When things go wrong. Marriage, family and social support.

It’s funny how easy it is to forget to appreciate the importance of health. You really only notice this when something goes wrong. A common cold becomes debilitating. A cut on your finger makes it hard to hold a toothbrush. Back pain makes it hard even to put on your socks!

Much the same is true of families. It’s so easy to forget their importance and the spare capacity they give you when things go wrong. Social scientists call this ‘social support’. I wrote about one aspect of ‘social support’ recently when I said that big weddings mean lots of people affirming your decision and being on your side.

Well, my family are going through a bit of a crisis right now which is making me especially aware of the importance of social support.

This weekend, seemingly out of the blue, my mother had a stroke. She’s always been active and full of vigour. It’s never occurred to me that my mother was anything other than a permanent feature of my life. Right now, she sounds fine to talk to but she can’t perform simple domestic tasks. It’s quite a shock. Even when she does recover, and she will, the one certainty is that change is here. All of us in the family will have to reassess how we organise ourselves.

My stepfather has depended on my mother for forty five years and of course vice versa. They are an outstanding example of a successful second marriage. But both of them are getting on now and will need increasing input from others. He will face change.

My sister is a brilliant single mum who depends on them for occasional childcare so that she can work away from home for a few days. Sod’s law says this week was one of those times. She will face change.

My wife and I have split our resources so that she can look after my sister’s daughter for the next few days and make sure my stepfather gets supported. I am at home managing our children and really noticing, and quite enjoying, the extra workload. But we will face change.

And my brother and his wife, who have just set up a new wedding business, are also likely to have to take up some of the childcare and parental support as they are nearby. They will face change.

But there is a silver lining to this cloud. Even in the midst of our pain, I have a real sense of mutual support – within my family and within all of our marriages. After an emotional visit to the hospital, we had a fabulous family meeting where we aired the things that might need to happen next. We expect the best but prepare for the worst.

All of this makes me think hard about the importance of marriage and family. I love my sister to bits but, juggling life as a lone parent, she simply has no spare capacity. In contrast my stepfather, my brother and I are all married, which has given us at least some spare capacity to support one another.

As I am now discovering for myself, social support is one of the hidden strengths of a family. I’m obviously generalising here, but so much of this depends on the presence of couples..

As fewer people marry, and few unmarried couples stay together as couples, ever fewer families will have this kind of spare capacity to look out for one another and lend a hand. How on earth will families cope?

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Harry Benson: “As I am now discovering for myself, social support is one of the hidden strengths of a family”


One thought on “When things go wrong. Marriage, family and social support.

  1. This is a very good piece Harry and I know exactly what you are talking about. My mother took ill in February and died in early April at the same time as her brother, her brother in law and her sister. They all died within 10 days of each other and had lived within 5 miles of each other. As a large family and a huge wider family circle the social support was amazing. I think the loss of this in society at large is one of the hidden dangers / crises of going down the route we are choosing as a society regarding marriage.
    Colm Black

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