A Family By Choice

Dr. Sue Gill challenges you to develop an inner template for what “family” can mean to you.

I spent this past summer mesmerized by the story of Diana Nyad, the 61-year-old woman who attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida. Although she was forced to quit after 40 hours of swimming because of multiple man-of-war stings, I continue to be inspired by her vision, determination, and strength. I was also struck by the size of the support system that was required for the swim and awed by the dedication that her team of 50 people seemed to freely give her.

Diana was a record-holding long distance swimmer when she was young and has said that she swam out of anger at the time. She then stopped swimming for 30 years until she neared her 60th birthday, when she decided to do the Cuba swim to demonstrate to herself and all of us that life can be filled with purpose and joy at any age. She spent two years training and compiling her amazing support team, she became a stronger swimmer at 60 than she was at 28, and she now seemed to be swimming from a place of love and connection instead of anger.

When I read accounts of the swim written by various members of Diana’s team, I was struck by the deep level of commitment that they all seem to have to Diana. These people are far more than hired trainers, doctors, and navigation experts, they sound like family. Diana created a family who loved her through two years of intense training, two swim attempts, and 40 hours of swimming through jellyfish stings and strong ocean currents. We all yearn to have that family. We can all create that family.

Diana originally swam out of anger, and is now swimming from a place of love and connection. This is foundational when creating family. Be a loving person and loving people will be attracted to you. Actively find the positive in yourself and others. Get really good at identifying and setting healthy boundaries. Strive for physical, emotional, and spiritual health in yourself, and surround yourself with others who are doing the same.

Many of us have dealt with real rejection from our family of origin. For some, this rejection was short-lived and is now somewhat repaired, while for others it has been permanent. Some of us had very supportive families, but lived with the fear of rejection for years before finally getting the courage to talk to family members and allow them to be fully supportive (e.g., “Dear, we always knew that you were gay, we were just waiting for you to tell us!”).

Whether real or feared, this rejection probably creates an attitude of distancing of the self from others to protect the self from being hurt. This self-protection can be subtle, such as in the party animal who knows everyone but is not deeply known by anyone. A person can also be self-protective by talking deeply but intellectually about everything, or by talking about very personal things to anybody who will listen—throwing up a wall of emotions to keep people at bay.

The person who chronically keeps people at distance will never develop an inner template of “family” that includes a deep understanding of the concept. If you don’t know something exists, you won’t crave it or make a place for it in your life. Like Babcock Hall Chocolate Peanut Butter ice cream or single-track mountain bike riding … before I came to Madison I did not know these things existed. Now that I’ve experienced the joy of both, I crave them. If you have never felt the deep satisfaction of being fully embraced, known, and supported by a family, you will be less likely to seek the kinds of relationships that continue to add that to your life.

Let’s face it: we live in a hetero-normative, cis-gender assumptive world. So girls grow up hearing some form of the story that we are all supposed to want to be princesses, marry our shining prince, and look resplendent in our lovely sequined wedding dress. Boys grow up with some kind of boy version of that story. When I was little I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up and became furious with anyone who tried to correct me by stating that I should want to be a cowgirl. And the concept of wanting to be a princess with a prince was entirely unfathomable to me. My inner concept of self and the future I wanted did not fit society’s norms. Even though I had parents who were tolerant of my “tomboy” dreams, society did not provide any fairy tales or role models to fit those dreams.

Now that Bert and Ernie are officially not gay, we don’t have any good little kid role models out there. One impact of this is that many people grow up with a subtle but deeply hitting message that “I don’t belong.” This gets reinforced in some families that follow strict hetero and gender norms. As a consequence, we may grow into adults who have less of an inner sense of what it feels like to belong, we may become hyper-vigilant as a way to guard against future real or perceived rejection, and we might not recognize quality relationships when they come our way. Some of us even run away from healthy relationships when we happen upon them because they just feel strange.

