Are meaningful relationships the meaning of life?
December 5, 2010 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Do most people feel the need for permanent, intense connections with other people? Am I abnormal in my need?

I am a very lonely person, and I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that matters in life are meaningful connections with other people. Nobody else I know seems to think this. The few friends I have (who I may be pushing away by talking about these intense connections that I wish we had, which is why I'm posting anonymously) tell me that I expect too much out of friendships, and because of that I end up with no friendships. They say that friendships don't have to be permanent or deeply intense, and to just appreciate people while they're around, and move on when they're gone.

For reasons out of my control, I don't have a deep connection with my family, and so I try to get a glimpse of that connection through friends. This does not work very well because those friends prioritize things other than meaningful friendships, even the ones who are also distant from their families. If I could do nothing but sit in a circle with my friends and talk every day for the rest of my life, I wouldn't be too disappointed. Obviously there are other important things in life, but to me it seems like at the end of the day, the only thing that matters are these connections (this can be extrapolated to very real, material aspects of life, such as the fact that our economic system encourages individuality and selfishness, and so perhaps our priority in life should be to change that). I have some really fulfilling hobbies, I spend a lot of time thinking, learning, and doing, so it's not just that I'm looking for ANY kind of meaning. it's specific.

My question is: should I just chill out and take what I can get, or am I justified in my constant search for these connections that I think everyone should have?

I have considered therapy, so it's not necessary to suggest that, unless you give me a very specific reason why, and a very specific way in which therapy could help. Thank you. Throwaway email: Anon Mefite at gmail
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it's an either or situation. I think you should take what you can get, but also search for deeper connections with people who might be willing to form them.

Not every friendship/relationship will deepen into that, and that's fine - I think as humans we tend to have different levels of connection to different people - but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't want that in general somewhere, somehow. But just don't expect every single connection to have to deepen into that, or consider it "worthless" if it doesn't.
posted by Stormfeather at 12:50 PM on December 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Just a note: I'm confused by the space in your throwaway email. Did you mean AnonMefite at gmail? Might have a mod fix that.
posted by limeonaire at 12:51 PM on December 5, 2010

I don't think there's anything wrong with you wanting these intense, meaningful, permanent connections with friends, and I think there are definitely others who feel the same way.

However, a lot of people *don't.* And it sounds a bit like you may be trying to shoehorn the people who don't into what you want. An example of this is when you say maybe *our* priority in life should be to change the economic system because it seems to encourage individuality and selfishness. Some people like the economic system the way it is. They like our amount of individuality the way it is. What you shouldn't be trying to do is change other people or tell other people what they should want.

If the friends you have don't want friendship as intense as what you want, don't try to push it on them. You're right, it drives them away. Just find people who want the same degree of friendship you want. Have you ever tried joining a devout religious order or a very cohesive self-contained communal living organization?
posted by Ashley801 at 12:53 PM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think a lot of people (not all, but a lot) have family to fulfill their need for permanent, intense connections, and therefore don't expect the same from their friendships. Would living in a family fulfill your need? It might be worth living in some sort of permanent shared housing situation.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:55 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Find someone to love. Hope that they reciprocate.
posted by Nomyte at 12:59 PM on December 5, 2010

I feel the same way, if thats any comfort. But I'm trying to tone it down, because its hard to find and harder to maintain. Im accepting that at the moment, its not something I have or can have with the people I now know. It does make me feel a little lonely sometimes.

However, i have had a grand total of two friendships like that in the past (i still miss them), and it is possible. Try be happy with whatever relationships you do have with people, for the moment, but don't give up the search.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:00 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Are meaningful relationships the meaning of life?


But they are few and far between, and for some people, they never happen. That's not a reason to stop looking and hoping, but pestering people about it is not really the answer.

What to do about that void in the meantime? Everyone will have a different answer. For some, its religious, as mentioned above; for others, it's the intense discipline and self-expression of the arts.

As for me, I got a dog.
posted by philokalia at 1:04 PM on December 5, 2010 [8 favorites]

There's a difference between the goal and the process. I agree with you that this is a valid goal. But your existing friends are right in saying that the way to get there is not by talking to existing friends about how things should be more intense, or to have high expectations that get disappointed. You have to sneak up on what you want over time, all the while giving people freedom to do whatever they want without upsetting you. Along the path towards having 3-4 super-solid friends, you will also burn through like 82 temporary friendships (through no fault of anyone; people will move away and be too busy to keep in touch; you will both grow apart). Be gracious about the coming and going of those 82 friends, because you don't know when one of them will re-enter your life and once again be on the track to permanence. Once you find one friend with a similar level of loyalty and long-term thinking, your efforts will start to gain steam because together, you create this aura of "we are a permanent unit" that attracts like-minded people. In many ways, it all gets easier over time.
posted by salvia at 1:05 PM on December 5, 2010 [10 favorites]

I'm a lot like you, so you're not alone! Be aware, however, that most people aren't like us- consciously, that is. You say your disagreements about the depth, extent, and engagement of friendship come when you articulate what that means to you to your friends, correct? Your articulation is the point of confusion here, not the "strength" of friendship.

Some people are like us: value people (usually friends) above all else, in word and action, and have thought hard enough about what makes us really happy to realize that they will always be our first priority. Other people might operate the same way unconsciously, but be incapable for whatever reason of articulating their beliefs about friendship that way. Society conditions us to value and prioritize love above all else, then family, and then career... a lot of people are susceptible to that conditioning on a surface level, and aren't able to realize how important other relationships really are to them, since they don't think they "should" be as important as the things I just mentioned.

