Family remains one of the primary ways we source connection to others. If you are one of the lucky few, then your biological family may be a place where you source tremendous strength and well-being. But not everyone is born into a supportive, loving family with healthy dynamics, and if this is your situation, the emotional and health toll can be significant. Fortunately, there is an excellent solution that counteracts disconnection from our biological families: cultivating our own “chosen family.”
This approach to family connections can bring an enormous sense of empowerment and positive psychological benefits. Study after study confirms the immense positive influence that social support has on well-being, both physical and mental. When we feel that our social support is lacking, we wither and suffer; when we feel supported by people close to us, we thrive. By affirmatively seeking out the kind of people and relationships we want in a family, we are taking ownership over a hugely important area of our lives that may previously have been a rich source for feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.
The Challenges of Biological Family
Biological family relationships are for many people the source of recurring pain, unworthiness, and conflict. When you consider our unique personalities, genetic combinations, and life experiences, it’s actually quite unrealistic to expect that we would feel closely bonded to every member of our family just because we share some DNA – yet this belief creates a lot of unnecessary long-term angst, guilt and disappointment for many people.
Another common reason for family disconnection is the tendency we have to assign members of the family specific roles…such as the black sheep, the reliable one, the flake, the successful one, the drifter, etc…which may be viewed as permanent. In this kind of context, it’s easy to become trapped and frustrated by a role that no longer serves you. We are ever-changing, ever-evolving beings on this earth, and we have an inherent need to develop and grow. When family members insist on seeing you “as you were” in their established family dynamic, it can stifle your ability to evolve and as well as your sense of authenticity. The messaging, feedback and mirroring from family keeps you believing you are still limited to your small, defined role, while many other sides of you remain unacknowledged.
Even when people are able to accept and forgive the imperfection of our luck-of-the-draw biological family, we often still feel a deep and unfulfilled yearning for a different kind of familial support. We might want a form of love or support that our biological family can’t offer, and one of the best ways of meeting this need is by cultivating a “chosen family.”
Members of the LGBTQ community have long embraced this concept, because of their own biological family’s rejection or fundamental inability to understand or support their difference, or their need to live in the closet, hidden from their family’s understanding. Since biological families were not typically a viable option for unconditional loving and supportive connection until fairly recently (and are still not an option for many), most LGBTQ people cultivated their own communities of close, loyal friends to serve that role. But many straight members of dysfunctional families also cultivate “families by choice,” finding people who love, support and encourage them in ways their biological or step-families would or could not.
Defining the Chosen Family
Chosen family are the beloved people in your life with whom you share a deep trust, loyalty and mutual commitment. They are people who share similar values with you, and who are able and willing to guide and support your evolution to the person you were meant to be.
Chosen family are the people you deliberately invite into your life. They can, but don’t always fill holes left by biological family members. These are the people to whom who you would naturally turn in a moment of need, to share life’s tragedies, and life’s greatest celebrations.
Chosen family are often indistinguishable from close friends. The difference is the heightened intentionality, appreciation and awareness that you bring to these relationships – as well as your willingness to commit to these relationships and see these people as more central to your life. They may be friends, non-biological relatives, extended family members, romantic partners – or even other people’s children or parents with whom who you feel a special connection, and embrace as your own.
I always have room on my dance card for additional maternal support and unconditional fatherly approval, and over the years I’ve enjoyed bonding with certain of my friends’ parents. Similarly, they enjoy having a deeper relationship with me, and playing the role of surrogate mother or father in key life moments. One of my best friends happily “shares” her mother with me, and I semi-jokingly call myself the third daughter. But my friend’s mother is often, in fact, the maternal figure I go to when I need a particular type of heartfelt sympathy, or encouraging words to soothe a heartbreak of some kind.
Another dear friend of mine has an extraordinary man as his father. He’s someone who brims with pride at loved ones’ accomplishments, and he generously doles out his congratulations to everyone in his orbit. He makes it a point to follow his son’s friends online and note their accomplishments. I can’t wait to hear from this loving and supportive man after a business or personal success. I intentionally seek out these friends’ parents at important moments, because I know they will respond with the words and support I need to thrive.
Rather than mourning or resenting that my biological parents may not be able to provide the exact type of emotional support I need at the specific moments I need it, I feel grateful that I have found people who excel at this type of connection, and who welcome the opportunity to share it with me.
The Scope of Chosen Family
The scope of the relationship is enormously flexible in a chosen family, and that is one of its greatest attributes. You can focus on people whom you embrace fully as your family, indistinguishable from actual family members – or you can focus on parts of people or aspects of your relationship with them that make them feel special to you, and close in certain family-like ways.
In my case, there is a young girl that I mentor who is in need of additional support. My commitment to her is such that she can show up on my doorstep (and has) in a moment of crisis, any hour of the night, or call me to come get her. I don’t have a love bond with her that is all-encompassing, where she actually feels like my daughter. But there is a way that our relationship feeds me at a deep level with a daughter-like kinship that is missing in my life – and feeds her in her need for a reliable adult that she can be open and honest with. It is easy to consider her part of my chosen family.
