Navigating Relationships in the Modern Family

Communication, Identity, and Difference

by Jordan Soliz (Volume editor) Colleen Warner Colaner (Volume editor)
©2020 Textbook XXII, 262 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 15


Despite growing recognition of the diversity of family forms and structures, discourses among family scholars and practitioners as well as in popular culture continue to operate from the assumption that families are fairly homogeneous in terms of the values and beliefs, social positions, and identities of individual family members. Navigating Relationships in the Modern Family provides a unique and important perspective on how communication within and about families related to issues of identity and difference can ameliorate negative processes and, at times, potentially amplify positive outcomes such as well-being and relational solidarity. Chapters in this edited volume focus on divergent social identities in the family (e.g., interfaith families, multiethnic-racial families, acculturation and immigration) as well as differences emerging from family formative processes (e.g., stepfamilies, in-law relationships, foster care). In addition to synthesizing the current state of the scholarship in these particular family contexts, each chapter discusses the interplay between families and the larger social and cultural context. For instance, how does grandparent-grandchild communication influence attitudes toward older adults and aging? Can we improve interfaith dialogue in larger societal interactions by understanding communication in interfaith families? How do ideologies of social class and social discourses about adoption and foster care influence family functioning? Chapters conclude with a discussion on implications for scholars and family practitioners. The edited volume would make an ideal primary or secondary required text for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses on families as well as specialized family courses on understudied family relationships and forms. The volume also serves as an important resource for family scholars and practitioners.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This ebook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface (Colleen Warner Colaner and Jordan Soliz)
  • 1. Age Identity and Intergenerational Relationships in the Family (Craig Fowler and Andrea Zorn)
  • 2. Negotiating and Communicating about Identity Within Multi-Ethnic/Multi-Racial Families (Tina M. Harris, Farrah Youn-Heil, and Hue T. Duong)
  • 3. Navigating Interfaith Family Communication: Research Trends and Applied Implications (Stella Ting-Toomey and Laura V. Martinez)
  • 4. Communication and Political Difference in the Family (Benjamin R. Warner and Jihye Park)
  • 5. Queering Family Communication (Jimmie Manning)
  • 6. Social Class and Social Mobility: Considerations for Family Communication (Debbie S. Dougherty, Marcus W. Ferguson, Jr., and Natilie Williams)
  • 7. Immigration and Family Communication: Resilience, Solidarity, and Thriving (Jennifer A. Kam, Roselia Mendez Murillo, and Monica Cornejo)
  • 8. Examining Communication and Identity Within Refugee Families (Aparna Hebbani and Mairead MacKinnon)
  • 9. Illness Identity Within the Family—And Beyond (Angela L. Palmer-Wackerly and Heather L. Voorhees)
  • 10. Adoptee Identity, Belonging, and Communication with Birth and Adoptive Families (Colleen Warner Colaner and LaShawnda Kilgore)
  • 11. Communicating Family: Identity and Difference in the Context of Foster Care (Leslie R. Nelson and Lindsey J. Thomas)
  • 12. Communicatively Managing In-Law Relationships (Sylvia L. Mikucki-Enyart and Sarah R. Heisdorf)
  • 13. Identity, Relational Solidarity, and Stepfamily Communication (Paul Schrodt)
  • 14. Family Socialization of “Otherness” (Christine E. Rittenour)
  • About the Authors
  • Index


Colleen Warner Colaner and Jordan Soliz

Despite evidence to the contrary (Coontz, 1993), families are still conceptualized in idealized ways in popular discourse. Such depictions often reflect mainstream ideologies and put forth a view that families are homogenous entities in terms family members’ social identities, worldviews, and value orientations. In reality, families are a collective of individuals that often vary in their values and beliefs as well as social positions and identities (e.g., socio-economic status, age groups, political affiliation). Moreover, the last few decades have seen a dramatic increase in family compositions in which so-called “traditional” social boundaries are transcended (e.g., interfaith families, multiethnic families) as individuals marry outside of and/or select out of these social boundaries. For instance, marriages and families that cross traditional racial-ethnic divides have been growing drastically over the last decade in the United States (Pew Research Center, 2014). As such, discourses about family are changing within and outside of the family (Galvin, 2006). Families are not only more diverse than what is depicted in popular perception and traditional discourse, but one could argue that it is in the family where most of our more in-depth interactions with those with different worldviews and social identities occur (Soliz & Rittenour, 2012). Further, formative processes in families (e.g., marriage) by their very nature can create differences with and across family relationships. In fact, much of the popular discourse on step-families and in-law relationships tend to overemphasize the negative consequences of these “new” families formed through marriage (e.g., the “evil” stepmother, the contentious mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship). In short, family relationships are far from homogenous.

