Just about a year ago, I posted an article on the work that Christopher Allen had done on:
- optimal size of groups for sustainability and collaborative effectiveness (short answer: around 5-7 for work groups and around 50 for networks/communities), and
- maximal span of any one person’s relationship ‘circles’
Christopher illustrated his answer to the second issue (the one this article is about) with the lovely drawings of Nancy Margulies, shown above, of three concentric circles/spirals, which he called, respectively, the support circle, the sympathy circle, and the trust circle. He argued that there are rivers or threads running through all three circles representing common ‘context’ for these relationships (work, shared philosophy or beliefs, kinship, love etc.), what he calls ‘geographies of connection’ on the topographical map of our relationships. Here’s Nancy’s illustration of these threads:
Over the last week, I’ve been chatting with Tree Bressen, Rob Paterson, Melinda Fleming and Nancy White about how many meaningful relationships we can sustain without exhaustion. I hypothesized that (based on people I know) most people have either 5-7 really close (family/love/other partnership) relationships that essentially take up all of their social time, or they have somewhere north of 50, almost all more tenuous, relationships. In either case there’s a constant struggle I would argue, to give and get the aggregate attention and appreciation one wants from one’s social network.
The prevailing view is that we can (and do) have both — an intimate inner circle and a more tenuous second and third circle (or perhaps there are more circles, or perhaps it’s just one continuous outward spiral with strong links at the centre and weak links further out). But my observation is that very very few people really have both, and that people are pretty willing to give up on their large networks if they can find what they want in their inner circle. There’s a constant tension, though — since that inner circle is “putting all one’s eggs in one basket” there is a risk of losing those relationships and not being able to replace them, so many people, I think, try to keep that larger network ‘in reserve’ as a safety net(work).
Because we only have a limited number of hours per year for social activity (take away sleep etc., work time and time wanted for solitary activities and I’d guess we each have between 1500 and 3000 hours a year of social time to parse out), cultivating our networks (which are largely outside our control) can be hugely challenging.
And on top of all this, some of us (sensibly I think) are trying to rediscover or maintain another essential relationship, to Gaia, to all-life-on-Earth, to the natural world. For most of us there is a huge disconnect here — the people in our circles, like we ourselves, live outside the natural world (both physically and especially psychologically) so there is no context of place in which to situate and ‘make sense’ of these relationships. There is, in short, no real community. The relationships, and the attention and appreciation that draw us to others and others to us, are substantially all in our heads.
I have said before that I think humans were and are meant to live a tribal, place-based life as part of community and of all-life-on-Earth. In that natural, prehistoric, and now ideal and unachievable world, we are, at a certain age of adulthood, given the choice of asking to be invited to join the community in which we grew up, or leaving the community and seeking another that gives our life more meaning and value. We can be a part of a community, or we can live peripherally to it, as a visitor or traveler or nomad, until we find the place and community (the two are largely inseparable) where we know we belong. In the natural and prehistoric world one is always a part of the greater circle of all-life-on-Earth, so even those who live on the periphery of community still feel a larger belonging, connection, and appreciation. But there is relatively little choice in such a world of who we can choose to live in community with. Most natural tribes (and not just in human societies) have significant buffer zones between them, and a certain Darwinian reticence to accept strangers. One earns one’s place in a community, and the relationships with the tribe naturally follow.
My Gravitational Community — the 50-70 people listed in the right sidebar — has evolved over the years but stayed roughly the same size. As some of the people who have come into my ‘orbit’ have become much closer to me, the attention I have for the rest (manifested mainly through this blog, IM, e-mail and Second Life) inevitably wanes and these relationships tend to weaken and ‘fall out of orbit’. I wonder if there’s a Quantum Theory for social networks, a ‘rule’ that determines, based on your total social time and energy and on the number of people in various levels of intimacy or proximity to you, how many ‘spaces’ are left in the outer orbits?
If all your relationships are shallow, I can envision you having 150 (Dunbar’s number) such relationships, and juggling them competently. At the other end of the spectrum, I suspect the maximum number of sustainable meaningful relationships for newlyweds and new mothers is between 1 and 2. Perhaps an inverse-square law applies. And then, as we all struggle with Tom Robbins’ great question How do we make love last?, some of those inner circle covalent relationships slide out to outer circles or out of orbit entirely, making room for either a host of new outer-orbit relationships or a new ‘one and only’.
It will not come as a surprise to my regular readers that I believe we are naturally polyamorous, and that there is more strength and sustainability in an set of 3-7 covalent relationships that are intimate and loving and appreciative and attentive but not exclusive, not demanding of the lion’s share of one’s time, and full of accommodation and compersion for each partner. These relationships (especially in today’s world) need not be reciprocal — each of the 3-7 others one has a poly relationship with may have 3-7 other relationships, such that the total poly network could involve dozens of people. This provides a lot more flexibility and support than can be expected from any monogamous relationship. But it is a lot of work, especially when the relationship members live far apart.
My Gravitational Community is broken down into categories that show how the people with whom I have meaningful relationships came into my life, but it would probably be more honest if I were to categorize them by what draws me to them (and hopefully, them to me): that draw may be emotional/visceral/erotic appeal, shared purpose or ideals, or any of three types of intellectual appeal (great intelligence, great creativity, or great communication skill or other attractive competency). Think of these appeals or ‘geographies of connection’ as spokes or rivers flowing out from the centre, as a second dimension (along with ‘quantum level’) of the ‘map’ of one’s social network. Might be a little too personal and too revealing to show for the Gravitational Community on my right sidebar though!
Please feel free to join the dialogue, and let me know if and how you think it’s possible to have it both ways — the ‘cold fusion’ of a fulfilling and intimate inner circle as well as a large and diverse and dynamic ‘outward spiral’ of people with whom one also manages to sustain an enduring and meaningful relationship.
And also please let me know if you have thoughts on how it might be possible to somehow ‘situate’ the people you have important relationships with, within the larger relationship we all have (but have largely forgotten) with all-life-on-Earth. To meld and merge all these juggled relationships into real communities.