Peter McGraw talks about how remarkable singles have a team — an interconnected group of friends, family, acquaintances, and professionals. But this takes work. He invites a member of the Solo community, Monique Murad, to discuss the value of community and how to cultivate it.
Listen to Episode #153 here
Freedom In Community
One unanticipated benefit of the show is the remarkable people I meet. They contribute to the project in many ways. They’re suggesting episodes, bringing to my attention resources, engaging in stimulating conversations in the Slack channel, and even appearing as guest or guest co-hosts on the show. Monique Murad is one of those people. Monique is a Brazilian-American writer and researcher. She is born and raised in Los Angeles and lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
She works in research and consulting in international development, corporate and federal strategy, and corporate responsibility. Monique loves to dance, climb, be in the ocean, and spend time with her people. Speaking of her people, we discuss her perspectives on the importance of community to living single and living remarkably. In particular, we discuss how to cultivate community ideas drawn from an article that Monique wrote. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
It’s very nice to have you here. You’re a reader and a member of the community. You know how much I like to talk about how single people need an interconnected group, whether it is personal or professional, to help them go solo or help support their solo life. I call them a team. You use a different metaphor. What is it?
I like to use the metaphor of a forest. I realized I’ve spent most of my life succeeding because of my community. It was not long ago that I came across a forest metaphor and started to develop it on my own. I love the idea of a team. For me, a team feels like it’s in service of me and my people or my immediate community. What’s interesting about a forest is that it’s life-giving within its own habitat, but it also feels the world around it. It contributes to a larger picture, which is why I love the forest.
It’s not as trite, frankly, as a team. Let’s be honest. These sports metaphors are so boring.
There’s a lot more depth to the forest analogy that maybe we can get into.
The tentative title for this episode is Freedom in Community, which some people might see as two ideas at odds with each other. Why should I call it Freedom in Community?
I say this also in the article. Freedom, community, and singleness being bondness are terms that people do find to be mutually exclusive. How do I live a free, independent life attached to people? We’ll get into this, but I do believe that freedom is the product of a community-oriented life. There are a lot of things in life that we see as opposites, but community living unlocks more space to make big solo moves, to be independent, or to make decisions. It’s a lot of the reason people go and get into marriages. The alternative to that is you get into your community. Whether that community consists of relationships, marriages, or whatever it is, it’s in service of something bigger.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea because I’ve been doing a bunch of research into the invention of marriage. One of the things that are striking is that the marriages that we know aren’t terribly different from the marriages of the 1950s and 1960s. They’re quite similar. They’re based on love. They have these different types of roles and so on. Marriages now are much more egalitarian. They’re much more demanding.
As a result of that, people are less satisfied with their marriages even though, technically, they’re better. They’re especially better for women. The marriages many years ago are way different. The families that come out of those marriages and that are associated with those marriages are strikingly community-based. There are people who lament.
David Brooks has an article about the failure of a nuclear marriage. The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake is the name of the thing. In part, it’s because a marriage puts you at such risk in some ways with the traditional marriage that we know of, especially the children. If one person decides, “I’m out,” it crumbles. The corporate families and extended families many years ago, if someone peaced out, Uncle Peter was still there. There were single people around. There were grandparents around. There were other kin, neighbors, and so on.
This was essential for survival. As a result, you could survive the loss of one person. It’s interesting because where you’re going with your writing and your thinking is this idea that if you’re solo, you have even less than that one person if you’re not careful. You have to reinvent that extended family, but it not being family per se.
Maybe this will entice readers a bit. There is the financial risk. There’s the quality of life risk that when you go into a marriage or honestly any relationship and depend solely on one person or one space for everything, there is this financial risk to all of that. We see it all the time. People go through messy divorces and lose a lot. There’s an emotional risk there. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of Esther Perel’s work.
She comes up on occasion.
She is fantastic. I don’t know if it was a TED Talk or one of her episodes. She’s done a lot of speaking on the history of marriage and what it was and what it is now. Something she talks a lot about is the idea of a soulmate. Marriage now isn’t just about, “I love you.” It’s not about, “We’re partners financially.” It’s like, “I’m going to find the person that I’m going to be with and they have to be my other half. They have to check off everything for me.” It truly is crazy. It’s the idea that one person fits the bill for all of that.
Here’s the thing. The only thing we can count on in life is change and death. I’m not trying to be somber about it. It’s that those are the two things we fear the most. They’re the only things we can count on. People change and things change and we’re going to die. What community does in the analogy of the forest that I give is you take the pressure off of one person or one space to be your everything. That makes it so that you can even be at bigger peace with pieces of your identity. When you depend on one person to fill in all of those things, you are also looking to them for validation.
When I look at my community, maybe I do one thing that one person in my community might not be able to validate or agree with, but then, I’m not crumbled by it. I have different pieces of my identity and pieces of my life. I get to learn more, quite frankly. I get to filter through all of that feedback and still feel valid and at peace with myself and my identity because I don’t rely on one person, one space, or one nuclear household for everything that I need. I started that way, maybe out of necessity. I’m first generation American, so I don’t have a lot of blood-related families here in the States. Even in Brazil, living in Rio, my family is still quite spread out. Most of my life was chosen family by necessity, but I do believe that I live more remarkably because of it.
It’s why I feel bad for married people. I say that in a cheeky way, but in some ways, I feel worse for the single person who has no one or the single person who has no community. That’s very difficult. My heart goes out to those people. I want to do what I can to help them, motivate them, coach them, and encourage them to start building these connections. I think about my married friends and the different things that I like to do. We’re in Los Angeles. You’re here with your family and your chosen family. I’m here with my chosen family. I’m staying at a previous guest’s apartment, Darwyn, who’s generously letting us use it as our studio.
