by Dr. Kimberly Murray, PhD, LMFT
“I wish my family was different.”
“If only my family could live closer.”
“I really could use some support right now.”
“I need to talk to someone who understands who I really am.”
“Why can’t my family just support me for me?”
Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions? I sure have, every single one of them, longing for something that was missing and felt almost unattainable to access. It was in the depth of these questions that I started to expand my chosen family.
What does family mean to you?
A seemingly simple answer, the definition of family is truly not as straightforward as it may sound. Consider, what does family mean to you? How do you know who is a part of your family? Family may now include our romantic partners and their families, friends, pets, neighbors, colleagues, and more. We are now able to look beyond our traditional family and decide who is a part of our chosen family. Our chosen family is not predetermined or fixed in time like our traditional family. Chosen family fills the voids of traditional family or amplifies what we love most about our family. Choosing our family allows us to select healthy and authentic relationships, perhaps a stark difference from our traditional family or perhaps a continuation of the support we already receive and crave.
As a therapist, I continually hear of people choosing to expand their definition of family to the friends that support them the most, the second mother they gained in their church congregation, or the furry friend they come home to each night. Chosen families are especially important when we cannot be physically near or emotionally connected to our traditional families. This allows for greater access to support, connection, authenticity, love, and relationship, regardless of where we are located. I can intimately relate to both reasons for my chosen family, allowing me the opportunity for greater support, more bountiful joy, and deeper connection and authenticity than I would have otherwise. My chosen family got me through one of the hardest years of my life: the birth of my first daughter, severe postpartum depression and anxiety, the death of my mom, tremendous family turmoil, finishing my doctoral program, and moving across the country. Without my chosen family, I likely would have completely fallen apart. They served as my deepest and most expansive support system when I was most in need. But it wasn’t just in these intensive moments that I needed my chosen family. Outside of these crisis points of our life, chosen family is also vital in the mundane: babysitting, a friend to vent to, relieving boredom, wine nights, fellowship, fitness groups, and so much more.
The Blessing of Chosen Family
Think about the past year and a half. COVID rocked just about everyone’s world, shaking our understanding of how we connect with others and forcing us to reexamine our priorities. COVID allowed us time apart, serving as a blessing for a short period but then may have bred loneliness and isolation. One protective factor in all of this was an expansive chosen family, giving us multiple outlets for connecting virtually or at a distance in a park, reducing the harmful mental health effects that the pandemic brought.
Even beyond the pandemic, childhood family dynamics can be complex and often challenging, limiting our ability to gain support from our family as adults. We do not get to choose our traditional family and thus cannot choose the personality types, communication styles, support beliefs, or energy levels surrounding us. It creates a potential mismatch between our family members and us, leading to conflict and the possibility of an unsupportive environment. I can deeply and emphatically understand the volatile dynamics of our traditional families. I needed to seek out my own chosen family to not only thrive in life but also survive. Chosen family bridges the gap in support left when a deep chasm is left between our family and us.
We get to select those we are close to intentionally through our chosen family and thus choose whom we share our most authentic, vulnerable selves with, cutting out those we don’t or can’t. It is a luxury that cannot be found within our traditional families. I don’t know about you, but my chosen family means more to me than words can express. When I found my chosen family, I finally had the space to be my whole and authentic self without fear of judgment, guilt, rejection, disappointment, or pain. Talk about relief! The differences in choice, match, and intentionality can drastically shift our future and our children’s futures, allowing for greater joy, genuine connection, and improved mental health.
Tips for Choosing Your Family
Our chosen family may take years to develop, often a fluid process of fine-tuning who we invite into our circle. It may be a process with guilt or fear to start, perhaps even further widening the chasm with our family. I invite you to choose grace over guilt and seek out the support you not only need but genuinely deserve, even if that means looking beyond your family. Here are some tips for how to do this:
- I encourage you to be intentional in choosing whom you call family. Only let those in who treat you with respect, put in mutual effort, elicit a sense of wellbeing, bring you joy, and honor your trust. Remember, blood association does not give anyone a free pass to treat you poorly. Expect better and reach for more.
- Be the friend you deserve. Just as I encourage you to pick kind and healthy people for your chosen family, show up in the same way for those who choose you.
- Don’t be shy to reevaluate your relationships continually. Not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime, and not all relationships remain healthy even if they once were. Let those relationships go that no longer serve a healthy and positive place within your life.
- Be open and curious. You never know who you will most connect with or in what ways you will connect.
- Practice vulnerability and authenticity with those you trust the most. There is no greater avenue to a deep and lasting connection.
- Ask others about themselves. To find who you really connect with, listen more than you speak.
- If your chosen family could use a slight expansion, join a club or Facebook group that aligns with your interests. Take a risk and reach for connection!
- Give yourself permission to expand your family. Adding to your family does not take away from who already holds a spot within.
Families and chosen families are complex and ever-changing. We all deserve a robust support system, expanding beyond our traditional families to those we choose to love and with whom we choose to connect. As a marriage and family therapist with Safe Haven Family Therapy, LLC, I offer support to individuals, couples, and families struggling with a wide variety of concerns, including understanding healthy relationships and how to maintain them, as well as healing relationships that have become harmful. I provide this support virtually, making it convenient and easy for you and your loved ones to get the support you deserve. If you have further questions about mental health, how to improve your relationships, or the supportive resources available to you, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I can be reached at (970) 460-8015 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to connect you with exactly what you uniquely need, even if it isn’t with me. No one deserves to live in isolation or feeling under-supported, not even for one day!