Who Is Family? A Reflection on Courtesy and Respect

The Baha’i Faith teaches us that humanity is all one family. However, thankfully they don’t all come over for holiday dinners, call at all hours on the phone, or get annoyed when you forget their birthday! Yet Abdu’l-Baha tells us:

God has created the world as one–the boundaries are marked out by man. God has not divided the lands… That is why Baha’u’llah says: ‘Let not a man glory in that he loves his country, but that he loves his kind.’ All are of one family, one race; all are human beings.1

Over my lifetime I’ve questioned, “Who counts as my family members?” I’ve been married three times, once divorced, and once widowed. I’ve been a child, stepchild, parent, stepparent, grandparent, and step-grandparent. I’ve been a sister and stepsister. Every change has brought its own set of joys and tests. There haven’t been “half” children or siblings in my life, something Baha’u’llah had in His life. Those also have different complexities as well as opportunities for connection.

Close family friends were “Aunt” or “Uncle”. I’ve called my multiple mother-in-laws, “Mom”, which hasn’t diminished my relationship to my “real” mother. I’ve had family who felt it was better to create their own little family and somewhat distance themselves emotionally from me. I’ve had stepchildren who referred to me as their “stepmother”, and others who were more in the “this is my Dad’s wife” category. I’ve had people who were close relatives, and the moment their blood relative died, the law said we were no longer related. We have had to consciously decide whether we are still “family” or not. But even then, there are no clear guidelines for how to behave with each other.

It has been my automatic approach to treat everyone I’ve gained through marriages as “family”. However, I’ve also had to painfully accept that it’s a two-way choice, and not something I can force or assume. Sometimes I’ve grieved when there is distance from others or criticism for my efforts. Sometimes it’s been exhausting trying to be connected and foster connection. Building “family” is an evolving process, and not everyone is able to define family broadly.

In stepfamilies, according to researcher Maggie Scarf, author of The Remarriage Blueprint, the “insider/outsider” forces are powerful. They often challenge the ideal of family unity and the ability of second marriages to be healthy and stay intact. People hold loyalties to previous family members, and new members added in can cause polarized positions. Families have cultures, and mixing these up into new arrangements can cause emotional disruptions, pain, and disunity. Disciplining children, inheritances, money management, and more can get quite complicated in blended families.

I’ve come to recognize that two key spiritual qualities are helpful when it comes to building connections with family: courtesy and respect. Sometimes I’ve been successful with applying them, and sometimes it’s been harder! Baha’u’llah counsels us:

O people of God! I admonish you to observe courtesy, for above all else it is the prince of virtues. Well is it with him who is illumined with the light of courtesy and is attired with the vesture of uprightness. Whoso is endued with courtesy hath indeed attained a sublime station.2

And Abdu’l-Baha says:

I hope that each one of you will become just, and direct your thoughts towards the unity of mankind; that you will never harm your neighbors nor speak ill of any one; that you will respect the rights of all men, and be more concerned for the interests of others than for your own.3

In reflecting on these quotations and these concepts, I’ve come up with a short list of practices that can, depending on your culture, demonstrate courtesy and respect among family members:

  • Greeting one another rather than ignoring each other
  • Respecting personal space with rooms and possessions
  • Having visits and meals with each other
  • Reaching out consistently with communications
  • Praying together
  • Sharing activities and about experiences
  • Offering thoughtful service
  • Acknowledging and celebrating positive progress
  • Having a loving attitude

As all of us grapple with the complexities of marriages, remarriages, and blended families, it helps to continually refer back to spiritual principles and Teachings such as these:

According to the Teachings of Baha’u’llah, the family, being a human unit, must be educated according to the rules of sanctity. All the virtues must be taught the family. The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered and the rights of the individual members must not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the mother, none of them must be transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary. Just as the son has certain obligations to his father, the father likewise has certain obligations to his son. The mother, the sister and other members of the household have their certain prerogatives. All these rights and prerogatives must be conserved, yet the unity of the family must be sustained. The injury of one shall be considered the injury of all; the comfort of each, the comfort of all; the honor of one, the honor of all.4

When you love a member of your family or a compatriot, let it be with a ray of the Infinite Love! Let it be in God, and for God! Wherever you find the attributes of God love that person, whether he be of your family or of another. Shed the light of a boundless love on every human being whom you meet, whether of your country, your race, your political party, or of any other nation, color or shade of political opinion. Heaven will support you while you work in this ingathering of the scattered peoples of the world beneath the shadow of the almighty tent of unity.5

As we strive to align our lives with the Teachings of the Baha’i Faith, we widen the boundaries of whom we consider “family” every day, and the courtesy and respect we aim to demonstrate in our families, blended or otherwise, become hallmarks of how we treat everyone.


  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 55 []
  2. Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 88 []
  3. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 160 []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha; Lights of Guidance, #739 []
  5. Abdu’l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 144-145 []

About the Author

Susanne Alexander

Susanne M. Alexander is a Relationship and Marriage Educator, author, and coach with Marriage Transformation®, www.marriagetransformation.com; www.bahaimarriage.net; www.bahairelationships.com. She is the Department Chair and also a faculty member for the Wilmette Institute relationships, marriage, parenting, and family online courses (www.wilmetteinstitute.org). Susanne has been single, dating, engaged, married, divorced, and widowed. She is a child, stepchild, parent, stepparent, and grandparent. All of this has given Susanne a diversity of experience to share! She is originally from Canada and is married to a wonderful man in Tennessee, in the United States.

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Discussion 1 Comment

  1. Exactly what I needed to read and ponder today, as I attended a significant native gathering where I have been adopted into the “clan”, yet still am not a “naturalized citizen” as to cultural knowledge. All that you said does apply, no matter where we are in the “spectrum” of family identity. Thank you!

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