Tough to replace family with friends

By Tobias Ma

We don’t always pick the people we love, and never the people who love us. As the traditional family unit has lost some of its popularity in recent years, more and more people have turned to friendships for replacement therapy. This is hard but not impossible to pull off. The phrase “blood is thicker than water” is an old proverb implying the resiliency of familial ties over friendships. The saying underlines the persistence that societal norms, economic codependence and genetic connection leverage over individuals when making commitments to their family. Friends will encounter roadblocks in filling the role that family provides, but the unconditional love in a healthy familial relationship can be replicated in a friendship through active commitment. However, this kind of bond costs significant time, care and emotional investment. It can also be quite flammable. But if you lack a good family nothing can change that, so start making buddies.


Pregnancy triggers a stream of hormones that generate an intense connection between mother and baby. Among these chemicals, scientists consider oxytocin most responsible for deep interpersonal attachments. In successful romances, oxytocin infiltrates the mind, often through physical intimacy once the adrenaline of courtship wears off and familiarity sets in. Oxytocin is why couples can eat cold pizza in pajamas without makeup or contact lenses and still make love after. However, it is sometimes absent in romantic relationships and can dissipate quickly, as anyone who has been through a breakup can attest to. By contrast, oxytocin and other pair-bonding chemicals almost always flood the brain during pregnancies, creating commitment that defies reason and choice. This is why our mothers love us, nor will they likely “break up” with us.

The imprinting process extends to other caregivers in early development, whose ability to bond with their young during this period is crucial for the child’s psychological wellbeing. When considering this alongside our dependence on family for food, water, clothing and attention, our parents seem to have a chemical and chronological head start on our friends in the battle for our loyalty.

Different countries have different conceptions of what a family looks like. Western society’s most common model is the urban nuclear family, which consists of parents and children. Compared to traditional East Asian or Latin American families, which tend to integrate cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents to a much greater degree, children of nuclear families start out with a smaller social network that seemingly leaves much room for friendships to fill. But even single-cell families still have a powerful impact on their offspring, who learn gender roles and socialization from their parents and siblings.


Children are entirely dependent on their parents for economic and emotional support, which if appropriately provided continues into early adulthood. Neglected babies usually develop a gamut of mental and physical health issues, such as depression and social anxiety in toddlers who were malnourished during infancy. If a 17-year-old steals a motorcycle and crashes it into a Baskin Robbins, his parents, not his homies, will likely pick up the bill. The practical support that children rely on from their parents is understandably absent in most young friendships, and by the time we are mature enough to pick our pals intelligently, we are nearing economic independence anyway. This is not to imply that love equates dependence, but count yourself fortunate should you ever find a friend who loves you so unconditionally that you can gatecrash the limits of their patience and still feel certain they will help pick up the pieces, which for many children reflects the dynamic between them and their families.

Advocates of friendship replacing family might claim that you can pick your friends but are stuck with your family. This is true, but only in adulthood. The environment young children end up socializing in always comes from their parents. Their early friends will be drawn out of a pool that mom and dad are responsible for building, either through choosing certain summer camps, enrolling in a private or religious school or by living in a certain neighbourhood. This does not mean that parents have complete control over their children’s social lives, but the idea that one independently chooses their friends while growing up is often untrue.

Kids rarely make informed decisions about who they hang out with on the playground. They get tossed into a washing machine of shyness and then gravitate towards each other based on a combination of shared activities, proximity and the other child’s ability to provide material goods, according to many child psychologists. Then they bounce off each other until fear of ostracization and rapport melds into friendship.

Remember the kid who always had Lunchables? Everyone was his best friend for the day if he decided to share. We often keep people like that in our lives for a long time. If simple familiarity can do that, imagine the resonance of your parental relationships. Whether parents’ decisions are subconscious or unintentional, their children will start life submerged in a well that reflects their parents’ socioeconomic, religious and cultural backgrounds. If we let them, our childhood histories of social interaction will haunt our choices of friends and lovers well into adulthood.

Strong friendships are not as statistically significant in predicting adolescent self-esteem as a strong family unit. However, friendship still has a demonstratably similar positive effect on psychological resilience to familial support. Also, parents not always caring or present. Even though some of the decisions our parents make affect us forever, strong friendships can create the same chemical brew the brain associates with family. People with friends are healthier and happier, even when facing poor socioeconomic circumstances.


Since friendships can turn romantic, and romantic relationships blossom into families, most nuclear familial situations, excluding arranged marriages, have developed out of attraction to someone outside of the family. But who knows? Perhaps that is why they end in divorce so often, whereas arranged marriages based around familial obligation tend to survive. Recent research actually suggests that, besides other factors like social media, Generation Y’s growing disinterest in marriage and the Model T family unit has caused friendships to play a more prominent role in emotional satisfaction.

Modern adult friendships are often grounded in shared enjoyment of activities, attractive values perceived in both parties, and similar personalities. They are important relationships to develop but there is still an underlying vanity to friendships which restrict many of them from developing unconditional acceptance. We like our friends because they share our interests. They possess traits that we see reflected in ourselves or aspire to develop. This attitude is normal and will likely never cause problems if one has happy familial relationships at home. But convention dictates certain limits on our capacity to self-sacrifice for our friends or tolerate their bad behaviour.

Adult friendships are based on respect and the understanding that both parties have something to contribute to the relationship. When that perception erodes, many people find commitment to their friends easier to discard than family.

Society expects us to put family first, backed up by the biological urge to preserve and remain close to one’s genetic roots. People need to make a conscious effort to accept aspects of their friends that might be incompatible with their own values and sensibilities if they expect their friends to consider them family.

Keep Trying

I have outlined the difficulties of friendships that are like family because I want more people to succeed. The endeavour is worthwhile and beautiful. Nuclear families might be socially constructed but entrenched institutions have power even over people who can identify them for what they are. Recognizing the power of convention is the key to controlling its effects, which are not necessarily negative, but are also the reasons why friendships that surpass their traditional roles embody mind over matter.

A friend that you can legitimately call your brother or your sister is rare, but it’s also an indication that you’ve both done something right. Nobody gets to pick their parents. Everyone ends up with friends they have earned.

People are more unpredictable than science’s current understandings of chemistry and psychology. Pair-bonding cannot be boiled down into two-gear mechanisms of cause-and-effect. If you have had an unsatisfying family life, do not consign your happiness to the shadow of statistics. People can and do replace the affection we expect from our families with friendships, but these are investments to which you must contribute as good as you get.

The need to care and be cared about is as tangible as the need for oxygen or calories. Those who start with an bad source face the challenging, but doable task of adaptation.


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