What does it mean to have a family, to be part of a tribe? The traditional family unit in many cultures (and in the U.S. in earlier days) consists of many extended family members sharing a household, a multi-generational family group. Of course, in many cultures a tribe is the normal lifestyle – large family groups who live in a community and share resources.
A modern “nuclear family” has often been defined as parents and children living in the same household. But this definition is restrictive. Family has been redefined in many ways – without regard to gender, blood relationships or age. For instance, in a second or third marriage with children involved, you may see several sets of parents, step-parents, step-aunts and uncles and grandparents, the relatives of the former spouses, and so on, with varying degrees of involvement in the group’s daily lives. These extended family members are not necessarily part of your tribe if you have little or no interaction with them.
Family (or a sense of “tribe”) is not simply about shared DNA. A “family” can consist of friends who share goals, are mutually supportive, have a strong emotional bond, and feel an emotional commitment to each other. In some situations, relationships with genetic family may be unhealthy, in which case these strong ties to friends are even more important.
In his book, The Urban Tribe, Ethan Walters describes his family as an “intricate community of young people who live and work together in various combinations, form regular rituals, and provide the same kind of support as an extended family.”
You may consider your closest friends to be members of your extended family, with all the support, benefits, and obligations that entails – what the New York Times calls “voluntary kin.” In this broader sense, your extended tribe provides needed …
- Social feedback and interaction
- Affection and love
- Shared resources
- Emotional, physical and spiritual support
It is healthy to experience “family,” however you define it for yourself. Living in isolation or with only casual friends does not provide a strong framework for the social feedback and support we all need as “human animals.” Even a self-defined “loner” needs some degree of companionship and tribe. It is our ancestry and our nature to be in a family group, and in fact our mental health depends on this experience of sharing.