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date: 27 May 2017

Interpersonal Communication Across the Life Span

Summary and Keywords

From birth to death, our interactions with others are what inform our identity and give meaning to life. Ultimately, it is interpersonal communication that is the bedrock of wellness. Much of the scholarship on interpersonal communication places communication in the background, characterized merely as a resource, symptom, or contributing factor to change. In the study of our interpersonal experiences, communication must be at the forefront. As a pragmatic lens concerned with real-world issues, a life-span perspective of interpersonal scholarship provides boundless opportunities for bridging science and practice in meaningful ways that improve social life on multiple levels, from families to schools to government to hospitals. Interpersonal communication research that is concerned with life-span issues tends to prioritize communicative phenomena and bring the communication dynamics of our relational lives to the surface. Typically, this scholarship is organized around the various stages or phases of life. In other words, researchers concerned with interpersonal communication often contextualize this behavior based on dimensions of human development and life changes we typically encounter across the life course, those major life experiences from birth to death. Much of that scholarship also centers on how we develop competence in communication across time or how communication competence is critical to our ability to attain relational satisfaction as well as a high psychological and physical quality of life. This research also highlights the influential role of age, human development, and generational differences, recognizing that our place in the life span impacts our goals and needs and that our sociocultural-historical experiences also inform our communication preferences. A life-span perspective of interpersonal communication also encompasses various theoretical paradigms that have been developed within and outside the communication discipline. Collectively, this scholarship helps illustrate the communicative nature of human life across the entire life trajectory.

Keywords: life span, life course, life stage, interpersonal, relational, family, intergenerational, communication competence, aging, human development, generational differences


By examining the interpersonal communication that defines human life, we garner a better understanding of how communication is central to a high quality of life. From birth to death, our interactions with others are what inform our sense of self and purpose and give meaning to life. Ultimately, our interpersonal communicative experiences are the roots of wellness. We can learn much about adaptation and survival by examining the nature of our interpersonal experiences across time. With this in mind, it is important to recognize that human life is not only framed by our interactions but defined by shifts, growth, and transformation across the life course. A life-span perspective affords incredible opportunities to examine the changing nature of our relational lives across history and generations and bring to light the adaptive functioning of interpersonal communication.

As the theme of the most recent International Communication Association (ICA) 2015 conference, life-span communication was defined as the consideration of age or developmentally related factors in understanding social experiences while also recognizing that “stages” or phases of the life span are socioculturally constructed and embedded in historical contexts. As a pragmatic lens concerned with real-world issues, life-span framed interpersonal scholarship offers scholars the opportunity to merge\science and practice in meaningful ways to enhance social life in the home, in our professional or educational environments, and even at a policy level.

With this definition in mind, we explore various focal points, findings, and considerations made known through interpersonal communication scholarship that has been informed, on some level, by life-span concerns. We begin by examining what it means to employ a life-span perspective in the hopes that future scholars see the value of applying this approach to interpersonal communication. We spend the most time exploring research that captures the nature of interpersonal communication across our life trajectory, moving through the various normative developmental phases of life while also considering sociohistorical influences. Life span also concerns non-normative changes. By examining the interpersonal communication employed to adjust to both normative and non-normative changes, we gain critical insight into how we can successfully age and become resilient by developing communication competence. As such, we briefly examine some of the most widely studied aspects of communication competence in the context of these non-normative life changes. We end by exploring theoretical approaches used within the life-span lens that are especially useful in illustrating interpersonal communication across time.

Using a Life-Span Lens in Interpersonal Communication Research

The life-span perspective itself is theoretical in nature. It originates in the discipline of life-span developmental psychology and guides us in not only capturing, but understanding, explaining, and predicting how behavior changes across the life course. Jon Nussbaum and colleagues subsequently introduced the perspective to the field of communication (Nussbaum, 1989; Pecchioni, Wright, & Nussbaum, 2005), a subdiscipline of communication now referred to as life-span communication.

The Life-Span Perspective of Communication

The basic idea of life span as a framework is that behavior changes across time, and, thus, behavior is a developmental phenomenon. Founding scholars Baltes, Reese, and Nesselroade (1988) first defined what life span means in the field of developmental psychology (see also Baltes, 1987). Life-span developmental psychology was defined as “the description, explanation, and modification (optimization) of intra-individual change in behavior across the life span and with inter-individual differences (and similarities) in intra-individual change” (Baltes, Reese, & Nesselroade, 1988, p. 4). According to these pioneers, the life-span perspective encompasses five dimensions:

  1. 1. Development is experienced across the life span (i.e., aging does not equate to decline).

  2. 2. Development is not a linear process; it is multidirectional and diverse (plurality).

  3. 3. Development involves gains and losses; while we may lose ability, we may also gain.

  4. 4. Development is evident and diverse both within an individual and between individuals.

  5. 5. Development involves person–environment reciprocal influences.

Nussbaum and colleagues applied this theoretical framework to understanding communication across the life span, recognizing that communication is inherently a developmental phenomenon (Nussbaum, 1989; Pecchioni et al., 2005). They define life-span communication as being “interested in what a developing process of communication looks like, where the communication process develops and why it develops, and how the communication process can be altered to create an optimal context for living” (p. 10). In mapping on the life-span perspective to the discipline of communication, they also proposed five theoretical propositions:

  1. 1. Human communication is a developmental phenomenon.

  2. 2. Human communication involves multiple levels of experience (individual, relational, social, cultural) that are mutually influential.

  3. 3. Change in communication is both qualitative and quantitative in nature.

  4. 4. All theories that are testable and usable can bring insight on life-span communication.

  5. 5. Complex and unique methodological approaches are warranted when attempting to capture and understand the developmental nature of communication.