LGBT youth often follow a developmental path that differs from other youth. I hear many stories about young boys who were “caught” cross dressing when they were young and quickly learned to hide, suppress, and feel ashamed of any urges to express femininity. These children don’t get to spend the years playing dress up that some cis-girls do as a way to refine their inner concept of female. Many LGBT youth experience puberty and dating developmentally in a way that differs from other youth. Early dating should really be a time to explore the larger concept of chosen family, the chance to get to know the family of the boy- or girlfriend, to integrate oneself into a larger circle of people who could potentially be family in the future, to imagine a long-term relationship with the dating partner and their family, to get to really know what is important in a close circle of relationships. This is not so easy when you are fundamentally dating the wrong person or hiding the fact that you are dating at all. This can even become a set up for abuse or exploitation when that person finally gets a thin sense of belonging without fully understanding all that true belonging entails. They are so thrilled to find one sense of belonging that they overlook all kinds of red flags and plow themselves headlong into abuse.

How can we create family given all of these barriers? Let’s go back to Diana Nyad. She now swims from a place of love and connectedness instead of swimming out of anger. I’ve never met her, but I’m pretty sure that she has created an inner template that says, “People will be loving toward me, they will be present for me, I can rely on them, they like me and I like them. I want good people in my life.” If these thoughts seem really foreign to you, start here. Create this template and continue to fine-tune it.

Examine the relationships that you have with the members of your family of origin. Are there ways for you to improve these relationships? Are there some people you may have rejected in order to prevent the possibility of them rejecting you? Are there old hurts that need to be worked through in whatever ways might be appropriate so that you can have relationships based on the here and now? Actively look for ways that you can connect instead of being mad for the ways you can’t. For example, your mom may still be hurt that you will never have the big traditional church wedding that she always dreamed of for you, and you might be hurt that she still calls your life partner your “friend.” But the two of you might have a ball when you go garage sale shopping together, you still love her killer cookies, and the whole family loves to get together for cards. If so, find a way to do more garage sale shopping, cookie eating, and card playing with her. After all, part of “family” involves sticking together despite all of the flaws. And if you continue to feel hurt that your father doesn’t have deeply emotional conversations with you, stop trying to have those conversations! Go clear brush together and add some more people to your chosen family who can fill the role of deeply emotional conversationalist.

Also examine your relationships with the members of your chosen family. This includes your primary relationship if you are in one, everybody who came with them, and the friends in your life. Have you surrounded yourself with quality people with whom you deeply connect? Do you spend a lot of time together? Are you learning to identify and nurture those relationships that fill an important family function for you?

I believe that the healthiest life is one that is as integrated as possible. In the context of family, try to integrate your chosen family with your family of origin as much as you can. I understand that this is not possible for some people, but do so wherever you find slight openings to bring the two worlds together. You can also integrate your life by living with internal consistency. Examine your work life, social life, and home life in the context of the self you present to your family. Would people who know you from these different worlds be shocked if they saw your behavior in another context? You will feel the most connected if you live in such a way that these worlds could intermingle easily.

Finally, actively challenge the old templates you formed while growing up if they are interfering with your ability to form a healthy chosen family. I was the girl who wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up. The template that came from that was, “I am different and nobody will ever understand me.” The consequence was that I chronically kept people at a distance. By actively challenging that belief and looking for exceptions to the belief (instead of looking for instances that confirm the belief), I have formed a new template that says, “Different is cool. Wear it genuinely and with confidence and people will be drawn to you.”

I will continue to hope that Bert and Ernie get married and that Dora the Explorer changes eir name to Alex and goes by “they.” In the meantime, I am so grateful for the inspiration of Diana Nyad, the 61-year-old lesbian who tried to swim from Cuba to Florida with her chosen family beside her all the way.

Keep doing the inner work that you need to do to fully engage in family. Build your family. Connect. Get really good at recognizing healthy people and healthy relationships. Surround yourself with people who deeply love you.