But they are! Don't lose heart: your friends will love you just as much as you love them, even if they can't or don't want to say it the way that you do. The key for me has been to see the love and loyalty in their actions, and not get too tied up in the different ways we articulate our connection verbally. For example, I'm a girl and have a lot of close male friends- it seems totally natural for me to say "I love you" and gush frequently about how "close" we are, which usually confuses them. They'll try to reciprocate, but articulating their feelings that way is completely unnatural to them, which used to make me feel like I was making a much bigger deal of the friendship than they were. Still, those friends frequently fly across country to visit me, call to check up on me, have long, rambling conversations deep into the night and leap to my defense whenever it's possible; if I'm upset, they comfort me, if I want to go on an adventure, they tag along, if I needed to bury a body they'd hop to it, etc. Our levels of commitment and attachment aren't really different- we just verbalize them differently.

So, the above will apply to most of your friendships, and I encourage you to focus less on how you and your friends talk about your friendship, and more about how you conduct it. That said, there are other people out there in the world besides you and me who are able to experience and articulate friendship in the manner you describe. You are not some kind of emotionally stunted freak who expects way too much out of people, you're just someone with a lot of love who isn't held back in any way from expressing it. Think of it as a gift! Most people are happy to let their relationships drift closer and further away from their full potential, never expressing how much the people in their lives mean to them. You're not one of those people, and even if your friends can't fully reciprocate your sentiments in the way that you want to hear it, your friendships will be stronger for that quality.
posted by libertypie at 1:19 PM on December 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

The mainstream social norm is that strong relationships are threatening and dangerous because happiness is equated with individual consumer choice, so the ideal form of relationship is modeled on economic relations of mutual service providers. I think you're right about what this translates to politically, so for that purpose you should keep the dream alive. Substantial connections will be the basis of the vanguard of political and social change. In the meantime, you might consider starting a family.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:23 PM on December 5, 2010 [33 favorites]

AlsoMike, that's a magnificent synthesis. I have a few very intense relationships in my life, and I notice all of them involve profoundly media-blind people who are also poor (as in unpredictable) consumers.

Returning to the OP, such relationships exist. They take work, they take time and they take your own willingness to risk and lose. If you risk and win, you have -absolute knowledge- that such friends will step up for you, regardless of the difficulty. For me, it's worth the trouble and the pain.
posted by jet_silver at 1:33 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, such connections are absolutely the most important thing in my life.

I've had a few beautiful ones, about half of which (3/6) ended after a year or two because I became less important to the other person and eventually gave up on preserving our connection. (Or "we drifted apart," depending on your viewpoint.) A lot of people don't prioritize making friendships permanent, and even if both people want to it won't always work out forever. But I think your cause is far from hopeless. "Take what you can get," yes, but in the sense that you can be trying to have the kind of relationship you want. Don't feel you have to hold back with your friends -- be real, make it known that they can rely on you, and rely on them if you feel that they'll be there for you. Strengthen connections by trying them, not by talking about them. I think you can even do this with people you've recently met -- as in romantic relationships, you should offer whatever you feel is right. Eventually you'll find someone(s) who want what you're looking for.
posted by lilbizou at 1:44 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

My mom says that some friendships come into your life for a day, some for a season, and some for a lifetime. You really can't tell at the start which kind of friendship is which. I have some (hell, quite a few) people I was intensely close with for a period of time that I don't speak to at all anymore and some people who have been a constant figure for years and years.

Friendships, like romantic relationships, aren't necessarily failures if they don't last forever. You learn, you grow, you help each other evolve during the period when you have a relevant connection, and then sometimes you move on. Even when you mourn a past friendship, it doesn't mean it wasn't valuable. You can't guide these friendships or make them into something they aren't; you just have to live in the moment, be a good friend, and ride the ride, as it were.

I'm very close to my mother and siblings, but not to the rest of my family, so I don't get much intimacy there. I've known my now-husband for 13 years, and it's without question the deepest and most fulfilling friendship/relationship of my life.

What's interesting about my other enduring friendships is that I don't get to sit and talk with them everyday. They all live thousands of miles away and we aren't necessarily great pen pals. But I know they're great friends because when I need them or they need me, there's no question of support and affection. And when we do get to see each other, it's always as if no time has passed. We may not have seen each other face to face for two years, but it feels like we're picking up a conversation from yesterday.

For me, these intimate, emotional bonds are, while perhaps not the most important thing in my life, incredibly meaningful. I am, in very large part, who I am because of the people I've cared for and the people who have cared for me. I would be immeasurably diminished without these relationships. Finding a romantic partner/life partner/partner in crime who is my best and most valued friend certainly adds to this.

But there is no interpersonal relationship so good or so intimate it can fill a void inside you. If you're looking for friendships to fill in something that feels hollow or give meaning to something that seems meaningless, I suspect you're going to be disappointed. Intimate relationships enhance who you are and help you to grow, but you have to look for meaning and fulfillment inside yourself first. Secure people make better friends because they aren't as inclined to be needy, are more giving, and bring more to the friendship. Then if a time comes when they need more support, their true friends find it easier to give because the relationship doesn't otherwise feel needy or exhausting. I'm not saying that you are needy; there isn't enough here to make that kind of designation. These are just my thoughts on how I approach the business.
posted by mostlymartha at 1:44 PM on December 5, 2010 [86 favorites]

what salvia said, plus this:

little anecdote from my life: some of my closest, dearest friends (whom I've known for a decade or more) are people whom at first I thought were just meh. Whereas some other people, with whom I thought I'd be friends forever, are no longer or barely in my life for various reasons - and that's fine. My point is, it's very hard to tell who will be a strong presence in your life and who won't. You just have to give it time.

