There may be no more challenging pursuit than managing relationships, and there is certainly no shortage of recommendations on how to do so. In Growing Yourself Up: How to Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships, mental health counselor Jenny Brown wants us to look within at how we can develop our own maturity as we interact with others. As director of The Family Systems Institute in Australia, she uses the Bowen family systems theory as her base.
Developed by psychiatrist and researcher Murray Bowen, the theory draws from Bowen’s work beginning in the 1950s. As Brown writes,“In recent years Bowen’s concept of ‘differentiation of self’ — which describes different levels of maturity in relationships — has been shown by researchers to be related to important areas of wellbeing, including marital satisfaction, and the capacity the handle stress, make decisions and manage social anxiety.”
And, Brown continues, “The concept of differentiation can be confusing but, put simply, it refers to the ability to think as an individual while staying meaningfully connected to others.”
Bowen’s theory also refers to our ability to see the world through others’ eyes, including our family members, partners, and coworkers. And so, the first section of Growing Yourself Up is perhaps the biggest dose of reality to absorb.
As Brown shows us, the truth in a mature relationship is that there is no room for blaming others or for self-entitlement.
Instead, maturity is all about becoming aware of the immature parts you bring to relationships — and accepting them. To that end, Brown offers a checklist, which, as she puts it, gives the characteristics of genuine maturity, the kind that comes from within and that does not rely on others’ approval or disapproval. These traits include the ability to:
- have inner convictions that have formed gradually and do not come from relationship pressure
- express views “without declaring a dogmatic rightness” and without a disinterest in what others have to say
- balance independent goals with finding closeness with others
- balance one’s own viewpoints with one’s connections with others even during periods of high stress
- tolerate intense feelings without an impulsive drive to alleviate them
- focus on one’s own part in handling difficulties in a relationship
- manage one’s own anxieties without taking responsibility for others’ feeling states.
But, take heart: Brown relays Bowen’s own belief that no human being is close to being completely self-differentiated — and that he himself had not reached the ultimate level of maturity.
Apparently, Brown writes, Bowen told close colleagues that “only on his very best days might he appear to be in the upper to moderate range of emotional maturity.” Bowen was unusual, Brown explains, in that he acknowledged his own need to address the very self-management issues that his patients were working on.
Of course, Brown, like Bowen, thinks we can all still work on these issues, even if we do not reach perfection.
In the first part of adulthood, Brown explains, we must try to learn to be independent, but at the same time sensitive and nonjudgmental with our family members. One major challenge is to identify our own life principles and learn to how to manage our own anxieties, fears, and insecurities before jumping into a romantic relationship.
Friendship, Brown writes, teaches us to be simultaneously distinct and connected, as does relating to parents and extended family members in honest, relaxed ways.
And then there’s sex. Brown writes that sex is no different from other challenges of growing up in that it “provides an opportunity to tolerate the discomfort of becoming more separate while in real contact with an important other.” It can also be, she writes, “A joyous celebration of what it means to be comfortable in one’s own imperfect skin with another imperfect but deeply known mate.”
Whether in at-home relationships or the office, Brown describes what tends to make things work. Among other things, relationships of any kind are healthier when we learn to not dominate emotionally, to be open to change after thoughtful deliberation, and to allow the strengths of others to shine through.
But life has setbacks, Brown acknowledges, and so she moves into things like depression and divorce. As others have pointed out before her, we do ourselves a disservice when we see a romantic partner as the healing substitute for what we think of as inadequate nurturing from our parents. Viewing the other person as a way to fix our symptoms puts too much pressure on the partnership or marriage. We must instead work toward “being more real than than feeling better.”
That is not an easy task. And, if you take Brown’s guidance to heart, this is not an easy book. But working on increasing our maturity and the health of our relationships is rewarding. Like Bowen, we can all ask ourselves whether we gain strength through being needed by others or whether we gain strength through knowing ourselves and our own principles. And no matter the answer, we can better it.
Growing Yourself Up: How to Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships
Exisle Publishing, April 2015
Paperback, 256 pages