Because families are salient, instrumental, and influential ingroups (Sani, 2012; Soliz & Rittenour, 2012), understanding how families balance individuality, salient differences, and collective familial identity not only provides insight into family communication processes, but it can also shed light on how to communicatively manage difference outside of the family (i.e., can we apply collaborative communication skills learned from diverse family relationships to other situations?). Although family communication scholars and practitioners recognize complicated family structures and the implications thereof, our textbooks and edited volumes are often void of an explicit focus on differences in families, especially as it relates to salient social identities such as race-ethnicity, religion, political affiliation (Soliz & Phillips, 2018; Turner & West, 2018). Thus, the central purpose of this edited volume is to provide an overview of family forms and relationships in which divergent social identities or identities related to family formative processes (e.g., stepfamilies, adoption) are part of the family culture. The specific focus of the volume involves discussion of the challenges these differences can pose for maintaining positive, healthy relationships as well as demonstrating how families communicatively manage these differences in a manner that both promotes relational solidarity while enabling individuality and wellbeing. In doing so, the chapters in this volume speak to family forms, relationships, and dynamics that characterize the modern family experience. Further, the edited volume illuminates the manner in which families can influence attitudes both through what happens in the family (e.g., under what conditions can interfaith marriages in the family change perceptions of religious groups outside of the family?) as well as how families socialize the worldviews of its members toward other social groups.

Defining the Modern Family

Implicit in the focus of this edited volume is the very nature of what constitutes the modern family. Family conceptions and definitions vary widely among communication scholars. Many scholars advocate for inclusive family definitions that recognize that families exist beyond the boundaries of household, blood, and law (Baxter, 2014). The modern family is more complex than ever before, requiring elaborated discourse to create, sustain, and support divergent identities with the coherent whole. The modern family involves distinct identities (e.g., religious, racial, ethnic, political, sexual orientation, health/ability, and social class) as well as structures (e.g., adoptive, foster, stepfamily, in-law), as the current volume details. The family of the future will be increasingly complex, with technological advancements changing the course of reproduction, longevity, and connection (Galvin, 2013).

As the family changes over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to create inclusive definitions of the family. Complex definitions are needed to reflect complex relationships, identities, and experiences. With so many families falling outside of clear biological and legal connections, more reliance is needed on communication processes to understand the reality of modern families (Galvin, 2006). Many scholars rely on the role lens for family definitions—family relationships are considered familial to the degree that individuals act like and feel like family (Floyd, Mikkelson, & Judd, 2006). The role lens pulls in a number of relationships into the family realm, such as voluntary kin, families lacking legal guardianship (e.g., foster parents, stepparents who have not adopted the child), and relationships that remain after legal connections dissolve (e.g., relationships maintained with the spouse’s family after the death or divorce). Although these relationships do not receive the legal sanctions provided by other bases of commitment, they play an important role in many individuals’ lives and are at times the most meaningful relationships we have.

At the same time, we must be cautious about who is included in our family definitions. There is reason to consider limiting family definitions to a small range of personal relationships. Floyd and colleagues (2006) remind us that overly broad definitions of family put the discipline at risk of conceptual obfuscation—if family definitions are too inclusive, then we conflate the experiences and communication processes relegated to family units. Even with the complexity of family relationships in the present era, it is important to consider how families are unique and distinct from other non-family relationships. Thus, we offer the following definition:

We define families as groups of individuals who are connected through legal statute, biological relatedness, or prolonged commitment. Families are characterized by interdependence, long-term investments, and enduring ties that remain over time and generations. These unique features differentiate families from other relationships.

The interdependent nature of family is embedded in the legal, biological, and commitment-based pathways of family connectedness. As family systems theory demonstrates, individuals in the family system are affected by what happens to other members of the system, for better and for worse. Long-term investments of financial support, affection, and expectations of care are primary functions of family relationships. Family relationships are enduring and are often the longest relationship of our life, such as siblings who are connected cradle to grave or the considerable anticipated future shared by parents of newborns and newly married couples. Family legacies—both positive and negative—connect individuals across generations. These unique features converge as hallmarks of family relatedness.

This volume highlights the myriad differences that emerge in the family, which at times can be hard to navigate given the uniqueness of the family form. Family relationships are difficult if not impossible to dissolve due to the involuntary nature (e.g., parent-child relationships, in-law relationships) and the interdependence of family relationships. The fact that diverse identities occur in the family is exactly what makes these relationships complicated. This complexity requires that we put guardrails on our definitions. If family relationships could easily be entered and broken, the differences highlighted in this volume would not be so difficult to navigate.

