Family of Origin, Family of Choice

We each have two families in life: the family we are born into, and the family we choose.

We can’t control what family we’re born into. Our family of origin might be full of nice people, full of mean people, or have a mixture of both. We learned many behaviors from our family of origin; these behaviors give us the ability to deal with the personalities in that family. When we get older and move out we start interacting with people who are not our relatives, who were raised in homes different from ours.

At some point we may realize the behaviors we learned in our family of origin don’t seem to work as well with other people, or they don’t work at all. Even after years of frustration some people refuse to accept that their way of dealing with life isn’t the right way, or the best way, or maybe even the only way. People who won’t accept this are trapped in playing the same card game over and over again, with the same results, regardless of who’s sitting at the table. Even though someone might get up from the table and walk away they seem to be replaced by someone who plays the hand the same way.

I have a friend who had a terrible relationship with her mother. Neither had spoken to the other in years, but within the last year the mother mentioned to other family members that she’d like my friend to call. My friend refused to do so, not even to yell at her. She explained that in her family the person making the call was seen as breaking down and accepting the guilt. She saw her refusal to make contact as a sign that she was taking the moral high ground, and though she didn’t like that other family members were being put in the middle she did like that her mother was talking to other relatives about it – she felt this was a sign that it was bothering her mother. She hoped that if she stuck to her guns long enough her mother would be the one to give in and make the call. Meanwhile, they were both interacting with other family members normally… just not each other. I said, “So you’re all sitting there at the table, still playing the same game, but in silence?” She nodded and said, “Pretty much.” I suggested when she’s ready maybe she‘ll get up and walk away from the table completely.

There’s another family we all have: our Family of Choice. The friend I mentioned above had a large group of friends. She was always going out to restaurants, nightclubs, the beach, for exercise, for brunch … they were friends from school, from work, friends of friends. These were the people she chose to surround herself with daily. They were her Family of Choice. The nice thing is that unlike our Family of Origin, we get to choose our Family of Choice. If there’s someone we don’t like, we don’t hang out with that person. If there’s someone who treats us disrespectfully or is always putting us down, we don’t have to associate with that person. If the entire group of people I think of as my friends turns out to not really be very friendly then I can choose to get up and leave, and find an entirely new group of friends who does treat me with acceptance and respect.

Some people that have come into my group have shared that they never had a Family of Choice before coming to the group. Some people have more than one Family of Choice. I’ve known the people in my group for almost ten years – some are like family to me now. I also have a group of friends from school and work that are separate – not because I try to keep them separate, but just because I recognize that many of my friends have no interest in anything related to twelve-step groups (which is fine, that’s their right). The tools I’ve learned in my counseling and twelve-step group have helped me have healthier and happier relationships with both my Family of Origin and my Family of Choice.

Typically people find themselves in a group because of something going on in their relationships – either something has changed drastically, or needs to. What needs to change may be in our family of origin, our family of choice, or in us. More often than not, all three need to change in some way, because a change in one affects the other two. In dealing with these changes we uncover either fears or desires (or both) that we might not have known we had – if we did know about them, we may be surprised how deep they run. These programs teach us tools and help us learn to use them. In the process we take inventory of our relationships with ourselves, with our family of origin, our family of choice, and everyone else in the world. With these tools we learn to forge healthier relationships from here on out.

Specifically, the title of this tool is used to remind us that the pain in our life caused by a relationship with a specific person or group is not the entire world. We have friends, an extended family we can turn to for help, and if we don’t have another family then we can make one. There’s a difference between a house and a home, namely the presence of love. If we don’t find the love we want in our Family of Origin then we can find it in our Family of Choice. If we don’t find the love we want in our Family of Choice that’s okay too – because it’s a family of choice.  That means they’re part of our lives because we choose for them to be, and if we decide we no longer want them in our lives we can choose that too. We can’t change who makes up our Family of Origin, but we can decide whom we consider our Family of Choice.

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