On a side note: I have a friend who's not close to his family and constantly he tries to become very close to people he just meets. It works for a little while but then he pushes too much and that alienates them and he's lonely again. So careful not to push too hard to strengthen the connection. Plus, friends who can substitute family are a true blessing, but they're few and far in between. You can't just decide you want them and *poof* you got them..... but you're totally cool/justified for wanting them, though.
posted by Neekee at 1:54 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Have you ever considered living in a cohousing community? People in these generally have their own housing unit but share some common spaces and gardens. There is daily interaction with others of all ages.
posted by mareli at 1:55 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

my two cents - "Are meaningful relationships the meaning of life?" No- but, they are the primary vehicle for the "purpose" of life, which is, IMO, a progressive experience towards "wakefulness/awareness/consciousness." I think you have to ask yourself, why are you striving so hard for this? What do you have to gain by having "intense relationships?" I'm not saying it's "wrong" to strive such, but that certainly needs a balanced measure of "letting go/chill-out." You say you are "very lonely"- I think you are trying to jump from A to Z. (an imaginary Z at that.) You're next step beyond A ("taking what you can get") is to change what you can at point B.

consider this too-- some people have extremely intense relationships, albeit, unhealthy/violent/miserable ones.
posted by mrmarley at 2:01 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

The few friends I have ... tell me that I expect too much out of friendships, and because of that I end up with no friendships. They say that friendships don't have to be permanent or deeply intense

Reading between the lines a bit, I wonder if it might be that your friends who make this sort of comment are really trying to tell you to dial it down a notch because you're trying too hard.

I've found that friendships that start out with more intensity don't tend to last for me--when someone wants a lot from me right away, I tend to pull back and fade out. My deepest friendships are the ones where I spent a long time getting to know the person and the intensity just grew organically. I know this is not the case for everyone, but I wonder if your friends tend to have a similar approach, whereas you're looking (and asking) for intensity right from the start.

So, I'm not telling you to lower your expectations overall, but I am suggesting that you not be impatient for things that have to grow slowly. You may meet people who are more trusting and open and go all-in with a friendship right away, but I suspect there's a bigger population of people like me, who could be your very close friend someday but don't want to be pressured to have those feelings before they develop naturally.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:02 PM on December 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

mostlymartha: But there is no interpersonal relationship so good or so intimate it can fill a void inside you. If you're looking for friendships to fill in something that feels hollow or give meaning to something that seems meaningless, I suspect you're going to be disappointed. Intimate relationships enhance who you are and help you to grow, but you have to look for meaning and fulfillment inside yourself first. Secure people make better friends because they aren't as inclined to be needy, are more giving, and bring more to the friendship.

This is 100% true. If you are looking for something specific to pursue in therapy, it might be good to explore the reason(s) you aren't finding meaning in your own life and are instead looking outside yourself for value/purpose.
posted by headnsouth at 2:02 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Get onto the cutting edge of life in some way, whether in a scene where people are dying or a scene where people are undergoing massive change. People who are very sick and/or dying, hey, they *know* how important it is to make connection, deep connection, they're not going to go in for small talk, they're not going to talk about this character or that one in some TV soap opera. And, in fact, they can end up lonely -- just because *they* are dying, or greivously ill, and/or undergoing dramatic change, that doesn't mean that those around them are comfortable with this new Dad, or this new Wife, or etc and etc, and they'll be on the lookout for *you*, and be glad when you show up on the scene.

So place yourself in situations where you're going to find people who are looking for what you are looking for. And, hey -- guess what? Others who are like you, who crave what you crave, you're going to meet them, because they are going to be volunteering at that same hospice you are, or in that same intensive care unit where you're helping situate family members who've just flown in from out of town because their sister has been badly injured in an automobile accident, or that cancer support center, or whatever it is that you find. Psychotherapists live this life, for sure, they understand the need you have and mostly they have it also, because if they don't their job will drive them completely around the bend.

And. People upthread, who've mentioned that people seeking deep connection tend toward cutting TV et all and being closer to art -- that is absolutely my experience. Life lived without art, or, better, Art, it's just not worth a damn. And television, and media culture in general, kill Art, destroy it, wear it into nothing. Look for people who aren't looking at TV, look people who walk out of a movie because it sucks, rather than enduring another 47 minutes of grueling stupidity on the screen, look for people who speak the language of the heart, and learn to speak it yourself.

You're in an excellent place, seems to me -- you recognize that you are not getting what you need to be fulfilled in life, and it hurts. Good. Your pain is directing you. Follow where it's pointing. Your people are out there. You can find them. Seems that the larger part of you is sortof insisting that you do so. Follow that lead.

Have fun!
posted by dancestoblue at 3:02 PM on December 5, 2010 [7 favorites]

You are absolutely not alone in feeling/thinking this way! That's how "lonely" people operate, all the time. And these thoughts/feelings are reinforced by loneliness, as if in a vicious circle. Remember, up until very recently, very few were truly alone in their lives. People used to have more siblings, marry earlier, not move so much geographically and so on. Most - even those most emotionally close to us - will never understand the deep desire for connection (again, they are married, have difficult children, whatever - all the factors that drive them to want more independence, not togetherness). I bet that what we get from these people, their behavior and attitude towards us further reinforce the solitude - if we take it at face value, without filtering through their own predicament.

