Column entry: Families Doing Life Together
Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.
We express our thanks to all who have been following Let’s Talk Family. In our columns, we’ve shared many of the core communication challenges that families face (If you’re just joining us, earlier columns have covered each of the italicized topics). Connection is fundamental to relationships and daily rituals coupled with good questions can help us connect in meaningful ways. Families deal with conflict and handling conflict well and following Jesus’s command to forgive each other are key to developing strong, God-honoring, relationships. Nothing can inoculate us from stress, but like the Biblical character Ruth, we can learn to handle stress in ways that strengthen connections. Together, these practices build resilience into our families.
Doing Life Together
Another core communication challenge that families face is how to manage the business side of life. Who cleans the toilets, or do you hire out the work? Who pays the mortgage and utilities? When do you eat out, and who takes responsibility for planning meals or buying groceries? What about scheduling activities or arranging logistics for vacations? These and a thousand more tasks make up the business side of relationships and families. Making decisions about who does what, when it gets done, and how, are family communication processes. We term this aspect of family communication “doing life together.”
Learning about, discussing, and practicing the “business” side of family creates a flexible structure that facilitates peaceful, sustainable relationships. The form this structure takes can vary from family to family and over time. For example, monthly budget meetings might be necessary for a new family. They also might be needed during times of transition, like after a job change, a move to a new house, or as children prepare to launch out on their own. But when life is pretty stable and routines are working well, maybe only quarterly or annual budget check-ins are needed. There is not a one-size-fits-all structure that is needed for every aspect of doing life together. But we do believe that there is a common process that can help families. This process involves clarifying our expectations, checking our motivations, and then coordinating logistics.
Family members often hold and create work expectations—either knowingly or unknowingly—that inform their routines. The first step for developing a happy, peaceful family life is to acknowledge and share these expectations. As one friend quipped, “Unspoken expectations become landmines in relationships!” Of course, sometimes we don’t even know we have certain expectations, so we trip over them in our relationships, especially when others have different expectations about how to manage that part of life. Pausing and acknowledging our expectations opens a space to learn about ourselves and our family members. Recognizing and voicing (communicating about) expectations can be the first step toward developing family routines that honor one another.
The next part of the process is to consider what is motivating our life-routines. We carry forward expectations and patterns from our parents, models we see in TV shows and movies, and lots of other places. But drilling into what motivates our family routines requires a bit more introspection, and sometimes marital and/or family discussions to help uncover our blind spots. Am I trying to keep the house clean to impress others? Is it to show respect to our guests? Are we distributing household workloads based on skill? Cultural expectations? Desire? What motivates our work, where we live, and how we spend money? We can have many different motivations for engaging in almost all of life’s tasks and our motives can change from time to time. Yet, at the bottom of it all, 1 Corinthians chapter 13 reminds us that if our motives are not based in love, then our actions can become meaningless. Try evaluating your motives against a few synonyms for love: are you letting kindness, care, compassion, joy, and peace motivate how you organize day-to-day life?
The last step in the process is where the rubber meets the road; this is where the work of family life actually gets done. The trash gets taken out Tuesdays and Fridays. The (proverbial) rent check is written and mailed by the first of the month. Businesses rely on meetings to share information, solicit feedback, brainstorm and evaluate options, delegate tasks, and make collaborative decisions. Family meetings work toward the same ends. They coordinate the mundane tasks of family life in ways that put love into action.
Lessons from Scripture
To close out our consideration of how Christian families go about “doing life together,” let’s look at a couple of Scriptures. As noted above, without love our words can become “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” and our best, most sacrificial actions mean nothing (1 Cor. 13). The Bible teaches that the Kingdom of God is one that prefers one another in love (Rom. 12:10) and leaves no debt outstanding but to love one another (Rom. 13:8).
If we use a little imagination, Genesis 23 gives an example of how families might go about trying to outdo each other with honor. The Jewish Patriarch Abraham is negotiating with the Hittite people for a burial plot for his deceased wife. The exchange is worth reading, but a summary could be that the Hittite landowner says to Abraham, “What is money between us? Let me be your servant. You need a burial plot? Let me meet your need with my resources!” In response, Abraham says, “I want to honor you and pay the full price. Don’t undersell me because of my position or because this is a family need.” This exchange between the two can illustrate a good kind of one-upmanship we could have in our family relationships – trying to outdo one another in generosity and honor. It pictures a servanthood that Christ modeled and commanded (Mark 10:45).
Try It Out
Pick one area of life to work through the model: clarifying expectations, checking our motivations, and coordinating logistics. You might want to tackle dishes, mopping, handling garbage, family budgeting, or automobile maintenance. Pause to think about what expectations you and your family have for who does that chore. Where do those expectations come from? How did they get put into place? Have you ever talked about them openly? Now drill into your motivations for doing the chore the way your family does it. Are there any motives that need to be refined? Discarded? Reinforced? Finally, what ways have you coordinated how the chore gets done? The model isn’t difficult, but it can be a helpful tool to make for a more peaceful family.
Thanks for joining the conversation on families “doing life together.”
—Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski
Jonathan Pettigrew & Diane M. Badzinski, Family Communication and the Christian Faith: An Introduction and Exploration (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2023).