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January 2021

Modern society decoupled obtaining basic necessities from strong social relationships

The third way in which modern society has made it more difficult to maintain strong social relationships is that we’ve made it possible to get a job, earn money, and use that money for the basics (food, shelter, clothing…) without needing to have more than a superficial ability to interact with others. It makes sense that at least some people will choose to avoid “bad’ feelings like sadness, disappointment, guilt and shame. In society today, it’s entirely possible to live such a superficial life, meeting the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs without truly having Love & Belonging, Self Esteem or Self Actualization.

I’m not saying the solution is to go back to our tribal roots. But it is something we all need to be aware of to ensure we have an emotionally healthy population. Surviving is much different than thriving. And in order to truly thrive, people need to learn how to have healthy social connections.

How social mobility impedes close relationships

The Bowlby conjecture states that we were designed to operate within a social network of about 150 individuals. And while there were changes to that group (births, deaths, the rare individual joining or leaving the tribe), it was overall stable. The relationships you made as a child were the same ones you had throughout your life. Your interactions with each person were strung together in an ‘infinite game” where there is always another encounter after the current one, and one after that, and so on.

Another name for this is the iterated prisoner’s dilemma (but I prefer the term “cooperation dilemma”). In our modern society, it is possible to uproot yourself and move to a new community severing ties with your old one, and no one really looks askance at that. It's common. But it enables people to never learn the emotional skills necessary to work through conflict and injuries, which is essential in building long-term healthy relationships.

In our ancestors’ world, the constraint of needing to be a member of a tribe to survive and thrive essentially forced everyone to work towards a resolution. Of course in extreme cases, the resolution might be banishment or death, but the vast majority of the time, it meant both sides shared, made amends, healed, got to closure, and moved on. Our social emotions exist for a very important reason: they bind the tribe together, and push us towards reconciliation when there is damage in the relationships.

Here’s why so many struggle with relationships in modern society

Relationships are the most important thing in your life.

As an introvert who has struggled with social anxiety, eye contact, and even things that “should” be easy like accepting a compliment, that's not an easy truth to accept. But studies like the one on Adult Development from Harvard, Murray and Peacock and the Blue Zones have shown it to be true. It’s a core piece to the Bowlby Conjecture. We are social animals so we are wired to need connection.

But if relationships are so important, why are they so hard? It shouldn’t be so difficult for an organism to maintain such a necessary function to survive, right?

The problem is our environment. It’s much different than the one bands of our modern hunter-gatherers ancestors lived in for 50,000 years.

There are three key factors—social network size, social mobility, and ability to meet basic needs (the lower levels of the Maslow hierarchy). I’ll focus on the first in this post.

Robin Dunbar’s research shows that our brains are designed to be able to maintain about 150 social connections. Let 𝓡 be the total amount of relationship energy any one person has to invest. In the environment in which we evolved, it would look something like this, where more intimate relationships get more energy than weaker ones.

Dunbar's distribution EEA

But in modern society, we have a lot more that 150 relationships to manage. Our brains simply aren’t designed for this. We only have so much 𝓡 to distribute, so by investing in longer tail relationships, we necessarily have to reduce the investment in more intimate ones.

Dunbar's distribution modern

It’s common for the most intimate relationships to suffer the most, especially for people who haven’t learned the deepest relationship skills for what it takes to truly be compassionate, vulnerable, and non-judgemental.

I’ll cover the other two points in subsequent posts. But short answer is if you struggle with your relationships, you are not alone. It has a lot to do with your environment.