Coming up short.

I had a conversation with a young friend recently that made me rather sad. She’s a lovely young woman who comes from a rather unsupporting family. It’s not that her folk are baaad, it’s just that they’re under-resourced. They’ve always been too busy struggling to look after themselves and each other to find enough time and energy to look after the kids. As a result, she’s had to overcome a variety of issues. Depending on how you measure success, overall she’s either doing reasonably well for a “normal” person or spectacularly well for someone with her background.

One of the things she’s not doing terribly well at, though, is relationships. I’m a tad biased here because I like her, but her current boyfriend is a giant poopoohead who does not deserve her and should have mud thrown at him. He wasn’t a poopoohead at the start of the relationship, btw. He behaved impeccably. It’s only when he realised that she was committed that he decided to start acting up, which is often how these things go. She’s now depressingly aware of his giant poopooheadness, and she’s aware that he’s not treating her as she’d like to be treated, and she’s aware that the relationship does not make her happy, and she’s aware that being with him is bringing her no closer to the kind of relationship she would like to be in. But she doesn’t want to break up with him, because then she’d be single. Although being in that relationship doesn’t make her happy, being in no relationship makes her even unhappier.

On the surface, it may sound as if she’s being obtuse. She knows what she wants. She knows that she’s not got it. She knows that if she carries on doing what she’s doing, she’s not going to get it, ever. Yet she’s not changing what she’s doing. Stupid girl, no helping her, move on. And that’s all very well, provided that you don’t look at her entire situation and you completely ignore her point of view.

Her main problem is that she’s lacking in human resources. Her social circle is underpopulated. If she gives up her boyfriend, she will lose one of these people. The remaining people will not be able to help her cope with that loss, nor to help her create a new relationship with someone less poopooheady. Her network does not facilitate much networking.

This must surely be her fault, though! If she was a half-decent person, she would surely be surrounded by BetterPeople©! …except that, if you have a basic understanding of human networks, that isn’t necessarily how it works. Forming new interpersonal relationships, like committing a crime, requires IMO – intent, means, and opportunities. Take any element out, and you don’t get anywhere. In my friend’s case, throughout her childhood she’s had scant opportunities to network, for the simple reason that it’s damn hard to network when you’re stuck home alone (sans internet, to boot). It doesn’t matter how wonderful you are if nobody gets a chance to meet you. And now, as a 20-something living in a poor rural area, where most 20-somethings have already popped a few kids, where there is no community life, where there are no clubs or activities to join, where the official past-time is drinking, it’s damn hard for her to get the opportunity to meet new people, let alone find herself a new partner. Plus, those elusive “better” people are also often busy with their own lives. It’s not a case of just finding them, but finding them and having the chance to convince them that they should give you their time before they’ve gone off to do their thing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an elevator pitch for myself. I’d be wary as hell of people who do.

This is the kind of situation where I find that a lot of lifestyle advice, and particularly self-defence-as-lifestyle-advice tends to fall short. It’s easy to take a statistical, mechanical, rational look at problems that are not statistical, mechanical or rational. They are human problems. And if you don’t take into account the human factor, all you’re gonna do is generate truisms that won’t benefit anyone.

It’s easy to say that in order to form relationships with better people you have to stop hanging out with not-so-good people. But that ignores the fact that, for some people, not-so-good people is all they’ve got. It ignores the fact that most humans are social animals, and find loneliness terrifying. It ignores the fact that social isolation can be a real, practical problem, as well as a psychological one (if you don’t believe me, how well would you cope if your entire support network evaporated overnight and you had any kind of illness, injury or disability? Say you caught pneumonia, or broke your ankle?). It ignores that most people improve their lives by climbing a ladder – using a rung to reach the next rung – rather than just letting go of whatever it is that’s holding them up and hoping that they’re gonna catch a new handhold before they start plummeting towards the ground, because landing hurts.

It also ends up ignoring the fact that when people are hurting, and sad, and painfully aware of how they’re coming up short, they are often not at their best or their bravest. And that when you are painfully aware of how little you’ve got, and how much you need it, it can be infinitely harder to give it all up in the hope for better things that you know you may never get.

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