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The Boston Globe

Lifestyle

Singles pick friends over family on holidays

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Rabbi Matt Soffer led a group of friends in song as menorah candles were lit.

Andre Williams, a 50-year-old barber in the South End, says he’s from “the South . . . too many places to call one my real home.’’ He has lived in the Boston area for more than 15 years and decided not to travel south to visit his relatives for the holidays.

“It’s not always a matter of me not being able to go to my real family,’’ he says. “But the longer I’ve lived away from family, the more accustomed I’ve grown to living away from my family. And I’ve replaced them! I have a family kind of group around me - my dudes; my former roommate, who’s like a brother to me; the other guys I cut hair with. If I want to watch a movie or I’m having a celebration, who do I call? Them.’’

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Williams’s attitude is representative of one increasingly expressed by unmarried people across the United States during the holidays: that home is wherever you live, and family is the people to whom you feel closest.

According to a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, more people have supplanted their biological families with homemade families made up of friends and neighbors whom they hold dear

More than 40 percent of unmarried US residents under age 60 said they are more than happy to spend the holidays away from biological family and with friends, according to a recent study authored by Jamila Bookwala, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

‘Would I like to see my daughters now? I would. But . . . as long as they’re with somebody, I’m comforted.’

Laurie McCannon 
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Although the high cost of airfares and gasoline may play a role for some people who spend the holidays away from their relatives, many more are kept away by a desire to avoid conflict, Bookwala says.

“The reason many of them were creating their own alternative families, though, is because while we love our families and they often bring us great joy, they are also often our biggest source of emotional stress,’’ shesays. “And friends don’t come with as much emotional stress.’’

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If a single person who has surrounded himself with close friends suddenly finds himself at odds with a friend, it is likely he will simply cut ties with him, Bookwala says.

Marcus Plaisimond, a Boston talk radio host, did not head home to Haiti for the holidays. It is not because he does not love his extended family; it is because he has “formed new family with my friends.’’

“In a perfect world,’’ says Plaisimond, whose show airs on Radio Energy (1620 AM), “we would all spend special times of year with our birth families, but if the important thing is spending it with the ones you are closest to, then I am doing that - my daughters, who I am in this country to help raise - and the friends I’ve made in Boston who have helped me feel at home.’’

In Boston, Matt Soffer has also seen a boom in the phenomenon of “homeless’’ singles at holiday time.

“With us, it’s not always a choice to not go home,’’ says Soffer, a rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood and director of its Riverway Project to engage single Jews socially. “Often, while we don’t hear the word used, the thing driving people to us, to connect with other people like them during the holidays, is loneliness and a desire to not be isolated.’’

Adina Davies, 29, a Cambridge resident and Philadelphia native who is married, began observing the holidays with friends away from home when she was single a few years ago. Davies, a network director for the Newton-based website InterFaithFamily.com, and her husband are among the singles and young families that Soffer has reached through the Riverway Project.

And her biological family? “We’ll be celebrating together on Skype,’’ Davies says, referring to the popular service that lets people make voice and video calls over the Internet.

Davies’s mother, Marty Manson, says she understands her daughter’s logic, even if it makes her a little sad.

“Would I like to see my daughters now? I would,’’ Manson says. “But their father and I understand that it is about priorities. I know they will be celebrating with friends. And as long as they’re with somebody, I’m comforted. It’s good to know that they have formed bonds with people they feel comfortable celebrating with.’’

William Kahn, a professor of organizational behavior at Boston University, says there are more than social revelations to be gleaned from the phenomenon of singletons choosing friends over family.

“There’s the joke that says it’s much easier to be with people you choose,’’ Kahn says. “It is normal to seek out intimacy and relationships with people who provide strong emotional support, and . . . it’s very likely that if they’re savvy enough to do this in their personal lives, they are probably able to do it in the workplace as well - build those relationships that put them in the best position to succeed at work, as well as be happy at home.’’

Nadege Dimanche, a 54-year-old Cambridge school social worker, has family in New England and Canada. But she is spending most of her holidays with friends and people she calls “church family, other Christians.’’

“It’s a choice I’ve made in recent years,’’ Dimanche says. “I am a widow. I have a 21-year-old son. My son’s father died when he was quite young. He and I will be together. But otherwise, much of our time will be with friends.’’

Bookwala says that whatever the motivation of singles who stay away from home for the holidays, their actions are normal.

“ ‘Family’ has taken on a fluid definition,’’ Bookwala says. “ ‘Family’ in the past was always defined as those people to whom you were related. “But in terms of functionality, ‘family’ has always been described as a close-knit, loyal group of people. And in that regard, nothing has changed.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.

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