The Friends And Family Plan
February 1st, 2010

Today’s post is the fourth and final installment in my friendship series.  To read the previous installments click here, here, and here.

When I was pregnant with IEP we did not reveal our chosen baby names to anyone.  I was anxious about dissenting opinions and well-intentioned meddling.  So we kept them under wraps.   But we did give hints.  And one of those hints was that the middle name was a family name.  In actuality the E comes from our best friend.  It is his middle name, and we thought it perfect for IEP. 

This friend was the best man in our wedding.  GAP was the best man in his.  We have driven and flown long miles to see each other – both in times of crisis and times of leisure.  We have seen each other through hook-ups and break-ups.  We have spent weekends together laced with wine, beer, and witty banter.   We have braved first jobs, unemployment, graduate school, and cross-country moves in each other’s embrace.  We value and trust each other immeasurably. 

And so, in offering the hint of a family name, I didn’t really factor it in that our friend is not technically our blood relation.  He may not be.  But he is still our family. 

Similarly, GAP and I are both fortunate enough to come from happy and in-tact families; families who are indeed our friends.  I talk to my mother, father, and sister multiple times weekly.  GAP is slightly less communicative, but still talks with his parents and siblings regularly.  We also have extended family members whom we consider friends, despite longer breaks between visits.

Now this is all quite lovely: friend = family and family = friend.  Très charming…  But I wonder about the boundaries of family and friendship.  I’ve been blessed with a family whom I love and enjoy.  But, like most people, there are a few outliers; people I don’t know as well, can’t relate to, don’t quite know what to say to.  What’s a girl to do with these folks?

I sit here and say that I value family.  I believe they are important.  I believe they are worth sacrifices.  They merit a not-altogether-insignificant amount of time, effort, and expense toward the end of nurturing the familial bond.  They are relationships that cannot be replaced, and they should be treated as such.

But yet, when I look at the family members to whom I’m closest, they are the ones whose lives most closely resemble my own: similar ages, similar lifestyles, similar interests.  And once some imaginary threshold of difference is met, my efforts to nurture and build that relationship diminish.

So I worry about being two-faced and duplicitous.  I worry about where I draw the line.  I worry about whether or not I should match the level of effort I extend to certain relatives to the entire lot of them.  But it’s not a small group of people.  So I then worry about how quickly I might go positively batty if I did go down that equitable path.

A few generations ago the family – both nuclear and extended – was the lynchpin of society.  Before the interstate highway system was built; before transcontinental flights took off from every airport hub many times daily; before cell phones and the internet made us accessible at all hours of the day and night; before all these things came about, the radii of our lives were shorter.  We stayed closer to home and closer to our relatives.  And these questions of how awkward to feel upon seeing a family member who is indeed your blood relative but whom you hardly know were rarely asked.  Similarly, less frequently did we all jet-set about the country (or world) for the purposes of career, climate, or courtship.  So less critical was the need to develop friends who became stand-ins for our families.

It seems disingenuous to say that these two relationships – friendship and family – are interchangeable.  In some nuanced way each relationship is distinct.  But I struggle to discern what that distinction is.   Where do the lines of friends and family become blurred?  What does each type of relationship lose (if anything) by being labeled as the other?  Do we overload friendships with pressure and commitment by thinking of them as family?  Are family relationships undersold by being outlined with the same, sometimes fickle, brush strokes as friendship?  And further still, such questions presuppose that the family bond is always stronger than friendship.  But history has borne witness to far too many family feuds for the family bond to masquerade as invincible.

I do not know the answers to these questions.  Frankly, I’m not sure what answers would bring to the table.  We are all different; in our families; in our friendships; and in the ways we bridge the gaps between the two. 

What I do know is that as human beings we need both; or at least people who fill both roles.    We need people whose bond to us is temporary, allowing us to learn, grow, and move on in our lives.  Not all relationships are meant to last forever.  But we also need people whose ties to us are enduring and permanent.  We are social animals, in need of many forms of companionship. 

I am lucky to have been blessed with both friends and family.  Not only that, but friends and family who defy the boundaries of conventional labels.  This doesn’t mean that I have perfect relationships; that I don’t sometimes still feel lonely or isolated.  But it means that when I do have those feelings I have people to share them with.  And whether it’s the door of a friend or a family member that I knock on, the presence of the door itself is what matters the most.

4 Responses to “The Friends And Family Plan”

  1. Anne Says:

    Interesting thoughts and questions…where to even begin? Close friendships are beautiful entities…but there’s something about being related to someone–by blood–that I’ve always found sort of special and irreplaceable. My husband always says, “when you have nothing else, you still have family.” And to me, that couldn’t be more true. So no matter how I may differ from family, or how much I (don’t) share in common with someone, I believe they deserve my efforts–however measly those might sometimes be.

  2. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    As always, you ask good questions here. Indeed the line between family and friends has been blurred. And I think that is okay. I don’t think it is overly important that we locate where exactly that line should be drawn, or discern the essential difference between family and friend. Rather, I think we should focus on the power inherent in many familial and friendly bonds, the magic of being supported – and supporting others. I also think we need to be cognizant of the limits of both. No one – whether properly labeled as family or friend – can be everything to us. That is why it is so fantastic to be surrounded by so many people – in reality, in the virtual world, in virtureality.

    Thanks once more for making me think…

  3. Eva Says:

    What a thoughtful post here, Gale. I especially like your comments on how these relationships have changed over the last few generations, as we are a more mobile society and rarely stay in the same community we were raised.
    In many ways, I feel closer to my friends. I joke that I love my best friend like a sister: sometimes she drives me crazy, and there’s a little bit of sibling rivalry.
    I also think the dynamic of my family vs. my in-laws can be difficult. Is it wrong to say I like my in-laws better?? There are logical reasons: we agree on politics more, we love the urban lifestyle, my sister-in-law is much closer to my stage in life than my own sister. Very tricky, and sensitive, stuff.
    Thanks for giving me food for thought, Eva

  4. Lauren Says:

    Is there a difference between biological family and friends who feel like family? You’re right to point out that our answer to that question will largely depend on our own family/friend network. I am blessed to have both – a tightly-knit family and a tightly-knit group of friends who feel like family. And yet, for me, my “real” family trumps (evidenced, I think, by the fact that I refer to them as my “real” family). My friends who feel like family will thus always feel like the next level of family – not the inner circle. But for several of the people in this friend-group of mine, we are all they have. We are their inner circle. What, then, does that say about the relationship? If my husband and I play a role in their lives that is grander and more significant than they play in ours? Does it mean our relationship is uneven? That I matter more to them than they to me because I’m all they have? Or, is the opposite true? Do I value them more because I have the benefit of a “real” family, one that has show me how true family is supposed to operate? Does the word “family” (and what it signifies) mean something different to people who have families and people who don’t?

    I have no answers. :) But either way, thanks for the post. Great food for thought!