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What makes strong families?

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The Anna Karenina principle comes from Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, which begins: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

What makes a strong family?

When Tolstoy’s book was published in 1877, he had no way of knowing that there would be studies that would confirm his now-famous statement.

I came across this 2008 publication about a study done by the University of Nebraska. The aim was to answer the not so simple question;  “What constitutes a strong family?” What would you say are the ingredients and markers of a successful family.

The research that led to this publication spanned 35 years and focused on families in 34 countries. According to the paper, over 100 researchers and 24,000 family members took part in the research.

They found, to their surprise, that when you ask people from different cultures, “What makes your family strong?” the answers were remarkably similar and boiled down to six core areas.

They could have saved themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars and just opened the first page of Tolstoy’s book ;-).

Here is how they summarized the qualities that make strong families:

Appreciation and affection

People in strong families deeply care for one another, and they let each other know this on a regular basis. They are not afraid to express their love. Families show appreciation and affection by:

  • Caring for each other
  • Friendship
  • Respect for individuality
  • Playfulness
  • Humor


Members of strong families show a strong commitment to one another, investing time and energy in family activities and not letting their work or other priorities take too much time away from family interaction. Families show commitment through:

  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Dependability
  • Faithfulness
  • Sharing

Positive communication

Successful families are often task-oriented in their communication, identifying problems and discussing how to solve them together. Perhaps even more important than this, however, is that strong families also spend time talking with and listening to one another just to stay con- nected. Some of the most important talk occurs when no one is working at connection: open-ended, rambling conversations can reveal important information that helps smooth out the bumps of family living. Positive communication includes:

  • Giving compliments
  • Sharing feelings
  • Avoiding blame
  • Being able to compromise
  • Playfulness
  • Agreeing to disagree

Enjoyable time together

One study of 1,500 school- children asked, “What do you think makes a happy family?” Few replied that money, cars, fancy homes, television sets, or trips to Disney World made a happy family. The kids were most likely to say that a happy family is one that does things together, a family that genuinely enjoys the times they share with each other. These qualities make time together enjoyable:

  • Quality time in great quantity
  • Sharing memories with each other
  • Enjoying each other’s company
  • Simple, inexpensive good times
  • Sharing fun times

Spiritual well-being

Religion or spirituality also can be important to strong families. Spiritual well-being describes this concept, indicating that it can include organized religion, but not necessarily so. People describe this in many ways: some talk about religious faith, hope, or a sense of optimism in life; some say they feel a oneness with the world. Others talk about their families in almost religious terms, describing the love they feel for one another with a great deal of rever- ence. Others express these feelings in terms of ethical values and commitment to important causes. Spiritual well-being can be seen as the caring center within each individual that promotes sharing, love, and compassion. Included in spiritual well-being are:

  • Hope
  • Faith
  • Compassion
  • Shared ethical values
  • Oneness with humankind

Successful management of stress and crisis

Strong families are not immune to stress and crisis, but they are not as crisis-prone as troubled families tend to be. Rather, they possess the ability to manage both daily stressors and difficult life crises creatively and effectively. They know how to prevent trouble before it happens and how to work together to meet challenges when they inevitably occur in life. Families who manage stress and crisis well have these qualities:

  • Adaptability
  • Seeing crises as challenges and opportunities
  • Growing through crises together
  • Openness to change
  • Resilience

Where does love fit in the family strengths model?

In earlier models of family strengths, all of the family strengths were seen in a circular fashion — intertwined, highly related, and essentially inseparable — and the concept of love was placed in the center. This model works well for cultures where love is a central concept. In fact, when a researcher asks many Americans about the strengths of their families, love is likely to be cited many times.
Love can be both a feeling one has for others, and a loving action that human beings demonstrate regularly toward each other. Loving actions toward each other lead to warm and loving feelings, and these feelings lead to loving actions in a reciprocal process. Though an abusive spouse may say, “I love you,” words without loving actions are meaningless.

DeFrain, J. & Asay, S.M. (2007). Strong Families Around the World: Strengths-Based Research and Perspectives. New York & London: Hayworth Press/Taylor & Francis.

More resources on strong families from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln website

Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels

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About Life Notes

Life Notes is my online notebook; a place to put my digital ‘newspaper’ clippings, bits of my journal, observations, and other stuff all with the ultimate aim of find tools, resources & ideas to help artists thrive.  Read about how it came about here.

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