Finding Chosen Family
For most people, chosen family members are typically developed through school relationships or existing friend pools. But they can also include a larger set of people that may not strike you as obvious “friends”…such as people you admire profoundly and have yet to meet, those you share a deep passion with, young people you mentor or have a special bond with, or as in my case, an older generation of adults. The beauty of the concept of chosen family is that it’s a far more inclusive and expansive group of people that can play a key role in your life.
There are likely many people in the world who share your deeply held values and beliefs, and who are aligned with you emotionally, spiritually and intellectually – many more than the people who happen to share a blood line with you. I find there is often an almost immediate feeling of kinship when you discover people who share your belief system, and they can feel like family to you even if you’ve never even met. When I meet people like this at a protest or somewhere else, I feel an almost instant love for them, and the mutual admiration and affection flows effortlessly. As we get to know each other further, we also typically discover other shared qualities and values – we are simpatico, kindred spirits.
When you set your intention to prioritizing and attracting people into your life with whom you share a fundamental belief system, you have the means to create your own family culture. You choose and help to shape the culture that you identify with, instead of being defined by an existing (and often fixed) family culture that may or may not suit you.
Cultivating Chosen Family
As with everything related to connection, cultivating chosen family starts with setting a clear and powerful intention – consciously deciding that this is important to you – and then putting some attention to the matter (i.e., thought and effort). Start by considering the idea in a lighthearted way, where you hold the concept loosely and have fun with it. You want to feel comfortable and open-minded as you contemplate your self-made family tree.
There are probably as many different right ways to find and interact with your chosen family as there are chosen families. You might cultivate individual relationships one by one, or join a small group of friends who share a mutual need and appreciation. You might approach it like I do, with open heart and mind – scanning the environment for the many and various types of people who may feel “like family” to me. You could also “adopt” a larger group of people with whom you share something profound, such as a sobriety group or veteran group that has literally been through the war together. I’ve heard many individuals in these groups share something deeply personal and express their feeling that the group is their family.
You might enjoy expressing your chosen-family intention and declaration out loud to people, singing it from the rooftops together – or it can be a quiet, powerful and loving intention you keep to yourself. It may be a combination, depending on the relationship. You might have a mutually expressed commitment with someone, where you say “I consider you my chosen family,” and someone says “Right back atcha!” Or it might be a one-sided statement, as with my friends’ parents – I call them my surrogate or chosen mother and father, and they willingly accept and are flattered by this, but I’m certain they don’t have the same need or yearning to call me their chosen or surrogate daughter. The one-sided nature of the expression doesn’t remotely diminish the value of their chosen family status.
It’s up to you how you build your chosen family – you’re choosing it after all! – but it’s important not to put pressure on the process. Begin by opening your eyes, and cluing in to the people who give you the greatest sense of belonging. It is a slow, natural, ongoing process that you don’t want to force. And if you’re feeling uncomfortably forced by someone you’re considering…well, you probably want to look elsewhere for the family you want.
Interacting With Chosen Family
One of the greatest features of chosen family is its lack of established expectations. You, the members of the chosen family, will decide how you like to interact, and how often. In the case of my chosen parental figures, years may go by between our direct interactions…and that works perfectly fine for everyone. We might not speak directly, but I might hear from my friends (their biological children), “My dad wanted to congratulate you and tell you how proud of you he is,” or “My mom was devastated when I told her what happened to you, and couldn’t believe….” These indirect interactions still feed me (and, I think, them) profoundly, and my conscious intention to internalize their words as those of a parent provides me with enormous satisfaction. If a partner or inner-circle friend is part of your chosen family, the interaction and commitment will likely be much higher than this, and include daily contact and intimate involvement in all aspects of each other’s lives. But again, it’s totally up to the people involved.
One very powerful and important ritual many people have is including their chosen family in important “family-type” holidays and special occasions. The gesture has enormous symbolism, cementing the idea that you are family without needing to state that explicitly. There is no more sacred inner chamber to be invited into than births, deaths, and intimate family holidays.
This might be challenging for many people who feel (out of obligation, or an overzealous sense of loyalty) that they can be only with their biological families on these occasions. But spending holidays only with biological family every year can feel like you’re living in a rut, and I believe this is a big reason why the end-of-year holidays are such trying times for many people.
If that’s your situation, experiment with a “Friends-giving” Dinner, or inviting non-relatives more often to mix up and expand the usual family dynamic. One way to make this less threatening to relatives who may prefer traditional family-only events is to rotate the plan every other year, which is what I do. One year I will spend Christmas primarily with my biological family, wherever that may be happening, and the following year, my partner and I reach out to friends for alternative ideas and plans. Some of my most cherished holiday experiences have been the delightful surprise and authentic intimacy that comes from celebrating a holiday with new people.
To be clear, the purpose and beauty of intentionally cultivating a chosen family is not to diminish, replace, negate or threaten your loyalties to your biological relatives – it’s simply to augment and expand your definition of family into a more flexible and inclusive frame. I think of it as a win-win, that really has no downside.