Sibling and Extended Family Relationships
In the study of family interaction, marital relationships and parent-child relationships command a majority of attention. In this chapter, we explore communication in other types of family relationships, sibling and extended family relationships, that play fascinating and complex roles in family life. The sibling relationship is particularly unique because it is the one family relationship that frequently lasts a lifetime. This chapter helps us understand why no two sibling relationships are alike and how sibling interaction can vary so much across the life span. To begin, sibling relationships are affected by factors such as age, sex, birth spacing, birth order, number of siblings, the family context within which they originate and exist, and differential treatment by parents. Some spend little time with their siblings, perhaps due to differences in age, geographic distance once they become adults, or living arrangements that separate step- or half-siblings after a divorce and remarriage. For others, sibling relationships are intense and complex relationships that persist over the life span. Many people wonder whether siblings have a positive or negative impact on people's lives. As we will see, siblings can have both positive and negative effects on communication competencies and well-being (Stafford, 2004). Sibling relationships are marked by frequent and intense conflict (Katz, Kramer, & Gottman, 1992) and also by remarkable caregiving and support (Stafford). Cicirelli (1996) may have said it best: At any stage, the sibling relationship may be marked by “closeness, rivalry, or indifference” (p. 67).
Do sibling relationships matter much in adulthood? Throughout adulthood sibling contact waxes and wanes, though most siblings make intentional efforts to maintain their relationship beyond their obligatory family ties. In a moment, we will learn that these maintenance efforts are beneficial, given that the sibling relationship is commonly a source of support and shared history late in life.
In the second half of the chapter, we examine extended family relationships. As with sibling relationships, extended family relationships do not fit one mold. In some families, extended family relationships are alive and strong, whereas other families focus their primary attention on the nuclear family rather than on the extended family. As we will see, many argue that definitions of and interactions in extended family relationships are influenced by sociocultural and contextual factors. We explore some of those factors. For example, we describe socioemotional selectivity theory and the intergenerational stake hypothesis, which explain how and why reliance on family as a social network varies with