Family by Birth and Family by Choice

Copyright © 2015, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

We are all born into a family.  Whether it's a traditional family, a single parent, whether we are adopted at birth, we all started life with a mother and a father.  Some of us are raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles.  Some of us spent time with cousins and extended family during our childhood, while others may have had little or no contact with them.  And, of course, there are siblings.  Growing up in the company of brothers and sisters is quite different from growing up as an only child.

This group of people is referred to broadly as our “family of origin” (FOO).  We have very little, if any, control over who is in our FOO.  If our parents produce seven other children, for example, then we become one of eight siblings.  If our parents divorce, we have very little input into that decision, although they may be privately agonizing over how the divorce will affect us.  And if they choose to remarry, we may or may not like their choice of a new spouse.  They may consider our feelings about a prospective new partner, but they will ultimately make the decision.  And that new person may bring along his or her own children, who then become our stepbrothers and stepsisters.

As you can see, the group of people who are formally identified as our “family” may change over time.  But, in spite of structural changes, there's generally an underlying assumption that we owe each other loyalty, protection, and, in many cases, material support, especially where minor children are concerned.  The reality is often different from the ideal, and people may neglect or abuse those to whom they are related by birth, including, sadly, their own children.

A “family by choice” is a different entity, given that we have a say in who is part of that family.  This often has to do with people we identify as friends.  They may be friends from childhood, high school, college or the military.  They may be coworkers or neighbors.  Your family by choice may also include blood relatives with whom you reconnect at some point during your life.

The same principles that apply to your ties to family of origin also apply, to some extent, to your family by choice—loyalty, willingness to help, empathy.  For instance, you and a close friend may agree on a carpooling or reciprocal babysitting arrangement.  When you head to the grocery, you may check with that neighbor to see if he/she needs anything.  If your neighbor's husband, for example, needs to go to the ER in the middle of the night, you are available to care for their children overnight.

Of course, a family by choice is likely to change over time.  Families move, whether for career opportunities, education, military service, needing to care for elderly or ailing family members, etc.  And the same is true, to some extent, for families of origin.  We lose relatives to death, perhaps divorce.  So, the definition of “family” is elastic, flexible, and ever-changing.  The hope is that we stay open to relationship opportunities, whether we inherit them by birth or cultivate them along the way on life's journey.  Both families offer opportunities and challenges.  A trained mental health professional can be of assistance in working with you on establishing appropriate boundaries with family and being open to expanding relationship possibilities.