Study defines nuance between actual, ‘chosen’ family

Communication Studies

Ashley Washburn, December 6, 2016 | View original publication

Study defines nuance between actual, ‘chosen’ family

The tree is up. The stockings are hung. Typical holiday joys and headaches await. For some, family brings on a whole extra set of challenges, especially for those juggling the relationships between their traditional family and their “chosen” family.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Dawn O. Braithwaite, an expert in the communication structure of families, demonstrates in a new study that the relationships among a person’s fictive kin, also called voluntary kin, and their birth and legal family can take a variety of forms.

The work, which delves into the degrees of what Braithwaite calls supplemental voluntary kin relationships, are important to understand, she said: “If you’re going to have both of these relationships, how are you going to navigate that?”

During a 2010 study, Braithwaite, professor of communication studies, discovered that many who have voluntary kin continue close relationships with their legal family. She expected more estrangement, but found supplementing legal family with voluntary kin is more common for various reasons: geographic distance, differing belief systems, or messy family structures with meandering family trees.

“This redefined supplemental kin,” Braithwaite said. “In the first study, we thought that (legal) family just wasn’t meeting their needs, but in this study we found that most people had a fine relationship with their legal family, but valued the addition of others to their family as well.”

In the new qualitative study, Braithwaite and her team interviewed 36 “linchpins,” or people with relationships with both their legal family and their voluntary kin, and found the relationships typically fall into one of four categories, and that each type has its own set of strengths and challenges.


This is the easiest setup for linchpins to navigate, Braithwaite said. In this type of relationship the legal family, voluntary family and the linchpins are all close and typically share regular engagement in family rituals and traditions. Having regular meals, birthday celebrations and holiday traditions are common. Still, there may be challenges in what roles are played at different stages of life.


This arrangement presents the most challenges in terms of navigating the relationships with both the voluntary kin and the legal family. In this group, the linchpin’s legal family and voluntary kin are acquaintances, but the legal family may not fully understand or accept the relationship between the linchpin and the voluntary kin.

Braithwaite said these relationships also differed in that the linchpins often had greater openness with their voluntary kin.

“Holidays and celebrations are a little trickier for this group, with more landmines they can step on, from what role they play, whether they invite voluntary kin, and what you call them,” she said. “The linchpins are the pickle in the middle, the person who has to figure this out.”


This group doesn’t facilitate communication between the linchpin’s legal family and voluntary kin, and most have never met — maybe because of geographical separation or differing values between the linchpin and his or her legal family.

Braithwaite said this arrangement is easier to navigate for the linchpins than a limited triad, but that social media can cause hard feelings, since linchpins in this group typically never shared how close they were with their voluntary kin.


This arrangement is difficult for linchpins because of the very negative feelings between voluntary kin and legal family, but was simplified because feelings were known and accepted. All “hostile” relationships were reported between a wife, her spouse and her best friend.

“That’s a tough position to be in, but at least you know what you’re going to get if you bring the two together,” Braithwaite said.

Braithwaite said she was surprised that in all except the hostile groups, the linchpins said they were satisfied and “perfectly happy” with the nature of the relationships. She cautioned, though, that it is important to study these relationships because they can cause difficulties that are important to understand and anticipate, especially around the holidays when emotions and expectations often run higher. Linchpins face decisions about where they will celebrate, who will be included, and what to say and not to say to the two groups.

The research as a whole can inform relationship counselors, therapists and family members themselves, she said.

“Family therapists especially need to understand these relationships to help navigate these waters and understand what those waters are,” Braithwaite said. “They may be counseling someone who isn’t very close to their family, and may even be encouraging this voluntary family, but they also have to prepare them to handle it.”

Communication Studies