Family Diversity
It's How  We Live


For singles, good friends can become a "family"
Dallas Morning News / March 16, 2004

With no extended family nearby, Susan Mittmann has surrounded herself with a group of friends she considers kin.

They eat dinner together, not just once, but three nights a week. They take yearly trips to Disneyland or Tahoe. They have keys to one another's homes and don't always bother knocking.

For some, this kind of intimacy might sound like a nightmare. For others, the level of comfort Ms. Mittmann and her friends share may have some appeal. With many people living far from their families, the desire for some day-to-day contact with others (outside of work) is strong. And so some turn their friends into family.

"This family is more tied into our lives maybe than our actual relatives," says Ms. Mittmann, 33, a homemaker and mother of two girls. "Maybe we can build an idealized version of family. And maybe it can be better."

In the San Francisco Bay Area, home of the transplant, mecca for the seeker, people have long experimented with creating familylike relationships out of friendships. They may make serious commitments such as buying property together, naming each other as their children's legal guardians and making one another executors of their wills. But it's really the little things that make the difference: regular meals together, the ride to the airport, watching a child for an hour.

"We saw it intensified in the '90s," says Jan English-Lueck, chair of the anthropology department at San Jose State University. "You increase the amount of trust and the level of obligation. You celebrate holidays together. You give each other presents. Who is on your cellphone's automatic dial? Whom do you call when your kid is sick and the day care doesn't take sick kids and you don't have Grandmom living nearby?"

Some people call these relationships "family of choice," as opposed to one's real "family of origin." Anthropologists talk about "voluntary family" and "fictive kin."

In Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment (Bloomsbury, $24.95), San Francisco author Ethan Watters zeroed in on "tribes," urban singles who had delayed marriage into their late 30s and 40s, creating family among their friends while they waited for their wedding day.

"We're the first people to forge this social landscape outside of kin and family," Mr. Watters says. "People are upping the stakes, such as buying property together or opening businesses."

Shannon Sevey, 27, a lawyer, and her friend Kathy Liu, a teacher, met each other three years ago through a small prayer group created by their church. With three-hour-long weekly meetings, the two women's friendship grew. They began to socialize other times. Now, they are thinking of buying a house together.

"Kathy is one of the few people I'd buy a house with," says Ms. Sevey. "Our friendship is so strong, and she's so reliable."

Both women hope to get married someday, but the friendship has helped take off some of the pressure. "A lot of what our generation desires when you get married is having a companion who knows you," says Ms. Sevey. "I think Kathy knows me better than anyone else."

These relationships wouldn't be legitimately family-esque if they didn't come with issues. It's time-consuming to figure out how to do anything jointly with another person, from setting up a regular dinner to buying property. People get discouraged, says Cynthia Lubow, a marriage and family therapist in El Cerrito, Calif., who has clients who have set up these familylike relationships.

"There's a lot of processing involved to get everyone's needs and irritations dealt with. A lot of people give up. And it ends up whittling down to couples."

And if you make family out of friends, what do you do if you or they move?

"That's a real problem," says Dr. English-Lueck. "The very same thing that made your kin family inaccessible can make this other family inaccessible."

In Ms. Mittmann's case, the group of 10 friends (two single men, one unmarried couple and three married couples with five children between them) loosely knew each other at their alma mater, the California Institute of Technology, and share an interest in technology. They met again in Silicon Valley. Seven of the 10 adults have worked at the same biotech and computer-graphics companies.

But this is where things strayed from just being pals.

At least four have bought houses on the same Palo Alto street, in one case with the financial help of others. They have discussed making one another legal guardians of their children, should something happen to them. When Ms. Mittmann's 4-year-old daughter was asked to create her family tree at school, she drew the other families as well.

When a member's parents visit (remember Mom and Dad?), the other members of the group can be counted on to offer up a guest room. "We've had some parents who didn't understand for a while how important this group was," says Ms. Mittmann. "They would say, 'We're visiting for a week and you want us to get together with your friends?' "

For Linda Zadik, being different from her parents is part of the group's appeal. "I didn't want my parents' social life. The only people they had were each other," says Ms. Zadik, 31, a mother of one who lives next door to the Mittmanns. "I don't know how a romantic relationship can survive that. By having a group of friends, you have others to take on other roles."


For those hoping to create a sense of lasting kinship among friends, here are a few ideas:

Choose friends who have similar values, similar interests. Do you feel comfortable hanging out together?

Ask yourself: Will you be friends as old codgers?

Don't keep strict tabs on what you have done for the other person and what the other person should be doing for you in exchange. For true kin, this will all work out over the life of the friendship. (And don't let resentments fester).

Build a history. Holidays. Vacations. Meals during the week. Quantity of time together can help forge bonds. Be there for the tough times, the inconvenient pick-ups at the airport, as well as the celebrations.

Talk directly with your friends about whether the relationship could be long-term and what you might expect of each other. But wait until you have clocked in some time together.

Think twice before moving.


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