I spent a writing retreat out in Joshua Tree and I did it with a friend who’s also a writer. The wonderful thing about that is not so long ago, I did a trip to San Francisco and I did it with a different friend. The trip to San Francisco was better with that friend than it would be with my Joshua Tree friend and vice versa. If I was married, I either would have to drag my spouse along to one of the trips that she might not have liked, for example, or I wouldn’t have been able to go on the trip because we only can do things together. I get to pick and choose the people depending on my needs, wants, and desires. I have a big Rolodex and I can flip through it for a particular call or a particular activity.
I would say that’s the widely accepted form of marriage or what we feel like we should pursue in marriage. One of my best friends in Rio is in a marriage. She is one of the few in my life whom I deeply admire. She is the epitome of somebody that I see has been able to do that because the fact that she doesn’t rely on marriage for everything in her life. She’s got an intricate community.
She used to always give me this piece of advice that if you can’t be a good solo person, you’re not going to be a good married person. I completely agree in the sense of I came from Rio and I am back in the States. It’s a long story that we’ve talked about briefly, but I got divorced this 2022 and I’m making a move for the foreseeable future to Brazil.
I had to go back to the East Coast because that’s where I was living. I was living in Washington, D.C. before I left for Rio in February 2022. What was supposed to be a two-month trip became a six-month trip. I came back and had no plan. I said, “I’ve got to see my people. I’ve got to move around.” I moved places every 3 or 4 days. I was on a different couch. I was in a different place. I went from D.C. to New York. I went back to D.C., here to California, San Diego, and LA. I could not seem to get to a new place without a couch to sleep on, a meal, or a shoulder to cry on.
That’s what motivated me to write this article. This 2022, I lost my grandma who is one of the most important people to me in my life. I lost my former husband. We are redefining our relationship for the better in the midst of a lot of grief and a lot of loss. I’ve never felt so connected and cared for. This was the year that I had to let my community carry me and I felt it deeply. It’s beautiful.
I appreciate you pointing that out. What I was describing with my San Francisco Joshua Tree thought experiment was a traditional one. The more I explore this topic, the more I recognize that some people are meant to be lifelong singles. They have no interest in changing their relationship status. Others would very much welcome having someone or someones who are romantically involved with and important to them. It’s perhaps even a higher-status relationship. Yet, they’re going to maintain some independence. They’ll bend, if not break, some of those rules in order to create a relationship that works well for them where they’re not having to compromise but rather engage in coordination.
I do love that you brought it up because even in the midst of wanting to live a more alternative marriage, the point is that it’s not easy even wanting to because there are so many societal pressures. Even coming out of a marriage where we tried our best to break those rules and do things differently, it gets exhausting. It gets socially exhausting to be in a space where what it is that you’re doing, people are always questioning it. They’re like, “You’re going on vacation without your spouse. It’s so strange. Where is he?”
Steven is the name of my former partner. The amount of times I got asked, “Where is he? What are you doing? You’re going to be gone for six months?” I’m like, “Yeah.” It’s like, “That’s the reason why your marriage didn’t work.” I’m like, “Absolutely.” It’s crazy because we’re going through this divorce and people are looking to me and they’re saying, “I don’t understand. You’re taking pictures together and you are constructing this relationship. I don’t get it.”
I love what you used to say. You say a lot in these episodes, “What is a successful marriage.” A successful marriage doesn’t end to me in death. I believe that we were successful in what it is that we were doing. To keep our vows to one another and to love and care for each other, we needed to change the dynamic of our relationship. That’s something that a friend told me, and that sits with me.
You described your divorce as celebratory. You even use the word joyful. That’s wonderful. Why not say, “We had good times. This was a meaningful relationship. I grew within this relationship. I cared for this person. Unfortunately, there’s change, and it doesn’t work the way that it needs to?”
I would say, fortunately. We got married with the intention of community-building. To bring it back to when we sat and we were like, “Why do we want to get married?” there was a lot there at the time. We were a bit ingrained in religious values that we no longer hold. We were quite young. He doesn’t have a big family. I don’t have a lot of blood-related families.
Our wedding was 150 people and four blood-related families. Even at our wedding, we gave the toast instead of people giving the toast to us. I gave the toast to my mom. I said, “You raised me with my grandma.” My grandma walked me down the aisle. I looked at both of them and said, “The reason I’m entering this marriage is that I know I don’t have to, and I don’t need it.”
I don’t know if marriage is for me. There are a lot of reasons.
I want to interrupt. You said it didn’t work out, but as I hear you talk about it, a marriage that ends in a joyful divorce is a marriage that worked out.
I agree. I don’t know if it was maybe on one of your episodes. I get a little bit lost in all of the knowledge absorptions, but we need to normalize leaving relationships that still have love in them or we got a lot of love still. We are looking at each other and saying, “How do we salvage all the good parts? How do we not compromise, stop sacrificing, and coordinate something bigger?” That was what we were doing. It is beautiful and joyful. People are confused and I love it. I love confusing people.
We are cultural learners. We learn how to behave in the world by the way people react to how we behave in the world. Sometimes, they overtly tell us how to behave, and then sometimes, they express disdain when we don’t behave the way they want us to. Since marriage was created to be this special thing, it had to be special to keep people in it. You had to elevate it and make it high status. You marginalized for practical reasons, but you also do it because it also makes it hard to disentangle.
Whenever you start to diverge from any of those things, if you don’t elevate your marriage, people find that perplexing. They don’t express curiosity. They often express disdain. If you’re not going to merge your lives in the way that they are, they’re going to not just express curiosity, but they’re going to be like, “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” The fact that you could spend six months away from your partner isn’t suggestive that something’s wrong. It’s suggestive that there’s something right.
