

Creating Good Relationships

by Vince Waldron (Volume editor) Douglas Kelley (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook 242 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 7


Grounded in path-breaking research but written in an accessible, engaging style Moral Talk Across the Lifespan explores how our most fundamental moral commitments are shaped by crucial conversations with family members, romantic partners, and friends. Taking a lifespan approach, the authors demonstrate that moral growth is a continual process, one stimulated by transitions (e.g., leaving home for university) and disruptive events (serious illness). With chapters penned by leading relationship scholars, the volume contributes original thinking, data, and innovative theoretical pathways for researchers. For instructors it explores pressing moral questions encountered by students in their own relationships with romantic partners, friends, parents, and other family members. When is revealing a secret the right thing to do? Is revenge ever a worthy response to an insult or sleight? Why are young adults persuaded to accept some of their parents’ values but not others? Is there a right (or wrong) way to support a parent facing a terminal illness?
Moral Talk Across the Lifespan offers a stimulating blend of social science research and moral reflection. It is a key text for courses in Relational Communication, Family Communication, Interpersonal Communication, and Communication Ethics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Moral talk across the lifespan
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Series Editor’s Preface
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: In Search of the Good Relationship
  • Part One: Key Relationships and Life Events
  • Chapter One: Parent/Caregiver-Child Communication and Moral Development: Toward a Conceptual Foundation of an Ecological Model of Lifespan Communication and Good Relationships
  • Chapter Two: Which Parental Messages about Morality Are Accepted by Emerging Adults?
  • Chapter Three: Generativity in the Family: Grandparent-Grandchild Relationships and the Intergenerational Transmission of Values and Worldviews
  • Chapter Four:Just Marriage
  • Chapter Five: Morality and Family Communication When Coping with Cancer
  • Part Two: Moral Messages and Conversations
  • Chapter Six: Negotiating Morality Through Poetic Justice
  • Chapter Seven: The Morality of Revealing Others’ Secrets
  • Chapter Eight: Moral Standards, Emotions, and Communication Associated with Relational Transgressions in Dating Relationships
  • Chapter Nine: Mindfulness as Morality: Awareness, Nonjudgment, and Nonreactivity in Couples’ Communication
  • Epilogue: Good Relationship Talk
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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Series Editor’s Preface

Moral Talk Across the Lifespan: Creating Good Relationships

THOMAS J. SOCHA Old Dominon University

Moral Talk Across the Lifespan: Creating Good Relationships, edited by the prominent interpersonal communication scholars, Vincent Waldron & Douglas Kelley represents a significant and long overdue addition about a timeless, yet understudied, topic in lifespan communication research in the ever-evolving communication of contemporary personal and social relationships. Our messages certainly have something to do with defining, creating, and maintaining “good” relationships, and are also something that we learn from early childhood and build on across the human lifespan. This volume takes significant theoretical and methodological steps forward as it fuses communication theories and theories of morality within a lifespan developmental framework.

Like this volume, the book series, Lifespan Communication: Children, Families and Aging invites communication scholars to view communication through a panoramic lens—from first words to final conversations—a comprehensive communication vista that brings all children, adolescents, adults, and those in later life as well as lifespan groups such as the family into focus. By viewing communication panoramically it is my hope that communication scholars and educators will incorporate into their work, the widely-accepted idea that communication develops, that is, it has a starting point and a developmental arc; changing as we change over time. And further, that developmental communication arcs are historically contextualized. As infants we begin our communication education in unique historical and familial contexts that shape our early communication learning as well as the ← VII | VIII → foundations of our communication values. Children born in 2015, for example, will begin their communication learning in a time where humans are seeking to remake themselves to fit a rapidly changing, and increasingly complex landscape that features an ever-widening variety of types of relationships. Of course adults caring for these children—who could have been born anytime between the 1930s to the late 1990s—have experienced vastly different developmental communication arcs, but yet must discursively span the generations, pass along their communication knowledge and values, as well as teach children how to communicate effectively within the current historical context, whether their relationships are grounded in birth or social agreement. Historically-contextualized lifespan thinking raises important new questions such as, what is to be passed along from one generation to the next as “timeless” communication knowledge and practice? In the case of the present volume, how is communication used to create “good” in relationships? In contemporary digital parlance, and analogous to genetic information, what communication is to become memetic, or survive to become the communication inheritance of future generations?

