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  • jkador

Can Family Members Really Be Friends?


Of all important relationships, friendship alone is

undefined—by kinship, legal ties, or structured obligations



In this essay, I argue that while it is ideal for family members to be friendly, they are not friends.


Voluntariness differentiates friendship from all our other important relationships such as family kinship.

Friendships are created when two people voluntarily choose to interact with each other apart from external pressures and obligations.

Either party may end the relationship at any time simply by withdrawing.


Kinship—family—is the oldest structured human relationship. At their best, kinships resemble friendships in sharing qualities such as love, loyalty, trust, shared values, and, yes, friendliness. But kinship relationships are essentially permanent.


Friendships have no structure. In fact, the more structure a relationship has, the less it is a friendship.


Family relationships are defined by structure: law, religion, tradition, and obligation. Marriage has a legal  and economic structure. We talk about marriage as “tying the knot.” In the structure of those knots rests the various ties of family. These ties are not easily severed.


While married partners may well have started as friends, and the partners may still regard the relationship as a friendship, the reality is that once the voluntariness has ended, so has the friendship. Friendship loses all meaning when “death do us part”  is one standard.


How about children? We can agree it’s good for parents to be friendly with their children. But it’s disastrous for parents to treat their minor children as friends. This is so because, if for no other reason, they never had a choice in forming the relationship and minor children cannot leave the relationship. Even adult children and parents cannot leave the family structure they created. The parties may choose to be friendly or estranged, but the relationship is permanent.


Definition of Friendship


We are ready now for my definition of friendship. The definition comes in two parts, so let’s start with the part that many people find most questionable:      


Friendship is a committed, voluntary association—independent of financial, sexual, and family ties— built on mutual trust and affection . . .


Because my definition of friendship requires voluntariness and the absence of structure, I exclude relationships that are ordered by structural obligations in the form of financial arrangements (you’re not friends with your boss), sexual partners (you’re not friends with your lover), and family obligations (you’re not friends with your children).


As for people in romantic relationships, there’s an accurate way to describe what’s happening and it’s not friendship. What we have are partners who have entered into a universe of intimacies, commitments, and expectations navigating around the carefully choreographed structures of romantic love. “Friends with benefits” is a concept that experience has shown is unsustainable precisely because the preservation of the benefits usually takes precedence over the preservation of the friendship.

The second part of my friendship definition considers the purposes of the relationship:   


Friendship is  . . .  built on mutual trust and affection, in which each friend sets the other free to make inquiries and to come to conclusions that serve the flourishing of the other, whether or not they advance the friendship.


Friendship alone among relationships invites one friend to champion the flourishing of the other in a way that may or may not advance the relationship. Structured relationships, especially family relationships, generally restrict the scope of parties to make inquires and reach conclusions that may harm the relationship. Generally, the preservation of the family structure takes precedence over individual flourishing.


Three Qualities


Think about an important friendship in your life. You know it’s a friendship and not something else when the relationship has three qualities:

  1. It’s voluntary

  2. There’s no defined structure

  3. You can end the friendship any time


Paradoxically, because our friendships are not circumscribed by structure and obligations, they are often more satisfying than relationships with our families of origin.

What is more satisfying than being chosen, championed every day by people who like us for who we are? The lack of structure, the power of acceptance, and the capacity to withdraw that acceptance establishes a friendship as distinguished from all other human relationships.




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