Could the Loss of Tribe be Jeopardizing Your Marriage?

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(Image/Carl Fleming)
(Image/Carl Fleming)

Because I’m an only child, my friends have been hugely important to me forever, and I think it was an unidentified factor in my divorce.

From grade school through high school and college, I was immersed in social activity. When I was little, I was playing at friends’ houses. When I was in high school, I was involved in team sports, or part-time jobs or doing things typical of a teenage boy in the mid- to late-‘90s. My college years were unquestionably my favorite from a How I Felt on the Inside standpoint.

I lived with my friends. Good friends. And we were, most of the time, doing whatever we wanted.

Little stress. Tons of laughter. An almost inexplicable amount of social connection, all accomplished without social media which was still a few years away from being a fundamental part of our societal fabric.

We weren’t carrying our challenges alone. Oh, you need your furniture moved from your apartment to a storage unit for the summer? Bam. Here are three or four guys willing to do it at the drop of a hat. Our massive social inner circle in college didn’t consist of many fraternity or sorority members, but if fate or happenstance hadn’t brought us all together—male and female, alike—I can see why students would want to be a part of them. After leaving the safety net of our hometowns and high schools, we crave involvement, acceptance, and being part of something bigger than ourselves.

Of course we like being with our families. We also like dating and being with our girlfriends or boyfriends. We totally like spending one-on-one time with our closest friends.

But nothing can replace this critical and fundamental part of our lives which has existed for as long as we can remember, and which grows steadily in importance from grade school through the end of our college years.

Our tribes.

Sudden Tribe Loss and Isolation

My negligent ignorance isn’t the only reason my marriage failed. I spent MY ENTIRE LIFE, just, living. I only knew what I knew. And what I knew was: I feel best when I’m with friends—the more, the merrier—and I am a good, happy, confident person. I am well-adjusted with a huge group of friends, supportive family, with the résumé, writing chops and charisma to justify my goal of writing Pulitzer Prize-winning stories at huge daily newspapers.

I had a 21- to 22-year data sample of knowing exactly who and what I was.

And then, in less than one calendar year, most of us graduated and moved away. But even in the end, after so many of the oldest tribe members had gone, we could still round up 40 or more people for a great party any time we wanted. That’s how kick-ass college was.

And then it was my turn.

My girlfriend and I had been together for a year, and we were making long-term plans. We agreed to move to Florida together from our more-than-20,000-student university in Ohio. A decent mid-sized newspaper on Florida’s Gulf Coast hired me for a business-writing gig. My girlfriend took a job at a marketing agency.

Overnight, two 22-year-old kids went from a lifetime of nothing but friends and family and constant involvement and community, to social isolation and nothing but one another to lean on. We were more than a thousand miles away from our hometowns and you could really feel the distance. My eventual wife missed her family desperately and knew within a few months in Florida that she wanted to be back home. And while I missed my family too, I had spent my entire life living apart from either my mother and her extended family, or my father and his extended family, and was emotionally equipped to deal with it.

But I lost something I never imagined a need to account for: The tribe.

We lived in a sleepy retirement community that would probably be amazing today as 36-year-olds, but mostly blew ass as fresh-faced young professionals dealing with culture shock on a variety of emotional, social, professional and financial fronts. We made wonderful friends and did our best, but only flying home for that rare wedding or holiday gathering could ever fill that tribal void.

Everything came to a head at the wedding of one of my best friends. We were tight all the way through high school, and I lived with him for four years of college. My girlfriend and I flew back to attend. I was a groomsman.

Because I had gone to grade school and high school with both the bride and groom, as well as four years of college with the groom, I knew pretty much everyone there. Tons of high school friends. Tons of college friends. Tons of familiar parent and sibling faces. After being away for two years, combined with heavy drinking, it wasn’t hard to get nostalgic.

I’ve written hundreds of times about crying throughout the hardest days of my separation and divorce. This night, as I drunkenly said bye to hundreds of people as they scrambled off to hotels or after-parties or back home, was the first time I remember crying as an adult. And pretty hard, too. Hugging guys goodbye, I mostly kept it together, but I remember riding shotgun in the passenger seat of a car driven by the first friend I made after moving to my hometown when I was just 6. That’s when I broke down. With my girlfriend sitting in the back next to some newlyweds who would end up being our future son’s godparents five years later. It was a drunken, totally embarrassing shit show that still evokes a little bit of shame. But perhaps no moment in my life more clearly emphasizes how critical my tribe was to my life and identity.

I am more me when surrounded by friends and family than under any other circumstances. The me I like most. The me I’m proud of.

