Ten Misconceptions That Can Defeat a Relationship and Ten Ways to Promote Success

The following is great advice found on pages 139-144 of Dr. Roberta Gilbert’s “Extraordainary Relationships”.  None of this is my intellectual property, but belongs entirely to Dr. Gilbert. I hope you find it helpful to your relationships. 


I want to define some words she uses first. Anxiety is “usually defined as response of the organism to real or imagined threat. Clinical experience at some levels of differentiation suggests that anxiety is so continously present in life, so much a fact of the individual’s and family’s patterns, as to not neccesarily need to be stimulated by real or imagined threat. For that reason, another definition might be proposed; simply heightened reactivity. Anxiety may be a reaction to stressors from outside the family system or the person or it may be generated from inside the system or from within the person.” 


Differentiation refers to how much basic self a person has, which is “the core of the self, made up of all that guides and determines the course of the self.” Dr. Gilbert writes, “The more basic self a person attains, the more inner direction he or she has, and the more choice at any given time regarding whether to operate out of emotions or intellect.” Differentiation is being part of an emotional system by being active in it, but not reacting to it emotionally. It seeks to remain calm within the system by choosing intellect over emotions. 



“Ten Misconceptions That Can Defeat a Relationship and Ten Ways to Promote Success”



“Ten Misconceptions That Can Defeat a Relationship”


Most people bring a few misconceptions into their relationships. Here are some common ones: 


1. “The other person will make me happy.” 


Happiness (and the pursuit of it) is an individual matter. Another person may enhance or detract fromone’s happiness, but the primary responsibility or lack of it remains with the self. 


2. “I can change the other,” (or an attempt to do it that may sound like, “If you cared about me you’d…”). 


Both are serious boundary instrusions that set one up for the disappointment. Most relationships cannot bear that kind of load. Those can be ahrd beliefs to give up, but the sooner it is done, the better teh relationship will fare. As with happiness, change is accomplished only by and for each individual. 


3. “A differentiated person must be cold and unfeeling.” 


When people have spent years believing that spontaneous expression and processing of all feeling states in relationships represents a high level of functioning, they may hear choosing between thinking and feeling systems as intellectually defending against feelings. However, even at the highest levels of differentiation, the choice can be made to go with the feeling system. A logical intellectual process, one relativiely free of anxiety, is quite different from the illogical, inconsistent, intellectualized verbalizations of a person whose thinking system, fused to the emotional system, is awash with anxiety. 


4. “It is my right to respond from my emotions to my partner’s anxiety.” 


The excuse given usually is, “It is too hard not to,” followed by “Why should I do all the work?” Responding to anxiety with anxeity leads to escalation, intensification, and instablity. Trying instead to see the other’s anxiety  states and whatever he or seh does or says during them as the other person’s emotional “trash” may be more useful. Most useful is doing mentally what one does with the trash–throwing it out.


5. “This relationship will never get any better.” 


If one truly believes that, it probably wont’. But how can one tell? Since any relatinship can function at a better level if even one person in it changes, either one has the power to change things unilaterally at any time. 


6. “I’ve changed myself all I can and things aren’t any better.” 


To be alive is to change, so it probably is not true that one has changed all one can–unless one is dead. Even so, two peopel never change at the same time. If one partner has truly raised the level of differentiation, that one will have more patience. giving the relationship time to adjust to the changes in level of maturity, and giving a partner time to come up to a new level of functioning, can make a big difference. 


7. “Whenever one ‘needs’ to talk it out or get feelings out, the other must agree to listen.” 


The belief that talking about feelings is teh only way to feel better or believing that relationships exist for the purpose of processing feelings is a common misconception. Although communicating must be a high priority for any well-functioning relationship, this attitude belies a lack of respect for boundaries. The other has a right not to communicate at any given time, just as one has the right to ask. 


There are many ways to change feeling states. The nature of feelings is that they come and go. Talking them out is only one of many ways to affect these states, and probably one that, if used exclusively, no relationship can tolerate. If one can take primary responsibility for processing feelings and be selective about which feelings to bring into the relationship, the relationship will do better. 


8.”Excessive worry about the past–your own or the other person’s–is often defeating to relationships.” 


The belief that expression of blame towards one’s family of origin somehow help one avance is especially prevalent. However, if the past can be relegated to the past, most relationships (especially those in the original family) will do better. 


9. “If only don’t love me like my mother did, you don’t love me.” 


Only one person will ever love one like one’s mother. 


