Family of Choice

Family of Choice

What does Labor Day mean to you? A three day weekend? Time off work? The end of summer? Family time and traditions? Or just another reason to feel set apart?  For those who are socially isolated or disconnected from their families holidays can be painful and lonely rather than enjoyable.

Like I said about Memorial Day:

Holidays of all sorts can be challenging for many of the clients I work with. Extra unstructured time off, the sense that everyone but you is celebrating with friends and family, feeling disconnected from the traditional meaning of a holiday can all leave you feeling more alone and set apart.

I’ve been writing recently about how important connections are for our sense of well-being. Our culture seems to reinforce the idea that family ought to be the most primary and important source of these connections. What does this mean then for those who are estranged from their families of origin? Or those who are triggered on this or any holiday with memories of childhood abuse? Not everyone’s reality matches the messages we see through media and advertising about what family is supposed to be.

Some people are not able to have healthy connection with the family they were born into.  Perhaps you were rejected or disowned when you came out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.  Perhaps you have had to choose to have little to no contact due to toxic or abusive family dynamics.  These are of course important losses that need to be acknowledged and grieved! But in no way does a lack of family of origin connection mean you must be doomed to no family at all!

Some people seek to fill this gap by cultivating a  “Family of Choice”.  I first became aware of this concept in LGBT communities, but this concept can work for anyone.  Perhaps because LGBT folks still experience discrimination and rejection from families and society at large, some have learned to create tight kinship networksade up of friends, partners, sometimes even ex-partners: a Family of Choice.

Families of Choice can serve all the same functions you wish your family did/could: love, support, companionship, shared holiday traditions.  This time you get to choose, so choose wisely! See Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices.

Do you have a Family of Choice?

Who would you select to be part of your Family of Choice?

What characteristics would be important to you?

What kind of new memories/traditions/celebrations do you or could you share with your Family of Choice?

Wishing you peace and connection on this and every holiday,

Kathleen Young Psy.D.

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20 Responses to Family of Choice

  1. I like the concept in this post Kathleen, thanks for inviting me to comment via Twitter!

    I feel fortunate to have “escaped” the abusive and controlling family dynamics that were present in my family of origin. Growing up as a child who was devalued by my own parents and not protected or validated when abused by outsiders, it all felt normal to me. How was I to really understand that this wasn’t really love? I was in my early 40’s when I really stood up to my mother… She didn’t like my new boundaries. She liked it better when she said “jump” and I said “how high?”

    It was a huge process for me to learn (as an adult) what real love is, but I was motivated by not wanting my children to continue growing up in the false definitions of love and relationship that I had adopted all my life. Once I began to really understand about equality between people, we found really great friends who care about us as people and don’t want to “own us” but rather enjoy our company. This older couple introduced us to all of their grown kids and grandkids, and over time we had a whole new family! We spend birthdays, family holidays such a Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving and even mothers day and fathers day with these new friends. This is our family of choice and our kids (who are now teenagers) have healthy examples and role models that were not present in our lives before I drew my healthy relationship boundaries.

    • Thank you so much, Darlene, from making the trip from Twitter to comment!🙂

      This is such a great example of what I had in mind while writing. I like that you also make clear that creating new family relationships isn’t always a simple task: it is a risk to reach out and does take lots of learning about how things can be different than they were in childhood. Hurray that you did this for you and your children!

      I am nodding about the point you make regarding your mother’s reaction to your new, healthier boundaries. This is a good topic itself, how those who are used to unhealthy dynamics with us may not respond well as we grown and change. So important to do it nonetheless!

      Thanks again for sharing your experience!

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  3. ssanquist says:

    Great Post! Creating a “family of choice” is sometimes the only option available in some families. Like you commented, in the LGBT communities, this becomes a necessity when a child gets kicked out of their home after coming out. An extended family becomes a safe haven to one’s well being.

    Also, I totally agree with Darlene that if you come from an abusive family (in whatever capacity), it may not be in your best interest to remain in contact with your family of origin. One thing that struck me was the issues of family boundaries and how hard it is to create new ones. How wonderful it is to create your own family that is healthy and supportive.

  4. David Jones says:

    Thank you so much for this post on families of choice. My dad passes when I was 11 and I came out to my mom when i was 14 years old. My mom totally flipped out, made rules that i couldn’t receive calls from males regardless of who they were, had people lay hands on me and pray to “heal” me. basically making life unbearable. At 16 I took the state test for my GED and moved out and started school and a life on my own. I did not talk to my mom for years. during this time of silence I met a woman that took me in for lack of a better term. she looked after me, cooked for me some nights, took me to movies, and just overall took me under her wing when i needed help or guidance.She accepted me for me, and did not care who i loved. To this day i am forever grateful for this woman’s impact on my life and not a day goes by that i don’t think of her and her kindness and tenderness.
    A couple of years ago I got a call from my mom saying that she wanted to see me and would love for me to come and spend labor day weekend with her. Of course I was very hesitant about going, but my good friend urged me to go see my mom and talk with her, to give her a chance that she didn’t give me. So I agreed to spend the time with my mom. Again my friend was right. my mom sat with me and talked and talked and it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. over a period of a few months we became as close as a mother and son should be. Best friends is how i put it. She learned to accept me whole heartily. about a year ago my mom passed away, but before she passed she got to know me, the true me. and loved me. I don’t know if maybe she just didn’t know how to accept the fact that i was gay when i was younger or if she was just trying to protect me, but the last little bit of time i got to spend with her and get to know her really helped me through some personal struggles and some emotional baggage. I feel I have two moms. My friend which is still close to me today and my real mom that passed away. Sometimes i hear people say you cant choose your family. and that’s true. sometimes you don’t. the truth is your family chooses you! at least that’s how i see it. Thank you so much for letting me vent. Every labor day weekend marks a very special place in my heart and to celebrate i spend it with friends and my second mom. I am glad that i could share it with you as well.