Although we see a focus on the developmental nature of communication emerging in other disciplines, what we also typically see in such scholarship is human communication placed in the background, characterized merely as a resource, symptom, or contributing factor to change (Harwood, 2015). In the study of our interpersonal experiences, communication must be at the forefront. As Harwood (2015) notes:

For a true communication-based lifespan theory to take hold and contribute,

communication needs to take a more central place in the theoretical structure. We

need to discover ways of writing and talking that make communication the phenomenon central to our discussion. Perhaps explaining and understanding communication must be more of an end in itself and less of a means to understanding biological and psychological issues.

(p. 23)

This same challenge is not nonexistent in the broad literature on interpersonal communication in that often researchers pay more attention to psychological or cognitive constructs (e.g., beliefs, attitudes, personality) as opposed to actual behavior—communication. However, scholarship on interpersonal communication framed by a life-span perspective or concerned with life-span issues tends to prioritize communicative phenomena and bring the communication dynamics of our relational lives to the surface.

Typically, this scholarship is organized around the various stages or phases of life. In other words, researchers concerned with interpersonal communication often contextualize this behavior based on dimensions of human development and life changes we typically encounter across the life course, those major life experiences from birth through the end of life. Longitudinal studies are rare, and while they exist outside the communication discipline (e.g., Bengston’s Longitudinal Study of Generations; MIDUS; Schaie’s Seattle Longitudinal Study; Baltes’s Berlin Aging Study), communication-focused research across the life span is largely dominated by cross-sectional data. Leading life-span scholars (like Nussbaum) argue for more complex designs that capture both intra- and inter-individual change, ideally merging both longitudinal and cross-sectional designs (see Schaie’s General Developmental Model). However, due to the time-intensive, expensive nature of such research approaches, most scholarship (across disciplines) has been designed to examine communication encountered during various turning points across our individual and relational histories. These studies can be categorized into communication across the life span during both normative and non-normative changes.

Communication Across the Life Span: Normative Experiences

The life-span perspective of human behavior helps to illustrate normative experiences we expect to encounter across our life trajectory. These are typically embedded within human development (or age) as we mature cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. As we age, various developmental tasks are central to our growth, success in life, and well-being. This human development contributes to our ability to become competent social beings by enhancing our communication aptitude (often referred to as “communication competence”). We highlight the nature of this development by focusing on the interpersonal communication experiences that characterize this growth from birth to death, paying close attention to the communication skills we need to develop and enhance in order to lead resilient, happy, and healthy lives.

Birth to Childhood

From the time we are born and through childhood is a particularly critical time period for developing the foundation of communication competence—our language and cognitive skills. While influenced by genetic and environmental factors (Rutter & Rutter, 1993), the development of language and cognition is also a learned process (Pecchioni et al., 2005). Even from early infancy, research has shown the bidirectional influence of communication between baby and parent. From birth into infancy, babies learn to interpret and imitate mothers’ facial expressions and gazes (Haslett & Samter, 2015). Interaction within the family environment is most influential in this early development of communication skills. All nonverbal and verbal communication exchanges between parent and child are instrumental to this growth (see Socha & Stamp, 1996).

Children develop cognitively through their interactive experiences with caregivers like parents. They develop perceptual skills (cognitive complexity) that contribute to their ability to develop communication competence (Pecchioni et al., 2005). Likewise, their communication competence can enhance their cognitive complexity. As children age, they utilize their cognitive abilities to engage in a trial-and-error process to piece together the communicative puzzle pieces of the world. Interactions that violate or fail to fit the child’s current schema for interaction spur the child to seek clarification through their surrounding support systems. Parents serve as the primary respondents to infantile inquiries, and their guidance advances a child’s cognitive complexity through the systematic enforcement and explanation of social rules (Pecchioni et al., 2005). Children increasingly absorb these explanations and adjust their understanding accordingly, becoming more competent communicators as they mature and gain life experiences. For example, older children are better at comforting their peers and use more frequent messaging and empathy than their younger counterparts, indicating an increased ability to navigate communicatively complex contexts (Burleson, 1982).

Language skills are also developed in this manner and especially nurtured through parent (often mother)—child communication. Important milestones of language acquisition occur in infancy and childhood, including comprehension of language and the production of words (Haslett & Samter, 2015). From birth to 5 years there is an enormous amount of development in communicative resources in speech/language, gesture/nonverbal behavior, as well as socioemotional expression. Babies and children move from learning first words by 12 months to asking questions at 2 years of age, from interpreting eye gazes at 6 months to enacting symbolic play by 2 years, from engaging in social smiling only a few months after birth to using humor by 18 months, and, ultimately, engaging in conversational discourse by age 5 (see Miller & DeThorne, 2015, for a detailed timeline of development).

Language and cognitive aptitude development in childhood are also tied to socioemotional growth. It is through parent–infant communication that an individual first develops the ability to form secure bonds with other individuals. Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1988) posits that the quality of bond between a child and their primary caregiving system lays the foundation for later psychological development and future understanding of trust, caring, and relational quality. This bond is developed within the first 2 years of a child’s life and defined by the interactive experiences between the primary caregiver and child. The nature of attachment developed during this time is relatively stable across the life span and, therefore, has long-term consequences for emotional regulation, emotional understanding, self-concept, and social competence (Haslett & Samter, 2015). These long-lasting consequences then impact future relational development and, thus, relational communication competence. For example, children raised in reassuring, supportive homes are more likely to be satisfied with future relationships, whereas those raised in unpredictable, neglectful homes are more likely to develop negative self-perceptions and are less secure in future relationships (Bowlby, 1988).

The preschool years are a time of continued development as children become conversationalists or storytellers, communicating narratives in a more sophisticated manner with sequence, gestures, and facial expressions (see Miller & DeThorne, 2015). Preschoolers also become more competent at interpreting others’ emotional expressions and can pair verbal messages and nonverbal facial expression (Haslett & Samter, 1997). They start to become competent at interpreting their social experiences. Ultimately, parent–child communication is the key agent of socialization during childhood, contributing to cognitive and language development as well as socioemotional health. As Haslett and Samter (2015) eloquently note, this “interactional foundation provides … the necessary trust in the social world and in social relationships so that she or he can negotiate future encounters and experiences” (p. 85).


