In Praise of Chosen Family

Friday, December 26, 2014 - 7:38am

In Praise of Chosen Family

Kate is one of the first friends that I feel like I actually chose. I’d see her walking around campus, her thick, dark hair curling up around her headphones, her head bobbing. She was a DJ at the college radio station. She was in my human rights class with the ancient and erudite Professor Juviler.

She sat with a group of girls in the cafeteria who exuded a bravado that I craved as I sat with my calorie-counting crew. I admired her from a safe distance for a while, suspicious that I was probably too earnest for her. Then, one day, with my adolescent esteem on some erratic upswing, I decided to email her. I told her that she was amazing and that I wanted to be her friend. Talk about earnest.

To my surprise, she wrote back. We started hanging out. Fifteen years later, we trade late-night pep talk texts when sleep evades our baby daughters, problem shoot long writing projects, and take sun-dappled walks around Lake Merritt to hash the world out side by side.

It seems like a good moment to pause in praise of our chosen family, otherwise known as our friends.

(Ewan McDowall / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

The holidays can be a wonderful, horrible time for many people. We are reminded — over gelatinous fruitcake, no less — that, though we love our families, we may not always like our families. We frequently don’t see eye to eye — a life-giving force if we have the wherewithal to explore it. They often can’t give us what we need, whether that’s praise or space or just the simplest of utterances: I’m proud of you, I see you, I love you.

This is the nature of growing up and growing away, of being someone who sheds some legacies while embracing others, of turning a critical, albeit compassionate, eye on our origins. As common as it is, it never gets any less complicated. In part, this is because it’s not something to be solved. Instead, it’s an eternal equation (subtract an expectation here, add a realization here).

As a result, a lot of us swig some pretty hard serenity with our eggnog this time of year. And, of course, the holidays can be an even more difficult time for those who don’t have the profound gift of a family to fight with. Which is why it’s such an outrageous blessing to have the opportunity to choose our friends. In fact, I believe it’s one of the most important skills we can cultivate in a child — the ability to know how to feel out who we want to be friends with and initiate and cultivate relationships. Here’s hoping you have more subtle skills than my own dorky emails.

(Bas Rogers / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

But “cool” is not really the point here. We spend so much of our lives trying to impress people we don’t actually respect — deliberately making friends with people that we deeply admire, people that make us laugh our asses off, people that push us to be more ourselves, is an under-appreciated and radical act in this culture of performance and reverence for the wrong gods (effortless perfection and exacting efficiency, to name a couple).

The idea that I could actually choose my friends came surprisingly late in life. As a girl growing up in a tight-knit community, I saw friends as inherited, almost like family: the girl on my lacrosse team, the boy who lived down the street, the son of my mom’s best friend.

Maybe, when we’re young, this is true. We don’t have the same kind of independence or capacity for initiation as we do later on. And many of these inherited friends are lovely, sometimes even the ones we would have chosen, had we had the chance. (For the luckiest among us, family members are actually the ones we would have chosen, too.)

(Shira Bea Cawaling / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

At a certain point, at least among the happiest people I know, we start to get really intentional about who we surround ourselves with. We grow unsatisfied with inheritance, with the sense that our friends are “happening to us.” We realize that we have been neglecting one of our most thrilling powers. We stop hanging out with people that make us feel like shit, just because we had the same first job at that bizarre summer camp. We have passionate friend crushes that make life infinitely more interesting.

It is our families that shape us from the very beginning, but it is our friends that truly define us down the road. They are the ones we get to invite into our lives.

So now that the family circus is over for another season and you’re turning your attention to the beginning of a new year, consider this for a resolution: become a fierce talent scout of amazing friends. Make your crew your finest act of curatorial courage. Just as many wise spiritual teachers have argued that our thoughts beget our actions, I would argue that our friends beget our culture. They become the force we measure ourselves against, the source of so much of our joy and courage. They are our respite, and our welcomed responsibility. And all that choosing makes for a very rich life.

(John Fraissinet / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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I needed this today. Thank you.

Love this post. Beautifully written and such truth. Here is my post from earlier this week.


