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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

"But You Can Choose Your Friends"

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 12th 2007

I was reminded of the old saying that "you cannot choose your family but you can choose your friends." What reminded me of the old saying was the fact that we spent a week in Florida with old friends. All of us were impressed and pleased by how comfortable and relaxed we felt. There was no need to pretend, compete, or even be careful about our behavior with one another. We discussed personal, family and health problems in addition to reminiscing about "old times." The warmth and closeness we experienced is what one expects to have when family members re-unite. There are people who are fortunate enough to have this type of closeness with family. However, for the rest of us, family experiences are far from pleasant.

What am I referring to?

Family relationships are often fraught with long and bitter histories made up of resentments, jealousies, rivalries, secrecies and unresolved issues, none of which ever is discussed. With this background of experience, many people visit family as part of a sense of obligation rather than pleasure. Whether the length of the visit is a day, week or month, people come away with a renewed sense of anger and resentment.

Sibling rivalries are often the most intense in family relationships as documented in writings as varied as the Bible to works of fiction and poetry. After all, in the Old Testament, Cain killed Abel and, when God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain answered, "Am I my brother's keeper." Borrowing from this Old Testament account of family dynamics, the great author, John Steinbeck, wrote a brilliant novel called East of Eden. This towering piece of literature focuses on the hateful and tragic relationships among members of one family. Eugene O'Neil wrote a brilliant play called "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." This is another work that focuses on the bitter relationships among siblings, their father and the spouses of one southern family.

After all, it is the family that is the hotbed of sexual tensions, sexual molestation, marital infidelity and violent abuse of children and spouses. One may not agree with Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic explanation of human behavior as being couched in terms of the sexual instinct but it is hard to deny the fact oedipal rivalries and sexual traumas occur in the family. Perhaps Freud was the first great family therapist because of the way he examined those familial ties.

But, Old Friends?

It should be needless to remind everyone that the same types of dynamics that afflict family members can afflict friendships.

However, friendships that have endured for a long time have also weathered the "slings and arrows of misguided fortune." Old friendships are "tried and true" and that is what makes them special. Because friendships are not bound by kinship ties they last because people choose to maintain those relationships. In other words, there are no obligations between friends of the type and variety that cause relatives to deal with each other whether they want to or not. Therefore, friendship relationships are relaxed, joking, and wonderfully informal rather than being driven by guilt and moral commitment.

Therefore, I want to thank my old friends for spending a week with me at their house while we were vacationing. What a delicious experience; to be on vacation and with old friends at the very same time.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Shakespeare - lovin' the Bard - David - Apr 21st 2008


I read your excellent and informative article with great interest.  It is a pity that so many families don't get on well, or at least have warring factions within. 

I noticed your quotation of Hamlet, very appropriately used, but I regret that you have used the wrong adjective: "misguided" instead of the generally accepted: "outrageous". 

Interestingly, this same line from what may be Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy contains a disputed word.  There is an argument extant which posits "slings" as a misprint, giving the original as "stings".  Although either word is appropriate in terms of metaphor and prose, "slings" is more widely used by an enormous margin. 

Shakespeare's plays examine a large portion of the taxonomy of human failings, particularly in regard to relationships.  An interesting topic for a book or a psychology course might be an exposition of the plays from the standpoint of modern psychology. 

Thank you again for your very fine article. 


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