By some numbers, just under half of all marriages will end in divorce. Those aren’t the best odds in the world. And given the reality that many American families crumble under the weight of daily demands, an industry of self-help gurus and therapists have stepped in to offer ways to create stronger families. But in the late 1970s, when the divorce rate was particularly high, a group of researchers led by Dr. John DeFrain set out to find out exactly what a strong family actually was and found six traits that make a strong marriage that is happy, healthy, and virtually unbreakable, shared across cultures. What’s more, any family can develop them — no matter where or who they are.
Before DeFrain’s research led him to the six culturally universal traits that make a strong family, he was practicing as a family therapist. It was the early 1970s and DeFrain notes that the American view of marriage and family wasn’t exactly rosy. Much of that was due to the fact that the divorce rate had climbed to around 50-percent. The doom and gloom was so pervasive, as DeFrain recalls, that many studying American marriage didn’t believe that there was such a thing as a strong family, never mind figuring out how to track them down.
It struck DeFrain that the best way to find a strong family was to leave the definition to those who felt they had one. So, he sent out press releases calling for members of strong families to contact him and his research partner.
A full six weeks passed without response. There seemed to be a distinct possibility that strong families really didn’t exist. Then 100 or so letters arrived from Connecticut, and as the press release was finally picked up around the country more respondes rolled in until they had a sample of thousands.
DeFrain and his colleagues responded with questionnaires — the gist of which he boiled down to “What works?”
“We wanted to focus on what works because we didn’t want to do it from a professional’s perspective,” DeFrain says. “Because professionals make up all kinds of ideas. We wanted to talk to the people living it. We’ve had over 30,000 people in families in 40 countries around the world that have been involved in these studies.”
The first of the international strong family surveys took place in Bogota in the 1980s. After pouring over the data for several months, DeFrain couldn’t really believe what he was seeing.
“They were saying the same thing, just in Spanish,” he says.
Surveys relating to qualities of strong families from places as diverse as Soweto, South Africa, and Indonesia were all remarkably consistent. While they might use different language, metaphors and allusions to describe what made their families strong, they all shared six distinct and culturally constant traits: Appreciation and affection, commitment, positive communication, enjoyable time together, spiritual well-being and successful management of stress and crisis.
“People are people are people and families are families are families. What makes us work as families is remarkably similar,” DeFrain says. “As an academic you think, we’re all so different, we can’t possibly understand each other. It’s baked into the human mind. But in families, it seems that the strengths remain the same.”
In Depth: The Six Traits of a Strong Family
The six traits that have been identified by DeFrain and his colleagues are universal, yes, but they will also be interpreted differently between individuals. For instance, will all string families enjoy time together, each family member might have a different opinion about what constitutes an enjoyable time. That’s why DeFrain encourages families to look at the six traits together and celebrate differences of perspective as a way to find ways to boost the common strengths.
1. Appreciation and Affection
Sometimes parents and kids might think affection means cuddling, or that appreciation shouldn’t be a two way street. That’s not the case. Appreciation can be understood as giving someone the time they need to complete tasks, keeping promises and saying thank you (yes, to the children too).
Likewise, affection can be more than hugs. It can also be a desire to forgive, or a belief that the love you share between you is a source of strength. It can even mean playing physical games like wrestling, or holding hands. Which is not to say that hugs doesn’t count. Hugging always counts.
2. Enjoyable Time Together
Strong families like to hang out with each other. In fact, they feel that spending time together is valuable and necessary. There are no real specific enjoyable activities that strong families prefer, but they do tend to show an appreciation for group adventures — even ones as simple and inexpensive as a spontaneous Sunday hike.
In general, enjoyable time together means appreciating family rituals, sharing laughter and having gratitude for home everyone can return to.
3. The Ability to Communicate With One Another Effectively
Strong families give family members room to share their feelings and emotions. They listen before talking and seek explanations before assigning blame.
While humor and jokes are valued in strong families, they tend to avoid put downs and name calling. Sarcasm is rare and everyone’s point of view is appreciated and respected.
4. The Demonstration of Commitment
For strong families, commitment isn’t lip service. It’s not just a promise or a pledge. Instead, commitment is displayed in acts. Families that are committed to each other will share responsibility and operate democratically to the extent that it’s feasible.
But more than that, commitment means showing appreciation for who each individual in the family is and celebrating their perspective. Strong families have a high regard for each other while keeping expectations reasonable and working to boost everyone’s self-esteem.
5. Spiritual Well-Being
The idea of spiritual well-being should not be confused with a specific religious dogma. Strong families without a church can still share spiritual well-being by understanding that there is a greater power outside of themselves. They will appreciate family history and their connection to ancestors, while acknowledging responsibility to care for their community of the natural world. They will share a sense of peace, hopefulness, security and safety even if those feelings aren’t connected to a deity that holds the keys to their common salvation.
6. The Ability to Manage Stress and Crisis Effectively
Just because a family is strong doesn’t mean that sometimes it won’t be buffeted by adverse situations. After all, you can’t control every health issue, natural disaster or political shift. If anything most families discovered exactly this in 2020, with lockdowns and fractious political season.
So what’s more important is how families address adversity. The strongest families do so with an understanding that, together, they can get through anything. They believe they have a support network that will see them through, both among themselves and with friends, and that every crisis offers a chance to learn and become stronger. They are resilient because they bend rather than break and find some good even in the darkest times.
Importantly, there’s no specific magic to these qualities of strong families. While each can be explored in detail, as an aggregate they boil down to a simple notion. People in strong families genuinely feel good about each other and share a mutual concern for one another’s health and well-being.
Strong families are strong because they understand what their strengths are and they lean into those strengths despite living in a society that DeFrain says “just murders families.”
“We’re just trying to produce and be seen and succeed. It’s a beehive. And we don’t have any time to connect with each other on an emotional and spiritual level,” he says. “If you just know what your problems are you have nothing. You need to know what your strengths are and focus on those and spend time together and enjoy each other.”
And that’s really the key, he says: Strong families enjoy one another.