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But Who Will Kiss My Broken Cheek? October 3, 2009

Posted by Onely in Bad Onely Activities, Just Saying..
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From friends, teachers, blogs, magazines, newscasters, and our inner monologues we hear about how much work it is to maintain a healthy committed romantic relationship. We seldom hear about how much work it is to maintain a healthy network of friends and family. I worry sometimes that  I’m not doing a good enough job of cultivating a friends-and-family support system. Is this the enlightened-single’s equivalent of worrying about not getting married, as in, “Oh no, if I don’t have enough good friends I will die alone and be eaten by cats!”?  I have a lot of friends here in the D.C. area, but I don’t know who I could call if I fell down and broke my face. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to see my bloody boogers. 

Singles advocate and social psychologist Bella DePaulo (who recently guest-posted on Onely!) often mentions how single people tend to have wider networks of friends, cultivate more and varied relationships, and participate more in community activities. Singles build and use a sort of social scaffolding that couple-centric relationships often don’t have. Here’s one of DePaulo’s quotes along those lines (explaining why a study shows that always-single people are healthier than previously-married people):

Perhaps people who have always been single maintain a more diversified relationship portfolio than the married people who invest all of their relationship capital into just one person. Maybe single people have friendships that have endured longer than many marriages. Maybe they attend to those friendships consistently, rather than stowing them on the back burner while focusing on The One. 

Lately I’ve been reading these kind of things and thinking, “Oh crap, my friends-and-family network isn’t diversified enough, or strong enough, and gosh darnit, I don’t volunteer much (er, at all).” Forming and nurturing relationships with close friends, regular friends, new friends, nuclear family, extended family takes a lot of time and energy. If you want your support network to be strong enough so that it is really there for you if you fall down and break your face, then you need to have paid your dues–to have put in your own emotional and supportive energy. This involves calling friends, writing thoughtful emails, asking how they are, listening, scheduling, remembering birthdays perhaps. It requires most, if not all, of the same efforts that go into remaining “tight” with a spouse or sig other, with the difference that as a single person you’re making those efforts many times over.  

If you can pull this off, great. It’s better to (as Bella said) have a diverse portfolio of relationships to fall back on if needed. That way, when you break your face, you might have a calm driver to take you to the emergency room with your broken face, a foodie to make you soup, a gentle friend to kiss your bruised and broken cheek, and  a comical buddy to make you laugh–but not too hard because that irritates your shattered septum. This system may be much better than relying on one romantic partner to fill all these roles, especially if he trips over you and breaks his face too (because then what do you do?).

In my “circles” of friends and family, I have married couples, non-married but exclusive couples, and singles. The former are quickly outnumbering the latter. This phenomenon results in the timeworn singles’ lament, “My coupled friends don’t have time for me anymore”. I’ll see those lamenters and raise them one: “Even my single friends don’t have time for me anymore!” Well, this is not really true. My friends have time to email and Facebook me. They just don’t seem to have time to return my phone calls. I’m torn whether to blame our new cyber-obsessed society or the fact that maybe I “give bad phone” as the saying goes. I have six friends who haven’t returned calls I placed to them, ranging from a week ago to a couple months ago. Yet they all respond regularly over email, usually with some kind of plans to meet up in the near future. Perhaps I “give good email and in-person”, but not good phone? 

If someone doesn’t want to return my innocuous phone calls, how can I ask them to help me when I’ve just fallen and broken my face? I can’t.  Which is why I worry about the state of my support network, which as a single person is supposed to be legendary and far-reaching. And perhaps mine is, except it’s been watered down by a preponderance of superficial electronic interactions–time-filling but emotionally unnutritious, the refined sugar of relationships. 

Most people would balk at a committed romantic partnered relationship consisting mostly of emails, tweets, and phone calls with the occasional get-together-in-person lunch. Yet this is considered fine for even close friendships. That is because people are expected to call their spouse or their boy-girlfriend if they break their face (or maybe a parent, if one is available). So partnered people put a lot of effort into making sure their other half loves them enough to lift them off the sidewalk and stop the bleeding. But what do single people do about a broken face when they don’t have–or necessarily want–that kind of partner and they haven’t been able to keep up a support network beyond emails and occasional meals, either because their friends are busy with their partners, or satisfied with cyber communications, or think the single person gives bad phone? 