I do think that it’s a bit of a threat. We’ve all been in those spaces when someone’s doing something that feels like it’s going against what it is that you value the most. We do live in a very hierarchical society where romantic marriage is at the very top and everything is in competition with one or the other. Any type of alternative lifestyle to some people is going to feel like a threat to what it is that they hold deepest in their identity. It feels like a threat to what their identity is and if there’s a different way of doing things.
Thinking about the forest analogy, I always think about the more you start to value your romantic relationships, your friendships, and your family as the same and equal as you talk about in the Relationship Anarchy episode, you begin to let go of some of that disdain. You then are able to go into a marriage with an understanding of everything around it and saying, “I’m not going into it for the wrong reasons.” I don’t know, and I know that this isn’t necessarily the direction this episode is going in.
This community-building idea also allows us to be more open-minded and welcoming of people doing different things and it doesn’t have to threaten our way of life. Honestly, I’m not a biologist by any means. I’m not a forest biologist. I don’t know the intricacies of what a habitat needs. Two different species in a forest aren’t looking at each other and threatened by what it is or how it is they’re living their life, but they are both contributing to the habitat that is essential for both of them to thrive. That’s what a community is. You are engaging with people and lifestyles that are nothing like your own and you’re not threatened by them. You are all contributing to something bigger that allows everybody to thrive.
Let’s get to it. There are four elements. Correct me if I’m wrong. They’re diversity, roots, decay, and growth. Let’s talk about those in turn. I like the fact that you start with this idea of diversity. You have this line that I starred, circled, and everything. You said, “My foundation is diverse and strong.”
It’s diverse, dispersed, and strong. I’ll join the diversity in the roots piece. I’m such an analogy person. My entire life is analogies. Everybody reading this is like, “Every time she’s trying to give me advice, she’s bringing in some type of a cake metaphor or whatever the analogy is.” When I go into that habitat, I look around. My foundation is diverse and strong because the forest floor is not made of just one species, one plant species, and whatever it is.
It’s not corn in the Midwest, where there are rows of exactly the same thing.
For some people, maybe that’s your thing. Maybe you like to sit in a cornfield and stare at it. In a cornfield, there’s only one type of person or thing that can be there. The idea of the forest is that the diversity allows me to make peace with a lot of different pieces of who we are. Maybe a lot of people don’t tap into a lot of pieces of their identity because they do things like only surround themselves with one type of person. They’re in one marriage and they spend 90% of their time with that person.
I’m somebody that speaks English and Portuguese. They’re the same language for me. I’m crushed between two different cultures. I feel my identity there and here. When I’m in Brazil, I’m the American. When I’m in America, I’m the Brazilian. Even in my personal life, I’m in the creative space. I love creativity. I’m also a big nerd. I went to school for economics. I love data. All of these things feel different. The people that I’m with are different in these different spaces. I learn so much every day from my community. I like to think that maybe as a solo person, I am a more well-rounded person.
I always say, “Diversify your portfolio of happiness.” I hold my identity so strongly to my job, for example. If my job fails me, I’ll go into depression. That was my identity, and it crashed. Since I hold such a diverse foundation in my community that if I’m having an argument with this person or this piece of my life isn’t working out so well, I’ve got a lot of other pieces of my identity that I’ve made peace with. It’s because of the community that I can sit with for a while in this phase. That’s nice.
To make it a little more tangible, for example, it is having age diversity in your community. I spent hiking and having a bite to eat with my friend, Natalie, a 64-year-old lesbian Jewish woman who works in the entertainment industry. I’m speaking with you, someone who’s almost 40 years younger, about a whole different set of topics. I feel that there’s a richness to having those different experiences, different perspectives, different conversations, and different phone numbers in my Rolodex that I can call depending on what I need, what I’m feeling like, and so on.
100%. I get sad when I think about the Master’s degree becoming the new Bachelor’s degree. Graduate school taught me this lesson that you’re sharing. I have a grad school girlfriend group. There are about ten of us. We go through ebbs and flows. We’re close at times. I’m always the youngest of the group. It was the age range of maybe 30 years or maybe less. It’s maybe twenty. It was that. It was all different walks of life.
A space like graduate school and what it used to be, it is all these people from these different walks of life coming together and learning from each other. I like to climb. I have friends that I climb with. I love to read. I have my friends that I book club with. I love to dance. I have friends that I dance with. Not relying on one person for everything takes the pressure off of those people.
Age is an example of this, but it’s an important one. One of the nice things about being a professor is I get to sit in a classroom where I am significantly older than the average student. I can often have a conversation with them about what’s going on in their world that I wouldn’t have a glimpse into in the same way. Moreover, I don’t always want to be the oldest person in the room. Sometimes, I want to be the youngest person in the room.
Age is a proxy for experience, perspective, and so on. There’s also, even within the same age group, what you can learn from someone who cares about comedy, literature, engineering, or business. Depending on who that person is, we’re having a whole different set of conversations and a whole different set of changes to my perspective on learning that I get a chance to do.
Your team analogy is perfect in that sense. It’s that. It’s like having a doctor, a lawyer, and a therapist in the family. My family is my community. It’s not necessarily blood-related family, but I’ve got all those. It’s necessary not just to survive but to thrive. That’s where we get into the nuclear family and think about spending 90% of our time with one person. There’s only so much one person has to offer, like the way there’s only so much I have to offer. I don’t want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a therapist, and all of these things. I don’t want to be the source of any one person’s identity and learning. I want to go out and learn. We create connections and find parts of ourselves in those relationships.
