Wednesday 17 November 2021

Spokesfriends and Insular Groups: What Kind of Support Network Do You Have?

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. – Jane Howard

It’s no secret that I take friendship seriously. Just about everything I write, including this blog and the book I co-authored with my best friend Fran, concerns the nature of supportive friendships. In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we describe the part I play in Fran’s wider support network, and how it’s important for me to have a network of my own. Until now, though, I’ve scarcely written about supportive networks themselves.

At different times, Fran’s network has included close friends, her psychiatrist and doctor, therapists, a care coordinator, and an Independent Support Services worker (homemaker). Mine consists exclusively of trusted friends. Yours might be a combination of family, friends, colleagues, or professionals. I’m focusing on friends in this article, but it’s the connections between the people in your network that count, rather than their role or relationship to you. Put simply, do they know each other or not?


If I drew my network out on paper there’d be a dot in the middle representing me, with lines radiating out to each of my supportive friends, like the spokes of a wheel. I’m reminded of a joke I saw on social media: “A friend of mine works for a company that makes bicycles. He’s their spokesman.”

This kind of network is more likely if your friends live far apart, as mine do, although that’s not necessarily the case. A few of my “spokesfriends” have met, in person or online, but none of them know each other well or socialise.

Insular Groups

In contrast, Fran has several small groups of friends, most of whom live locally to her. Within each group, people know one another and call or meet up more or less regularly. Fran’s support network could be drawn as a number of overlapping circles, plus me and a couple of others who aren’t in any of her groups of mutual friends.

A friend described these groups as insular, in the sense of “relating to or from an island.” It’s particularly appropriate for Fran, who lived for years in the kind of small island community where everyone knows everyone else. Insular groups, then, are groups of friends who know each other and keep in touch.

If family members are part of your support network, they likely form an insular group, as may local friends, workplace colleagues, or people you met at school, college, or other organisations.

Pros and Cons

Neither kind of network is necessarily better than the other. There are differences, though, in how they operate when you are supporting someone or needing support yourself. Understanding these differences can help you figure out what’s happening if problems arise. Let’s take a look at them in turn.

Insular Groups In Practice

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend. My friend — I’ll call her Sarah — described a time when she’d been concerned about someone she suspected was struggling. Sarah wanted to help, but her friend wouldn’t speak to her about it or ask for support. Instead, her friend told others in their circle of friends, who then shared their concerns with Sarah. “They were warning me something needed to be done,” she said. “But at the same time telling me not to let [her] know they’d told me.”

It was very isolating for Sarah to have learned something about her friend’s situation, yet have to pretend she didn’t. As she told me, “It was particularly hard when she’d told them some things and they assumed I knew, because I didn’t want them to know how difficult she was making it for me by shutting me out.”

Sarah’s story illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of insular networks. If you need help, you have people you can turn to, who know you and each other. If it’s another member of the group who needs assistance, you don’t have to do it all on your own. You can share the caring responsibility, discuss the best way to help, and support each other though what might be a difficult situation. Sarah said her circle was very helpful in discussing and arranging support for the person who was struggling.

On the other hand, it can be hard to maintain boundaries of trust, respect, and confidentiality. Things can become awkward if some people in the group know more of the story than others, or have been told different or conflicting versions. There’s also the potential for miscommunication and differences of opinion as things are passed on or discussed back and forth. As another friend expressed it, “If your friendship group is insular, you can get caught up in the arguments, regardless of who they are between. If your friends are not insular, you don’t have that issue.” Sarah found it helped to discuss things with me. “It’s good to have friends like you who are out of the circle,” she said. “I’d never have got through that situation without your support.”

The person needing help can also run into issues. Fran likes to talk things over with friends if she’s struggling over something, but on occasion she’s had to handle the fallout from telling several people who know each other and have gone on to discuss it amongst themselves.

Spokesfriend Networks In Practice

In a post titled Belonging (Longing to Be) I shared that I’ve never truly felt I belonged to any group or tribe. A spokesfriend network works for me. I feel supported by people who care about me but are essentially independent of one another.

I’m blessed with friends who I love fiercely and who love me fiercely in return. Several know each other but these are individual one-to-one connections rather than a group of mutual friends.

My friends know me in different ways and to different degrees. If I’m struggling, unsure, or simply need to talk things over, I’m free to choose the person most likely to help or understand. I can even discuss the same thing with two or more people to get their different perspectives, confident that the conversations will remain separate.

It’s not that I don’t trust my friends to keep things private. I trust each of them implicitly — although if they were sufficiently concerned about me I’d expect them to reach out or escalate. Likewise, it wouldn’t be a problem if they needed to turn to their support networks after helping me. The important point is, I can choose to share with one or more of them individually without the rest knowing what’s going on for me.

The downside is that my network lacks social richness. Each of my friendships is strong and mutually supportive but there’s little scope for my friends to share the responsibility of being there for me, or help and support each other. Each friendship has its ups and downs, its great times and difficult times, but there’s no opportunity to develop and grow together as a group.

Do What Works For You

If it works for you, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Neither network type is inherently better than the other; nor are they mutually exclusive. As Sarah found, it can help to have people outside of your insular groups, whilst groups offer the potential for shared support that’s hard to achieve if you only have separate spokesfriend connections.

Bear in mind that these things can shift and change. Over time, you may lose people from your support network, and gain others. The kind of network you have may also change. Many years ago, my main source of support was a close group of mutual friends I first met at university. Over the years, I fell out of meaningful contact with most of them. I felt adrift and alone for a long time, but I gradually built a new network of friends I care about and trust to be there for me. It works well for me, although I’m open to the possibility of further change in the future.

Over to You

In this article I’ve described two types of supportive networks, which I call spokesfriends and insular groups. I’ve looked at some of the differences between them and how they work in practice.

What kind of support network do you have? Does it fall into one of my two types? Perhaps, like Fran and Sarah, you have one or more groups of mutual friends, plus people who aren’t part of those groups. Maybe you’ve a different kind of network I’ve not covered here. How does it work for you? Do you run into problems at all? If so, how do you resolve them?

I’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash.


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