As children move into adolescence, their familial interactions continue to play a prominent role in their socioemotional development, but it is their peer relationships that take center stage. Social skills for friendships begin as early as 18 months (Svetlova, Nichols, & Brownell, 2010), and by the preschool years communication in friendships provides children with a sense of acceptance, support, and companionship (Sebanc, Kearns, Hernandez, & Galvin, 2007). These communication competencies inform adolescents’ formation of friendships, which are critical to their short- and long-term mental and social health.

Developing a sense of self separate from mother/father is a notable developmental task during this age period. The development of a stronger sense of individuality (i.e., differentiation) is tied to a diminished reliance on family and increased dependence on peers for social interaction and approval (Nussbaum, Miller-Day, Fitobinson, & Thompson, 2000). Adolescents may prioritize the opinions of their peers over family and may spend more time with friends than in their family environment. Adolescence is also a time ripe with self-discovery and, as such, doubt. Many adolescents exhibit heightened perceptions of social judgment. If one fails to develop as rapidly as one’s peers, one may develop negative feelings about oneself, which is linked to interactive experiences (Steinberg & Morris, 2001). For instance, adolescents harboring negative views of self-worth are less likely to feel supported by their peers (Harter, Waters, & Whitesell, 1998), which suggests the critical role peer support plays in an adolescent’s socioemotional well-being. Peer interaction serves to enhance adolescents’ sense of self but can also be an important site for disclosure, particularly regarding topics deemed taboo or uncomfortable in family environments. Thus, friendships provide an outlet for communication that serve as a site for competence building in mutuality, reciprocity, and negotiation and are critical for future communicative success (Haslett & Samter, 1997).

This peer interaction can have both healthy and unhealthy consequences. Children with “high-quality” friendships tend to have better social skills like cooperation, self-control, assertion, responsibility, and fewer externalizing behaviors (Engle, McElwain, & Lasky, 2011). Friendship communication can also buffer against loneliness and decrease one’s risk of depression (Nangle, Erdley, Newman, Mason, & Carpenter, 2003). However, peer interaction is also experienced within social structures of hierarchy and power. While peer friendships assume egalitarian dynamics, these relationships are also embedded within larger group dynamics, which can be characterized by competition and power struggles both within and between groups. Children form peer groups, often joining with others they perceive to be like them. While this can provide bonding opportunities, negative behavior can also be common, particularly targeting those individuals perceived to be “outside” of the group. By late elementary school, bullying and aggressive behavior become more commonplace—a growing concern in today’s society. Aggressive behavior like teasing, name-calling, confrontations, and physical attacks may be enacted as an attempt to hold a particular social status (e.g., popularity) within the peer group (Adler & Adler, 1996). While both boys and girls enact such communicative acts, boys are more likely to engage in bullying behavior, whereas girls are more likely to be victims (Duran & Prusank, 2015). Bullying behavior is detrimental to health. It can lead to social isolation and peer rejection and, on an individual level, low self-esteem, shame, depression, embarrassment, insecurity, and a fear of school. It can also develop into profound mental health distress, including anxiety, that can manifest as psychosomatic illness (e.g., headaches or stomachaches) and disorders (e.g., social phobia) (Wolke et al., 2013). Additionally, in today’s world children must also learn to cope with cyberbullying in large public forums through social media like Facebook and YouTube. Because this type of adolescent interaction is done via a public computer-mediated form that can also be anonymous, the effects may be even more detrimental to their healthy development (see Wright & King, 2015).

As adolescents struggle for acceptance and develop their first close non-kin or peer relationships (and group memberships), peer interaction becomes a prioritized social environment for adolescents. Changes in self-disclosure, privacy, and conflict communication can lead to parents perceiving adolescents as distant or uninvolved in family matters, which can result in families (especially parents) feeling rejected or neglected (Robin & Foster, 2003). While adolescents spend less time with family members, they also begin to challenge normative parent–child communication patterns (see Laursen & Collins, 2004). They question behavioral rules, resource distribution, and familial standards for interpersonal relationships (Adams & Laursen, 2001). As a result, adolescence is a time period rich for conflicts that are typically define by power struggles. In a sense, the adolescent’s struggle revolves around probing the established order in the hopes of establishing his or her own sense of self and individuation. Learning how to manage conflict is a critical aspect of developing communication competence in adolescence. Much of this is learned by modeling the parent’s conflict approach, so there is the potential for both healthy and unhealthy conflict management strategies to develop. Yet, by adulthood it is critical that individuals use more solution-oriented approaches to conflict management (Pecchioni et al., 2005).

Emerging and Young Adulthood

Given the changing nature of economic and cultural conditions in recent history, human development scholars have introduced a relatively “new” phase of early adulthood called “emerging adulthood” that follows adolescence, typically beginning around age 18, and precedes young adulthood (which some argue begins at 25 and ends at 39). Originally conceptualized by Erikson (1968) as “prolonged adolescence,” emerging adulthood has since been argued for by Arnett (2000) as a life stage within industrialized societies where parental units can afford to provide for their children for an extended period of time. The emerging adult cohort exercises adult-like responsibilities and decision-making skills while simultaneously enjoying a psychosocial moratorium in which individuals can freely experiment with their roles and abilities. Arnett (2000) explains further:

Emerging adulthood is distinguished [from other life stages] by relative independence from social roles and from normative expectations … Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.

(p. 469)

Since their parents still often function as an emotional and fiscal support system, emerging adults are able to take more social risks in the exciting pursuit of self-discovery. Still, this time period is not easy. Arnett (2005) explains that emerging adults often feel tension arising from an inability to pinpoint an identity and feeling “in-between” life stages.

