Disappointing the Village

Navigating Expectations with Grace

“I will disappoint you.” At 42 years old, I awkwardly start out my friendships this way now, unlike the confident swagger of my six-year-old who goes up to someone he doesn’t know and says, “I like you, let’s be friends.”

Over the years I’ve gotten weary in battles with myself. I’m good at forming a connection. I travel and meet people. Call it my personality type, but I want everyone to feel seen, and known, and loved. The problem is, I’m very limited, and feel like I’m getting more limited by the day.

For instance, hang out with young moms for any length of time, and you’ll hear complaints that there isn’t a village anymore. What they mean is that families don’t live in groups anymore, where the grandmas help care for the babies, and women stay in bed and are fed for a month after birth to prevent post-pardum issues, as is traditionally done in many parts of the world. That’s just one example of the village mentality. We raise our kids together. We are all in this together.

Family life is so segmented now. Individuals are more transient than ever. As my pastor often says, it’s hard to meet your neighbors when everyone drives home in their own car, pulls into their own garage, and closes the garage door before they even get out.

Community, village, or even “tribe” are hot button words of “doing life together.” It seems so ideal to have our lives folded in together, bearing one another’s burdens. We would all be better off if we just started living as a community.

While I love this ideal as well, I find it comes with it’s own set of unattainable expectations. We expect the village to fix all the problems. It’s now happened to me multiple times, where one of my friends takes me aside to tell me that they were deeply hurt that I “dropped them.” Come to think of it, I’ve had this same conversation with others as well, telling them they hurt me because they dropped me. This dropping happens when you are friends with someone, and then it feels like they pull back. Without explanation, or maybe insufficient explanation, you hardly see them anymore, and they don’t return texts. When you do see them, they’re withdrawn. That same connection isn’t there.

Some call this ghosting, though maybe more in the dating context. Anyway, I do it a lot. I know I do it. I hate that I do it. I don’t want to do it.

So I’ve started saying up front, when a friendship starts getting off the ground, “Just so you know, sometimes I drop off. Sometimes I struggle with depression in the winter. Sometimes there’s things going on with my family. I want to be your friend, but I don’t want to hurt you. If I drop off, know it’s not you. I’ll always tell you if there’s a problem we need to work through. It’s just sometimes I withdraw, and my withdrawing hurts people sometimes. I haven’t been able to fix that yet.”

They laugh, “Oh, I’m sure you’re a great friend. I can’t imagine that you would …”

Yes. I would. I do. I know my weakness. I have feedback and receipts to show for it.

As I try to work through why I keep hurting people in this way, I find a pattern that is twofold. First, the village doesn’t like boundaries. They want the boundaries to go away. Privacy is read as a lack of trust. They want access to all the information so they can decide if your boundaries you set are valid. They want the lives folded together. This is especially difficult when raising teens, and wanting to keep their struggles private, the village doesn’t like that. Let’s talk about everything. Let’s work on the problems as a group. Mom groups that start out with babies and toddlers fall apart as the kids age and things get more private. New friend groups form.

The village doesn’t like when you say “no” or at least passively rolls their eyes and says “we all have to pitch in” or “Gretchen, we’re all busy.” Setting limits on the relationship is frustrating. Pretty soon, conversations about setting limits are avoided, because you know it’s going to just be one massive guilt trip.

The second part of this pattern is my inability to distinguish between loving people and people pleasing. This, I believe, is a friendship killer. There’s a difference between loving someone (and along with that, willingly sacrificing for them) and sacrificing what shouldn’t be sacrificed so that people will like me. This takes an amount of self-awareness that I’m still working on. This takes the strength to stand up and stand by your “no” sometimes, and allow people to just not like you for it. I hate that.

Also, the last few years it’s felt like I’m drowning. As my family and I are finishing up some commitments, many of which will not be renewed, and saying goodbye to the things that we know I shouldn’t be doing, maybe we’ll find some sanity. And yet, I know that will require battling my tendency to want to be everything to everyone. My own “savior complex.” But in those times when I’m drowning, I simply don’t have the time to explain the problem to everyone who wants to know.

I sometimes just need a friend to be present — to not demand explanations.

“I will disappoint you.” That phrase has been taken sometimes as me telling friends that I’m not working through my issues, and have no intention of changing. That is simply not the case. It’s me living in reality, and sharing that if we are going to be friends, we’re going to have to have it in reality, not in the ideal. I live on planet earth where I’m simultaneously saint and sinner. I will do almost anything for people to like me, and it’s my toxic trait.

When I had young babies, I would bemoan older women not helping me. Now that I have 1, almost 2 adult children, I’ve entered the “sandwich generation” where both the generation above and the generation below me need support. Every stage new stage of life seems to have such large adjustments.

While giving explanations for boundaries or limitations can build intimacy within friendships, I find the best friendships are ones where explanations are seen as a gift, not a requirement. Where intimacy is given, not forced. Unconditional love is best shown before conditions are given. It takes humility to not feel entitled to the knowledge of someone else’s struggle.

In community, I hear stories of people who are gossiped about from withdrawing, or setting uncomfortable boundaries, or ghosting, and then come to find out that person was struggling. I wonder why we are continually surprised by this. When I hear “I wish I would have known” about these situations, I think about the basic doctrines that guide us when we cannot see:

  • We are all born sinful, broken people in need of a Savior.
  • Grace is the only thing that heals things.

Those two things alone negate any “I wish I would have known they were struggling.” We do know. The person in front of you has struggles, and is in need of grace. Sometimes, that’s all we need to know.

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4 responses to “Disappointing the Village”

  1. Allison says:

    I do this and it’s a result of my ADHD. I get overwhelmed and anxious and then I withdraw. I felt like I was drowning all the time before my diagnosis at 42. Now with meds I only feel like I am drowning sometimes.

  2. Pierre says:

    I am very sympathetic to the idea that we’re all busy, we’re all struggling, and we’re all pressed down by the weight of other people’s expectations. That said, the question that comes to mind for me is what do we owe to each other? How can we treat each other with grace? I find it pretty nigh impossible to expect that anyone could build real, lasting emotional intimacy or community with someone who would ‘drop’ them without explanation. I’ve been ghosted frequently in dating and I’m amazed at how prevalent it is, but the fact that it’s commonplace doesn’t make it any less rude or hurtful. The least we can do is offer a little grace to other people, to recognize that friendship actually *asks* something of you. A two-sentence text message by way of explanation or apology is not too much to ask for. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming, I will grant that, but we have to make certain concessions if we’re going to make a go at forging real community.

  3. Susie Barbo says:

    Beautiful truth

  4. Nathan Hoff says:

    So good. So relatable. Thank you Gretchen.

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