It is my hope that Moral Talk Across the Lifespan: Creating Good Relationships, and all of the books published in the Lifespan Communication: Children, Families, and Aging series, will offer the communication field new understandings and deeper appreciation of the complexities of all forms of communication as it develops across the lifespan as well as raise important questions about communication for current and future generations to study.

—Thomas J. Socha

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DAWN O. BRAITHWAITE University of Nebraska-Lincoln

I have followed with great interest the development of this book project on Creating “Good” Relationships. From the first I heard about it from Doug Kelley and Vince Waldron, the book sounded like a very good idea, even as it made me initially a bit uncomfortable as a researcher for reasons I’ll explain below. I am honored that they asked me to write this preface to their book, which I believe makes an important contribution to our understanding of communication in close relationships. As Vince and Doug so cogently describe in their introduction, like most close relationships scholars, once I had some time to think about it, I asked the same question, just what do you mean by “moral dimension of communication?” You would think—given the importance of what people believe is “right” or “wrong”—that this topic would be of central concern to close relationships scholars, but it has not been. This demonstrates a need for this book that brings together essays that get us thinking about, increasing our comfort with, and commitment to, centering the moral dimension of communication into our thinking, teaching, and research.

In the introduction to this volume, Waldron and Kelley take a broad approach to the “moral dimension” as focusing on what persons believe is “right” or “wrong” and they turn our attention toward a communication or discursive focus which means that we look at communication as the primary ways that our relationships, and indeed ourselves, are created and enacted (Baxter, 2004; Craig, 1999). They provide us with several reasons that they believe scholars ← IX | X → often ignore the moral dimension of communication. This can help to get all of us—students, teachers, and researchers—thinking about and acting on the moral dimension of communication.

I do agree that, for most academics, there seems to be discomfort and, I believe, an intentional distancing from focusing on the moral dimension of communication in close relationships. Waldron and Kelley point out that the training most of us received as social scientists and the positions we’ve been hired for in the academy, set us up for taking a cautious and distanced approach to the moral dimension of communication in close relationships. I think this is especially true for those of us working in public colleges and universities. Why is this the case? Well, social scientists are trained to examine those variables related to communication behavior that can be isolated and measured. Thus, we see scholars focusing their research on (a) factors that influence communication choices, such as relational type (e.g., marriage, parent-child, in-law, stepfamily), race and ethnicity, religiosity, or sex differences, (b) communication goals, such as maintaining relationships or communicating competently, or (c) communication processes around which we often theorize, for example, managing privacy boundaries, undertaking facework, or negotiating intergroup differences. To understand and answer questions that spring from these foci, early close relationships researchers started with social science theories and methods and these approaches have accounted for most of the scholarship in interpersonal and family communication since this area of scholarship took off in the 1960s (for more information on this historical development see Braithwaite, Schrodt, & Carr, 2015; Delia, 1987; Miller, 1983).

In fact, to better understand development and current state of research and thinking in interpersonal and family communication, my colleagues and I have been tracking the breakdown of studies of communication in close relationships as to the type of research methods and approaches the researchers take. We have found that most of the research represents social scientific, post-positive (what we often think about as “quantitative”) research. Our most recent analysis of all of the studies published in interpersonal communication from 2006–2012 shows that 85% of the studies come out of the post-positivist tradition, up slightly from 1990–2005 (Braithwaite 2015).

The “science” part of social science is, by its nature, focused on how different variables are linked together, and it tends to lead us away from an explicit focus on the moral dimension of communication. Even scholars who undertake research in the interpretive paradigm, where we engage in in-depth interviews, focus groups, or ethnographic research where we focus explicitly on talking with and understanding people’s lived experiences (Braithwaite, Moore & Stephenson Abetz, 2014; Tracy, 2013) often shy away from asking people to focus on what they believe is right and wrong. As Waldron and Kelley discuss in the Introduction, ← X | XI → if we think about it, the moral dimension is always there and permeates much of our research, but in the cause of science we often put it on the back burner. While this research direction is perhaps understandable, it is also somewhat ironic. The eminent social psychologist Ellen Berscheid, who was one of the founders of the interdisciplinary study of close relationships, reflected on the roots of the discipline, going back to Comte’s positivist theory of science of the mid-1800s. Even as the close relationships discipline took off in the mid-1980s and developed squarely in the social science tradition, Berscheid stressed that “the most consistent theme throughout Comte’s writings was not his insistence on quantification; instead it was his belief that the aim of the pursuit of knowledge … [was] to improve society and the human condition” (2000, p. xvi). This tells me that while we of course should always focus on doing sound and credible research we must not ignore a very important part of the human experience.

