Thursday, October 30, 2014

Strengthening Families Close to Home

Guest Blogger

Clare Huntington

For the book symposium on Clare Huntington, Failure to Flourish: How Family Law Undermines Family Relationships  (Oxford University Press, 2014)

I love Robert Emery’s challenge. These issues can feel overwhelming, and it is easy to think there is little that we can do as individuals, acting in our corner of the world.

The first step is grasping the problem. We had to understand the dynamics and causes of climate change before we could begin to convince people that they needed to alter their behavior (an ongoing project). So we should be optimistic about the potential for reform in family law—more so than with climate change—given the broad consensus that strong families matter, even if we disagree about how to achieve that goal.  

Emery’s own work has been foundational in our understanding of the need for family law reform. Among the many aspects of positive family law, Emery’s work focuses on marriage and divorce, and he has made a brilliant career out of advancing our understanding of the importance of marriage and the possibilities for healthy divorce. His work  on the lasting impact of mediated as opposed to litigated divorce, for example, has supported a sea change in family law. So, Emery has already changed the world and inspired others by the clarity of his thinking and the depth of his research. That’s a whole lot more than changing a light bulb.

There are equivalents for all of us, academics or not, and we can each find our own corner to tend.

Getting involved in local politics, for example, is an excellent way to have an impact. Many of the policies I identify in the book are controlled at the local level. Zoning boards make critical decisions about where to place infrastructure and whether to allow zoning variances that would permit intergenerational housing. And city councils often decide how to spend local dollars. When we speak up in these venues in support of family-friendly policies—along the lines of those I propose in the book—we are doing our piece to further positive family law.

We can also volunteer in our communities. Whether coaching a soccer team or working in a food pantry, we can make life a little easier for other families. In an age when neighborhoods and schools are highly segregated by income, some communities will seem less needy than others, at least on the surface, but there are lonely children everywhere. The attention from an unrelated adult, including coaches, faith leaders, and family friends, can make an enormous difference in a child’s life.

And finally we can practice compassion, with ourselves and with others. It is easy to judge other people’s families. Parental Schadenfreude feels good because it masks our own insecurities and uncertainties. But all parents struggle, whether financially or emotionally, and recognizing our own limitations might make us somewhat less judgmental about other people. This compassion, in turn, may lead to greater support for programs and efforts that help parents across the income spectrum. It may also help us deepen our own relationships. As I describe in the book, research shows that ruptures are unavoidable in relationships, from every day friction between parents and children to bigger fights that are inevitably a part of family life. A healthy family relationship is not one in which there is no rupture, but rather one in which people acknowledge transgression and then seek to repair the damage. The more we can accept our imperfections as parents, partners, adult children, and so on, the more likely we are to deepen and strengthen our relationships.

Slogans have never been my forte, so I’m not sure I can help Emery there, and he is right that we can’t solve everything. But we can, each in our own way, make progress, and it is that collective effort that offers hope.

 Clare Huntington is Professor of Law at Fordham Law School and may be reached at

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