My solution so far was stoicism. But I sure as hell hope that people with my perception of virtue (and time, and teamwork, and dedication, and care) will be present in my life. We are not made to be lonely. And you won't be forever, either.

Think also, that relationships that ended in times of economic downturn were weak, materialistic and hence probably very shallow. It is good to have space, ability, and longing to accommodate a true, deep connection when we finally find people who are able and willing to have it with us.

I've been told that this book is very much of value in answering questions of loneliness.
posted by Jurate at 3:06 PM on December 5, 2010

In America, there's always been a strong ethos of independence and a suspicion of people who are "codependent."

There was a time when I worked on the other side of NYC from where my wife worked. Every day, when I got finished -- my day ended half an hour before hers -- I walked across the city to meet her. And then we took the subway home together.

When I used to tell people I did this, they would give me weird looks. (Which makes it sound like I forced it into the conversation. But I'm talking about when it just came up, casually.) They would ask me if we were newlyweds. "No," I'd say. "We've been married for five years." People asked why we didn't just meet up at home. I didn't have a good reason, other than I liked spending as much time with my wife as possible, and it seemed a shame to commute home alone, when I could do it with her.

We were best friends for a year before we started dating. We met in grad school, and I used to meet her after most of her classes, so that we could hang out together. I was vaguely aware that I was a bit of a laughingstock -- that puppy-dog guy who was always following that girl around. But I was happier being with her than not being with her. So I spent as much time with her as possible. Still do.

This is a pattern with me. For instance, when I'm with a friend and we're having a really good conversation, the friend will sometimes say, "Damn. I wish we could keep talking, but I HAVE to get some errands done. I have to get the the post office before it closes, and I have to go by my office and pick up some work for the weekend..." I'll often say, "Why don't I come with you?

(I have to insert another parenthetical phrase here, because I know that sounds a bit creepy. Like, what if the friend is trying to politely find a way to be by himself? You just have to trust me -- or not -- that I'm talking about people that I know well enough to get when they'd rather be alone. In any case, these are people I've know for years -- people who know the way I am -- and who still choose to hang out with me.)

My friends are surprised. They say, "Really? You don't mind doing that?"

I think, "Why would I mind? How is it an inconvenience to sit in the passenger seat of a car? And this way, we get to continue the conversation we both want to continue. Why would I NOT want to tag along?"

It seems that I have spent a lifetime going to the grocery store (or wherever) with people. I've noticed that people rarely do this with me. That's fine. But, curious about the difference, I've talked to friends about it. Their main concern seems to be how it comes across: "It seems desperate." I guess I just don't care how it seems. Or, rather, I do care -- a little -- but my desire to have fun hanging out with my friends (and/or wife) trumps all other considerations. Life is short. I'm not going to waste time worrying that I'm too codependent.

I really think some people are just wired to bond like this. Some aren't. Some are wired to be more independent, and that's fine. But note that it's very hard for one type to understand the other. If someone DOESN'T like spending every waking moment with his friends, how is he supposed to understand someone who does? And the same is true the other way around. I have zero understanding of those super-independent couples, those couples in which husband and wife each has his or her own friends and interests. I totally respect it. I just can't relate at all.

There are definite downsides to the way you and I are built, OP, in addition to the social stigma that's sometimes attached: I was horribly lonely for about 20 years of my adult life -- AGONIZINGLY lonely. I did all the things you're supposed to do. I went to therapy. I pursued my own interests, etc. But I always had an intense feeling that I was woefully incomplete if I wasn't bonded. I walked around feeling like I was missing an arm. If you feel that way, that's terrible enough in and of itself. Don't compound the misery by believing that you're a freak for having the feelings you have. You're just different from your friends.

The other horrible thing -- for us codependent types -- is that relationships end. Luckily, my wife has a similar temperament to mine and we care deeply for each other, so I can't imagine we'll ever break up or get divorced. But one of us is going to die first. The older I get, the more this worries me. When she dies -- if she goes first -- I will lose my wife (of 15 years at the moment) and best friend. I will lose the person I spend most non-working hours with, almost 50 waking hours a week! I have no equipment to deal with that at all. It scares the shit out of me.

I know people who feel pretty connected to everyone on Earth. I don't want to insult them by making it sound like people are interchangeable to them, and I don't think that's true. But they make friends very easily. It's not that they're not crushed when a relationship -- platonic or otherwise -- ends. But they know that they'll make other friends.

I can't cling to that. I make friends very, very rarely and very, very slowly. And those that I make and keep are intense. I have few acquaintance, and I don't really know how to do the acquiescence thing. I don't get anything out of it. A relationship is worthless to me unless it's deep. That's good in some ways and terrible in others, but it's who I am.

The good news, OP, is that though, perhaps, we're a minority, people like us exist. And we need each other. Somewhere, there's some other lonely person wishing he or she had a friend who feels the way you do. It may take a while to find that person (or people), but when you do ...
posted by grumblebee at 3:29 PM on December 5, 2010 [67 favorites]

salvia has it right. If someone talked nonstop about wanting an intense relationship then I'd be out of there. Intense relationships happen by events, feelings, etc. and not by expressing the need to talk about needing such a relationship. That would drive me crazy.
posted by JayRwv at 3:56 PM on December 5, 2010

grumblebee, your comment and the sentiment behind it mean the world to me. Thanks for posting it.

