What Is A Family?

What Is A Family? May 5, 2016

In her Sexual Authenticity, Melinda Selmys says that the distinction between “traditional” and “alternative” families is often misunderstood: “At the heart of it is distinction between family as something we choose to meet our own needs and desires (for comfort, security, affection, etc.), and family as something that we are thrust into and that makes claims on our moral and integral humanity” (113). The difference is that traditional families have a quality of givenness, thrownness, that alternative families cannot replicate.

Selmys argues that, paradoxically, the families that work are not the ones we choose but the ones into which we are tossed without choice. Only the latter, she argues, offer the possibility “of the one fundamental and essential element that binds together the traditional family: unconditional love” (113). Choosing a partner because of “similarity of personality, from a compatibility of temperament, from any mutual convenience” may “produce affection, loyalty, friendship,” but they leave out the possibility of a love that is truly unconditional: “as soon as the similarity, or compatibility, or convenience disappears, the love, accordingly, begins to dissipate” (114).

Traditional families work too because of the sexual difference at the heart of the family: “It is the union of opposites, the bringing together of unlike things, the making of unity out of disparity, that is the essence of the family. The family is the school of that radical love for all men which is so essential to Christianity. . . . It is a love that confronts the ‘other,’ -another so extreme that the sexes have, on occasion, been likened to alien species – and that makes it a part of oneself, so much so that two become ‘one flesh’ and are forged into a single family” (116). When two men or two women are put together, “they understand each other too well, and thus are inclined more to excuse than to forgive.” They never experience “the frank bafflement which inevitably sets in, in any heterosexual relationship.” In an earlier phase of her life, Selmys was a practicing lesbian: “we were both women, and we chose each other because we seemed to be particularly compatible women. It was the sort of friendship where you hit it off immediately and are able to talk for hours and hours about anything in the world or nothing at all.” She never fought with her partner,” but that lack of struggle meant that they were never confronted with the need to love in the midst of rancor and near-hatred.

“A family is a garden,” she writes, “which brings forth a profusion of fruits. The spouses make this garden of themselves, and wander through it together, and only if they cease to weed it, to work it, to prune and plant and water, does it turn back into a wilderness. It is hard work, of course. . . . Still, the soil does bring forth its crop, and we are able to eat” (119). Families we choose “are not families. They are an invitation to walk together through the disparate wildernesses of our separate souls. Perhaps on that walk we will speculate about the kind of garden that we would like to build, and perhaps we will even, from time to time, stumble across a pear tree or a bush full of berries in seas, and we will be able to sit and make a snack of it.” A meadow has its virtues, but it’s not a garden and “to call it a garden is an abuse of language, and to expect it to bring forth the same sort of fruit is to court disappointment and hunger” (119-20).

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