Kathleen Galvin. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.
The kaleidoscope revolves even faster, patterns are in flux, gendered images do not hold for long. In 1983, Cahill depicted childhood as a dress rehearsal in which children perform and clarify their impressions of what it takes to play the role of girl, boy, man, and woman based on adult expectations and a composite of adult models. After decades of incremental change in family members’ enactment of gender, the kaleidoscope’s current turning creates new visions and possibilities for family interaction. Thirty years after Cahill’s depiction, the last century’s scripts are becoming outdated, due in part to the extraordinary changes in gendered U.S. family life, which is emerging as an improvisation rather than a classical drama. Childhood rehearsals become increasingly meaningless by the time we enter adulthood. What children learn during their formative years varies greatly; gendered messages are situationally driven, varying across family structures, cultures, religions, members’ sexual orientations, multiple models, and pragmatic concerns. Thus, the meaning of the gendered adult experience in the family will often diverge from previous practice and personal experience and be influenced by the way other family members negotiate and play their parts. Communication takes on a starring role as families become increasingly dependent on discourse to create and manage their gendered identities.
Two approaches dominate understanding of gendered family communication. Historically, scholars conceptualized gender as role bound, with women and men playing distinct parts in response to socialization and particular settings or circumstances in which their roles were embedded. From a role perspective, men and women “are seen as enacting roles that are separable, often complementary, and necessary elements to the integrity of the social settings or structures in which the roles are embedded” (Fox & Murry, 2000, p. 1163). This approach reifies difference between the sexes and suggests that the gender-specific socialization of boys and girls takes place in and reproduces different masculine and feminine speech communities. Such communities are purported to represent different cultures—“people who have different ways of speaking, acting, and interpreting, as well as different values, priorities, and agendas” (MacGeorge, Graves, Feng, Gillihan, & Burleson, 2004, p. 144). The role perspective obscures the difference between the sex of the person playing a role and the role’s gendered nature (Fox & Murry, 2000), a critical omission if the goal is to understand how gender shapes perspective, structures social action, and expresses cultural values.
Currently, the preferred approach views gender as a social construct that embodies cultural meanings of masculinity and femininity; essentially, gender is conceived as “a constituent element of social structures, intricately interwoven with other elements of social structures such as class and race, and tied to the social distribution of societal resources” (Fox & Murry, 2000, p. 1164). This approach assumes that “gender is disengaged from norms based on heterosexuality and power differences between men and women, and relationships are thought of in terms of equality rather than gender differences” (Knudson-Martin & Laughlin, 2005, p. 110). Given the increasing diversity of family life, the social construction lens is an increasingly valuable way to view gender in families. In other words, many children no longer experience a dress rehearsal that prepares them for family life. Rather, more adults-to-be will have to make it up as they go along because, as the possibilities expand, so does the character of gendered family experiences.
This chapter focuses on gender, not sex, in family interaction. It assumes that humans are not born with gender; we learn it. Men and women with masculine inclinations tend to value independence and prefer a degree of distance from others. Conversely, women and men with feminine orientations place a premium on relationship and interpersonal closeness. As individuals negotiate and construct their gender and sexual orientation, they make transitory identifications with multiple discourses (Knudson-Martin & Laughlin, 2005). Persons of both sexes may assume masculine- and feminine-gendered identities within family interactions, and these may shift with changes in individual goals, family structure, familial circumstances and experiences, and trends and conditions in the overall culture.
This chapter is divided into three sections. First, to contextualize contemporary family life, it summarizes demographic trends that affect families in general and gender in particular. The second section addresses gendered family dynamics: parent-child interactions, the management of work/family boundaries, and health-related interaction. This section emphasizes the impact of increasing family diversity on gendered messages exchanged in families. Finally, future directions for examining gendered family interaction will be noted.
U.S. family life in general and gendered family dynamics in particular will undergo dramatic transformations in the first decades of the 21st century, including changes in the social definitions of family, variation in lived familial experiences, increased longevity, and medical/technological advances. Families in the 21st century will:
- Reflect an increasing diversity of self-conceptions, evidenced through structural as well as cultural variations, which will challenge society to rethink historical, nucleocentric biases, traditional views of gender, and economic assumptions.
