Dunbar Number

The Dunbar number suggests that most people’s brains can handle 150 casual relationships, 15 close friendships and 5 best friends.

– Frost Science Museum, Miami FL


I am quick to smile, it’s a nervous habit and the most comfortable of masks.  But..
I cry when I get angry
I cry when I am sad
I cry when my heart hurt
I cry when I feel rage
I cry when I feel resentment
I cry when I am tired or overwhelmed or both

I don’t cry when I get hurt.


If my body hurts, I don’t cry.  Sometimes, there erupts a laugh.  I could be stuck on the floor with a back spasm and my instinct is to laugh with tears in my eyes.  Over five decades of living, my ways of expressing distress is that of a 3 or 4 year old.  And yes, that was the year I was separated from my birth mother forever.  Not a coincidence and not a surprise, just an annoying observation.  The depth of language to express myself is vast, sometimes at the puzzlement of others around me.  I could win every argument with my sister and she would be so pissed, yelling at me to use words she could understand. And yet, to get to the core, the sub sub basement, I am reduced to a toddler.  Every single time.

The reason it’s taken me so long to realize this?  The simple most honest answer is that no one has waited long enough to figure this out about me…until today. My husband can usually console and comfort, he is far more comfortable in silence than I am.  Today, I know I would get something different if I called her.  She would interpret my rant and finish my sentences that I throw out incomplete and hang on during my long, painfully long silences.  I knew she would as she has sat in silence with me often.  All it takes is something magical like “Hey, are you there?”  Lots of things rise from that moment as I say nothing trying to stuff the shit down and back into my body knowing I have revealed way too much already in my silence. “Yup, I’m here…”

I’ve circled this dilemma before.  I’ve been here countless times. I’ve been in a therapy room spinning the very same yarn and still coming up surprised, caught off guard, disappointed that I have not grown up and used my words when I was supposed to or asked for what I want even if it’s ridiculous. Nothing comes out when I really want to say, “No, not me, not to anyone I treasure, not on my time, not on my dime, not with such little regard for me.” And then when it’s too late, the dam breaks and I cry.  I can see it happening but I can’t stop it, and there has never been anyone sitting with me long enough to see me through the cycle.

But on this day, the work was not alone.  I knew enough to call her because I knew she would stay and witness in ways that I’ve never experienced and yet yearned for. She uses words like “we” and “us”.  She acknowledges my very long bandwidth to withstand pain and calls it “resilience.” I do this all the time for others and I can feel the power in the joining. Every once in a while though, she knows I am running on empty and fixes my oxygen mask and I can breathe again.

My Dunbar number is less than five and I love it.  It terrifies me too.  Those precious few are life giving and I have waited over 40 years for them. Henry James wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, “I call people rich, when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination.”  My imagination only wished for one good friend. I am indeed rich.

My boys are in the throes of adolescence and I am no longer the curator of their friendships nor their moods.  I’ve given them their “Once upon a time…” and it’s up to them now to begin the journey of creating the rest of their narrative.  I get to be their human barometer for a little while longer and it feels like hard earned privilege to bear witness to their evolving beings.  My job now is to show restraint in not inquiring too deeply or for too long on the dynamics of their friend groups or what it really means when they say they are “good” and “it’s fine.”  As much as I want to believe they are their own kaleidoscope, unique in their individual brilliance, I do see tiny dark gems amidst and I recognize them as parts of me.

Those moments when their breathing changes, their eyes get big, their minds start to spin, I recognize the mirror and I can see the storm on the horizon.  In those moments, I know to say less, to lock eyes to witness the pain and hold their body to soothe or comfort if need be.  I don’t know if I am making the right choices all the time.  I cannot resurrect a single moment that mirrors this experience in my own past.  There is no muscle memory of an embrace. But over 20+ years of a loving partner who speaks in hugs and low tones and she who reminds me of resilience, kindness and generosity, somehow my boys are getting a different language of what love is.  I am reminded that this old dog can be taught a few new tricks….that allowing for friendships I am held as I hold others.

The never ending disentangling of whether my darkness came through due to circumstance or temperament remains a challenge and cause for way too much rumination.  Watching my boys figure things out and navigate their emotions much like me, I know I can no longer covet the sole narrative, “It’s because I am adopted”.  It can be that I came this way and if I lived in Korea, with my Umma, I would be much the same. And yet, notwithstanding those dark patches behind me, I am beginning to acknowledge that little me was strong, resilient, creative, relentless and always smiling.  Simultaneously relieving and frustrating, the work now is to bear witness on my children, stand steadfast and hope my markers, my beacons, will guide them through with edges softened but not broken.

I wish them five best friends to walk through life with.  And I wish my wishiest that I have done enough for them to know how they want those friendships to feel and how to be that kind of friend to others.



Joy Lieberthal Rho, LCSW is the co-founder of IAMAdoptee. Joy received her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University.  She has been working in the field of adoption for 25 years professionally and through various volunteer organizations.