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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Rethinking Relationships

Part I

“In a world of ‘Likes,’ ‘Followers,’ and ‘Friends,’ it’s difficult to discern who belongs, how they want to connect, and what you can do to encourage belonging to you. (Joseph R. Meyers author).”  Today it is even a challenge to define who is our neighbor, who are our people and where do I belong.  The division and conflict between “tribes” and ideologies has never been more apparent, as division over beliefs is prioritized over belonging and community.

So, who IS my neighbor?  Is it that anonymous person who sends me an email from some foreign land with the promise of quick riches or is secretly seeking to get my PayPal password? Is it the Bank Teller who manages to smile and say have a nice day when I am the 50th person who has also forgotten to write an account number on their check. Is it your several hundred friends listed on your Facebook page (for those who partake) or other social media?

I ran across a book several years ago that reframed how I looked at relationships.  For me, it transformed my thinking and perceptions in the world of connection.  Working as a pastor and therapist at the time, I was biased toward close and personal relationships.  I took for granted the importance of connecting with people in brief social contacts.  During the year after my late wife died, I sometimes didn’t know what to do with all this ‘alone’ time.  On some weekends I would go for a hike and meet a couple on the path that was walking their dog.  I would say, “great looking dog.”  That would lead to a three-minute connection and pleasantries with someone I most likely would never see again.  These connections are important.  Positive connections in social space are important to our emotional wellbeing.

In today’s virtual world of connection and instant news, it can also feel like we are bombarded with a type of connected yet disconnected world of everyone living virtually next door. Joseph R. Myers, drawing on the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, has shed some light about relationships, connection, and space (The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups). He states that our educational training may have prioritized meaning and believing over belonging and connecting.  I would add that our American culture leans toward valuing doing (work) over being present with each other. People more than ever are struggling to make connections and report feeling isolated.

The Washington Post reports,While research on the benefits of social connections has generally focused on the importance of “strong ties,” or the intimate relationships we have with family and close friends, a growing body of research is shedding light on the hidden benefits of casual acquaintances, too. Surprisingly, these “weak ties” (that funny colleague, for example) can serve important functions such as boosting physical and psychological health and buffering against stress and loneliness, researchers have found.”

That isn’t to suggest they take the place of stronger more intimate relationships.  Those are also clearly very important.  But it does give us pause to reflect on our own relationship patterns and connections.

Consider your own need for personal space or connection. If we place you on a bell curve, some of you will come out on the 15 per cent who have a more distant engagement style.  You are more reluctant to share personal information. Others of you will be on that other end of the 15 percent who will have an “in close” engagement style where you don’t feel like you are really connected unless you know a person’s hope/dreams, what makes them tick and what is most important to them.  Most folk fall somewhere in the middle.  One style isn’t superior to the other.  They each have their strengths and constraints. 

Understanding differences and perceptions is important in developing friendships and entering new groups.  What one person might perceive as distant and aloof might be seen as respectful of boundaries and privacy, by another.  What someone might judge as intrusive behavior without boundaries, could be described as friendly, warm, and engaging by another.  It all depends on your relationship engagement preferences.  I would be curious to read in the comments your own preferences.  I also would be interested in your experience of social media.  In my experience it is a connected yet somewhat disconnected platform.  It certainly doesn’t replace face to face get togethers. Yet, the number and variety of comments I received when I posted about my grief after Liz died was extremely meaningful and supportive.

 In Part II we will take a closer look at Myers four different spaces of belonging and connection and how they can help us evaluate our own preferences and relationship needs. 

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