Not too long ago, I became upset when Duncan wanted to loan his ex-wife money. We had argued about this subject plenty of times in the past, often ending with me crying and being talked into going along anyway. But this time was different. "Please," I said. "I really need us to not do this." He ignored me. And, with one rip from the checkbook, he had lost my trust. Who was this man? Clearly, I couldn't count on him to put me first. And we had no children, no shared religion, no particular ideas about how we might save the world together. Just because I had married him, was he my family?
A few days later, Duncan and I were invited to spend the weekend in Pennsylvania with my parents, my siblings, and the rest of our extended family. On Sunday, my sister called everyone of my generation together to suggest that the time had come for us to chip in and begin helping some of our relatives with their financial obligations—relatives who had helped us considerably over many years. "Yes," I said. "Of course," said Duncan. "No," said my cousin. I felt dazed. I turned to Duncan, hugged him, and thanked him profusely for his unquestioning willingness to open his heart and resources to my family. I felt so loving toward him, so grateful and trusting.
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On the drive home, the irony struck me: My husband was willing to step up to the plate on behalf of people who were not related to him by blood; my cousin, their "true" relative, would not. I asked Duncan if he thought we were a family. "We sleep together every night," he said simply. "We eat meals together, pay bills together, buy furniture together. When we say we're going home, we go to the same place." For him, the answer was self-evident. I would never have defined family this way; for me, the notion was more about the strength of the emotional bond between two people. Intrigued, I began asking friends who were partnered but childless how they felt. Some had chosen not to have kids, some were in second marriages where one spouse already had children, others were young couples who wanted to get pregnant, but couldn't. The question cut deep for all of them.