- Live increasingly within four and five generations of relational connections. Escalating longevity, changing birth rates, and technological advances will normalize long-term developmental patterns, ongoing multiple intergenerational contacts, and generational reversals.
- Continually reconfigure family identity across members’ life spans as choices of individuals or subgroups create new family configurations through legal, biological, technological, and discursive means (Coontz, 1999; Galvin, 2004a).
Increasing Variability in Families
In the United States, adults continue to partner across their life spans. The 2000 census reveals that the majority of people over 24 were married. Many are in second or third marriages for at least one partner. In recent years marriages have shifted from an ideal of companionship and a sharp division of labor to “individualized marriages,” which focus more on each partner’s sense of self-expression and work outside the home and less on building a family and embodying spouse and parent roles (Cherlin, 2004). Marriage is becoming more a choice than a necessity for adults who wish intimacy, companionship, and, sometimes, children (Coontz, 2005).
The divorce rate’s upward curve has leveled out. In 2000, about 9.7% of males and 10.8% of females reported that they were currently divorced, with those in the 45- to 54-year-old age group reporting the highest percentage of divorces (Kreider & Simmons, 2003). Their children are likely to live in one or more stepfamilies. Step-families, formed through remarriage or cohabitation, generally reflect divorce and recommitment, although an increasing number are formed by single mothers marrying for the first time. Married or cohabiting adults parent 4.4 million stepchildren (Kreider, 2003), who will experience multiple parenting models.
Single-parent families are increasing. In 2000, 22% of children lived with only their mothers; 4% lived with only their fathers (Simmons & O’Neill, 2001). Women under 30, pregnant for the first time, are more likely to be single than married. Approximately 40% of births to unmarried women occur in the context of cohabiting couples (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Single women and men who adopt children add to the number of single-parent families.
Gay and lesbian committed couples and families are becoming more visible. The 2000 census found that more than half a million households were headed by same-sex partners, representing 1% of all coupled households; 33% of women and 22% of men in same-sex partnerships lived with children (Simmons & O’Connell, 2003). Same-sex partners tended to parent older children from former heterosexual unions; today, many are parents of infants or adopted young children. Increasingly, intentional families, those formed without biological and legal ties, are maintained by members’ self-definitional discourse and shared experiences.
As life spans increase, family members are faced with renegotiating their identities over decades and across generations. Multigenerational bonds are becoming critical for well-being and support (Bengston, 2001). The average life expectancy for an individual born in the United States in 2000 is 76.9 years: 74.1 years for males and 79.5 year for females. These are averages for all race/ethnicities (Arias, 2004). Because of increases in longevity and decreases in fertility, the population age structure in most industrialized nations has changed from a pyramid to a rectangle, creating “a family structure in which the shape is long and thin, with more family generations alive but with fewer members in the generation” (Bengston, 2001, p. 5). Grandparenting and its great and great-great variations is becoming a more prominent familial role (Simmons & Dye, 2003).
Ethnicity intersects with changes in family form and intergenerational ties. Black men and women represent the lowest percentages of currently married individuals. In 2000, 42% of Black men were married, while just 31% of Black women were (Kreider & Simmons, 2003). A growing number of African American women are choosing to become single parents rather than remain childless (Hines & Boyd-Franklin, 1996). As immigration increases, more variation in U.S. family life will occur. Certain religious and cultural traditions support strong male-female distinctions, and recent immigrant populations embrace strong extended-family ties. Many of these changes will influence gender enactment and family interaction across a wide spectrum of familial structures. Improvisation will be a key to successful family functioning.
Gendered Dynamics within Families
Parent-child interaction patterns are changing due, in part, to increasing family diversity. Traditionally, children were expected to learn about gender by relying on their parents as models and instructors. Heterosexual parents tended to socialize children into socially accepted norms for gender (West & Turner, 1995). Parents tend to talk more about emotion, for example, with daughters than sons (Fivush, Brotman, Buckner, & Goodman, 2000). Fagot and Lienbach (1989) found that when parents provide positive and negative responses to sex-typed toys, children become early labelers of gender. Parents are more likely to talk to and interact more with their daughters and play more actively with their sons (Doyle & Paludi, 1991). Yet heterosexual fathers may withdraw from sons whom they sense to be different or gay (Holleran, 2002), modeling a distant parenting style. It is more acceptable for girls to act masculine than it is for boys to act feminine, leading to the claim that “overall, boys are more intensively and rigidly pushed to become masculine than girls are to become feminine” (Wood, 2005, p. 156).
