Love `em or hate `em, family really matters in shaping happiness and well-being. People are directly influenced by the quantity and quality of family interactions—phone calls between mothers and daughters, extended family vacations, visits with in-laws, and perhaps later, time with Grams and Gramps.
Beyond the time and emotional bonding between individual family members, relatives also form a powerful support and approval network. The way we interact with that network can make our lives much easier and healthful, or much harder and stressful. That's because in ways small and large, our life's efforts and achievements are given meaning by how we're judged within our families.
"Even as marriage shrinks, family—in all its emerging varieties—remains resilient," the Pew Research Center said in a 2010 survey on the rise of new family structures and public attitudes toward marriage and family. "Americans have an expansive definition of what constitutes a family. And the vast majority of adults [roughly 75 percent] consider their own family to be the most important, most satisfying element of their lives."
"In the field of gerontology, everybody lamented the decline of the family," says Merrill Silverstein, a professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California. But family members continue to have strong relationships and interactions. Some subgroups are certainly having problems, he says, including those with low incomes or divorced parents, especially fathers. Broadly speaking, however, "the crisis of the family is overblown," Silverstein says.
Pew looked at changes in the living arrangements of adults between 1960 and 2008. The percentage of married adults dropped during this period from 72 percent to 52 percent. The percentage of widowed people also declined, from 9 percent of all adults in 1960 to 7 percent in 2008. The percentage of people who were separated or divorced nearly tripled over this time, however, from 5 percent to 14 percent. And the percentage of adults who had never been married nearly doubled, from 14 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2008.
The role of family can take on added importance in nontraditional households, especially those that don't enjoy the legal benefits and broad social support of marriage and other traditional relationships.
"Family members have a bigger role to play than they may realize," says Lisa Diamond, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Diamond's research specializes in same-sex relationships, where the need for family support, or at least acceptance, may be great. "The sense of your relationship not being validated takes a psychological toll on gay and lesbian couples," Diamond says. "It totally depends on whether you are living in an environment that is supportive or not supportive of that relationship. If you can get support and acceptance from family, it can buffer you from the negative effects of a lack of community support."
The parent-child relationship is arguably the most important of all family bonds. Like all human ties, it can produce both well-being and stress. Insights into developing a healthy relationship with your parent or your child, experts say, begin with the recognition that it is seldom a meeting of equals.
Parents begin the relationship with almost total control over the lives of their babies. Over time, the fulcrum of their power in the relationship moves toward the child. And in old age, parents may cede greater control of their lives to their grown children. Understanding each other's role on this continuum is crucial to having reasonable expectations about how each party should behave.
If that isn't hard enough, many psychologists say there is a genetic mismatch between parents and children. They call it the "generational stake": Parents simply care more for their children than their children care for them. While the generational stake is understandable when a child is younger, the emotional mismatch may carry over into later years."One could say that there is a genetic incentive that we've evolved to care for our children and that they, in turn, will reproduce and continue the species," says Silverstein.
Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family science at the University of Texas, has found in her research that the happiness of parents in middle age is tied to how well their grown children are faring in life. Even parents with several successful grown children could be unhappy if one child is not doing well. Negative emotions have a larger and longer-lived impact than positive ones, leading Fingerman to conclude that "grown children's distress may be contagious" for their parents.
Even the importance of grandchildren does not eclipse the primacy of the parent-child bond. Here, however, grandparents may get a much richer emotional lift than they did from being a parent. But the path to greatest happiness for a grandparent is not always apparent or easy.
"Grandparents have kind of an ambiguous role to play," Silverstein says. "They want to do things and be important in the lives of their grandchildren. But they need to balance their impulses to control, help raise, or teach the child against the parents' rights. It's kind of an anxiety-producing role."
And it can be a varied role, he adds. There can be the fun-loving grandparent who sweeps in, takes the little ones to Disney World, and then heads off. There can be the authoritarian grandparent who provides a lot of guidance and tries to parent their grandchild. There is also the detached grandparent, who is not very involved. And then there's the helping grandparent, who comes over to babysit his grandchildren and gives their parents tremendous support and relief.
To develop the right role, Silverstein advised, grandparents need to listen to the wishes and preferences of their children. "Tune in to what your children expect from you and need from you," he says. "You've got to have discussions about these issues."
The other reality about grandparents is how many of them there will be. Swelled naturally by the ranks of aging boomers and again by decades of high divorce rates and remarriages, we will see an explosion of grandparents.
The aging of America "will increase the importance of vertical kinship ties, up and down the generations," Johns Hopkins' sociologist Andrew Cherlin said in a research paper. "Intergenerational relations involving grandparents, their children, and their grandchildren will play a larger role in family life."
In other words, while the shape of the family is surely changing, these shifts can also enrich family ties. Relationships across generations will have unparalleled opportunities to flourish as America ages.