What is Family?

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Alicia and I were watching a DVD of Disney’s The Incredible Journey last night. It’s a real mood enhancer. On the face of it it’s about the adventures of two dogs and a cat who find their way home over hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. On another level it’s about family.

Overwhelmingly we tend to describe family in biological and legal terms: you are part of my family because I am your mother or father, brother, cousin, sibling etc or because you are related to me by marriage. However this definition is too narrow to fully describe the wonderfully broad range of close emotional ties which bind individuals.

At the end of the movie Chance–a mongrel who had been a stray and who had spent time in the pound–finds “family” in his connection to the humans who adopt him and also with the dog and cat with whom he makes the incredible journey.

I think my own situation. I have no siblings, my parents have long since died and Alicia and I have no children. Even when my mother was alive we were estranged from the time I left home at 16. What’s more I have lost touch with my cousins, uncles and aunts. Under the biological definition, my family would be limited to Alicia.

The surprising reality is that for many the biological and legal family may well be the least important, and least satisfactory, element in our relationship nexus. I would rather define family as those individuals close to us upon whom we can depend for emotional and/or physical support and to whom we can meaningfully reciprocate. In other words family encompasses those with whom we have a real and meaningful mutual satisfaction of social needs.

Under this definition a pet can most definitely be part of the family, as Chance found, and one’s father, due to an early relationship failure, may not be. Our dogs Biscuit and Tuppence and our cats Sops and Pumpkin were part of Alicia and my family even though we had no biological or legal ties to them (unfortunately all of them have passed on). Our family also includes people to whom we have no bio-legal ties. In fact there are circles of family–ties of love and support stretching out inclusively though not necessarily equally.

The core unit includes, of course, Alicia and me. But it also includes Sophie who works with us, often travels with us, debates passionately with us, meets our needs and shows us love. Alicia and my love for each other is not lessened by the inclusion of a close colleague. Love is not exclusive, nor is sexual or romantic love more or less important than any other kind of attachment. Any attachment that is deep and supportive can be family.

In the first circle around this core unit there are those whose family ties to us are solid but not quite so deep. They are still very much part of my emotional support system even though many of them may be separated from me physically. In this circle are people in New York, in Raleigh, in Sydney, Tampa and Belfast. Some don’t even know each other.

Then there is another family circle which includes more transitory connections yet with whom I can still share love and need. They are still family and they can come into the inner circle.

I am not biologically or legally related to any of these people. Some colleagues of mine who are biological determinists would, perhaps, argue that without close genetic connection there can be no altruism. This is a position that I profoundly disagree with. I see humans as a co-operative and altruistic, not competitive, species. We are naturally inclusive not exclusive, even on a biological level. Women, for example, are programmed not just to protect their own baby but also other people’s babies and even the babies–puppies, kittens, foals–of other species.

It is in fact in our survival interest to reach out and add to our family: to use our innate altruism to add to our own protection. What stops us is a society that has raised exclusivity, individuality and competition to the rank of highest values.

We believe that since humans are fundamentally social animals–like dogs and wildebeest–we are defined and formed by our social connections. There is no Bob Murray except for the personality formed by the interaction of his genes and his relationship environment modified by his adult connections. As I change, I change in relationship to those I am in contact with, especially my family. My ability to change, to develop, depends on my ability to connect with people who will make me question and change intrenched dysfunctional beliefs about myself and the world.

Too many of my clients, especially around the so-called “festive season,” feel guilty because they don’t have a satisfactory relationship with their biological or legal kin. I ask them “If you weren’t related to them, would you welcome them into your tribe?” If they answer no then this is probably because there is no sense of mutual support–no satisfaction of functional needs–upon which any deep relationship has to be based. There is no real “family” connection.

I am blessed that my extended family, all of those in all of the circles, gives me the support that it does. That support is the real meaning of family.

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