I do not like the word family held up as the highest title you can bestow on a friend or a romantic partner. This can be on its own or in the phrases “found family” or “chosen family.” Maybe this is largely on account of my privilege as a person who has a supportive immediate family. The way I love my family, particularly my parents, is rougher and more complicated than the way I love anyone else. It involves brokenness, waxing and waning trust, and rebuilding that I most likely wouldn’t be willing to go through with a romantic partner. The concept of unconditional love has always seemed like an excuse to not work harder to be good to each other, but my actual family is the only structure in which anything close to it exists. It is a unique dynamic, but does it make it more sacred than friendship and romantic love? No, I don’t think so.
The assumption that friendship and romance as their own paradigms don’t hold enough weight seems wrong to me. While I can see the comfort in the idea of found family – particularly if your own blood has been a litany of disappointments and failures to connect – it’s just not a barrier I want to cross. I used to want it so badly it caused me incredible grief. In the interest of being a more reliable narrator, my distaste is probably in part just an attempt to forge that grief into something more dignified. But like an indignant child, I am here to tell you that I also buy where I’ve landed, really, I do.
I think the idea that some of our most important relationships are held together by nothing more than choice can be terrifying. We can understand the positives and power of it – wow, they have no reason to be here beyond their own belief in my place in their life – and still desperately want to construct a buffer. And what better safety net than to compare someone to the one relationship you had no choice in – that you can singe off through estrangement but never truly erase? The people who do make that break face oppressive stigma. Even abused children are often told “she’ll always be your mother!” I can’t help but see the need to declare our self-made bonds familial as a sort of stake in the ground; a salt circle in which relationships that are as fragile as any become fortified.
My parents are, of course, family. Were their previous marriages families before children were involved? That’s an interesting question to me. When pressed, I think most people would say that marriages in and of themselves are family units, but you still hardly ever hear the phrase “childless family” vs. “childless couple.” I’m biased, because my own experience with marriage is a facet of my problem with the word family. I fear marriage because it stands in bureaucratic defiance to my belief that people should be able to leave relationships at any time for any reason. Before and during my divorce, I bristled at my husband referring to us – two people increasingly incomprehensible to each other – as a family. I’m comfortable saying I belong to my family; that I am a member of it. I’m not comfortable saying that about anyone else. Just as I am cynical about the prospect of ever getting married again, it’s hard to imagine calling or wanting to be called family by a romantic partner.
It’s not that I don’t take obligations and responsibilities to our friends and partners seriously. I do, probably more now than I ever have. But the nature of those commitments is so different than what I feel toward my family. I know if my friends and I had gone through some of the rough patches my siblings and I have, we would no longer be friends. Romantic love in particular is delicate and conditional. The work is messy. When it involves terribly contentious things like fidelity and boredom and sex it becomes a different beast than any other type of relationship. The difficulties of romance can be very lonely and it’s not pleasant to realize how tenuous and easy to lose it is. I think it’s tempting to want to call it family, to override the potential for pain, to believe we have a reason for being together beyond wanting to, and still wanting to the day after.
I know that when most people call their friends family, they only say it as the highest compliment. I don’t mean to disregard their personal sorting systems and the places in which they hold their loved ones. You could (rightly, probably) accuse me of having the darkest possible take on these words. But I do aggressively believe in being good to the people we love, and that it’s difficult, and that part of that difficulty involves being honest about what things are. Or maybe I’m just envious.