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(Re)Defining Family — On Your Terms

“How’s your family doing?” a well-meaning acquaintance asks. “Are you excited to return home to Des Moines to see them?”

I grit my teeth, pushing out a brusque, “They are fine. Maybe I’ll see them; I am not really sure” before quickly changing the subject.

Since my mother’s passing, my relationship with my immediate family has been strained. Irregular communication — interspersed with icy recriminations about some past misdeed — is the norm.

Exacerbating the familial strife, my father and brothers sued me over a real estate issue that, I believe, could have been resolved with conversation, compromise, and (a little) compassion. Instead, a 2+ year lawsuit ensued — one that fractured any pretense of a familial relationship. Despite relenting to my family’s legal demands, I have not heard anything from my father or brothers (still debating whether a “happy birthday” text satisfies the definition of familial communication — please note my dry humor).

As life has taught me, families are invariably complex. They are a mix of joyous celebrations, petty resentments, and lingering feuds; indeed, even the most starry-eyed family has skeletons buried in the proverbial closet. Sadly, and as my close friends knowingly confirm, my dysfunctional family has company.  

More than divulging family skeletons, this article’s focus is on a self-learned maxim: you create your own family. And, in my case, my family is a boisterous mix of aunts and uncles, hometown friends, and, yes, a mental health counselor or two. My nominal family, even more than they probably know, has provided the support to weather the emotional turbulence of an acrimonious lawsuit.

Helping me overcome the anguish (and, yes, anguish is the correct word) at my current family estrangement, my aunts and uncles have reintroduced the idea of a warm, loving family — the type of family that can disagree, sometimes fiercely, and in the same breath tease one another over the latest family quirk. In my case, I have heard a comment — or 46 — about my lack of navigational ability (trust me, I will never be confused with Magellan) and thriftiness. From these comments — and, more importantly, the annual Thanksgiving soirees, there is a warmth — one that partially replaces my immediate family’s permafrost.

Family, indeed, is an amorphous concept; there is not a one size fits all description. In my ideal world, my immediate family and I would spend Thanksgiving holidays reminiscing about childhood (mis)adventures — neverending backyard football games, joyous Colorado vacations, and celebratory graduations. But as I have discovered, family life is not always ideal — and I have grudgingly accepted the frayed relationship between my father/brothers and me. The only reason I have been able to reach a place of (relative) emotional equilibrium: my aunts, uncles, and lifelong friends. Indeed, they have proved that family is more than sharing a last name — or a contested lawsuit over shared property.

(Re)Defining Family — On Your Terms

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). (Re)Defining Family — On Your Terms. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Oct 2018 (Originally: 7 Oct 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.