Although this unidirectional pattern of parent-to-child traditionally gendered interaction continues in some families, in others it is beginning to give way to a more bidirectional approach that includes reciprocal, mutual influence, reflecting changes in the life circumstances of parents as well as children. This bidirectional influence “recognizes the dual role of child and parent on the emergence and maintenance of parenting beliefs and practices” (Parke, 2002, p. 70).
Because many children will live in more than one family before reaching adulthood, parental gender socialization will be accomplished by multiple adults. As more children grow up in or witness single-parent families, stepfamilies, same-sex-parent families or other configurations, and as more families raise children who openly self-identify as gay or lesbian, cohabit rather than marry, or adopt as single parents, understandings of gender and family will continue to diversify. In African American families headed by single women, daughters frequently exhibit greater self-reliance and self-esteem than their Caucasian counterparts (Diggs, 1999). Weston (1991) suggests that, although doing so involves risk, those who encountered positive responses to coming out “quietly imported choice into the notion of blood family” (p. 73). Gay fathers report efforts to maintain open communication with their children and involve their children in decision making (West & Turner, 1995). Tasker and Golombok (1997) found that young people raised by lesbian couples reported more positive relationships with their mother’s female partner than did same-age respondents who reported on their relationship to their heterosexual mother’s male partner.
Although the number of single-father families is small and understudied, Hatfield and Abrams (1995) found that they were highly cohesive and that father-child discussions are more extended and less competitive than discussions between fathers and children in two-parent families. As children are exposed to different family forms, they encounter multiple models and messages regarding gendered family life.
Historically, the majority of communication-oriented parenting studies address mother-daughter interaction (Segrin & Flora, 2005). Talk permits mothers and daughters to exchange information, advice, and encouragement, and it is the primary way that mothers and daughters demonstrate mutual care and support (Trad, 1995). Female children disclose significantly more information to parents than male children (Pennington & Turner, 2004). Children’s self-disclosures vary by age. Noller and Callan (1990) suggest that mothers’ more frequent initiation of discussions with their younger adolescent children and their greater recognition of their children’s opinions lead older adolescents to interact more with mothers than fathers. Papini, Farmer, Clark, Micka, and Barnett’s (1990) examination of age and gender differences in adolescents’ emotional self-disclosure to parents and friends found females disclosed significantly more information to both parents and best friends than did males They also found that 12-year-olds were more likely to share emotional disclosure with parents whereas 15-year-olds preferred to disclose to friends.
The growing literature on mother-daughter discussions of sex reflects the tendency of mothers to discuss this topic more frequently with their children, particularly daughters. Sons engage in far less parent-child talk about sex than daughters (Warren, 2003). Girls who talk to their mothers about sexual topics are more likely to have conservative sexual values and are less likely to have engaged in sexual activity than girls who mostly talked to their friends (Dilorio, Kelley, & Hockenberry-Eaton, 1999). Mother-daughter discussion about condoms was associated with consistent condom use (Hutchinson, 2002). Although mothers have consistently been found to be the primary communicators of sexual topics with children, fathers may play an important role with daughters through the discussion of sociosexual issues such as “understanding men” or resisting pressure for sex (Hutchinson, 2002). Yet even when both parents are involved, they are more likely to talk about sex with daughters rather than sons (Warren, 2003).
In her ethnographic study of three female generations in one family, Miller-Day (2004) identified two distinct patterns of dominant forces and discursive practices within the maternal relationships, suggesting relational identities and personal identity are intertwined. In highly interconnected relational cultures, “individuals were empowered to construct their own identities within the context of the relational culture” (p. 224).
