The various ways that people differ is so interesting for me; I love talking about how others think and order their lives and then speculate on how that – on how they – came about. Sometimes I think I should have studied sociology, or anthropology, or psychology…then I remember I’m just nosy. Ha! Anywho, since I love hearing about other’s experiences, I recently had a conversation with a few of my metamours about bandwidth and how individualized it can be.
When I say bandwidth in this sense, I mean the capacity one has for the various human connections in their lives and their ability to maintain them along with work, health, and other responsibilities. Of course, everyone’s bandwidth is going to look and feel different and can be based on many factors. Sometimes an individual’s bandwidth changes as their life circumstances change, sometimes it stays the same their entire life. Introverts, extroverts, those with chronic health conditions, those socialized in certain ways and/or cultures – they all will have their own distinct numbers.
It’s been my experience that not many people take the time to self reflect and figure out their specific bandwidth. No matter what kind of relationship configuration you may have, I personally feel you should know what your max capacity is – for your emotional, mental, and physical health. All of these things are intertwined, and too much pressure in one area can manifest itself in another. Stretching yourself too thin is something almost all of us can confess to doing at one point or another; although many would argue that not setting reasonable boundaries or not knowing how to say no is the main reason burnout happens, I would argue that you cannot set good boundaries without first knowing what you are comfortable with or capable of.
Within the past year, I came upon Dunbar’s number. Robin Dunbar was an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who theorized in the 90s – after studying primates and early societies – that 150 is the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. (Actually, the number has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150.) These complex social relationships can be broken up into different categories:
- a) ~5-10 very close “support” relationships – people you speak to nearly every week
- b) ~12-15 in your sympathy group – people who would be devastated if you died
- c) ~50 other meaningful relationships
- d) and ~150 currently active casual friendships
Now, many have proposed fallacies to this theory – that the internet has brought the world much closer, that we need more than 150 connections to adequately network professionally, that some people’s families alone surpass this number. I, however, still insist that Dunbar’s number is pretty spot on, whether you are an introvert, ambivert, extrovert, or something yet unclassified (you special snowflake, you). What these rebuttals don’t take into account is the very loose definition that some put on the word “friend,” nor do they consider the depth – or rather, lack of it – of certain sorts of connections. Dunbar’s number does not include those in one’s life who are only generally known with a lack of persistent connection. For instance, those people on the periphery of your personal social circle, whom you have a more shallow relationship with (such as acquaintances or cordial networking only relationships), that may push your number far past 150 are generally not included in what I personally feel was Dunbar’s intent.
I am one of those who has many internet acquaintances. I also have to network heavily for work. And my mother was the youngest of 18, where more than half her siblings went on to have 4-8 children (read: my family is huge). But I would have to say that Dunbar’s number holds true to my life, because it pinpoints how many meaningful connections and emotional ties I actively nurture and maintain.
After some self reflection and analyzing of my past, I’ve determined that I have the capacity for about 10 deeply entangled (practical, emotional, and/or sexual) connections. Back when I was diagnosed with depression and was deep in the rabbit hole, as well as struggling financially, I was still able to foster that many relationships. Although I am healthier now, I am so busy – with my job, maintaining my health and finances, and simply living out loud, plus I’ve learned that I really cherish (and NEED!) my alone time – that my number has stayed the same. As a matter of fact, I’m currently teetering the line of saturation, of being totally maxed out: I currently have 4 romantic/sexual partners, 4 platonic life partners, and I’m in the midst of a few relationships that have yet to be determined or settle into their natural place.
Knowing my bandwidth doesn’t make me feel as if I am missing out on any connections, either. It doesn’t limit me. It actually helps me not take on too much. To more easily let go of those I’ve outgrown, or who aren’t good for me, or who are lackluster about being in any type of relationship with me. It reminds me to tend carefully to the relationships that I do have. That just because every relationship is different and some are less intense and less entangled, that does not make them any less beautiful. I talked about this before when talking about intimacy – sometimes relationships just aren’t meant to be deeply intimate, and that’s okay.
When I first read about Dunbar, I went to the back page of my planner and created a circle of “my people.” My name in the middle, with my people’s names fanning out around me, using the categories listed above, those closest to me…well, closest to me. Lo and behold, without using any social media or contacts list, I came up with 127 names. What’s interesting to me today is that I took a look at this page just now, and it has changed. I’m a firm believer that life is somewhat fluid, and I like that I have a record of it: those who have moved closer to me, those who have faded away, those who have cemented their bonds, and the newcomers in the circle. It makes me smile.
I love genuine connections in all forms. Especially the kind where we talk about weird shit and touch each other. I love that I can be open to sincere friendships of all types of intensities, with all types of benefits.
What’s your bandwidth?