Family: FOC or FOO—Which is Important to You?

Family is an important idea this time of year. The holidays often bring a focus on family; there is an assumption that one will spend time with family during Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. I know of many couples who spend Thanksgiving with one of their families and Christmas with the other. But when one’s family is not supportive—or just crazy-making—“family” just can become an awkward experience this time of year.

 In psychology we split the concept of family into two phenomena: Family of Origin (FOO) and Family of Choice (FOC). Family of Origin refers to the family from which one comes—this consists of your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. Family of Choice refers to the family one creates—this consists of spouse/partner, children, and grandchildren, and even daughter-/son-in-laws.  Embedded in this distinction is the idea that we do not get to choose the family into which we are born, but do get to choose the family that we create (at least to a certain degree).  In other words, we get to choose our partner (at least in the dominant American cultural paradigm) and we get to instill our values on our offspring (to varying degrees of success, granted)—which hopefully in turn affect our offspring’s choice of partners.

 With further understanding of the lives of the GLBT community the concept of FOC has been broadened, along with the definition of family. For decades (and even today) GLBT people have experienced non-support and even rejection from their parents. I have a client who was un-invited to Thanksgiving dinner because she told her family that she is transitioning to female. I have another client who does not want to have a wedding ceremony because he believes that his family will not attend—will not deem it worth the trip to Washington. In the face of this rejection by relatives, many GLBT people have formed non-blood-related networks of support.

 The definition of family and the concept of family do not always correspond. By definition, family is basically people bound together by blood, marriage, or adoption.  But when I ask my clients what a family is (or is supposed to be) they mention things like caring, supportive, (unconditionally) loving, and enjoyable to be around; this is what I call the template of family. The template—not the definition—is what determines our expectations (hopes?) of interacting with family. When our relatives fail to meet the expectations of family, we frequently seek this from our circle of friends.  Thus the extension of the concept of FOC to not just relatives, but the people who we choose to form our source of care, support, love, and companionship.

 During the holiday season we can get caught up in thinking about family in terms of FOO, and sometimes experience disappointment when they are unable to fulfill the expectations of the template of family.  This rigid thinking about what family means during the holidays can be detrimental.  Instead one might want to consider thinking about the people one has a choice of being around—one’s support system of choice (not random circumstance).  I also hope that people can recognize that if one has a circle of friends—in this increasingly accepted looser conception of family of choice—he or she is “not alone for the holidays,” even in the absence of a primary partner.  This is a great time to value one’s family, just remember you have options in how you conceptualize or define that family.