Why blood isn't actually thicker than water

Blood is thicker than water.

We’ve all heard the phrase before, especially after an argument with a family member. It’s that solid reminder of “family first,” or that the relationships that you have with your family members are to be valued over all other kinds. What many don’t know, however, is the actual phrase and just how much its meaning has changed over time.

Blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb.

In other words, the relationships you make with people whom you choose to have in your life are stronger than those with whom you feel obligated to have due to being related to them. If you haven’t yet noticed, this is the complete opposite of what many of us have been told (cue mind being blown away). If you didn’t know that this was the original phrase, what are some reactions you’re having to knowing it now? If you did know this was the original phrase, how did you feel when you first realized we’ve had it wrong?

What we sacrifice

There’s this spoken (and sometimes unspoken) rule that says we have to prioritize our family relationships above all else. Some of this can be attributed to evolutionary psychology, where we are driven by the need to ensure our bloodlines and kin are preserved. Sometimes it can be attributed to the culture in which we grew up that says we need to make sure our family relationships are in harmony. Regardless, the value of “family first” is a constant. It can be pretty benign for some of us: between your mother needing a ride to the airport or your friend needing a ride to the airport, it could be pretty harmless for us to pick mom over friend. That brief moment of conflict is resolved because of the idea of family first, and it isn’t really too much of an issue.

But what if we don’t have a good relationship with our family? What if Mom was neglectful, what if our cousin abused us, what if your partner cheated on you with your sibling? There are a lot of variables we would have to know before we would make a decision, but if someone were to approach you with the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water,” what is the message that they’re telling us? Forgive your mom. Forgive your cousin. Forgive your sibling. At what cost to you?

What society tells us about family

Family relationships are often the first ones we make in our lives. If we have siblings, they’re often our first friends. Our parents are seen as indestructible and beings who know anything and everything about life. Our extended family members are expected to look out for us, and in some families, cousins are like another set of siblings that we have growing up. The narrative about being close and valuing them is often the same across the board, but how many of us have families that experience that level of constant stability and minimal conflict?

Society tells us that picture perfect image of what a family should look like. Sitcoms and television shows are centered around families that resolve problems together, awkward family gatherings that still result in some humorous or amicable ending, the ability to stick together through hardships, among other things. We’re told that if we stick together with family, there are few things that we cannot overcome. It’s like the natural instincts of family bonding are going to prevail over any obstacle.

But whose narrative is this? It’s often that of a cis, white, middle or upper middle class family. The narrative says that we aren’t supposed to have blended families. It tells us that painful relationships are rare, that everyone is supposed to be present and loving. It tells us that if there is something outside of its pretty cookie cutter shape, there must be something wrong with us and our family. And in a lot of cases, it forces people to hide the conflict out of shame.

I want to make this clear, however: there is nothing wrong with you and many things wrong with the narrative. It doesn’t include the story of families that have pain from absence, abuse, or trauma. It doesn’t have the story of families that don’t get to reap the benefits of privilege. It doesn’t include the experiences of people who have to create their own families to survive because those who are blood related have abandoned or ostracized them. It doesn’t include how toxicity in life can shape our relationships in ways that won’t follow the pristine narrative of the dominant culture.

Toxicity and relationships

It’s a reality that people don’t want to acknowledge. There are relationships in our lives that are toxic and inflict pain on us. But the concept of “blood is thicker than water” reinforces the idea that we are supposed to brush the toxicity aside and let ourselves live in the poison. It can eat away at us even when our intentions to even maintain a cordial relationship are pure.

All of us have had toxic relationships in our lives (and if you haven’t, you are a very lucky person). Most of those relationships come to an end. I can speak for myself on this, and maybe you can relate: some were explicit endings, others were fading into the woodwork of their life so I could continue my own in peace. Maybe you can relate to these sorts of endings, too. If you can, what relationships did you end? Were they with family? Friends? Coworkers? What did you feel when you no longer had to maintain that relationship? What did you learn about yourself when the relationship ended? What did you learn about relationships in general when it ended?

I can speak for myself: in the beginning, many of my friendships ended due to their toxic nature and how drained I felt. It was only over time (and truthfully, years) that I began to realize that I didn’t have to work hard to maintain familial relationships that didn’t serve me or only hurt me. It was a lot of work to undo the narratives that felt almost embedded into my DNA to maintain peace, to strive for family, to put them first even when I’m mentally, emotionally, psychologically limping behind for them. I also want to acknowledge that this is largely a Western thought to prioritize myself over the relationships around me and the relationships that may be impacted by this choice.


My previous line isn’t to say that anyone who doesn’t identify with collectivistic cultures isn’t going to experience the predicament that “blood is thicker than water” poses. This is present in a lot of different types of cultures because, remember, the narrative of what a family should look like is pervasive even in the United States. In collectivistic cultures, though, this pressure to maintain relationships even when they are painful or harmful may be stronger. Collectivistic cultures emphasize the group over the individual, a setup that could make it easy to fall into the quote without a second thought. Eastern cultures may do this to hide any distress from other members (even when everyone can feel the effects of the relational strain) or to save face and prevent any shame from the public.

