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We Are Family: Familism May Promote Relationship Quality in Latinos but Not Other Cultural Groups

Familism refers to the sense of connection individuals have with their family. In a nutshell, those with a high degree of familism prioritize their family relationships above other relationships (and the self) and view family members as the first providers of support during stressful situations. Although this family-first focus may sound great, early research suggested that familism may actually undermine individual outcomes by creating a sense of burden (to the family) and limiting individuals’ abilities to have a diverse support network (which is generally a good thing). Put another way, familism runs counter to the traditional “American” value of independence.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships the study authors argued that a more culturally-sensitive view of familism may highlight the value of this connection to family, perhaps particularly for Latinos, whose cultural norms prioritize “family relationships before the self with warmth, closeness, and support”. As a result, familism may promote individuals’ relationship quality, romantic or otherwise,  by increasing how comfortable people are with feeling close to others as well as how much support they perceive from others (two important markers of relationship quality). Moreover, the authors suggested that the effect of familism on support may occur because familism promotes the value of close connections with others (rather than independence), thus resulting in lower levels of attachment avoidance.

The researchers examined the associations between these variables in a sample of 521 romantically-involved college students (mostly women) who reported either a Latino, European, or East Asian cultural background. All participants completed a survey that included self-report measures of familism (e.g., “One should help economically with the support of younger brothers and sisters”; “When one has problems, one can count on the help of relatives”) and attachment avoidance (e.g., “I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down”; “I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on romantic partners”). Relationship quality was indexed as both general perceptions of social support (e.g., the extent to which participants felt they had someone who is “around when I am in need” or “who cares about my feelings”), and the degree of closeness individuals felt with their romantic partner (i.e., the Inclusion-of-Other-in-the-Self (IOS) scale).

The authors tested the associations between familism, relationship quality, and attachment avoidance separately in participants grouped by cultural background. As expected, across all groups there was evidence that familism is associated with improved relationship quality. But for Latinos only, higher familism was associated with lower attachment avoidance, which was in turn associated with better relationship quality. (wonky side note: these data are correlational; we can’t conclude that familism causes lower avoidance which in turn causes better relationship quality. Researchers often refer to this as statistical mediation to avoid implying that a change in one variable causes change in another). Interestingly, there was no evidence that this ‘path’ between familism, avoidance, and relationship quality operates similarly in East Asian and European American samples. Rather, the effect of familism on relationship quality (perhaps due to lower attachment avoidance) appears to be unique to Latinos.

The authors suggest that this finding, may shed some light on what is often referred to as the Hispanic or “Latino paradox” --- that Latinos tend to experience more positive health outcomes than one would expect given the disproportionate numbers of Latinos that face serious socioeconomic challenges (e.g., poverty). In other words, familism may buffer Latinos from some of the harmful consequences caused by financial and other strains. That’s a very interesting proposal and one worthy of future research.

Why were the effects not observed in the other cultural groups, particularly given that Latinos are not the only group of individuals who value family relationships? That’s tough to say, but the authors suggest it may be because the measure of familism was developed with Latino samples in mind. The cultural context in which research is conducted can often drive the interpretations we can make from data; thus, the measure may not be sensitive to tapping ‘familism’ in non-Latino samples.  As a case in point, they draw attention to the concept of filial piety in East Asian samples, which is somewhat consistent with the notion of familism but reflects a connection to family that is born out of obedience to authority within the family rather than perceptions of reciprocal support and warmth. 

Another possibility is that familism is a construct that is more salient to Latino participants (particularly given the Latino-centric measure used), so their completion of a measure that taps this idea may have “primed” them to feel more positive about their social relationships more so than in other cultural groups (who may be less sensitive to mentions of 'family').  More intensive, longitudinal methods that track how these different variables change over time, or experimental methods that isolate the effects of familism, are needed to fully understand whether there is a true causal connection between familism, attachment avoidance, and relationship quality. That said, the significance of this work cannot be understated, and the field needs more work similar to this that takes a nuanced look at how relationships function in different ethnic, racial, and cultural groups (and from different cultural perspectives).

Campos, B., Perez, O. F. R., & Guardino, C. (2016). Familism: A cultural value with implications for romantic relationship quality in U.S. Latinos. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 81-100.

image source:emaze.com

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