This week I’ve been thinking about all the strategies we use to stabilize tense relationships with other people. Often we avoid, we complain, or we try to control. But in our quest to keep things calm, we can miss out on more fulfilling relationships with family and friends.
Anxiety-managing strategies are kind of like emotional training wheels. When your bike has training wheels, your travel is stable, but limited. You can’t go off the beaten path, and you can’t go very fast or very far. This is the price of avoiding a tumble from a two-wheeler. Anxiety-managing strategies work the same way. They lower the anxiety of having to be around difficult or stressful people. But they prevent the development of a true, person to person relationship.
Nothing can make a person less capable than getting married. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But in many relationships, the opposite is true.
Lately, I’ve been paying attention to how my abilities will weaken or even disappear when my husband is in the house. When he’s away on a work trip, I can take out the trash with ease. But when he’s around, walking the twenty steps to the alley feels like a Herculean task. When I’m driving by myself, I have no trouble navigating to a new destination. Put him in the passenger seat, and I might ask him if I’m making the correct turn. (more…)
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.
This weekend I had the privilege of attending the Bowen Center’s annual Symposium. The main presenter was Dr. Thomas Seeley, a biology professor at Cornell who studies the phenomenon of swarm intelligence in honey bees.
Dr. Seeley gave a presentation about how honeybees solve the dilemma of finding a new home. Bee scouts will individually visit a potential location, and when they return, they will perform a “waggle dance” for the others which communicates the distance and direction of the prospective site. The level of enthusiasm in their dance also indicates just how sweet the spot is. Over time, in true democratic form, the bees will keep voting via waggle dancing until there is a consensus on the new home.
As a counselor, I have a front-row seat for watching anxiety develop in new relationships. It is truly fascinating to observe how quickly two people can become emotionally stuck together. A therapy client will leave for a week and return reporting that he or she has started dating someone new. This former stranger now has the power to make my client very happy or very anxious. Thanks to their phone, my client might spend all day analyzing a text they received — or worrying about the lack of one.
Morgan came to counseling because of her boyfriend. He’d been seeing a therapist for the past several months, and she was impressed with his improved focus on his mental and physical health. When I asked her what she wanted to be different, she said that she struggled with low self-esteem when it came to her career and her appearance.
“The word growth has been so misused during the past decade, that it has become meaningless,” wrote Murray Bowen in his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. “It is common for mental health professionals to consider the disappearance of symptoms as evidence of change.”
One of my responsibilities as a writer is to keep up with the various books that are topping the self-help list. The past few years, they have tended to fall into two categories:
1. Get It Together! or 2. Embrace Your Imperfection!
Both of these messages can be true and important, but they reflect a tension that exists in mainstream culture. We’re supposed to be okay with being exactly where we are, but we also must be constantly moving forward. These messages also focus solely on the individual, missing an important point: to be human is to be in relationship with others.
I once had a client who, like most of us, exemplified the tension between these two competing messages. Cassandra grew up in rural Georgia and was the oldest of four children. She described her parents as blue collar workers who were often anxious about money. Like many oldest children, Cassandra was achievement-focused. She worked hard in school, got good grades, and loved to debate her peers.
As a therapist, I often challenge my clients to think about how their reactivity in a relationship gets in the way of who they want to be as a partner. So often we shut down, complain to friends, or try and control our partner as a response to our anger. While these strategies may feel relieve us in the moment, they are rarely effective in the long-term. Let’s take a look at four simple strategies for managing anger and growing maturity in your relationship.
When I first talk with potential therapy clients, I have two favorite questions that I like to ask:
How would you know that things were getting better?
How would you be functioning differently than you are right now?
Most people can do a pretty good job at listing their complaints, discomforts, and symptoms. Describing a higher level of mature functioning, however, takes some thinking. In a few weeks I’m giving a presentation about how I’ve worked on my overall functioning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I have measured my own progress as I work on myself. I’ve asked myself those two questions—how do I see things improving, and how have changes in my functioning contributed to this?