What does this word Family mean to you?
It isn’t always blood.
It is often the people that you’ve gathered on your journey of life that not only “get” you, but they love and accept you in spite of your glaring faults.
They help you to learn to laugh at yourself and to accept yourself as they have accepted you.
These are the people that laugh with you, cry with you, hug you, and dance in the rain with you.
And sometimes your family includes some four-legged members too.
Bless my Family!!!

Best line ever"passionate friend crushes"...I recently had a birthday party of sorts for my 50th. It was really just a chance to thank & celebrate the awesome frinds I have. To let them know how greatful I am to have them in my life. I am sending them this story.Thank YOU.

Amen and thank you. Born into a tiny family, it took me too long to learn that - through no fault of their own - they simply could not be enough. Instead of raging against that or bewailing my fate, what a gift to realize there were so many other amazing, brilliant people to share the world with.

This is beautiful. One of my New Year's Resolutions, after moving to a new city, was to make the city my home, through cultivating new friendships. I had to work on the phrasing a little bit, though. It wasn't "make more friends" in quantity, and it wasn't "meet more people in tech." Instead, I got as far as "meet more like-minded people." Then I read your essay. What I'm looking for is to find and make my own New York family.

Thank you. I have been fortunate enough to really be blessed in my friendships. Most of mine, until my bestie, turned out to be friends for a short journey. My bestie is my family and I am grateful to my bones for her every single day. Miss Martin, thank you for reminding me how rich I truly am.
Love & Grace.

Fantastic post! Intentional friends is something I've been cultivating for years now, since I moved far away from most of my family. It's not easy sometimes, there's a feeling of lack of "roots"... but this article really spoke to me and inspired me to stay the course and embrace this journey of intentional, like minded folks around me.

Thank you for expressing a beautiful thought/action that means so much.

This is a very good article. There have been times in my life where chosen family has gotten me through.

Thanks for this beautiful article. The concept of chosen family is becoming more and more emergent as we are humans are evolving. As we make conscious choices and intentionally examine our character and family traits, we are often aghast and are attracted to like minded folks. These people end up being our "tribe", those we laugh and cry with, the ones who share our joys and sorrows and who witness our triumphs as well as weak moments. May this notion of chosen family (including our four legged creatures) progress and may tribe seen as the basis unit of society soon!

I loved this post and your reply completed my thoughts. Thanks!

In germany there is a real word for it: WAHLVERWANDTSCHAFTEN. I often tried to explain this to my many friends i consider my real family.

thanks for being my friend ( sometimes:)

If not for my chosen friends I life would be empty. I love you all

As one of those privileged to have taught you I can only say that this piece speaks to me in ways I never dreamed possible. Thank you.

Wonderful article - I just returned from a morning coffee with friends I've known only 3 years but feel very close and stimulated by them. This article made me realize how lucky I am to find these new friends - at this stage in my life. Thanks Courtney. You are a great writer.


may our chosen hold us
together may we create
sacred spaces
sacred times
to go beyond
as a Mandela
finding a Yes
in every circle
since the beginning
in the swirl.

Thank you, Julie. This reminds me of what a wonderful presence you were at church - always someone we could admire and share serious thoughts with. I'm very grateful for that. And, too, sometimes our friends can give us the affirmation and perspective on ourselves that family members can't always see. We remain locked forever in their minds as our eight year old personalities. It is good to grow up and have a few folks see you as an adult. Love to you, Claudia (and Carl)

What a wonderful reminder of the need to foster those relationships we choose to be part of, those people who love us unconditionally. My girlfriends are my tribe. I am blessed.

I think sometimes I forget that I have the power to invite people into my life or to shape how I spend my minutes. I want to have more time around people who light me up, make me think, or give me the sense of security to truly exhale. Thank you.

My good friend should read this!

you have no idea how much i needed to read this it definetly explains why i feel the way i feel about certain people in my life and also it explains that maybe i do take some of my friendships for granted but today is the day i tell my true friends how much they mean tome thank you for this article.

I bookmarked this piece last year and re-read it today. Gives me the lift I need to face the workday after some less than joyous family gatherings! Thank you Courtney!