We also need to be cognizant of the internalized beliefs inherent in broad, role-based definitions of the family. Many students in our classroom discussions, for example, initially define families as places where you receive comfort, care, and support. This assumption of family as exclusively positive spills over into other close, satisfying relationships, such as when we suggest that a workplace is “like a family” or a close friend is “like a brother.” These relationships are positioned as family because they are close and satisfying. Such positioning implies that families are by and large healthy, safe, and comfortable relationships. Defining family according to positive communication practices has ties to the role lens, insomuch that nonfamily members can be considered family when they meet a certain threshold of closeness and support. Indeed, many families offer considerable love and support to one another, maybe even ideally so. However, positive communication processes fall short of explaining the range of family experiences that characterize this unique relationship.

In reality, using the term family in exclusively positive ways may cover a multitude of sins. When we overemphasize family relationships as positive, we depart from the realities that many families face. As the family forms detailed in this volume suggest, families face a number of deep identity differences, which at times prove to be challenging and, other times, provide a rich and diverse family life. We also see trauma, abuse, and neglect in the family system, perhaps seen most clearly in the 400,000 children in the foster care system after their biological families were deemed unable to provide care (Petrowski, Cappa, & Gross, 2017). Relationship violence and conflict in the family clue us in to the darker elements of family interactions. When these unpleasant, unhealthy, and damaging patterns take root in family relationships, the interdependent and enduring nature of these relationship complicate matters. We cannot easily discard or dissolve many family relationships. Even when families opt for estrangement, relationship distancing involves ongoing and active communication practices (Scharp, Thomas, & Paxton, 2015). The current volume cautions against a trend toward toxic positivity of family definitions, revealing that differences are imbued in the family system, and it is the nature of the communication that often differentiates the positive and negative outcomes of these differences.

The fact that families are enduring, even in the face of such difficulty and difference, is exactly what makes family worthy of studying. If family relationships were easy to discard or simple to navigate, there would not be such an opportunity to understand the complex communication practices that families engage to maintain connectedness and solidarity in the face of competing identities and experiences. And importantly for this volume, navigating those differences within the family through communication practices has important implications for relationships outside the family in ways that promote inclusion, difference, and equity.

Organization of the Edited Volume

Chapters in this book center on a focused family purview in which issues of identity and difference stem from one of two sources: either social identities (e.g., ethnic-racial, political) or formative processes (e.g., step-families, adoption).

The first several chapters focus on social identity difference in the family: age, race and ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and social class. Although not often considered a salient social identity, Fowler and Zorn provide an overview on the role of age identity in family relationships—specifically intergenerational family relationships (IGFRs: e.g., grandparent-grandchild relationships)—in the initial chapter. In doing so, they demonstrate how many intergenerational and age-based barriers and opportunities exist in our family relationships.

As we mentioned in our introduction, both multiethnic-racial families and interfaith families are increasing in many parts of the world. Yet, perceptions of families being fairly homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion are still pervasive in popular discourse. Thus, in the second chapter, Harris, Young-Heil, and Huong discuss the nuances of identity and identity development for individuals with mixed ethnic-racial backgrounds, highlighting the role of communication in the family—primarily with parents—as well as other social contexts (e.g., friendships, schools). In Chapter 3, Ting-Toomey and Martinez address the complexities of religious and faith-based differences in the family, focusing on both romantic couples and parent-child relationships. Both chapters provide theoretical and applied considerations for advancing scholarship and/or programs and resources that can serve these families.

Although political differences have always been a part of family life, today’s political climate and media landscape lead many to claim we are more polarized than ever, which leads to profound impacts on the time families choose to spend with one another. Whereas a great deal of the discussion on political differences focuses on strangers or non-intimate relationships, Warner and Park detail in the fourth chapter how political (dis)agreement takes shape in the family system. They argue that attitude congruence is the most likely outcome in the nuclear family, yet political disagreement occurring mostly with extended family members can reduce family communication and connectedness.

In Chapter 5, Manning synthesizes the research on queer families including partners, parenting, and trans identity, emphasizing how this research continues to challenge heteronormative understandings of family. In doing so, Manning calls for innovative theoretical and methodological approaches that not only account for and give voice to queer family experiences, but also advance family communication scholarship in general.

Social class is relatively absent in research on family communication. Dougherty, Ferguson, and Williams address this gap in Chapter 6, emphasizing the role of social class in influencing family culture, relationships, and family functioning. In doing so, they also highlight the barriers and opportunities related to social mobility with important considerations for family communication and family relationships.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on how voluntary and forced migration shapes family dynamics and individual well-being. In Chapter 7, Kam, Murillo Mendez, and Cornejo highlight the family communication process in immigrant families, with particular attention to family separation-reunification and the impact on well-being of family members. Chapter 8 shifts to research on and insight into refugee experiences in Australia. Hebbani and MacKinnon summarize how the process, and often trauma, associated with refugee displacement and resettlement plays out in family relationships, including identity development of family members.

