Most of the self-help/personal growth advice I receive from well-meaning friends is along the lines of “Believe in yourself and stop apologizing for who you are.” My therapist assures me that much of the confusion in my head will clear when I learn to tune out all the criticism, unsolicited advice and judgments of others. The consensus is: trust my intuition because only I know what’s best for me.
Until we start talking about love and partnership, that is.
Whenever I talk about the struggle of having no close family to speak of (other than my sons) and longing for an intimate partner, the person listening usually tries to push me into believing that loneliness is just a state of mind. They tell me I can fill this void by healing myself and elevating my self-esteem. “Mind over matter,” they say. “You’re strong and you’ll be fine,” they say. And when I disagree because all the self-love in the world can’t meet the same need as an intimate relationship with another adult, they say I’m stuck in a negative thought pattern. Their words speak to the idea that we can intellectualize our way out of one of the most basic human traits– the need for intimacy and interdependence with other humans.
Social science research supports the notion that humans are inherently social creatures who fare better both physically and emotionally when we live in groups centered around meaningful intimate connection, shared responsibility, and interdependence. Look at any human success story and you’ll find a cast of supporting characters who make vital contributions to the creation and sustainability of said human’s success. And most of us have heard about babies in orphanages who suffered both physical and cognitive disabilities or even died simply because they didn’t get enough loving human contact. Spend time in a nursing home and you will notice a remarkable difference in the health of patients who have regular visits from friends and family and those who don’t. All the self-love in the world can’t change the fact that humans need ongoing, stable, intimate, loving relationships with other humans in order to survive and THRIVE. Without intimate familial connections, survival is the best we can do.
I am lucky to have many wonderful friends who bring me great joy and are essential to my survival. But friends aren’t personally invested in my successes and happiness because their own personal success and happiness aren’t intertwined with or directly impacted by mine. That isn’t a failing of my friends, it’s just the nature of friendship. Family– the ones we are born into or the ones we create for ourselves– is the only group of people who are personally invested in our success. And that is what I want. (I love my boys to pieces, but childhood is an inherently needy time and I cannot reasonably expect a significant return on that emotional investment for another 10-20 years.) I want more intimate investment-level relationships because I want more than just survival; I want to thrive. This isn’t about fear or insecurity, it’s about working smarter not harder, the more the merrier, and the path of least resistance. Fear is probably in there too– life is long and survival mode is exhausting. But fear doesn’t change the facts: people need people.
And yet so many people deny this very basic fact. Well-meaning friends and therapists want us to believe we can thrive on our own. They want friendships, personal growth, and improved self-esteem to be enough. But wanting something to be true won’t necessarily make it so. It’s like cake vs. pastry: I can’t bake a cake with just butter, flour, and sugar because but butter, flour, and sugar make pastry not cake. Butter, flour, and sugar need leavening to rise up and become cake. Making pastry is surviving, making cake is thriving. Positive thinking is not baking powder, fear does not prevent a cake from rising, and denying someone else’s reality will only add to their suffering. Changing the ingredients is the only way to change the outcome; it’s just that simple.