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What Keeps A Family Together?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Jul 29th 2014

Wouldn't it be wonderful if family relationships were always smooth and uncomplicated? It's true that in most cases, family relationships are mostly about love and caring, but it's also true that they are more complex than that.

grandparents and granddaughterWhat keeps a family together during stressful times? Why do some relatives help each other in some ways (for instance, they provide emotional support) but not in other ways (such as providing financial assistance)?

Like most relationships, family relationships are governed by norms. For example, role norms consist of the roles of parent, child, spouse, etc. The norms that govern how a parent and child interact are different from the norms that govern how spouses interact. Families are also affected by cultural norms - for instance, some cultures value mutual help more than others. Finally, there are individual norms which speak to the diversity between individual families (and we all know that our families are unique!).

When role norms, cultural norms, and individual norms are considered together, they all involve two major dynamics:

  • Degree of independence or dependence. If a family adheres more to the norm of independence, the family feels that children should no longer rely on their parents after a certain life stage. But if a family practices a norm closer to dependence, it is more acceptable for children to rely on parents at any age.
  • Degree of voluntarism or obligation. You read that correctly, the word is "voluntarism," not volunteerism. Voluntarism, in the context of the family, refers to the extent to which individuals have choices about whether and when to meet individual versus family needs. A family that practices the norm of voluntarism would understand if a family member decides not to help another family member if it would place his or her individual needs and wants at risk. On the other hand, a family that adheres more to the norm of obligation would feel that family ties are based on a sense of duty. In other words, even if helping a family member denies a person of individual needs and wants, the person should provide help because that is what is expected of family members.

While some of these norms might sound unemotional and harsh, they actually have a function in every family. If a family knows its norms on these dimensions, there is a mutual understanding of how to treat other family members and what to expect each other. On the other hand, if there is confusion over these norms, miscommunications and hurt feelings are bound to occur.

Where does your family fall on these dimensions?


Morgan, L. A., & Kunkel, S. R. (2011). Aging, society, and the life course (4th ed.). Springer: New York.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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