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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.
Part II of this series will include other ideas for increasing social support within family units. Until then, consider experimenting with kindness in your relationships. (Other resources: The Family Matters: Self Care for Family Members of Humanitarian Workers module has information on how to build couple and family resilience, with questions that you can discuss with a family members to better understand challenges you face and what helps you connect. The Relationships and Humanitarian Work module has information on patterns of communication that are deeply ingrained in our personality, and how those can be navigated in relationships.)
Relationships and Humanitarian Work:
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