By Esther Mann, LCSW
My wife and I lived in Brooklyn from the time we got married about 14 years ago. We were both raised there, so it was a natural choice. But though Brooklyn is great in many ways, we never felt a sense of community. In fact, in all the years we lived there, we didn’t know half the people who lived on our block. People seemed to be so busy with their own lives and there was little meaningful connection between the families. We felt no sense of community.
This bothered my wife, Mindy, a lot. She wanted a sense of belonging. Her best friends from high school seemed to have scattered after they got married, living everywhere from California to Israel. She definitely felt a void.
We had heard wonderful stories about the Five Towns, and our goal was to save up enough money to ultimately buy a home there. We finally managed to purchase a modest home out here about a year and a half ago. Mindy was raring to go! She couldn’t wait to be part of a “real community,” make lots of friends, and feel a true sense of belonging. By the way, Mindy’s a terrific person. She is very good-natured and has a great personality and great sense of humor.
I think Mindy kind of assumed that we’d move into our house and they’d roll out the red carpet for us. She had heard stories of people being invited out for every Shabbos meal for the first six months after arriving. Mindy was ready for and excited about all the wonderful new friends she’d make.
Well, things have not turned out as expected. To begin with, in our area, there are a number of different shuls to belong to, so it’s not like a cohesive group of people all heading out to the same shul each Shabbos. Secondly, people don’t all send their children to the same schools. So again, there are varied ideas and choices. But probably most important, people just aren’t as friendly as Mindy expected them to be. Yes, we’ve been invited out by a few people here and there, but we have spent a lot more Shabbos meals at home. Some people in our area seem to be nice and are friendly when they see us, but the majority of them treat us as though we are invisible.
I think the reason is that the neighborhood is already so saturated with people that it’s hard to get noticed, and maybe people are not looking for new friends. But Mindy has a whole different theory about why we are not being included. And that’s why I’m writing in to you.
Just one more piece of background information before I share her thoughts. We are not rich people. We scrimped and saved for years to afford our house, and we are struggling to pay our bills and stay afloat. We’re still young, and I feel confident that we are on a good track and someday will be fine financially. But right now, things are tight. For instance, we don’t have much furniture. I think we all look nice and presentable, but we’re not walking around in expensive clothing. Mindy is not covered in jewelry, and our children look adorable in their Children’s Place outfits. That’s who we are and I don’t think it should matter in any way.
Mindy believes that we are being snubbed by so many people in our area because we don’t “look the part.” We don’t “blend.” She insists that if we looked well-off and dressed the part and went on vacations like the rest of them, we would be included more. Mindy believes that the way to gain their respect is to start spending a lot more on luxuries, even if it means racking up huge credit-card bills, in order to impress them. Call me naïve, but I find it very hard to believe that someone would like me more or like my wife more—or even my children more—because our clothing costs more! Maybe I have too much faith in humanity, but to believe such a thing would be to believe the very worst about people.
But for now, Mindy is constantly on my case to allow her to spend more. We used to be in agreement as we budgeted ourselves and lived within our means. Now, Mindy seems so desperate to “belong” that she’s angry at me when I won’t agree with her to lease a more luxurious car when our lease is up. Or to put a new dining-room set on a credit card. Mindy is starting to shop for her clothing and our children’s clothing at different stores—stores that are super-trendy and expensive. Frankly, I think Mindy is losing her mind if she really believes this will make a difference.
I also feel so sad that the woman I fell in love with is losing herself in all this narishkeit. In my heart I don’t believe our social status in the community will change one iota as we rack up tremendous credit-card bills and possibly ruin our credit. Obviously, right now Mindy and I are on very different pages and it’s causing a great deal of stress in our marriage. I’m curious to hear your opinion on our experience and whether you think Mindy is correct or whether she has somehow gotten a little delusional and needs help.
There are so many important elements to your letter. It taps into so many personal struggles that many of us deal with as we figure out who we are, where we belong, what provides us with a sense of worth, and, of course, the profound need most of us have to fit in and connect with others in a meaningful way. It sounds as though Mindy believed that by moving to the Five Towns, her personal journey toward belonging would finally be completed in an amazing way.
I have to wonder, first and foremost, whether Mindy has clarity regarding who she is and where she belongs. Moving into a neighborhood doesn’t guarantee that a person will have anything in common with the neighbors. It sounds to me that the kind of connection she is craving is something very special that happens once in a while and under special circumstances. These magical relationships take time to develop and nurture, and maybe Mindy needs to focus more on a few special friendships rather than being friendly with the whole neighborhood.
On the other hand, Mindy is not delusional—not by a stretch! I have heard other women complain to me that they feel judged by their lifestyle rather than by their hearts and souls. Someone shared with me that once she started wearing a particular brand of designer shoes, certain people began to notice her. The right look and lifestyle, they claimed, opened doors that formerly were closed to them. Like you, I find this concept hard to swallow and very sad indeed. But just so you know, Mindy is not imagining this. There are those shallow individuals who are pathetically misguided and judge others for all the wrong reasons.
So the question I would pose to Mindy is the following: Why would she ever want to be involved with such women? Why would she respect someone who suddenly learned her name because she drove a fancy car or wore a diamond necklace? How could such women possible be worthy of Mindy’s attention? I think Mindy needs to go back to the drawing board and remind herself where her values lie and what makes her meaningful as a human being.
Having said that, I refuse to believe that your neighborhood is filled with such cookie-cutter women, all sharing the same values. I have to believe that there are many women who feel exactly the same way that Mindy feels and have also felt snubbed and excluded from certain gatherings. These like-minded women exist and need to be sought out. They are not the visible women whose style screams “look at me!” They are no doubt more subtle and discreet in how they present, but most likely filled with a lot more depth, kindness, individuality, and class.
Obviously, I agree with you that spending on anything just for the sake of impressing others, especially at the risk of getting into credit-card debt, is silly, and such behavior will ultimately come back to bite you, probably in a very serious way.
Encourage Mindy to regroup and to take a fresh look at herself, her neighborhood, her desires, and her goals. Remind her of her true worth and encourage her to slow down, look in the right places for authentic friendships, and not get sidetracked by the meaningless glitz. It sounds like you know better than anyone that so much of it is smoke and mirrors! It’s time to look behind the curtain and, with your help, I’m hoping Mindy will be able to do so.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.