As you’re talking, I’m thinking about the permutation of marriage. I had an episode with Eli Finkel in which he talked about what he calls the all-or-nothing marriage. It’s what I call this growth marriage. It’s this idea that your partner is supposed to be your everything. They’re supposed to challenge you personally. They’re supposed to challenge you professionally. They’re supposed to propel you along to living the best life that you can live. I’m like, “First of all, the average person can’t do that.”
Not even the above-average person can do that.
My community does that way better for me than any one person who can do that. It’s the way I get pushed intellectually by some friends. It’s the conversations that I have about the show. Even the stuff that we were talking about prior to this episode, I’m scribbling notes. It’s the things that I learned about health and wellness from other friends.
It’s the camaraderie I have with my sister in terms of someone who knows me as well as anyone else in the world. The choice of one wife can’t hold a candle to that, in a sense. Plus, 80% of marriages are ended by the wife, so I’d be in trouble. You talk about roots. You have this forest floor, which is diverse. It’s got the critters, the moss, the small plants, the big trees, etc., but this needs to be nourished. It’s not easy having a community.
This root section is the section that resonated the most with friends that I shared the article with. It was maybe because there is a part of my community that identifies the most with this dispersed nature of our roots. Roots are interesting. It’s the part of the forest and the part of our lives that no one can see. It’s one of those things where we can’t see it, so sometimes, we don’t value it. For everything to blossom and to have a remarkable life, you need to care for your roots.
In my travels, because I haven’t lived anywhere for more than two years in a long time, I’m always moving around. I realized, “I do have these strong relationships. Why was that?” I realize it’s because I do a lot of work to water my roots everywhere that I go. I use the idea of not over or under-watering, but just right. What’s important is that it is focused moments that allow the roots to grow.
I’ve got people I love and I care for deeply from New York to D.C., all over California, across the US, Europe, and South America. I could spend a few days with some of those people. I have closer relationships with them than some people do with the people that they live in the same house with for many years. To me, roots are about quality over quantity. What I mean by that, I don’t mean the number of people. I mean the amount of time that we have and what you do with that time.
I arrived in Brazil in February 2022. My grandma passed away in early May 2022. She was not sick. It was very fast. It was the flu. When I arrived, I had made plans to leave the home. I said, “I am not pouring into myself in the way that I can.” We were living in the same room up until her last day. I was caring for her. I sat with her and said, “For me to be here for you, I need to get out.” That’s because the focused moments, I noticed, were few and far between. I was having to give a lot of attention and time.
When you’re with somebody all of the time, it’s too much water. You’re overwatering. I do believe in too much of that energy. You’re not even investing in that diversification. Maybe I’m going off on an on-and-off tangent, but I do believe that my roots might be dispersed, and they’re all over the place. They’re strong because of my focused moments.
My mom and I, it’s just us. When I think about the reason we have such a great relationship, it’s that I moved out. I talk to my mom almost every day. We are very different. We don’t always get along, but we have a strong-rooted relationship because of the distance. I hope this empowers some people to feel like when they feel like they don’t have time to build community or they feel like they don’t have the space, or they want to be moving around and doing a lot of things, that this gives them hope and that roots and laying down foundations is possible.
That’s a powerful idea. I like that idea of not over or under-watering. This is an effortful process. What happens, too, is that when you’re young or when you’re a kid, you’ve got your classmates and the kids in the neighborhood. With kids, their parents arrange all of this stuff. If you go to college, you have that again. It’s all ready-made and so on. Especially in a world where people are much more mobile, maybe they’re working remotely, etc., you have to work at it a lot more.
I saw a friend who is a dear friend. We talk on the phone a lot. I realized I hadn’t seen him in four years. It was one of those situations, but nothing was different. It felt great to be in his presence. I’ve never noticed that about myself. I had some grad school friends who all got married. They all have kids. They do their golf trips together. They do all that stuff. It’s not my thing and I don’t do that, but every so often, I’m in the city and I reach out.
I stay with them at their house. I hang out with their kids and so on. It’s like, “Uncle Peter’s here,” etc. One of them said something. It was one of the nicest things because it helped me feel good about this. They said, “We don’t see you that often, but when we do, you are so present. You’re giving 100% to this.” I was like, “Thank you,” because I care. I want to enjoy these moments with them and I want to water those roots.
It’s a lesson. We keep trying to not use the word ex because it feels so negative, so I keep saying former husband, which also feels strange. We’re navigating the language. He gave me a big lesson in the roots idea. We would go out, for example. If we would go out on a date, he would leave his phone at home. I’d be like, “Don’t you need that? That’s so strange.” He’s like, “No. You’re here. I’m here with you. I don’t need my phone.” It’s romantic and beautiful, but that’s what he does for friends. I remember being like, “You’re not answering your phone.” He is like, “I was with my friend. I was out. We were talking and I was focused.” He taught me that lesson in quality time.
You said you stayed with friends. When you stay at someone’s home and you get to have those focused, intentional moments with them for 1 night or 2, it was intimate. We got to have this beautiful time together that if I went to the climbing gym with a friend, I wouldn’t have otherwise had. We got to have more in-depth and deeper conversations. I don’t have too many very superficial relationships. There are not too many people in my life that don’t know a lot about me, and I don’t know a lot about them. Maybe that’s good or bad. I don’t know.
You have a barbell approach to relationships. It’s either nothing or everything.
I’m working on it. It can’t be that way, which is the diversity piece of the forest.
It’s okay to have shallow relationships.
I’m learning that.