This time period is rich for development in social skills like decision-making. Although they may exhibit behaviors indicative of not needing their parents in early adulthood, especially after leaving the house, emerging adults do seek their insight when making decisions. This is not always an easy conversation for parents to navigate with their emerging-adult children. Parents themselves are striving to “let go,” which is essential to identity formation as parental attempts at psychological control negatively affect personal identity formation (Luyckx, Soenens, Vansteenkiste, Goossens, & Berzonsky, 2007). Moreover, when parents consistently engage in controlling behaviors, emerging adult children may not be able to develop a separate sense of self and become enmeshed in the relationship, not affording separate or individual identities. Miller-Day’s (2004) research on grandmother–mother–daughter communication demonstrates that some patterns (necessary convergence communication) are based on power and dominance and withholding resources (like love and nurturance) as a means of controlling children, even in adulthood. Doing so can result in the development of mental health disorders related to anxiety, depression, risky behavior, suicidality, and disordered eating behavior (Miller-Day, 2004). It is critical that parents not engage in overcontrolling behavior in adolescence and emerging adulthood and that they engage in conversation styles that allow for them to be there for their child but also allow them their own independence. For instance, emerging adults seem to be more accepting of informational support when their parent–child bond is also perceived as open and honest (Hays & Metts, 2015). This need for honesty may be even more heightened in emerging adulthood in that emerging adults are less tolerant of, and less likely to engage in, lying behaviors than their adolescent peers (Jensen, Arnett, Feldman, & Cauffman, 2004).

Another notable area of social exploration and development for emerging adults is in intimate or sexual communication. The Guttmacher Institute (2013) discovered that an increasing number of adolescents are waiting until emerging adulthood to explore sexual relations. Engaging with different partners offers individuals an opportunity to refine their identities within the context of mature, adult relationships. Yet mixed with these exploratory desires may also be risky behaviors. Over half of all new cases of sexually transmitted disease (STD) and unplanned pregnancies are found within the late adolescent and emerging-adult population (CDC, 2013). And emerging adults may not view all risky sexual behavior as problematic. College students report little regret about “hooking up” (i.e., brief sexual encounters) (Lucas & Nussbaum, 2012) and may even perceive it as a normative experience of emerging adulthood (or college life) given the associated positive feelings one experiences after the encounter (Owen & Fincham, 2011), as well as more freedoms from traditional gendered roles that has emerged since the women’s movement.

During emerging and young adulthood, men and women also may encounter a common life transition: marriage. Although Americans are delaying marriage in comparison to earlier generations (prioritizing other life goals like education and career), the average age for marriage is still in late emerging adulthood (age 26 for women and 28 for men) (Copen, Daniels, Vespz, & Mosher, 2012). Committed bonds like marriage afford adults the opportunity to develop critical social skills (see McManus, 2015, for a review on commitment and marriage). Committing to a relationship provides various communicative experiences in which one can develop relational maintenance behaviors (e.g., assurances, openness, task sharing) (Stafford & Canary, 1991). These social skills are critical not only to sustaining intimate connections but also to enhancing them. As individuals begin experiencing intimate sexual bonds, they may also be exposed to “darker” sides of interpersonal communication like conflict, aggression, and violence, experiences that can occur at any point in a relational history but are often more commonplace in emerging or young adulthood (McManus, 2015).


During midlife, individuals are more comfortable with their identity and enter a period of communication defined by their relationships with others. Often referred to as the “sandwich generation,” middle-aged adults have generations of adults both younger and older than them. Individuals in their thirties to fifties are at a time in life where their social network is the largest, but they are also pulled in many competing directions, which can lead to a sacrificing of the self or individual needs. Gone is the free period of emerging/young adulthood in which individual goals like self-discovery take precedence. During midlife, relational challenges and concerns are at the forefront. Issues like the division of household responsibilities, caregiving of children and/or aging parents, and balancing family and career are all prominent concerns and often occur simultaneously. As such, midlife is a period that can be characterized as a “juggling act” (see Fingerman, Nussbaum, & Birditt, 2004, and Soliz & Fowler, 2015, for reviews).

Much of midlife is defined by family and intimate communication tied to the development of family identity, maintenance of relationships, and rearing of children. Committed bonds or marriage can have notable health benefits. Marital status is associated with less ailments and a longer life span, which is likely tied to the adoption of healthy behaviors such as engaging in healthier eating habits and prevention or screening behavior to decrease disease risk (Koball, Moiduddin, Henderson, Goesling, & Besculides, 2010). Yet maintaining a healthy marriage, or family, is not without challenges. A central feature of healthy relational and familial dynamics in midlife is the cultivation of a shared identity. This is achieved through interactive practices that are symbolic in nature, such as shared stories and rituals (Jorgenson & Bochner, 2004). These symbolic communicative acts serve as resources in the family and also organize or structure familiar experience or what it means be a part of one’s respective family culture (Langellier & Peterson, 1993).

Having children in midlife introduces new responsibilities. Becoming a parent is a life-altering experience filled with relational and individual benefits. Parenting offers an opportunity to pass down cultural attitudes, beliefs, and values. Thus, parents may tailor their own parenting style to reinforce lessons they enjoyed while changing things they feel did not work as well. In short, midlife adults view parenting as a process where they can reinforce their own core values through a new generation. Having children may also further complicate the middle-aged adults’ social network, specifically with older generations. Though they have gained independence, mid-lifers may frequently receive parenting advice from both in-laws and their own parents. Childrearing practices can often serve as a point of contention and strain the relationship between midlife adults and their parents (Pecchioni et al., 2005). However, at the same time, having a child often binds the adult child and parent closer as the adult child gains the perspective of what it means to fulfill the parent role (Fischer, 1986).

