was reading JR Meyers’ book, (The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy,
Community and Small Groups), it became clear to me that my perceptions on
relationships needed to shift. As
someone who had a major preference for close relationship with strong ties and
deeper sharing (what I refer to as ‘in close’ engagement style), I was
challenged by Myers to look at the value of relationships that can be easy to
dismiss as superficial or perfunctory. Here is a quick run through
of his thoughts and language for belonging and connections.
Four Spaces of Connection (JR Myers)
- Public belonging "occurs when people connect through outside influence or an external event." While visiting my sister in Kansas, we attended a football game between the New England Patriot’s and Kansas City Chief’s. Of course, the East Coast Carpenters had to wear their Patriot gear. There was an immediate connection with others Patriot fans without sharing any personal information. A nod, a yes here and there and even an occasional high five from a stranger communicated that we were in this together.
Did you ever leave a great theatre performance, concert or movie and feel that rush of energy and connection with others who shared the same experience. That is Public Space belonging. You don’t share any information but still feel a type of connection to each other.
- Social belonging "occurs when we share "snapshots" of what it would be like to be in personal space with us." This is where you put your "best foot forward." Yet, you aren’t really sharing any deep or private information. Examples of this space might be at your place of employment or where you get your hair cut. For some folk, this might be the coffee hour after worship service, cocktail party, or some other social gathering.
I recently attended my nephew’s wedding in Kansas City. At the reception I had a chance to talk to many people I hadn’t met before. We talked about how we liked to travel, what it was like to live on the East Coast, what hotels we were staying at, but there was no deep private information being shared. This is a space where we are sticking our social toe in the water to see if we want more connection or if the space is safe enough to get to know someone further.
- Personal belonging is where "we share private experience, feelings and thoughts without making folk feel uncomfortable." These are relationships that we typically name as friends. They know more about us than our acquaintances, but less than our “intimates.” There is a continuum of low to higher levels of sharing within this space. When I was attending graduate school in Boston, I took Jiu Jitsu classes and met another graduate student. We tossed each other around on the mat during classes but never really shared much information. Soon we were talking more after class and realized we had more in common than our love of martial arts (both were interning at different counseling centers at the time). Eventually, we became friends. I can remember like it was yesterday sitting on the back porch in Boston at the age of 26 and idealistically sharing how we wanted life to look in three decades. Today, he is one of my best friends.
- Intimate belonging is the space where we “share ‘naked’ experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Most people have very few relationships that are considered intimate. These relationships are where we can share the deepest parts of ourselves, the core wounds, and negative beliefs we hold about ourselves and still feel accepted. In my friendship with Lee, that started out in social space, moved into personal connection and wound-up decades later in what Meyers calls intimate belonging. Over the years we developed a trust where we could share our struggles, losses, fears, and dreams and know that each other would still be there. There isn’t much that we don’t know about each other.
Myers helps us to understand the value of connecting in all four spaces of belonging. Some may have a bias that anything less than personal space is somehow “second class.” Others may undervalue the need for personal and intimate space. His thinking helps us to understand how each space has its own significance and place of belonging. When my friend Stan (who is a pastor) and I talked about these concepts, we discovered that I was a bit dismissive of “superficial” social and public belonging and he really was less comfortable with Intimate and Personal belonging. By wrestling and discussing the concepts we learned over time to have a more balanced appreciation for the connections across all four types.
Understanding your engagement style and spaces of connection is important for finding your relationship road map. Somethings can’t be learned. But emotional and social intelligence is something where having knowledge and self-awareness can make a world of difference. Did you ever have someone come up to you at a social gathering and they were just doing the TMI (too much information) dance? You can see the discomfort in the group when folk are talking about the Red Sox, weather or favorite movie and someone tries to give a detailed description about their failing marriage or knee replacement surgery struggles.
The reality is that all of us will cross in and out of all four of these spaces of belonging, if not every day most likely every week. It is helpful to know how to recognize what relationship “country” we have walked into. If you are in public space connection and are expecting deep personal relationships to quickly develop, you will be greatly disappointed. You might even blame the group or yourself. Knowing our comfort zones and how to navigate different spaces will help to create more satisfying connections and experiences.
Let me know in the comments what are your preferences?
Where do you feel the need to develop greater skills?
Which of the connection spaces do you need more of, less of?