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Family Resilience

Dr. Lisa Finlay
Director of International Services, Headington Institute, 2015.


At HI we spend a lot of time researching, teaching, and promoting personal resilience. This is strongly related to family resilience. Just as individuals vary in how resilient they are to extreme or chronic stress, some family units and couples come together in challenging times whereas others become fragmented. We are currently developing workshops on family resilience to utilize with domestic emergency responders, which include general principles for building resilience as well as ways to prepare families for natural disasters or emergencies.

Like personal resilience, family resilience has many components to it. One of the essential building blocks of family resilience is a feeling of mutual support, where family members can lean on each other for comfort and trust that family will be there when it matters. There are dozens of ways to think about strengthening support, but I will focus this post on some intriguing research about one thing that keeps couples relationships strong: kindness.

Dr. John Gottman’s research team has studied couples for decades, exploring why some couples are able to create a culture of love and intimacy, whereas others don’t. A critical piece of the puzzle, they’ve discovered, is a spirit of kindness and generosity between partners.

Kindness can be thought of as something you’re naturally good at or not. However, like many aspects of resilience, kindness is probably better thought of like a muscle. It may be weak or strong to start with, but it can also be strengthened with exercise. The other thing about kindness is that it is very often reciprocal: demonstrating kindness to someone leads to a kind response. Kindness can be practiced through small acts, like doing something nice for someone. But it can also be practiced in response to disappointment, or in the middle of conflict with a family member. (I realize that this is one of the most difficult moments to show kindness, but stay with me because it’s also one of the most important times!)

One way to practice kindness during conflict is to be generous about how you interpret your partner’s intentions after they have disappointed you. Let me explain. When someone has let us down, it is natural to find fault and blame. If we follow that fault-finding tendency by, for example, accusing our partner of always being late or never paying attention, then we skip over a crucial kindness step and put our partner on the defensive. Chances are, your partner’s error was not a deliberate plan to hurt you. Most errors in judgment are not signs of flawed character or relationship failure. Remembering this despite your own frustration is what I mean by being generous about your partner’s intentions. It might be the difference between saying, “You always let me down; you’re so selfish” and “I’m frustrated that you’re late again.” Of course this type of kindness must rest on a foundation of trust: it is difficult to assume the best of someone if they disregard your feelings repeatedly.

Kindness and generosity are easy to experience when the relationship is new, but they can erode over time if we don’t choose to practice them—especially in periods of stress and conflict! Let’s broaden the discussion and talk about how we communicate care and love with family members. This ties into that very central component of family resilience: the feeling of mutual support where family members can lean on each other for comfort and trust that family will be there when it matters.

Think about this for a moment: How do you know you are loved and supported by family members? And how do family members know that you love and support them? What is most important in terms of that support? (Some people might say that loyalty is top priority in their family; others might say affection, respect, or the sharing of responsibilities.) What are the actual practices that communicate those things in your family? The answers to these questions can be surprisingly different between various families and cultures.

I remember being with a friend on the weekend of her wedding several years ago. I just could not believe how often she talked to various family members on the phone, and how often she said “I love you” during these conversations. She didn’t just say those words to end the call, she would actually say “I love you so much” in the middle of a conversation! In comparison, my family is not verbally communicative about love at all. We do loving things, and we know we love each other, but we don’t talk to each other about it like that.

Dr. Gary Chapman’s books on love languages have been very popular, and I think part of the appeal is that people can see that they have unique ways of communicating love and support. He suggested that people have natural preferences for what makes them feel most loved:

  • Words of Affirmation: hearing “I love you,” compliments, or words of encouragement
  • Acts of Service: receiving help with a task or being cared for with thoughtful actions
  • Receiving Gifts: often this signals to someone that their loved one thought about them while away or knows them well
  • Quality Time: having someone’s undivided attention, reserving time for one another
  • Physical Touch: feeling close to someone physically, receiving affection through touch

In reality, all five areas are important and people don’t only use one “language.” However most relationships emphasize certain ones over others, and all five areas can be neglected when we are faced with too many competing demands, under high stress, or when we take family members for granted. In particular, researchers have looked at quality time in relationships.


Some studies show that couples spend just two hours a day together on average, and that much of that time is spent on things that aren’t exactly relationship building (e.g., watching television together). Of course, humanitarian aid workers and emergency responders have the added challenge that they sometimes spend days, weeks, or months away from family. This is all the more reason to make sure that communication of love and support is meaningful and regular.

Whether communication is between partners or between parents and children, there is a big difference between routine communication and meaningful communication. It’s the difference between informing each other of things (routine) and dreaming, laughing, and building intimacy together. We build intimacy in conversation when we maintain curiosity about the person in front of us, listen with undivided attention, and share our own vulnerabilities. The undivided attention piece is important. You want to make sure, whether you are in the same room or talking over a long distance, that you are fully present. That means no looking at your cell phone or other gadgets while you talk, and finding a time and place that will minimize interruptions. Meaningful communication like this can happen over long distances, and it can sustain us when time together is limited.

Finally, keep in mind that quality time and meaningful communication have to be planned. You can’t leave important conversations or connecting activities for the end of the day when you are already exhausted, and they rarely happen spontaneously. For many families it works well to have a set time they commit to regularly. Building family resilience takes exercise! Paying attention to how you communicate love and support—and making sure you plan for regular and meaningful quality time–is part of this important work.

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