Why We All Need to Belong to Someone
It may not be a popular phrase, but the feeling is crucial.
Posted March 11, 2014 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
"You belong to me" —Bob Dylan (and more than 70 other singers)
"You don't own me. Don't say I can't go with other boys" —Lesley Gore
Telling your beloved, "You belong to me," is common among lovers, but it is politically incorrect these days: Each of us is autonomous and should not belong to another person. Needless to say, no one literally belongs to anyone else. But can we speak about belonging in a psychological sense? I believe we can and should.
The term "belonging" has various meanings. Two major meanings are "possession" and "acceptance as a natural part." If belonging is taken in its literal sense of possession, then it is obviously wrong in a relationship, since possessing your partner implies ownership and control. However, if it is understood in the sense of being accepted as a natural part, it makes romantic sense.
The need to belong
Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary (1995) argue that the need to belong is a fundamental human need to form and maintain at least a minimum amount of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships. Satisfying this need requires (a) frequent, positive interactions with the same individuals, and (b) engaging in these interactions within a framework of long-term, stable care and concern.
Despite the lure and excitement of changing romantic partners, the need for some stable, caring interactions with a limited number of people is a greater imperative. Baumeister and Leary claim that human beings are "naturally driven toward establishing and sustaining belongingness." Hence, "people should generally be at least as reluctant to break social bonds as they are eager to form them in the first place." They further argue that, in many cases, people are reluctant to dissolve even destructive relationships. The need to belong goes beyond the need for superficial social ties or sexual interactions; it is a need for meaningful, profound bonding. A sense of belongingness is crucial to our well-being.
Baumeister and Leary argue that the lack of belongingness causes various undesirable effects, including a decrease in the levels of health, happiness, and adjustment. They further assert that people who lack belongingness suffer higher levels of mental and physical illness and are more prone to a broad range of behavioral problems, ranging from traffic accidents to criminality to suicide.
You belong to me, darling
“As soon as you set foot on a yacht you belong to some man, not to yourself, and you die of boredom" —Coco Chanel
If the need for belongingness carries such weight, then the claim, "You belong to me," cannot be dismissed as romantic nonsense. Creating this belongingness involves meaningful joint activities between lovers; it cannot be generated by each lover's isolated feeling. Belongingness is expressed not merely in the positive meaningful activities that the lovers engage in together, but also in the negative attitude toward the violation of belongingness, often expressed in jealousy. The fear of losing something that in some sense belongs to you is as significant as the hope of gaining some kind of meaningful togetherness.
Indeed, Baumeister and Leary maintain that belongingness is essential if romantic love is to produce bliss, and in romantic belongingness, mutuality is indispensable. People prefer relationships in which both parties give and receive care; indeed, mutuality strengthens the romantic relationship. Unequal involvement is a strong predictor of a romantic breakup. When both partners are equally involved in the relationship, the likelihood of their future togetherness increases. Studies that compared people who received love without giving it and people who gave love without receiving it found that both groups tended to describe the experience as adverse. Baumeister and Leary conclude that apparently, "love is highly satisfying and desirable only if it is mutual." Hence, when love "arises without belongingness, as in unrequited love, the result is typically distress and disappointment."
A violation of belongingness typically generates jealousy; hence, sexual jealousy is found in all cultures (Reiss, 1986). Belongingness provides a sense of meaningful quality, rather than of meaningless quantity. The sense of belonging is indeed significant to a meaningful life (Lambert et al., 2013).
The importance of belongingness in romantic love is compatible with considering love, as Angelika Krebs (2014) does, to be dialogical. Love, she claims, is not about each partner having the other as his or her object; love is what happens between the partners. Loving somebody entails the meaningful enjoyment of this kind of togetherness. This togetherness is constituted by the sense of meaningful belongingness.
It should be emphasized that the healthy belongingness that develops between lovers in no way implies an unhealthy fusing of their identities—quite the contrary. Such an idea of fusion, which constitutes a kind of Siamese-twin model, implies not merely a loss of freedom, but also a loss of each partner's self-identity. Neither loss is part of the meaningful belonging underlying profound love, which provides optimal circumstances for personal flourishing to two independent individuals with different self-identities.
“Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect” —Brené Brown
It is not wrong for a lover to feel that the beloved belongs to him (or her), as long as the belonging is limited to psychological aspects, and the sense of belongingness is mutual. Social life and romantic love presuppose the need to belong, and hence some aspects of jealousy might sometimes materialize. Doubts may arise not concerning the importance of mutual belonging, but concerning the nature and extent of such belongingness.
Meaningful belonging is essential for our romantic life, but it has a price: It limits the number of romantic partners we can have, as belongingness involves commitments and resources that we cannot allocate to a wide range of people. Fortunately, profound lovers do not consider this limitation to be negative.
Baumeister R. F., & Leary M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
Krebs, A. (2014). Zwischen Ich und Du. Eine dialogische Philosophie der Liebe. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Lambert, N, Stillman, T. F., Hicks, J. A., Kamble, S., Baumeiter, R. F., Fincham, F. D. (2013). Belong is to matter: Sense of belonging enhances meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1418-1427.
Reiss, I. L. (1986). A sociological journey into sexuality. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48, 233–242.