Fathers tend to talk less with children. Buerkel-Rothfuss, Fink, and Buerkel (1995) suggest that differences between father-son and father-daughter dyads may be due to a tendency for fathers to talk more with daughters and engage more in activities with sons. At the same time, Morman and Floyd (2002) report that contemporary fathers indicate higher levels of closeness with their sons and greater affectionate verbal and nonverbal communication with sons than they experienced with their fathers. In part, fathers report experiencing more time strain between work and children than mothers do (Milkie, Mattingly, Nomaguchi, Bianchi, & Robinson, 2004).
Fathers are less likely than mothers to be involved in nurturing children with special needs. Fathers of children with mood disorders struggle more with accepting the illness and are less likely to participate in therapy efforts than mothers are (Schock, Gavazzi, Fristad, & Goldberg-Arnold, 2002). Yet father involvement is important. Webb, Walker, Bollis, and Hebbani (2004) found that, “mothers had no direct influence over males’ and females’ self-esteem, whereas fathers’ communication affected self-esteem” (p. 214), leading the authors to speculate that the fathers’ interaction may be highly valued because, typically, fathers are not as available as mothers. Leaper, Anderson, and Sanders (1998) suggest that when fathers communicate, it represents an added value. The lack of father talk may reflect the fact that many males are socialized to view talk as a means for accomplishing instrumental tasks, providing information, and maintaining status and autonomy (Wood & Inman, 1993). But this is likely to change as the increase in single and same-sex-partner fathers compels men to communicate with daughters and sons about critical topics. Research indicates that parent-child communication patterns reflect parental availability. Traditionally, mothers have spent more time with their children than fathers. La Rossa (1998) found that men spend one third the time that women do in one-on-one communication with children. Yet Silverstein (2002) reports that fathers are spending increasing amounts of time with their children, and fathers in dual-shift working-class families are also more involved with them.
Finally, ethnicity influences parent-child interactions. Pennington and Turner (2004) found that African American mothers were more likely than European American mothers to characterize adolescent daughters as best friends, set more rules, tell more blunt stories, and use more sarcasm. Survival was a theme of key conversations. In their study of parenting, Socha, Sanchez-Hucles, Bromley, and Kelly (1995) found African American parents were more likely to act as cultural advisers and to use more stringent discipline than European American parents. Recent thinking about parenting and gender has shifted from previous binary assumptions. Today there is an increasing focus on co-parenting within two-parent, as well as divorced, families, stressing parental negotiation of roles, responsibilities, and contributions to children rather than a reliance on sex roles to establish expectations (Doherty & Beaton, 2004). Parke (2002) suggests, “It may be helpful to recast the issue to ask whether it is exposure to the interactive style typically associated with either mothers or fathers that matters” (p. 78). Silverstein reports that gay fathers who established a gay identity and lifestyle and then decided to parent “developed their own ideology of degendered parenting” (p. 48).
Managing work and family boundaries creates a critical tension faced by many heterosexual, same-sex partners, and single parents as the culture transforms traditional role-bound understandings of marriage, partnering, parenting, and employment. It appears that family boundaries are asymmetrically permeable, suggesting that work interferes with family life more than family life interferes with work (Frone & Russell, 1992), a finding that defines the site of greater tension as within the family. Under the traditional role-bound gender model, males were breadwinners/providers and females were homemakers/caretakers. As women’s employment outside of the home increased, the concept of the second shift, or the housework and child care responsibilities that needed to be managed by dual-earner partners, gained prominence (Hochschild & Machung, 2003). Family life has become increasingly unpredictable as men and women take on new responsibilities or struggle with partners’ expectations that they change their provider or caretaker behaviors. The National Survey of the Changing Workforce reported that, in 2002, 78% of all married employees had spouses who worked outside of the home whereas only 66% did in 1977 (Bond, Thompson, Galinsky, & Prottas, 2002). Changes in earning power further fray the traditional breadwinner/homemaker roles. In just over 30% of married, two-worker households, the woman earns more than the man (Tyre & McGinn, 2003), although in the general population women’s annual earnings are still significantly less than men’s (Bond et al., 2002).