OP, you have the right as a person of free will to decide what gives your life meaning and how you'll pursue that meaning, and that includes the number and intensity of your relationships. By definition, you can only have relationships of great depth with a certain number of people - less people than if you pursued relationships of lesser depth. If you like that, if that makes you feel fulfilled, if you think it's the meaning of life, and if you're willing to provide that intensity back, that's wonderful. Don't change for anyone, be clear with other people about who and what you want and, above all, learn to be comfortable with yourself for much of the time.

On the other hand, if you don't feel that way, that doesn't make you morally or intellectually inferior to those who are. It just makes you wired differently.

There's a whole ton of schools of thought on what the meaning of life is and (despite what people like to say) they're actually not all that much alike. I tend to be like you, OP, though it's more likely than not we got to the same place through a different set of intellectual and spiritual influences. Either way, live your own moral compass to the fullest, and be tolerant of those who choose a different path.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 5:46 PM on December 5, 2010

For instance, when I'm with a friend and we're having a really good conversation, the friend will sometimes say, "Damn. I wish we could keep talking, but I HAVE to get some errands done. I have to get the the post office before it closes, and I have to go by my office and pick up some work for the weekend..." I'll often say, "Why don't I come with you?

(I have to insert another parenthetical phrase here, because I know that sounds a bit creepy. Like, what if the friend is trying to politely find a way to be by himself? You just have to trust me -- or not -- that I'm talking about people that I know well enough to get when they'd rather be alone. In any case, these are people I've know for years -- people who know the way I am -- and who still choose to hang out with me.)

That's great, and I particularly love the story about your wife. However, the reason other people find this unusual is because, "I have to head out and run an errand/get a drink/get going" is basically "code" for "great catching up with you, goodbye." Obviously, by natural selection, the friends you're "left" with are the ones who really do need to go and don't mind having you accompany them, but most people are unwilling to risk putting their friendships through that kind of culling by being "the guy who doesn't understand when people want to politely take their leave." What you may regard as "fear of being perceived as codependent" is actually "interpreting widely-accepted social cues."

am I justified in my constant search for these connections that I think everyone should have?

You are justified in your search for them, but you have to accept that they're uncommon, and in the meantime, you should enjoy the social company of lots of other people you meet, even if their company doesn't provide the sort of "intensity" you're looking for.
posted by deanc at 6:04 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

That's great, and I particularly love the story about your wife. However, the reason other people find this unusual is because, "I have to head out and run an errand/get a drink/get going" is basically "code" for "great catching up with you, goodbye."

My post was really long, so I don't blame you for missing the part where I dealt with this.

I DON'T follow everyone to the grocery story and wind up being friends with the few people who don't mind the fact that I don't pick up on glaring social hints.

The fact that you assumed that leads me to believe you don't understand people like me -- and probably people like the OP. The people I tag along with are people I've been friends with for YEARS. Usually over ten years. And I didn't do that when I first met them.

This is the problem that people like the OP faces when he's trying to explain himself to people. If you're the sort of person who has casual friends, and you assume that everyone has casual friends, of COURSE you're going to find behavior like mine odd.
posted by grumblebee at 6:13 PM on December 5, 2010 [7 favorites]

We may not have seen each other face to face for two years, but it feels like we're picking up a conversation from yesterday.

My deepest friendships are, barring one (because she's my schmoopy and we live together), with people I don't talk to very often. But we've known each other for years - more than 20 years, in one case. We have not only told each other our stories, we have lived many of those stories together.

This takes time. It takes time to build the kind of intimacy and trust and knowledge that mortar our lives together.

I also have a bunch of more casual friends, and those relationships are also important and fulfilling to me. They serve a different purpose - it's not a worse one, or less in any way. Just different.

So, chill out. Let things happen more organically.
posted by rtha at 6:38 PM on December 5, 2010

Since you can't change other people, and why would you want to if you want them to be your friends, you need to accept who they are and be a good friend to them.

If you replace "intensity" with "perfection", it might be easier to understand why people get skeeved out. Nobody can be perfect, and it is really hard to try to live up to someone else's expectations of perfection.

And it might be one of those psychological stumbling blocks we set up for ourselves. "This relationship wasn't all that intense anyway, why bother trying to fix it?"

Here's a good example of how people react when the other person makes demands like this on them:
"I went out with him. It was the worst thing I ever did. When we broke up he gave me a watch and said I was boring and shallow, and I wasn't enough in the moment for him, and it was over."
"Not enough in the moment" reads like not meaningful enough or intense enough, to me.
posted by gjc at 6:56 PM on December 5, 2010

Here's another vote for "you are not alone in your desire for intimate friendships that you find meaningful".

I'm a lot like you. So far, I've been unable to sustain a relationship that I've found valuable on this level. Invariably, the other person disappoints me in some way that hits at the core of what I find important in interpersonal connections. I support the people I care about as best I can, and I expect some level of reciprocity. As I'm sure you've found, it's difficult to salvage a relationship that's failed you, and you find yourself back at square one.

The best you can do is to keep starting new relationships with people you find interesting, let those connections develop naturally, and try to keep your expectations in line with what you know about the other person. Some people are looking for the depth you're also searching for, and in time you'll find them and those connections can grow. Some people aren't, but that doesn't mean they can't each play a positive role in your life, either in the short term or over many years.