Even back in Ohio for the past decade, I still feel that daily void because I’m a couple hundred miles from my hometown family and friends, and more recently with the loss of my large in-law family following the divorce.

I can’t explain it better than it’s written in this excerpt from Why Growing Up Is Hard to Do (But Why the World Still Needs Adults):

Isolation and the Loss of Tribe

“For most adults, the period of life they are most nostalgic for is high school and/or college. The longing for this period is usually chalked up to a desire to return to a time when they weren’t so freighted with life’s responsibilities. Surely that is part of it, but I think the real reason we miss our youth is often overlooked: it was the last time in our lives when we experienced a sense of “tribe.”

In high school and college, most of us had a group of great friends we saw on a daily basis. Many of us ran with a “gang” of guys, that sometimes joined with a posse of gals, forming a coed tribe that was enormously fun to hang out with.

Then, folks grew up, paired off, got hitched, and had kids. Few adults see their friends on a daily basis; the lucky see each other weekly, and for most, scheduling times to get together isn’t easy. It is then no wonder we get nostalgic for our younger days; it represents the last time our lives resembled the primordial pattern.

In hunter-gatherer tribes, male gangs hunted and battled together. Female posses raised their kids together. Everyone lived and worked together each day with dozens of others. Burden and joys were shared. One’s whole identity was tied up in being part of this tribe.

Today, we have never been more isolated. Many folks don’t even live near their extended kin, and the nuclear family is increasingly marooned on the desert island of the suburbs. Men (and women) go off to work in a cubicle with a bunch of fellow employees they may feel no real kinship with. Many women spend all day enclosed in the four walls of their home, cut off from all other humans, save their inarticulate toddler. Many people, male and female alike, are lonely and unhappy because they are without a tribe.

The heavy and undesirable weight of adulthood is often mistakenly chalked up to the burden of adult responsibilities alone. But the problem is not adulthood itself, but how it is currently being carried. The weight of earning a livelihood, and rearing one’s children, which was meant to be borne by numerous shoulders, is now supported by just a pair. Husband and wife rely on one another for all their emotional fulfillment and practical needs. The strain is more than an individual, or the nuclear family, was meant to bear.

So, (another) reason it’s hard to grow up is that the weight of adulthood feels hard to shoulder when you’re carrying it alone, instead of with a tribe.”

The Loss of Tribe and Its Effect on Your Marriage

This wasn’t supposed to be about me. It was supposed to give married or long-term couples something to think about, because I think when we go through major life changes, we are sometimes blind or ignorant to some of the hidden dangers inherent in those changes.

My girlfriend/fiancée/wife openly expressed displeasure with my constant longing for the big-group social life I’d always known. She was content with four-person dinner parties, and preferred them. With age, I grew to enjoy them more too. But I could never shake (and still haven’t) the deep, organic desire to be part of a large social circle and reclaim that vibrant social life.

Sometimes I get together with large groups when visiting family or friends back home, or at big (by adulthood standards) parties with a group of college friends. With the exception of the priceless father-son moments I’m blessed to have, nothing feels like home quite like these moments.

I think my wife saw it as a sign of immaturity. An unwillingness to grow up. I think she thinks I wanted to drink excessively and smoke pot all the time like we did in college. But that’s really not it. And any guy reading this who still regularly sees his band of brothers will appreciate the distinction. It’s the togetherness that matters more than the specific activity.

I think my wife felt disrespected and possibly even pangs of inadequacy because of it. Almost like because I wanted to be part of a large crew (or back with my old one again) that I was saying You’re not good enough! I need more than you can provide! I’d rather be with my friends than you! And she didn’t like it.

There isn’t one member of my excellent group of old or current friends I want to live with every day for the rest of my life. In a lifetime of thriving in a borderline-village-like family and social life, I simply wished I had more time with them built into my life.

My wife accidentally (she wasn’t being shitty; she was being emotional and wanted me to feel like she was more than enough to be happy) made me feel ashamed of my desire for a social life independent from her. Not that she wasn’t invited and welcome to be a part of it. She simply didn’t want to be. I think some couples are good at both being part of the same tribe. It just worked out for me that I married a more-private, more-introverted person who preferred small groups.

Her “tribe” cravings were satisfied by moving back near her hometown, and it was her family that filled that support network void for her.

She and a smattering of new friends were all I had to lean on.

And maybe that wasn’t enough for me, without me realizing it. Maybe neglecting and denying this fundamental part of me in favor of trying to make my wife happy ended up accidentally causing more harm than good. And maybe this same conflict (which people may or may not be discussing with their spouses) is causing unspoken, and even undetected, conflict in many other relationships.

