What’s missing in best relationship advice?

By March 25, 2024Uncategorized

Relationship advice – Ideas from a systems viewpoint

We are learning more about how good relationships are important to optimal functioning and health. The research on loneliness is making this clear, for example. A recent NY Times article offering the “best” relationship advice (the link is below) is the inspiration for this post. I believe systems thinking has some important ideas to offer.

The article points out that arguments and fights about trivial issues are actually about something else. The article offers questions one could ask their partner. Which is fine, but I believe there are important questions to ask oneself. Finally, the article brings up the topic of sex. This points to a very important issue that I’ll get to.

Idea #0 – It’s not about the “thing”

Arguments or fights are about being reactive. The topic of the disagreement is often about something relatively unimportant. For example, what’s for dinner, where are we going for dinner, who’s making dinner? Or what time is dinner or who’s coming to dinner? You get the point. They are not about a serious issue like a terminal disease, bankruptcy, or a family member being in danger. They are a signal that something related to the “thing”, is being perceived as a threat of some kind.

Idea #1 – Look at Primary Social Cues

Dr. Kerr writes about the four primary social cues. They are attention, approval, expectations, and distress. These are things that we all want and are sensitive to. When we don’t get attention or approval, we can make up stories why that might be. When we think our partner is expecting something, or we expect something from them, this can activate reactivity. Likewise, if we are in distress or think our partner is in distress, we can certainly be more reactive.

Idea #2 – What do I want?

I can get reactive when MY wants around the primary social cues aren’t being met. So it’s important for me to observe myself, to check myself on this item. Am I being argumentative because I wanted something (expectation) and you are critical of me for that (approval)? Am I afraid to ask for what I want and thus getting frustrated? Actions speak louder than words. For example, my frustration coming out as being grumpy or sarcastic has a more negative impact than just stating what I would like. So is he argument really about some underlying frustration that you don’t want to discuss?

Idea #3 – Observe and look deeper

Dr. Bowen wrote a lot about the concept of emotional process. To simplify, my automatic reactivity to sometime my partner did or said (or a look or a tone) is “emotional process”. Usually this is outside of awareness unless we look for a feeling, often some kind of discomfort. The brain is very good at jumping ahead and offering predictions. One prediction is: “If I ask for what I want, there will be a conflict and that’s bad.” Another would be: “My partner isn’t as interested in me anymore. Our relationship is in trouble.” These kinds of predictions, often based on very little information, are treated as threats. Threats trigger reactivity.

Idea #4 – Follow the reactivity

What happens when one feels threatened? They can get defensive or offensive. Both are reactivity, and this reactivity can lead to arguments. So if you notice you are getting reactivity, work backwards. What appears to be threatening to you? What story am you telling yourself that is contributing to the negative feelings? How true is that story? Where did it come from? It often relates to an emotional want that wasn’t completely resolved in one’s family of origin. It’s your work to manage that and not let it run the show. (If you think that this stuff is going to take some effort and time, you are 100% right! But, it is worth it.)

Idea #5 – Your Relationship is reciprocal

Remember that this same process is going on in your partner. What’s worse is that it is reciprocal, such that you can feed into each other’s negative stories. An important point is that I can only manage myself. I can’t manage my partner. My job is to be my most mature self. And that’s a big enough job!

Here’s an example. I have a presentation to complete and give in two days. My immaturity means that I’m getting anxious about it. I’m very focused on this. My partner is picking up on this and it’s making them more tense. They don’t like the tension when I get into “presentation mode”. They don’t want to upset me so they get busy with something themselves. It was their turn to cook, but they were busy and now dinner is going to be late. I’m hungry, because I wasn’t eating properly during the day. So I complain with “why can you just make dinner on time for once?” Boom, the fight starts.

It’s NOT about dinner. It’s all about both of us NOT managing anxiety well enough. I really need to talk about the space I need to get the presentation done AND work on not emoting my tension. My partner needs to be better at letting me be focused while not being run by it. Asking me when and what I would like for dinner, for example, but NOT reacting to a curt comment like “whatever!” My partner needs to be firm that my “stuff” around presentations is mine to work on. Sure, they will be supportive, but not a doormat.

Idea #6. It’s not really about sex

The secret about sex is that it’s not about sex. It’s about any topic that is “difficult” to talk about. The difficulty isn’t about the topic. Unless it is literally something you don’t actually know about. It’s the stories about the topic and the imagined threats or consequences they bring up. Such as, we aren’t having sex like we used to. Is our relationship over? Even if it is about sex as in what kind or how often, it’s the worry about differences that usually drives the perceived threats and consequences. So sex, money, kids, parents, health – they are all the same process even though they are different topics.

Idea #7. Talk about MY stuff – listen to their stuff

I can only talk about what is going on for me. I can’t talk about “us” or “we”. I can talk about what I would like or not like. I can talk about what gets me anxious and what I’m trying to do about it. I can talk about my experience and how I’m working to manage my reactivity. And I can listen. Really listen. This gets into what Dr. Bowen called good emotional contact. That will be the topic of my next post.

I started this post with “Advice” and then changed to “Idea”. These are ideas from my understanding of systems thinking in relationships. They have been useful to others and myself. But you’ll need to think about their usefulness to you.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Send comments to dave.galloway@livingsystems.ca.

You can read more about Bowen Theory here.

You can read the original New York Times article here

You can read about the importance of relationships here