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In my first post on family resilience, I talked about kindness between partners as something that research has shown to be an important part of a strong, supportive relationship. 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! Here I will 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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