Love + Marriage |

Building a Tribe

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A clan of people by your side, supporting you through the triumphs and trenches of marriages, can enrich the world around you.

After a divorce, a little nuclear family can explode into a thousand tiny pieces. It’s mostly “each to their own” as you try to survive in your own way and put together some semblance of an identity between parental visitations and extracurricular commitments. It can be isolating for a kid as the family’s “circle of friends” disperses and so too extended family relations (Christmas, for example, gets awkward). But into this relational vacuum of diminishing family contact must come something to fill the void; that pining for togetherness, security and to be a part of a community.

In theory, it should be friends. But what if you fear that if they draw too near they will find you disagreeable, not worthy of their time or attention? Or if the closest one moves away with her parents at exactly the wrong time to find a new home in Melbourne?

It was too risky to get other people involved when I was growing up. I even changed high schools and sought to forge a new identity to escape the dreaded dark cloud of divorce and its lingering repercussions: diminishing grades, a dalliance with the wrong boys and teen hair traumas.

Ten years later, enter my husband’s family: a behemoth of a clan that has lived within the parameters of the small mountain top township where I now live. I found this utterly overwhelming initially, given I’d inhabited an apartment shared with my dad and sister for most of my teen and early adult years, and had given little thought to the idea of communal existence beyond the building we inhabited with neighbours we didn’t know and the magazine office where I worked, which was, admittedly, full of young women with whom I shared a common vision; a passion for publishing.

Moving from Sydney to Queensland eight months after we were married, I’d gone from isolated to tribal to isolated again, even though I was completely surrounded by people. And it completely freaked me out. Not everyone enjoys the company of others en masse, though I’d always found the idea of “The Big Christmas” à la Home Alone appealing.

So, for the sheer necessity of surviving, I adapted gradually to this new realm where cousins and aunts and uncles and friends coexisted by adopting my own friends from outside the family circle and sent out a lifeline via my blog, Girl With a Satchel. I found my tribe.

“When you’re with people from your tribe you can be your true self and you never have to pretend to be someone or something you’re not,” says Rebecca Sparrow, author of “Find Your Tribe (and 9 Other Things I Wish I’d Known in High School)“, who was a kindred spirit to me during that tough time.

“You often share the same values and see the world in a similar way. Your tribe is your soft place to fall, your safety net. They celebrate your triumphs and comfort you in your darkest hour. Sometimes they’ll tell you some hard truths (in a loving way). They’re your own cheer squad and source of collective wisdom.”

After the wedding day, or at some stage in married life, some couples—or at least one person in the marriage—can become very isolated, perhaps because one person moves for the other, family relations are strained, illness or job loss besets you or the wrong words said drive a wedge into outside relationships.

Sometimes personality quirks make starting new “couple friends” awkward (i.e. “I like you but not your husband”). One person might be particularly shy. Or else you may be the kind of couple who are happy to keep to themselves and play World of Warcraft in your pyjamas all day. Fair enough.

Still, the idea that you can feel incredibly alone in your little bubble of marital bliss is hardly talked about, nor the idea that your spouse should not be burdened with meeting all your needs for companionship, conversation and closeness, though they should surely be the primary source, as marriages thrive on this intimacy.

“I think it’s always important to have both mutual friends and to maintain your own individual friendships,” says Sparrow. “While it’s never wise to betray confidences in a marriage, we all have times when we need to vent or seek a second opinion.”

The flip side being, what if the tribe turns against you? Cite: Tony Abbott. If we’re to take anything away from the lesson of Australia’s former Prime Minister, it’s this: choose your tribe wisely because they can make or break you.

I have seen marriages become unhinged because one partner allowed someone from the outside to become too influential in their lives, creating a sort of “us versus them” mentality in which the other partner simply cannot win and creating problems where they didn’t before exist (e.g. “Sally says Nathan unpacks the dishwasher every night!”; “Bret says they have sex six times a week!”).

The “mates before dates” concept does not apply in the context of a marriage. If the people you hang with spend an inordinate amount of time dissing their spouses, having a dig at yours or dumping on the institution of marriage, press the escape button. Now.

“What’s important is that your partner knows that they are your priority and that their privacy is always respected,” says Sparrow. “When you are in a partnership or marriage you become privy to another person’s vulnerabilities, their secrets, their fears … all that stuff should never be casually shared with friends, even those from your tribe. It breaks an important trust in a marriage.”

To help us become fully fledged, flourishing human beings takes belonging to a family, a network of friends and a whole community. Increasingly this includes the friends we maintain via social media and the other sorts of media we consume that can often have as much influence on our life choices and outlook on the world as our families do.

I consider the bloggers I follow (Hey Natalie Jean and Meet Me at Mike’s), the magazines I read (such as this one!), the music I listen to and my news feed all parts of my larger “tribal community”.

Each relationship encounter or exchange of information—whether banter with the local barista, literary discussions with the librarian or a D & M with your best friend—adds spice to your world, your thinking, your doing, your personality and, ultimately, your marriage. They keep you growing. They can stretch you, teach you and make you sit back and take the wider view. They keep us from becoming conceited, disconnected and disappearing up our own rear ends. They enrich us, our marriages and our world, too.

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