You Mean This Dance Has Partners?

  • December 09, 2020
  • Carl A. Jensen, MDiv MSEd

Long ago, I read about wolves and rabbits in a particular area.  When the number of wolves went up, the number of rabbits went down.  With fewer rabbits to eat, the wolf population went down.  With fewer wolves to eat them, the rabbit population went up.  So the cycle went on.  A clear connection.

I started recognizing similar patterns elsewhere.  Only this time, I was in them.  Sometimes, I’d anxiously try to get close to somebody who would be quick to move away.  Or I’d anxiously try to get away from somebody who was trying hard to get close.  Sometimes, we’d exchange roles, reverse directions, and never get together.

My eyes also were opened to how one person can do “too much,” while another person did “too little,” all as part of their dance.  When I tried to change my steps in this dance, I saw more of how hard that can be, especially if third parties are involved.

Bowen Theory calls this “reciprocity” – I’ll call it my “Bowen nugget”.  This idea tracks anxiety flow rather than character defects.  It showed me ways that I’m influenced by what others do, often without realizing it until much later.  I also saw how I may influence others in unintended ways that aren’t good for them or me.

During times of relative comfort, these patterns usually operate in the background.  But when something triggers enough anxiety, the dance becomes more intense and compelling.

When this happens, one of my first reactions is to blame somebody.  On a good day, that prompts me to check out how I may be contributing to the problems that I’m complaining about and then to change my “steps.”  Let’s not talk about my bad days.

When I’m thinking clearly, I assume that in my enduring relationships (such as with family, friends, and some co-workers), I play a role in the problems we have with each other.  I may be doing too much, doing too little, or getting off track, maybe while moving too close or too far away.  In all of these patterns, I’m part of a dance that’s hard wired into human relationships.

The other people are dancing too, stepping in their own ways.  But I can do more about my steps than I can do about anybody else’s.  When I’m calm and determined enough to change my part, then the pattern can change by choice, if only a little.  This usually works out better for all concerned.

My most persistent dance is to do “too much” when I’m anxious that things “go right.”  Sometimes, my dance partners don’t appreciate my “generosity,” as when my daughter once called me “Rescue Daddy” in an annoyed tone of voice.

Other times, the more anxiety I absorb, the less others seem to care.  Then it’s easier for them to get out of my way rather than to do their own parts.  Of course, that only makes me more anxious, and the cycle continues.

I’ve been working on “staying in my lane,” doing what I’m responsible for doing, and choosing to expect others to handle their own responsibilities.  Sometimes, my dance partners were glad for their space, and other times they were disappointed that I didn’t take care of things for them.

What I’m seeing more clearly is the flow of the dance itself.  This insight gives more options, for it’s easier to change patterns of behavior than to change character.

Once there was a man who recommended that we take the logs out of our own eyes first, before helping with the speck in another person’s eye.  An exaggerated metaphor of course.  But a really good point.

When I’ve started with being more responsible for myself, I probably didn’t make things worse.  Maybe more uncomfortable, but not worse.  As others did what they did in response, it usually seemed to me that the dance got better over time.  Maybe even more lively.

Carl A. Jensen, MDiv MSEd
WPFC Faculty

3 Replies to “You Mean This Dance Has Partners?”

  1. I had a further thought about the “nugget” of reciprocity. How usefully can this idea be applied to the larger systems of economies, nations, and international relations?

    In families, this idea can help to reduce the levels of polarization and conflict. People are still responsible for their own choices, and understanding what influences these choices can lead to more useful decisions and more effective conflict management.

    As our society and world grapple with intense levels of polarization and conflict, how useful would it be if those involved would recognize and modify their own contributions to the problems, with or without a negotiated response? What are the limiting cases for the usefulness of this approach?

    In one’s family, it’s a challenge to overcome one’s subjectivity and to see more clearly one’s own contribution to a problem. Is it more or less of a challenge to do this when dealing with polarizations in larger systems such as economies, nations, and international relations?

  2. HI Catherine,
    What a useful and, for me, important nugget! You described reciprocity so clearly.
    Thank you.

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