We grow up whether or not we want to.

And everything feels a little bit harder and a little bit heavier as time marches on. We lose things. Family members. Friends. Jobs. Money. Lifestyles. We gain things. Marriages we don’t know how to nurture. Children we don’t know how to raise. Debts we don’t know how to pay. Weight we don’t know how to shed. Guilt we don’t know how to let go of.

It feels hard to be an adult.

And I’m wondering just how much this cultural loss-of-tribe dynamic might be playing a role in that. How much of all this burdensome adulthood stuff is more difficult because now it’s just us in our private homes trying to do everything alone that not long ago in our evolutionary history, was being done by an entire village? By a community? By a tribe?

Just like men are often oblivious to the emotional needs of their wives, I’m wondering to what degree women might be oblivious to this need their husbands or boyfriends feel, and maybe also feel for themselves. The need to be part of something bigger.

Maybe being part of a tribe is more important than we think.

Maybe wives and mothers, husbands and fathers SHOULDN’T be solely responsible for fulfilling the needs of their partners and children.

Maybe people AREN’T always practicing neglect or immaturity by needing the support of friends, or going out with them.

Maybe it’s something more of us almost need to do.

Maybe it’s something we need to better understand.

And just maybe, if we do, more of us will find what we’ve been looking for.

28 thoughts on “Could the Loss of Tribe be Jeopardizing Your Marriage?”

    1. Thank you, Leslie.

      As I was reading that article about the mental and emotional challenges people face dealing with the transition to adulthood, I kept finding little thought-provoking nuggets to think about.

      I write a lot about marriage, and some people might think I oversimplify things, but I’m not convinced I do. Sometimes, these seemingly obvious things go unnoticed by two people just stuck in routine and accidentally taking life and one another for granted, in the way humans are prone to do. We don’t know anything’s wrong until it becomes cancerous and nearly kills us, or actually does.

      And I think this might be one of those topics.

      In fact. I’ll bet ANYTHING, that if we could round up every married couple in history, and evaluate how involved in, and supported by family and social “tribes” they are, we’d discover that the really involved and connected people (especially if they’re in the SAME tribes) have predominantly healthy and stable relationships, and that isolated couples doing their own thing all the time and tackling life alone are more prone to the types of things we see in all these slow-death relationships.

      This “tribe” concept is something I’m going to continue to learn more about. I think it’s a lot more important than most people realize.

      Thanks for reading, Leslie.

      1. I agree with you that relationships require a lot of external support. But again, that would be no guarantee that it would work out. We’ve been married a very long time and marriages go through their ups and downs. You often have to stick with it when it gets rough and wait for things to smooth out. Love and respect are indispensable in the experience.

      2. Julie Sandweg

        I felt this post very deeply. I miss my tribe. My husband has a very small, nearly non-existent group of friends and does not makes friends easily as I do. I want him to be involved socially, but he makes it so difficult. Sigh…. It is hard for me as a very friendly person who makes friends easily. I feel the loss of fun and carefree interaction. Over the years, I feel like it has been a series of “setting him up” with social groups, all of which he has essentially rejected or his personality doesn’t doesn’t click for them and they show disinterest in him. I understand your feelings and sometimes just want to play like other couples do without all of the WORK.

  1. I try not to get too “churchy” on here but I cannot stress enough, how right you are. For me personally, my tribe is my life group at my church. They are my dear, precious friends who loved me and my family before the divorce, walked with me through the divorce…Like, unbelievably so….and to this day, take care of my family. We meet together every week with our kids, eat a meal in our homes, catch up with our lives together, study the bible (obviously) and pray for one another. On top of that, we regularly schedule girls/guys night-out events. We watch one another kiddos so couples can have date nights. We CONSTANTLY send group texts to one another to rejoice together or mourn together. The guys in my group put up my Christmas lights every year on my house and they took two days to cut down a GNARLY bougainvillea plant that was WAY overgrown… we support each other by attending funerals of grandparents – even though we’d never met them….it’s ridiculous how “tribal” we really are. When my ex left us, my friends came over and literally prayed in my living room for 4 hours…just crying and praying..we pushed the furniture back and just circled up on the floor. We are not playing around in our love for each other…and we continually build one another up. Obviously, I could go on and on and on and on… I cannot imagine life without my tribe and I sincerely feel bad for people who don’t have what I have. It’s not the most fun holding someone accountable to their marriage commitment or their financial goals but we understand the high calling of accountability if we want to be true friends and we accept those terms too. Excellent post, friend.

