A marriage and family therapist shares effective strategies for building resilient unity in our relationships.
How can we build happier and more peaceful families? It is a timely question as Christians celebrate Christmas, a time of rejoicing for the birth of Jesus, “Emmanuel, God with us” (Mt 1:23).
Jesus promised to remain with us if we “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). Yet how often we fall short in putting his commandment into practice.
The pandemic, with its lockdowns, may have shown us more clearly how difficult it is to live under the same roof 24/7 with others. Whether married or single, the stress this causes affects each of us, adding to the anxiety over the future, polarizing arguments, job loss or reduced income, school and work changes, as well as ongoing health concerns. All of these factors deeply impact family dynamics.
As a marriage and family therapist in private practice with my psychologist husband, Dr. John Yzaguirre, and as educators in our Southern California churches with our ThrivingFamilies.com ministry, we have the great joy of helping couples and individuals grow more joyful and resilient unity in their relationships.
I’d like to share a few strategies that we have found helpful to strengthen family unity.
Reflect on what is essential
Many challenges compete for our attention. Parents are working overtime to provide for their children, dealing with the extra stress from school and work deadlines, or caring for a sick or elderly member of their family. In times like these, when we face overwhelming threats to our wellbeing, we need to discern what gives meaning and purpose to our life.
We can ask ourselves: what cannot be destroyed by this pandemic? What ideals and values guide our important choices and motivate us to give our best to each other in our families?
One powerful ideal I would propose is to focus on what brings more unity in our families. When we aim at growing our mutual love, we keep our compass on the presence of God in our family.
Reset our priorities
Having identified our purpose, we can then prioritize our schedule based on what is important each day. Many parents tell us of the guilt they feel when finding themselves so focused on keeping their children on task that they miss the time to enjoy, talk and play with them. A schedule helps balance caring for others with time for adequate self-care.
Prioritize people over tasks. We can become so absorbed with the task at hand that we lose sight of the person.
As one client said, “My family complains that I’m always working and even when I am home, my mind is on work, not on them.”
We can fall prey to multitasking, as another client lamented, “I always seem to be doing two or three things at a time and can never give my attention fully.”
Aim to become more person-focused. If working with someone, you might first ask: “How are you? Do you need anything before we start?” It’s a subtle but important reset, because by showing our care for the person first, we are letting them know that they are more important to us than the task at hand.
When working alone, we can be person-oriented by asking, “Who is benefitting from this?” In each present moment, focus on the one thing that, according to your priorities, is most important. Do it out of love, not obligation or fear.
Discerning what is important and when to do it helps us identify useless activities and possessions. For example, we may need to eliminate an extracurricular activity so as to have regular mealtimes together. Decluttering not only helps us share with the poor, but also gives our children the chance to see us model simplicity and sharing with others.
One parent said, “I told my 14-year-old to go clean up her room and bring out bags of what she could give away and she (rightly!) retorted, ‘But mom, look at your room, it’s a mess!’ She was right — now we’re all practicing this on a regular basis!”
We can engage our kids to participate in giving of themselves, using some creative thinking – how can our children, even our teens, prepare something delicious for everyone to eat?
As one parent said, “Our meals are a lot more interesting now that we have everyone’s creative input on the meal choices.” Make a ‘phone-free’ meal schedule and meal-plan to involve the whole family in cooking.
Renew our relationships
Couples tell us how they become so busy that they forget to take time for each other in their families. We teach these couples to practice simple acts which nourish their relationship, like welcoming one another home joyfully and setting aside time to share the meaning (not just the news) of the day with each other.
One critical support is our relationships with family and friends. It requires an intentional commitment to strengthen and rebuild our relationships. And here, three essential skills will help us grow and renew our unity: empathy, assertiveness and solving problems together.
Empathy is the “intelligent love” that loves others as they want to be loved. It involves loving them with our heart, mind and will. With our heart, we compassionately accept and welcome others as they are, without trying to change them.
One client shared, “I tend to be bossy, always telling my wife and kids what to do; now I am focusing on asking my wife and kids what they would like, and they are telling me they feel more heard and loved.”
With our mind, we find out what the other needs and wants by asking: “How can I help you? What do you need? What activity can we do together to bring more joy?”
One mother asked her children what they wanted to do together, and she learned that they wanted to play a favorite video game and read with her.
With our will, we commit to doing a relevant action, out of love, to bring joy to the other. We might need to overcome our passivity or reduce our multi-tasking to love them in a relevant and timely way.
Assertiveness is learning a new language to tell others, without complaints and criticisms, how they can love us. We might find it hard to share with others, or prefer to be the giver rather than the receiver, but here it is important to let the other know how they too can love us concretely. If you do not share, they might not know what you need; in this way, they can learn how to love you better in return.
Sometimes we think that by complaining, nagging or lecturing, we are sharing what we want from the other, but as one woman revealed, “I thought I was telling them what I wanted, but now I realize I was only telling them what I didn’t want, through complaining and criticizing!”
So become a coach, not a critic. When sharing a need or want, make your request positive, specific, realistic, and invitational: “Next time I would like if you would …”
Empathy and assertiveness activate the dynamics of mutuality, i.e., giving and receiving love, in our relationships. With our empathy, we give others what they want or need and with assertive language, we communicate what we want or need from them.
Because we are all different, problems can arise. But for the most part, it is not our differences per se that are the problem, it is how we deal with our differences. Wherever two or more are gathered, there will be differences! Do not be afraid of the differences. We need to integrate them with wisdom and respect.
I suggest three key steps to solve our conflicts – what we call, the U-V-A, to “understand” each other, to “value” each other’s requests and to commit to a relevant “action” out of love that will integrate our differences.
One couple, who often fought over finances, thought they would never be able to solve “the problem” because they had different perspectives on the use of their money. When they listened to each other, valued the other’s request, “if it’s important to you, it’s important to me,” they were able to create a budget together.
Not only were they able to solve their problem, they learned to love each other in a deeper way. Every “problem” is an invitation to love, and when we use these 3 steps of the U-V-A, our unity grows. Our differences, integrated with wisdom and respect, are the key to our unity.
How can we build a happier and more peaceful family? By prioritizing our mutual love, practicing empathy, assertiveness and the U-V-A to solve our problems, we grow our joyful unity and make room for Jesus to be present in our homes this Christmas, and throughout our lives!
There’s more in the author’s book, Thriving Marriages, also in Spanish, Casados y Felices, by John Yzaguirre, Ph.D., & Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre, M.Div., MFT, New City Press, 2015.