The Theory of “Relational Gravity”


At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were told to avoid seeing anyone outside of our nuclear household, people panicked. Some don’t have nuclear households… Some live alone… Some aren’t friends with their roommates… Some rely heavily on the social and emotional support they’re fed from their stronger relationships, but don’t live with those people.

As time moved forward and it was clear the virus would be sticking around, scientists in charge allowed us gatherings of up to 10 people, and suggested we consider carefully which friends made the cut into our inner circles.

That could have been based on any number of things – physical proximity, friendship longevity, lifestyle alignment, immediate family relations, socioeconomic similarities, commensurate social distancing styles, or other considerations.

For a lot of people, that was a tough decision. Some took it more seriously than others, even making sure that the people in their inner circles chose their inner circles with the same care and scrutiny.

But it certainly forced a lot of people to weigh and measure their relationships in a way that adults don’t regularly do. After a certain age, we don’t give our friendships regular check-ups to take their temperatures.

Most of them just… coast forever, and we don’t think about the precious energy we allow to flow into stale, toxic, or draining friendships.

Which affects us more than we realize, mainly because of relational gravity. 

What Does Relational Gravity Mean?

You may be familiar with the expression “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

That’s the heart of the theory of relational gravity as it relates to our social lives.

Put another way, via Dr. David McClelland of Harvard University, the people you’re around the most “determined as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.”

Or maybe a little less stringent, “it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.”

Of all the reasons to be discerning about your friendships and there are many, the concept that our friendships build an orbit around us, controlling the pushes and pulls of our lives, holds the most water.

But let’s not think of our friendships as tools for getting ahead in life, or fast-track tickets to success. Frankly, “success” and “failure” aren’t granular enough to warrant an orbit shift as severe as friendship culling.

Instead, think about where you’re dissatisfied with yourself. 

How you react, how you support, how you contribute. How you spend your time, how often you learn new things, how brave or afraid you are when you stand on the precipice of something unfamiliar.

Now think about the five people you spend the most time with.

You Can Only Get So Far Alone

We know that everything in life is easier, faster, and stronger with teamwork. And that’s how you really should be looking at your inner circle – as your teammates.

Do your teammates reflect on themselves as critically as you just did? 

Do they audit their own behavior and motives regularly? Do they build support for you into their lives? Do they spend their time wisely enough that you aren’t reluctant to grow yourself for fear of leaving them behind?

They’re tough questions – none of us are omniscient, and none of us has the full picture of anyone’s lives no matter how well we know them.

But that shouldn’t stop you from coming to conclusions based on two empirical pieces of evidence: how they make you feel about your own life, and how you watch them run their own. 

You want your team members to share common goals with you, so that “winning” looks similar enough to everyone involved. Without that shared identity, it can be easy to remain in an orbit that doesn’t center around what you want your life to look like.

What’s more, it isn’t necessary for you to cruelly sever relationships or grandstand about your newly-discovered incompatibility – the fear of that confrontation keeps people locked in undeserving relationships for much longer than they should be there.

A gradual easing of time given, coupled with an increased investment in the friendships that do have traits in common with the person you’d like to become, will do perfectly well. 

Extra points if you’re not only considering what might be currently bringing you down, but what could eventually lift you up – invest in friendships with people you admire. 

Do you have friends you mostly drink with, but who you want to become consumes less alcohol? Do you have friends who prefer to engage in toxic and consuming romantic relationships, but who you want to become prefers stability and support? Do you have friends who aren’t interested in expanding their knowledge and skill set, but who you want to become is someone curious and forward-thinking? 

You’ll only get to where you want to go if you’ve got the right teammates. 

And not every friendship is created that way.

While we still can’t engage in the world socially the way we once did, reflect on who you’ve got on your team – and if “winning” looks anything to them like it looks to you. 

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