Don't lose hope, and don't second-guess yourself. Be a good friend and you'll find people who can be good friends to you.
posted by cranberry_nut at 7:15 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Okay, I'm going to say something harsh here: most people want to have "intense" relationships with (a) family members, or (b) their significant others, and will prioritize both relationships over (c) friends. The older you get, the more your friendships will have to contend with your friends dating and marrying other people and starting their own families and becoming more insular/interested in that than in their friends as much.

I suspect you may be running into this problem. It happens the older you get, I am sorry to say.

You are probably asking too much of most people in friendship, especially if your family is a bust and you're looking for someone, ANYONE, to feel close to. If you want someone to be superclose to, it will probably be easier to find a significant other for that purpose than a platonic friend. Maintaining friendships as an adult means that you really need to not cling as much and let them have their own lives and see them when you can, so yeah, you probably are asking too much from most people to make them your significant friend.

This is not to say that finding a bosom friend (TM Anne Shirley) is impossible. It isn't, but I suspect your best bet will be to find someone just like you who's very lonely and doesn't have a family/SO to occupy their time. Most people will probably not want that level of a friendship when they are getting that closeness need met by someone else already.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:42 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hi, I'm you. And I've found: sometimes it just plain takes time.

One of my closest friends is a guy who just....GETS me on a level that sometimes feels freakish, and he is hands-down the person I trust more than any human being on the planet. We've worked together for nearly ten years, and our thinking is so symbiotic that we are forbidden to play "Rock Paper Scissors" because WE ALWAYS pick EXACTLY the same thing and it never works. He is one of the first people I go to when I have to talk to someone because he INVARIABLY and INERRINGLY always says EXACTLY the very thing I need to hear. (He met my last boyfriend a grand and glorious total of twice -- and still was able to put his finger on EXACTLY the right answer when I was trying to figure out why my last boyfriend broke up with me; my friend said something so insightful I knew instantly that "dammit, that's absolutely right.")

But -- it took years for us to get to that point. On paper, we should never HAVE gotten to that point -- because he's also an ex-boyfriend; we dated very, very briefly. And one of the obstacles I had to overcome early on was my own need to have him as a close, intimate connection -- the initial infatuation had been pretty strong on both sides, but it petered out after a couple months. I just needed a close connection to SOMEONE so badly that I tried hanging on; it's not why HE wanted to stay friends, but it was a big factor in why I did.

And my taking a deep breath and backing off, and getting to know him for HIM made all the difference in the world. Accepting that it kind of freaked him out if I talked to him about stuff like this (and accepting that he still DOES get this vaguely uncomfortable look when I get a little sentimental; I still do, though). When I backed off and let things find their own rhythm, that's when the relationship grew into what it was supposed to be.

It's not a friendship that looks like other "best friends" relationships traditionally look -- we don't talk every day, we don't shoot the breeze about our personal lives much; we're much more like Mulder and Scully than we are Harry and Sally. But I know real, and I know meaningful, and this definitely is that. And the way I got it to happen was by LETTING it happen in its own time and accepting him for what he was and what he could offer at each given moment. And that's how in time he also learned he could trust ME with things and have him confiding in me be about HIM, rather than my making it "yay you are trusting me and confiding in me that means you like me".

Give these friendships time. Let them be what they're destined to be. Keep making friends and letting them each develop the way they're supposed to. It will happen.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:16 PM on December 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

When you say "I want this relationship to be deep and intense and permanent," it is also saying "Right now this relationship is shallow and trivial and fleeting." Basically, you're telling your friend they're doing it wrong. And that they'll continue to be doing it wrong unless they manage to hit whatever level of depth and intimacy and stability you decide are right. That's not easy to hear.

If someone told me that, explicitly or implicitly, I would understand that I would never, ever be able to meet the expectations this person has set for our relationship. And so I would bow out, because why delay the inevitable? I suspect that's the reason you find your friends dropping you. You're telling them that your standards are incredibly high, and they'll have to work incredibly hard to meet them.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:31 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

if you are looking for a "permanent, intense, meaningful connection" to another person and the friendship route isn't working, try becoming a parent. (not being snarky here)
posted by mrmarley at 4:44 AM on December 6, 2010

if you are looking for a "permanent, intense, meaningful connection" to another person and the friendship route isn't working, try becoming a parent. (not being snarky here)

Please don't do this. Way too many people have children to fill a void in their lives, to have another person who loves/needs/depends on them. It's incredibly unfair to the child.
posted by headnsouth at 4:51 AM on December 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm very much like you. I've got a lot of better acquaintances, but few good friends. However, I tend to have fairly intense long-term romantic relationships. I crave intimacy in every sense of the word, and I find that it's easy to jump into a romantic relationship than a longterm friendship because, hey, there are "rules" and standards for dating someone (e.g. "you call someone and ask them if they want to go to the movies, and they say yes or no") that I haven't managed to figure out in Friendship Land.

As hard as it is for people to know if a potential romantic partner is available, looking and interested, I find it 12 times worse for a potential friend (who probably already has multiple good friends anyway). That doesn't always mean that I've found the right kind of intimacy with a partner, and it's really not healthy to put all of your eggs in one basket. But it lightens the pressure in other areas if I know I have someone I can trust.

