Browse the self-help section of any bookstore or library and you will likely find a sea of books about creating and maintaining a healthy and harmonious family life. Belonging to a loving, secure family unit is a basic human desire. Most of us can readily see the value of close family connections.
A strong family can be a source of emotional support, love, security and protection, which makes the challenges and trials of day-to-day living easier to face. Children flourish when they feel loved, nurtured and supported by their parents and siblings. A good family life can even have positive effects on your physical and mental health, including improving blood pressure and increasing life expectancy.
Certainly, God wants our families to succeed and prosper. He designed the family to be the basic building block of society; thus in order for our communities to be stable, the families that comprise them must be as well. And ultimately, God wants us to have spiritually healthy families so we can produce godly offspring (Malachi 2:15) and expand His family.
But while family relationships are important, we all know strong families don’t “just happen.” Sustaining a marriage and raising children are challenging things to do. If we want to have happy homes, we have to work hard to create them.
One of the best ways to strengthen your family is by studying the common traits shared by successful families. When you understand what a well-functioning family unit looks like, you’ll know what changes you may need to make in your own household. Here are some of the most vital traits of healthy families, from a biblical perspective:
Members of strong families have difficulties, disagreements, trials and troubles just as everyone else does. Their lives get frantic. They get laid-off and can’t find a new job. They struggle to make ends meet. Kids and parents butt heads.
What sets them apart is that they don’t give up on each other when circumstances become strained or unpleasant, or when the other party disappoints them or lets them down. They have a steady and unwavering dedication to each other—a commitment to stay together—through good times and bad.
“Their relationship is not based on ‘ifs’ or changing circumstances,” observes Ken Giese, pastor of the Fort Worth, Texas, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association (COGWA), which sponsors this magazine. Rather than let hard times destroy them or their relationships, strong families work together to correct problems.
“Many times life doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like, and it’s commitment that helps carry you through these tough times,” adds Cecil Maranville, manager of the Personal Correspondence Department for COGWA. “This is the kind of commitment that has you still loving your spouse or honoring your parents, when, from a human perspective, you could come up with reasons not to do these things.”
Between long workweeks, school activities and household chores, family time can be hard to come by. Still, healthy families always find time to be together, no matter how busy they think they are. They know that time spent together is crucial.
“When we spend quality time together as a family, we express by our actions that we value and care about each other,” Mr. Giese says. This makes family members feel more connected to each other and helps build and strengthen family bonds.
Family time could mean engaging in shared activities—eating meals together, playing games, going on picnics, watching sporting events, enjoying recreational activities, etc.—but it doesn’t have to. “As the Scriptures instruct us (Deuteronomy 6:7), the best time spent together is everyday casual time, without distractions like TV, music headphones, video games and smart phones,” notes David Register, pastor of COGWA’s Redding, Sacramento and Stockton, California, congregations. “The real key to building relationships is to spend time together in all types of circumstances, including mundane, daily activities.”
Members of strong families spend a lot of time engaged in conversation with each other. “To understand each other, family members have to invest the time necessary to share their feelings, opinions, concerns and perspectives,” Mr. Maranville says.
Much of their communication occurs while they are spending time together. No subject is considered off-limits. They may talk about routine topics like their weekend plans or what happened at school or work, or about the deeper, more serious issues of life. If there are particular issues affecting the family, they may plan special family meetings to discuss them.
Making time for conversation is just half the equation. Strong families also work at developing constructive communication skills. This includes learning to be open and honest, but still speaking in a loving manner (Ephesians 4:15)—focusing on the kind of conversation that builds others up rather than the type that tears them down (Ephesians 4:29); listening carefully, without distractions; and not “mind-reading” or jumping to false conclusions when another person is speaking.
By practicing good communication skills, family members show they respect and are genuinely interested in each other.
To be a truly successful family, Mr. Maranville says it is vital to not only feel appreciation, but to express it: “Appreciation helps motivate family members to continue to behave in a positive way toward each other. It also helps build confidence within a person, so we have the wherewithal to meet obstacles that are inevitably going to come our way.”
