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Healthy Extended Families — They Do Actually Exist

22Jan 2010

In the past several weeks, I have had the opportunity to interact with a few large extended families — both at a personal and professional level. And I have been impressed with some common characteristics I observed across these families, whom I view to be relatively healthy and functional.

Given the bashing that extended families take in TV shows and movies, you wonder if every family is totally filled with people who can’t stand each other and have major conflicts at every gathering. But I can tell you from multiple experiences — this probably isn’t the case. Now, I am not saying that most multi-generational families function like the Waltons (for those of you under 30, I don’t have a more recent media example of a syrupy-sweet family). And, in fact, virtually every family has some major challenges relationally. But that really is the point — healthy families learn how to manage challenges without blowing themselves up.

Here are some qualities and behavior patterns I observed in these relatively healthy, multi-generational families:

Straightforward and honest communication. It is difficult to have good relationships with others when people don’t say what they really mean, when they lie about themselves and others, or if they use indirect forms of communication (talking about or “through” others). Being upfront and honest (without being brutal) is a good starting point.

Invest time with one another. Relationships require time together, and families who are healthy realize this. They make time to be together. Getting together with the extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents) is rarely convenient. But if a family is going to stay together, they have to be together, at least occasionally.

Acceptance of differences. People are different, have you noticed? The challenge is that, usually, there are commonalities among family members — they look alike, they have many of the same talents and skills, and they often have similar interests and values. But within all families there are individual differences (sometimes this is a source of tension while the “different” one is growing up), and these become even more pronounced when siblings become adults, marry, and form their own family units. Wise families accept these differences, and seek to embrace and support those who have different perspectives, backgrounds, values and ways of living. If “different = wrong”, then this becomes a source for breaks in relationships and an overall defensiveness (“my way is right”). A lack of understanding and accepting those who are different from you is a major impediment for families continuing to relate together.

Not easily offended. It was interesting to observe that there were numerous situations in which an individual (or family group) could be offended by a comment or action by another. Generally speaking, this didn’t happen. Family members chose to “let it slide” and not make an issue of it. On the other hand, there are individuals who carry a chip on their shoulder, and can be offended by the slightest of (often unintentional) comments, actions or decisions. Routinely, they seemed to react by distancing themselves and cutting off the relationship.

Kindness and showing interest in others. An overwhelming theme was the high level of kindness displayed among family members — demonstrated largely by an interest in others. I personally experienced this with my wife’s family — they asked questions of me (or whoever they were talking to), seemed genuinely interested and listened to my responses, and were encouraging in their comments. In most interactions (across the different family groups I was with), there was very little demanding to be the center of attention and no observable pouting from individuals who didn’t feel that they weren’t getting the attention they felt they deserved.

So what do we do with these observations? Wish that we were part of these families? Maybe, but that really wouldn’t do any good.

I think the implications are twofold:

a) Strive to interact in a healthy manner with your family. Be a positive family member yourself. (It starts with being involved and communicating with family members.)

b) Encourage and instruct others to behave maturely. This is a touchy one. I don’t mean: criticize and berate others for not behaving well. I do mean instructing your children in the healthy ways of communicating, and possibly, giving gentle encouragement to others (with whom you have a decent relationship) who are struggling, to make good choices in their interactions with others.

Positive, supportive relationships with family can be achieved (to some degree, at least), if we each work on our own part. The alternatives seem to be: a) don’t relate to your family at all, or b) stew in negative interactions which no one enjoys and which will destroy whatever relationships exist.

It’s your choice.

Have a great week and enjoy those around you!

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