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The Merging Effect

Relationship building beyond our own homes.

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Photo Credit: Hemera/Thinkstock

My daughter was ten years old when I told her that Fred and I were going to get married.  My daughter’s response was that he could live with us, but that “he can’t be a part of the family.”  This response could be based on what she understood to be acceptable and unacceptable in our culture.  Fred is African-American, and I am white.  My daughter had no first-hand experience with inter-racial couples and had never lived in an integrated neighborhood.  To her, the idea of an African-American being a part of our family wasn’t consistent with what was familiar to her. 

Another reason for saying “he can’t be part of the family” could be based on the fear that Fred would be replacing her birth father. She was not OK with this. 

Fred and I have now been married for 28 years. We’ve had to struggle with some issues unique to inter-racial couples—where to live was just one of the decisions we had to make. There were few integrated neighborhoods in our city. We decided to live in a predominately white neighborhood—in large part to keep my daughters from having to transfer to a different school. The schools in the city where we lived were quite segregated—and as is true in too many urban communities, the schools in the black communities had far fewer resources than the schools in the white communities.

The recent shooting at the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC seems to have been motivated by a belief that black people don’t belong in certain places. Reports indicate that the alleged shooter expressed a belief in segregation and that he was concerned about black people “taking over” the country. He seemed to have a fear of white people losing their place in society once black people are welcomed into the group. This fear is based on the idea that “letting (or welcoming) someone in” means “taking someone else out.”

After Fred and I got married, it didn’t take my daughter long to realize that Fred could be part of the family and that having Fred as a stepfather didn’t mean excluding her birth father from her circle of love and concern. Fred’s understanding and kindness certainly had a lot to do with establishing a healthy relationship within our family.

Relationship building can occur at the individual-to-individual level, and this is an important part of our lives. But relationship building can also occur at the group-to-group level. This, too, is important, not only for individuals in the group, but for the larger society, as well. 

The alleged shooter in Charleston said that he “almost changed his mind” about killing black people in the church because they were so nice to him. They welcomed him, a young white person, into their place of worship. They didn’t question him about his background, income, or beliefs. They were just nice to him. This acceptance and kindness almost changed his mind. Amazingly, the families of the victims then forgave him for the terrible crime he committed.

Could niceness and a willingness to welcome others into our families, churches, and other settings in which we gather as a people help prevent future tragedies of people killing each  other because they are considered “other” rather than one of us? This is what “almost” happened in Charleston. Can we optimistically think that the “almost” might become the reality of a different outcome? 

In addition to the fact that in Charleston there was “almost” a different outcome due to kindness, some evidence about a “merging effect” associated with personal relationships may also help us imagine the possibility of harmonious group-to-group relationships. The “merging effect” occurs when the boundaries between individual partners disintegrate and they begin to think of their own fate as being intertwined with the fate of the other. If merging can occur on the individual-to-individual level, can it occur on the group-to-group level, as well? If through kindness and acceptance we can turn an “almost” into a reality, the future will look much brighter for all us.


Photo of Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a retired educator who now works with the Children and Nature Network as curator of the Research Library. 

She also devotes her time to writing and consulting, especially on issues relating to children and nature. Wilson has written several books and numerous articles on these and other topics relating to the way humans interact with the rest of the natural world.


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