Is our relationships with each other broken?

Two weeks ago, I started volunteering as a listener on an anonymous mental health app called 7Cups. I have struggled here and there with mental health. Having had others lifted me up, I finally felt I was in a position to offer help myself. In the wake of the pandemic, mental health demand is surging: texts to a federal emergency mental-health line were up 1,000 percent in April compared to the year before.

On the app, one stranger after another told me about their struggles: relationship, loneliness, work stress, loss… The commonality in their stories is that almost all of them feel as if they have no one they can talk to: their families don’t understand and they have no close friends. Between each new text, I felt a deep yearning for connection along with the vigilance of getting hurt.

Photo by George Coletrain on Unsplash

I am not a relationship guru; I feel more like an infant, trying to make sense of our complex social world. While in the midst of trying my best to help others with their loneliness, I had my own bit of loneliness to process. It happened when a friend, in fact, someone I want to call my best friend, was frustrated that he had to drive down south to pick me up just to go up north again to see some apartments together.

Used to living in the city and being on a temporary visa, I have been refusing to own a car despite living in an utterly unwalkable city. I was getting by with Uber, Caltrain, and the Google shuttle until the pandemic hit and I found myself trapped in my suburban apartment.

I had assumed that my friend knew that I couldn’t fly over and he would need to pick me up to see the apartment. I forgot to explicitly bring it to his attention and thanked him for driving me around. Instead, I offered for him to crash at my place the night before, hangout and eat brunch before we headed up, if he wanted. When my friend finally realized what’s demanded of him, he said,

Wow, you don’t even ask anymore. Screw me!

He said half jokingly, but I knew it wasn’t just a joke. He was irritated that I was taking him for granted.

I felt this cringe in my stomach and suddenly didn’t know what to say. All the feelings swelled up, including my biggest fear of being an unwelcome burden to others. I felt anger, then helplessness.

I immediately thanked him for picking me up, offered to pay for his gas, and promised to treat him to whatever he likes.

He refused.

“Don’t worry about it. I will let you know when it gets too much. It was slightly irritating but it’s not your fault.It sounded reasonable and I was grateful.

The next day, he asked,

If you really want to thank me, do xyz for me.

That’s when I decided to speak up,

You know you didn’t need to say this to get me to do stuff for you right? I prefer to do it because I want to help you not to simply return a favor.

After sending that text, I instantly felt broken, fearing I had lost him as a friend. What made me feel the discomfort was that our friendship, almost family like, was reduced to a transactional one. I spent the next hour feeling anxious and lonely, until I reached out to another friend who comforted me.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

I tend to think when a phenomenon, such as loneliness, is too widespread, it ceases to be an individual issue of lack of social skills, but a systemic one. In such an individualistic society, our doors are closed, and so are our hearts. When the need for independence is too strong, and individuals are too used to making it on their own, our sacred connections are lost. We are too afraid of using up social capital, of being useless, of being a burden. We become too careful with each other, too civil, too guarded. The result is, we become deeply insecure. No one has each other’s backs; we are left to survive in this world alone.

The truth is, no matter how strong we are as individuals, we don’t need to struggle through the game of life alone. With companions, life is not only easier, but more fun.

What I think at the core of our broken relationships is the hesitation to give, the fear of being taken advantage of, and ultimately, of being hurt. We think of scarcity not abundance: if I provide you with X then I am short of X. While, in fact, the most priceless value we can provide, love, is infinite.

Photo by Cris Baron on Unsplash

Granted, even if we embrace the fact that love is infinite, we still want others to reciprocate our love in our relationships, no matter if friendship, romantic, or familial. That’s only normal. None of us, even our parents, are so saintly that we are willing to keep giving without expecting anything in return. Our close relationships are reciprocal in nature in that we do expect returns over a long time horizon, but luckily they are not transactional.

Our shallow connections tend to be transactional in nature: I will only do this for you if you do this for me. We play the tit-for-tat game. We look at each other’s LinkedIn to determine if we want to talk to them. We use each other to get what’s ultimately self-serving.

What I think is troubling with our space and time is that all our relationships, deep or shallow, are trending transactional. At the center of our relationships is “me” and the purpose of these relationships is to serve “me”. I will only engage in relationships if it’s conveniently beneficial to me. When I give, I will be expecting something back. The moment I realize I won’t get anything back, I stop giving. An extreme version of this is like bookkeeping. I make sure that the credit and debt balance out every month.

I have to say such a model for relationships is pretty economical in a society of separate individuals going for themselves. But it is at a huge cost, which is our deep connections with each other, our chance to feel whole. They come from a continuous investment into shallow relationships until they flourish into something deeper. When we become unwilling to give, we lose this opportunity to connect. We end up with a lot of shallow relationships, but no one to turn to in times of need.

It seems to me the key to foster connections is to stop keeping a book. I can just focus on giving and hope for the best. Whether others reciprocate or not is their task that I have no control over. All I can do is to have some blind faith in the goodness of others. If they reciprocate in the future, it’s a win-win; if not, it’s just as if I have donated that love.

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

What people often feel uncomfortable with this model of giving is that when they give or initiate interactions and the other party doesn’t reciprocate, they feel rejected and hurt. When we are disappointed too many times, we retract into our protected shells and don’t want to step out again until others knock on our doors.

What we need is the courage to come out of that shell. It’s a vulnerable act because there is a potential to get hurt. But there is simply no other way. We are social animals living in a vastly complex world. Without social connections, we cannot survive. So if we are blessed to have others knocking on our doors, cherish it with our whole heart for an opportunity to love. If others aren’t knocking, let’s be the visitors. Someone is gonna knock, right?

At the end of the day, the art of relationships seems to boil down to courage: the courage to be vulnerable, to be open to getting hurt, and to pick ourselves back up. It’s a choice we need to make. We can choose either loneliness or the courage to connect; either to live in our separate shells or to surrender part of our individuality to feel whole. The good news is that people are forgiving and our broken relationships with each other are fixable. All it takes is a knock.

“Thank you so much for driving. Just want to let you know that I am here if you ever need anything.”

I said to my friend before getting out of the car.

Most of the things in life are out of my control. For the little pieces I have control over, I am happy to give as much as I can. If he doesn’t ask anything of me, at least he will be in my loving kindness prayers every day:

May I be happy, healthy, and safe.

May he be happy, healthy, and safe.

May all beings be happy, healthy, and safe.

Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash

Thank you Denalex Orakwue and Mika Reyes for the edits.

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PM in the day, Philosophy at night. Wish to open, awaken, and strengthen minds.