Defining Characteristics Of Family


The enormous diversity in contemporary families requires a broad, inclusive definition. Family is a network of people who share their lives over long periods of time and are bound by marriage, blood, or commitment; who consider themselves as family; and who share a significant history and anticipated future of functioning in a family relationship (Galvin, Brommel, & Bylund, 2004). This definition highlights six characteristics that distinguish families from other social groups.

First, families possess a strong sense of family identity, created by how they communicate (Braithwaite et al., 2010). The way you talk with family members, the stories you exchange, and even the manner in which members of your family deal with conflict all contribute to a shared sense of what your family is like (Tovares, 2010).

Second, families use communication to define boundaries, both inside the family and to distinguish family members from outsiders (Afifi, 2003; Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2006). As we’ll discuss later, some families constrict information that flows out (“Don’t talk about our family problems with anyone else”). Some also restrict physical access to the family—for example, by dictating with whom family members can become romantically involved (“No son of mine is going to marry a Protestant!”). Others set few such boundaries. For instance, a family may welcome friends and neighbors as unofficial members, such as an “uncle” or “aunt” who isn’t really related to your parents (Braithwaite et al., 2010). A family may even welcome others’ children, such as the neighbors across the street whom you think of as your “family away from home.” If remarriage occurs and stepfamilies form, these boundaries are renegotiated (Golish, 2003).

With whom do you share more intense emotional bonds: family members, or friends, lovers, or coworkers? Do you always feel positively toward your family, or do some members consistently trigger negative emotions in you? What does this tell you about the intensity and complexity of emotional bonds in family relationships?

Third, the emotional bonds underlying family relationships are intense and complex. Family members typically hold both warm and antagonistic feelings toward one another (Silverstein & Giarrusso, 2010). As author Lillian Rubin (1996) notes, family relationships have “an elemental quality that touches the deepest layers of our inner life and stirs our most primitive emotional responses” (p. 256). Consider the strength of feeling that arises in you when you get into an argument with a parent or sibling, or when you celebrate an important milestone (a graduation, a wedding, a new job) with family members.

Fourth, families share a history (Galvin et al., 2004). Such histories can stretch back for generations and feature family members from a broad array of cultures. These histories often set expectations regarding how family members should behave (“We Ngatas have always been an honest bunch, and we’re not about to change that now”). Families also share a common future: they expect to maintain their bonds indefinitely. For better or worse, everything you say and do becomes a part of your family history, shaping future interactions and determining whether your family relationships are healthy or destructive.

Fifth, family members may share genetic material (Crosnoe & Cavanagh, 2010). This can lead to shared physical characteristics as well as similar personalities, outlooks on life, mental abilities, and ways of relating to others. For example, some studies suggest that interpersonal inclinations such as shyness and aggressiveness are influenced by genes (Carducci & Zimbardo, 1995).

Finally, family members constantly juggle multiple and sometimes competing roles (Silverstein & Giarrusso, 2010). Within your family, you’re not just a daughter or son, but perhaps a sibling, a spouse, or an aunt or uncle as well. By the time you reach middle age, you simultaneously may be a parent, spouse, grandparent, daughter or son, and sibling—and each of these roles carries with it varying expectations and demands. This makes communicating competently within families challenging.