The rules were simple.
Stephanie Drury set one boundary with her mother: Don’t shame me. Stephanie’s mom wasn’t allowed to shame her daughter for her hair or her wardrobe or the way she raised her own children. If she did, Stephanie would stop talking to her.
The boundary didn’t hold. Every time they spoke, Stephanie’s mom would inevitably shame her for one reason or another. Stephanie would cut off contact for a month or two, feel guilty, then call her mother back. Even when her mother promised to do better, she would fall back into her own patterns. So would Stephanie: She would cut off contact again, she would feel guilty again, rinse, repeat.
Finally, after a year of back-and-forth, Stephanie’s husband asked whether she and her parents would be willing to have a mediated conversation on how to improve their overall relationship. They asked a trusted family friend who was a pastor to mediate. When he sent an email to the people who would be participating in that discussion, Stephanie’s mother seemed to interpret the very act of asking for a meeting as an act of aggression. She replied with, “It’s too bad that Stephanie has decided to never talk to us again. It’s so sad that Stephanie has made this decision, and that we’re never going to see our grandchildren.”
“I was so relieved that someone else was bearing witness to this insanity that I grew up with,” Stephanie, who works as a risk analyst in Seattle, says. (Several people in this article asked that their last names not be used in order to speak freely about estrangements, abuse, and complex familial relationships.) “I had an extreme emotional response. I kicked a hole in the wall. It was finally real to me. And my therapist was like, ‘Your conscious brain finally accepted what your subconscious had always known, which is that your parents were always capable of disowning you. You were disposable to them all your life.’”
That was 15 years ago, and Stephanie hasn’t been in touch with her parents since. In that time, her oldest child has gone off to college, and her youngest is now in high school. In that time, Stephanie’s siblings have tried to set similar boundaries with their parents and been similarly rejected; they have since cut off contact with their parents as well. And in that time, Stephanie has learned to rebuild her self-esteem, her faith, and her sense of self, finding new versions of them that were not dictated to her by her parents.
When Stephanie finally cut her parents out of her life in 2006, the language she needed to talk about her decision wasn’t readily available. Even the word “boundary” wasn’t exactly part of the common lexicon. Slowly but surely, she found her way to a larger community of people who cared about her in ways that were loving and supportive, some of them in real life but many of them online.
“Now I have boundaries around, ‘I don’t care if you’re family, you can’t talk to me that way.’ I guess that’s pretty good,” she says. “There’s grief around not being loved. But there’s also the joy and promise of finding loving people. They’re everywhere. They don’t have to be your blood relatives.”
We are, in 2021, somewhat more acquainted with the ways that concepts like toxic relationships and gaslighting can warp families beyond recognition and turn these bonds sinister. Many people are conscious of the idea of setting boundaries, and understand that the definition of family can be elastic enough to include, say, beloved friends. None of these ideas are new, but the language we’re using to talk about them has a clinically detached vibe that allows us to confront incredibly painful experiences with some degree of distance. It feels precise; it captures an inexact idea we know to be true in our bones: Sometimes, family isn’t worth it.
But what do we mean when we say that? Just what is a family anyway?
Here’s one possible answer: Your family is the people who raised you and the people you grew up with. Usually, you were born to them, but sometimes you were adopted by them at an early age. You can think of a dozen variations on this idea, but the core of it is always the same: the nuclear family unit.
This definition of a family has been provided to us by our culture, our storytelling, and our religious traditions for the past several centuries, and it is officially underwritten by government policy in most nations, including the United States. Just think of how many TV sitcom episodes have ended with some family patriarch reminding his children — and by proxy all of us in the audience — that family comes first, and your family will never let you down. The unshakable primacy of the family unit is one of the earliest tropes we learn.
But it’s an idea with profound limitations.
At the core of that idea is obligation. Some obligations are necessary for society to function; parents need to either care for their children or find others who will. But other obligations are messier and more prone to abusive dynamics. “Your parents raised you, so you owe them a debt you cannot repay” is all right in theory, but it starts to break down the second you consider a parent who perhaps didn’t have their child’s best interests at heart. Similarly, “family comes first” can quickly turn horrific if a member of a family abuses another, and the primary actions taken to repair the situation are aimed at preserving the family, not at helping the victim heal.
But toxicity doesn’t have to enter the picture for our definitions of family to evolve. In an era when migrating from one’s hometown to an urban area might be the only way to find work, many families, even really good ones, are feeling the strain of trying to keep relationships alive across the distance. More and more, for those of us who have moved far away from home, our nearby friends have begun to fill family-like roles, without us ever quite defining them as such.
