Creating Your Chosen Family

Creating Your Chosen Family

By Gail Marlene Schwartz

Although the tinsel, the fairy lights, and the fa-la-la of the holiday season are meant to uplift, December is actually a tough time for many people. One survey found that more than half of Americans in 2022 felt sad and lonely during the holidays, with nearly a quarter citing “poor relationships with family” as the cause. For many years, before I established my chosen family, I struggled with this experience myself, in spite of always having friends. It’s like gazing inside a colorful candy shop, looking at all the people enjoying the treats, but knowing that you simply don’t have the money to afford any of them.

Loneliness in general, not only during the holidays, is a major health epidemic in the US, according to surgeon general Vivek Murthy. Disconnection means profound increased health risks, including heart disease (29%), stroke (32%) , dementia for seniors (50%), and premature death (60%). Not having a place socially goes against the very fabric of our species, and our bodies and souls suffer when we are socially homeless. But it’s not just having people; many Americans have relationships with their families of origin and still feel lonely because they simply don’t feel seen, heard, or accepted.

Chosen family is a way many have taken matters into their own hands and created places of authentic belonging. Chosen family in the LGBTQ community is a cultural tradition stemming from being ostracized because of our identities. Many “houses” still exist from the drag and ballroom scene, where people take on the same last names, live together, share meals and chores, help raise one another’s children, pool resources, and support each other through difficult times.

One example I’m familiar with is the House of LeMay in Burlington, Vermont, the city where I spent most of my young adulthood. Begun in the 1990s by Bob Bolyard and Mike Hayes, the LeMays performed drag, raised funds for the community, and maintained an actual house where many members lived. Although I was only peripherally connected, I have great fondness for the LeMays. They MC’d many Pride celebrations and also hosted different events at Pearl’s, the bar where so much queer activity used to happen back in the day. I felt deeply sad when I learned of Mike Hayes’ passing in March of 2023. The House of LeMay lives on, but it won’t be the same without Mike/Margaurite and his incredible costumes. The LeMays gave their entire community the sense of home, extending far beyond their literal house.

Because chosen family has been such a profoundly positive thing for me, it’s a big theme in my novel, Falling Through the Night. Audrey, the protagonist, does most of the healing and growing up work she needs to do as a young adult with her close friends and partner. She’s not alienated from her family, but it’s her chosen family that provides both the support and the challenge she needs to develop and evolve.

So if chosen family works so well, why isn’t it more prevalent in mainstream American culture? Why all the loneliness?

The problem is, many people who love the idea of chosen family simply haven’t been able to make it happen. Social norms are still so heavily centered around the nuclear family, and it’s not self-evident how one would go about “finding” a found family. So I wanted to offer some tips for those of you who might be interested.

Practice Self Development

Getting to know yourself, your feelings, your needs, and your challenges is a fantastic way to prepare yourself for deeper relationships. It’s like preparing soil in the garden with compost before planting. When you’re in touch with your emotional tender spots and are engaged in understanding them and growing new ways of being with them, you become easier to connect with.

For example, I have a real jealous streak to my personality. It used to be difficult for me to be around friends who were enjoying success in an area I was struggling with. This meant a limitation in my capacity to be present. Then, I would feel guilty and ashamed of my jealousy. In therapy, I explored the jealousy, learned to accept it, talked about it a lot with others (incredible-other people feel jealous too!), and gradually found ways to both attend to my sensitive spots but also enjoy my friends’ successes. If there’s a moment when I’m struggling with a particular area and I am limited around supporting someone else, I find alternative ways of being present and accept my own limits. It’s opened up my capacity for love so much, and interestingly, it doesn’t flare up nearly as much as it used to, before I accepted it fully.

Interact Live

So much of relationship work happens online right now, and although it might feel more convenient, it’s highly limited. When we connect online, through text, email, or video chat, we miss most of the in-person cues and energy exchanges that are integral to human communication. Also, perhaps more relevantly, our in-person skills get rusty, and we begin to actively avoid live conversation.

Work against the trend. Pick up the phone instead of texting. Meet for coffee instead of on Zoom when possible. Challenge yourself to have any kind of difficult exchange live, and notice what’s different. You may feel initially more anxious, but this will become easier over time.

Grow Your Care Skills

Love takes practice! There are many skills involved, including nurturing, listening, celebrating, supporting, asking for and offering help, and more. I was shocked when I learned that a friend who was dealing with a serious illness felt imposed on by my phone calls. She’s an introvert and needed all of her energy to heal; voice mail messages stressed her out. Now, when someone I love is ill or struggling, I reach out by text or email first to ask if the person I’m supporting is up for a call or would prefer some space.

Keeping tabs on people is important. Reaching out and asking how people are makes them know you care and that relationships take initiative. Send a card or a funny cartoon on special occasions. Yes, email or texting is easier, but it doesn’t mean as much. Drop off a little gift at a friend’s house or put a paperback book or clipping in the mail. Tell your friends what you appreciate about them and what you’re grateful for. Tell them you care about them. Tell them you love them. It takes practice, and might feel cringey at first, but it gets easier.

When a friend is having trouble, learn how to listen non judgmentally. Don’t give advice unless your friend asks; most people just want to know that the people who love them hear and see them and understand them.

Learn how to be constructive in conflict. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s possible to learn. If conflict is scary, explore that and own it. Share your journey around conflict with friends instead of shutting up. Don’t try to resolve conflict by text or email. Talk openly in person (or at least over Zoom) to have the advantage of all facets of communication (the most important ones are body language, voice, and energy).

Shift Your Focus from the Individual to the Communal

American culture focuses us on individual and family projects. If we pare down our individual needs to make space for things that benefit the community, we expand our connectedness by investing in the broader world.

Like to garden? Instead of planting one at home, how about joining a community garden? Or see if your local elementary school has one; kids love digging in the dirt. Or maybe the local senior center would appreciate some help with theirs. Instead of learning a language on the computer by yourself, take an in-person class. Love animals? Instead of adopting, help out someone who can’t afford a dog walker. If music is your thing, join a community band or chorus. Invest in the larger community.

Hang Out With Other Available Folks

I connected with my chosen family in Montreal where I was one of several queer women immigrants. Only one of us had local extended family, so we shared the same need for a place of belonging. For holidays, we didn’t have extended family, so it made sense for us to be together. Immigrants are interesting with a lot to give; I got to learn about Kazakhstan, Australia, Lebanon, and Quebec and all the different cultural traditions while enjoying the company of my friends.

Other places where people may be looking to create family: singles groups, spiritual communities, interest groups and clubs, and support groups.

Talk About Chosen Family

It’s a vulnerable thing to do, but experiment with verbalizing your desire for chosen family. You won’t necessarily click with everyone you meet who shares the goal, but at least you’ll know who else is looking. And by mentioning it in casual conversation, you’re liable to run into somebody who says, “You know, my friend Sarah has this group she spends holidays with…maybe I can introduce you.” Kind of like dating.