Focusing on friendships helps us move beyond the confines of the nuclear family
Why we need a diverse ecosystem of different relationships to be healthy
It takes a village. One or two people cannot be our everything. One or two people cannot reasonably meet all our intricate survival needs. Yet, this is often the box we try to fit whether it is disproportionately focusing on a romantic partner above all other relationships, seeking a ‘soulmate’ to fulfill all our needs, prioritizing the nuclear family or biological relatives over friendships, or romanticizing the idea of a best friend. In all those equations, putting certain relationships or people on pedestals above all else ironically creates problems, increases the strain on said relationships and decreases their long-term health or sustainability. Focusing on 1 romantic partner or on an isolated nuclear family unit leads to distress and ill health on all fronts. Our wellbeing & liberation depends on us being enmeshed in a diverse ecosystem of equally important relationships— aka a community.
Friendships can make our daily lives more livable & sustainable. There is something profoundly liberating about a relationship where each party wakes up every morning and simply chooses to care deeply & commit without any contractual obligation or socially imposed norm. Friendships can be easily overlooked lifelines that are more accessible to cultivate than we may think. They can be a “home” where stability, safety, security, and commitment come from the absence of chains & presence of intentional care.
Okay back to the piece…
The nuclear family is a new concept & it doesn’t work
The nuclear family came into the picture only a couple hundred years ago as colonialism transitioned into capitalism. In order to ensure domination & control, colonial empires separated people from their community by any means necessary- whether it was genocide to colonize lands or trans-continental slavery that maintained a steady supply of slave labor to maximize plantation profits. The nation state that came after took care of separating the communities that were left behind like indigenous children being stolen from their tribes & sent to concentration camps. The goal was always to fracture communal bonds and destroy communal ways of living that thrived thru collaboration, cooperation & abundant resource sharing. As the concept of community eroded, the nuclear family model rose to prominence.
The colonial small family structure was a tool strategically designed to divide & isolate people, making them easier to control, govern & exploit. It came with many layers of oppression across social constructs like gender, race & sexuality. A small family where a select few bonds are hyper-emphasized as “important” is ultimately an isolated unit that sees itself as separate from the collective & distinct from the larger ecosystem around it. This creates “us versus them” animosity between family units who then seek to secretly compete against each other for success and wealth under capitalism. Ultimately, there are more consumers created which is exactly what the system wants. Each individual family unit seeks to purchase commodities that they aspire to have exclusive, individual ownership over rather than communally sharing resources even if it makes no sense for us all to have these many solo material possessions. People are left constantly exhausted & are struggling to survive by doing things alone that historically people have done as a collective for thousands of years.
Displaced migrant populations have also been created as empires that destroyed our mother-lands & fabricated resource scarcity, now promise our people upward mobility & a chance at a slightly better life IF they leave their land, people & culture behind.
Whether it is cross-continental migration or people moving for an educational or job opportunity within the same country or leaving their now-gentrified neighborhood due to unaffordable housing — most of us are migrants in different forms desperately searching for a home to anchor in. The nuclear family is then presented to us as that home that will provide us with the companionship & so we attempt to fit that model out of desperation. Each aspect of the family from state-authorized marriages to having children is a social norm that people are brainwashed with since a young age and then pressured to achieve said milestones out of fear of being ostracized from society itself. So no, there is nothing “natural” about the nuclear family. It is a structure that required centuries of bloodshed & the state continues to direct an absurd amount of resources to force it onto people.
A family unit is small enough for the state to ensure they have a steady supply of workers that can be exploited by the rich but the unit is never big enough for people to feel truly supported such that they realize that they can be free. No wonder the family often becomes a cage that breeds resentment among members who paradoxically feel more alone than ever despite being chained to a few relationships. Chained being the key word. Any dynamic where people feel like they will be totally alone without it is one that will be a source of pain.
The problem may not be stemming from within the relationship
When problems pop up in romantic dynamics or parent-child relationships, they are often indicators alerting us to the imbalanced state of our entire relational ecosystem. Often, the issue IS the disproportionate amount of time & attention we’ve given to those relationships while de-prioritizing others, especially friendships. Rather than fixating on problem solving within an already strained, wounded & overburdened nuclear family or romantic bond, resourcing from outside by focusing on building up our friendships can be the lifeline we always needed. Think of it this way— the health of any individual bond is dependent on the health of the multiple OTHER bonds each person has. The more decentralized our love is, the healthier each bond is. When there are multiple dynamics, each relationship is able to thrive with more equity & balance that comes from the lack of a hierarchy between people.