There’s a model for a family made up of people you are not related to that already exists in American culture. For a long time, queer chosen families, loose structures of people who support each other in family-like ways, have offered an alternative to the nuclear family structure, though more queer people are opting for the nuclear family structure of two parents raising children. Even as the evangelical church that dominates much of American politics actively works to reinforce a more rigid definition of family, the more loosely defined chosen family model has gained prominence.
Daniel reached a crisis point shortly before the holidays in 2019. He had broken with the evangelical church he grew up in, and in the process of therapy meant to help him work through his complicated emotions around that break, he started to uncover vague memories of childhood sexual abuse in his childhood home. He called his parents to say he was going through some intense therapy, that he and his wife wouldn’t be coming home for the holidays, and that he would check in after a few months. He’d had a good relationship with his parents before that point, but he came to feel as though that relationship had been predicated on conviviality more than anything real.
“They never asked what was happening. They never pushed any further than, ‘Whatever space you need, take it,’” says Daniel (who asked that Vox not use his real name, out of concern of family reprisal). “My dad eventually sent me an email saying, ‘Hey, don’t email us anymore with these updates of when you think you might be ready to talk. When you’re ready to have a congenial relationship again, come back and we can talk.’ There was no, ‘What’s happening? Are you okay?’ I found that very unusual, and for me, that was an indicator that there was a lot of shit that they were avoiding.”
Daniel and his wife are both cisgender, and they’re in a heterosexual marriage. But after the break with his family, they found the most support and solace from hanging out with their queer friends, particularly a lesbian couple that lives a couple of blocks away from them in Chicago. The more time the couples spent together, the more Daniel found the kind of support and security he had found lacking in his own family.
The concept of “found” or “chosen” family is not unique to queer spaces, but it has become strongly associated with them. In the mid-20th century, queer people who had migrated to major cities began forming ersatz family structures that resembled but didn’t completely replicate the more traditional nuclear family. The creation of queer chosen families, Kath Weston writes in her landmark 1991 book Families We Choose, stemmed from the fact that gay and lesbian people kept migrating to particular cities. Often they had been rejected by family, but sometimes they had just left. And once they had gotten to, say, San Francisco, they would form close ties with other queer people around them. Of course they would. How could they not? It’s how human beings work.
The queer chosen family became of paramount importance during the AIDS crisis, as gay men, especially, cared for each other during a time of horrifying death and devastation. These men had often been completely cut off by their families of origin, but they still sought the kind of care, empathy, and love people typically expect from a family.
In the late 20th century, especially in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the legal recognition of these families — and how difficult it was to fit them into the existing framework of family as we knew it — became a major concern for many queer people. After all, if your lover of a decade was dying alone in a hospital, or if the homophobic biological family of a teenage runaway you were caring for returned to take them back “home,” wouldn’t you want the same sort of legal rights as a spouse or a parent?
Weston’s book recognized how dissimilar chosen families could be to nuclear families, while also fulfilling many of the same emotional needs. Because of that dissimilarity, the mere existence of chosen families posed a threat to core assumptions about what families were. Weston writes:
Does it not make sense to argue that gay families represent an alternative form of family, a distinctive variation within a more encompassing “American kinship”? Because any alternative must be an alternative to something, this formulation presumes a central paradigm of family shared by most people in a society. In the United States, the nuclear family clearly represents a privileged construct, rather than one among a number of family forms accorded equivalent status.
Indeed, as queer people were afforded more acceptance within American society, our ability to fit into the nuclear family framework increased. In 2021, I can marry another woman quite easily. In California, the two of us can even adopt a child relatively easily. Neither of those things would have been easy or even possible 40 years ago. However, there’s still less recourse for legal recognition of, say, a polyamorous triad or a loose commune of queer people raising children collectively.
“Vanilla queerness is something that’s pretty acceptable now with many older generations and families. But when you start thinking about the forms of sexual identity and sexual practices that are still understood as marginal or deviant or somehow unhealthy in the mainstream, you come to this threshold where that isn’t considered acceptable,” says Aren Aizura, an associate professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota.
“Queer and trans sex workers have been instrumental to creating queer community because they can’t come out to their biological families as doing sex work,” Aizura explains. “It’s similar for people who are involved in kink communities. So if it’s something that is an everyday part of your life that is difficult to reveal to family, then you have to organize a much wider and more comprehensive vision of queer family. Who’s the person you call when you’re sick? When you need someone to bring you food? When you need help covering rent? For sex workers, for instance, it’s often other sex workers doing mutual aid with each other.”
Aizura adds that it’s tempting to idealize the queer chosen family, but in some cases, chosen families can also breed toxicity and abuse. Treating others poorly or spreading one’s pain outward is not exclusively reserved for cisgender, heterosexual people. It’s something we’re all capable of. Because queer chosen families are often formed by people who were ostracized by their families of origin in painful or even traumatic ways, those people can replicate that trauma within the space that was meant to offer an escape from trauma.