10. “I can cut off from my extended family and still have good relationships.” 


It may be possible for some people, but a family of origin cutoff would, theoretically, stack the odds heavily against good nuclear family or other present relationships. 



“Ten Ways to Promote Success”


Here are some typical statements madeby people who have used Bowen family systems theory ideals successfully in their primary relationships:


1. “Working toward my own emotional calm and intellectual objectivity enables me to think more clearly and thuse speak and act more constructively as well as providing a tangible contribution to the emotional climate of relationships.” 


It is not necessary to be a victim of the emotional climate of others. Playing one’s full fifty percent in the relationship can make the climate what one would like it to be. 


2. “I am at my best in relationships when I can observe myself in a relationship pattern and change my part in it without expecations of the other.” 


Taking responsibility for the self is a full-time job for most people. It is probably the biggest part of the work that must be done in relationships. 


3. “Staying in contact, maintaining one-to-one relationships with the individuals in my systems is important for me–it provides a sense of groundedness I have in no other way.” 


People caugh in the cutoff pattern of their system try to carry it on one more generation. Invariably they find that this style of relationship functioning works no better for them than it did for previous generations. A cutoff system is an intense system. Intensity over time will translate into relationship difficulties. 


4. “It doesn’t matter who makes the contact (is the initiator) or if one person makes more than his or her share of contacts. What matters is that they are made.” 


To be present and accounted for, especially in a relatively cutoff system, may mean that one sometimes gets the feeling that one is doing more than one’s share of the work. However, people who function at higher levels, while they are calmer, are also active systems forces. So, if one is doing more than others in a system, it should be seen as a tribute to the level one has reached. 


5. “If I can remember to look for the anxiety behind the boundary intrusions of the others, I can be less reactive, managing myself better around them. they are usually not meant to be invasive.” 


Any communications made out of anxiety call for better-than-usual attempts to manage the emotional self. If the other person is seen as an anxious person, rather than as pompous, overbearing, arrogant, or malcious, he or she can be dealt with differently. 6. “It is not necessary for me to take on the emotions of the people I am around. I have a choice.”


As one pushes up to higher levels of differentiation, not only is there more choice between thinking and automatic reactions, but self-boundaries are also more intact. the emotional reactions of others can thus remain theirs. They don’t have to become the other’s.


7. “I do not need to be loved, liked, approved of, accepted, or nurtured by the environment.”


At lower levels of differentiation, approval of others can be an orienting factor, but as one moves up in level of functioning, it becomes more important to be clear about one’s owen inner guidance. Approval and acceptance are taken into consideration, but they are not the primary motivators.


8. “Keeping my focus primarily on the self (thinking of myself and my own life course at least 51 percent of the time), I can usually find a way to manage my emotional self in and out of relationships just a little better without being critical of myself or blaming anyone else.” 


Focusing that amazing brain on the functioning of the self, especially the emotional self, is itself a high-level function that unusually successful people are very good at. Everyone can get better at it with practice. 


9. “Important relationship decisions, if made calmly and thoughtfully, usually stand the test of time better than those that I impulsively give over entirely to feelings.” 


Clinical evidence showsn that those who run their lives mostly in the world of feelings, making their decisions by how they feel, rather than by a careful, objective, thought process, live in a world of chaotic relationships.


10. “I work toward needing less togetherness. Acting on principle, I can choose companionship and cooperative group effort when that is the best use of my life energy.” 


At high levels of differentiation, people can be happy in or out of relationships. They are complete and do not need others to complete them. Perhaps partly because of the lack of need for them, their relationships function better. They have more energy to do what makes the best use of their talents and abilities as they contribute to the world. 





I hope this has been encouraging and beneficial for you to read.  If you have not studied Bowen Family Systems before and want to start I highly recommend you begin with Dr. Gilbert’s book. You can also check out this site: 




I hope you can take something from this theory and apply it to your life, so that your relationships will be on their way to extraordinary. 





3 thoughts on “Ten Misconceptions That Can Defeat a Relationship and Ten Ways to Promote Success

  1. One serious correction–the tenth way to promote success in relationships that is listed here (working towards needing people less) is profoundly unbiblical. We were meant for community. The desire to be less needy is prideful. We shouldn’t act out of neediness, trusting the Lord to provide for all our needs–including our need for people and togetherness. But working toward needing people less just teaches us to live in denial of a deep human need. Denying your need for hunger, eating only out of want and ignoring need is called anorexia; denying your need for community and ignoring your need is spiritual and emotional anorexia.


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