Time spent managing work and home remains a stress point for most dual-career and dual-earner couples and single parents. Employed men tend to work an hour longer a day in jobs outside the home than employed women, while women employed outside of the home tend to work longer hours at home. In many two-earner families, women spend an hour a day more caring for young children and, if older children are involved, women spend six hours a day in “secondary care,” such as shopping with children, while men spend four hours (McNeil, 2004). In some two-earner families, women are opting for more overtime at work because it feels more nurturing and provides an escape from the pressures of children and housework (Hochschild, 1997).
Most heterosexual couples confront frustrations as they negotiate their shifts. Men who may be doing more housework or child care than they saw their fathers perform view themselves as contributing actively or equally, but their partners frequently disagree. Women claim they are expected to fulfill the “maternal gatekeeper” role in which they still manage all the planning and oversight of tasks while men help with tasks (Allen & Hawkins, 1999). Males frequently argue that their partners insist on the housework or child care being done according to their specifications. When women criticize or redo tasks, their male partners may become angry or deliberately complete tasks poorly (Allen & Hawkins, 1999). Studies of the division of labor indicate that “although dual earner wives perform two to three times more household labor than their husbands, less than one third of these women report the allocation of tasks to be unfair” (Perry-Jenkins, Pierce, & Goldberg, 2004, p. 544). This finding may reflect an unspoken collusion between partners whereby women maintain control of the psychological responsibility by setting work standards that only they can meet. Men do less work because this is acceptable to their partners.
Few dual-earner couples share family responsibilities equally. Dual-earner families with children under 13 experience more negative home moods, more marital tension, and less marital support (Hughes & Galinsky, 1994). The costs of the second shift may explain why some female high-achievers with financially successful partners depart the fast-paced career track to raise children. This “opt-out revolution” raises questions about the future work/ life management and creates controversy among those who see this as stalling the women’s revolution (Belkin, 2003).
This work/family research is conducted routinely with married or cohabiting partners. Much less is known about how same-sex partners manage these boundaries. Limited studies indicate that most gay and lesbian partnerships reject dividing labor based on gender and a norm of greater male status and power. Most same-sex couples are in dual-provider relationships, with the common division of labor at home reflecting ongoing negotiation regarding sharing tasks or dividing them according to preference or necessity (Peplau & Beals, 2004).
Single parents face additional challenges in managing their work and family life because there is no partner with whom to share tasks or concerns and frustrations. Many also face serious economic pressures (Heath & Orthner, 1999). Some single parents choose to live with other family members in order to gain support. Mothers with total child care responsibilities tend to work longer hours outside of the home and experience more stress and less emotional support than other single mothers (Gringlas & Weintraub, 1995). Whereas many low-income single parents work long hours and may hold more than one job, many economically self-sufficient, professional, single mothers attempt to negotiate changes in their work lives, such as telecommuting or shifting to contract work in order to gain parenting time (Hertz, 1999). Male and female single parents in comparable work environments adapt similarly to managing work and family responsibilities, although women tended to vary coping patterns during their work lives while men use the same pattern until later in their careers, when they prioritize family (Heath & Orthner, 1999). When their work and family demands are in conflict, single fathers and mothers are equally likely to prioritize work over family demands.
Finally, much less is known about how race interfaces with the work/family balance. For example, historically African American women have worked outside the home, often as sole wage earners, especially in times of high unemployment (Hines & Boyd-Franklin, 1996). Children working in close proximity to their mothers receive distinct types of mothering. Asian American children working in urban family businesses report long days split between work and school, while migrant farm children have less access to educational opportunities (Collins, 1999).
The majority of communication-oriented studies focus on how family issues are discussed or negotiated in the workplace; far fewer focus on interaction within the household (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003). It appears that there is less talk about work at home than vice versa (Nippert-Eng, 1996). Perceived unfairness in the division of labor tends to predict marital conflict. Yet little is known about how dual-worker couples talk about ideas of fairness, how conversations take place, and how partners react to the requests or demands of the other (Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, & Crouter, 2004, p. 544). In Golden’s (2001) study of the communicative management of multiple roles, partners were very actively engaged in role redefinitions that take place on an ongoing basis but which are more salient during life crises. Many couples reported that such work-family decision making was part of an ongoing pattern, although for couples who talk about the issues, it appears that women disproportionately initiate the conversations (Perry-Jenkins et al., 2004). Increasingly, women, and some men, parent and work within a home-based context. In her study of home-based female artists and mothers, Jorgenson (1995) found that their boundaries tended to be fluid as they adjusted work rhythms to children’s schedules, created work space adjoining living space, and redefined their artistic production. Edley’s (2004) study of home-based female entrepreneurs who co-construct their identities online indicates that online text construction provides control of personal presentation as well as a sense of agency and power.