The prevalence of traumatic backgrounds within queer spaces, however, makes them uniquely well-suited to discussing and processing those backgrounds. And the more that a collective awareness of how trauma operates moves into the American mainstream, the more that queer ideas about chosen family also move into the mainstream. As queer people are being granted greater legal protections, so long as our family structures replicate the nuclear family structure, it follows that cishet people are adopting more ideas about how family might consist of the friends you’re especially close to, not just your family of origin (see: the rise of Friendsgiving).
“When friends are moving from being really good friends to what you and they would consider chosen family, the responsibility to one another — communication, staying in touch, checking in — that changes and in a really good and meaningful way,” Daniel said of his evolving relationship with his and his wife’s friends. “But big life stuff changes too. If my wife and I decided we wanted to move and didn’t have a conversation with these folks, it would be very different than it would be even with some of our other close friends. ... We joke with our [chosen family], ‘Don’t you dare think about moving without talking to us.’”
If the mainstream evolution toward affording chosen family structures some degree of prominence is largely thanks to the gravitational pull of the queer community, then in America, at least, the evangelical church is the other pole, trying to drag the culture back toward something more rigid and patriarchal. And while that split is expressed most dramatically in the lives of queer people, it affects many non-queer people too.
I spoke with about a dozen people who are estranged from their families and have found chosen family structures that better suit them. In all but a couple of those conversations, the evangelical Christian church or a similar conservative religious tradition came up.
“I spent well into my mid-20s thinking I couldn’t name bad things about my parents, or I somehow was dishonoring them. As a kid, as a Christian, that’s the way you make Jesus happy. You do what your parents ask you to do,” Daniel says. “I went from being a really hyperactive zero-through-6-year-old to being a picture of complacency. And some of that was the hyperactivity working its way off as I got older. But the complacency was reinforced by religious messaging in the church. So even when stuff was not okay, [you didn’t say anything]. So much of my journey over the past two years is finding the voice that I never had in my family to advocate for or protect myself. In that religious program, kids just didn’t advocate for themselves.”
White evangelicalism in America (particularly upper-class white evangelicalism) remains defined by a rigid family structure with a father holding supremacy over a wife and both parents holding supremacy over their kids. Abuse within a culture tends to correlate with how patriarchal that culture is, and in recent years, evangelical Christian America has been beset by numerous scandals underscoring abuse within specific churches and evangelicalism more generally. (One recent example of this is the ongoing revelations about the prevalence of sexual assault at Liberty University.)
What’s more, evangelical culture also revolves around the family unit as the core social organizing structure of our lives, says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University and the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Obviously, the family is a core social organizing structure in most people’s lives, but within evangelicalism, the family’s primacy outstrips even that of the government or church. That belief system leaves little recourse for, say, children growing up within abusive homes.
“Worst comes to worst, the church maybe can step in. So you have to bring any family issues through the church, through the elders, and in these churches, they’re all men,” Du Mez says. “So if you have sexual abuse or domestic violence, members of these communities are strongly discouraged from or even ordered against reaching out to police, to any counselors outside of their own religious community.”
Within chosen family structures, however, there’s often an abundance of discussion of traumatic upbringings and rejection by families of origin, something rooted, in America at least, in the idea of the queer community building spaces where these conversations aren’t being hushed up.
“It’s been really helpful to see what actual love looks like,” says Dianna Anderson, a writer from Minneapolis, who became estranged from their father over his vote for Donald Trump, despite knowing he had a queer child. (The role of Trump in family estrangements has been frequently documented.) “Coming from an evangelical context, a lot of times we’re told love is being nice to a person or still having terrible thoughts about them but not telling them, which becomes a sort of gaslighting. Whereas the queer community at its best is very much showing love in support of your identity, understanding you as an entire person, and not trying to dissect parts out.”
The divide between queer people and evangelical America has been written about endlessly, and some polling suggests the evangelical church’s opposition to queer identities is responsible for its falling membership rates. So it makes an ironic sort of sense that the alternative family structures Weston wrote about in 1991 now form a similar oppositional role to the drumbeat of white evangelical patriarchy, a tension that seems likely to grow ever more fraught.
And yet one of the primary drivers of our redefinition of families is often much beloved by conservative evangelicals. It’s modern capitalism.
One thing that tends to introduce emotional distance in families is physical distance. It gets harder and harder to maintain tight emotional bonds when people are living a long way away from each other. Once that physical distance opens up, it often also allows the mental space someone might need to reconsider toxic elements of their family of origin. And in the modern world, more people are moving away from their families of origin because the jobs they want are situated in major cities, sometimes quite far away.