    1. This was a good topic I think everyone can relate to. For me it made me think of my (rocky) marriage. I have resentment towards him a little because he gets to keep his friends. Not that I want every second of his life lol just seems like I gave up my social life and friends to raise a family and be a family, but him not so much. But yes, everybody needs their tribe for sure. For the good times as well as the bad.

      1. Yeah. I don’t know anything about your life story. But in an ideal world, we don’t have our own friends when we’re married. Everyone becomes family. And couples are immersed in, if not all, at least most, activities together.

        You shouldn’t have had to sacrifice your entire identity because someone wasn’t willing to help you shoulder life’s responsibilities.

    2. I’m glad you had that support network during the divorce process. That makes sense to me. The guy I hang out with the most has a crew like that. Any major life traumas and it’s all hands on deck from maybe dozens of people ready to chip in and help.

      For people who didn’t want to stay in their hometowns, or didn’t find a large community through involvement in something else (like me, really) there’s an opportunity for people to start rethinking how they spend their time.

      I’m sure it’s trickier for naturally introverted people.

      Probably why online interaction is so popular. 😉

  2. My husband is also an only child, and had a large group of friends in high school that he spent soooo much time with. He didn’t go to college, but the high school group tried to stick together for a long time until they all moved away and many of them actually began acting like adults. Over the past decade or so he’s down to one really close guy friend. They are so close that said friend acted as the alibi and facilitator during my husband’s affair. Of course I would prefer he find new friends and dump the alibi guy, but your post gives me a different perspective on his insisting that the guy is his “best friend” and why he is so unwilling to give him up. It doesn’t mean I trust the friend any further than I can throw him, but maybe I can see his side.

    1. Facilitating affairs isn’t something “friends” do. But I’ve never been put in that spot, so I can’t speak to what choices I’d make.

      This most certainly wasn’t about defending bad influences and negative forces in marriage. To be sure, guys that go out drinking with the guys all the time, and play golf or whatever every weekend or damaging their marriages (unless maybe their wives are there too).

      But I also think there has to be a balance.

      When we partner up and head toward or into marriage, we should be encouraging our partners to stay connected to their groups, and perhaps to get involved in one or more together.

      Because I think that sense of community and togetherness can be part of the bond that holds us together.

      1. Oh no, I didn’t take your post as defense for making bad choices or allowing poor influences into our lives.

        It was this – “Maybe people AREN’T always practicing neglect or immaturity by needing the support of friends, or going out with them” that made me think.

        This friendship is one sticking point in our reconciliation process, and I haven’t been able to wrap my head around the reason why. Its a long, long story that I won’t go into here, but this post really did help and get me thinking about the bigger picture.

        So, thank you!

  3. Me too! I am happiest when surrounded by lots of noise, lots of laughter and lots of people. Luckily, my family provides me with plenty of that. 🙂

    1. When I’m around them (either my mother or father’s side), I have the same. I’m blessed in that way.

      My personal challenge here will be building that locally and giving that example to my son because, outside of school, he doesn’t have it naturally built into his life like I did.

      Important stuff. 🙂

  4. Tribes are important. When we move to a new location it can be difficult to find a new tribe, and can take a lot of time.
    Sometimes, we can be part of the wrong tribe for us, and we may need to move or find a new tribe.
    Life is hard, isn’t it.

    1. Life is sometimes challenging. Yeah. I never realized the impact of moving away. Because I always made friends so easily, it really shocked me to move somewhere as a married adult and discover that unless you’re intentionally involved in big group activities, it just doesn’t happen for adults in places where they don’t have roots.

  5. Hello Matt,
    I remember our discussion about emotions.
    There is something seminal in what you just posted that has to do with why so many women hate their husbands’ friends.
    It has to do with divide and conquer. (Same thing with men who do it to women who try to maintain friendships.) Some are meant to survive and deepen; others are meant to die a natural death, but in attempting to make that decision for the other party, neither one gets the chance to see the friendships either prosper or wither according to evolution and natural selection.
    That’s why group therapy works the way it does.
    It’s harder to pull off emotionally-laden bullshit control trips when the rest of the gang is around.
    The worst up-past-four-AM argument between two people could never survive an hour of group.
    Few of the people we know in our lives are worth the effort it takes to maintain the friendship, but the ones that do are sometimes better than family. They give us stability and a horizon line, as well as continuity.
    Blogging, for instance is an electronic-age version of the fireside chautauqua.
    We crave connection with others.
    You should strive to maintain the good relationships and forget the ones that aren’t worth your time, once you outgrow them.
    Friendships have a way of growing up around us, even in unfamiliar settings…like wildflowers, if we just let them happen instead of searching.
    Tribes take a commitment of time and energy, and most of us are too selfish and self-absorbed to bother.
    I think that is a shame, but there is a question of balance between the sense of belonging and one’s own individuality.
    Some things were meant to be solitary…like writing, but once you share that labor of love with others you become part of the community.
    Family is family and friends are friends…your tribe is your church…where you can blend the lines and bend the rules.
    Yeah, life’s hard sometimes…but you are not alone.
    Chazz Vincent

  6. “Maybe people AREN’T always practicing neglect or immaturity by needing the support of friends, or going out with them.”

