When I was seven or eight years old, I was taken to see my extended family. In the living room of my grandparents’ ranch house, my youngest cousin and I got into a fight. My mom tried to get us to make up, and said something like “you shouldn’t be fighting. You guys love each other.” To which I protested, “I don’t love her.”
The room froze. My cousin started crying. My mom announced, “Of course you do. You’re family.”
As far as I can remember, this is the first time one of my parents told me something that I knew was wrong. Of course I already knew that there were things they didn’t know, like what I was going to learn in school the next day. There were other things that they would guess about, like who was lying when my brother and I gave conflicting accounts of who broke something. But I might not have realized before that there were things they acted as if they knew but were dead wrong about.
My initial reaction was to wonder whether I didn’t know what love meant. I had figured out that I loved my parents, for instance. But here was some person whom I didn’t really know, whom I had met probably half a dozen times in my life, and who might as well have been a totally different person each of those times. Whatever love was, I shared none of the feelings for this person that I had for my parents. Maybe familiarity, attachment, comfort, and affection didn’t have anything to do with love, after all.
There are a lot of things I could say about this story, but many of them probably speak for themselves. What I want to address now is what family is good for.
For as long as I can remember, family ties haven’t made a lot of sense to me. By high school, I could account for this in fairly explicit philosophical terms: that my affection for a person should be on the basis of their personal merits rather than tribal ties, blah blah blah. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I’ve always held this position on an emotional level, and the rationalization merely followed.
This leads to more interesting questions: are some people inclined to love family, independently from a more specific personal connection? Would that be because of some deep drive for familial bonds, or because they hadn’t figured out who was important to them by the time they were first told that family had to make an appearance on their list? Maybe things would have been different if I’d known that I had to love my cousin before I made up my mind that I didn’t. Or maybe I would have developed a stronger valuation of family ties if my mom had said, “You might find it hard to get along right now, but you need to be nice because family is important and some day you’ll really appreciate each other.” I bet that eight-year-old JR would have found this compelling as a plausible reality, if not as the Manifest Truth my mom seemed to be going for.
It obviously matters if someone is family, and I’d like to figure out why. For purposes of this essay, I have in mind minimum-commitment family relationships, so I won’t worry about things like why people put their kids through college.
The best reason I can see for people to care about family is a variant of the Camp-Friends Effect: it enables you to appreciate people whom you would never be friends with otherwise.
Despite growing up mostly under the same roof, my stepsister and I have very different experiences and approaches to our lives. When we were growing up, being four years apart made it harder to relate to each other, but now we’re both adults and the age gap doesn’t matter. Yet even without that barrier, I can confidently say that we wouldn’t become friends if we met as strangers. We might enjoy talking to each other for a while and go our separate ways, or we might not hit on anything in common and find the whole experience uncomfortable. But there is no doubt in my mind that we would fail to develop any sort of lasting relationship.
As family, there was more opportunity to develop a mutual understanding and we had an excuse to bond without vulnerability. And almost like magic, we now care about each other. We have mutual respect and appreciation. We like spending time together and learning about each other’s lives. This is an incredible and beautiful phenomenon.
But none of this is a blank check for love. It’s important that I actually like my stepsister. She’s good to the people around her. She’s insightful. She’s shown strength through what was, at least in some respects, a difficult childhood. She’s doing what she can to become her own person and figure out what she wants from life.
Nor is it enough to just like someone who also happens to be family. Even today, I regard that cousin of mine mostly as a very decent-seeming person with whom it’s pleasant to catch up occasionally.
My friend Starburst says he always felt like he could be friends with everyone in his family, and took it for granted that families were just like that. So to the couple of questions I asked before, I would add one more: among people who regard loving family as something one simply does, how many would end up loving those same people if they met under different circumstances? This question should apply both for people who regard only their nuclear families this way (like Starburst) and for people who feel similarly about more distant relatives (perhaps like my mom).
Counterfactuals can be difficult to evaluate. So instead of wondering whether you could be friends with your mom in an alternate universe where she isn’t your mom (whatever that means), it’s probably better to see whether you are, or could be, friends with her friends. If so, then you could probably be friends with her, too.
In my case, this seems to check out pretty well with my direct judgment. Although I like all of my stepsister’s friends well enough, I’ve never been interested in befriending them myself. On the other hand, I became fairly close to my dad’s college roommate when I moved into his area. This seems consistent with my sense that my dad and I could have become good friends if we had met as kids.
I see my mom not only get along with her family, as I do, but also fit in with them in a way that I don’t. This tempts me to say that she just took for granted that everyone feels how she does about their family. But there must have been a cousin or great-aunt whom she didn’t really care for, and maybe hasn’t spoken to in many years. This leaves two apparent alternatives: she somehow manages to reserve special feelings for her family, in spite of possibly not liking them and not even really knowing them; or she was just putting on a good face. The second one I can understand, but I don’t think I could pull off the first even if I wanted to.