Whereas illness identity may bring to mind issues related to health and health care, illness identity shapes and is shaped by family dynamics. As such, in Chapter 9, Palmer-Wackerly and Voorhees delineate the relational nature of illness. They demonstrate the profound effect illness has on family. Importantly, they explain how family can influence how patients and others understand and experience their illness in ways that extend beyond individual diagnoses.

The volume then shifts to address family changes related to formative processes: adoption, foster care, in-laws, and stepfamilies. Colaner and Kilgore discuss adoptee difference and belonging regarding birth and adoptive families in Chapter 10. Confounding factors such as complex developmental trauma as well as transracial adoption may exacerbate differences in the adoptive family network. Repositioning adoptees as collaboratively centered between biological and adoptive families may promote belonging and help alleviate feelings of differences in the family system.

In Chapter 11, Nelson and Thomas review family communication scholarship centered around the foster care system and foster families. They utilize a critical lens to reveal the limitations of the ideology of family-as-biology which falls short to reflect foster family experiences. They argue that communication within and about foster care troubles this cultural ideology, creating space for new, emergent understandings of family.

Recognizing the many salient issues related to identity and difference that emerge from marriages, the next two chapters focus on in-law relationships and stepfamilies. In Chapter 12, Mikucki-Enyart and Heisdorf acknowledge how in-laws occupy a liminal space in family life, simultaneously seen as “insiders” and “outsiders.” They illuminate causes and consequences of in-law difficulty and advance practical tools for intervention to assist families in positively navigating their in-law relationships.

In Chapter 13, Schrodt reviews how stepfamilies achieve family solidarity, a process that can be difficult given that stepfamilies most often form in the wake of a romantic breakup, a divorce, or a parent’s death. He specifically identifies and describes communication related to the personal, relational, and familial identities that promote wellness in stepfamily relationships.

Each of the preceding chapters includes a synthesis of literature on the family context that highlights current research and theorizing. Following the synthesis of literature, we asked each of our contributors to include a section labeled “Beyond the Family” in which they discuss how family communication can influence attitudes, behaviors, and discourses outside of the family and/or how cultural and social discourses play a role in family interactions. For instance, how does grandparent-grandchild communication influence attitudes toward older adults and aging? Can we improve interfaith dialogue in general by understanding communication in interfaith families? How do ideologies of social class influence family functioning? How do adoptive and foster children help us understand children as connected to multiple caregivers, asking who belongs to the child rather than to whom the child belongs? Finally, each chapter concludes with a section on implications for both scholars and practitioners.

The final chapter concludes our volume by offering a synthesis of family difference with an eye toward future possibilities. Rather than focus on a specific type of family or family relationship, the final chapter by Rittenour emphasizes the role families play in shaping our attitudes towards self and others. She reemphasizes that although there are considerable differences in the modern family, the family is the “ultimate ingroup,” consequential for socializing children into appreciation and acceptance toward others or more prejudiced attitudes. She highlights the important practices parents employ to produce more prosocial orientations toward outgroups.

Family Communication: Moving Forward

The complexity of the modern family requires complex and nuanced research practices. Responding to the complexity requires that we consider the underserved role of children in family communication scholarship and the need to engage families in communication education. We discuss each of these in turn below.

A Call for Children’s Perspectives

Despite a robust literature on parent-child communication, surprisingly few communication studies actually consider children’s experiences. Miller-Day, Pezalla, and Chesnut’s (2013) meta-analysis of research articles published in communication journals revealed that only 3.7% of articles included children’s perspectives. Of the communication literature that does solicit children’s perspectives, Miller-Day and colleagues noted that the majority of these studies (63%) utilize informants over the age of 12. Even more, about half of communication literature that examines children’s perspectives focuses on media and technology, with only 35 articles examining family communication. Resultantly, there is a dearth of research representing children’s communication perceptions and capacities, especially young children’s point of view, and especially children’s perceptions of family communication. It is clear that very little communication research seeks to understand how children receive communication, how children’s communication abilities develop over time, what children offer in the interaction, how children’s responses shape the interaction, and how children view family relationships and interactions.


XXII, 262
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXII, 262 pp., 4 b/w ill., 1 table.

Biographical notes

Jordan Soliz (Volume editor) Colleen Warner Colaner (Volume editor)

Jordan Soliz (Ph.D., University of Kansas) is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He studies intergroup processes in family and personal relationships to understand communicative dynamics associated with individual and relational well-being. Dr. Soliz is past editor of Journal of Family Communication. Colleen Warner Colaner (Ph.D., University of Missouri) is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Missouri. She studies family communication, with a focus on complex family structures and children’s communication experiences.


Title: Navigating Relationships in the Modern Family
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286 pages