    Maybe, maybe not. People call it what they will from their judgmental view.
    There is a lot of judgement of others. People get tired of unsolicited opinions.
    Idk about you but I don’t need anymore parenting advise from someone who goes home to their furbabies at night. xo

  7. Tribes are critical. Whether large or small. I have blood, blended and chosen tribes; all are essential to my emotional stability. This despite I am by nature very much an introvert.

    Very good writing here Matt. Thoughtful and full of heart.

  8. Hey Matt,

    Do you realize that you are page one google for keywords “loss of tribe”? I have been suffering from “loss of tribe” for, well, most of my life…but didn’t identify it as those three words. It’s only been really recently that I been able to simplify and pinpoint this exact problem that I feel every single day. I can remember very vivid memories of the feeling though. When Hillary first said (or wrote…whatever) It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, I remember feeling really sad. I was a mother at that time of young child who had some serious issues (still does at age 22). Even though he went to a school that had a kind of bond of like-minded parents (a Steiner school), a child with all sorts of challenges was more of a threat to those parents. I can actually remember thinking “where is the tribe or too bad we don’t have a tribe”.

    Another time I remember being blasted with it was when I walked out of the movie “The Emerald Forest”. I burst into tears when I walked onto the pavement and felt repulsion that I lived in a concrete world and was not part of that tribe who lived in nature.

    I went to sleep-away camp for the whole summer as a kid from age 5-12. I remember coming home one year and walking into my house and feeling like it was just all wrong…the fluorescent lighting, the aqua countertops, the stifling containment of my home…

    I have often thought this feeling was some sort of past life thing, something I couldn’t explain. But lately, more and more, I have come to identify that so many people feel this and that so many of the problems people come to me for (I am a psychotherapist) are a result of loss of tribes. And there is not an easy solution, that’s for sure.

    I watched “The Vikings”and am now in the middle of “The Outlanders”. Violent times in human’s history….and yet I would do exactly what Claire did in Outlanders…I would choose to stay with my tribe.

    My only solution thus far is to stop shutting people out in general. To make myself big enough to include whoever wants to be in with me. That doesn’t mean I make best friends with them…I simply include them as part of my tribe instead of blocking them altogether, if that makes sense.

    Oh, btw, it was also a big break-up and heartbreak that brought all of this much more to the surface…so I do get what you are saying here. The loneliest times of my life have been when in the worst of that whole thing…..truly a time of “where is my tribe when I need them?”

    I hope you read this.this…nothing like writing a heartfelt reply into the ethers of the internet to feel disconnected even more….

    warmly, mj

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  12. Excellent post. I’m curious what your thoughts are about men who have zero friends. My husband has no one, and really only had friends in hs and college, but none of them stuck around, and he stinks at making friends because he’s an introvert and a homebody. He does talk about this concept sometimes though, the tribe, but he looks at it a little differently, and would like his “tribe” to be other women he can be in friendly/intimate relationships with. He’s very interested in polyamory because he says he craves connection with others.
    To me, that just means he needs friends.
    In his mind, he wants closeness and connection and it isn’t necessarily about sexual intimacy- although, it isn’t out of the question.
    I think he’s uncomfortable with male connection because he had a shitty relationship with his dad and then hasn’t had any really good male friends for most of his adult life. He’s also not your typical male, and he just doesn’t have much in common with average guys.
    I think he just needs good friends.
    If we had a shitty relationship or sexual issues, I would be able to understand his desire to explore polyamory, but we are great. I tell him he should explore connection and intimacy with people in a platonic way before diving into poly. I honestly believe his drive to be poly is about his inability to have relationships with males and his inability to have platonic relationships with women.
    I want to know your thoughts on this. I know it veers slightly off-topic, but it all boils down to what I believe is my husband’s craving for a tribe being confused with a need for unhealthy, complicated relationships because he doesn’t trust himself enough to remain platonic with any female friends he has, and he doesn’t like relationships with males.
    What say you?

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