Families and communication have a symbiotic relationship. Family communication encompasses the multiple ways family members interact, which reflect the relational ties as well as the communication processes that create each unique family system. Communication patterns serve to reflect, as well as construct, family reality.
It is through talk that family members define their identities and negotiate their relationships with each other and the rest of the world. Each family is defined through its communication, verbal and nonverbal, rather than just through biological and legal kinship. Communication serves as a process by which family members differentiate themselves from non-family members; some families include units constructed only through choice and interaction, such as partners, long-term friends, and other fictive kin (Whitchurch and Dickson 1999). Given the increasing complexities of family forms created through means such as multiple remarriage, chosen partnerships, and single parenting, communication patterns have taken on increasing significance in examining family dynamics. Studying relationships has taken a "decided communication turn with a growing recognition of the formative, constitutive nature of communicative processes, and perhaps this is nowhere as notable as in the study of marriage and family relationships" (Rogers 2001, p. 25).
Multigenerational and cultural communication patterns affect family interactions. Each generation teaches the next how to manage issues such as intimacy, conflict, gender roles, and handling stress. Family members are affected by family-of-origin influences—or the patterns of previous generations—even as they create their own patterns that will influence future generations. Such patterns do not determine but, unless consciously altered, affect interaction in the next generations.
Many families reflect significant cultural communication patterns that affect everything from family identity to values and interaction styles. For example, families of Chinese, Ugandan, or Irish heritage hold different beliefs about who is family; they may also relate differently to family members or outsiders based on their ancestry. Family ethnicity sets norms for communication that influence those of succeeding generations (McGoldrick 1993). When people from very different families of origin or cultural backgrounds create a family, considerable discussion and negotiation is needed to construct a functioning system.