A lot of the reason I desire this intimacy with people is because I didn't get the care I was supposed to get from my parents at the times I needed it (but thought I got it nevertheless, and therefore confused myself :P). I need to work on taking care of myself and rebuilding my own boundaries. When I find someone who is nice to me and who seems to enjoy my company, I've been known to latch on and smother them.

Now that I've recognized this tendency, I hang around at the other extreme, not getting close to people because I don't know how to become friends with them without overwhelming them. It's easier to just stay home with myself because I know that I'll have control in that environment, even if it sucks and is super boring. Le sigh.

The trust issue is one reason I'd suggest you speak with a counselor or therapist to dig down and figure out what's important to you and why you feel this way. I've been in various types of therapy for quite a while, and only recently have I begun to untangle my bad work habits and my lack of trust (coming from my parents). It's not that I didn't see this connection before, but it really helps to have someone who is trained with this sort of thing provide their expertise.

Sometimes I feel like a good friend would provide that sort of perspective. But a friend would be too wrapped up in your shared history and possible consequences to provide the kind of incisive insight and blunt questions that I know I'd need.
posted by Madamina at 9:44 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it would be helpful for you to concentrate on the concrete particulars of what you're looking for. You say that you're disappointed "friends prioritize things other than meaningful friendships, even the ones who are also distant from their families." But "meaningful" is very vague and really says nothing at all about what relationships actually are. Relationships are created by events; they aren't "meaningful" as an abstract quality.

So, think about what exactly you mean by "meaningful." Is it a question of the total amount of time you spend together (long conversations) or the frequency (talking every day for a short while)? The subjects you talk about? The feeling you have when you're with them? Certain gestures or tasks you do for each other (e.g., dinner parties, gifts, helping with house projects)? What are the specific things that happen that make you think your current friendships aren't meaningful? What is going through your head when you determine that these events are non-meaningful?

If you don't engage in this kind of analysis, then I think you're running the risk of blaming other people for not living up to your own unrealistic expectations, thereby driving them away -- and even worse, ignoring the really valuable connections you do have, just because they don't live up to your fantasy of meaningful friendship.
posted by yarly at 9:57 AM on December 6, 2010

I am just like you, too, OP. And I wanted to favorite grumblebee about a million times.

I put this down to my temperament as an INFP. (From Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory). For me, this is normal. For an ISTJ, I look pathologically needy and codependent. They, to me, appear cold-hearted and repressed. It's like someone said above -- people are wired differently. I find a lack of need for others completely unfathomable.

There's nothing wrong with you, but the fact is that most Western people aren't wired that way and that's why we've ended up with the individualistic culture we have here in the States.

But we are out there, constituting slightly less than half of the population, and can be found. Try volunteering somewhere. Hospices, as someone above suggested.

Good luck!
posted by xenophile at 12:43 PM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

I didn't read all of the comments above, but here's my $0.02.

"The few friends I have (who I may be pushing away by talking about these intense connections that I wish we had, which is why I'm posting anonymously) tell me that I expect too much out of friendships, and because of that I end up with no friendships."

You don't get to instantly HAVE those intense connections with people. You have to build them over time through shared experiences, emotions and so much more. Yes, it does happen where two people meet and instantly click in a way that bonds them, but that is rare. The fact that it's rare is part of what makes it so special, and it's why trying to force it leads to the opposite results: people leave.

Grumblebee said: "The people I tag along with are people I've been friends with for YEARS." ...but the OP made it clear he was talking about NEW friends. And that's the root of his problem.

Returning to the original questions:

"Do most people feel the need for permanent, intense connections with other people? Am I abnormal in my need?"

Most people seem to be better at making and keeping friends, which - over time - gets them intense connections with those friends. This is part of the reason why so many people stay in their hometowns, for example. It doesn't happen instantly. Even in romance, things that begin with intensity usually end with equal intensity. Starts with a bang, ends with a bang.

"My question is: should I just chill out and take what I can get, or am I justified in my constant search for these connections that I think everyone should have?"

Here's the good news! You are definitely justified in wanting those connections. The problem is, you're searching for the wrong things. Until you figure that out, you're not going to find what you really want.

What you really want are meaningful connections with people. Meaningful connections become strong.
What you are doing is taking any connections you find and trying to make them strong. That doesn't work. It doesn't work because the connections - the friendships - probably weren't meaningful enough in the first place.

That's good news? Yup!

By changing the way you meet people, and by changing what you're looking for, you can change the connections you end up making. The easiest example of this is hobbies. 'm sort of like the OP. In my case, I prefer a small number of meaningful friendships rather than a large number of friendships that are really just glorified acquaintances. That's why, when seeking new friends, I look for people I already have things in common with. I seek people who are photographers or writers. Photography is a perfect example here because it's an activity. I meet people to shoot photos with and, over time, a meaningful friendship either builds or it doesn't. Regardless of how much we may like each other initially, it takes time for a meaningful friendship to grow - if one is going to grow at all. Starting from a common point (photography) makes it easier to find out.

You should try to find people like yourself and you should learn to not to try to create intense connections. Think of it like marriage. If you ask a woman to marry you on a first date, you're never going to see her again. If you ask within the first month, you're probably going to freak her out and she'll break up with you. But look what happens when a fun first date leads to a second and then a third... and that leads to meeting for breakfast or shopping together. A few more dates. Eventually, you spend the night together. And then there's a point where you meet her friends. You spend the weekend together. In time, she meets your family. You take a vacation together. Birthdays. Holidays. Oh god, whose place are we going to do Thnaksgiving at this year? Do we really have to go to so and so's Halloween party again this year? Hey, is your mom going to make her Pumpkin pie again this year?!?

