It seems we get a lot of mixed signals about our social lives these days:
► On the one hand, we’re told that we are essentially social beings, that we need other people in our lives, especially a fair number of close friends.
► But on the other hand, we’re told that we don’t need another person to complete us, that we should be happy with ourselves without depending on anyone else to fulfill us—especially not a romantic partner.
So which is it? We need other people to be whole, but then again we should be content with ourselves alone?
Nonetheless, I think there is a tension here. We need other people to make us whole, but not romantic partners. But why draw the line there? (Why draw it anywhere, for that matter?)
What if some people feel incomplete without someone to love? Many people feel incomplete without close friends, and few would question this. If you don’t have enough close friends, then many would say that you’re missing out on something essential to a full life. But dare to say that you need a romantic partner to feel whole, and you’ll likely be accused of being overly dependent and not self-actualized (for which, apparently, you do need close friends).
Maybe what we need is for people to stop telling us what we need to do to be happy or fulfilled, and instead encourage people to figure it out for themselves, giving them the most opportunities possible to find their own way of living.
Some people have many friends, others have few, but they may all be happy. Some people like being single, others prefer being coupled, and still others enjoy other kinds of relationship structures, including open relationships and polyamory. None of these guarantees happiness all the time, of course, but all else the same, people will generally be happier if they’re not forced into social arrangements in which they’re uncomfortable over time, whether by legal and social barriers.
Before we say “let a thousand flowers bloom” and walk away, there are some problems with this approach. An important one is that finding the social arrangement that makes you happy is not necessarily easy. For example, the popularity of dating websites is one sign that many people are trying different ways to find another person to satisfy their emotional needs. Also, many people face significant resistance to seeking out different forms of relationships, resistance that threatens their bonds with family, friends, and community, at the same time they are trying to find deeper fulfillment in their romantic and sexual lives.
An even more serious example is the widely reported and worsening scourge of loneliness, in which people do need other people in their lives but for some reason don’t have them. While those who want to meet a romantic or sexual partner have plenty of online and real-life resources to help them, people who suffer from deeper forms of loneliness—especially when complicated by depression—don’t always have the ability or opportunity to tell anyone. (And that’s assuming they’re aware of it themselves.) Because of this, loneliness is self-perpetuating: if you’re lonely but you don’t have anybody to reach out to, you become even lonelier. Research into the causes and incidence of loneliness is valuable because it allows people who can offer help to find people who are likely in need of it.
Giving people the opportunity to find the help they need is not always enough, because it assumes they have the means to take advantage of the help that’s available—and the problem sometimes lies in being uncomfortable interacting with other people even in a minimal way. Recognizing this requires us to walk a fine line between being respectful of people’s choices (even if we disagree with them) and taking positive and sometimes intrusive steps to help them make better ones (even if they disagree with them).
This is yet another example of the conflict between respect and care that lies at the center of so many ethical and political debates. Usually, I lean towards the side of respect, based on individuals’ better (if imperfect) knowledge of their own interests. But as I explained above, the nature of loneliness (and any underlying mental health issues) prevents sufferers from taking steps on their own, or even asking for help. This may require us to take cautious and measured steps to inquire into their well-being, without judging their interests or the choices they make to pursue them.