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finding a place to belong.
building friendships in your 30s is not for the faint of heart
For much of my life, belongingness has been an abstraction I’ve been on a quest to find. As years have passed and my life has taken new shapes, so have the core relationships that keep me grounded and fulfill my emotional need for human connection, specifically in platonic relationships. Though my friendships are incredibly important to me, managing them in my 30s has come with a host of complexities I was not fully prepared for.
I've been thinking a lot about Film and TV shows and how they have given us unrealistic expectations of friendship as an adult, much like romcoms do for romantic relationships. Girlfriends, Sex and The City, and Living Single have provided me with aspirational models of friends groups or chosen families. They sell us a fantasy that if you love your friends enough, you will manage to be there for their milestones and pitfalls, and you will have time to see each other frequently all while managing to keep your life in order. However unrealistic they are, many of us still desire these kinds of bonds yet rarely do we question what is fueling that desire.
I spent an absurd amount of time reading the Belonginess page on Wikipedia the other day. I wanted to brush up on Maslow but also gain a better understanding of what exactly it meant to belong and how do we go about finding spaces where we feel a sense of belonging. This part stuck with me:
These key components of constant positive, personal interactions, stability, and mutual concern shed a light on the limitations that exist in friendships I’ve held close to my heart for many years, and the newer ones I’m trying to nurture as well. For starters, lack of proximity makes constant positive, personal interactions nearly impossible. Unlike your 20s when you likely made friends at school, at work, or with roommates, having this built-in daily proximity to your friends is rare in your 30s. I don’t live in the same state as any of my long-time friends and I live in a different borough than all of my New York friends (also, none of my friend groups are interconnected). Even if I lived in the same neighborhood as all of my friends, many of us are so bogged down with our responsibilities and obligations that pouring into our friendships and/or social lives can feel like a luxury. Often, time with friends can be an occasional reprieve from our daily stressors which is not necessarily a bad thing but it does create a sense of friendships being deprioritized. Another factor in this deprioritization is that spelling out our needs and expectations within our friendships is not necessarily a norm (like it is for romantic relationships), unless we find ourselves addressing a specific conflict. Add to this, changing attitudes towards what we constitute as fun or enjoyable as we get older, especially for us introverted folks, maintaining a sense of palpable connection can be difficult. If you only see your friends when it’s a function, activity, or event, they become less of a felt presence in your life and more like a plus 1 or wingman. In a city as time-poor and individualistic as NYC, doing more simple activities with friends like cooking dinner, going on a walk, or running errands together, can seem pointless to people who only view friendship as an extracurricular.
Stability is also tricky, especially as we are navigating a pandemic amongst other things I don’t have the energy to speak about. Many people are having trouble maintaining stability within themselves and their home lives, let alone trying to maintain it in friendships. The mutual concern required to maintain stability can prove to be complex when you consider what one person may view as showing concern for a friend, may not be received as the concern the other person needs. For example, a friend whose love language is quality time may have a hard time feeling truly cared for by a friend who can’t make time for them but a friend who is struggling with their mental health may not have the bandwidth to give what that friend needs.
Another obstacle in establishing mutual concern is that many people simply don’t feel obligated to their friends the way they feel obligated to their partners, their children, or their goals/passions. Simply put, friendships are typically the most low-maintenance relationships in our lives but where does this leave folks who rely on friendships for a sense of belonging? This is where the idea of chosen family becomes attractive to people who are lacking significant core relationships. Put your friends down as your emergency contact, help offload some of the stressors of parenting by being part of their village, create traditions with one another, it all sounds so idyllic, however, if you’re unable to establish the core components of belongingness in your friendships, making this a reality can be nearly impossible.
All of this led me to understand that my perception of belongingness being an abstraction has a lot less to do with the quality of my friendships and more to do with my personal circumstances, my attachment style, and the ideals I created based on that. It made me think of another fictional friend group with a much more realistic portrayal of chosen family, Pose. These are friends who actually needed each other for survival thus their friendships were not peripheral relationships they were core relationships the way families typically operate. When you come from fragmented family systems or even worse when you are completely disowned for being who you are, finding these spaces is fueled by a deficiency that is hard for any person or friend group to fulfill, especially people who cannot relate to that experience. It matters more to someone who doesn’t have family that their friends show up for them than it does to the person who already has a healthy family and therefore, a built-in sense of belonging. This is why in the case of Pose where everyone was missing this sense of belonging in their natal families, coming together to form a new one felt not only congruous but equally essential to everyone’s wellbeing.
Because of the lack of interconnectedness in my family system, I subconsciously tried to substitute the belonging I was missing in my friendships but struggled to actually feel belonging because it didn’t come in the form of a group of people (like a family), there was little or no physical proximity, or the friendship was lacking stability and mutual concern. I also put myself in spaces I had little interest in being in out of a subconscious fear of severing my attachment to people who in retrospect, I only bonded with on a superficial level. Suffice it to say, this was a deeply painful yet transformative realization.
In spending more time alone to process what this means, I came to understand that while the key components of belongingness may not manifest in every single relationship I have, they can serve as a reference point in deciding where to direct the care and attentiveness I give that I am also worthy of too. Prior to this realization, I had a tendency to regard all of my friendships as being like my family with no regard for the lack of alignment within them. There are less than a handful of relationships in my life in which there is emotional alignment and those are the relationships I value and nurture most. They keep me grounded and remind me that the quantity of friends or being tethered to a group matters little when you understand the gift of those rare, affirming bonds. It is nearly impossible to find that magical formula of belongingness in every person you befriend or meet. More importantly, belonging matters most when I belong to myself because if I can allow another person to provide me with positive interactions, stability, and concern, certainly I can do those things for myself. This is not to say self-love will eradicate my need for belonging but because many aspects of belonging are completely out of my control, it behooves me to ensure I can fulfill as much of that need on my own as I can. Now, I’m on a new quest but this time it’s not about finding something I feel like I’m missing, instead, I’m reimagining what it looks like and how it feels to truly belong.
What I’m Watching
I’ve been super into coming-of-age films lately and my good sis Jalena recommended this as one of her favorite coming-of-age films. It’s giving a modern Poetic Justice meets Just Another Girl on The I.R.T. and I absolutely the cinematography and performances. Check it out on Hulu.
What I’m Reading
A well-rounded perspective on Black women in pop culture and how it informs and influences us. I know the word nuance is overused these days but this book has it. It expands on pop culture with an equally critical and gracious perspective. Some of the themes explored in this book are colorism, being “problematic”, fatphobia, the limitations of representation, and what exactly it means to be carefree (or free of cares). I appreciate that Blay balances her critiques with grace, even when speaking about herself and the way her own thinking has evolved.
What I’m Listening To
I really stumbled across this funk/soul album from 1980 by Minako Yoshida, a Japanese singer-songwriter. No clue what she is saying but it’s a vibe.
Who I’m Supporting
The attacks on Asian American women happening in the city and throughout the country are absolutely horrifying. This month, I am supporting Soar Over Hate which is a non-profit that provides personal safety devices and therapy funds for the AAPI community.
Drop your suggestions for music to listen to, things to watch, books to read, causes to support, or anything you’d like me to talk about in the next one.
Catch me on these digital streets