This article was originally published on BrendaKnowles.com. It is republished here with permission from the author.
“A 2014 study out of the University of Oxford found that we all seem to maintain a constant number of intimates, and when we add one, we drop one. While the number of people — what researchers call an individual’s social signature — varies from person to person, each individual’s social signature remains pretty constant.”
— Sophia Dembling, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After
This quote reminds me of Sheldon Cooper, the character on the TV show The Big Bang Theory when he claims he can’t add any new friends unless he gets rid of an old one. I believe many introverts can relate to that. If we have a constant social signature, I bet an introvert’s signature is fairly small compared to an extrovert’s.
I have struggled (experimented?) over the years with the number of close relationships I can maintain. When I was married and had three children, my plate was pretty much full. Post-divorce, I have participated in an ongoing trial and error process in which I try to find the right mix of family, friends, intimate partner, career, and solitude.
One at a time, like omelets
As a highly sensitive person and an INFP personality type, I do my best work if I do one thing at a time. I am like this with tasks and people. If forced to multi-task, my focus deteriorates and results are sketchy.
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For example, I make big breakfasts on weekends. I try to be generous and offer options for the meal. Omelets are a favorite and are often requested. The trouble is they are also one of the most stressful things to prepare due to their singular and subjective nature. I can only make one at a time and everyone wants different fillings. If I try to make more than one at a time and add bacon on the side, forget it. I become the world’s worst short-order cook. I have no rhythm, no skill, and no patience. My brain is fried and the omelets end up being scrambled eggs with add-ins.
Mom -> Girlfriend -> Writer/Coach -> Friend
My relationships resemble my omelets in that they are each unique and best when nurtured one at a time. Unfortunately, life does not allow for relationships to occur in a vacuum. They exist simultaneously, overlapping and colliding every day. This overlapping and colliding is what stresses me out and causes me to limit my time with my important people.
I want so badly to have what my friend Lisa Avebury of Sacred Introvert calls quality intimacy with each of my people. I want a deep and positive connection that results in both of us benefiting internally and/or externally — but mostly internally.
Like most introverts, I prefer depth to breadth when it comes to relationships. This makes it difficult to open my doors to many individuals. There is a fear of spreading myself too thin, running out of energy and turning into grumpy Mel from Mel’s Diner (for all you younger readers, this is an old person reference to the 1970s/80s sitcom Alice). I am trying to make short-order cook humor here, but honestly, there is something to this juggling of too many relationships at once.
Decision-making becomes constant and personal. Do I spend time with my kids or professional networking? My significant other or my friends? Where does solitude fit in? Prioritizing and choosing all of the time fatigues my mind. If I spend too much time on one relationship or endeavor, I worry about disappointing or failing the others.
Be very, very selective
I recently took a huge step in my personal life. After 3 1/2 years of being single and dating more than 30 different men (a lot of 2-3 date wonders), I introduced my children to someone I’ve been seeing for seven months. I did not introduce them to any of the other men I dated, some of whom I went out with for over six months.
When my boyfriend and I started seeing each other regularly, we consistently worked around my parenting schedule. I established boundaries around work and parenting time. He showed an interest in my work from the start, which I think helps him justify the time I spend engrossed in it. I also let it be known that as an introvert, I need solitude. He honors these boundaries.
I should mention my man takes most things in stride. He is adaptable, fun, more extroverted, and quite a problem solver. No surprise — he is an amazing omelet maker.
I greatly appreciate his flexibility and thoughtfulness and do my best to honor his needs and relationships as well.
Bringing worlds together over sushi
While it was getting difficult to maintain separate lives (Mom Brenda and Girlfriend Brenda), I was also a tad nervous about letting the worlds collide. How could I manage/love all those personalities at once? So many eggs and ingredients.
My confidence in my man and our relationship grew. He proved time and time again that he was in it for the long haul. He was the first man I dated who talked openly about including my children in his life. He stood with me on the sunny and shitty days. I had an inkling that a few messed up eggs were not going to scare him away.
My kids and my man met over platters of sushi (that expert chefs prepared so I could relax). It was such a relief to see everyone get along. We are still in the honeymoon phase with everyone on their best behavior, but I believe my selectivity will pay off.
Who dropped off in order to maintain a constant number of intimates?
I should mention that while my “mom life” and “dating life” have been thriving, my career has been steadily growing but my friendships have been slightly placed on the back burner. I still see a few of my writing friends monthly. I also made new friends through career opportunities and my man, but I feel some of my dear friends have been neglected. I guess they were the casualty to maintain my social signature, but since they are solid friends I feel they will be there despite my recent absence.
What I’ve learned about introvert relationship maintenance
The key is to find supportive friends who want to see you happy. They will be there when you are single or in a relationship.
Prioritize the relationships and endeavors you value. For me, my kids are always going to be top priority. That makes number one simple. The next tiers are a tad more nebulous. Career and significant other are in a tight race. As an Idealist introvert, meaningful work and relationships are crucial to my well-being.
Which brings me to my last point regarding relationship/activity juggling: if at all possible, choose people and activities that combine easily and therefore minimize your apprehension, stress, and effort. If you need friends and lovers with a flexible schedule, seek them out. If you want a partner who accepts your children and family, search and wait for them. If two of your groups can co-exist peacefully, hallelujah. Your life will be simpler and richer — but don’t invite them over for omelets.
How many relationships can you maintain? How do you manage quality intimacy and numerous relationships?
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Read this: Why do sensitive introverts withdraw?