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Who Says You Can’t Choose Your Family?

Building strong relationships lets you choose the family environment you want.

Key points

  • Most often when people say you can’t choose your “family,” they mean your family of origin — the family you were born or adopted into.
  • Chosen family members can be a lifeline when we live far away or have difficult relationships with our families of origin.
  • When you choose a long-term partner, or embrace singlehood, or become a parent, you are creating a new family on your own terms.

The holidays are around the corner and, for many of us, that means time with family. When people struggle to enjoy spending time with their families, they tend to shrug in defeat and say, “Well, you can’t choose your family.” As a family and relationship researcher, I’d say put a pin in that idea for a moment. You can absolutely “choose” your family in at least two ways. Both are valid and worth exploring, especially if you have strained relationships with family members, have limited family connections, or live far away from family.

Chosen Family

Most often when people say you can’t choose your “family,” they mean your family of origin — the family you were born or adopted into. They mean the people who raised you and your siblings (if you have any). Family of origin can also include extended family members like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Most family scientists embrace a much broader definition of family than this. They include chosen family members alongside people bound together through biology or law. This includes stepfamily members (even ex-steps), close family friends, neighbors, and anyone else who feels like family.

Do you have someone you call "Auntie" or "Uncle" who isn’t related to you by biology or marriage? Or maybe a grandparent figure who was really a long-time neighbor and friend? Many of us do. Our closest friends can become part of our families and help support us throughout our lives. We use family titles to highlight these people’s importance to us and clarify the role we hope they will play in our lives or our children’s lives. Embracing a broad definition of family helps us build a stronger support system.

Chosen family has deep roots in the LGBTQ+ community. Some individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ create close, lasting relationships that give them the support their families of origin cannot or will not provide. LGBTQ+ folks paved the way for chosen family to be seen as both vital and valid.

Creating a New Family

Families of procreation are the ones we create for ourselves. When you choose a long-term partner (see The Defining Decade by Meg Jay), embrace singlehood, or become a parent, you are creating a new family. We each have a choice about whether to form a family of our own, when to do it, and how to do it.

Building strong relationships (romantic or otherwise) allows you to choose the type of family environment and culture you want for yourself. Maybe you want a laid-back family, an adventurous one, or one with consistency and strong routines. There are many ways to form healthy families, but there can be challenges in working through the lessons you learned in your family growing up. Sometimes professional counseling can help you through that process. The important message is that each of us has the power to create a new family in our own way and on our own terms.

So, plan that Friendsgiving with a full heart or call your “Aunt Doreen” and say, “Hi,” because sometimes the family you choose or create is just right for you.

References

Sanner, C. M., Ganong, L., & Coleman, M. A. (2021). Families are socially constructed: Pragmatic implications for researchers. Journal of Family Issues, 42(2), 422–444. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X20905334

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