Whether you are single for life or married, to be healthy and happy you absolutely must have a sufficient and stable network of people who share life with you. Borrowing a concept from Dr. E. M. Pattison, this network of people acts as a psychosocial kinship system. To better understand this idea, imagine that you were on the third floor of a burning building, and firefighters were standing below the window holding a safety net to break your fall. Hopefully there would be people on all four sides, and hopefully they would be strong enough (and sufficiently committed to their jobs) to catch you. In the same way, you need people in your everyday life who are there to catch you if you fall. Like the firefighters’ net, this safety net works best when it is supported on all four sides.
The main factors to consider in identifying those in your relational net are strength of the relationship and mutual commitment. These are people who would visit you if you were sick or would cross the street to say hello and not just smile and wave as you walked by. They are committed to being a part of your life far beyond that of a mere acquaintance. It’s also important that these people come from the four categories of relationship: immediate family, relatives, friends, and associates from work or church.
The people in your safety net don’t just know you, they also know each other. When the members of your support team know each other, they naturally do a lot of the work to stay connected. That effort is naturally multiplied throughout the network when one member tries to connect with another through ordinary things like passing along a piece of news or a prayer request, or inviting a friend to have lunch. For example, among a network of friends, an invitation to play singles tennis can easily turn into a doubles match. By reaching out to one friend, you end up reconnecting with three.
The At-Risk Relational Safety Net
A person with less support will struggle with his or her relational health. A person who is at risk will have a relational net with only eight to twelve people and not many of those people will know each other. This is a fragmented community, and there are many holes pass undetected or unmet. Because so few know each other, there is a much greater amount of stress and responsibility put on each individual to maintain their many relationships. Compare this with a healthy system, which allows a person to enjoy a much more restful existence because the community naturally stays connected.
The Dysfunctional Relational Network
An even more dangerous relational situation exists when a person has a relational net of only four to eight people. This situation is considered dysfunctional because 100 percent of the people know each other, but they are not necessarily in community. More likely, they are what some counselors call “enmeshed.” They function as caretakers for a person who, for whatever reason, is no longer able to function well on his or her own.
A dysfunctional relational safety net is a frazzled community due to the endless work required to deal with one person’s dysfunction. Many of our elderly suffering from strokes or Alzheimer’s disease experience this challenge, as do the families of the mentally ill and physically handicapped. People with social disorders, such as severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, also tend to fall into this category.
Even for an otherwise healthy individual, staying in this relational condition is a recipe for disaster and often requires getting help from professionals to deal with the issues that led them to become so isolated. Those who are caretakers may need to press the issue in order to get such a person moving in the right direction.
What Causes an Unhealthy Relational Safety Net?
An unhealthy relational safety net isn’t something that just happens. There are many factors that can hurt it, either temporarily or (if you’re not proactive) permanently. The list below is in no way exhaustive, but it gives an idea of the range of things that can cause an unhealthy situation. Notice how common (and sometimes seemingly harmless) these causes can be.
1. A Job Loss or Transfer
In our highly mobile society, no one seems to recognize the consequences of separation from family, childhood friends, and community relationships. The stress of moving to a new city and starting a new job can be overwhelming. Many fall into the trap of putting off finding a new community until they have more time. The problem is the free time they’re waiting for never materializes. If we don’t manage time, it manages us. The time crunch and the energy needed to walk into unfamiliar environments and meet new friends feels overwhelming to many and consequently never happens.
2. Moving to a New Neighborhood
With traffic jams and sixty-hour workweeks, a simple move to a new neighborhood can put you far enough away from your relationships to have a dramatic effect. Combine this with new school districts and extracurricular events, and a few miles can seem like a universe away. The solution requires a lot of self- discipline and patience to rebuild what was lost. Talk to anyone who grew up in a military family and moved around a lot, and you’ll get a feel for how disruptive this can be for some people.
3. The Death of a Spouse, Divorce, Break-up
When a spouse dies or leaves, a person’s entire relational structure can be dramatically affected. This is especially true with a divorce. You can easily feel out of place in what used to be comfortable environments, and some people will not know how to relate with you in your new situation. Your emotional pain can also cause relational withdrawal, and you may find that your social skills are impaired, which can lead to more negative interactions than you are used to. The normal depression from grief can make meeting new people very difficult since you will rarely feel like yourself for many months.
4. Under-Developed Social Skills
The next chapter will cover this in detail and contains an in-depth self-assessment test to determine what changes you might need to make in your own habits and attitudes to improve your relational skills.
5. Changing Churches
As with moving to a new city, Christian singles often lose contact with 60 to 70 percent of their relational support when they change churches. While this is unavoidable when you change cities, the tendency to church hop in the same town can have severe and unintended consequences. Here again, we see the importance of learning how to date and end relationships well so that you don’t alienate yourself from your church community.
What Can Be Done to Reverse the Damage to a Relational Safety Net?
If you find yourself in an at-risk condition, you must make a commitment to do simple things to change your situation. Get involved in a church, invite coworkers and/or neighbors to dinner or some fun event, join a club or organization that does things that interest you, or anything that enables you to make contact with new people who have the potential to become friends. If you don’t have many (or any) family who can be a part of your support system, you must increase the number of friends you pursue and seek a few who can become as close as family. Eventually, with time and intentionality, you will once again find yourself part of a healthy relational network.
If you believe you are near or already in a dysfunctional condition, I urge you to contact a local Christian counselor to discuss ways of improving your situation. Nothing will change until you take that step. As hard as it may seem, a phone call can make all the difference in the world.
Adapted from We’re Just Friends and Other Dating Lies: Practical Wisdom for Healthy Relationships, by Chuck Millan.
Copyright © 2011 by Chuck Millan, Published by New Growth Press, used with permission.