When We Lose 'Weak Ties,' Our Relationships Suffer

Lizz Schumer
·8 min read
Photo credit: lvcandy - Getty Images
Photo credit: lvcandy - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

The first time my now-husband and I fought, I was bereft. Fighting back tears in my cubicle at the tiny rural newspaper where I was working at the time, my heart threatened to burst right through my ribcage as my stomach twisted around what felt like shards of glass. And the worst part was, the person I most wanted to talk to about it was the one who’d upset me. Because the relationship was still relatively new, I didn’t want to risk turning my friends or family against him by venting to them. A few moments later, I ran into my coworker at the water fountain. “You will not believe what my boyfriend just did.” Gossip saves the day again.

These conversations with casual acquaintances aren’t just fun, they’re essential to both our wellbeing and primary relationships. In 1973, Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter published The Strength of Weak Ties that introduced the importance of weak ties, or people we interact with on a regular basis who aren't close friends or family (also known as strong ties). Realizing how much these second- or third-tier contacts really matter in our lives forever changed the way we look at our social structures.

Small Interactions Really Matter

Think about what your day looked like pre-pandemic. Maybe you exchanged pleasantries with the barista while grabbing your morning coffee and exchanged knowing glances with fellow commuters when the train was delayed. Then you might have recapped last night’s game with Joey from sales while passing through the break room. Maybe you caught up on the latest PTA gossip with other parents as you picked up your kids from school, or commiserated about your still-fresh breakup with the bartender while waiting for your buddies to arrive at happy hour.

While you may not even have noticed the loss of these interactions after we shifted to remote work, curbside pickup or takeout and Zoom socializing, those weak ties serve two important purposes. They provide the social fabric of our society, linking us to each other in small but happiness-boosting ways. And they can provide an objective sounding board for everything from commuting stress to relationship woes, that our primary partners, family members and roommates can’t fill in the same way.

Acquaintances Serve as a Sounding Board

“Weak ties are important because then we're not relying on the people that we live with,” explains Annette Nunez, psychotherapist and founder of Not Your Standard Doctor. “It gives individuals another outlet to express what they're feeling.” That’s important because humans need nonjudgmental outlets in order to process and work through things that we go through in our day-to-day lives.

“Oftentimes, people will use these loose connections almost as their therapy sessions,” Nunez explains. “They don't know your immediate family. They don't know your close friends. So it's a safe place to get more objective opinions and speak more freely about things that are going on personally within you.” But most of us aren’t going to email coworkers about the way your roommate always forgets to squeeze out the dish sponge, or how your mother-in-law just refuses to wear a mask at the grocery store. You probably aren’t going to set up an appointment to ask whether your quarantine haircut makes your face look lopsided the way you might if you just ran into someone. Losing those interactions makes us feel more isolated and many of us turn the resulting emotions inward, instead.

Narrowing Our Social Circles Can Strain Them

Our worlds have shrunk considerably over the past year and with that, our weak ties have all but broken while our strong ties stretch under a disproportionate load. What feels like a lifetime ago, I took the train half an hour each way to work and often attended press events, went to a play or concert, or met up with friends at a noisy bar or restaurant after work. Without realizing it, I saw and interacted with a bunch of people throughout an average day. Now, my partner and I work from home and get our groceries and takeout meals delivered. Sometimes, I’ll wave at a neighbor across the street while walking my dog or take a socially distanced hike with our parents, hugging ourselves as we climb into our separate cars at the end. But it’s my partner who shoulders both the big emotions and little indignities of everyday life, and vice versa.

“We tend to slip into relying on our partner for much more than we usually would, from amateur haircuts to listening to workplace gripes that we would normally confide in a coworker about,” confirms dating and relationship coach Chucky Rockey. One person, or a couple of people, just aren't meant to constitute our entire social support system. Those who live with parents, roommates or have formed a close pandemic pod may have noticed those strong ties starting to feel a little tense under the pressure, too.

If you've found yourself blowing up at your partner for chewing their food in a particularly annoying way, I don't have to tell you that absence really does make the heart grow fonder, even if it’s just eight or so hours apart. “When we spend all our time with our partner, we naturally get tired of each other. Then we bear the full brunt of it when our partner is having a bad day,” Rockey explains. “It’s very easy to fall into a codependent pattern which is very hard on a relationship. We can feel trapped and tend to blame our bad moods on our partners.”

That can lead to bigger and more intense conflicts, as small slights build up under the pressure of too much time together, not enough outside social interaction, and the loss of our usual coping mechanism and decompression techniques. “You start building resentment and frustration and then you just explode,” says Nunez. “It’s really a perfect storm.”

Stay Close (With Some Distance)

Social isolation is uniquely claustrophobic and it’s bad for us in just about every way. Internalizing that everyday stress, anxiety, and frustration, not to mention the emotional load of well, life in 2021, puts strain on our bodies too. “It causes insomnia, which affects physical health,” Nunez explains. “That's why we're seeing increases in anxiety, depression and even suicide rates because we're not able to adequately verbalize our emotions as we were in the past.”

Setting some boundaries is key, not only for your own mental health but the health of your relationship. Nunez suggests thinking about when you’re at your most easily annoyed, maybe before your morning coffee or after a long day. Ask your partner to give you a little space at those times, perhaps by going into another room and pretending you’re not in the same place for a few minutes or a few hours, if you can.

On the flip side, intentionally cultivating fun time together matters, too. When every day feels pretty much the same, giving yourself (and your partner) something fun to look forward to can break up the monotony and give you the mental motivation to get through each week. Set a weekly date night to do something to stay connected and no, watching TV for the 350th day in a row doesn’t count.

Find New Ways to Reach Out

And to combat the echo chamber that you and your household have become, make a point of reaching outside your bubble (from a safe distance, of course). “‘Socially distanced’ does not have to mean ‘socially isolated,’” Rockey reminds us. “It takes an extra effort, to be sure, but make regular dates with friends for socially distanced outdoor activities. You will feel better when you return to your partner and have a lot more to talk with them about.” It's tempting to keep our heads down when every stranger could be a potential vector, but masks don't have to be blinders too. Just saying a socially distanced hello to your neighbors while out on a walk or exchanging quick pleasantries with your takeout delivery person reminds us all that we're part of a society, and that matters.

Even if you're not going into an office regularly, consider making an effort to stay connected to those weak ties virtually, too. It's not the same as meeting by the microwave, but try sending a Slack message to a coworker who follows the same sports team, reaching out to someone who just passed a work milestone with congratulations, or even setting up a Zoom coffee date with a colleague you don't see regularly. Keeping lines of communication open takes more effort from afar, but we all need them now more than ever.

Finally, consider talking to a therapist to replicate that objective sounding board you may have been missing, especially if you find yourself feeling unusually anxious, sad or irritable lately. “Just like we focus on healthy eating and exercising, more emphasis needs to be put on mental health,” Nunez says. “If you're mentally healthy, then all that other stuff falls into place.”

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