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Why We Stay Stuck in Superficial Friendships

Being honest about your challenges can deepen your relationships.

Source: Canva

Imagine you’re calling a close friend. What do you talk about? The weather? Your favorite celebrity? That friend who can’t seem to get her life together? Your kid who refuses to do her homework?

Whether we realize it or not, many 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.

Most of us don’t want our relationships to stay stalled in surface-level conversations. We crave relationships where we can talk about our beliefs and experiences, even if they are different. We want to be honest about how we’re doing, and what we want, without the other person anxiously trying to fix us or edge away. But having this kind of relationship with our friends, much less our family, seems daunting.

Dr. Murray Bowen, the father of family psychotherapy, believed that developing what he called a "person to person relationship" with others was one way to become a more mature human. But how do you know if you have a “person to person relationship” with someone?

A person to person relationship looks like:

  • Being able to talk about your beliefs and experiences.
  • Not focusing on gossip or concern about a third person.
  • Not relying on impersonal topics to carry the conversation.

There’s nothing wrong with commenting on sports, or chatting about your professor or politicians. But when we use these conversation topics to manage awkwardness in a relationship, perhaps we are missing out on what could be a more intimate relationship.

How many of your relationships lack a person to person element? Consider these questions:

  • How many of your family relationships rely on superficial topics, or worry about another family member?
  • How many of your work relationships are built on complaining about a boss or colleague?
  • How many of your friendships are sustained by gossiping about old acquaintances or celebrities?
  • How much of your marriage is focused on your children?

Developing a person to person relationship is ultimately about defining yourself to others. The more of a “self” you can become in your relationships, the easier it becomes to engage in intimate, meaningful conversation without feeling threatened or becoming defensive.

Families can be the toughest place to develop these kinds of relationships. People often have a person to person relationship with one parent and not the other. Many a sibling relationship is built on poking fun at parents or worrying about another family member. And grandchildren often present a superficial, squeaky clean image to grandparents, so they don’t shock Grandma into an early grave.

Think about someone in your life with whom you’d like to develop a person to person relationship. What would it look like to talk about something going on with you (not your friend, not your kid, not the weather)? Be aware that sharing your thinking with another person may generate anxiety. But be encouraged that this is the anxiety associated with becoming a more mature human, and with building relationships that can endure differences and disagreements.