This process is also a learning experience for me because I am in no way an expert on any of this. I am learning. I’m young. I’m figuring it out, but I am teaching myself it is okay to have relationships that are not super in-depth, especially even in the romantic sexual space. Coming from one partner for many years that we got together when I was eighteen, it’s like, “What does it mean to date? What does it mean to get to know people and make connections and some of them be deep and some of them not be?” It’s not easy. I love to get to know people and get on a deeper level, but it’s okay to have different types of relationships, too.
That’s good. Next is decay.
I wrestle with this piece of the analogy because it’s the hardest for maybe a lot of people or maybe me up until 2022 to come to terms with. This is why I love the forest analogies. You walk into the forest and things are dying everywhere. There is so much death in a forest. There are dead animals, but that’s not what you think of. When you walk into a forest, you’re not thinking about death. You’re thinking life. You think of life when you think of a forest. The only way that there can be life in a forest is with death and decay.
If I think of a forest as a community in our lives, the only thing we can count on is death and change. Death may be literal, like losing people in our lives, but it can also mean death to endings. There are connections ending and pieces of our identity changing. I believe that a community-oriented life allows us to process it because it shows us what beauty can come from processing those things, moving through the decay, and letting it feed into the forest. I think a lot about grief as it is not the opposite of a joyful life, but the product of one.
That’s one of the other things I starred, circled, and underlined. It’s a powerful idea. It came up a different way in one of my solo thoughts episodes about getting stood up.
When you love the life you live and something goes wrong, it’s going to hurt more. I read this quote, which helped me during the time that I lost my grandma. It was grief is love with nowhere to go. Community gives it somewhere to go. It gives us a place to transform our grief. When we’re in grief and we have nowhere to put it, it’s so much love and a lot of love. We can put it back on the forest floor.
I think about energy as a zero-sum game. Our capacity to love is very big, but our energy is limited. I’ve gone through a lot of friendship breakups in my life. They’re connections that have died without me wanting them to and some that I have let die. It hurt because I loved them. I love my people and I invest in the time that I take.
By processing, I was able to pull from those relationships what I loved without holding resentment. It’s being able to transform that into something more beautiful. Maybe it’s in me. Maybe it’s in those friendships. It also frees up energy and frees up space for other things. Things die in the forest to create space for something new. That’s how I see decay as important in community-building.
The obvious one is that we’re going to lose people. The older you get, the more you’re going to lose if you know you’re lucky enough to grow old. It’s why it’s important to have age diversity. This is devastating. There are old people that everyone in their life has died except them because they didn’t bring youth into their world for whatever reason. This idea of these intentional breakups, in a sense, people get it with dating. They get it with romance.
We’re cultural learners, and I’m a good learner. I can learn the rules of the game. I can learn them and I can play them. I’m almost too good at it in some ways. Why is it that when you break up with someone, they have to then go away? That’s why I liked your celebratory divorce, or joyful divorce, in a sense. Why can’t we transition this relationship into something else? What ends up happening is that people get that. They know, like, “We once were dating, and now, we can’t anymore.”
Sometimes, it means perhaps because the breakup was for such bad reasons that you can’t trust that person anymore, or you’re not safe with that person, or whatever it is. That’s very clear why that decay needs to happen and how that decay needs to happen. When it comes to friendships, in particular, especially close friendships, it’s harder to break up in some ways. Rarely does a friend ever say to you, “You’re great, but I don’t think this is working for me anymore.”
I agree. Since we don’t name it, we are grieving alone. I’ve talked to friends about this a lot, the grieving friend breakups and how because we don’t have a language for it or because we don’t intentionally break up, or if we do, maybe we don’t talk about it. It just happens. We’re grieving alone. When I moved to D.C., I remember I started at this job and I made these two close friends. We got close fast. All of a sudden, we stopped talking. I was reaching out.
I left the job, so things started to distance. It was strange. This has happened a couple of times in my life. In retrospect, if I look back, there were things we didn’t have in common anymore. Conversations were getting a little bit funky. The relationship wasn’t necessarily thriving anymore. We noticed that maybe it wasn’t working. If I was in a romantic relationship with them, we would be naming it and say, “How do we fix this? Maybe we end this and then we’re okay with that.” I grieved alone.
We need to do an episode on friendship breakups.
You do need to do an episode on friendship breakups, 100%. A good friend of mine, Jem, introduced me to this show.
Thank you, Jem.
I wouldn’t be here without her. We had a tough conversation. I gave her a call and we were talking. I was like, “I miss you.” We’d been growing apart a little bit. We are very close. I felt us drifting. I told her. I was like, “When I thought about us drifting, I thought, “If this were a romantic relationship, I would have a conversation with you, see what was going on, and share what was hurting me and you share what was hurting you.” We got to do all of that.
We sat, and probably because we have some language, thanks to your show, of valuing relationships and friendships, it was that. We shared the things that weren’t working between us. I would say we came out the other side with the language to talk through it. I love the idea of remembering to treat your friendships like your romantic relationships and your romantic relationships like your friendships. Think more horizontally about your life.
The friend I referred to earlier lives in Maine. I’m not going to Maine. I’m not making a special trip. I love him, but I’m not doing it. Sometimes, we’ll go a month without talking. That’s not a big deal. The beautiful thing about friendships is that just because you don’t see a person or because you don’t talk to them, it does not diminish the relationship in the way that it would for a traditional romantic relationship. What can end up happening is if there’s a problem, what you can do is defer and avoid it. 1 month turns into 2 months, and then it turns into 3 months. It gets a little weird.
