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What is an Extended Family?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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The meaning of “extended family” can vary somewhat depending on the user of the term and the culture from which he or she comes. In general, however, it usually is used to refer to family that lives outside of a person’s home. For a boy who lives with his parents, sisters, grandparents, one uncle, and a cousin, the meaning of extended family will be quite a bit different than for another boy who lives with his mother. The term can also potentially be used to refer to any sort of unorthodox family unit living together with different blood relationships in the same household, commonly due to polygamy or remarriage.

Extended family can potentially mean different things to different people, especially since the term seems to lend itself to ambiguity by its very nature. This is partially because the meaning of the word “family” can often be seen as a highly relative concept that is constructed individually by each person. If each person creates his or her own sense of what “family” means, then his or her sense of “extended family” may also vary accordingly. In general, however, it can be easy to simply define the term as family members of an individual who are related by blood but live outside of that person’s home.

Even with this somewhat strict definition, the meaning can then still be quite vague. Someone living in the US with his or her parents and siblings would therefore have an extended family that may consist of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and similar relations. On the other hand, a person living in a tribal culture in another country may live with his or her grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, and so extended family may be quite different or completely inapplicable in terms of real meaning. This means it is often easiest for individuals to identify the members of his or her extended family when using the term.

Within a single household, the term can also be used to refer to people who are part of the household but may not be related by blood, or whose blood relationship is only partial. For example, in a polygamous household, individuals may act as siblings though they could have different mothers and only a common father. In other situations, two people could be married and have children from previous marriages, allowing for multiple siblings to share no or only partial blood relationships with each other. These types of internal extended families are even more complicated, and once again will often be recognized through the individual and personal identity constructions of family members.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Mar 23, 2014

@clintflint - It actually annoys me how difficult it seems to be to keep extended families together, particularly once the grandparents pass on. We used to have a really close extended family and we would all get together a few times a year for holidays, even though we lived on different sides of the country.

Now, even brothers and sisters who live in the same city rarely seem to see each other. My mother gets quite sad about it all, because she only ever hears from her family when there is a wedding or a funeral.

There are some cousins I've never even met at this point. But I guess every family has to dissolve sometime, or we would all still consider ourselves family to half the world.

By clintflint — On Mar 22, 2014

@Iluviaporos - Actually, that saying is fairly ironic, because it was originally used to describe the bonds that formed on the battlefield between soldiers. The full saying is "the blood of the battlefield is thicker than the water of the womb" and it was meant to say that people who fight together will be more loyal than people who happen to be siblings.

I do think that blood should count for something though. Not everything, but definitely something. If one of my cousins needed help I would never turn them away.

By lluviaporos — On Mar 22, 2014

I've always liked the idea that there should be people in the extended family who aren't blood related, but are still considered to be family. I have one particular friend who I've known for a couple of decades now and he acts more like family than the rest of my family a lot of the time. We call each other on our birthdays and visit each other when we are living overseas. He's not technically my brother, but he might as well be.

I think people have this romantic notion of family being everything and that blood is thicker than water, but I'd rather be able to choose the people I feel the most loyal to. And some of those will be related by blood and some won't.

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