Ale grew up in Romania, in a conservative Catholic community. But when they were able to leave home to go to university, they opted for the United Kingdom, where they were finally able to begin exploring their gender identity in earnest. The physical distance that existed between them and their family allowed an emotional distance to grow as well.
Now, more than a decade later, Ale is in their early 30s and maintains a relationship with their parents, but not really as themselves. They see their parents rarely, and when they talk on the phone or over video chat, their parents are addressing the child they thought they had. They are not really talking to the child they do have, because Ale doesn’t want to talk about their life with their parents. And so the relationship frays.
“Once a week, we’re gonna chat for about 15 to 20 minutes on FaceTime, and I will ask them probably the same stuff, and I will reveal nothing about my life,” Ale says. “‘Yeah, work is really busy. Always is. Stuff is fine. Here are the cats, aren’t they cute? I’m seeing some friends. We’re gonna hang out.’ That’s it. Nothing further ever gets explained.”
Can you call this an estrangement? Technically, it’s not. Ale still dutifully talks to their parents every so often. But their journey toward accepting their queerness drove a wedge between them and their parents that their parents are unaware is even present. Ale has thought about coming out to them but feels that would likely end the relationship.
This sort of not-an-estrangement estrangement is far more common, in my experience, than outright cutting one’s family out of one’s life. I no longer speak with my own parents, for example, but I spent most of my adult life dutifully calling them every so often to talk about matters of no great importance. When I did try to be honest with them about my transness, the relationship collapsed because my parents chose a phantom son over the daughter they actually had. But even before that, the relationship didn’t really exist because I wasn’t ever being honest with my parents or myself. We were performing the rituals of family, not actually honoring a real connection.
One doesn’t need to embrace a queer identity for simple physical distance to create a gap between family members. It’s really hard to maintain relationships across geography, even in a modern era of instant communication. You’re much more likely to form close relationships with people you see all the time, and you’re more likely to see people all the time if they live in close proximity to you.
Thus, the simple act of migration is a major factor in our modern reconceptualization of the family. Modern capitalism has devalued rural and suburban areas, siphoning more and more kids who grew up there into metropolitan areas, often on the coasts. And if you’re moving from, say, South Dakota to Los Angeles, as I did, you are slowly but surely going to feel the influence of the place you grew up start to wane. The money is on the coasts, so kids move there, while parents stay behind. And relationships fracture.
And this shift has implications beyond the slow fraying of parent-child bonds when neither side is particularly active in trying to keep them alive. If you grew up in an abusive family structure 100 years ago, you were highly unlikely to be able to leave it, which would mean you would more or less come to accept it as normal. When you can leave that structure and move away, you might find yourself coming to accept that the way you were raised was pretty messed up. Drawing boundaries with toxic family members is far easier when you have half a continent to act as the ultimate boundary for you.
Stephanie’s children are reaching the age where, if they so choose, they could cut her out of their lives. She doesn’t expect them to do this. She doesn’t want them to do this. She believes she has a good relationship with them. But her own experience with her parents has convinced her that she owes her children so much, and they owe her very little.
“I once had a counselor say, ‘You don’t owe your parents anything.’ And when she said that to me, I was in a place where that was hard to let sink in. And she said, ‘Well, look at it this way: Would you say that your children owe you anything?’ And I was immediately like, ‘No! Absolutely not!’” Stephanie says. “[As a parent], you only really need to be good enough. But the bare minimum of being good enough is equality and treating your child like a human and not expecting them to tend to your narcissistic injuries.”
We’ve all grown up immersed in a culture that insists, at all turns, that family comes first, that your family will always be there for you, that the worst thing you could do is turn your back on your family.
But we also know how untrue that is. We know families can be broken in millions of different ways and even the most loving families have moments of dysfunction. That’s not a reason to abandon the idea of family altogether. Of course not. But maybe it is an argument to expand the definition of family from “the people I’m related to” to “the people who come first, the people who will always be there for me, the people I will never turn my back on.”
Or, to put it more simply: Sometimes, your family isn’t your family, and that’s okay.
So maybe there’s a better model to build our families around. I asked those I interviewed for this article who are estranged from their families what characteristic they believe is most crucial to the definition of family. To my surprise, nobody said love. Instead, the theme that came up the most often was that of safety, of security, of having a place to be yourself without fear or consequence.
“This is very schmaltzy, but: Who feels like home to you? Family should be who feels like home. There are definitely people who I just click with and feel safe with and resonate with. Not all of them but parts of them,” Stephanie says. “And I’m learning to lead with that more and more. Your intuition is never wrong.”
Emily VanDerWerff is a critic at large for Vox.