Men and their perspectives on family life remain understudied. Levine (2000) suggests that “any discussion about family life, including the father’s role, is for the most part shaped by women’s vision” (p. 37). Those who take advantage of parental leave or flexible work benefits are seen as less invested in their careers (Kirby & Krone, 2002). Men who take family leaves when their children are young assume more involved parenting roles as children grow older (Hochschild, 1997). In their study of after-work debriefing conversations, Vangelisti and Banski (1993) found that husbands’ expressiveness and ability to self-disclose affects both husbands’ and wives’ relational satisfaction more than wives’ ability to be open and expressive.
Certain careers present unique parenting challenges. In her study of Silicon Valley professional fathers, Cooper (2000) investigated how someone can simultaneously be the go-to guy in a high-pressure nerd culture of long hours and fast-paced involvement and still be an active father. She identified three coping models: “super-dads” who attempt to meet all work and family obligations without sacrificing in either sphere; traditionals who view domestic duties along traditional gendered lines while emphasizing income production as the male role; and transitionals who resolve the contradiction by reneging on their egalitarian ideology, allowing their wives to carry much of the family work. Today, most fathers continue to be expected to provide economic support (Kirby & Krone, 2002) and face restricted choices when attempting to balance work and partnering/ parenting (Galvin, 2004b).
Gendered Health in Families
A growing number of health studies report gender differences across various family structures. Most studies focus on married couples, suggesting that married individuals experience better mental and physical health than unmarried ones, although the unmarried tend to be happier than the unhappily married (Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001). Two primary explanations for this finding exist. The selection hypothesis proposes that healthier people are more likely to marry and remain married; the protection hypothesis suggests that married people receive protections, such as a less risky lifestyle, companionship, and instrumental and/or emotional support, all of which buffer against health problems (Segrin & Flora, 2005).
Although generally good for both partners, marriage appears to create gendered health impacts. Waite and Gallagher (2000) suggest that, “both men and women live longer, healthier, and wealthier lives when married, but husbands typically get greater health benefits from marriages than do wives” (p. 163). Concurring, Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton (2001) report that, “marriages’ protective effects are notably stronger for men than women” (p. 472).
Distressed or unhappy marriages have particularly notable consequences, especially for women. Gottman and Notarius’s (2002) literature review suggests that whereas marriage offers health-buffering effects for men, women are likely to experience health-related problems in distressed marriages. Women are likely to experience more negative physiological changes as a result of negative interactions (Jones, Beach & Jackson, 2004). Marital disagreements are associated with women’s higher blood pressure and heart rates (Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001). Women whose early marriage experiences were distressed had double the level of ACTH, a stress hormone, 10 years later than did women whose early marriages were not distressed (Kiecolt-Glaser, Bane, Glaser, & Malarkey, 2003). Even long-term married couples have immune responses to negative marital interaction (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1997). After reviewing a wide range of studies, Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton (2001) reported that women’s physiological changes following marital conflict show greater persistence.
Yet Levenson, Cartensen, and Gottman (1994) reported that men experience greater negative physiological arousal to marital conflict—responses so intense that men tend to shut down or withdraw as a way to manage it. They suggest that wives push to resolve conflicts, undeterred by emotional arousal, whereas husbands experience the emotional arousal as extremely aversive and act to disengage from the conflict. This stonewalling, or withdrawal from the interaction, is a behavior exhibited primarily by males that negatively affects females. Whereas most men do not tend to get physiologically aroused when their wives withdraw, wives’ heart rates increase significantly when their husbands stonewall (Gottman, 1994); this disengagement creates relief for men and distress for women.