You may have heard the concept of “decentralization” in the context of anarchist political strategy. Oppression is a manifestation of the centralization of power— when a few have a disproportionate control of resources that allows them to make decisions for the many. Centralization creates hierarchies which are fundamentally inequitable, unjust structures- whether that is the state or putting certain relationships on pedestals over others. On the other hand, when we pushback against oppressive systems- taking a diversity of tactics & heterogenous approaches rather makes us more effective rather than forcing people to conform to a singular idea of resistance guided by a centralized decision making process.
Relationship anarchy is a framework that translates these values to the realm of love. But the concept that there is strength in multiplicities & diversity isn’t just political, it is cultural & ancestral. This is how collectivist communities have existed outside the bounds of colonialism for eons. It is also how nature functions. A diverse ecosystem is a resilient, strong, adaptive ecosystem- with a web of many different inter and intra-species collaborations that don’t place a heightened importance on any single type of relationship. All are needed in order to maintain equilibrium & distress in any single relationship (often from externally introduced stress like capitalist destruction of the planet) causes ripples that will be felt throughout the ecosystem.
Another quick aside: Here's some newsletters to read related to this topic if you haven’t already!
Continuing on- Lessons on decentralizing love & building/ sustaining reciprocal friendships from my personal life
I’ve often seen the idea of a post-revolution commune glorified on the left without focusing on the un-sexy specifics of what that actually means. We cannot transition from a state of isolation with fragmented, individualistic relationships to suddenly embodying collectivist values & thriving in an inter-dependent community overnight. In order to be sustainable, that transition has to be gradual. Just having friends for the sake of having them isn’t enough if we haven’t figured out what it means to be inter-dependent where the survival of one is wholly entangled with & dependent on the survival of another. We have to build that muscle over time with practice. It will be uncomfortable & freeing, terrifying & exciting, difficult & liberating.
I have some knowledge of what it means to be raised by a village (will elaborate on my childhood below) but even so, I’ve lived in the United States for all of my adult life which means that I chased the ideal nuclear family model for a long time. Ironically, my friendships were always the reason that my life remained worth living despite these systems crushing me and that is how I learned to cultivate a genuine connection to land & community here. But it wasn’t until the last few years that I’ve been intentional about cultivating my friendships as though they are just as important as any other bond. It was right in front of me many times & I missed it— the point blank reality that our relationships are everything, especially the ones we have actively chosen to be in for no reason other than the care we have for each other. And I’m STILL struggling to gradually make relationship anarchy more of a reality on the ground in my life rather than just a concept I aspire to in theory. So trust me… I get it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the what precise steps we need to take TODAY to make our lives more livable, joyful & resilient. What sort of relational skills do we need to practice today instead of glamorizing the idea of a future commune as though it will simply emerge before us? What sort of commitments do we need to practice making in our friendships TODAY that will alleviate our day-to-day distress & make us WANT TO wake up every morning?
Some lessons I’ve learned in my struggle thus far:
It is scary to think outside the “nuclear family” box & that is ok
When problems arise in marriages/ romantic partnerships or when parenting is challenging & distressing, people often double down on that specific strained dynamic to channel even MORE time, attention & energy to it— an approach that often doesn’t work & makes things worse. Many of us spend years in inequitable dynamics trying over & over & over again in isolation to force things to work using approaches that we already know haven’t worked.
Why do we get stuck in these patterns? Why do we tend to fixate on achieving the picture-perfect romantic love story & nuclear family dynamic even if there is plenty of evidence around the world that shows that it is a recipe for misery? Well… because it is familiar. Stepping outside the narrow, restrictive relationship structures that we’ve been socialized to aspire to… is terrifying. It helps to keep this in mind as you attempt to diverge from any norm— there will be growing pains & times that are uncomfortable but that is part of the process.
You may have to go “out of your way” to find people & that is ok.
If you live in a capitalist society (especially in the so-called West), then the daily infrastructure of your life is carefully designed to make it very difficult for you to find people that you can build strong relationships with. These bonds would threaten the very foundation of capitalist/ colonial systems. Thus, each facet of your life- from the daily grind of a job leading you to end each day in exhaustion to the fact that our most of our sustenance comes from lifeless, corporate grocery aisles devoid of a connection to the land or a person… all of it is designed to be such that it non-necessary for you to interact with other people. It can also be very hard to breakdown the small steps that one needs to take to forge a community if you don’t already have some idea of what a healthy, collectivist community looks like which is why being alone or isolated can often feel like the path of least resistance. However, I’ve learned that the process of going out of your way to seek connection itself is liberating-