1. Onadrought - October 4, 2009

This thought has crossed my mind, not who to call if I break my face, I have a dear friend for that – but sometimes I wonder if I am too much of an isolate and that I should be investing more in making new friendships.

I think you’d be surprised, I am sure there would be plenty of people you could call and they would help you out. People do want to help, I just think we have lost the knack of asking for it.

In the seventies/eighties when I was growing up in a country town, help was offered freely and generously. You didn’t have to organise a babysitter, my mother would drop us off at one of her friends, and they would do the same when needed. The man that owned a bakery gave my mother the leftoverbread and cakes, as she was a single mum. If you needed something done, there was someone to help and they weren’t necesarily good friends – there was just that culture of helping.

Now we think we impose on someone if we ask for their help. We get removalists rather than ask our friends as it’s easier than imposing on their busy lives. When we do offer to help, we then get gifts in return, which is nice but not expected and again elevating ‘helping’ to some kind of special, rare thing. It seems these days it can be hard to offer help, as it is too receive it.

The email friendship, I am guilty of that one too. I just don’t need much social contact, and calling someone, well it gets back to ‘we’re all so busy, I think I might be interupting something. And I have kept up friendships with overseas and interstate friendships because of email. Also, I can flick a quick email off at work, to ask a friend how her day is.

But, I have definitely had certain thoughts like yours. When I hear my coupled friends ringing their spouses for everything from can you get some milk, to hey I’ve got a flat tyre, can you come help, you realise that they do have that one person in the world that can help them with anything.

Onely - October 7, 2009

I think that one problem is that people (well my friends at least) expect a phone call to be long and catchy-uppy, hence the feeling that “both of us have to clear our schedules”. I don’t see them that way–I’m happy with a five or ten minute “hi, you still alive? No broken face? OK good, bye!” = )

2. Alan - October 4, 2009

Christina, I’d be careful about putting such high expectations on singles…ie that our social networks are “…supposed to be legendary and far-reaching”. We don’t have to be outstanding in order to compete with couples, we’re fine just being ordinary.

I’d agree with Onadrought, that people are willing to help, probably more than you think.

I’m not sure the email thing is a sign of weakening relationships, it may simply have become the preferred method of communication. And I think some people are just bad at returning calls, even if they want to talk.

And I don’t think one needs a partner to get things done you can get things done by yourself, probably more easily than you think. It takes a combination of planning (for both the expected and unexpected events) and confidence that you’re capable enough to pull it off. Thoguh that comes with time and experience.

3. yash - October 4, 2009

I loved the post. thank you. all these crossed my mind way too often. i am yet to figure it out.

4. Sixty and Single in Seattle - October 4, 2009

Christina, thanks for raising these important questions. I have a couple of thoughts about them. One, I don’t think anybody is teaching us how to be a friend, the same way we aren’t taught how to choose/be a spouse. It’s one of the important things in our culture that doesn’t get treated as important. As another commenter said, it used to just be normal, and that’s still true up to a point, but I have friends who I can tell are committed to nurturing our friendship. I am so thankful for that. I believe caring for others is a need, an under-used muscle group. And if everyone starts bulking up, then there will be lots of help when our faces break.
Which brings me to comment two, which is that, as so many studies show, we spend our time doing things that don’t make us happy, like working too hard to earn stuff we don’t really need. And this leaves little time for activities that do up our joy in life. For example, I can never understand the near-universal idea that buying shoes is pretty much a peak experience for women! Give me a hike with my girlfriends any day.
And something I like to do for my friends who are out working all day is feed them. It’s so easy to just say, ‘Come on over and eat what I’m eating.’ And then they can leave, if they need to, or like last Thursday, we go off to see a play together.

5. Singlutionary - October 4, 2009

In the past year I’ve become a shitty friend. I used to be a perfect friend always sending care packages and making phone calls and putting my friends first. I was maintaining a lot of relationships but I was falling apart. To be perfectly honest, I don’t get together with many of my friends and there are many phone calls which go unanswered. I do email people more frequently. Talking on the phone requires that two parties be available at the same time and that can be tricky especially when dealing with time zones and differing lifestyles. I’ve stopped acknowledging birthdays pretty much all together.

But I do still value my friends and when I can, I try to maintain these relationships. I also notice, that other folks are having a harder time maintaining friendships now too. But I would still call whoever I needed if I needed help. And I feel that my friends know that they can call me in an emergency even if they don’t call me for fun. Last year when I got bit by a dog, I called a friend I hadn’t seen in quite a few months. And when I was disraught about Abstinent Admirer, I called a friend I hadn’t met up with socially in about a month.

