Family Interdependence: From Necessity to Choice

How choosing to depend on others builds resilience

Human Interdependence – Catalonia-Style

In the US, we’re raised to value independence.  We learn that money is a direct path to achieve it. The more money you have, the less you need to depend on others.  When you make enough money to cover your basic needs, you begin to have the freedom of choice.

Independence is therefore a luxury.  If independence is my highest priority, I place a lower value on working with others.  In fact, working with others requires building a relationship, communicating and building trust.  And that can be really hard.  There’s negotiation; concessions and compromise must be reached; conflict often comes up.  It’s actually a lot more challenging to work with others than it is to be independent.  The good news is that, like many things, the more you practice being interdependent, the more likely you are to get better at it.

Why is this important in the context of families and wealth?

Because it turns out that interdependence is a key ingredient in sustaining families – and wealth – over time.  And it’s particularly difficult to agree on choosing interdependence when you can choose independence.  My colleague and friend, Tom Rogerson, and I have explored and presented on the role of interdependence in families after observing its role in connecting families across generations.

The role of interdependence as an element of sustaining families is illustrated in Dennis Jaffe’s study of 100-year families[1].  His ongoing work studies nearly 100 families which created wealth and have sustained or expanded it for more than 100 years.  Jaffee calls these families “generative families” for some of the common characteristics they demonstrate.  They include vitality, creativity, and the ability to continually reinvent themselves over generations[2].  While generative families all have individual performers, they have a shared commitment to working together.  Jaffe also observed seven practices that these generative families have in common[3]:

  1. Shared Purpose & Values
  2. Free Choice to be Partners
  3. Continual Adaptation
  4. Cross Generational Family Community
  5. Professional Business
  6. Actively Develop Human Capital
  7. Give Back to Community

It takes practice and an ongoing commitment to create interdependence among family members.  But working together towards a shared purpose, family members build trust with each other over time.  You learn how to exchange ideas, challenge each other, disagree and resolve conflicts.  This chosen interdependence solidifies the foundation that creates resilience. And the feedback loop that comes from continual adaptation, cross generational support and actively developing the human capital within your family serves to affirm the choice and remind members why they choose to be interdependent, recognizing when their own independence is interwoven with the larger family interdependence.

For those seeking to retain a collective family identity that spans generations, the practice of interdependence should be an ongoing conversation.  Family members need to engage in practices, hear family lore that reinforces the benefits and observe the benefits directly.  And the seven common characteristics outlined above provide a template for the practice.  The hard work, of course, is in maintaining the daily commitment to interdependence when the answer seems obvious to you or when somebody appears to be slowing the process down for reasons you don’t agree with or understand.

Interdependence works best when it’s a shared value, when everyone understands what’s in it for them.  Everyone, including your professional advisors, has to see the value of supporting interdependence for their clients and for themselves.  And remember that it requires ongoing effort – one that many families have found is worth the commitment.


[1] Jaffe, Dennis, Good Fortune: Building a 100-Year Family Enterprise, Wise Counsel Research, 2013

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

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