Communication between midlife adults and aging parents is still a notable experience and, unlike earlier developmental phases, rarely fraught with conflict (Baruch & Barnett, 1983). This is due in part to having more shared familial and life roles (see Soliz & Fowler, 2015), as well as having potentially developed conflict communication competence by this point in the life span. Fingerman’s (2001) research on adult daughters’ communication with their aging mothers showed they had reached a period of highest emotional connection (closeness) as well as becoming especially competent in managing tensions by engaging in constructive approaches as well as avoidance (which could also be tied to more tolerance) (see also Pecchioni & Nussbaum, 2001). However, communication challenges between aging parent and middle-aged adult child can manifest when the former encounter declines in mental, social, and physical ability. These aging-related changes present situations warranting challenging but necessary conversations. Adult children are concerned about their aging parents’ future welfare and their potential ability to serve as a parent’s caregiver (Cicirelli, 1988, called this “filial anxiety”). Unfortunately, as Soliz and Fowler (2015) note, rarely do aging parents and adult children talk about the future need for care prior to imminent need. With the little scholarship that has been done, one approach in particular has been helpful. Scholars found that by utilizing politeness strategies during care-related discussions, adult children can protect aging parents’ positive face (so they don’t feel like a burden), which is critical to both parties’ ability to talk about and make care decisions (Fowler, Fisher, & Pitts, 2014).

Even though midlife is dominated by relational communication in intimate or familial bonds, much communication experienced during this time period is done in the workplace. Although we may enter the full-time workforce in our early twenties, it is usually not until midlife that individuals have settled into a career or organizational culture (Gouran, 2015). Job stability allows mid-lifers to secure their own residence, develop their own approach to daily life, and take ownership of fiscal responsibilities. Additionally, increased stability allows for the adoption of long-term goal-setting behaviors (e.g., retirement saving) (Vinokur, Van Ryn, Gamlich, & Price, 1991). Thus, midlife adults work not only for themselves but for the future of their families as well. Issues of work–life balance are especially prominent in today’s society as families often have both parents working and family structures have become less “traditional” (e.g., stay-at-home dads) (see also Buzzanell, 2015). As Duckworth and Buzzanell (2009) note, this has led to new social discourses in society (that also manifest in familial culture) about what it means to be a father or mother today: “Reconceptualizations of fatherhood and masculinities may indicate that there are ideological changes in the nature of fatherhood that have implications for understanding men’s contemporary roles as well as for changing work-life policies and practices” (p. 558). Mormon and Floyd (2002) provided epistemological evidence for this “changing culture of fatherhood” by demonstrating that colloquial conceptualizations of fatherhood have evolved from traditional views involving cold and distant qualities to a new ideal characterized by high levels of involvement and nurturing.

In addition to changing social conceptualizations of familial roles, the workplace is more multi-generational in nature. For many individuals, their interpersonal lives in the workplace are a defining feature of their identity across the life span. This can be complicated by intergenerational dynamics. While older generations like the Baby Boomers tend to maintain a long-time loyalty to an employer and, therefore, may experience longer workplace relationships, Generation Xers tend to change jobs more frequently and do not readily invest trust in institutions (Smola & Sutton, 2002). Yet this generation (currently in young or middle adulthood) also strives for more work–life balance (like Millennials) (Loughlin & Barling, 2001; Stauffer, 1997), which may mean the impact of work relationships on their family bonds is more positive than strained. Generational differences also impact whether an employee prefers face-to-face interaction as opposed to talk facilitated through technology. Not surprisingly, Baby Boomers value interpersonal connection in person, whereas Millennials (currently emerging adults) have a strong need to always be technologically connected. These generational differences no doubt can lead to interpersonal challenges in the workplace as older workers may have difficulty understanding younger generations’ approach or prioritization of goals (Kramer & Myers, 2015), challenges that may also manifest in the family during midlife.

Later Adulthood and End of Life

In Western societies, later adulthood is colloquially viewed negatively. We live in a society that characterizes getting older as a failure, trying to preserve physical youth by all means. Yet, research shows that later adulthood can be an exciting new chapter in life where old relationships take on new meaning and new relationships can be formed.

After years of sacrificial effort, adults in middle and later adulthood will go through the process of launching children just as their parents did. Later adults may develop feelings of loneliness after their children leave home for the first time (Kenny, 1987). It may take some time to adjust to the new environment, but later adulthood offers an opportunity to age together with one’s partner and rediscover meaning in the spousal relationship (see Nussbaum, Miller-Day, & Fisher, 2009). Acitelli and Antonucci (1994) report that marital support plays a significant role in marital satisfaction for older adults, meaning there may be an inherent desire within the dyad to re-establish commitment to one another. Likewise, while retirement may also lead to challenging identity shifts (particularly for Baby Boomer men), this can also be a time of heightened self-discovery of old hobbies or loved pastimes and friendships that one had less time to engage in during midlife.

Being single as an older adult can be challenging. Divorced men are more likely to die earlier than their female counterparts (Hemström, 1996), and childless later adults are often less satisfied with their family life and demonstrate lower levels of well-being (Singh & Williams, 1981). Yet the lack of familial relationships need not necessarily mean a lack of meaningful relationships. Older adults often report that their most meaningful friendships were formed long ago and conceptualize these relationships as mutually beneficial and rewarding, even when current contact is infrequent (Nussbaum, 1994). These friendships can become important sources of social support. In addition, the sibling bond finds renewed strength in later life. Life changes and events like the loss of an aging parent, widowhood, and retirement can lead to sibling communication increasing later in adulthood due to a desire to reconnect as well as simply having more time available to interact (Pecchioni et al., 2005; Ross & Milgram, 1982). At the same time, older adults are still vibrant sexual beings (Dickson & Hughes, 2015). Online dating is more prevalent today for older adults, and these encounters can lead to long-lasting bonds (Malt, 2007). While dating in later life can be exciting, it is not without risks. Older adults today are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, having been socialized during a historical context in which contraception was used for the protection against pregnancy not STDs. As a result, more older adults are infected with HIV or AIDS (Jacquescoley, 2008). This also suggests a lack of communication among older adults about healthy sex practices.

