Sunday, February 6, 2011

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Classify The Ways

One of the things that bugs me about the English language is that lack of words for the idea of friend.* Sure, there are a few synonyms for the people we are more or less close to in our lives (think acquaintance, buddy, classmate, college, partner) , but not clear words for how close we hold someone to our hearts.

It irks me to use the same word for the nice man who has been bagging our groceries for the past 5 years as the girlfriend I tell all my deepest secrets to or tearfully call during a time of crisis.

Two ideas about caring and relationship with people have collided in my brain recently to help me start making sense of this.

First is the idea of circles of influence.  In searching for an image to share, I found that concept of circles of influence is used mostly in business and social welfare. But we can easily apply them to any aspect of our lives.

Using this tool to describe relationships, I could demonstrate the levels of influence people have on me. The more someone affects me, the closer to the center they are. So, if I put myself in the middle, the second circle would quite honestly be my husband as he, more than anyone else influences my life, thinking and enjoyment of the passing years.  The next circle, then, would be the two or three girlfriends with whom I can and do talk about anything and everything in our lives. Many, many circles could be defined next depending on how often I see someone, how authentic of conversation we have, the varying levels of our shared interest. Not surprisingly, the closer to the middle the fewer specific names I would write into any given circle.  And the further out the more names.

The problem with this model comes in with defining the circles.  I could choose how often I see people or the depth of our conversations or how much they influence my daily life or how long I've known them.  But relationships aren't this tidy.  For instance, I have dear friends I talk with everyday on the phone.  But I also have dear friends I only talk with once a year (granted, these are usually marathon-long conversations).  There are people I talk with everyday who have very little impact on my life, they're just in it.

Which brings us to the second idea in the mash up.  Gordon Neufeld describes attachment not just as a single phenomenon, but as a 6 stage process. Each step in becoming attached to someone follows the developmental capabilities of a growing baby each one building upon the earlier ones. Like this:

1- proximity (being near and experiencing with our senses- touch, smell, hearing)
2- sameness (being like someone as in shared traits or interests)
3- belonging (fitting in with, feeling loyal towards, being able to depend on)
4- significance (being important and special to, valued and preferred)
5- love (giving your heart to, feeling warm towards)
6- being known (feeling seen, understood from the inside, believed in, sharing personal truths with)

Now, when I scramble the circle of influence with Neufeld's attachment stages model, I can put the last attachment stage in the middle of my circle with all the other one radiating out from there.  For me this clearly illustrates my relationship with all the people in my world.

What I really want, then, is six words to define friendship.  Six terms that allow us to explain and negotiate our relationships with those around us. Then when you and I were out walking in town and I said hello to a "friend" you'd understand if this was the dude who is careful not to bruise my pears each week or someone so near and dear to my heart.  Or when I canceled a lesson, the teacher would understand the level of importance of my Being Known friend being sick and needing help. Understanding where I landed in people's attachment circle would make easier to know where I stood with people and help me identify which relationships to put more or less of my energy into.  We could so easily describe shifts in relationship, as in she was a Love level friend, but X happened and we've drifted to Sameness.

On the other hand, how quickly do you think we'd create a social disaster when people realized they held each other at different levels?  How would we handle being quickly and easily defined as way less or way more significant to someone that we perceived? Would such clear definition lead to meaning creep, where people start mixing the terms in order to prevent hurt feelings?

Maybe it isn't such a good idea - maybe various words for different friends tried to surface over the ages and were stomped out by the resulting disharmony.  Still, I enjoy thinking about the people around me and how they influence my life.  It is useful for me to clearly define relationships from time to time.  Having structured definitions could enable me to more easily help my kids navigate the tricky world of social connections.

I'd really love to have those six words, if only to use in the privacy of my own head.


* Here I was going to refer to the large number of words that Inuits have for the concept snow, but apparently that is an urban legend based on a misunderstanding of the constructs of the Inuit language.

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