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“Family” members don’t always have to be related to you, right? That’s correct, according to many people, including Emma Stone, who instead prefer to put dear friends into that heralded category.
“I think friendship is pretty much everything,” Stone told fellow actress and friend Jennifer Lawrence in an interview for Elle. She said that since turning 30 she’s had an epiphany regarding friends. “You pick your family. You realize that your friendships, the people who go with you into these next phases of your life — you’re choosing your family.”
“Chosen family” is a concept that’s not new — particularly when it comes to many LGBT people, who, often out of necessity, choose sibling and parent figures and create solid family units for unconditional love and support. But it’s an idea that’s being discussed more and more in the mainstream, through books, blogs, and discussions with celebrities like Stone and Jennifer Aniston, who has said, “We come from homes far from perfect, so you end up almost parent and sibling to your friends — your own chosen family.”
Though the term was very likely used earlier, it is sometimes credited to anthropologist Kath Weston, whose classic 1991 book, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship, draws on interviews to discuss the ways in which gay men and lesbians construct family units after being rejected by their biological families.
That cultural phenomenon was unpacked on mainstream TV recently with the FX series Pose, which is about the drag-ball scene of the late 1980s in New York City and depicts the “houses,” or created families, that emerged out of necessity.
“Pretty much everyone on the show doesn’t have a family because they were rejected … the circumstances are dire,” noted Jenna Wortham on “We Choose Our Own Families,” a recent episode of the New York Times podcast Still Processing. On the show, she and co-host Wesley Morris talk about how characters on Pose — as with LGBT people in real life — are kicked out of their houses and wind up homeless because they are queer. It’s the first TV show, Wortham noted, that has encapsulated “the idea of the chosen family, or the people that you tend to rely on in lieu of a biological family.”
Several years ago, market research by MetLife Mature Market Institute in conjunction with the American Society on Aging found that 64 percent of the LGBT boomers surveyed said they have a “chosen family,” defined as “a group of people to whom you are emotionally close and consider ‘family’ even though you are not biologically or legally related.” The findings illustrated how images of a conventional nuclear family in advertising could be less impactful than more diverse “family” images.
And that can be true across the board, LGBT or not.
“It seems like a good moment to pause in praise of our chosen family, otherwise known as our friends,” wrote Courtney Martin for an On Being column, “In Praise of Chosen Families,” in honor of the always-fraught holiday season. “It is our families that shape us from the very beginning, but it is our friends that truly define us down the road. They are the ones we get to invite into our lives.”
Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of the book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, sees the discussion of friends-as-family in terms of evocative language.
“The metaphor ‘like family’ falls in with other ways that ‘family’ has become popular as a way to talk about close relationships,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “For example, ‘working families’ is a metaphor — families don’t work, parents or heads of households do. But ‘working family’ substitutes the evocative word ‘family’ for ‘working people,’ to capture that the effect is on the entire family.” Similar, Tannen says, is the rise in the use of the metaphor “family” for the idea that “my friends are the family I choose.”
She added, “When I wrote my book on sisters, a woman I quoted said, ‘My friends are the sisters I was meant to have.’ The metaphor of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ for same-sex friends goes way back. It’s even seen in works by Shakespeare, where the friendship between a protagonist and a companion/servant often drives the plot.”
Recently, Connecticut-based psychologist Barbara Greenberg said she has noticed the importance of close companions being cited in studies on longevity prediction. The studies note that having a “support system” is an important factor in achieving a long life, she told Yahoo Lifestyle. “It doesn’t say ‘family.’ We used to say ‘family,’ but a lot of people have very problematic patterns with family members,” she says. “We can have much healthier relationships with friends.”
Greenberg says she often hears that “a lot of people feel mismatched with their family” but that “with friends, you can sort of make a place, within your tribe, where you feel you belong.”
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