The psychological impact of marital interaction also affects wives and husbands differently. Waite and Gallagher (2000) report that marriage is more positive for mental health than other lifestyles, yet husbands benefit more than wives. The emotional climate of distressed marriages, including less positive affect, more negative affect, and more reciprocity of negative, but not positive, affect, creates greater psychological suffering for women (Noller & Fitzpatrick, 1990). Women are more negatively affected by overt expressions of hostility than their spouses (Gaelick, Bodenhausen, & Wyer, 1985). Although women tended to be better at encoding positive messages than their spouses (Larson & Almeida, 1999). Noller and Fitzpatrick (1990) suggest that wives may act negatively to convey to their husbands the seriousness of their relational dissatisfaction. In married couples, daily emotions tend to flow from husbands to wives more often, possibly because women attempt to be empathetic (Larson & Almeida, 1999).
Everyday health-related marital interaction also reflects gender. Nagging, frequently perceived to be a feminine behavior, may be reframed as a protective strategy increasingly used by both partners. Women tended to be better at encoding positive messages than their spouses (Larson & Almeida, 1999). Soule (2003) found that married partners who nagged appeared motivated by love and a concern for their spouses’ well-being. Although wives tend to monitor their husbands’ health habits, discourage drinking and smoking, encourage regular sleeping habits and physical activity, and prepare healthy meals, nagging is not uniquely gendered. Eight of 10 married men and 6 of 10 married women reported that their spouse reminded them to do something to protect their health (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Geist-Martin, Ray, and Sharf (2003) suggest that, in situations of illness, support does not appear to differ based on gender. Effective health strategies for both partners include engaging in the health behavior together, engaging in facilitative behavior, and providing emotional support (Tucker & Mueller, 2000).
Spousal illness affects marital interaction (Segrin & Flora, 2005). Healthy spouses may self-monitor complaints to avoid adding to their partners’ problems, the illness may become a major topic, and the healthy spouse may be overburdened with caretaking responsibilities. Changes in couples’ functioning, due to major health problems such as cancer, stroke, or heart attack, may affect their sex life and their social life.
Other areas of family health communication appear gendered. Brown (2001) found that men do not see health as part of day-today discourse except when facing critical health issues, such as suffering a heart attack. Most men reported the expectation that women would take care of the health of the family. Health-related family communication is managed more frequently by females than males. A study of female genetic counseling clients found that they were willing to talk with family members about relatives’ conditions, though there were particular difficulties in initiating conversations if the respondents were male. Communication increased with female relatives (Green, Richards, Murton, Statham, & Hallowell, 1997). Fathers and mothers tend to react in different ways to the news that their child has a disability. Fathers tend to respond less emotionally and focus on the long-term effects, while mothers respond more emotionally. Some fathers reject their child and withdraw, while mothers tend to carry the major load of caretaking (Seligman & Darling, 1997). In her study of diabetics’ siblings, Pavlik (2004) found that female siblings received more caretaking messages than did males, regardless of birth order.
Although family health communication reflects strong gender patterns, more recent work also indicates that an increasing number of males engage in caretaking, social support, and monitoring. As more men are involved in single parenting, in same-sex partnerships and parenting, in cohabiting stepfamilies, and as longevity is coupled with long-term illness maintenance, sharp distinctions in gendered health behaviors will continue to diminish.
Emerging technologies will impact gendered family interaction; the effects of evolving digital media and reproductive technologies on gendered family interaction needs systematic scholarly attention. Jordan (2003) calls for an exploration in which family members set up guidelines about how, when, and where the Internet is used. Currently little is known about how gender interacts with new digital media across a range of family structures. As reproductive technologies become more sophisticated, increasing numbers of heterosexual as well as gay and lesbian individuals or couples will become parents. Decisions about using reproductive technology involve family conversations before and after birth. Lesbian couples considering donor insemination are faced with multiple decisions including deciding on a donor and on which partner will bear the child (Chabot & Ames, 2004). Parke (2002) calls for studies on how donor involvement with the family interacts with family structural variables.
Each passing decade of kaleidoscopic change will bring more challenges to heteronormative gendering, binary roles, and the privileging of only biological and legal ties as “genuine” family (Oswald, Blume, & Marks, 2005). Communication research must reflect this ongoing shift from classical drama to improvisation in gendered family life.