Meant for your tribe

(crossposted from Facebook)

Oh. Maybe attachment bonds were never meant for just your parents and your romantic partners. Maybe they were meant for your tribe.

● ● ●

When I was 10 or so, I gave up on my parents ever loving me in the way I wanted, and I poured all of my desire for love (and attachment, although I didn’t have that word at the time) into my desire for romantic relationships. I nurtured a series of hopeless crushes until I fell in love for the first time at 17, with someone who loved me too, and I was deliriously happy. But none of my relationships, including that one, have lasted for longer than 4 1/2 months, and all of them except one have ended the same way: at the slightest indication that my partner was pulling away, I freaked out and got incredibly anxious, which caused my partner to pull away even more, etc.

I was lucky enough to fall into an amazing and supportive group of friends during college, but in my senior year, I was hit by both a miserable trainwreck of a breakup and the prospect of leaving all of my friends for grad school. I thought I would be fine. I was not fine. I didn’t date anyone or make any close friends for 4 years. I was hopelessly lonely and I couldn’t even acknowledge that fact for years, let alone do anything about it.

All of that is on my mind as I say: imagine what it’s like to live in a world where the only people in your tribe are your romantic partners. If you’re monogamous, that means your tribe at any time consists of either one or two people, until you have children. When you’re in a relationship, the prospect of that relationship ending is the prospect of your tribe – your entire world – being cut in half, the prospect of being left completely alone. Serial monogamy is your fragile little tribe constantly dying and being reformed. Anxious attachment is being terrified by the risk of being abandoned by your entire tribe, and avoidant attachment is giving up on needing a tribe because of how shitty this whole process is.

I don’t know how many people live in this world. It’s incredibly isolating – a world where the only people you allow into your heart, the only people who you touch or are touched by lovingly, are your partners, who might be there and might not, who come and then might also go.

Polyamory can help – at least you can get more than two people in your tribe that way. But if you’re still conflating attachment bonds with romantic / sexual connection, you still face the agony of the well-being of your tribe being dependent on the health of romantic / sexual connections that can and do sour.

Here is another world I’ve been seeing the possibility of increasingly clearly lately. The most important feature of this world is that you have a tribe to whom you’re securely attached. You love and support each other. You touch each other. You sing and dance together. And sometimes, some of you explore romantic / sexual connection with each other. And if that gets rocky – when someone gets anxious or avoidant or some other kind of triggered – the attachment that the people involved have with everyone else in the tribe acts as a stabilizing and calming force. If your attachment to your tribe is secure enough, the prospect of a partner leaving you maybe feels less like the end of the world.

(And sometimes, some of you have children, and those children are raised by a tribe of people who are lovingly stabilizing and calming each other, instead of being at the mercy of a fragile little tribe of two…)

It hurts to think about this world, and how far away from it most people are. There are so many forces pushing against it: high school friends going to different colleges, college friends taking jobs in different cities, friends moving into their own apartments, couples living by themselves, the crushing burdens of late-stage capitalism… and, among so many other things, some sense that it’s a little weird to allow your friends to matter to you as much as or more than your partners.

That one, I think, is a little easier to do something about than the rest.

So, can I suggest an experiment? Think about the ways in which you open up to your partners. Try opening up in those ways to your friends. Try letting them matter and seeing if they’ll let you matter too. Try playing with them and seeing if they’ll play with you too. Imagine what could be possible, together.

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