By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
While most people accept that it’s a good idea to develop a number of friendships, there are times when you might ignore such advice. You might be happy with focusing on work to the exclusion of a social life. Or, you might be too fearful to venture out socially. Or you might feel depressed, preferring isolation to the company of others. At those times, it can be helpful to have a clear understanding about the importance of having a social network. Whenever one of my patients struggles with making social connections, I am reminded of the analogy of a social network to a spider’s web.
Just as a spider relies on a number of threads of silk in its web to keep it safely suspended, people rely on a number of relationships to keep them supported. In both cases, any one support can get cut and it won’t destroy the whole structure. The spider will remain suspended in the remaining web just as you will remain supported by your remaining support system.
A spider’s web is different from your “web” of relationships in that each of your relationships varies more in its function and importance than each of a web’s silks. For instance, a spouse or best friend is likely a more important part of your support network than any one thread in a spider’s web. Yet, even when you lose significant people in your life, you can still feel supported through those times by other relationships.
Big problems await you, though, if you have very few relationships. Then, whenever a thread is cut, you might feel alone, terrified and/or devastated. Without sufficient support, you’ll probably feel unstable and insufficiently supported through life’s difficulties. You might also feel lonely and sad through times that should be filled with joy and celebration.
An insufficient number of supportive relationships can also put too much pressure on each of those relationships. There may be times when it’s not appropriate or especially helpful to go to a particular person for support. If that person is your only support, then this can be a serious problem. For instance, you might want to celebrate with your best friend after receiving a promotion at work – but if she has just recently learned that she is seriously ill, you might do well to celebrate with someone else. Or, there might be times when you might want to discuss a marital spat with your friend in order to gain some perspective before returning to the subject with your spouse. Even something as simple as wanting to go out dancing can be a problem if your social circle is limited to homebodies.
This last example introduces another important point: It’s important to have diversity, as well as some quantity, in your relationships. You’re best off if you have different relationships meeting different needs – all at differing levels of emotional closeness. Some relationships might be mostly about having fun while others might be centered on a shared interest. Hopefully all are positive, supportive connections.
Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have to be a social butterfly to have a strong support network. While some people feel the need to fill their lives with social activity, you might be happy with just a couple of close friends and a few other acquaintances. Both styles of social interaction are okay. What’s important is that you find the style that works best for you.
But resist the urge to go it alone or to rely on just one or two people for all of your social needs. By having a “web” of relationships, you have a much better chance of fully enjoying celebratory times, feeling supported through difficult times, and having a sense of being part of a larger community.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.