Braithwaite delves into voluntary kin

Dec 11th, 2008 | By | Category: December 11, 2008, Research

Movies, cooking magazines and greeting cards lead us to believe that holiday dinners should materialize as loving family tableaus straight out of Norman Rockwell paintings.

In reality, life rarely mirrors the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, and sometimes those loving families are a bit more nontraditional.

Voluntary kin – people who feel like family, but to whom we are not related by blood or law – are a significant part of peoples’ support systems, according to Dawn Braithwaite, professor of communications.

“This notion of voluntary kin is important at the holidays because not everyone can get together – or wants to get together – with their blood and legal family,” Braithwaite said. “Some people choose to be alone around the holidays, but most people would like to be with others. They may not consider the fact that there can be other people in their lives that feel like family.”

Braithwaite and colleagues at UNL, the University of Iowa, and the University of Montana are in the midst of their second research study of voluntary kin, also called chosen or fictive kin.

These relationships are born out of a variety of circumstances.


Sometimes, a death in the family can lead people to substitute a new relationship in place of a bond with a lost loved one. For example, one woman Braithwaite interviewed lost her son, and over time she formed a mother-son bond with his best friend.

Braithwaite reports that in all of her research, she has come across only one person who was completely estranged from his blood family, a gay man who was not accepted by his legal relatives. He has formed a voluntary family with a close friend.

For most people, voluntary families are supplemental to their blood and legal families. For example, at holidays they may choose to spend time with voluntary kin with whom they feel closer, maybe because these people share their values. They may also feel that these voluntary family members understand or accept them more than their blood and legal relatives.

Particularly at this time of year – and in a college town like Lincoln – voluntary kin play a significant role. Many out of state and international students can’t travel home over holiday breaks. Faculty members, many of whom are transplants from other states and countries, also form voluntary families with each other.

Like all families, chosen families are not immune from strife. Braithwaite cited an example from her research, in which a group of faculty at the University of Montana formed a close-knit voluntary family. One of the couples divorced, which was challenging and distressing not only for the two members of the marriage, but also for their voluntary family, who struggled with questions such as, “Who should be invited to holiday dinners?”

Under more positive circumstances, the knitting together of blood and fictive kin can enrich family gatherings and life in general. In her current research on the challenges of having both blood and voluntary families, Braithwaite is discovering that many people knit these two families together, sometimes in such a close way that they become seamless. Legal and voluntary relatives will gather for holidays and special occasions, and over time, the “two” families become one.

Braithwaite is encouraged by these findings, and feels they are highly applicable to her friends and colleagues in Lincoln.

“This idea is especially relevant in a college town,” she said. “When we do have family around us, I think we should take the challenge of looking to see if there are people around us – students, faculty, staff – who aren’t going to have family around at the holidays, and then finding ways to include them. This doesn’t exactly fit the definition of voluntary family, but it’s still an important thing to do. As a community we have an obligation.”

— Story by Sara Gilliam, University Communications

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