Friends, sisters, brothers, friends

August 14, 2011

So, why don’t we call our close friends our “sisters” and our “brothers”? (For details on how this question came about, see my blog titled “Acquaintances, friends, or sisters?”)

We all know that for our close friends, we would do what we needed to in order to care for them if they ever required it. And we know they would do the same for us. This type of intimacy is found more within family members than friends. When friends become that close, they are like family. So why not use the family terminology when describing them?

I think it has a lot to do with how we feel about our biological families. If we grew up in a family that was close, intimate, and loving, then we are more likely to use family labels for our close friends. If, however, we grew up in an abusive home, then the family label takes on an entirely different meaning.

As we go through life, we meet many people that play different roles in our lives. Often, we will attract, or be attracted to, someone who is older and wiser. Someone who we consider to be a “mentor” or a “guide.” Someone we go to for advice because they’ve been through the stages we’re going through. In a family, this would likely be the role of a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle. If the older people in our biological families were abusive in some way, or didn’t protect us from abuse when we were children, then we don’t have their guidance and advice as a resource we can count on. The older friend becomes the mother, father, grandparent, aunt, or uncle we never had. In conversation then, do we refer to that person as a close friend? Or as a family member?

The same scenario plays out with our siblings and our cousins. For some people, their cousins are closer to them then their siblings. Maybe that wasn’t the case when they were growing up. Maybe it resulted from something as simple as circumstance. The age difference between the siblings and ourselves was just too great for any common bond to form. Or maybe life’s path took us far away from our siblings while bringing us closer to a cousin. Or maybe our interests and goals in life more closely resembled that of our cousin rather than our sibling. Do we then refer to our cousin as our “sister” or “brother” rather than cousin? Or do we insist on using the biological label to describe them to others?

Even if we aren’t from an abusive family, attaching the traditional biological labels to our friends doesn’t seem to happen often. There are groups of people who have maintained their relationships for years, since childhood even. I know of one group of elderly ladies that meet regularly, now that they are retired and don’t have commitments interfering with their relationship. They met in the early years of their careers. Through all the stages of their lives – career, marriage, family, retirement, death – they kept in contact with each other. When one husband dies, the rest flock to comfort and help. They are described as being “like sisters,” but they don’t refer to each other as “sisters.”

Different cultures would address this question in different ways. I know of some cultures that call everyone who is not an immediate family member an “aunt” or an “uncle.” And there likely are cultures that label close friends as family members. But I don’t see this happening in my North American culture.

Are we not conscious of the changing roles that someone plays in our lives? As they slide from acquaintance to friend to sister or brother? Are we afraid of the potential commitment that would be required by using the “sister” or “brother” labels? Are we afraid because of what had happened to us in the past, so we have negative beliefs about family members?

In one of my blogs (titled “There’s always a silver lining”), I wrote about the changing expectations and boundaries I had about friends due to the different tragedies that I’ve experienced. Sometimes, a friend will be as close to us as a sister, and other times, that same friend will move back to a position of “friend.” Sometimes our needs are too great or our tragedy is too sad for that friend to deal with. We all have our limitations. Perhaps this is why we don’t use the “sister” or “brother” terminology.

By keeping our close friends as “friends,” then we can more easily move out of the relationship. The terms “sister” and “brother” mean “forever.” There’s no divorcing a sister or a brother. No matter where we move to, we always have that tie. And, there is a certain expectation placed upon someone we call “sister” or “brother.” However unfair that expectation is, we still have it.

Perhaps we need to simply accept the people in our lives for who they are and for what role they fill at any given time. If we feel a close friend is like a sister, then perhaps we should call that friend our sister. We wouldn’t demote our biological sister to the position of a “friend” just because we have lulls in our relationship. So we don’t need to allow that to hold us back from accepting our close friend as our sister or brother. We can accumulate lots of sisters and brothers in our lifetime, and, knowing that they are out there, in the world, waiting for us with open arms, is a rather comforting thought.

For more musings on “relationships,” see my blogs titled “There’s always a silver lining,” and “Acquaintances, friends or sister?”


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