A series of YouGov polls conducted in the second half of 2022 explored American family relationships, including how Americans define family, their closeness to extended relatives, and their estrangement from immediate relatives. The findings include that Americans tend to define immediate family members as those who are most closely related — children, parents, siblings, and spouses — while more distant relatives, such as cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews, are often classified as extended family. In terms of their proximity to extended family members, we find that most Americans live close to at least one extended family member, with half living in the same city or town and one in five even living in the same household.
Many extended families also come together for reunions, with half of Americans having attended one within the past decade. Even among people whose closest extended family member lives in another country, half have still managed to attend a reunion in the past decade, demonstrating that distance doesn't always prevent family bonding. Most Americans believe that family relationships should take priority over other types of relationships. When it comes to parent-child relationships, a majority of people believe that both parties should share responsibility for maintaining a close bond. However, more than one in four Americans are estranged from an immediate family member, with higher rates of estrangement among men, people between the ages of 30 and 44, and people who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Who's in Americans' immediate family?
One of the most common distinctions made within families is between immediate and extended members, which are often differentiated based on their degree of kinship. A poll conducted in August 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens finds that while Americans are united in their classifications of many types of relatives, there are some family ties that don't seem to fall neatly in either category.
Vast majorities of Americans — at least eight in 10 — consider children, parents, siblings, and spouses to be immediate family members. Slightly fewer — though still solid majorities (roughly two-thirds) — consider grandparents and grandchildren immediate family members. Cousins, in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews are more often considered extended rather than immediate family. The most divisive category is children-in-law: 46% consider them extended family members, while 35% consider them immediate family.
Family proximity and reunions
How much contact do Americans have with their extended family? A survey conducted in September 2022 asked over 33,000 Americans about their relationships with their extended relatives, including their physical proximity, family reunions, and how close they are.
Some believe distance makes the heart grow fonder while others say out of sight, out of mind. One measure of closeness we examined was how far Americans live from their closest extended family member. For many, it is not a long distance. Half of people say they live in the same city or town as at least one extended family member (54%), including 29% who say they live in at least the same neighborhood. One in five (19%) even say they reside in the same household. Just 15% of Americans say their closest extended family member lives in a different state from them and just 2% say they live in a different country. Only 3% say they don't have any extended family; 5% are unsure.
Another measure of the closeness of extended family members is how often they gather for reunions. Family reunions are a regular or at least semi-regular occurrence for many Americans: About half of people say they've attended a family reunion within the past decade, with 38% saying they have done so within the past five years, including 21% within the past year. But not everyone has had an opportunity or desire to reunite with extended family: 19% say they've never attended a family reunion.
Despite living far apart — or because they do — many families still make an effort to come together in person for reunions. Extended family reunions are more common among people who live in the same city as their closest extended relative, but even half of those whose closest relative lives in another country have attended a reunion in the past decade — greater than the share whose closest relative lives in another state.
We also asked Americans to directly assess the strength of bonds between their extended family members. When asked to compare the closeness of their family to others, roughly equal shares of Americans say theirs is about average (31%), more close-knit (30%), and less close-knit (29%).
Proximity breeds closeness, to some extent. People who live in the same neighborhood or household as their closest extended family member are about twice as likely to say their family is more close-knit than average than to say it is less close-knit. People whose closest extended relative is outside of their city are more likely to say their family is less close than the average family than to say it is more close.
Race and ethnicity also play a role in the perceived strength of the bonds within extended family relationships: White Americans (33%) are more likely than Black (21%) or Hispanic (25%) Americans to say their family is less close-knit than average.
A poll of over 11,000 Americans conducted in October finds that more than one in four Americans — 29% — report being estranged from an immediate family member, including siblings, parents, children, or grandparents.
This figure is slightly higher for men, with 31% reporting estrangement compared to 27% of women. Additionally, people between the ages of 30 and 44 are the most likely age group analyzed to report estrangement from a family member, possibly because they are more likely to have family members in each of these categories. Sexual orientation also appears to be a factor, with higher rates of estrangement reported by gay men (49%), lesbian women (55%), and bisexual people (38%) compared to heterosexual people (27%).
Family is considered a top priority for the majority of Americans, with 58% stating that family relationships are the most important type of relationship. This is in contrast to the 29% who believe that family relationships are about as important as other relationships, and the 4% who think they are less important. People who are currently estranged from a family member hold family relationships in slightly lower regard, with 50% saying they are more important than other relationships, 36% saying they are about as important, and 8% saying they are less important.
One notable finding from the poll is the difference in perspective between younger and older adults. While 70% of people aged 65 and older consider family relationships to be the most important relationship type, this figure is just 50% among adults under 30. This could indicate that younger people place a greater emphasis on other types of relationships, or it could simply be a reflection of changing times and values. Regardless, it is clear that family remains an important aspect of life for the majority of Americans.
When it comes to the relationship between parents and their children, the majority of Americans believe that both parents and adult children are equally responsible for maintaining a strong relationship between the two. However, people who have experienced estrangement from a parent or child have different views on who should bear the most responsibility for maintaining close ties.
Of Americans who say they are estranged from a parent, 46% believe that the responsibility to maintain a strong relationship should fall mostly on the parent, compared to 29% of all Americans who hold this view. On the other hand, 18% of parents who say they are estranged from their children believe that the responsibility falls mostly on the child, compared to just 8% of all Americans.
Defining family: This poll was conducted on August 31 - September 4, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in Internet panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2018 American Community Study. Voter registration was imputed from the November 2018 Current Population Survey Registration and Voting Supplement.
Family proximity and reunions: This Daily Questions survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 33,834 U.S. adults interviewed online on September 5 - 6, 2022. The samples were weighted to be representative of the U.S. population, based on gender, age, race, education, U.S. census region, and political party.
- What is the closest you live to a member of your extended family?
- When was the last time you attended an extended family reunion?
- Compared to other people, how close-knit is your extended family?
Family estrangement: This Daily Questions survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 11,039 U.S. adults interviewed online on October 26 - 27, 2022. The samples were weighted to be representative of the U.S. population, based on gender, age, race, education, U.S. census region, and political party.
- Are you currently estranged from any of the following family members? Select all that apply.
- Which of the following comes closest to your view about family relationships in general?
- Between parents and their adult children, who do you think is most responsible for making sure their relationship is a strong one?
— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article
Image: Getty Images (Tempura)