    • David-

      I am so very moved and touched by your story! Thank you for sharing it with me, with all of us reading here!

      I can understand how meaningful that must have been for you, being able to reconnect with your mother. What a gift when people are able to grow and change and do repair work in a relationship.

      Your “other mother” sounds like a really special person. As do you. I am glad that you found each other. May your story help others believe that this sort of connection can be out there for them too.

  5. WoundedGenius says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    Another great post.

    Like Darleen I feel fortunate to have escaped from the family-of-origin. A combination of LGB and trauma issues plus a couple of very bizarre parents meant that being with them around holidays was actually colder and lonelier than it is now having nothing to do with them whatsoever!

    Family of choice is a hard one. I have had a couple of family of choice members pass away unexpectedly in the last couple of years (regrettably my FOO continue to outlive us all) and it has been difficult to justify the level of grief associated with losing them to a world that only recognises the value of blood relationships, no matter how dysfunctional they are.

    WG

    • Glad to read your comment here, WoundedGenius! And I am glad this post was useful to you! And of course, sorry at the same time that it does resonate, that this is an issue you’ve had to contend with!

      Such a good point: sometimes being with FOO (or any toxic people) can feel even worse/lonelier than being alone! Sometimes be alone is the better choice, at least temporarily.

      I am so sorry to hear about your losses! The dilemma of risking connection after loss is a whole other topic! And yes, it can be even more difficult when outsiders don’t “get” the connections and intensity of grief. That is sure a theme for LGB folks often, unfortunately!

      Thanks again for sharing your experience!

  6. Ann says:

    How do you deal with family issues and funerals? I just lost someone in my family and want my partner to come to the family functions, because I feel like I need her. How would you handle this…

    • Hi Ann-

      I am very sorry for your loss.

      Please know I am available for a consultation (check out http://www.drkathleenyoung.com for how to access services) around this issue in more depth than we can go into on a Blog site.

      Without knowing any of the specifics, I think it makes sense that you would want your partner with you at such a time. If this is a problem with your family, issues like how to manage their reactions, assessing the costs vs. benefits and how to assert yourself come into play.

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  8. shadowlight says:

    great post🙂

    I am slowly learning that my biological family are toxic to me… that if these people were anyone else I would not put up with all their rubbish, so why should I make extra effort just because they have the same surname as me?

    I guess my situration is odd though… my parents threw me out when I was 15, but still force me to visit and emotionallly blackmail me into being around them. So I’m not estranged from them, but they are toxic and painful to me.

    To me friends are more iportnant than family. You can pick your friends, not your family

  9. Hi shadowlight! Thanks for commenting!

    Yes, that does sound like a complicated, painful situation. The good news is that you describe becoming more aware and learning about the toxicity of your family of origin. We have to become aware of things before we can begin to cope with/change our behavior around them!

    I am very glad you have developed friends that mean that much to you! Good for you!

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  12. R R says:

    Thank you for addressing this important topic. I am an adult female who has made the painful choice not to have contact with my family of origin, (a mom with narcissistic personality disorder, 2 siblings who are enabling & also ill in ways that are too toxic for me to be around.) My question is this: Are there specific groups out there where you can meet people to be your family of choice/any resources out there? I have friends but they have large extended families & it feels like a 3rd wheel situation…I also have a small business so I work alone…I’m just wondering if there are any specific resources out there to create a family of choice with others in the same boat? Thanks for reading.

  13. Shannon says:

    Kathleen,
    This is a very good post you’ve written. I came across it trying to research “Families of Choice” for a blog post I want to make about my life.
    At the time you posted this article, I was in my second week of living my life as the woman I always wanted to be — after 54 years of trying to be the son, husband, Dad, and man everyone thought I should be. It is not just GLBT youth who suddenly find themselves without the family structure they’ve always known. My wife, who remains a friend, and my daughter and my son did not want the me I truly am in the family anymore.
    I muddled through with the support of people in my gender support group, the Washington Gender Alliance. At a meeting in October, a young woman, newly out, showed up at a meeting. She told her story. She’d been locked out and disowned by her family the night of her 28th birthday. Debra and I connected and we would hang out at our favorite coffee place. I would giver her what wisdom I could and jokingly called it “Motherly advice.” We continued to hang out, txt, and IM for the next couple months. I told her that I kinda thought of her as a daughter and was that ok? And yeah that was ok — by the end of January she’s calling me “Momma.” At the time it was still a light thing and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I woke up one morning in February to a request on Facebook to include her officially as my daughter and I did, honored to do so. When I scheduled some minor genital surgery, she made it plain that she wanted to go with me to keep me company. Since that time there has been no question that she is my daughter and I’m her mom. When someone asked recently if we were related by blod, I simply told the truth, “She is the Daughter-of-my-Heart!”
    I am a survivor. I muddle through. But I have no imagination of how I would have come through the last 18 months without Debra. Recently after I told an Aunt about Debra and what she means to me, my Aunt wondered how I could come to a place where this new person was equal in my heart to my two blood children in such a short time? Beyond simply telling her that my God, Poppa, brought us together, I knew I had to write about Families of Choice. For Debra was just the first and closest of a number of young transwomen I call “My Girls.”

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  15. LB says:

    Gosh, just decide to have more people in your life. OK. Great advice. Where do I find them? I have gotten divorced (after 22 years) and moved to an entirely new place, started a new career, etc. I am in a mid-sized city, and tried Meetup, but it does not work. I do not know where to meet anyone! Don’t suggest work or church, please. How do 50 year-olds meet others? Other than dating sites, there is no way that I can see.

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