Because I’m an only child, my friends have been hugely important to me forever, and I think it was an unidentified factor in my divorce.
From grade school through high school and college, I was immersed in social activity. When I was little, I was playing at friends’ houses. When I was in high school, I was involved in team sports, or part-time jobs or doing things typical of a teenage boy in the mid- to late-‘90s. My college years were unquestionably my favorite from a How I Felt on the Inside standpoint.
I lived with my friends. Good friends. And we were, most of the time, doing whatever we wanted.
Little stress. Tons of laughter. An almost inexplicable amount of social connection, all accomplished without social media which was still a few years away from being a fundamental part of our societal fabric.
We weren’t carrying our challenges alone. Oh, you need your furniture moved from your apartment to a storage unit for the summer? Bam. Here are three or four guys willing to do it at the drop of a hat. Our massive social inner circle in college didn’t consist of many fraternity or sorority members, but if fate or happenstance hadn’t brought us all together—male and female, alike—I can see why students would want to be a part of them. After leaving the safety net of our hometowns and high schools, we crave involvement, acceptance, and being part of something bigger than ourselves.
Of course we like being with our families. We also like dating and being with our girlfriends or boyfriends. We totally like spending one-on-one time with our closest friends.
But nothing can replace this critical and fundamental part of our lives which has existed for as long as we can remember, and which grows steadily in importance from grade school through the end of our college years.
Sudden Tribe Loss and Isolation
My negligent ignorance isn’t the only reason my marriage failed. I spent MY ENTIRE LIFE, just, living. I only knew what I knew. And what I knew was: I feel best when I’m with friends—the more, the merrier—and I am a good, happy, confident person. I am well-adjusted with a huge group of friends, supportive family, with the résumé, writing chops and charisma to justify my goal of writing Pulitzer Prize-winning stories at huge daily newspapers.
I had a 21- to 22-year data sample of knowing exactly who and what I was.
And then, in less than one calendar year, most of us graduated and moved away. But even in the end, after so many of the oldest tribe members had gone, we could still round up 40 or more people for a great party any time we wanted. That’s how kick-ass college was.
And then it was my turn.
My girlfriend and I had been together for a year, and we were making long-term plans. We agreed to move to Florida together from our more-than-20,000-student university in Ohio. A decent mid-sized newspaper on Florida’s Gulf Coast hired me for a business-writing gig. My girlfriend took a job at a marketing agency.
Overnight, two 22-year-old kids went from a lifetime of nothing but friends and family and constant involvement and community, to social isolation and nothing but one another to lean on. We were more than a thousand miles away from our hometowns and you could really feel the distance. My eventual wife missed her family desperately and knew within a few months in Florida that she wanted to be back home. And while I missed my family too, I had spent my entire life living apart from either my mother and her extended family, or my father and his extended family, and was emotionally equipped to deal with it.
But I lost something I never imagined a need to account for: The tribe.
We lived in a sleepy retirement community that would probably be amazing today as 36-year-olds, but mostly blew ass as fresh-faced young professionals dealing with culture shock on a variety of emotional, social, professional and financial fronts. We made wonderful friends and did our best, but only flying home for that rare wedding or holiday gathering could ever fill that tribal void.
Everything came to a head at the wedding of one of my best friends. We were tight all the way through high school, and I lived with him for four years of college. My girlfriend and I flew back to attend. I was a groomsman.
Because I had gone to grade school and high school with both the bride and groom, as well as four years of college with the groom, I knew pretty much everyone there. Tons of high school friends. Tons of college friends. Tons of familiar parent and sibling faces. After being away for two years, combined with heavy drinking, it wasn’t hard to get nostalgic.
I’ve written hundreds of times about crying throughout the hardest days of my separation and divorce. This night, as I drunkenly said bye to hundreds of people as they scrambled off to hotels or after-parties or back home, was the first time I remember crying as an adult. And pretty hard, too. Hugging guys goodbye, I mostly kept it together, but I remember riding shotgun in the passenger seat of a car driven by the first friend I made after moving to my hometown when I was just 6. That’s when I broke down. With my girlfriend sitting in the back next to some newlyweds who would end up being our future son’s godparents five years later. It was a drunken, totally embarrassing shit show that still evokes a little bit of shame. But perhaps no moment in my life more clearly emphasizes how critical my tribe was to my life and identity.
I am more me when surrounded by friends and family than under any other circumstances. The me I like most. The me I’m proud of.
Even back in Ohio for the past decade, I still feel that daily void because I’m a couple hundred miles from my hometown family and friends, and more recently with the loss of my large in-law family following the divorce.
I can’t explain it better than it’s written in this excerpt from Why Growing Up Is Hard to Do (But Why the World Still Needs Adults):
Isolation and the Loss of Tribe
“For most adults, the period of life they are most nostalgic for is high school and/or college. The longing for this period is usually chalked up to a desire to return to a time when they weren’t so freighted with life’s responsibilities. Surely that is part of it, but I think the real reason we miss our youth is often overlooked: it was the last time in our lives when we experienced a sense of “tribe.”
In high school and college, most of us had a group of great friends we saw on a daily basis. Many of us ran with a “gang” of guys, that sometimes joined with a posse of gals, forming a coed tribe that was enormously fun to hang out with.
