Family Interaction Processes: Power, Decision
Making, Conflict, and Intimacy
In this chapter, we continue to explore not just how families interact, but what their interaction is about. Namely, we study four family processes that in obvious or underlying ways dominate much of family interaction: (a) establishing or wielding power, (b) making everyday or special decisions, (c) dealing with conflicts, and (d) building or maintaining intimacy. Think of any recent family interaction, and it is likely the interaction dealt with one or more of these processes. Because power, decision making, conflict, and intimacy are such fundamental communication processes, a primary goal of this chapter is to introduce and conceptualize each process. With this foundation, we continue in subsequent chapters to examine research regarding the way these family processes assert themselves in specific family contexts (e.g., in parent-child, marital, sibling, or whole family interactions).
An important point we make in this chapter is that power, decision making, conflict, and intimacy are ongoing communication processes, even though lay persons often speak of them as discrete events (e.g., “We made a decision” or “We had a conflict”). With a process perspective, we are concerned with the origin, intensity, and direction of family communication (Sprey, 1999). For example, what causes a family conflict to develop as it does? Is there a chain of events that predicts conflict intensity and kind? What direction will the conflict take in the future? As Sprey says, to study a family process is to study what “has happened, is happening, and may happen” in the family (p. 668). We should also note that although we isolate each process for the sake of discussion in this chapter, processes of power, decision making, conflict, and intimacy are interrelated in real-life family interactions. For example, family decisions are clearly related to who holds the power as well as to issues of family conflict and intimacy.
The models of family functioning we examine in chapter 1 implicitly recognize that power processes are central to family interaction. The adaptability dimension in Olson's circumplex model addresses power processes manifested in assertiveness, control, discipline, roles, and the enforcement of rules. Issues of power are also inherent in the McMaster model's dimensions of behavior control and problem solving. These models