At one point in the history of the world, cousins were often seen as means to fortify a lineage and consolidate wealth through marriage. That practice has largely fallen out of favor in Western society but platonic relationships with cousins still make a difference in the lives of children and adults. Cousins either share just enough of a family narrative that they can serve as friendly sounding boards or enough common experience that they can behave as de facto siblings. The relationship is malleable, which is the basic appeal. An aunt will always be an aunt and a grandfather will always be a grandfather, but cousins can be more or less whatever a child needs, which is why parents should cultivate and facilitate familial bonding.
“Cousins are very important particularly as families become more spread out,” says Dr. Kristina S. Brown, Chair of the Couple and Family Therapy Department at Alder University. “They become additional resources outside of our family of origin.”
Those resources are largely linked to emotional support. Cousins offer someone to seek out in hard times or to share with in celebration. This might be true for other family members too. A kind aunt may certainly offer a shoulder to cry on. But cousins are uniquely suited to offer emotional support because they often share generational ties.
“That shared experience is a place to develop a relationship,” says Brown. So even though cousins might be separated by distance, they are more likely to be bonded by the unique factors shared by those in their generational peer group. This makes cousin relationships extraordinarily easy to pick up again after long absences.
More than that, these relationships could also help cousins better understand one another as they grow and adopt differing political and social opinions that tend to divide. “What you’re going to see is families will more likely give grace around political differences than cut off,” says Brown. She’s noted that outside of families an intense and divisive political climate might lead to people turning away from each other. Family dampens this effect. “Family bonds put them in the place where they agree to disagree.”
While those commonalities allow for a certain ease in the ability to support one another emotionally, it’s not uncommon for that support to be much more concrete. There is some evolutionary science behind this. The idea is that individuals in the same family are more likely to be altruistic to one another in order to increase the likelihood that family genes will be passed on.
A 2013 study published in the British Journal of Psychology appears to back up this claim. Researchers found that individuals responded that they were far more likely to help kin, including cousins, before they would help out friends. This remained true even when the researchers controlled for emotional closeness, suggesting that even if there was not a close emotional bond with the family member, the likelihood of offering help was still high. They called this a “kinship premium.”
While there may be a genetic impulse to help those who are related to us, Brown points out that building the emotional closeness is likely related to similar relationships being modeled by parents. “I would definitely encourage families to role-model these relationships for future generations,” she says. “Even if that means stepping out of our comfort zones and doing something that our parents didn’t necessarily do.”
Brown suggests that’s particularly true in this modern era. After all, cousins who may be separated geographically can continue to foster strong relationships with social media and mobile apps.
But the trick is in launching those bonds in the first place. Brown suggests that parents make an effort to bring cousins together outside of formal holidays where the chaos creates little time for bonding. “This allows kids and cousins to get more connected on a day-to-day life level,” she says. “It’s about getting to know them in terms of everyday life and encouraging connection and commonality.”
In the end, parents who help nurture cousin relationships will have gone a long way to helping a child create an important relationship that rests between sibling and friend. And that just might be better than a marriage in the long run.