This month, our advice columnist answers a question about how to find lasting support and connection after estrangement.
Q: How do you go about creating a chosen family? I hear this term often in the estrangement community. I am clear on what I don’t want in a family, but I have no idea how to find the support I am longing for.
A: Hello, anonymous friend!
Thanks very much for writing in.
You're absolutely right that the term "chosen family" comes up a lot in the estrangement community ... but we don't always do a great job at explaining what that is (or can be), and how we find one.
Part of that, I think, is because 'chosen family' can look like so many different things! There is no one-size-fits-all model when we're finding new ways of surrounding ourselves with love and support, and being there for others in turn.
I also think the phrase "chosen family" can sometimes create a certain kind of pressure – that the people in this category fill the spaces in our lives that other people share with their families of origin, in exactly the same ways.
And that can certainly happen, sometimes – but not all the time. And building a chosen family can also give us the chance to reinvent what family means:
Who will we be to each other?
What do we deserve from each other (and how can we live up to that)?
What relationships and structures best nourish and support us?
When it comes to creating a chosen family, I like to borrow a term from the great Captain Awkward, and ask:
"Who's on 'Team You?'"
'Team You' are the people in your life who lift you up, make your days better, and take care of you, in all sorts of ways.
They're the people who you talk to about a great day in your life (or a horrible day), who have insightful advice, who will celebrate and commiserate as needed, who you get excited about watching movies or TV shows with, who would drive you to the hospital if you got sick, who pick you up at the airport when you've been out of town, who trade house-sitting duties with you as needed, who would come and watch you get a big award, et cetera.
Not every person on Team You will do all those things — we all have different strengths we bring to relationships, and different ways to show support — and there can be lots of overlap, too.
I think of one person on my own 'Team Me' who all but gets a nosebleed if we get close to talking about our feelings ... and who is also the reason I never worry about my car breaking down when I travel to rural and remote areas, because I know he'd come and get me if I ever needed help, no questions asked. Another person on Team Me gives the most incredible life advice and hand-makes a card for my birthday every year, and we cheer each other up when we're feeling low by singing Tom Lehrer at the top of our lungs in the kitchen while we do the dishes. Another person isn't always great at staying in touch, but lets me know they're thinking of me by sending cartoons and word games that make me smile.
When it comes to building up Team You, start small. Start by thinking about one specific type of support that you're looking for - and whether there are people in your life who might be able to help with that one specific thing, if you asked.
"Hey [friend], I've noticed that you always give really good advice, and I've got a gnarly problem at work I need help sorting through. Can I pick your brain on that?"
"I'm going out of town for a couple weeks — would you come over to my place and water my plants a couple times while I'm away?"
Building up those little bits of support into a network you can rely on, bit by bit over time, is half the equation.
The other half is -- whose 'Team'(s) are you on?
Supporting one another doesn't have to be (actually, will rarely be!) a perfect 50/50 of 'give' and 'receive' at any one moment, but that long-term balance is how relationships get stronger.
So, while you're thinking about what specific kinds of support you need from the people around you, I also want you to think about who you've been supporting, and how you've been able to be there for them.
The person who I know would come and get me if I got stranded on the highway, no matter how far away? I've just learned how to make his favourite soup. My friend who sends me word games gets terrible puns in return, and I take the initiative to set up phone calls a couple times a year. Some people in my life know that they can count on me to be a listening ear, or start a meal train when they're not up for cooking, or handle the logistics of a complicated life scenario.
Of course, there are times in life when it's easier to show up for the people around us, and times when this is a lot harder — and it's a particularly cruel irony that, if you don't already have an established network of support, the hardest time to build a Team You is probably when you need it the most.
I know, in the early days of my estrangement, Team Me was spread out far and wide — I had people supporting me from afar, but no one nearby, and no energy to try and actively forge those connections with local classmates, coworkers and neighbours, either. So I was very isolated, until I was finally able to regroup, get some of that energy and capacity back, and start putting myself out there and noticing people who might be there for me.
But, when you're able, I'd encourage you to ask for the little, helpful things you want more of in your life — and offer the people around you some little, helpful things, too.
While you're doing that, keep checking in with yourself. If something doesn't feel right, pull back, and reevaluate whether this is working for you and if you want to change course. If something feels good, lean in, and keep committing to building up that relationship.
Thinking about a "chosen family" or "Team You" as some singular, static thing to build can feel incredibly daunting.
But I think these networks of support — whatever we call them — are the sum of little acts of kindness, support, presence, trust and practical help.
It might take time to build the support you want and need, and I wish there were a quicker, easier answer than "ask for what you need, offer what you can, and take care of yourself and the people around you."
But every little bit of support you give and receive tips the scales that much more in favor of Team You.
Wishing you all the best,
Hila (any pronouns) is the Advice Columnist for the Together Estranged Newsletter. They have been happily estranged for a number of years, and now live with their chosen family and beloved, silly dog in rural Canada. They have a background in mental health, peer support, writing and journalism. Outside of work, Hila can be found recreating desserts from The Great British Bake Off, running on the beautiful trails near their home, singing show tunes, and learning to knit.
Please Note: The peer to peer Advice Columnist is not a licensed mental health professional; this is not medical advice. If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, please go to your local urgent care center to talk to a professional counselor.
In addition, the views and opinions expressed by Advice Columnists are those of the Advice Columnists and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Together Estranged.