For most of this year I’ve been involved in an EU funded project learning about resilient communities. It’s been a great experience and during the Covid-19 period we’ve been able to practice first hand some of the insights we gained within the project team. I also realise that a lot of what we’ve been learning and practicing is very relevant to couples and to family life.
One of the main principles of building resilient human systems is the importance of support. When inevitable conflicts, differences and difficulties arise, handling them is much more effective when the individuals in the community (or in this case family) have access to support.
As I see it, we can handle situations on our own within the family or relationship, but it comes at a cost of time, energy and, sometimes, goodwill and trust. Having support enables us to more easily handle the challenges of life and love and more likely to thrive, rather than simply survive.
The African proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child” may be pretty well worn by now, yet that does not take away from its underlying wisdom. We cannot effectively raise children, or be in relationship, without the support of a community.
Community is changing
The year I was born (1963), a little over 65%* of the world population lived in rural areas and most likely had access to village-like communities of some kind. By 2018 under 45% of the population lived in rural areas and is projected to fall to less than 32% by 2050. In other words, more and more people are moving into urban areas and this is changing the face of our communities. It requires us to redesign how we approach our communities and our support systems.
I was raised in Southern England in what was technically classified as a village yet was, in fact, a housing development as London extended itself into the surrounding English countryside. Even so, there was community. We had neighbours with kids and we took turns in each others’ houses. We had a local school within walking distance. We had stores, medical facilities, clubs, church and a few pubs. We knew most people on our street, even though we had no extended family close by. My parents relied a lot on local neighbours, friends and paid services for their support systems.
Today I live in a small apartment block in the city. We say hello to our neighbours in the hallway and this is as far as we have ventured into social contact with them. One set of grandparents live on the other side of Europe and the other grandmother 20 minutes away in another part of the city. Most of our friends are spread throughout the country or abroad and at school our daughter has to wear a mask and keep distance from the other kids (hopefully, it is a temporary measure).
We have community but it is very different than a village and we have to work hard to keep it functioning. It would be very easy to hide inside our family bubble in our apartment and deal with everything on our own. We would very likely go mad, but it would be easy to do. Yet we put a lot of effort into maintaining our connections across several loose groups of people. We know the value of community.
Support is Vital
We need a wide variety of support as a family and as a couple – there are two main areas where it is invaluable:
Practical support is about taking some of the burden off us as parents and giving space to spend time together or to recharge. It is also about accepting there are some things we are just not very good at, for example, teaching our daughter maths or providing dental treatment.
When Emma was a baby, we had Mona’s mother to come and take care of her. Even though we had our own ideas about how to care for a young human being, it was still enormously helpful to have her available to do basic things like food, bathing, walking. She knew what she was doing and she was happy to be of service – and to give us a break for a few hours here and there. The bulk of the baby care fell on Mona’s shoulders so just getting time to rest was crucial. We had the occasional help from friends or colleagues and more and these days, 10 years later, we are able to get time for us as a couple to talk or go on a rare date.
Then there are those things where we rely on others who are vastly more experienced and available than we are. Mainly this is education where we cannot offer the same things that our school can. Sending Emma to school also gives us more time for work and focus on our relationship. We don’t want everything in our life to revolve exclusively around being parents.
I think this is often overlooked because it is much more subtle yet perhaps even more important that practical stuff. Access to emotional support is vital to our well-being as individuals, as a couple and as parents.
It might look different for each of us.
For me, it is about having access to people I can talk to and who will listen. And this is pretty rare. I have plenty of people I can talk to but many are not able to listen. They offer advice or try to fix my perceived problems in other ways. This is practical not emotional support.
What I need is someone who can give me the gift of their presence, can hear me without judgement and give me space to connect with what is going on in me. It needs skill and trust and a full knowing they will not insert themselves into my business unless I ask.
If you have ever experienced this high quality of empathy then you will know exactly how precious it is. If you have not, you will just need to take my word for it.
My main source of emotional support is Mona .. and I believe I am her main source.
Yet here is a potential trap. Although I fully trust her power to be there for me, when we have challenges in our relationship then I need support from outside. Mona is not the best person as she is implicated and impacted by whatever it is I am dealing with. I need support from someone else so I can enter into the situation with Mona from a place of deeper clarity and strength. If I just jump into it, I may well make the situation harder to deal with.
We both have friends we can call on to listen and we also have professional support with therapists if we need it. Having access to this external emotional support is absolutely vital.
In other words, my family system needs to be held within a larger framework or support net.
It is not enough to know people who can support us – a system is only effective when it is activated and actually providing support. I think of a support system as a set of understandings and practices that either are built into our day to day life or can be easily accessed when needed.
Within the family and within our couple relationship we set aside listening time for time and space to support each other with whatever is on their mind.
Outside the family, we have regular meetings scheduled with friends specifically for the purpose of listening. Technology makes it much easier and I have regular Zoom or WhatsApp calls with friends in different countries. And then I have a number of people I know I can call on when I need.
If you want to explore this topic for yourself then here a few things you could do:
- Draw a map of the people in your life you consider part of your support network. I find it helpful to draw a circle with me in the centre and then put the names of my support network around the centre … the closer I draw them to me, the closer the relationship.
- When you look at the picture, how does it strike you? What do you notice about it? What do you like about the picture? What would you like to be different?
- What steps could you take today to bring the support system more alive?
- What steps could you take to start to expand your support system (if needed)?