Charlotte, 31, had a tough time growing up with her biological mother and now considers her friends to be her family. But that isn’t the only reason she wants to bring her good friend Farouk* to the UK. Farouk is gay and lives in Morocco where homosexuality is illegal. “In the summer, me and my friends go to gay Pride, and it’s sad because he’s never been able to experience that,” she tells me. Asylum isn’t an option for Farouk because applying on the grounds of homosexuality would put him and his family at risk. Charlotte says they’ve considered a sham marriage but worries what would happen if they were caught. For now, Farouk is stuck in an unsafe country and Charlotte is missing him anxiously from her home in Sheffield. A ‘friendship visa’ would solve this, but of course, there’s no such thing. They’re encountering the fact that, as much as we may feel our friends are like family, we live in a system that says they can't be.
What would actually be better about Charlotte and Farouk in the eyes of the UK immigration system if they were ‘family’ instead of friends? According to writer Sophie Lewis in her exhilarating short new book, Abolish the Family: a manifesto for care and liberation, the answer should be nothing. For her, the family is a hellish place: “No one is likelier to rob, bully, blackmail, manipulate, or hit you, or inflict unwanted touch, than family. Logically, announcing an intention to ‘treat you like family’…ought to register as a horrible threat.” Aside from explicit abuse, Lewis’s problem with the family is political. She argues that when we organise society based on everyone living in families – meaning small, exclusive units of people related biologically or by marriage – we restrict ourselves to getting support from that unit alone. This necessarily excludes some people who lack family or are estranged from them, like Charlotte, and it limits the rest of us too.
When Miriam* was in her early thirties, she decided she wanted a baby, and as she hadn’t met a long-term partner, she would do it alone. As a gay woman, she thought her sexuality might be an obstacle to getting fertility treatment. She never anticipated that her single status would be the problem. In Scotland, where Miriam lives, you can’t get NHS fertility treatment unless you’ve been in a ‘stable’ relationship of more than two years. “It was a blow,” Miriam says. “I was going to have to spend a lot of money. It made me realise that the government doesn’t want people like me to become parents.”
Like Miriam, Morten, 35, sought a family-style set up by unconventional means. He was sick of being “at the whims of landlords” but wanted to stay in London long-term. He and a friend pooled their resources and bought a house together. His biological family were happy for him – “no one thought I’d be able to buy anything in London ever, so they’re happy I have some stability” – but the mortgage adviser wasn’t so enthused. “We were advised to get a shorter term mortgage instead of a longer one because we’re friends, not partners or family,” he tells me.
Keeping it in the family, as the saying goes, works well for the state, because we’re less likely to require publicly-funded help. Miriam, who did end up having a baby, thinks that’s why she couldn’t get free fertility treatment: “When my maternity pay ran out, I had to apply for Universal Credit, but if I’d had a partner with an income, the likelihood is I wouldn’t have had to do that. They don’t want people to become a cost to the public purse.” Charlotte echoes this theory, suggesting that the government prefers spousal visas to friendship visas as romantic partners are more likely to support each other financially than friends. Although Morten’s situation might seem quite different, the concern he encountered has the same root: taking big life steps outside the conventional family is seen as riskier, whether that’s how we raise kids or how we create homes.
'If your kneejerk reaction to the words "abolish the family" is "but I love my family,"' Lewis writes, 'you ought to know that you are one of the lucky ones. And I am happy for you. But everyone should be so lucky, don’t you think?'
If all this, and only all this, were true about the family, then surely we’d be happy to erase it from our lives. But of course, there is another side. Family is not solely bad, but also a shorthand for care, support and a sense of belonging. 'If your kneejerk reaction to the words "abolish the family" is "but I love my family,"' Lewis writes, 'you ought to know that you are one of the lucky ones. And I am happy for you. But everyone should be so lucky, don’t you think?' For her, this requires an end to what she calls the 'privatisation of that which should be common', by which she means care, support, belonging and the meeting of basic needs. In this ‘post-family’ world, whether we survive or thrive would be a shared concern, not a private issue.
Today, we already have incipient examples of this kind of world. Take publicly provided health and care, like the NHS or council-run care homes. According to Lewis’s logic, these kinds of institutions should be preferable to the family, and they are certainly important for ensuring a basic standard of living for all. But the accusations Lewis hurls at the family – that it is “irksome, unjust… exhausting at best, and crushingly traumatic at worst” – are also often true of these collectivised services, for workers and users. While that may be in part because their current manifestations are so beset by the problems of advanced capitalism – requirements to meet unrealistic targets, under-funding and so on – it remains difficult to imagine a version in which there are no irritations, frustrations, conflicts and abuses. And that’s possibly – and uncomfortably – because humans are involved in both, and humans can be as awful as they can be wonderful.
Smaller experiments in cultivating support encounter difficulties, too. In her essay on ‘friendship contracts’, consultant Elizabeth Oldfield describes buying a home with her husband and another couple. She writes tellingly that 'sometimes living in community feels more like living with siblings than with friends'. It seems that they have merely replicated the good and the bad of family, even though they’re not related to each other. Put simply, living in proximity and being tied to each other can undermine the beautiful voluntarism of friendship. Perhaps being needy and being needed are always hard things, regardless of our social configurations.
Charlotte, Miriam and Morten all encountered the hidden ways in which our society and government is convinced that family is best. Lewis writes with thrilling conviction that, on the contrary, ‘post-family’ is best. On both sides, there is an aim to ensure safety, care and support for all, and an assumption that family – its presence or removal – is how we achieve that aim. Perhaps Lewis is right, and ridding ourselves of the isolated islands of ‘family’ life (or what she goadingly calls ‘a disciplinary, scarcity-based trauma machine’) would open more fruitful and supportive forms of living. Perhaps she’s wrong, and only if we get to her post-family vision will we discover that humans are always dogged by these difficulties, regardless of how we arrange ourselves. Either way, Lewis is certainly correct that we can do better than the apprehension and obstacles faced when people pushed against convention. We can claim our right to create support systems beyond the family, whatever that looks like for each of us. That may be by defining our friends as our family, or it may be by creating new kinds of collectives as yet barely imaginable. It won’t be free from challenge and pain, and it probably won’t look revolutionary at first, but it’s a start. In Lewis’s own words, we can “expand from there, and never stop expanding”.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity