How we end up managing other people’s relationships

Nina* came to therapy because her husband thought she was coddling their adult daughter. But as we talked, I noticed that Nina was less focused on her relationship with her daughter. Instead, she detailed the conflict between her family members. Nina saw herself as the peacemaker, trying her best to help her others get along. She complained of her husband’s blindness to her daughter’s needs, and she described her daughter’s talent for triggering explosive fights with her father.

It was easy to see how focusing on her husband and daughter’s relationship was a stabilizing force for Nina. She felt like the mature, rational one who had to put up with squabbling family members. She saw herself as the good parent who cared for her daughter, and the patient spouse who had to put up with her husband’s moods. She didn’t feel pressure to change her behavior, because she wasn’t doing any of the shouting. She saw herself as outside the conflict, and not a member of a very active emotional triangle.

Focusing on other people’s relationships is one way that we bind anxiety. We are often quick to direct how other people behave, and slow to examine our own functioning in a relationship system. If you don’t believe me, consider whether you’ve ever given your spouse unsolicited parenting advice. Maybe you’ve asked your mom to be nicer to your sister, or told a friend how to deal with their boss.  It’s only human to be over-focused on other humans.

Here are some relationships we often try to manage:

  • How your partner relates to your child
  • How your parents relate to each other
  • How your child relates to their other parent
  • How your parent relates to your sibling
  • How your spouse relates to their parents
  • How your spouse relates to their in-laws
  • How your siblings relate to each other
  • How your parents relate to each other
  • How two friends relate to each other
  • How two colleagues relate to each other

There is nothing wrong with giving advice. But you have to ask yourself, does this really help another person level up in their own maturity? Or is directing others just my automatic way of managing tension? It’s often much more fruitful to put your focus back on the two-person relationships which include you. Because there lies the opportunity for change.

Over time, Nina began to focus more on her relationship with her husband, and her relationship with her daughter. Being emotionally distant from her husband had made it impossible for them to talk about parenting together. So she tried to be more intentional about spending time with him, talking about her interests and challenges, and asking about his.

Nina also thought about how she wanted to relate to her daughter—when she should to step in, and when she should let her daughter step up. It wasn’t a quick fix. But by taking her focus off of the other side of the triangle, she gave her husband and daughter some breathing room to work on their own twosome. Nina also began to feel less anxious when they fought.

This week I challenge you to consider what it looks like to direct yourself in your relationships instead of directing others. Here are some examples:  

  • Treating your sister like she’s capable, instead of trying to teach your mom to stop overfunctioning for her.
  • Sharing your parenting challenges with your spouse, instead of trying to fix their challenges with a child.
  • Going to therapy instead of bullying others to go to therapy.
  • Asking a friend useful questions about their thinking, instead of telling them how to fix a work problem.
  • Relating more openly with your parents, instead of trying to teach them to be more open with each other.
  • Strengthening your relationships with your in-laws, instead of telling your spouse how to interact with their parents.

Staying focused on your relationships isn’t about staying out of other people’s business. It’s about putting your energy and your attention back on what is actually controllable—how you relate to other humans. Because when you stay focused on self, everyone benefits. And honestly, it is such a relief to know you are only responsible for your own maturity.

*Client stories are composites with identifying information changed to protect confidentiality.

News from Kathleen

Want me to speak to your group? I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on managing anxiety during the pandemic. If you’d like me to speak to your group, contact me for rates and presentation options.

Buy my book. If you haven’t gotten your copy of Everything Isn’t Terrible yet, you can buy it from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books! The book is also available in e-book and audio book form.

Anxiety Journal. Get a free digital resource to supplement your reading of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible. It’s called Calming Down & Growing Up: A 30-Day Anxiety Journal, and it includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy of the digital journal, you can submit a copy of your receipt for my book at the Hachette page, and they’ll send you it to you. Or you can email me.

If you’re new to the newsletter, you can check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships. You can follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about the book, want me to speak to your group, or want to learn more about my therapy practice in Washington, DC. You can also visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about Bowen theory, as well their conferences and training programs.