Then, folks grew up, paired off, got hitched, and had kids. Few adults see their friends on a daily basis; the lucky see each other weekly, and for most, scheduling times to get together isn’t easy. It is then no wonder we get nostalgic for our younger days; it represents the last time our lives resembled the primordial pattern.
In hunter-gatherer tribes, male gangs hunted and battled together. Female posses raised their kids together. Everyone lived and worked together each day with dozens of others. Burden and joys were shared. One’s whole identity was tied up in being part of this tribe.
Today, we have never been more isolated. Many folks don’t even live near their extended kin, and the nuclear family is increasingly marooned on the desert island of the suburbs. Men (and women) go off to work in a cubicle with a bunch of fellow employees they may feel no real kinship with. Many women spend all day enclosed in the four walls of their home, cut off from all other humans, save their inarticulate toddler. Many people, male and female alike, are lonely and unhappy because they are without a tribe.
The heavy and undesirable weight of adulthood is often mistakenly chalked up to the burden of adult responsibilities alone. But the problem is not adulthood itself, but how it is currently being carried. The weight of earning a livelihood, and rearing one’s children, which was meant to be borne by numerous shoulders, is now supported by just a pair. Husband and wife rely on one another for all their emotional fulfillment and practical needs. The strain is more than an individual, or the nuclear family, was meant to bear.
So, (another) reason it’s hard to grow up is that the weight of adulthood feels hard to shoulder when you’re carrying it alone, instead of with a tribe.”
The Loss of Tribe and Its Effect on Your Marriage
This wasn’t supposed to be about me. It was supposed to give married or long-term couples something to think about, because I think when we go through major life changes, we are sometimes blind or ignorant to some of the hidden dangers inherent in those changes.
My girlfriend/fiancée/wife openly expressed displeasure with my constant longing for the big-group social life I’d always known. She was content with four-person dinner parties, and preferred them. With age, I grew to enjoy them more too. But I could never shake (and still haven’t) the deep, organic desire to be part of a large social circle and reclaim that vibrant social life.
Sometimes I get together with large groups when visiting family or friends back home, or at big (by adulthood standards) parties with a group of college friends. With the exception of the priceless father-son moments I’m blessed to have, nothing feels like home quite like these moments.
I think my wife saw it as a sign of immaturity. An unwillingness to grow up. I think she thinks I wanted to drink excessively and smoke pot all the time like we did in college. But that’s really not it. And any guy reading this who still regularly sees his band of brothers will appreciate the distinction. It’s the togetherness that matters more than the specific activity.
I think my wife felt disrespected and possibly even pangs of inadequacy because of it. Almost like because I wanted to be part of a large crew (or back with my old one again) that I was saying You’re not good enough! I need more than you can provide! I’d rather be with my friends than you! And she didn’t like it.
There isn’t one member of my excellent group of old or current friends I want to live with every day for the rest of my life. In a lifetime of thriving in a borderline-village-like family and social life, I simply wished I had more time with them built into my life.
My wife accidentally (she wasn’t being shitty; she was being emotional and wanted me to feel like she was more than enough to be happy) made me feel ashamed of my desire for a social life independent from her. Not that she wasn’t invited and welcome to be a part of it. She simply didn’t want to be. I think some couples are good at both being part of the same tribe. It just worked out for me that I married a more-private, more-introverted person who preferred small groups.
Her “tribe” cravings were satisfied by moving back near her hometown, and it was her family that filled that support network void for her.
She and a smattering of new friends were all I had to lean on.
And maybe that wasn’t enough for me, without me realizing it. Maybe neglecting and denying this fundamental part of me in favor of trying to make my wife happy ended up accidentally causing more harm than good. And maybe this same conflict (which people may or may not be discussing with their spouses) is causing unspoken, and even undetected, conflict in many other relationships.
We grow up whether or not we want to.
And everything feels a little bit harder and a little bit heavier as time marches on. We lose things. Family members. Friends. Jobs. Money. Lifestyles. We gain things. Marriages we don’t know how to nurture. Children we don’t know how to raise. Debts we don’t know how to pay. Weight we don’t know how to shed. Guilt we don’t know how to let go of.
It feels hard to be an adult.
And I’m wondering just how much this cultural loss-of-tribe dynamic might be playing a role in that. How much of all this burdensome adulthood stuff is more difficult because now it’s just us in our private homes trying to do everything alone that not long ago in our evolutionary history, was being done by an entire village? By a community? By a tribe?
Just like men are often oblivious to the emotional needs of their wives, I’m wondering to what degree women might be oblivious to this need their husbands or boyfriends feel, and maybe also feel for themselves. The need to be part of something bigger.
Maybe being part of a tribe is more important than we think.
Maybe wives and mothers, husbands and fathers SHOULDN’T be solely responsible for fulfilling the needs of their partners and children.
Maybe people AREN’T always practicing neglect or immaturity by needing the support of friends, or going out with them.
Maybe it’s something more of us almost need to do.
Maybe it’s something we need to better understand.
And just maybe, if we do, more of us will find what we’ve been looking for.