We even go through it with friendships that are close to us. I’m sure you’ve had a friendship, or we all have, that we see all the time, and we’re like, “This is draining me.” It gets toxic and messy because you don’t have the language to talk through it. I don’t know who I was talking to about this. It was a friendship that this friend was in. They’re feeling drained in the relationship. I turned to her and I was like, “If this was a romantic relationship, what would you do?” She’s like, “We’d talk through it and communicate these things.” I was like, “We don’t have that cadence in friendships. Since we don’t have that cadence when we go to communicate in friendships, it’s not received the same way, too.”
I do think it’s because our energy is a zero-sum game. If we are pouring all of our communication energy into our romantic relationships, we don’t have anything left. I don’t have anything left to invest intentionally and deeply in redefining my five friendships if all of my energy is going into making sure my romantic relationship is afloat. It comes naturally. What people in relationships can learn from people that are solo and living this more intentional life is that energy is a zero-sum game. If you want to build a successful community, you got to give less energy to your romantic relationships in the traditional sense. I do believe that. You got to value your relationships more equally.
The data is clear on this. There’s a lot of hand ringing about loneliness, the rise of single living, and the rise of people doing things alone. I don’t happen to view those things as necessarily bad. Loneliness is unevenly distributed. Being alone is not necessarily a good predictor of loneliness. The singles who are thriving or the people who tune in to this show recognize that they need to invest. They put forth that effort. Since they don’t have the one, the soulmate, or whatever demanding so much attention and the world saying, “Why aren’t you paying attention to this person? Why are you doing six months traveling the globe?” these singles get to do that.
Single people have more friendships. They’re more involved in their community. They donate more of their time. There’s a whole bunch of things that they end up doing. What I think that this episode is doing nicely is reminding people not just of the need to do it but orienting them on how to go about doing it. Let’s talk about the last step, this notion of growth.
This will be an easy one.
We tackled the difficult one, which is decay.
The growth is the product of all of this. I think about growth as an essential part of the forest or the community. Growth comes from taking care of your roots. Growth comes from maintaining diversity. Growth comes from allowing the decay to process.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor.
You want to live a remarkable life. You want to grow. This is what I challenge people to think about. You don’t need to live a community-oriented life to survive. You don’t need a forest to survive. You can be like plants in a pot on someone’s porch. You can do that if you want to. You will survive. Maybe you won’t live as long. I love the Okinawan longevity tradition of moai for this reason. Okinawa is 1 of the 4 blue zones in the world. Blue zones are known as areas with people who live very long.
One of the components of this for the Okinawan population is the concept of moai. They are these social support groups that are created at birth. You’re paired with five other children outside of your family structure. A lot of these support groups last into the hundreds. They’re meant to provide social, financial, health, and spiritual support. The reason that the Okinawan population is in a blue zone living remarkably and thriving, is because of their community or their forest. You don’t have to want to live a remarkable life, I suppose. It’s something that I want. If you want that growth, you need a forest or a community. It’s the fruits of your labor.
Single people can exist because of a variety of things, but one of the things is technology. There’s been a series of inventions that allow someone to live alone for the first time in human history when you think about it. When we were hunter-gatherers, to go at it alone meant certain death. It was hard to go at it alone, but we have washing machines. We have DoorDash. We have refrigerators. We have all these things. We have apartment buildings.
One of the most useful things that allow someone to go at it alone is the telephone. It’s like I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. That alone allows you to exist as a single person in the world. If you wanted to be quite isolated, there are some people who that is exactly the world that they want to be in. They’re tuned that way. Most of us aren’t.
It’s lazy when scholars and lay people say, “Humans are social creatures.” You’re like, “We don’t want constant socialization. There’s an optimal level that’s there.” What you’re highlighting is that you can go at it 100% alone. You may put yourself at some risk, but we live in a pretty safe world. We live in a world of abundance and so on. If you can make enough money to support yourself, you can do this, but unless you’re tuned that way, it’s not the best life.
There’s a lot of research. A The reason that technology exists is because of people. You talked about the telephone and needing to contact people. Even the idea of all of these things was created, it’s not that I created them and allowed them to exist. What I think is important is this. I don’t think anyone can go at it completely alone. The idea is that if you are thriving in a garden, you’re going to have one quality of life.
What I challenge people to pursue is the forest. When I think about the forest, the forest is not your significant other, 1 kid or 2, and a couple of friends you have down the street. What I’m trying to challenge is that that is not a forest. What I am trying to challenge people to see is that a forest is bigger. There’s a lot more to community living that I would encourage. It goes back to the tentative name for this episode, which is Freedom in Communities.
I have not written a research paper on this, so haven’t done the statistical analysis. I studied econometrics. I am not going to say anything causes anything. It would make me cringe, but I would bet that there is a strong correlation between people’s feelings of freedom and people’s sentiments around freedom and their ability to do things alone the larger and intentional their community is. You said that it’s focused time. It’s not about how we’re social creatures in the sense that we need human connection. It’s about focused human connection.
I am much less lonely when I live by myself because I have more energy to give in my moments of socialization. If I’m constantly in contact with people, I don’t have any energy to give anymore. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m trying to differentiate that we all need some type of human connection to survive. There’s a certain level of human connection that allows us to survive and live, and then there’s a certain type that allows us to thrive and live remarkably. I believe, and people can completely disagree, that that is choosing the forest versus the garden.
Let’s talk about cultivating this forest. I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the challenges of it. People are exhausting. It’s not always, but sometimes.
This is where people reading and who know me are going to be like, “You’re a social person. You know how to talk to people. It’s easy for you.” I loved your episode on being an only child. I’m an only child. I don’t know if maybe that puts anything into context, but I was forced at a young age. I didn’t have siblings. When I wanted to go and hang out with people, I got to pick up the phone. I went to my landline and I called all my friends in my book. I’m realizing this. I made more friends because I wouldn’t depend on just one friend.