Appreciation should be expressed frequently, both verbally and with meaningful gestures. This might be done by telling your spouse how much you enjoyed the dinner he or she prepared, or by saying “thank you” to your children after they cleaned the kitchen. These same sentiments can be expressed by leaving notes somewhere for family members to find, such as in their lunch boxes, or even sending text messages.
But appreciation shouldn’t be limited to thanking others for what they do for you. Let family members know how special they are. Tell your spouse and children what qualities you most value in them. Say “I love you” often. Praise their strengths and accomplishments. Let them know you enjoy spending time with them. Done sincerely, expressions of love and appreciation deepen the bond between family members and strengthen the family unit.
Jesus Christ taught His followers: “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). Healthy families do their best to live by this “Golden Rule.” Individuals in the family consider how others will be affected when making important decisions. Before speaking, they think about whether they would want to be on the receiving end of what they’re about to say.
“When we treat others, especially our family members, as we would hope and want to be treated, then we can achieve the fruits of a high-functioning family,” Mr. Register says. “This should be the goal of every family: to create an atmosphere in which each family member feels loved and is inspired to work for the common family goals.”
Ultimately, God wants us to have spiritually healthy families so we can produce godly offspring and expand His family.
Sometimes this means sacrificing personal desires in order to encourage or support another person. A husband may forgo what he’d like to do on his day off to make his kids happy. A wife may go camping with her husband, even though it’s not her idea of a fun time. Putting the welfare of others above our own is the essence of Philippians 2:3-4, where Paul admonished us to esteem others better than ourselves and to not just seek our own interests.
While you may not mean to, there may be times when you offend those closest to you or hurt their feelings. Misunderstandings are a normal part of family life. But if the parties do not make amends with each other, they can lead to bitterness and grudges on both sides. Communication and respect then start to wane, mistrust builds, and family camaraderie disappears.
When offenses occur in healthy families, bad feelings are not allowed to fester. Conflicts are resolved quickly. The offender is willing to apologize and take responsibility for his or her mistakes. The offended person listens carefully to the perspectives of the family member with whom he or she is at odds, and is quick to forgive. They talk things out without attacking each other personally, while still addressing the issues. No one goes to bed angry (Ephesians 4:26). Each person knows the other cares about the relationship, even though they clashed on a particular issue.
If parents have wronged their children, they will take the lead in repairing the relationships. That includes being willing to apologize. Mr. Register remembers this very constructive practice from his childhood. “My parents would occasionally come to me and let me know they were sorry for something they did or said,” he recalls. “Their example helped me know that they were human and also taught me to apologize and forgive.”
Families are truly strong when family members are bound in unity by their shared relationship with God. “When individual family members learn to love God, respect His laws and biblical instructions, they will be close,” Mr. Register says.
Being committed to God’s way of life gives families a sense of purpose and adds meaning to their lives. They have a reason to work at their relationships and are more likely to stay together. They are able to put trials and difficulties into perspective and maintain the right focus. God’s Word provides guidelines for living, which will help families create a positive home life.
Of course, to truly be a spiritually committed family, “parents must set the pace and reflect their commitment to God in their personal lives,” Mr. Giese says. If your younger kids see you studying your Bible, serving others and obeying God’s commands, and if you talk about God’s way of life as you go through your day-to-day activities together, they will know that God is your top priority. As they see that positive example on a daily basis, it will encourage the entire family to have that same spiritual commitment.
While each of these qualities of strong families is vital in and of itself, they all overlap, interact and reinforce each other. For example, if you spend a lot of time with your family, that enhances the communication process, which facilitates expressing appreciation. When you are committed to making a relationship work, you will see the need to forgive and resolve conflicts.
If your family falls short in any of these areas, don’t despair. No human being will be a perfect parent, spouse, son, daughter or sibling. What matters most is that you are striving to have good family relationships. Understanding the traits of healthy families is the first small step.
You may also want to study biblically based educational materials on marriage and family topics (see the “Relationships” section of the Life, Hope & Truth website). Plan family meetings to discuss areas that need to be addressed. And most important, ask God for His help and guidance so you function better as a family.
It will take determination, commitment and effort on your part. But in the end you will have a stronger family—and that is definitely something worth working for.