Seek out MEANINGFUL connections with potential to develop over time. And then give it time for that to happen.

One final thought: Are you living where you should? If you're a liberal living in a red state, you're going to struggle to meet people who are like you. If you're a city guy living in the country... if you're a vegetarian on a ranch... Get my drift? Growing up in Pennsylvania, I always felt like an outsider but I never knew why. When I moved to the northwest, I was amazed to find a place where there were so many more people like me. You only live once. Make sure you're living somewhere you belong.

Best of luck!
posted by 2oh1 at 3:51 PM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

I feel the exact same way as you, right down to not feeling close to my family, and have also been struggling with profound loneliness for the past couple years. I'm sorry that you feel lonely. I'm acutely aware of how hard it is, how hard it can be, and my heart goes out to you.

I also wanted to say thank you, too, for asking the question. For most of my life I've felt or intuitively known that meaningful relationships were the most important thing to me. It's good to know there are other people that feel the same way. I'm sure some of the answers in the thread will be useful to me, too.

For me, the genesis, and heart of the issue was the lack of closeness with my family. I realized when I was growing up that I would never get the sense of closeness and connection I wanted from my family, and that I would have to find it elsewhere. I've been searching for it ever since. I never stopped to wonder if it was normal for other people, as you have, but it's something I'll have to think about. I always assumed that most other people got and were receiving something that I was not, and that it was just something they took for granted because they had always had it and had never gone without.

The thing is, that's not a void that many people can easily fill. I am acutely sensitive to that fact and I try to keep it in mind in both my friendships and relationships. In friendships, there can be times when I feel like you do, where I'm expecting too much out of the relationship. One thing I also try to remember is that people express care in different ways, and if you express it in one way the other person may reciprocate in their own way. If you were expecting people to show care in the same way you did, it can hurt or be disappointing, but make sure you are aware of how that person expresses how they care, even if it may not match up to your own way. Finding people that express care and interest in the same way you do is important, though.

In terms of relationships, nobody wants to have to be the mother/father in a relationship, in the negative sense of the word (although I do believe relationships have elements of that in the postive sense). I've been very sensitive about this in my own life, since I don't want to be in a dependant relationship. But, my own shyness and lack of confidence hasn't exactly given me many chances of intimate relationships in the past couple years, anyway, so when it comes to dealing with it in a longer-term relationship I can't really say.

quick aside: I'm writing this all from the only perspective I know, which is my own. I'm doing my best to keep it from becoming self-indulgent, but I write these things as things I've realized that may or may not also apply to you, in the hopes that it is useful somehow.

When I was younger part of that void was also alleviated by having written correspondence with others, usually through e-mail. I feel like I can express myself more easily through words sometimes, where there's a lesser burden of anxiety and more time to arrange my thoughts than in other forms of communication. Most people don't seem to write as much anymore, though, and when they do it's much more short. If you can find someone to correspond with through e-mail or letters, it can help. I've since realized that it's still no substitute for a face-to-face friendship, though.

I don't know if it's the same for you or not, but part of my problem is that when I do find friendships that feel really good and close, after being lonely for so long I become incredibly afraid of messing it up somehow, or losing it (partly due to some past experiences as well). I'm still trying to figure out how to best deal with this, but reading about cognitive-behavioral therapy and buddhist philosophy have helped somewhat. Since I don't know if this is an issue for you, I won't go into further detail unless you ask.

Wow, this ended up being long. I guess I had a lot to say about this, seeing as it's a subject close at hand. I haven't been very good at corresponding lately, but I suppose this will be what finally makes me put my e-mail in my profile. You can contact me through there if you want, and I will do my best to write back.

I don't know if any of this will be useful or helpful at all, but I hope it will be. I haven't figured this out myself, so I don't feel like I can offer anything other than the assorted thoughts of a fellow human struggling through the same questions. Good luck. You're not alone out there.
posted by wander at 8:35 PM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Wow, it's bizarre to me that this is even a question someone would ask or that anyone would say that no, meaningful relationships are not a key part of the meaning of life. Humans are a social species— the idea that "you can't be loved until you can love yourself" or that you don't need other people to be fulfilled is basically complete nonsense. You can be OK without a romantic relationship but there are virtually no people who can be OK without *any* rich relationships. And you can't love until you've been loved, is the reality.

Health is linked to the number and quality of your relationships as is happiness and recovery from virtually any mental illness or addiction. Mental illness and physical illness are worse in isolated, lonely people. Solitary confinement is devastating to mental health and to long term physical health. The key to managing stress—and managing stress is essential to health— is social connection.

Imagine being rich beyond belief, successful at curing cancer— and having no one close to you and no one who you can share your joy and pain with. Unless you are the type of autistic person (and by no means are all people on the spectrum like this) who genuinely doesn't take pleasure in human connections, you would not be happy. The idea of codependence is ludicrous American nonsense that has no science behind it (no one can create a test that reliably distinguishes between someone who is codependent and someone who isn't) and that pathologizes altruism.

American individualism has pathologized the fundamental interdependence of human nature. And we are all suffering for it.

So, continue to work on finding meaningful connection and don't let anyone tell you that it doesn't matter.
posted by Maias at 4:05 PM on December 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

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