“We live in a sea of casual, superficial relationships.”
In his book, Building Your Band of Brothers, Stephen Mansfield describes how the idea of a “lone ranger” is a major outlier in our culture and literature. Despite the mythical figures portrayed by men like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, Mansfield notes the occurrence of men without any close friends as a fairly new phenomenon. Yet, this phenomenon is far from benign.
What Would You Change About Your Relationships?
I commissioned an informal Facebook survey last week. I asked my friends to answer the following prompt.
“If you could change one thing about your most important relationships, what would you change?”
I created this word cloud with the responses.
We Want Something More
And as I looked over the list on Facebook, again and again, one item came up in multiple comments. It was worded in unique ways (“more focus”, “less distraction”, “more one-on-one time”), but the common thread seemed to be a desire for a greater depth within their friendships.
One might say this is just a man problem or a Millennial problem (seeing as I resemble both categories). But I think this is a larger problem. This survey reported nearly 1 in 10 adults have no close friends. 50% reported they had fewer close friends than they did 10 years ago.
We have all experienced some sense of frustration with our relationships, whether we took a survey, listened to a podcast or not. I know I have!
My Adventure on the Superficial Sea
When I heard Stephen Mansfield say “we live in a sea of casual, superficial relationships” on this episode the Art of Manliness podcast, I thought, “That was my story!”
My wife was pregnant three years ago. We had no idea how life altering that year would be when we watched the ball drop in New York. By February, we knew We learned she was pregnant with twins.
She began bedrest at 17 weeks and that continued for nearly 5 months, including six weeks in the hospital. The story of those babies’ survival is a miracle I still marvel at today.
During that period, I was grateful to be meeting with a small group of men. We read books together, talked about the book’s ideas, updated each other on our lives, and several of us attended the same church. In addition to this group, I had been working at the same church for 8 years, living in the same city for 12 years. Deep friendships shouldn’t have been a problem for me.
But in the midst of that difficult year (not being able to touch your wife, basically being a single parent to a two-year-old, navigating major challenges at work), I felt incredibly isolated. I realized I was “living in a sea of casual, superficial relationships” when it came to my male friendships. I knew a bunch of guys, we texted each other jokes and forwarded funny videos. Yet, none of them knew how my marriage was struggling, how I felt overwhelmed and why I felt like I was “surviving”, not actually living.
It All Changed One Morning
I showed up to my group one Wednesday morning and during a lull in the conversation, I surprised myself as I unloaded all of the emotions I had been shouldering myself. My memory of that morning isn’t super clear, but I think I cried. What I do remember vividly was the way my friends stepped up. I wasn’t rejected; in fact, I got the opposite response.
Everyone leaned in. They showed up to my house to help. They took me to coffee and lunch. And they shared their struggles with me. My vulnerability was reciprocated with vulnerability about their personal battles. In just a matter of weeks, we took our group to a whole new level of trust and honesty. Over the next few months, other men began to share about fears, obstacles and secret battles none of us had known about.
I still miss those Wednesday mornings as I’ve moved 100 miles north to a new city. We’re all still connected (thanks to modern technology) but it’s not the same. I’m building a new sense of community here and trust is taking time, just like it did in the past.
It All Begins With Trust
In his wildly popular business book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni created the pyramid displayed above to illustrate how teams, organizations (and I would say families as well) break down. The bottom level is trust. Without it, we avoid conflict, miss out on commitment and never get thriving, flourishing and the relationships we want.
In a sea of superficial relationships, we never build the kind of trust it takes for forge deep, close friendships. We settle for updates on life events, complaints about busyness/full schedules/lack of sleep and discussion of the 2017 Oscar Best Picture debacle.
Deep down, though, we have this nagging sense there could be more. We secretly (or not-so-secretly) want more from our relationships. Something tells us we were created for meaningful relationships which go beyond the surface into deep waters.
We know these friendships aren’t totally safe. We run the risk of being wounded or betrayed. Despite the risks inherent in these connections, though, I think we have a sense these relationships would actually be worth the risk.
Moving from the Superficial to Something Much Deeper
So, how do we overcome the superficial tendencies and the lack of trust?
There’s not a formula – I know that much. I also know that there were some elements or ingredients in our group’s transformation. These elements were true of the close friendships I built in college and then graduate school. These five elements are less a mathematical equation and more like a recipe. Mixing them together takes time, attention and tweaking, but they’re essential to transformation.
Change rarely occurs randomly and haphazardly. While we may not be able to dissect past events to determine exactly what caused big changes, we can notice patterns. Our bodies change when we get intentional about diet and exercise. Our relationships change when we become intentional. We have the relationships we wanted, the ones our investments deserve.
If you’re waking up to the reality of your friendships and you’re frustrated, it might be a result of other things being more important recently. It could be you’ve been shut down because of past wounds and you’ve intentionally avoided situations where you could let people in. Without a new intentionality, your experience is unlikely to change.
Flourishing relationships take time. We got “here” (wherever “here” is relationally) over years and it may take years to get somewhere new.
Greg McKeown, the author of the best-selling book Essentialism, talks about how we have no understanding of “now” because of our engagement with technology in a twenty-first century world.
One of the least common character qualities in humanity today is patience. Patience is a muscle few of us develop and without it, we fail to see the path from where we are to where we want to be.
We need to be patient with God, ourselves and others as these kinds of friendships are nurtured. They cannot be ordered via Amazon Prime and they don’t download at 4G speeds.
When I observe a friendship I would describe as flourishing or thriving, I almost always find one quality – consistency. The people just kept showing up. If we think about seasons in our lives when we had deep friendships, they often came as a result of consistently crossing paths or spending time together. Whether it was playing on a sports team, living in a dorm, or working on a long-term project together, consistency creates an opportunity for conversation and trust.
Intentionality and patience lead to a consistency which builds on itself. Consistency creates a sense of comfort and safety which invites trust and the next ingredient – vulnerability.
Tim Krieder accurately describes vulnerability when he writes, “if we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
When it comes to vulnerability, somebody has to go first. One person will have to give the other the “gift of going second.” Without vulnerability, there can be no trust. We know from Lencioni’s pyramid what we miss out on when we lack trust – all the good stuff!
I was scared to share my struggle during that fateful morning with my group of guys. I wondered, “Will they think I’m less of a man? Should I be able to handle this all on my own? What if I break down and can’t control my emotions? What if what I share here doesn’t stay here and gets plastered all over someone’s Facebook? Will they respect me less after today? Is something wrong with me?!”
Vulnerability is always terrifying. If we aren’t scared, it’s not vulnerability. But without this kind of transparent honesty, we don’t express trust and we don’t get to connection.
It’s scary to admit all of this weakness and even scarier to talk to others about it. This is why most of us don’t share with vulnerability, why we don’t have relationships of depth. Sometimes, I think it’s as simple as fear. Our relationship to fear is often a picture of our relationship to others.
As Matt Damon once said in a movie, all it takes is 20 seconds of insane courage to change a relationship forever. When the pain of staying where we are exceeds the courage to change, we move forward. For some, we’re just that lonely and frustrated. We’re ready to take a bold step!
When we decide we’re fed up with riding the waves in the “superficial sea,” we can change our course and head toward deeper waters. Often when we chart a new course, we look around and find a least a couple others willing to adventure there, too.
How About You?
How are your relationships today? Do you live in a sea of casual relationships? Who would you call if your family needed help and you were out of town? With whom do you invite into your biggest struggles? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.