I think that coupled folks always have this one primary person to go to. On the other side, they are always being called by their one primary person.

The thing about friends is that there are plenty of them. And I have several people I can reach out to when I need help with something.

Sometimes reaching out to a person solidifies a friendship. Someone who is on the periphery of your life but say, lives close by and near the pharmacy, would be more than happy to pick something up for you.

But I do know how you feel. It gets kinda scary and lonely out there with out a “guaranteed” person to fall back on. Of course, I have plenty of times been called by a coupled person because their guarantee fell through.

Onely - October 7, 2009

Actually I’m going to retract my “remembering birthdays” example of a good friend. I never remember birthdays either, but I think I am an ok friend. I have a disorder where I cannot remember the day a person was born, but only the month. My best friend from college, who I have known for over fifteen years, was born in November. Sometime.

Singlutionary makes a lot of great points as always, esp. that reaching out to someone solidifies a relationship.
I will try to shift my thinking to remember this.

6. Matt - October 5, 2009

Courageous post, Christina. I think the fear your are describing is one every human on Earth knows. It’s also my impression that an enormous percentage of monogamous partnerships (including unhappy ones) are inspired by this exact feeling. I also think that there’s a maturity in being able to handle this fear without needing to immediately put a band-aid on it by coupling ‘permanently’ with the first person you can.

You might be surprised by how many people would care and help if your face got broken. Despite being a pain in the ass a lot of the time, most humans seem to be blessed with a considerable capacity for empathy. Also, I think a lot of younger people don’t feel very comfortable with the phone as a mode of communication, so I wouldn’t take it personally. Communicating in person is a MUCH richer form of interaction than the phone anyhow.

I can think of a variety of general approaches one might use to answer the question of ‘who will be there if I break my face’ (other than finding the first significant other they can…)

– having faith in the goodness of humanity
– emphasizing family/parents/relatives
– focusing on trying to make as many friends as possible
– trusting in God to take care of you
– going straight Buddhist and not giving a shit about your own face
– focusing on material wealth… you can always pay people to care
– vigilance: emphasizing your health and taking care of yourself
– helping others as much as possible in hopes it might earn you some help down the road
– serial monogamy, trusting the date of the moment will be there

I’m not sure there’s any right answer… the truth is, even the most happily coupled person will eventually come face-to-face with the fact that, ultimately, each and every one of us is alone inside our own skin… and it can be scary as hell, but I think the people who end up the best off are those that don’t run from it, but just stare it in the face until they become comfortable with their full aloneness and vulnerability (which is always lingering unconsciously in the back of those who don’t confront it.) That way you can fully enjoy whatever time you get to spend with others, but have no fear whatsoever or your own self. I think this is the kind of thing one tries to achieve through meditation.

On the other hand, maybe you’ll get lucky, have an easy life, and never get sick until some period of time when you’re 90 and just happen to, at that moment, have 10 of the best friends one could ask for! Keep your head up =)

Onely - October 7, 2009

Thanks Matt, your comments made me think as well as giggle. I love the going straight Buddhist option! As if I could ever pull that off. = ) You’re right that in-person communications are much richer than phone. I wonder if very occasional in-person comms are better or equal to more regularly returned phone calls. I will choose to think so! CC

Matt - October 11, 2009

Good question… I guess fairly regular in-person interaction would be the ideal, but probably most people don’t have as many good friends as they wish they did. Friendships are also unpredictable… I guess a lot of people try to overcome that unpredictability by finding that one ‘rock’ for their life (which can turn out to be quite unpredictable themselves!)

There are no easy answers… if there were, it wouldn’t be life!

Rumor - April 23, 2011

Kewl you should come up with that. Eexllcent!

7. Lauri - October 5, 2009

I think this is a great post. I have a feeling that if I were to injure myself, I have friends who live nearby and would come to my aid. But I have had a few moments when I’ve realized that I am almost *too* self reliant. It never occurs to me to ask any friends for any help. I have to remind myself to ask people in other cities if I can stay at their houses when I’m in town, because my natural instinct is to shell out for a hotel I might not be able to afford. I remember once in grad school a friend called and asked me for a ride to the airport. I, of course, was happy to help, but in a million years, it would never cross my mind to ask someone for a ride to the airport-or anywhere. I’d just take care of it- shell out for a cab or the overnight parking.