It also makes sense evolutionarily like I mentioned earlier. If you were to try to survive by yourself versus survive with others, whether or not you interpersonally get along, your chances of survival are higher when you’re with others. Now, this isn’t to say that Eastern or collectivist cultures are bound to evolution, nor do I want to say that individualist cultures are beyond it. Again, this concept of blood being thicker than water is present nearly everywhere.

In individualistic cultures where the narrative of family first is prevalent still exists. A person might try to pursue their authentic self, or even successfully do it, at the cost of family relationships. One might still be choosing themselves and experience the hurt and pain of loss, even the pressure of conforming again to familial norms so they can follow the status quo. To pursue one’s authentic self is not without its own pains, but it is possible to hold both.

Loving from a distance

For people who physically live far away from family members who hurt us, loving from a distance is literally possible. Loving from an emotional distance, though, is another battle in and of itself. For those of us who have those tumultuous relationships with family members, welcome. And for those of you who don’t, I hope that you’re still able to benefit from this thought of loving from a distance.

All of us are capable of holding the good and bad parts of a relationship. It can be hard, admittedly, because we, as people, are wired to view things as all good or all bad. This is known as “all or nothing thinking.” This kind of thought was useful generations upon generations ago when humans had to know the basics of identifying what could hurt us or what could help us. But this type of mentality in our world can be oversimplifying our experiences. A big reality is that it’s possible for something to be both good and bad.

Sitting in the gray of, “I love this person,” and, “This person is not good for me,” can be really hard. And oftentimes, these two statements are in conflict when we refer to our family members. For people who physically live far away from family members who hurt us, loving from a distance is literally possible. Loving from an emotional distance, though, is another battle in and of itself. It might help to ask some (and maybe even journal about) these questions:

What about the relationship do I enjoy?

What about the relationship do I not enjoy? What have I been told about how these relationships are supposed to look like?

What are the costs/benefits of trying to maintain this relationship the way that it is?

What are the costs/benefits of ending this relationship or loving from a distance?

What do I want “loving from a distance” to look like?

As you think about the relationship and these questions, you might find yourself stumped, and that’s okay. We aren’t told how to hold the bright and dark parts of a relationship in ways that are adaptable. The answers to these questions don’t have to come to you instantaneously and you don’t have to act on them the moment you realize them. They’re meant to tap into what we’ve been told all of our lives and challenge the narrative. I want to normalize that this type of questioning and work (if you decide to break the cycle and create your own narrative) can be done at a pace that feels comfortable for you. And as you journey through it, you might notice that not everyone who is blood-related to you are people who you consider family.

Chosen family

Chosen family members are people in your life that the original quote is referring to. Blood of the covenant, relationships borne from promise or commitment, relationships that do not exist only because of shared DNA. A lot of folx in the LGBTQIA+ community have what we know as chosen families, as many of them experience ostracization or isolation from family members if they do not approve of their identities. Oftentimes it includes other people who are in community who experience love, acceptance, and commitment the way that we would expect from blood relatives. It’s not exclusive to LGBTQIA+ folx, though, as anyone can have chosen families or family members. It’s not uncommon for those in the BDSM community, veterans, or generally people who don’t have contact with their direct family members.

Chosen family is a way of looking at family in more expansive terms. The more we are able to broaden our horizons about what family looks like and how it applies to you, the more social support can be at our disposal. To view family as only those who are blood related to us is very limiting. Looking at people who feel like family, who function like family, who may as well be family despite no blood relation, allows us to see just how strong these relationships are. This is evidence that blood is not thicker than water, but that blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb.

When we’ve lived in toxic relationships with family for years, especially when family is what we are taught to prioritize over all else, it can be challenging to know what a healthy relationship looks like. It is tiring to break through the cycles, examine what’s harmful, and take that next step to search for relationships that feel better. In fact, it can be scary. But this is something that you don’t have to journey to discover alone. Journaling your thoughts out is one way we’ve suggested previously (those questions above are ones that you can keep!), though another one is by talking it out with a therapist.

Therapists provide a space where you can talk freely about the values you had growing up and safely challenge them without judgment. Therapists are there to support you in your journey of understanding what relationships look like and improving your mental health. They are there to remind you that it is possible to hold both the good and the bad parts of someone else, to love from a distance, and consider chosen family as an option. To be bound by the phrase, “blood is thicker than water,” is constricting. To be held by others in your life who support and love you (and who are not necessarily blood related) is healing.

At Cultured Space, we take all of this into account while also holding your identities and cultural values. We are aware that there are different reasons for why a person may be struggling with this phrase and how messages throughout our lives may have acted controlling. You’re welcome to explore them with us, at your pace, when you’re ready.