You Can Choose Your Family

Jane was blessed enough to have a mother and father who provided a strong emotional center of love and support. From an early age, she could count on them for hugs and kisses, for care and compassion, and when she needed to be disciplined, they administered it in an appropriate way.

But not everyone has that built-in foundation.

Peter didn’t. While his parents were good providers, giving him a roof over his head and food on the table, they weren’t the greatest at being the emotional family he needed. Not once growing up did his dad say that he loved or was proud of him. Mom did her best to nurture him, but that mostly involved yelling “No, Chuck, don’t hit him” when he chased Peter around the house with the belt, for no good reason except to unleash his own inner rage toward those at work who belittled him.

As a result of being his dad’s “punching bad” as a kid, Peter felt alone in the world during his teens and 20s—carrying a heavy sense of emptiness and pain that nothing took away. He was angry at his father, finding it impossible to forgive him. His feelings toward his mother weren’t much better, and while he didn’t hate her, he often wondered why she didn’t do more to protect him.

Not the End of the Story

Peter had moments when he wished he had never been born. But mostly, he questioned why he had to be born into “this family.”

Peter, like many people, accept the refrain “you can’t pick your family” and then lose themselves in helplessness, hopelessness, and chronic sadness. Desperate to find the tenderness and encouragement they need but believe is impossible, they settle on the “narrative” that has already been written for their lives. However, it doesn’t need to be the end of the story, said Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps, family expert and author of Insecure in Love.

“While it’s true that you cannot pick your biological family, you can pick your emotional one,” Becker-Phelps said. “Imagine having friends (even one friend) who you could rely on to be there for you. You could turn to those people for support in times of trouble and to celebrate with you in times of happiness. Although you would not be family according to a bloodline or legal document, you would be the very definition of family when you consider what relatives in healthy families offer each other.”

Don’t Expect Perfection, Though

Just as in healthy biological families, the relationships in your emotional family will not be perfect. Some might be better at helping you out with practical life issues. You might turn to others when you need support during an emotionally trying time, or when you need someone to celebrate your successes. But you know without a doubt that they care, and they show you this in ways that feel good.

Mary could count on Tori in good times and the not so good ones, like when she lost her job and couldn’t pay her rent. While Tori didn’t offer to let Mary live with her or pay her bills, she spent countless weeks searching and applying for jobs—supplementing Mary’s own efforts. And at 3 in the morning when Mary couldn’t sleep, Tori never once failed to return a text or take a call.

Tori was the emotional family that Mary needed. But the relationship didn’t just happen. Mary had to nurture it.

Mary remembered first meeting Tori through some mutual friends. At first, the two of them didn’t care much for each other. Their personalities were too different, and they clashed. But over time, Mary discovered that Tori’s good nature superseded any idiosyncrasies that Tori had.

Tori understood Mary in a way that her parents and siblings could not. They were still angry at her for moving from their small town, to the “Big City,” because the jobs were there. But instead of supporting her decision—or reaching out when “that decision didn’t go so well, now, did it . . . see, we told you so”—they shut her down, refusing to listen.

Mary didn’t need a large emotional family. She was better for having just one emotional family member in Tori than none at all. But different people have different strengths. So, it is wise to cultivate a number of such relationships, according to Becker-Phelps.

The More the Better

John did, and he couldn’t be happier. He had a great relationship with his biological family. But they were 3,000 miles away in Seattle, making it impossible to “reach out and touch them.”

Sure, there was Skype. But he couldn’t hug his mother through the Internet or have those meaningful “sit downs” he used to enjoy with his father. So, John made a point to develop a support system in Chicago that included people similar in age, but also older. It was a healthy mix of those he called his “family.”

Once he decided that he wanted to nurture an emotional family, he looked at the people around him, including friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. John thought about which ones were good candidates for his emotional support.

For example, his work-out buddy, Jim, was great at keeping John committed to his exercise regimen. But Jim wasn’t the most sympathetic person during trying times. TJ, from church, was. He had the “listening ear” and “tender heart” for John.

TJ and Jim filled different roles for John. He was glad he had made overtures to spend more time with them initially, getting to know them better.

It wasn’t a guarantee that his efforts would lead to a closer connection. “But,” as Becker-Phelps said, “the process of doing so can offer the greatest payoff ever—an emotional family of your choosing that will be there for you.”

Every relationship is different and has something unique to offer, Becker-Phelps said.  Focus on enjoying the “gifts” while accepting the limits of each relationship.

“And make sure to be there for your emotional family,” she added. “Don’t just take. Be willing to give, for when you have it to give, giving feels good.

References

Becker-Phelps, L. “You CAN Choose Your Family,” WebMD, Relationships section (Wednesday, February 21, 2018). Retrieved from https://blogs.webmd.com/art-of-relationships/2018/02/you-can-choose-your-family.html

 

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