On the Limits of Relationships

The Dunbar Number’ is a figure that purports to be able to determine –by looking at primate neo-cortex proportions- how large a particular primate’s group size tends to be. By looking at gorilla brains we can guess their average group size will be 25 for instance. Or, by looking at spider monkeys the Dunbar number might predict an average group size of 15. By looking at humans, the Dunbar Number estimates an average group size of 150. I first heard about the Dunbar number via an excellent cracked article though I’ve certainly read more about it since.

The concept is that there’s only so many individuals you can keep’ in your head; a limit to empathy (or at least a certain kind of empathy). My own subjective verification for this comes from a history of working retail. I realized then that I wasn’t a person’ to most of the people I interacted with on a regular basis; in their mental life I was more akin to an object. This went along with the realization that most of the interactions I had in a given day were scripted.’ That is, most of the interactions I had were extremely predictable (for both myself and the other person). Customers generally grew irritable when they didn’t get what they wanted/when the interaction didn’t go according to their script. I think about this when I remind myself to actively listen to someone instead of just hearing’ an approximation of what’s being said as I wait, impatient, to get to my lines.

Celebrities probably take up Dunbar Number slots’ for a lot of people. Even though they are never actually interacted with, a favorite actor\creator can feel more real,’ more fully a person than the shop clerk I see 4 times a week. Even odder is the concept that a fictional character could roost in this particular (and finite) zone of empathy, Han Solo and Harry Potter being realer’ than Greg who sits three cubicles down from me.

But even if there were no neurological limits to number of people I could consider to be in my tribe’ (or actual friendships, or people I love, or however you want to parse the concept) there is still is the truism that there are only so many hours in a day. However I feel about a person, or they feel about me, if I never spend time with them then we don’t have a relationship. And it varies from person to person, and relationship to relationship, but have a certain intensity there has to be more time spent… possibly also more *types* of time spent; sharing labor, celebrating, breaking bread, and being at rest.

I bring these up because –as an extremely extroverted person- there is a (rather stupid) part of me that thinks I could be everyone’s best friend if I just really applied myself. I mention the limitations and constraints because it is so simple for me to subconsciously dismiss them. And even for all my charisma, even for how much I like people; I still need (some) time along and (a lot) of time spent just with my family.

I don’t get social anxiety about being with people (only a touch when it comes to speaking publicly). Instead, I get shot clock’ anxiety where if I haven’t reached out, responded to an email, organized a get together, etc. recently’ I can easily feel like I’m being a bad friend or otherwise letting people down. This isn’t bad, I rather enjoy being an extrovert with a day planner and the will to use it… when I’m at my best it’s something of a superpower. But, like everything, it can become bad if I allow it to grow imbalanced.

This is brought into relief by my development as a parent, I have far less resources (in terms of time and emotional energy) now than I had before. Which actually forces me to do a better job being honest in addition to do a better job taking care of myself. Intellectually, I always knew I couldn’t be everything to everyone… but before the birth of my daughter I would sometimes feel like I could (or at least should want to be, do a better job trying to be). If nothing else, being a fully engaged father forces me to face (and hopefully cut through) my own bullshit in all its myriad forms.

That said, I do think there are hacks and best practices I use to manage my relationships, ways I feel greater meaning in and satisfaction form my social connections:

  1. Care as little as possible about celebrities. It’s not that I think interest in celebrities is vapid or stupid (oftentimes we’re talking about some of the most beautiful, talented, or charismatic people on the planet… who wouldn’t be interested?) it’s just that interest in celebrities ultimately absorbed limited resources. I should point out, also, that by care’ I mean both positive and negative attention. Whether I love’ or hate’ a celebrity ultimately taxes me in the same way. I personally put all national level politicians into the category of celebrity’… I’m still trying to learn to trick myself into caring about local politics & politicians where I actually have the greatest amount of efficacy in shaping the policy that will make the biggest difference in my life.

  2. Better use of social media. At its worst, social media is personal data vampirism in service of advertising with the only reward’ being ephemeral, hollow clickbait. At its best, social media creates a ‘low level’ telepathy between yourself and the people who matter, granting ways to connect, communicate, and collaborate regardless of physical location. In order to lean it more towards the latter, I do a couple of things: avoid likes (especially liking brands’ preferring to comment whenever possible), try to move beyond the highlight reel’ for my own posting, and opting for a raw feed of people who I care about rather than the main, system generated guess feed of what I should be looking at.

  3. Be as present as possible whenever I’m with someone. Whatever someone means to me, I try to give them all of my attention for our time together (even if that’s only the time it takes to conduct a transaction at the store). I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t do this, we all literally have a device in our pocket that can display the most interesting thing in the world/can connect us with anyone. But, for me, if I can’t bring myself to be more interested in the person/people I’m with then I should remove myself and do what is more interesting. This doesn’t mean that I’m always chasing the shiny, I spend plenty of boring, uncomfortable, aggravating moments with the people who matter; it’s just that I’m more interested in the journey.

  4. Prune relationships. I’ll be honest, this one is the most difficult for me. My knee-jerk reaction is that if I’m not interested in someone, then I’ve failed to coax out something worth knowing out of them. My (incorrect) instincts are that if someone is consistently draining to me, if I consistently leave our interactions more emotionally impoverished than I was before, then I’m not giving enough, working hard enough. But, sometimes these simply aren’t true; sometimes it’s time to let the season pass, let the vine whither. More rarely, it’s time to make a cut; clean and sharp and resolute.

But that’s my thoughts on all this. What do you think about relationships and their limits?

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