Older adults may also have new opportunities for special relationships with younger generations like grandchildren. For many, the grandparent role is a highly enjoyable and exciting relational experience (see Fowler & Fisher, 2014). Grandparenting is often less stressful than rearing children, as one can often limit their own involvement and enjoy the flexibility of serving as a supportive, rather than primary, caretaker. Additionally, grandchildren offer an opportunity for grandparents to develop a close, intimate bond, sometimes even a closer tie than they share with their own children (Miller-Day, 2004). Sanders and Trygstad (1993) discovered that later adults place more value in relationship formation with grandchildren if they are dissatisfied with other familial relationships. Grandparent–grandchild communication can also be an important buffer of stress for grandchildren. For instance, in the face of divorce, grandparents can provide a sense of continuity or stability for grandchildren as well as a sense of togetherness (Soliz, 2009).

Later adulthood is also defined by more interactions with healthcare providers. Aging has been positively correlated with the development of many health issues, including heart disease (Lakatta & Levy, 2003), cancer (Cohen, 2007), and dementia (Huppert & Brayne, 1994). Thus, older adults are likely to engage in interpersonal communication within a myriad of health contexts. Despite diversity of patient–provider interactions and health conditions, older adults may develop long-term, close relationships with physicians, nurses, or other health workers. Some of our earlier healthcare interactions can have profound long-term effects on our health beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors as well as our trust in healthcare providers at large. However, it is typically during later life that healthcare interactions dominate our interpersonal lives (see Fisher & Canzona, 2014). Older adults interact with informal and formal healthcare providers more than any other age group (Hartman et al., 2008). Older adults must learn to manage more chronic health issues in a fractured healthcare system. They (and their family members) must become skilled at interacting with various types of providers in a setting that has unrealistic time constraints and a society that is fraught with aging stereotypes (Nussbaum & Fisher, 2009). In addition to their own growing health concerns, later adults may still be engaged in care of aging parents. Daughters are more likely to be engaged in caregiving behavior than sons (Cancian & Oliker, 2000), and caregivers show elevated expression of depressive symptoms (Killian, Turner, & Cain, 2005) and may lose a sense of self during the process (Skaff & Pearlin, 1992). As a result, it is imperative that later adults remain conscious of their own mental state while caregiving.

The final stage of life is often difficult for the individual and family system. Although often feared, the end of life can be a fulfilling experience, and an individual’s last days are often fondly remembered by surviving kin as a positive experience within the overarching context of their relationship with the deceased (Keeley, 2007). To date, the scholarship on end-of-life communication largely focuses on either talking about death and mortality or communication during the end of life.

Death is not a frequent topic of discussion, and while couples or families may visit this issue, it is not a conversation they typically return to (see Giles, Thai, & Prestin, 2015, for a review). This is true regardless of age and even when families face a life-threatening illness like breast cancer (Fisher, 2014). This “phenomenon of silence” can persist even after a terminal diagnosis. This is unfortunate, given that talking about death is associated with better grief adjustment for loved ones and family (Metzger & Gray, 2008), and these conversations can even enhance family closeness and cohesion (Johnston & Abraham, 2000). Talking about death in the moment of dying is likely more difficult. Lo, Quill, and Tulsky (1999) remind us that listening plays a critical role in the dying experience. Technology and the fast-paced nature of healthcare may make it difficult for healthcare workers (including those in hospice or palliative care at the end of life) to provide clear, effective, and supportive communication for patients and their families (Wittenberg-Lyles, Parker Oliver, Demiris, & Baldwin, 2010). Lannamann, Harris, Bakos, and Baker (2008) caution against overestimating patient and family knowledge and urge practitioners to clarify a prognosis whenever possible as silence and vague answers could be misinterpreted. Patients in this final phase of the life span are looking for closure, and both active listening and empathy on the part of family and practitioner can ease the process for all involved. Keeley (2007) examined survivors’ end-of-life conversations with their dying loved ones and found that these conversations were dominated by themes of love and spirituality as well as repairing relational transgressions or hurts. These conversations can facilitate healing and relational repair for each partner while buffering the grief process for surviving loved ones.

Communication Competence and Non-Normative Experiences Across the Life Span

Communication competence is critical to adaptation across the life span, not only when adjusting to developmentally related normative transitions but also in response to non-normative changes (unexpected transitions one encounters). Social support and openness/disclosure are two of the most widely studied areas of interpersonal communication competence. These communication processes are also especially critical to one’s ability to manage and respond to non-normative life transitions that, because they are unexpected, are often more stressful to cope with.

Social Support

Enacted social support is an interactional transaction in which an individual expresses support to a relational other, who receives that support and has a perception of it. Social support refers to what people say and do for each other and how such behavior can enhance well-being (Goldsmith, 2004). It may be offered and received but not necessarily reciprocated, and it takes many forms. Supportive communication is typically characterized as tangible/instrumental (provision of some thing or service), informational (offering advice or information of some kind), or emotional (expressing care and concern, sometimes further broken down into “esteem” or “appraisal” support). Social support is one aspect of communication that predicts quality of life across the life span. A number of theoretically grounded studies in social support and stress demonstrate support as both a means of buffering one from stress and enhancing wellness (e.g., psychological well-being) (see Afifi & Nussbaum, 2006).

Some studies narrowly examine this communication process as a resource (having network ties) or seek to ascertain whether or not it exists (perceived availability) (see Trees, 2015). In line with what Harwood (2015) advocates, it is critical that interpersonal communication scholarship further examine the enactment of social support—the interaction that occurs between two or more individuals when one or more individuals send supportive messages for the benefit of the communicative partners. Goldsmith’s (2004) conceptualization of “enacted social support” allows for scholars to do this and to illustrate the quality of supportive communication. By capturing the quality, scholars can better understand how supportive communication is not always helpful, that it is contextually based, and that many variables (age, gender, etc.) impact whether or not the communication is helpful in coping with stressful changes (see also Barbee & Cunningham, 1995; Burleson & Goldsmith, 1998).

