You are having lunch with a good friend. After you order, the conversation begins. What do you talk about? The weather? How impossible it was to find a parking space? That friend who can’t seem to get her life together? The one who won’t return your texts?
Whether we realize it or not, most of our relationships are built on a foundation of superficial chatter, mutual disdain for others, and anxious focus on those we love. It’s only human to maintain a little distance by talking about the weather, or to riff on a third person. We do this because a two-person relationship is fundamentally unstable. When you both hate or like the same person, this twosome suddenly becomes a lot less anxious.
Most of us don’t want our relationships to stay stalled in superficial chatter. We crave relationships where we can talk about our beliefs and experiences, even if they are different. We want to be honest about how we’re doing, and what we want, without the other person anxiously trying to fix us or edge away. But having this kind of relationship with our friends, much less our family, seems daunting.
Have you heard of the famous Bechdel test? For a work of fiction to pass the test, at least two women must talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s often used to call attention to the lack of gender equality in movies, television, and other media.
I’d like to introduce you to what I call the Bowen test. Dr. Bowen believed that developing a person to person relationship with the people in their extended family was the best way for a person to become more mature.
What counts as a “person to person relationship”? A relationship passes the Bowen test if you can do the following:
1.Talk about your own beliefs and experiences
2. Avoid focusing on a third person
3. Not rely on impersonal topics
There’s nothing wrong with commenting on the weather, or chatting about your professor or politicians. But when we use these conversation topics to manage awkwardness in a relationship, perhaps we are missing out on what could be a person to person relationship.
How many of your relationships lack a person to person element? Consider these questions:
- How many of your family relationships rely on superficial topics, or worry about another family member?
- How many of your work relationships are built on complaining about a boss or colleague?
- How many of your friendships are sustained by gossiping about old acquaintances or celebrities?
- How much of your marriage is focused on your children?
Developing a person to person relationship is ultimately about defining yourself to others. The more of a “self” you can become in your relationships, the easier it becomes to engage in intimate, meaningful conversation without feeling threatened or becoming defensive.
Families can be the toughest place to develop these kinds of relationships. People often have a person to person relationship with one parent and not the other. Many a sibling relationship is built on poking fun at parents or worrying about another family member. And grandchildren often present a superficial, squeaky clean image to grandparents, so they don’t shock Grandma into an early grave.
This week I’d like you to think about someone in your life with whom you’d like to develop a person to person relationship. When do your conversations fail the Bowen test? Think about what it would look like to talk about something going on with you—not your friend, not your kid, not the weather. And be aware that sharing your thinking with another person may generate anxiety. But be encouraged that this is the anxiety associated with becoming more of a self, and with building relationships that can endure differences and disagreements.
News from Kathleen:
Soon I’ll be revealing the cover of my upcoming book, Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down. And I’ll tell you how you can pre-order (from your favorite independent bookseller of course). If this newsletter has been useful to you, the BEST WAY you can help the book succeed is to recommend this newsletter to your friends. Thanks!
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