Letters from Esther #46: The Power of Chosen Family

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

Shall We Begin?

We are taught from a young age to express ourselves. Through new words, crayon drawings, and make believe, we discover ourselves and the world around us. We show the adults in our lives who we are before we even know. We develop a personality, an identity, a reputation. We make friends. We change friends. In the best circumstances, we feel that we belong to a community. Your small town. Your swim team. Your church.

We learn about ourselves in those contexts. Each group comes with an oft unspoken social code about what is acceptable: what kind of jokes you can make, what sort of touch or play is okay, which dreams you can share. The parts of us that don’t fit get relegated to a dark corner inside of us. Most of us don’t learn for years what’s in that corner. We have a sense of it. But we don’t dare investigate.

I think we can all relate to that lonely experience. Despite how alone we may feel, this is one of the most universal experiences in the world—particularly if the part you are hiding is that you are not straight or cis. This brutal irony is what so many LGBTIQA+ people live with from a young age. If you’re reading this and seeing yourself, then you intimately know the shame and fear that comes from the threat of being excluded or excommunicated from the very groups that mean so much to you, whether it’s your family, friend group, or religious institution.

But perhaps you also know this experience: the day you made a choice to look in the dark corner. Perhaps, you know the experience of eventually finding the parts of yourself that were aching to meet you, be loved by you, and to be seen and embraced by others. Or, perhaps you are still waiting for this, wondering if this experience can ever be yours. Despite the proliferation of Pride celebrations worldwide, many of us don’t come from places that are ready to embrace us in our fullness. But that, too, is a universal experience.

I’ve witnessed and studied many powerful examples of human connection. But there is one that I return to time and time again to illustrate why friendship is just as important as romantic partnership or familial ties. During the AIDS epidemic, it was friends who accompanied the sick and dying. It was friends who negotiated on your behalf with the hospital and a legal system that didn’t recognize you. It was friends who planned what would happen to your art, your belongings, and your body. Friends buried friends. Parents discovered their kids were gay after they died.

Friends grieved the insurmountable losses together, in community, and they rebuilt in community, too. After a very long time, as the worst of the epidemic began to subside in New York, I would walk by the NYU call center and see many gay couples meeting up in the little nearby park. This was the place where you got all the information on adoption from China. It’s where I learned about the concept of “family of choice” outside of my own context (foreigners befriending foreigners in their shared new home). In that little park, I saw uncles and aunties and babies and kids from all ethnic and racial backgrounds: a constellation of care. Today, organizations such as the Chosen Family Law Center, are working to codify that care by “building the legal framework to support dignity and justice for all family types.”

You see, there is no hierarchy of “types” of relationships. IN THE WORLD I ASPIRE TO friends can become family. Lovers can become friends. And even family—the one you came from, the one you never thought might be able to love you in your complexities—can come to understand that you’re no less a person, no less lovable, because of who you love. And if that never happens, if they never come around, know there is a family of choice waiting for you.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You

  • Map your constellation of care.
  • Who matters in your life today and how has it changed?
  • Who is there for you?
  • For whom are you there?
  • What three words describe your expectations of close friendship?
  • What are the special gifts you bring to your friendships?
  • What do you feel you could do better?
  • If you felt you could ask for more from a friend, what would you ask for?
  • What holds you back from asking?

More From Esther

The Question that Comes Up in All New Adult Friendships / a recent newsletter

Making new friends is one of the most satisfying, exciting experiences we can have. But every new friendship brings with it a series of questions: how much of myself can I share? How much vulnerability is too much? Read on to learn more.

My Chosen Family / a newsletter

Long lasting friendships bring the many parts of us into alignment, grounding us in continuity. Old friends remind each other of who we were then and how much we’ve grown. We’ve been there for each other in excitement and boredom, in celebration and tragedy. Read on to learn about my own chosen family, a group of friends I’ve had for thirty years.

Letters From Esther #27: Friendship / a newsletter

Different from romantic or filial love, friendship is its own unique love story. Making friends is the first free choice relationship we have as kids. Our friends provide community and continuity in an ever-changing world.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information.


  • The Chosen Family Law Center, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to cultivating equitable social and legal recognition of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual (LGBTQIA) and polyamorous families and individuals.
  • The Marsha P. Johnson Institute protects and defends the human rights of Black transgender people.
  • As the world’s first HIV/AIDS service organization, GMHC is working to end the AIDS epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected.

I’m Watching:

  • Diana Adams’s TED Talk about why US laws must expand beyond the nuclear family
  • Reshma Saujani’s commencement speech at Smith College about overcoming “Imposter Syndrome”

I’m Reading:

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