While social support is an important communication factor in quality of life across the life span and in managing daily struggles encountered in everyday life, competence in supportive communication is especially critical in the context of stressful changes or unexpected crises. Health challenges are common but unexpected crises individuals and families are bound to encounter at some point in time. Scholarship on interpersonal communication has revealed the importance of social support in navigating a wide range of health issues from life-threatening illness like cancer and HIV to debilitating health events like stroke or heart attacks, as well as more chronic concerns that disrupt daily or family life like infertility, diabetes, and dementia. Studies have also focused on non-normative changes that are more relational or individual in nature such as divorce, military deployment, unemployment, or financial strife (Maguire, 2014; McManus & Donovan, 2012; Sahlstein et al., 2009).

Some studies show that women provide more emotional support (Verhofstadt et al., 2007) and that this type of support is most critical to wellness during life-threatening crises. Other studies have shown that developmental phase of life, age, and generational differences impact whether or not the supportive communication is helpful. For instance, Fisher’s (2014) research on mother–daughter communication and breast cancer coping showed that listening and affection support were perceived as helpful regardless of age, but that “being-there” support could function maladaptively for daughters diagnosed in young adulthood when power and control struggles ensued. Research has also shown that social support is more than just dyadic in that it typically involves an entire family system or several family members taking on the issues collectively (Afifi & McManus, 2010; Wolf, 2015). As such, familial norms impact the nature of support and guide families as to who should be there, how they should be supportive, and when.

Openness and Disclosure

Deciding whether to share one’s experiences with others or openly talking about stressful changes is another complicated aspect of communication competence central to well-being. Like social support, being open (or the opposite—being closed, avoidant, or secretive) has implications for health outcomes. Typically the expression of one’s experiences (concerns, fears, joys, uncertainty) correlates with healthier outcomes such as less depression and anxiety, enhanced relational connection and satisfaction, and fewer physical ailments like disrupted sleep patterns or pain and fatigue (see James Pennebaker’s 1990 extensive and well-known work on disclosure). In contrast, avoidant behavior (keeping things private, secret, or refusing to share) tends to be linked with unhealthier outcomes, including increased mental distress or physiological stress such as increased stress hormones. However, not all openness functions in a healthy manner, and not all avoidance functions in an unhealthy manner.

These communicative behaviors are complicated and influenced by a number of issues (age, relationship type and role, gender, culture). One notable influential factor is whether or not the issue at hand is stigmatized in society, as well as who they may or may not disclose to. Vangelisti’s (1994) work on family secrets has illuminated that, at times, secrets are kept given the societal “inappropriateness” of talking about the topic (see Afifi, Merrill, & Davis, 2015). Still, not disclosing about stigmatized issues can have detrimental effects. Part of this communication competence involves issues like partner choice, feelings of trust, and safety. For instance, survivors of sexual abuse were more likely to disclose with romantic partners than anyone else in order to be “up front” with new relational partners or to receive support, while others reported a pressing urge to disclose, as if the information needed to escape the individual through open sharing (Pluretti & Chesebro, 2015). Similar trends may be found in adolescents dealing with highly stigmatized issues such as self-harm behaviors or homosexual identity (Hegna, 2007). At the same time, avoidance can function in a healthy manner under the right conditions. Research on cancer coping has revealed that individuals tend to hide or not share experiences as a means of buffering friends and loved ones from unnecessary distress (e.g., Fisher, 2014). For children going through divorce, they can feel caught in the middle when parents disclose too much (see Schrodt, 2015), and some research shows they are at risk for developing mental health disorders like anxiety and depression (Koerner, Wallace Lehman, & Raymond, 2002). Ultimately, negotiating levels of openness and avoidance are complex and developing competence in this regard a fluid skill that needs to be adjusted with each situation, relationships, and issue.

Widely Used Theories in Interpersonal Life-Span Communication Research

While interpersonal communication across the life span has been investigated using a number of theories developed both within and outside the communication discipline, a handful of theories have been most widely utilized and are in line with what Harwood (2015) advocates—bringing interpersonal communication to the forefront of our lived experiences. Applications of such theories have largely focused on aging and intergenerational interaction or in intimate relational contexts. The theories highlighted were selected with two factors in mind: (1) being widely used with a demonstrated utility in understanding interpersonal communication across the entirety of our lives, and (2) allowing for the illustration of communication as a process or how communication changes across time—the developmental nature of interpersonal communication.

Theoretical Applications to Successful Aging and Intergenerational Communication

To successfully age means to communicate competently—to engage in interactions that are health-promoting by enhancing (not inhibiting) physical, psychological, social, and spiritual well-being (Nussbaum & Fisher, 2011). Much of this communication is enacted in intergenerational bonds and, as such, is not without its challenges. When two generations interact they come to the conversation from two divergent historical experiences that impact their beliefs, goals, and needs. As a result, “developmental schisms” can emerge—tensions that exist between generations simply because they are at different phases of the life span and, therefore, have divergent needs and motivations for interactions (Fingerman, 2001). At the same time, intergenerational communication is invaluable as it is also the merging of two insights, voices, and experiences (see Fowler & Fisher, 2014, for a review of intergenerational family communication; for a recent model of successful aging communication, see Fowler, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2015; Gasiorek, Fowler, & Giles, 2015).

A number of theories are especially useful in illustrating the challenging intergenerational dynamics that can emerge, as well as the critical role communication between generations plays in successful aging across the life span. Communication accommodation theory (CAT) is arguably the best known and widely tested theory in life-span–focused interpersonal communication scholarship (see Giles & Soliz, 2014; Harwood, Soliz, & Lin, 2006; Pitts & Harwood, 2015). This theory provides a useful lens to examine how we change our communicative behavior based on to the person with whom we are speaking. Grounded in social identity theory, CAT is based on the premise that our sense of self is, in part, based on our membership in various groups (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.). It is useful in understanding how social identity impacts behavior, particularly why we converge or diverge our language with those we interact with based on how similar or different we perceive we are. The theory has sensitized us to how cultural and age differences (and, as such, age- and culture-related stereotypes) impact the way in which we communicate. CAT is also known as an “intergroup theory.” In other words, it is useful in understanding not only inter-individual differences but also inter-group differences such as those experienced between two generations cultures or age groups. Thus, this framework holds notable value in understanding challenges and bonding processes in familial intergenerational bonds such as grandparent–grandchild communication, multi-generational and multi-ethnic families, as well as intergenerational communication in the healthcare setting or workplace (e.g., Harwood, 2000; Soliz, Thorson, & Rittenour, 2009).