We’re the same person. I get in my car to do a drive and I call the first number. If there’s no answer, I hang up or leave a message. I then go to the next number. I call, hang up, and message. I may go through seven phone numbers before someone picks up the phone. We’re playing.
People will read this and they’ll be like, “I wasn’t the first person you called.” This is where I get to say we need to stop ranking. It drives me crazy. It’s not in English, and I’m sorry for those readers that would love a book to read in English. It’s called the Polyamorous Dilemma. It’s originally in Spanish. It’s also in Portuguese, which is why I read it. Brigitte talks about how we attach so much emotional value in ourselves to being ranked as the best in someone’s life. I’ve inherently never done that. I do the same thing. I’m in a car and I’m not going to feel bad. I’m also not going to take it personally when someone doesn’t answer the phone.
People have busy lives.
I don’t know where we started, but that was it.
It was about being an only child.
I was on the landline and calling all of my friends. People are always like, “It’s easy for you to meet people.” I turned to them and said, “It was not always easy. It’s a learned skill.” I was an anxious kid and I’m an anxious person. I suffer from a lot of anxiety. I suffer from depression. It’s not that I do some of these things and they come that easy to me.
I’m an outspoken person. I’m outgoing and I socialize, but it doesn’t mean any of it is easy. If you get enough wins in that space, it has then trained my brain to say, “The courage is not the absence of fear, but knowing that something else is more important than fear.” I move through the fear, which is that I’m anxious. This is putting myself out there. This makes me nervous, but I know that the worst-case scenario is I get rejected, like someone doesn’t answer the phone.
The best-case scenario is I cultivate this beautiful relationship. That best-case scenario is worth a little bit of anxiety. It’s to put myself out there. I don’t want to diminish the little bit of anxiety. It can be a lot of anxiety. It’s paralyzing anxiety. I don’t know the advice to give there other than sharing with people that are reading this that may feel anxious is that I promise it’s worth it.
I’ll add something. Brené Brown said that vulnerability is an act of bravery. Making a new friend is an act of vulnerability. It’s a brave thing to do. I have all my sayings. One of my sayings is that anything worth doing is going to be difficult. It being such a good thing doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy necessarily.
If it was easy, it wasn’t of value. I’m going to name Jem. Her neighbor, Steve, gave us a lot of good quotes to get through grad school. That was one of them. We would be studying all night. He looked at us and said, “If it was easy, it wasn’t of value.” We were like, “Okay.”
That’s good. There’s the challenge of making and maintaining. We’ve talked about the challenge of the sun setting these relationships, which is necessary. The two of us see eye to eye on this notion of relationship hierarchy. I’m a flat hierarchical person in my life. I don’t want to rank. I want to put people in buckets, but not rank order.
We value different versus better or worse.
That’s right. You had already talked about this notion of quantity versus quality. You need enough quantity because people won’t always be there due to circumstances or otherwise. One of the things that I feel so lucky about my friendships is I can be honest with these people. I can not be my best. I don’t have to manage their perceptions of me. That enhances our relationship. It doesn’t hurt it. They may not always agree with me, but they respect me. They know that I’m going to be honest with them.
If you’re doing that, you’re creating space for them to do the same. You’re leading by example. If I am honest and vulnerable, that means that someone else feels permission to do that in the relationship. You’re probably cultivating better friendships because they’re like, “I don’t have to put on a show. He’s not putting on a show.” It’s better because of it.
What are some other ways to cultivate this forest to deal with the challenges of it?
I love this and I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Some new things have come to mind as we’ve been talking. The first that I would share is pretty simple. I love the saying we are the five people we spend the most time with. Clearing out the forest is looking at your community. We’ve got a community. We’ve got people in our lives. We’ve got relationships. Whether or not we’re defining them or naming them, it’s existing, or whether it’s creating a map of your energy and where it’s going.
I’m a big-budgeter. If my mom read this, she’ll smile at this. She always taught me, “You can tell your money where to go or your money can tell you where to go.” It’s the same thing in our relationships. If you’re new to community-building, lay out what’s going on in your community. Who are the five people you’re spending the most time with? Is that who you want to be? Is that the space you want to be in? Do you see what’s missing in the forest? What are the pieces? What is the diversity that’s missing for that growth? What roots need to be watered? What’s being overwatered? What’s being under-watered? Mapping it out feels like the first step.
That could be sobering or it can be exhilarating. I like paper. I’m a paper guy. I’m not a digital guy. I’m an old-school analog guy. I got my pens. I did something interesting for the first time along these lines. I didn’t draw the network, although I once had a six degrees of separation party.
Tell me more.
It got renamed as a stranger danger party. That’s the alternative form of it. I threw this party many years ago. It was a very simple thing. I invited my friends. They could invite someone who didn’t know me and the person that they invited could invite someone who didn’t know them. I put up a big 6.6 poster board on the wall of my house. I wrote Pete and I put a circle around it. What people did was they connected.
My friend Julie was there. Julie wrote Julie, circled her name, and put a little thing there. This was a community. There were my friends who knew Julie. There were lines going from them and so on. It was this enormous thing. Julie, who people know from the show, won most connected. She had 30 connections at this party. It was a fun thing to do. We then gave an award to the least connected. Someone was a friend of a friend out on an island.
I want to tell you. That party went crazy. It was one of those epic parties. I did something because I had been thinking about friendship. I wrote down all my friends. They were not all my friends ever in history or anything like that. It was almost like the telephone game I play. I was like, “Who’s the first call?” I wasn’t ranking them, but it was like, “Who’s top of mind?” What it’s gotten me doing is I’d be like, “I haven’t talked to Nate in a long time. I should probably send him a text or something.” It’s that thing to be able to water some roots that might be a little bit under-watered at the moment.
