Social Studies

Written by Tania Kuehn

When I’m interested in learning more about a subject, I read, read, read. Often I read about relationships, because – guess what! – those are kind of a big deal. A few years ago, I went through a phase or two of wanting to learn more about my relationships with my family of origin, and so I read books, blogs, and magazine articles about parents and their adult children, birth order, and sibling relationships. During my 20s, I read a fair amount about dating and marriage. And in my 30s, as I witnessed some not-so-great patterns in others’ relationships and also in some of my own, I read about personality disorders, relational problems, and divorce. I haven’t had too many issues with co-workers, but a few situations did prompt me to borrow from the library some DVDs and books about conflict resolution. Lately I’ve been a bit curious about the inner workings of friendships, and so I’ve been reading books about friends. I’ve had friends for the past 30-some years, but I’ve never been in the exact position that I’m in now (which is something we can all say at any given time, of course), and I’m learning that our friendships in our 30s – what they look like, who we choose to spend time with, how much time we spend on them – probably won’t look the same as they did in our younger years. I know that mine don’t. All of this has me treading in territory that is a bit unfamiliar, and so I talk with my little elderly neighbour lady, call my mom, bombard my man with a dozen questions, and, of course, pick up a book.
 
Just a few days ago, I finished reading the fascinating book “The Village Effect: how face-to-face contact can make us happier and healthier” by Susan Pinker. The author covers a myriad of topics such as the impact of our social lives on our happiness, our resilience, and our longevity; the importance of gabbing with your baby, even if it seems non-sensical and repetitive; what we lose when social media starts to replace our “in real life” interactions; and why religion “works” (hint: it has more to do with structure and community than with the actual acts of singing hymns, praying, and reading scriptures).
 
In “The Village Effect” and several other sources, I’ve come across “Dunbar’s number.” Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist and an evolutionary psychologist, and he has concluded that unless there is some sort of organizing committee that implements structure and rules, a group of people – whether they are employees at a company, members of church congregation, attendees at a social club, or part of another similar group – functions optimally when they number a maximum of 150. When there’s a group of that number, most people have a rough idea of who does what and how they’re related to others, who gets along with or doesn’t get along with the other members, and perhaps a few other facts about the individuals in the group. As well, as individuals, we’re capable of maintaining ties with about that many people on a somewhat personal level. Of course, we won’t be close with all of those people, but we know them well enough to reach out to them occasionally, hang out with some of them occasionally, and identify them as more than simply a co-worker on the fifth floor or someone who lives in the same apartment building. Interestingly, Dunbar’s conclusion extends beyond us humans to other primates as well. I don’t really know what my Dunbar’s number is, but I’m guessing probably a bit less than 150. Between my workplace (where there are about 50 people that I associate with on a regular basis), fellow volunteers at Habitat for Humanity, my immediate and extended families (definitely on the smaller side), KASHA (where I have varying degrees of closeness with a few dozen people – and yes, the Handyman sits at the “very close to this person” end of the spectrum!), my elderly neighbour lady who has become a friend, and a few other people who’ve kept in touch over the years, I’m guessing the math adds up to about 100 and most certainly not more than 200. In this group of 150 or so connections, there are usually about two or three people who we would consider a “true friend,” a confidant, a BFF – someone we can talk to about anything and everything, on a fairly regular basis, and (hopefully) whose company we enjoy. Quite often that person is a spouse or partner, but it might also be a friend, a parent, or a child. For me, that small group of people has changed a lot over the years. For a long time, it was the girls from the church, plus maybe another friend from elsewhere. Sometimes it includes members of my immediate or extended family. At three periods in my life, one member of that group was a boyfriend of mine. Sometimes they all know each other, and sometimes they don’t; at this point, my closest friends don’t know each other, as they all live in different cities now, I met them all at different times during the last 12 years, and there has never been an occasion when we’d all somehow end up hanging out together.
 
Speaking of our close friendships, I recently read Shasta Nelson’s book “Frientimacy.” She writes about the three components of a healthy friendship (positivity, consistency, vulnerability). She notes that it usually takes about seven or eight get-togethers to know if you and another person are compatible as friends. It’s often beneficial not to brush someone off immediately just because you don’t “click” from the beginning. It could be that they’re going through a rough time in life and therefore they seem distracted or upset, which has nothing to do with you and a potential friendship with you. Or maybe they’re nervous or unsure, which also has nothing to do with you, so don’t let it get in the way of what might be wonderful friendship down the road!
 
“Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection” by John Cacioppo and William Patrick is another book that has been added to my list of favourite books. I don’t remember too many details about that book, but I do recall some valuable advice that the authors give in a handy little acronym, EASE: Extend yourself, Action Plan, Selection, and Expect the Best. (You can check out psychologytoday.com and search “Easing Your Way Out of Loneliness” on the site.)
 
After a conversation about this with my aunt a few years ago, she sent to me a small article about relationships. The article mentioned that after seven years, half of our relationships will no longer exist — they will have disappeared completely, or the closeness and frequency will have decreased to the extent that the relationship looks completely different now. When I jot down the names of my “frequent, close friends or acquaintances” from seven years ago, I see that, predictably, approximately half of those no longer play a big role in my life. I moved to another city, and Person A no longer lives just a few blocks away; over the years, our long-distance relationship has been becoming less and less frequent. Person B got married and moved away, and she and I lost contact shortly after. There was that huge argument with Person C, and all sorts of issues were brought to the surface for the first time; things never got fixed, despite many attempts to do so. The friendship with D wasn’t a healthy relationship from the start, so no wonder it’s gone now. As much as I sometimes wish that all relationships would last for life, I’ve learned that that’s not how life goes. Not all relationships are entered into on a good, solid, healthy foundation. Not all relationships can weather every storm out there. People change over the decades. Stuff happens. There are books for that: “Conscious Uncoupling” by Katherine W. Thomas and “How to Break Up with Anyone” by Jamye Waxman (more easily said than done, for sure).

The past year has presented me with the opportunity to delve into the topic of personality disorders. After several years of getting to know a person in my circle, certain conversations with and behaviours exhibited by this person during the past summer left me feeling shocked, confused, and helpless. After many attempts to make sense of the chaos, a friend remarked that perhaps this person has sociopathic tendencies. Not surprisingly, my next actions included a bit of Googling and a few trips to the library, where I learned a lot about sociopathy and other personality disorders. Reading these books helped me to make sense of the other person, to not take things so personally, and to better handle future interactions. I gleaned much from “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout and “Five Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life” by Bill Eddy.

Research shows that I am typical in that, as a female, I think more about my relationships than men think about theirs. For example, I once asked my significant other what he’d likely be thinking about if he were to go for a walk through a neighbourhood or across a parking lot. Oh, maybe the structure of that house, or why that type of concrete was used or why it’s bulging and cracking in that place, what kind of engine is in that plane flying overhead, or if that car over there is a ’56 or a ’57.  Right… that’s very different from what’s going on in my head, which is likely centered around, Why haven’t I heard back from ___? What did that person mean when she said___? What should I say in response to ___’s problem with her family/job/pet/project/self-esteem/etc? As well, if I had children, most likely much of my mindspace would be occupied with them; but because I don’t have children and because relationships are still important to me, my mind still often goes towards the family I do have (my family of origin) and my friends. When I think back to how I viewed my relationships five, ten, fifteen years ago, I see that my ideas have changed a lot as time goes on. But all that aside, male or female, young or old, working full-time or not, outgoing or on the quiet side, childless or not, most of us have an assortment of people in our lives who impact us in some way. We are all social creatures. What a complex, fascinating, infuriating, wonderful thing that can be!