Goffman’s face theory has also been widely used namely to understand how and why we construct (and change) certain social images across the life span or how we strive to maintain and protect those images (i.e., face) (see Metts & Cupach, 2014). Politeness theory (Brown & Levinson, 1987) is often used in tandem with face theory. Scholarship using these theoretical paradigms has revealed how critical these phenomena are to navigating challenging conversations or changes across the life span that alter one’s sense of self, role in the family, or sense of purpose. For instance, these theories have highlighted the importance of politeness and protecting aging parents’ face (and the harm of face threats) when adult children attempt to talk about aging or caregiving with older parents (e.g., Fowler et al., 2014). Likewise, researchers have shown that face in the context of divorce is also critical to families’ adjustment. When divorcees engage in communication that is less face threatening and more supportive of face, they tend to also have a more positive post-divorce interpersonal bond (Frisby, Booth-Butterfield, Dillow, Martin, & Weber, 2012).

Theories developed in life-span developmental psychology have also been insightful for successful aging and intergenerational communication, particularly during times of change. For instance, Carstensen’s (1991, 1992) socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) explains how our interaction with others is central to our ability to achieve goals critical to survival. The theory posits that individuals change their communication and prioritization of interactive partners based on how much time they perceive they have left in life, prioritizing emotionally related goals and intimate communication more as they age (or have life threatened in some way). Interpersonal research framed by SST has demonstrated the critical role family communication plays in survival—both in successful aging but also in navigating life-threatening illnesses like cancer (Fisher & Nussbaum, 2015).

Theoretical Applications in Intimate (Relational) Communication

Communication in intimate relational contexts is another widely studied area that often overlaps with successful aging and intergenerational communication scholarship. Two of the most widely used theories in this realm are communication privacy management theory and uncertainty management theory, both of which are grounded in another widely utilized theory: relational dialectics theory. All these of theories originated within the communication discipline.

Relational dialectics theory (RDT) is grounded in the idea that meaning-making is rooted in our interaction with others and that dialogue is characterized by competing discourses (systems of meaning known as dialectics) (see Baxter & Norwood, 2014). Dialectics has been useful in understanding relational development, coping with life changes, as well as the management of everyday challenges (Montgomery & Baxter, 2013). This concept of dialectics is also inherent in other widely used theories. Communication privacy management theory (CPM) is informed by dialectics, recognizing that the decision to disclose to a communication partner is dialectical in nature, as revealing information is always experienced in conjunction with its opposite—concealing it (see Petronio, 2002; Petronio & Durham, 2014). Deciding whether or not to disclose is a socialized experience informed by rules and boundaries. CPM has been useful in understanding how different types of families (e.g., blended) develop rules about sharing information within and outside family walls as well as how rules/boundaries may change in response to life-altering events or crises (e.g., disclosing sexual abuse in childhood, being infected with HIV) (Caughlin et al., 2000; Petronio, 1999; Petronio, Reeder, Hecht, & Ros-Mendoza, 1996).

Uncertainty management theory (UMT) is also in part informed by dialectics as certainty and uncertainty are inherently tied together in communicative experiences (see Babrow & Striley, 2014). Individuals vary in their need for certainty versus uncertainty, which is also influenced by the situation at hand. UMT is concerned with the meaning of uncertainty, its connection to emotion, as well as how a person responds to uncertainty. It can be applied to various contexts; however, those applications of the theory that are situated in health challenges have demonstrated the most heuristic value, increasing our understanding of interpersonal communication across the life span (Duggan & Street, 2015). This theory has expanded knowledge of how patients manage uncertainty related to health threats early in the life span. For instance, this theory has revealed the various types of uncertainty facing patients with HIV, as well as how families and practitioners manage uncertainty related to disease risk due to an inherited genetic mutation (Brashers et al., 2000; Bylund et al., 2012). The theory has also been used to show how important it is for practitioners to attend to uncertainty in medical decisions, particularly for parents of children with complex chronic diseases (Kerr & Haas, 2014).

As is likely evident, much of the interpersonal communication scholarship (both intimate and not intimate) concerned with life-span issues is situated within the family environment. While the aforementioned theories have all proven well suited in making sense of communication in family contexts, it is important to note that other frameworks are especially useful in capturing the life-span component of family interaction.

Family systems theory is a broad framework that informs all family scholarship on some level and brings to the surface notable life-span components of family interaction (for a review, see Galvin, Dickson, & Marrow, 2006; Metts & Asbury, 2015). This approach allows us to view a family as a system that functions in patterned ways across the course of their history together—patterns defined by elements of togetherness, adaptability, and growth. Using systems theory, Maquire (2012) introduced a model to examine family communication during stressful changes (also informed by the Double ABC-X Model). Additionally, scholars have used more micro-level theories from within and outside the discipline in conjunction with systems theory that highlight the developmental nature of communication in the family.

For instance, attachment theory is widely used to explore how individuals develop bonds (intimate connections) over time in familial relationships. Bandura’s social learning theory is applied to make sense of how we develop norms of behavior by modeling older loved ones’ communication (see Kunkel, Hummert, & Dennis, 2005). Family communication patterns theory illuminates how families develop patterns of communicating across their relational history and, as such, these patterns remain relatively stable across time (see Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2006). Other broader theoretical approaches have specifically highlighted the adaptability of families across the life course, whether it be to highlight how communication is used to adjust to life changes known as “turning points” or “stages” (Mongeau & Henningsen, 2014), how families develop communicative “resilience” in the face of crisis (Walsh, 2015), or how family members’ health and illness experiences are not only interconnected but also defined by their place in the life cycle (see Rolland, 1994, on the family systems genetic illness model).

Further Reading

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