What makes people connect? What makes us come together and feel kindred with one another? What marks that tipping point between acquaintances and friends, between lovers and partners, between people you like to spend time with and family?
I have mulled these questions over most of my life. I care for my biological family members, and I want the best for them, but if I’m being truly honest, it took me a very long time to really feel a part of my family. Often, I still feel like an outsider crashing the party. Until recently, that’s how I felt with my friends, too. In every group setting, I felt somehow always out of place, always the nerd who only got asked to the cool kids’ party because the host’s mom made her. Even when I thought I was close with someone, I’d always wonder if they felt in any way close to me—and generally suspected they didn’t.
It wasn’t until a few months ago that I even realized that, for the first time, I do have close, true friendships. Now, I know fully that I have some amazing friends, and I know they feel the same with me. It was a shocking, amazing revelation! I’m fairly certain, looking back, that other people probably have felt friendship with me at various points in my life, but I was always the uncertain one. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t break past whatever wall there was that created that tipping point between affection and love.
Like seemingly many of my peers, I wasn’t taught how to love. It’s not that my parents didn’t care for me, nor that they were excessively cruel. But, they didn’t teach me how to love in any active way. They told me they loved me, and in some ways they showed me they cared for me, but it wasn’t an active lesson. As we all do as children, I learned about love through watching and imitating. My lessons on love were ones of neglect and dismissal just as much as they were lessons of hugs and bedtime stories.
Early in life, I became an oversharer. Not because I truly think people want to know exactly what I ate that morning or how I felt when my favorite shirt got a stain on it, no, but because a lack of boundaries was one of the ways I was shown that people can connect. So, I forced it. I’d share and, in turn, so would others. This technique has helped me quickly gain acquaintances over the years, but in many cases has also kept those relationships from progressing. Yes, it’s refreshing when someone truthfully responds to, “How are you?” But, who wants to keep talking to the person who shares her deep childhood trauma on a second date? I’ve found that generally makes people uncomfortable, not more comfortable!
And yet, this lesson is not entirely wrong—though my original learned behavior from it has been rather excessive. We humans, as social creatures, enjoy sharing. We do feel connected when we can let down our guards and be authentic. In a cold, patriarchal society that has long praised stoicism, we are often taught to hold our true selves and emotions in. The more distanced our communities become in terms of emotional connection—how many neighbors’ names do you know?—the more fearful we become of opening up. Unless you grew up in a small town, it’s unlikely you have friendships from childhood that have lasted into adulthood. The more we move, and the less and less we talk and share, the further away that tipping point gets. The further away that tipping point gets, the harder it becomes to believe it even exists.
We often hear talk of the 1950s as America’s “Golden Age.” This was the time when housing developers and government pushed the idea of the nuclear family. Where once multiple generations may have lived in one home (less lucrative for the real estate industry and not helpful in boosting the post-war economy), suddenly smaller family units would purchase homes further from the other people in their families. Although subdivisions would foster some connection between neighbors and kids, there was still this physical separation—not only in terms of walls between homes but of private manicured lawns and streets, too. Advertising beginning in the 50s and 60s pushed American consumerism, again a boon to the economy at the cost of relationships, and stoked competition between neighbors and friends. Keeping up with the Joneses is not only a saying about neighborly gossip, but it is also telling of the manufactured hostility between neighbors and “friends.”
For the past 70+ years, we have been told that separating families, competing with our peers, and prizing material items over relationships was the key to happiness. Now, we are able to communicate quickly easily with one another from anywhere in the world! And yet, we feel more alone than ever before. Depression rates are up, young people feel a crippling anxiety to always be performing, and divorce rates remain fairly high. When I talk to single friends about dating, they have countless stories of thoughtless behaviors. We don’t know where that tipping point is, and it’s harder than ever to cross. We don’t share. We don’t post authentic stories of our lives. We don’t say, “I love you.”
This past year, I started saying “I love you” to pretty much everyone that I do truly love. It was weird at first. Even to my sister, whom I have known for 30 years, it was strange the first time I said, “I love you, bye” when getting off the phone one day. And now, we say it every time we talk. Not as an afterthought, but as an affirmation. I say it to my best friends. I text it randomly to my grandmother when I’m thinking of her. I certainly say it to my dog every day multiple times a day! I still haven’t said it to a romantic partner for more than ten years, though I ended a 7-year relationship one year ago, had a six-month relationship soon after, and then had strong feelings for someone I only dated for six weeks at the end of 2021. I still honestly don’t know if I’ve ever felt love toward a romantic partner at all. That’s a conundrum for 2022’s therapy sessions (yep, oversharer).
But, I do know I feel love for my sister and my Nana. I do know I feel love for my parents and stepparents and my cousins, who now check in every so often through text. I do know that I love my dog and my closest friends and many of my less close friends. I tell them. It’s become so important to me to tell them. My life has become so much fuller and richer because of this one shift. And, I think they would say the same.
I still share a little too much a little too soon. I’m working on it, and this tendency has lessened to more of a fun quirk than the weird girl at the party thing it used to be. And while I’m working on sharing fewer embarrassing stories, I’m also working on sharing more love. Although I won’t tell you all of the 25 things that put me in some mood on one particular day, for example, I’m still going to answer authentically when you ask how I’m doing. I’m still going to be open and honest that I do work hard to maintain my mental health, though I won’t tell strangers the childhood causes of this when they ask for the time on the bus (again). I will keep sharing my emotions, even if I will also be more conscientious about how and when and with whom I share my stories.
Most of us don’t share. Even when we tell you a secret, we don’t really share how we feel about it. We use words and phrases that skirt around the emotions, like “feel some kinda way” or “in my feels,” rather than saying we are hurt or sad. We tell people we genuinely care for that we “heart” them instead of saying that we love them. For a generation that pushes society to speak our truths, we fall viciously silent when it comes time to be vulnerable and to love. We are right here, screaming about being authentic, scrolling at lightning speed through feeds in search of friends and partners, yet that tipping point seems further and further away.
How are you doing today?
I love you.