My friend Lydia, who had spent the last 14 months trying to conceive, was surprised when she discussed the issue with her husband. He confessed that marrying and moving in together were a run-up to the final step—having children—that in turn would make them a real family. Lydia, on the other hand, felt they were already a family, and had been from the day they fell in love. For her, the power of this connection superseded traditional definitions. "I didn't realize that to him, family had scale," she told me.
Other couples mentioned how important it was to care for someone together. "The fact that I helped raise his children has created a deep bond," my friend Patricia said. "And it may sound silly, but caring for our dog and working in our garden together is another source of joy and connection for us." My friends Dave and Suzanne are both Buddhists. Their sense of family comes from sharing a spiritual path. "It's tribal," Dave says. "We're part of the same clan, share the same views about life and death, help each other struggle with all the big issues." The rhythms of their life reflect their core beliefs. What could be more familial?
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Pets and spiritual practices aside, some couples just know they are a family, and have no wish or need for an explanation. My friend Beth says, "I have no idea what makes us a family. But when Rob and I are lying in bed together watching TV and our cat jumps up and falls asleep between us—I melt and think, ‘Ah, I'm home.'" Richard Borofsky, EdD, a longtime couples' therapist and founder (with his wife, Antra) of The Center for the Study of Relationship in Cambridge, Mass., agrees that shared interests and deep emotional bonds are helpful. But he also points to the importance of community. "For many childless couples, gay or straight," he says, "their friends are their family." But, he adds, "family is simply created over time, organically. When you've moved through enough ups and downs together, celebrated gains and mourned losses, a couple becomes a family."