Definitions of Family: Beyond the Dictionary

Updated September 10, 2019
Affectionate couple with baby

Family may seem like a simple concept, but there is no simple definition of family. In its most basic terms, a family is a group of individuals who share a legal or genetic bond, but for many people, family means much more, and even the simple idea of genetic bonds can be more complicated than it seems.

Basic Family Definition

In the most basic definition, a group of people who share a legal bond or a blood bond is a family.

  • Legal Bonds: Families are legally bound through marriages, adoptions, and guardianships, including the rights, duties, and obligations of those legal contracts. Legal bonds can be changed, expanded, or dissolved to change the composition of a family.
  • Blood Bonds: Individuals who are directly related through a common ancestor are part of a family. This includes both close and distant relatives such as siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Researching a family tree or genealogical records can reveal familial blood bonds.

Despite the apparent simplicity of this definition of family, the idea of family goes far beyond just legal or blood relationships for many people.

Types of Families

There are different types of family structures, each of which is equally viable as a supportive, caring unit.

  • Nuclear Family: Also called a conjugal family, a nuclear family includes the parents and their children living in the same residence or sharing the closest bonds.
  • Extended Family: This type of family includes all relatives in close proximity, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In a family household that is extended, these relatives typically live together and all share daily household duties. This type of family is also called a joint family or multigenerational family depending on which members are included.
    Multi-generation family in party
  • Complex Family: This type of extended family has three or more adults plus their children. This type of family may be formed through divorce and remarriage, or it may be formed through polygamy in societies where that practice is acceptable. Some families may be complex even without formal legal bonds between the adults.
  • Single Parent Family: This family type includes one parent and their children only. A single parent family could be the result of a divorce, the death of one parent, or even a single parent adoption.
Mother and baseball player son taking selfie
  • Stepfamily: This is a family where the adults have divorced and remarried, bringing children from other unions together to form a new nuclear family. The children may come from several different parents or be on one or both sides of the new union. Step families are also referred to as blended families because they are a blend of two or more different families.
  • Traditional Family: This is a family unit defined in the classic sense as the father working outside the home to support the members financially, while the mother remains at home and tends to domestic duties and child-rearing. This strict definition of family values is less and less common in modern society.
  • Adopted Family: This type of family shares legal bonds but not genetic ones. Two parents may adopt a child to whom they share no blood relationship, or one parent may adopt the child of the other parent. Adopted families can also be defined in an emotional or spiritual sense where no formal legal bonds are present.
  • Foster Family: A foster family includes one or more adult parent who serves as a temporary guardian for one or more children to whom they may or may not be biologically related. In time, more formal arrangements may be made and foster children can be legally adopted.
  • Childless Family: This type of family includes a couple with no children. Couples may choose not to have children or may be prevented from having children biologically due to medical reasons. Some childless families might include pets viewed as family members.

Many families can be classified as more than one specific type, and every family has its unique characteristics that make it special and comforting to its members.

Young couple with kittens at home

Defining Your Family

While the direct legal and genetic relationships you share with others can help you create your definition of family, there is more to family relationships than these basic concepts. You can even decide to refer to your special loved ones as family in a different language if you like. What's really important is that a true family provides its members with emotional and spiritual kinship through:

  • Shared values, beliefs, and traditions
  • Common experiences and activities
  • Unconditional, non-judgmental support

Social Families for Adults

In many ways, different individuals relate to groups of people who provide them with emotional and spiritual connection as family, even if they share no legal or genetic bonds. For example, a church "family" has spiritual connections and shared values, even though its members are not formally related. Similarly, a work family has common experiences and share activities in long-term relationships without formal bonds.

Group of creative colleagues sitting together outdoors

Modern Social Families

College fraternities and sororities often share familial bonds through experiences and consider one another brothers and sisters without formal relationships. With social networking technology, many people are even creating online or virtual families of individuals who share their beliefs, hobbies, and values even if they have never met in person. These types of families are sometimes called chosen families.

What Family Means to You

The definition of family is constantly evolving, and every person can define family in a different way to encompass the relationships she shares with people in her life. Over time one's family will change as one's life changes and the importance of family values and rituals deepen. Every member who is truly family will help make it richer.

Definitions of Family: Beyond the Dictionary