It is a simple word – with a relatively (ha! See what I did there?) simple definition. Usually.
When you say family, most think of the people they are related to – genetically, by adoption, or by marriage. Spouses, parents, siblings, kids. The phrase “extended family” often brings to mind the outer branches of your tree; grandparents, aunts, cousins, nieces & nephews.
By and large, you have little to no choice about who the members of your family are. You don’t get to choose your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. You get to pick your spouse (hopefully) – but you don’t get to pick the group of in-laws that comes with that person.
Being part of a family is, sometimes, difficult. Navigating those relationships can be incredibly stressful – especially when you feel as though you’re stuck with a particular set of family members. And, yes, to a point, you are stuck with them. Until you don’t have to be any more.
Your life/personality/energy/aura (whatever you want to call it) is like a bank account. When you are born, you have nothing. Those closest to you are the ones who are going to help you build that account as you grow. These are the ones who will love and nurture you. They will provide for you – not because they have to, but because they want to. They are the ones who you can lean on for advice. They are the ones who will give you the “tough love” – not because they enjoy being right, but because they love you enough to help you get better.
Then there are those who seem to do nothing more than try to take away from you. They make it clear – mostly through actions – that their love is only given out of obligation. Your level of importance is directly correlated to how it makes them look. If what you’ve done makes them look better, then you’re right on top. If your achievements aren’t enough for someone else to say “you must be so proud!”, then you’re worthless.
Hopefully, those who are adding to your account far outnumber those who are trying to take from you. However, if you’re anything like me, the ones who take from you are often far more successful – even though their numbers are smaller. The only way to stop them from taking from you is to no longer give them access. And that’s the hard part.
What is easy is recognizing the people who aren’t part of your family, but really should be. Those are the people who are making the effort to add something positive to your life in the way that any of your family members would. For me, these are the folks who I know I could call at any moment of the day and they would drop everything for me if I really needed it. And these guys, I hope, know I would do the same for them. These are the folks who my kids call “Auntie” or “Uncle” – even though there is no actual familial relationship, beyond that of friendships standing the test of time.
When you get old enough and financially stable enough, you get to start picking and choosing which of your family members you want to stay connected with – and what level of connection you maintain. You may decide to add members to your family – officially or otherwise. You may also choose to cease contact with a member of your family – for your own good and that of some of your other family members.
Keep in mind, however, that changes to a family’s list of members will create a dynamic shift that will ripple through the entire group, and you need to be prepared for that. Adding someone is, most of the time, a good thing. Even bringing in a die-hard Republican to a family of lifetime Democrats can be done successfully, assuming (s)he has some redeeming qualities. (Fortunately, my husband has survived the liberal fires pretty well over the last 13+ years we’ve been together.)
If the person you’re bringing in is not well received, however, you need make choices about how you will proceed. You may choose to force the two together in the hopes that something will work out eventually, you may become the “go-between” doing your best to make sure all involved are happy, or you can choose between one side or the other.
If you chose to eliminate a family member (or group of family members) from your life, there is a fall out that comes with that choice, and you have to be prepared to accept that fall out. Largely, you no longer get to know what is going on in the life of those people. You chose to cut them out. You chose to walk away. You gave up the right to learn what is going on in their lives directly from them. You now have to accept that anything you learn about those family members will be second-hand information.
When you say, “I don’t want to be part of this family. I want to leave and never look back.” You have to be ready to accept everything that comes with that choice when/if you actually act on it.
At the end of the day, I suppose you really can decide who is in your family and who isn’t. You just need to make sure you’re ok with those choices. Once you cut people out, they’re often out for good. Even with family, you only get so many second chances.
So, go ahead. Pick and choose. Just make sure you do it carefully.