What is a family?  This may sound like a ridiculous question to most people. After all, families are families. The term is self-explanatory . . . or is it?  A family is a group of people related by blood and marriage.  But the term is multiply-layered with meaning, significance, and expectation. Our culture (and most cultures) construct the family as the essential building block of society, consisting of virtually indestructible bonds between related groups of people.


Representations of family usually depict family members as protective of one another, unerringly loyal, loving, caring and supportive. Members of a family “have each other’s back” and are supposed to take you back and help you get back on your feet no matter how bad the blow life has dealt you and no matter how bad the mistakes are that you may have made.  Family takes care of you when you are ill and bails you out of jail when you are in trouble.


Needless to say, this is not everyone’s experience of family. Families are anything but unidimensional.  Most families embody a mixture of loyalty and back-biting, rescuing and distancing, loving and criticizing, acceptance, conditional love, and outright rejection.  Certainly, there are a few families that may express most of the loving and positive qualities of family and few of the negative aspects, but many other families seem to contain more conflict and criticism than love and acceptance.  Add to this the fact that families do not treat all members of the family the same way.


Part of adulthood is coming to terms with our personal experience of family during our growing up years and another part is defining and re-creating our ideas of family to reflect our own personal values and needs.  Whether your family embodied many elements of the cultural ideal or deviated far from this ideal, most of us have had our own opportunity to reshape our image of what it means to be a family.


Today, our families may be defined by the types of relationships we have with specific people in our lives, regardless of blood or marriage. We call these our “families of choice”.  Family is an incredibly complex notion and we all have different experiences of being part of a family.  Let’s discuss some of yours.

  • What, in your opinion, makes a family a family? What qualities and characteristics do you associate with being part of a family?
  • Who does your family consist of now?
  • How is the family you created as an adult similar to or different from your family of origin? Have you succeeded in creating the type of family you wanted to create for yourself, your partner, and your children (if you have children)?
  • As you are aging, which is becoming more salient for you—your family of blood relations or your family of choice?