I was recently confronted by a family member who demanded that I love, respect, and have a relationship with certain other family members. Their reason was because in the eyes of the law they were family. I didn’t get it, so my husband put it into a more simple form for me to understand: I love by choice, others love out of obligation. I am still having trouble grasping that concept. I don’t remember the handbook where this rule is written, and even the 10 commandments said HONOR thy mother and father, not LOVE them. Is this a widespread belief or the ravings of a kooky relative?

I learned at an early age that love is a choice. My birth father died when I was four and my mother remarried a wonderful man when I was six. He was 20 years older than my mother with two grown children, yet he adopted me and raised me as his own, and I took his surname. I know of many instances where step-parents and step-children don’t get along, and even more where there’s no formal adoption or name change. I admire my dad all the more for his actions because they were voluntary and heart-felt.

Because my step-siblings were so much older, they did not live with us and I grew up as an only child. I felt very lonely and compensated by bonding with friends as sisters from another mister. They became my family by choice, not by law or marriage or blood or obligation. I have one BFF that I have known since I was two, and two other BFFs from first grade. I am so grateful for these friends whom I’ve fought with, made up with, and love with all of my heart. We don’t always like or agree with each other, but we are always there to love and support one another. I can’t imagine our relationships being any different if we were born into them.

And then during my difficult teen years, I befriended my youth group advisers. They became my mentors and older siblings who have been there for me through thick and thin. I have known them for over 25 years, since they were single to now that their kids are getting married and graduating college. They have loved me through all of my craziness, providing me with home-cooked meals, a sofa to crash on, and abundant love and listening. To me, they are family. What’s law got to do with it?

And what about all of the extended family of my parents and grandparents? With a family this large and spread out it’s easy to avoid anyone you don’t like, so those who keep in touch with love each other sincerely. I know so many people who hate going home for the holidays because they resent and despise one or more family members, but they keep showing up out of a sense of obligation. I just don’t understand how they can do that when they would be so much happier — and make everyone around them happier — if they spent the holidays with people they actually loved. Love and family are so intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two for most people, but for me it’s been crystal clear for a long time.

We can choose to marry or divorce; to adopt or put up for adoption; to keep our given names or change them; and whether to put family in our last will and testament or give it all to charity. The law can inform us who we’re related to at any point in time, but it can’t force us to love them. And why would anyone want to be obligated to love anyway? Isn’t choosing whom to love one of our most sacred freedoms? I for one want to be loved purely and honestly, for me and just because. Love by coercion, in my opinion, is not love at all. I try my best to live an authentic life with authentic relationships, and sometimes that means being honest even when people can’t handle the truth.

No one likes to admit it, but there is no such thing as unconditional love. Love occurs under certain conditions, and those conditions can disappear. I think this is what people mean when they “fall out of love” and get a divorce. Love happens in many families because its members work hard to create those conditions of mutual respect, loyalty, and acceptance. But that doesn’t mean all families have those conditions, nor that those conditions can’t change. It should be self-evident, but I simply can’t love family members who make it impossible for me to love them. I’m sure we all want the same thing — genuine, everlasting love — but we just can’t seem to agree on how to achieve it. Has anyone else ever felt forced to “love” someone? How did you handle it?

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