That, to me, is an act of love. How many times do we write down our partners’ names? The act of writing down our friends’ names and acknowledging them in our lives is a form of acknowledgment. We’re saying, “You exist to me. You’re in my life.” That is an act of acknowledgment to me. I’m already thinking of another tip, so I’m going to stop there, but that’s lovely.
For me, it was exhilarating because it was a long list. I was like, “Wow.” I think of It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s the final scene. I wish I could remember the exact line, but it was about a man who has friends. The whole community comes out to support George Bailey. I was like, “Wow.” I didn’t have any real sense of it until pen went to paper. The sobering thing would be that you start that act and there’s a lot of white space on the page. That might be a call to action.
I did a similar activity in wedding planning. It felt like our wedding was put on by a community. We did food trucks. We had people that were like, “We’ll give you this. We’ll put this.” Someone’s like, “I have lights. I’ll donate those to you.” It was amazing. We were in a backyard. When we were sitting down on that list, we had to write down everybody we loved. We were like, “Who’s making the cut? Who’s not making the cut?” I also think a lot about parties, bringing together the people that we love, and mapping it out in that way. It was a sobering experience. We were like, “Who haven’t we talked to in a long time? How are we nurturing this connection?” It was a sobering experience.
My wedding was probably one of the best days of my life. I speak also for Steven because all of the people we loved were in one place. It’s not to say I don’t love my family. I love my family, but we don’t have a huge family. Even if all my blood-related family was there, the majority of the people in my life are friends. Who was there was our chosen family. People we handpicked in our lives were all there. Since I’ve lived that intentionally, mapping it out can be such an exhilarating experience if you’ve taken the time over your life to handpick your people.
For those of you that maybe are drowning and giving a lot of energy to a blood-related family that feels confusing, it’s helpful to map those out, too, and who they are to you. People can disagree. Family, to me, is not defined by blood. Do I have a blood-related family that I love? Yes. Do I have a blood-related family I do not speak to? Absolutely. It’s not because they’re related to my blood that I’m obligated. That may be an opinion, but it’s important.
There are good evolutionary reasons for a family to be paramount. Those evolutionary reasons don’t matter as much, especially in the present day. This notion of calling a team or calling a community is a powerful idea. We have a tendency to think about having other people in our lives for survival reasons. You’ve made a compelling case that we have other important people in our lives to help us thrive and to live remarkably.
I’m giving you the final thought. This is clearly something that you care about. It’s something that you’re cultivating, especially in this new phase of life as you transition into this relationship and as you’re going through your own personal and professional changes. I can imagine the person reading this being a little bit overwhelmed by it all or a little bit intimidated by it. Where would you tell them to start?
I’ve already given something more tactical, so I’m going to say mapping and all of that that is a tactical starting place.
Let’s assume that people say, “I’m going to think about my community,” and they’re going to put pen to paper or digits on a keyboard. They’re going to write out the people in their life and look at that list.
The starting place is you’re going to write that list and you’re going to look at it. Maybe you won’t like this piece of advice. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. You’re going to look at that list and it’s going to be scary. If you’re excited about the list and you’re like, “I’ve got everything down,” then you don’t need whatever it is I’m going to say. If you look at your list and you’ve already got a forest, then you’re not the person that needs it. The person that’s going to look at the list or map and see so much white space, maybe even see people taking up energy that they don’t want, and have to make big changes, I would say, “Dive in.” I’m not going to promise that it’s going to be easy, but it’ll be worth it.
I wish there was one piece of advice and I’m like, “Go and do this. This is the key,” but I don’t think that that’s the case. It’s a few things. It’s a give-and-take. Part of community-building is both giving and asking. It’s both giving and taking. One of the things that I value the most when I know a friend cares about me is when they ask me for help. Do the same. Reach out to your community. Look at your map. There is going to be somebody on there that you’re like, “I want to keep them in my forest.” Reach out to them. Reach out to that person. Lean on Those two people in your life that are going to be in your forest for a minute. Keep focusing on the best-case scenario, whether it’s going out and doing things.
I love doing things alone because when you go out and you go to places alone, you’re more opt to meet people and do things alone. I can give some thoughts on community events and how to find them. I love finding those pieces. It’s going to be scary. Embrace it. It’s okay that it’s scary. If it’s scary, it means you’re doing it right. Know that the more things are going to hurt and the more you’re going to feel impacted, it means that you’re falling in love with your life. When you start to fall in love with your life and the people in your life, you’re opening yourself up to hurt, but it’s worth it to live that way.
It is to live on your edge. Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me. This was great.
- Monique Murad
- The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake
- Relationship Anarchy – past episode
- The Only Child – past episode
- Polyamorous Dilemma
About Monique Murad
I am Monique Murad – I’m 27 and living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, daughter of Brazilian immigrants, an only child, raised mostly by my single mom and grandma.
I received my Bachelor’s degree in International Studies, and my Masters in International Affairs with a focus on Economics from UC San Diego. Since graduate school, I’ve worked in research and consulting in the areas of business to business markets, corporate and federal strategy and culture development, international development and corporate social responsibility.
I love to climb, dance, be in the ocean, spend time with my people, and am a bit of an inspiration addict. In Rio, I am in the process of becoming the new host of their Creative Mornings chapter – a global monthly speaker series that seeks to bring together the creative community, celebrating the idea that everyone is creative. I am in the process of a (celebratory) divorce, and joyfully pursuing an intentionally solo life that feels most authentic to me.