Onely - October 7, 2009

Lauri, me too! I love to help people, but would never THINK of asking for help unless I fell down and broke my face (and maybe not even then). This is obviously something we need to make a conscious effort to change. Perhaps we can start with small things–like asking a friend to come over and help rake leaves, then maybe treat them for Pho noodles afterward.


8. Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles - October 11, 2009

This is a really thought-provoking and timely post. As an introvert with low social contact needs, I’ve also questioned whether I was up to the challenge of building the kind of support network that would ostensibly replace a significant other. But the truth is that one of the reasons I no longer date is because I realized that even significant others are no guarantee of help. I can’t tell you how many times I called on a boyfriend for support, and the very guy who’d gladly count the ways he loved me when I was happy, healthy, upbeat, and fun would head for the hills when life wasn’t so sunny. I discovered that it was a losing deal for me; I was investing all this time and effort and getting nothing in return when I needed it most. It’s sad but true that I’ve watched this same scenario play out in my friends’ relationships, so I don’t think mine was a unique experience.

But back to the main topic…How much do we need to nurture a “support network” to ensure that we can fall back on it in times of need? Personally, I agree with those who’ve said that people tend to be much more willing to help than we might think. Though they might not make an effort on a day-to-day basis, many friends and associates come out of the woodwork to lend a hand in the event of a crisis. Even just belonging to an organization like, say, a sports team, church, or club can be enough to create a web of contacts who will help you up when you stumble.

It’s true that the Internet has depersonalized our friendships to a point. It’s certainly easier to type out a quick hello than it is to schedule an hour-long phone convo. Also, I think it’s true that a lot of people don’t like the phone, probably because you have to be very verbally oriented to make good use of it. That is, if you see someone in person, chances are you’re doing some activity together that can at least partially be the focus of your discussion. But phone chats only really work when you have a lot of interesting things to talk about, and there can be awkward pauses, boring small talk, and uncomfortable attempts to hang up. In general, I think most people would prefer to meet up in person, but we spend so much of the day working and interacting with people that many of us just want to retreat to our “caves” at the end of the day and not be bothered. Plus, some of us find ourselves juggling a lot of acquaintances so that it’s hard to devote sufficient time to all of them. While emails and texts aren’t as personal, they also allow us to maintain friendships that might have completely disintegrated in the past.

In the end, I try to let each day take care of itself. None of us knows what the future holds, and as meticulously as we might plan, people pass away, move away, or drift away. We can’t control these things. No one can be our life insurance. So maybe the best approach is to conduct our friendships the way we instinctively want to, let go of these worries about the future, and cross those bridges when we come to them.

Onely - October 11, 2009

I thought you were recovering from surgery! Welcome back. Glad to see your last paragraph–I think it’s a great idea and I’m going to try to be more Taoist about the whole thing.

I agree with your assessment of the potential awkwardness of phone calls to a point, but I find with my good friends (of which I *used* to think I had a lot!) we usually have something to talk about and if we don’t, there’s no problem hanging up–one of us just says, “Ok, well I better go now because I have to go do stuff!” and no one takes it the wrong way. I find the awkwardness comes more often with those relationships that are making the transition from acquaintances to friends, and in those cases yes, you do want to have more in-person interactions because that’s where you discover what the person is really like (and whether you want to keep them in your life).

I always try to keep my phone conversations relatively short and be aware of the other person’s vibes vis a vis hanging up, so that I don’t become one of those people who you don’t like to call because *every* phone call with them is an hour long. I think that as we email more and more, a phone call becomes more of a “special” thing, and people think that the calls have to be long because they are “special”.

Hope you’re feeling better!


9. Christina and Lisa Pledge to Grow Old Together « Onely: Single and Happy - June 6, 2010

[…] Presumably, having no children and no partner means that there won’t be anyone to help me if I fall and break my face, and no one will tell me when I start going crazy — which seems likely, given my gene pool. […]

10. Alice - January 7, 2011

Thanks for your article. It confirmed my own experiences. Nice to know I’m not alone in feeling surrounded by friends but actually having no friends. This cyber culture is a massive illusion. It’s just like animals scent-marking. Our society is going backwards it seems.

Onely - January 7, 2011

Animals scent-marking! That’s the best description of it, ever!

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