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Interpersonal Systems

Ashley M. Finch

Western Washington University

Interpersonal systems are one of the most influential systems in our lives and yet we rarely discuss them or give them any conscious attention; they are something that we simply do, rather than consider and examine. But why, if they are so significant, are they not given more consideration? What is an interpersonal system anyway? An interpersonal system can be described as a two-person relationship and everything that that entails including the context of the relationship, communication within the relationship and the authenticity between the individuals in the relationship. All of these subjects at some level or another are pieces of all interpersonal relationships. Through a process of looking at a couple examples of interpersonal systems, we can begin to more closely examine our own interpersonal systems and more objectively examine the interpersonal systems of others.

David Shipler (2005) shares the story of a mom, her children, their relationship, and her decision to choose poverty as the best option for her family. Ann Brash grew up in a fairly stable middle class family, married, had children, divorced, and proceeded in a downward spiral toward poverty. But poverty wasn’t something she just fell into, it was a decision. Shipler (2005) quotes Ann as saying, “I made a decision to be around [my children] rather than working the fifty, sixty hours a week to let them live a middle-class life (p. 193).” Ann decided for herself and her children, Sandy and Sally that close healthy relationships and not feeling lonely contributed to wealth more than money did.

I can see how a case could be made to argue that Ann’s relationship with her children was dysfunctional and unhealthy because of her decisions, obviously other single mothers make decisions contradictory to Ann’s everyday. Many people decide that earning money is a higher priority than actual time spent with their children but I would like to make a point for Ann’s side.

Ann had insight into the needs of her children more than, I think, most people could ever dream of. She knew that her children needed her and that positive, influential relationships where both partners feel valued were priceless. Sandy and Sally’s successes in their lives are evidence that the relationships Ann worked to develop with her children were functional and healthy. Ann knew that spending time and being available to her children was one of the strongest ways to communicate with them that they were supported and cared for. It is also obvious that Ann, Sandy, and Sally had open verbal communication in addition to the knowledge of each other’s presence. Shipler (2005) describes a conversation between Ann and Sandy where they sat down together and made a list of needs vs. wishes. In order for Ann and Sandy to have such as this their communication would have had to have been considerably fluid and open.

This parent – child relationship didn’t exist inside a bubble; it was set within a context which had a considerable impact on its development. Other systems such as that of Ann’s family, church, and community played a significant role in the relationship between Ann and her kids. If Ann had not been supported by the larger systems around her she would not have been as able to make the decisions that she had and thus would not have been able to focus on her relationships with her children like she did. Ann never had it easy, but because of her network of financial and emotional support she was able to focus on her relationships more than if she had not had these supports. Ann’s and her children’s larger systems enabled their health interpersonal relationship.

Ann had the majority of the power in the relationship with her children primarily because she was the mom, but Sandy and Sally were empowered by Ann as well. Ann’s decisions had a significant impact on her relationship with her children but the power she did have did not appear to be dangled over her children’s head in an attempt to manipulate them. Ann used her power to make decisions for her children that were healthy and constructive and consequently empowered them to make their own decisions later in life. Ann used her power also to fulfill her role as caregiver, provider, and supporter for her children. They in return filled the role of Ann’s encouragement and motivation to push forward in life through difficult circumstances.

Another interpersonal system which is interesting to analyze is that of a peer to peer relationship, especially that of Andy and Jason as discussed in Hope’s Boy. Some of the most important aspects of Jason and Andy’s relationship to understand are their backgrounds and the larger systems at work in each of their lives. Both were in the foster care system for a variety of diverse reasons when they intersected each other’s lives at the Leonard household. At first Andy saw Jason as just another kid to come through the Leonard’s front door, a kid who would stay for a short while and then be off again. Both Jason and Andy came from a place of hurt and brokenness related to their family system, Jason was desperate for love and a sense of value and Andy was desperate not to let go of the one person he knew who really did love and value him. While each came to the relationship with various systems influencing who they were, there were also other larger systems which directly impacted the relationship itself, primarily the foster care system and the Leonard household. Both knew from their experiences and knowledge of the foster care system that their relationship would never last forever and this kept them from really bonding during their time together. Neither the foster care system nor the Leonard household was intentionally support of the boy’s interpersonal relationship.

Trying to decide whether Andy and Jason’s relationship was functional or dysfunctional, healthy or unhealthy is not as simple as Ann’s relationship with her children. Despite the six months that Andy and Jason lived together in the Leonard house, they rarely talked and only “shared small moments of chaos, then parted” (Bridge, 2008, p.173). Andy describes Jason as an “uncomfortable bridge” between school and the Leonard’s and describes their relationship with one another as neither brothers nor friends (Bridge, 2008, p.172). Even though their communication was strained, Andy claims that at moments they understood each other and I think that alone is powerful. And so parts of their relationship were functional while others were not. Andy was sometimes mean and rejected Jason but they understood each other. Later in life Andy reflects on his relationship with Jason and explains that, “Beneath all the falsehoods, despite my unwavering rejection, he was one of the few who knew me. For his strength, he remains in my memory that smiling boy… (Bridge, 2008, p.298).” Andy continues to say, “If I could, I would, with all my heart, unwrap the lies. I would tell you everything that happened to me. I would listen to what happened to you. I would hold your hand, walk with you the three blocks to school. I would call you my brother (Bridge, 2008, p.299).” While we cannot know Jason’s thoughts or feelings about his relationship with Andy, we do know Andy’s perspective and I think that it is evident from his reflections that Jason had a long-term positive impact on Andy despite their minimal interactions during their time together.

The dynamics of Andy and Jason’s relationship are important to consider as well, including the roles they played in each other’s lives as well as who had the power at given times in their interactions. Again, as Andy reflects back on the time when Jason was in his life, Andy describes Jason as, “the boy who revealed his love, however misplaced, and who challenged love to prove itself (Bridge, 2008, p.298).” Even though neither of them were necessarily conscious of it before they parted ways, they each played a significant role in each others lives, especially Jason for Andy. As far as who held the power in the relationship I think it was Andy, although Jason didn’t seem to mind because he was more focused on pleasing that Leonard’s than necessarily interacting with Andy. Andy was the older of the two, had been at the Leonard’s before Jason arrived, and he was the one who made the decision to walk to school without Jason; Andy made a lot of the big decisions in how their relationship would work, he had the power.

These are certainly just a couple examples of specific interpersonal relationships and systems, but by beginning to consider relationships such as these and our own relationships more closely we can come to a deeper understanding of what healthy and functional relationships look like. As evidenced by Ann’s interpersonal relationship with each of her kids and Jason and Andy’s relationship it is obvious that one of the core desires of every human being is to feel valued and understood. When we take the time to consider our own interpersonal relationships more carefully we begin to equip ourselves with the necessary meaning and knowledge to give the gift of value and understanding to the people in our own interpersonal systems just like Ann gave to her children and, I believe, Jason and Andy desperately wanted from each other.


Bridge, Andrew. (2008). Hope’s boy: A memoir. New York: Hyperion.

Shipler, David. (2005). The working poor. New York: Vintage Publishing.

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