Distance, a well-trodden path

DistancingFunny how these experiences in relationships don’t seem to go away! My immature patterns run deep and hence regular practice opportunities abound.  I continue to have to more work to do on remaining in real contact with others who trigger negative reactions. This is an important path to responsibility.

I hear that Dr Murray Bowen has reportedly said that there are 3 “C” words that are key to working on differentiation (maturing) of self. (At the moment I share this with others, I notice people hastily get their pens ready to write down the secret formula). Apparently Bowen’s 3 “C’s” were:

Contact, Contact & Contact.

I understand this to point to the value of remaining in connection when things are challenging in a relationship. This effort to reverse the automatic tendency to use distance to relieve tension gives any of us a good growing up workout.

In a recent conversation I listened to the rewards of such an effort to keep non anxious contact in a difficult relationship.  A church minister described how he had been practicing staying connected with a congregation member who always seemed to be full of complaints about his leadership. For some years he had followed his automatic tendency was to avoid her whenever possible which had led to others being co-opted into the switchboard of vented grievances. Through studying Bowen theory he had thought more about the value of reversing this anxious pattern by reducing his distancing and working to deliberately connect with the other. He reported that over the past year this effort was reducing his stress levels and increasing his energy for relationships in his church. While the other person continued to be a voice of discontent, this leader was able to reduce his reactions to them by remaining friendly and interested in their goings on.

This got me reflecting on my own life – a benefit of a job where I get to hear other people’s “growing up” efforts.  Are there any people I’m keeping a distance from?  What’s the anxiety that I’m trying to relieve through distance?  These questions help me see that whenever I think negatively or judgementally of another about how they are operating I tend to move away from that person. I don’t go warmly towards them in the normal conversations and interactions that would happen in the community we’re a part of. This can happen in my nuclear and extended family, in my workplace, friendship group and in my church. I thought about a person in my community who I’ve been thinking is handling some things poorly. My silent emotional stance towards them is critical. I am being polite when our paths cross on (kind of a pretend friendliness that never fools anyone) but certainly not in open contact with this person.  I’m sure they would be picking up a confusing tension that can lead to walking on eggshells – which of course can compound the twitchiness between us. So what’s the more mature path for me?

  • Firstly I need to figure out what is my responsibility in addressing the things I am critical about? Do they belong with me or have I picked up on someone else’s issues? Perhaps I’m triangling (expressing my criticism to others)?
  • Is there a topic of conversation that would be constructive to have but I’m avoiding because it’s too uncomfortable? Have I worked at enough contact to build a thoughtful platform for such a conversation?
  • What are my principles for communicating concerns to another?

These questions about myself help me focus on reversing my pattern of avoidance and being genuinely in contact with this person; to view them with respect for the challenges they’re up against; including dealing with critical distancer’s like me; to find a way to speak my concerns in a manner that’s not anxious or pushing my perspective; to be open and interested in how they see the situation- to keep proportion about what concerns me rather than inflame or minimise it; to seek the good of us both and our shared community, rather than to contribute to unnecessary escalation of tension.

I can recognise that this is not a new growing up opportunity for me but one I’ve been up against in family and work.  Funny how these experiences in relationships don’t seem to easily go away! My immature patterns run deep and hence regular practice opportunities abound.  I continue to have to more work to do on remaining in real contact with others who trigger negative reactions. This is an important path to responsibility.

Questions for reflection:

  • Are there any people I’m keeping a distance from?
  • What’s the anxiety that I’m trying to relieve through distance?
  • What effort could I make to keep non intense contact with this person?
  • How would this effort teach me more about myself in the face of a tension in a relationship?
  • What was each of my parent’s patterns in relationships that were challenging? Did they keep contact? Did they avoid? Did they triangle in others by venting to third parties? How were these patterns similar to how they related to their parents?

Relevant Bowen Theory Quotes:

Bowen about himself in his family: “I was using emotional distance and silence to create an illusion of non-responsiveness. Distance and silence do not fool a relationship system.” FTCP p 491

The human “has long used physical distance as a way of getting away from inner emotional pressures.” p441

Significant “social relationships….are duplicates of their relationships to their parental families. When they encounter stress, and anxiety increases, they cut-off from the social relationship and seek another.” P539

Michael Kerr quotes from: One families Story

“The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them…….Relationships may look “better” if people cutoff to manage them, but the problems are dormant and not resolved.”

“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.”

Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000. http://www.thebowencenter.org.


‘Distance, a well-trodden path’ – Jenny Brown