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The Need To Belong: Nothing New, But A Crisis Nonetheless

A client of mine, an articulate, attractive, divorced woman in her 30s with a traumatic family background was discussing in therapy her current life struggles (medical concerns, family issues, employment problems), when our conversation shifted to the common dearth of true friendships among her peers.  Few, it seems, have any real relationships.  Rather, they have “situationships.”  This was a new term to me, but by it she meant that interactions with others were defined by their limited circumstances, rather than a genuine interest in the person.  As it turns out, situationship is in the lexicon of modern culture, and includes (unsurprisingly), sexualized twists.  The Urban Dictionary’s definition [1] includes the following:

A relationship that has no label on it… like a friendship but more than a friendship but not quite a relationship; A situationship is kinda like a relationship, but more of a situation. Friends with benefits are in a situationship. People that are a ‘thing’ are in a situationship.

Regardless of the imprecision and circularity of the definition, the connotation is that my client and her peers are suffering from isolation—from a lack of belonging.  While this problem is not new, our current technology-saturated, fast-paced, consumerist culture has increased its prevalence and intensity.

The symptoms of being detached from others and the attendant lack of a clear sense of one’s own self-worth are well-known:  the hook-up culture—lending one’s body out to another with no need to know the other—substance abuse, contraception, pornography and sex addiction to name a few.  The fundamental problem is not so much the (im)morality of such things (though this is surely not inconsequential), but rather the violation of the natural law and the truth of the human person.  It is simply against our nature to be alone.  Or said differently, it is a human right that man be loved.

Two essential questions quickly follow: Loved by whom? and In what way?  Each of the symptoms noted above, it could be argued, are but misdirected attempts at attaining true goods: real love and connection.  Their failure is borne out in research which demonstrates time and again that the answer to the questions above is: by parents—who love each other, in a selfless manner.  A person with such parents is then able to mature into adulthood and do the same in turn.

A national survey [2] concluded that:

Whereas family intactness fosters an environment of belonging among youth that increases their likelihood of exceling in education, health, economic security, and religious practice, family brokenness creates a sense of rejection that can thwart proper growth.

In his recent address [3] to Congress, Pope Francis noted “How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement!”

At the same time, he sounded an alarm:

Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family…. When one doesn’t live as a family, one will strengthen the part that always says:  I, me, my, with me, for me.  One totally centers around these things and doesn’t know solidarity or fraternity.

Here we see the natural end-points of a lack of belonging: people either retreat into a self-focused narcissism, or they seek out a distorted form of community wherever they can find it (cf. the proliferation of LGBTQ+ groups on college campuses and even high schools).

Today’s dominant culture of relativism, consumerism, atheism, etc., is striving to dismantle the traditional family, the framework in which children (and parents) have the best opportunity to flourish.  Not surprisingly, when you remove that framework, the need for belonging does not disappear, it merely seeks alternative sources.  These alternatives are presently defined either by technology (Facebook “friends”, or Tinder “partners”) or by those pushing alternative genders/sexualities.

It is worth noting that many of the social problems we see today are simply misguided solutions (agenda-driven activists aside): people seeking to meet their natural need for companionship and fellowship without having the proper tools or context to do so.

In a prior piece on suicide [4], I noted that conquering isolation and loneliness is at the heart of being human.  The soul longs for a deeper, more intimate sense of belonging.  This is the healthy striving I see in my client who is so disgruntled with situationships— her frustration, and her peers’—is ironically a beacon of hope.  When family does not rise to the occasion and offer repair, forgiveness and support, one seeks these things elsewhere.  The quick fix is to “identify” with one of the mythical letters (LGBT…) where you will purportedly be met with unconditional love, acceptance and celebration; or, to delve into the world of virtual relationships.  While these tracks may provide relief initially, we know that, in time, the natural law will again assert itself and the quick fix will become a long struggle—often marked by depression and angst. (See Confusion [5], Regret [6], Dangers [7], Not Enough [8])

Healthy relationships, characterized by unconditional warmth, affirmation and acceptance of persons in their entirety as they are in truth (not a narrow focus on feelings or attraction), are the pathways to flourishing.   They may be difficult to traverse at times, but they are the only paths to joy.