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What Is a Family?

Rachel Alexander Nov. 8, 2016

{4:06 minutes to read} Recently, a mediation client exclaimed, “I want to stay married. I want us to still be a family.” This struck me between the eyes. My grappling with a response produced what follows.

As a divorce mediator, part of my job is to parse out, dig into, and sometimes challenge the static and unconscious meaning clients assign to important words. Staying married is one thing, being a family quite another.

What is a Family?

Back in social work school, I was first presented with this query.

  • Must there be offspring? (What about couples who cannot or elect not to have children?)

  • Does family depend upon only 2 people in a romantic relationship? (What about polygamous families?)

  • Does family have to comprise a man and a woman? (How about homosexual families?)

  • Does a family always reside under one roof? (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow lived across Central Park in separate apartments while married; however, perhaps a poor example for numerous other reasons!)

In social work school, much course work was devoted to the question of what constitutes family, and I believed I had a sturdy handle on the dynamic issues that go into the deceptively simple question. Nevertheless, years later, and well into my career as a family mediator in New Jersey, when a client exclaimed, “We are divorcing! We won’t be a family anymore,” I still found myself facing this unruly and unresolved question.

Family is big—it’s anthropological, biological, cultural and political. Well before Stronger Together was a political campaign slogan, it was a survival strategy. From our earliest development as sentient beings, we felt, and actually were, safer in clans. We are wired to yearn to procreate, love, and form deep, ongoing connections. It’s in our biological make-up. Our survival, once, and perhaps still, depends upon it!

What is a Divorced Family?

“Not divorced” does not equal “intact.” Many of us survived in badly broken homes although our parents never divorced. It takes a great deal to have a functional family, and I propose that divorcing or remaining married may not be the determining factor.

Holding the tenants of family, particularly for the benefit of your children, is a wonderful way parents mitigate negative effects of divorce. When family consists of a parental unit, i.e. two parents who operate as a parenting body for the benefit of their children, and follows consistent guidelines established to protect and nurture, the family will produce stable, grounded children and foster a sense of well being.

Conversely, parents who communicate with disdain towards one another, undermine one another’s authority and worth, and enlist their children as allies and confidantes deteriorate the structure of their family and harm the kids.

Even when a marriage needs to end, the family can, and frankly must, persevere. This is the parental commitment. This is the life-forward choice.

As far as your children are concerned, you’re the most important people in the world. You are their family. Your task is to architect this version of family into the best version it can be now, resting in the certainty that this ‘now’ will soon be replaced with another. And you can influence it to be better and better.