December 8th, 2022

Family Isn’t Defined By Who You’re Related To

So, as I’ve talked about previously (a couple of times), I do a lot of boundary work with my clients. Boundaries are hard. Some of the hardest boundaries to set are with your family of origin. This comes up a lot around the holidays, and it has come up in a bunch of my sessions lately so I thought I would write about it here. When we set boundaries with our family of origin, and those boundaries are not respected or are flat-out rejected, I remind people that family is not simply defined by who we are related to. And I know my clever readers out there are like, pretty sure that is the actual definition of family, but hear me out.

Family, as a concept, is about people who love and support you. Family loves you no matter what. You always have your family. We may fight but we’re still family. And other delightful cliches exist to highlight the importance of family. Except the reality is that family love and support is often very conditional, and often one-sided. Our family of origin is like an ecosystem, and we leave that ecosystem and come build our own thriving ecosystem, and then we’re supposed to still mesh with that other ecosystem? Nah, what happens is our family of origin wants us to fit back nice and neatly into the old patterns. But part of healthy growth and development is what is called individuation, when we leave the proverbial nest and become our own people. Now, I’m not anti-family, I’m a marriage & family therapist, so I will highlight that some families support people as they individuate. Love and support goes throughout the developmental stages, and in that sense, family is great. But that isn’t the experience for everyone, and I would say the data (over 1 in 4 people have an estranged family member) supports that families with good love and support over a lifespan are a rarity. 

So, I like to redefine family. The concept of family is great. But there is a reality that for many of us our family of origin isn’t particularly loving or supportive. And if that’s the case, we shift our focus on who our family is. Family isn’t who you are related to by blood, that’s just random chance. Family are the people who love and support you in the ways that you need to be loved and supported. And, fun fact, only you can decide how you want to be loved and supported, it isn’t up to anyone else. So, if grandma can’t handle that nose piercing you got, too bad for grandma. If your in-laws are just so shocked you send your kids to public school, oh well. There are people who will love you and respect your boundaries if your family won’t and rather than put time and effort into trying to change a whole ecosystem of people (who likely aren’t all that interested in change), it’s better to use that energy to build your support system with people who love you the way you need to be loved. Sometimes family of origin can figure it out, growth is rarely linear, so I’m not super quick to give up on family. But if your family has a consistent pattern of putting their needs above yours, of not respecting your boundaries, and using unhealthy tactics to try and get you to change, then it’s time to just admit that your family isn’t acting the way a family should. They don’t get to treat you poorly then claim family status.

 Now, I will say, we humans are wired for social interaction. There’s good research that backs up the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. But expanding your village and shifting your focus from blood relatives to family that loves and supports is liberating and pays huge dividends for your mental and emotional well-being. Maybe friends are family, maybe it’s people who can relate to your lived experience or who are in your same developmental stage (i.e. new parents, school aged kids, retired, etc), but finding those brothers from other mothers and sisters from other misters helps you to get the support you need without all the baggage that your family of origin is dragging along. This is a concept I latched onto super young, because my brother is adopted. Out of all my family, he and I are the closest and that’s been true for my whole life. We share the least similar genetic material of my relatives, and yet we have the best relationship by far. So, for me, this concept predates my formal education and training, but I see it regularly with clients from all walks of life. Moving past a relative model and into a more expansive model of family as defined by health and love is what a lot of people need to do. It’s the difference between “kin,” simply defined by being related, and “kindred” being of one mind or attitude. 

So, sometimes our family needs work, and sometimes we need to work on how we define family. Find your peeps, and cultivate a family that loves you and supports you the way that you need.