Globe Syndicate

for release Friday October 10, 2003

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

It's All In The Family - But Who Counts?

Do you and your spouse have different ideas about who counts as family? Do you count as family first cousins once or twice removed (and do you even know what these are)? Especially when it comes to the approaching holidays, even though you said you were marrying him, not his relatives, relatives do matter-but you may discover it's all relative.

Confused? Wait until you consider who you buy gifts for and how much you spend. Then there are questions about who do you spend the holidays with? What traditions are "sacred" and which can you be flexible about? Do you divvy up your Thanksgiving and Christmas among four different (or more) families: my parents, your parents, my grandparents, your grandparents. And we haven't even mentioned the complicated relationships brought by stepchildren and step-grandchildren.

Your wife may grow up with the expectation that she will visit her nearby mother every day because that's what her mother did with her grandmother. You, on the other hand, live across the country from your parents and see them only once a year, which is plenty for you. Understanding the different ways we understand and relate to family members can be very important agenda for couples, especially newly married ones.

I think everyone understands regular cousins or "first" cousins. They are the children of your aunts and uncles. Second cousins are the people the next step down, children of your cousins. Where the "once removed" or "twice removed" comes in is if you skip a generation or are talking about different generations. A genealogy website describes it as "your mother's first cousin is your first cousin, once removed." Twice removed is if there is a two-generation difference. You are two generations younger than a first cousin of your grandmother, so you and your grandmother's first cousin are first cousins, twice removed ( <>) If you can't relate to any of this you probably come from a small family that basically only relates to a few immediate family members, if that.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a contributing editor for Asian American Village web site, <> , and writes in an article "What do you mean, they're not relatives?" about the vastly different ways she thought about family from her Caucasian husband. She first realized how differently they thought of family at their wedding, attended by about 200 people. Frances comes from "a huge, boisterous, warm family. Reunions are a big deal, gossip travels fast, and squabbles are constant," she says fondly. At the wedding it seemed like most of the relatives were from her side: aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts, grandparents and then friends of the family. Her husband's invitees were only a few relatives: mother, brother, brother's wife, three college pals and two of his mother's friends. Later she found out that his mother's "friends" were actually his mother's cousin and wife.

"Why didn't you tell me they were relatives?" Frances quizzed her groom.

He replied, "They're not relatives, they're my mother's cousins."

For Ms. Wang, "Anyone with any trace of relationship counts as part of the family unit, and the more of those the better. For my husband, however, 'family' was exclusively immediate and nuclear."

Then she talks about the pseudo-relatives that Asian American families are apt to have: lots of family friends who are addressed as "auntie" and "uncle." In some Asian countries, you address everyone, even those you don't know, as older brother and older sister as a sign of respect.

She points out how differently we view families when she says her husband simply cannot understand the thing for big families: "Why would you want to be related to so many people?" he asks.

In answer, she gives this illustration: "I always feel refreshed, energized, and very sure of myself after a family reunion. I love being doted on by my aunts because it does not matter what I do or do not do, what career or life choices I have or have not made, they simply love me. Regardless of where I go or what trouble I meet, there will always be someone I can count on there. When I got lost in a terrifying snowstorm in Niagara Falls, all I had to do was make one phone call, and 30 minutes later my 6th great aunt and 7th great uncle came trudging through the snow to pick me up."

And this is the crux of the matter: it doesn't matter who you count as cousins, as long as you value some sort of family relationships and spend time nurturing them. The best of families give us identity and love, even if they are a little dysfunctional at times.

Do you have different expectations for family relationships than your spouse? Send me your stories for a possible future column. Send to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail:

You can also visit Another Way on the Web at

Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.

NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 809 words; end material = 105 words

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