Friends, it is often said, are God's consolation prize for the family he gave you. It's a phrase that elicits vigorous nods from those who had bad childhoods, or who just don't share world views with the people who share their last name.
An article in today's New York Times profiles a group of design aficionados who made, rather strikingly, a ten-year comittment to fix up a loft in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighbhorhood and live in it together. Reading about this interesting "family of choice" --a variation of the "Urban Tribes" Ethan Watters compellingly explored about a decade ago--got me thinking further about the distinctions between family and friends. Many are false or at least more complex than sayings such as "God's consolation prize" convey:
--We don't choose our parents, siblings, or ancestors, of course, but most people choose the people they mate with, meaning that your own family, as well as your friends, could be God's consolation prize for your family of origin. I've noticed that some people revere and/or romanticize their family of origin and hope to recreate its tone and traditions while others take their family of origin as a lesson in what not to do when one is holding the reins. (Hmm..but are we ever really holding the reins?)
--We operate under the assumption that families share genes while friends don't. However, adopted children don't share genes with their parents, while friends, according to research by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, may in fact tend to share genes. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view: If you look out for non-relatives who nonetheless share some of your genes, you increase their chances of passing on those shared genes, even if you don't reproduce.
--People who describe their friends as "family" often do so to convey the extra close feelings they have toward pals. But family members who refer to each other as "friends" or "best friends" often do so also to convey the extra close feelings they have toward their relatives!
--If we further break down the family-member-as-friend category, we find some mixed connotations: Siblings or cousins who call each other friends are viewed positively. Husbands and wives who call each other friends are viewed, depending on the context, either with admiration ("they have a foundation of compatibility and mutual respect"), or suspicion ("they must have a sexless marriage"). Parents and children who regard each other as friends are viewed negatively by psychology professionals who view it as damaging to the children, but positively by the parents making those declarations.
--Gays and lesbians have been an interesting case study for researchers interested in the potential of friendship, because many (especially when the AIDS crises took hold) have been shunned by their families, leaving them no choice but to choose friends as a family replacement. Social scientists such as Peter Nardi have observed in some studies that gays and lesbians are thus closer to their friends, and that these friends perform many different roles not traditionally ascribed to them.
--We might assume that losing a family member is harder on someone than losing a friend. But sometimes it's not, though good luck trying to get reduced air fare to go to a friend's funeral.
--Thinking about these distinctions might get us into an "either/or" mindset when it comes to friends and family. But the strongest friends are often integrated into our families (whether of origin or of procreation) and the strongest families allow for individual members to cultivate friendships.
I hope the Times does a follow-up story on the Bushwick Five once the ten years are up. It would be great to hear how a family with a time-limited, rather than an "eternal," comittment fares and how their relationships change should some of them contemplate creating additional families of their own.
Friendfluence the book is out in January!