As most communication researchers are also university professors, we are also mindful, often quite appropriately, about foisting our own values on our students. Out of respect for honoring the diversity of beliefs and perspectives in our classrooms and in the communities in which we teach, we often hesitate to talk about, or even attend to, the moral dimension of communication in close relationships. In fact, I start my own classes in interpersonal communication telling students that my goal is not to prescribe how they should or should not communicate, but rather to help them expand their own repertoire of communication choices. I believe a great number of professors are more likely to center their teaching around knowledge and understanding that will help people ably choose the most appropriate ways to interact in the broad and complex morass of relationships in which they find themselves. However, the authors writing in this present volume lead us to question our instructional approaches and help us see that if we want to teach to the whole of the human experience, we should not be afraid to discuss the moral dimension of communication in our classes. That also means that our students will need to be willing to engage this topic, to think about (and beyond) their own beliefs and values that shape who they are, and to be willing to thoughtfully examine the communicative choices they make.

What might happen if we encourage scholars and teachers to open up their thinking to include more fully the moral dimension of communication? Through this present book, Waldron and Kelley give us the space to do so and that is important. I have seen this play out most fruitfully when scholars are freed from some of the constraints of research methodology and theorizing and are encouraged to cast research findings into narratives or case studies. Julia T. Wood and I have been publishing a collection of case studies of interpersonal communication since 2000 (see Braithwaite & Wood, 2015). We’ve asked researchers to write case studies that reflect their research findings in narrative form, most often in the story of one or two main characters. In this way, researchers represent how the concepts ← XI | XII → they study play out in the lives of “real people.” For example, Doug Kelley and his co-author Debra-L Sequeira (2015) wrote an excellent case study entitled, “Why Has Finding God Changed My Relationships? Managing Change Associated with Religious Conversion.” They created the story of John, a football star who has a religious conversion following a serious car accident that resulted in injuries to himself and his sister Katie. In the case study they highlight some of the struggles this young man has when his close friends and his family members are uncomfortable with the changes they see in him. Take a look at this confrontation between John and his sister Katie:

“John, you know I think you’re the best brother ever, even when you’re a total dork. And, I know you have just gone through the most traumatic time of your life, but you’ve changed, and I want my old brother back.”

“Look, I’m still me. The only difference is that God is part of my life, now.”

“It’s just that we used to fight and argue all the time, but there was always this real connection between us. I felt like we were so similar, you know? I mean, we could talk about anything.”

“That’s exactly what I’m still doing,” John replied. “I’m still sharing with you what’s most important to me. It just happens that God is a big part of that.”

“I know,” said Katie reservedly, “I mean, I guess I’m glad for you and all, but somehow it’s just different between you and me now.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” John quickly retorted. “I’m still sharing with you. It seems to me that you’re the one who’s changed. You’re the one who isn’t sharing with me!”

“But … look, never mind.”

“Never mind what?”

“It’s just that I’m not so sure that you really approve of me and my friends anymore.”

“What do you mean?” John asked in confusion.

“Well,” Katie began hesitatingly, “I mean, you don’t really think drinking and getting high is cool anymore and, well, I know what you think about Jennifer and Amy.”

In this narrative we can see research findings on communication and relationship development, identity shifts, and uncertainty management infused with a moral dimension as well. We can see the importance of what the characters believe is right and wrong, how they impose these judgments on others in their lives, and perceive others are doing the same, thus giving readers a fuller picture of communication in close relationships. I have experienced this freedom to explore the moral dimension of communication in my own case study writing as well. When we think beyond the borders of research and more in terms of what real people ← XII | XIII → are experiencing and communicating in their everyday lives, the more that we understand the pervasiveness and importance of the moral dimension of communication. This is what Waldron and Kelley are encouraging us to do as we read this volume.


ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
social empowerment family life value worldview Communication ethics
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 242 pp.

Biographical notes

Vince Waldron (Volume editor) Douglas Kelley (Volume editor)

Vince Waldron (PhD Ohio State University) is Professor of Communication at Arizona State University. He is the author of four books, including Communicating Emotion at Work (2012). Dr. Douglas Kelley (PhD University of Arizona) is Professor of Communication at Arizona State University. He is the author/co-author of three books including Marital Communication (2012).


Title: Moral Talk Across the Lifespan
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243 pages