There are four possible levels of relationship.

intimacy

I went to see my counselor recently for a check-in—no big agenda, just a friendly chat to catch up.

The talk quickly turned, as I imagine it does in counselors’ offices everywhere, to relationships.

I was explaining a befuddling situation to my counselor, when she interrupted me with a question: How close are you to this person? 

I didn’t know what to say, because the answer was frustratingly ambiguous. Sometimes, this person treats me as an intimate friend, and sometimes like she barely knows me.

I explained this to my counselor, who frowned, and pressed: Yes, but how close do YOU think you are? It’s important to know. 

I fumbled a bit, trying to explain. My counselor saved me by grabbing her legal pad and drawing up this little chart:

four levels of relationship

There are four levels of relationship, she explained. They range from shallow (our acquaintances) to deep (our intimates). I’d never had anyone break this down for me before, but of course her little chart correlated with the unarticulated ideas about relationships I’ve been carrying around in my head for a few decades.

Those four levels can be further subdivided: we can be the barest of acquaintances, or pretty good ones. We can be borderline-close with someone, or borderline-intimate. Even intimacy has its gradations.

My counselor’s little chart was so simple, but it made so much snap into place for me.

Every relationship we have, she went on to explain, can be plotted on this little chart. This status is, in and of itself, emotionally neutral. We run into trouble at the point where our behavior and our relationship status diverge.

This happens most often with familial relationships. When someone is our blood-relative, or longtime friend, our natural inclination is to treat them as an intimate—because we expect them to be, or we want them to be—when really, we’re only at the “acquaintance” level with them. So we bare our souls and spill our secrets, and then feel like crap when we get acquaintance-level behavior dished back to us.

It happens all the time; we don’t even realize we’re doing it, or why it makes us feel so uncomfortable.

Or viewed from another perspective: do you know that horribly awkward feeling that washes over you when someone overshares? It happens when someone treats a casual acquaintance as a confidant: the behavior doesn’t match the relationship status.

Just wanting to be intimate with someone—even if it’s someone we feel we should be close to—doesn’t make it so. Nor does history forge communion. It seems so obvious when we think about it—but we don’t.

The bar’s pretty high for true intimacy, which has 7 necessary characteristics:

• emotional safety
• consistency
• love
• compassion
• understanding
• mutual respect
• freedom to be yourself

(Even when we are intimate with someone, we’re not perfectly so. We’re always disappointing one another somehow.)

I’m sure when other people—with different personality types, and different backgrounds—go to counseling, they get different advice. I’m an INFP and a 9, and my counselor tells me to try not to give people my heart and the hammer to smash it with all at the same time. I’m sure when others go to counseling, their counselors give them completely different advice that’s exactly what they need to hear.

This is what I needed to hear, and I hope some of you find it helpful.

Fiction recommendations for the Anglophile.

Fiction recommendations for the Anglophile | Modern Mrs Darcy

The details on this ongoing project, and the factors I’m taking to heart.

Readers told me 3 books they loved, 1 book they hated, and what they’re reading right now. In turn, I’m recommending 3 books for each reader. (Or more, if I can’t help myself.)

This week we’re choosing books for Katie of Cakes, Tea, and Dreams, who says:

I know you and I have similar (though not identical) tastes, but I’ll give it a go anyway:

3 books I adore: Gaudy Night (and anything by Dorothy Sayers); A Circle of Quiet (and anything by Madeleine L’Engle); The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
1 book I put down because it was NOT working for me: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The last book I read: Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill – such a fun YA story. Currently reading Micha Boyett’s wonderful memoir, Found.

Recommending books for Katie makes me nervous: I feel like she’s read everything, and I suspect our to-be-read lists already overlap a good bit (although she does read a lot of modern fiction that I skip over). I’d love to be able to introduce her to something new, but I’m not sure I can do that!

I have a long list of books that I would recommend in a heartbeat, but I either know or strongly suspect she’s already read them: Flavia De Luce and Maisie Dobbs, Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, I Capture the Castle, and a good many foodie memoirs.

(I once again asked on facebook for your suggestions. Read those here.)

My picks: 

Best series chronicling women’s lives: The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt
Best religious series that has a lot more grit and sex than you’re expecting: Glittering Images, Susan Howatch
Best modern novel that readers love to hate: Atonement by Ian McEwan
Best modern novel for Downton Abbey fans: Snobs, Julian Fellowes

My picks for Katie are all British, which I didn’t do on purpose, but strikes me as a good idea all the same.

The Virgin in the Garden is the first book in Byatt’s Frederica Potter Quartet, which I read forever ago and want to read again. The series follows the unusual life of a Cambridge academic, starting in the 1950s. Byatt is known as being a faithful, intelligent chronicler of women’s lives, and this series is no exception. These novels are smart, leisurely paced, and unquestionably cerebral.

Glittering Images is the first book in Howatch’s 6-book Starbridge series, which are set in the Church of England. Forget everything you’re thinking when you hear “religious thinking”: these books could fairly be categorized as psychological dramas, and are pretty racy. The first 3 books take place in the 1930s; the second 3 in the 1960s. Each book is narrated by a different character; the books can be read as a series (in which case, start here) or as stand-alones.   

Many readers love to hate McEwan’s breakthrough novel Atonement. (Count me among them, on many days. On other days, I admire the structure that gets readers up-in-arms.) But since Katie loves all things British, I think this haunting, wistful novel is worth reading once. (It reminds me of Rules of Civility, which I think Katie would also like, if she hasn’t read it yet.)

Snobs, by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, is fluffy and just for fun, although as an American I found its gossipy examination of British class structures fascinating.

Please share YOUR recommendations for Katie in comments. Thank you!

View all the literary matchmaking posts here.

Links I love.

Links I Love | Modern Mrs Darcy

Links I love:

What class will you be taking at Hogwarts this fall? According to this quiz, I’ll see you in potions.

• Benedict Cumberbatch gets wet for charity to recreate that Mr. Darcy moment. Silly, but so clickable. And with a clip of Colin Firth’s original lake scene to go with it.

• Check out this fascinating infographic on America’s libraries. My favorite tidbit: there are more public libraries in the U. S. than McDonald’s. (Phew!)

8 books to read when you’ve exhausted Jane Austen. I haven’t read #1, #2, #4, or #5. I didn’t like #7. I’m skeptical about #6.

What makes a fashion icon? (Does Tilda Swinton count? How about Kate Middleton? Nicki Minaj?) Reminds me of the new book Women in Clothes, which I just ordered. It sounds like Daily Rituals, for fashion.

Blogs YOU like:

As requested, 5 more blogs that are MMD reader favorites, per the results from the recent survey.

  1. Carrots for Michaelmas
  2. Hollywood Housewife
  3. Leigh Kramer
  4. The Mom Edit
  5. Becoming Minimalist

Most popular from the blog:

My favorite apps.

What I’ve been reading lately.

Book recommendations that aren’t cheerful and upbeat, but are really, really good.

Have a great weekend!

The bored housewife as plot point.

bored housewife novelsI’ve read two books recently that started from much the same place: with a floundering stay-at-home mom.

The books made me realize that the bored housewife, though an oft-used trope, is rarely done well. Novelists and screenwriters use it cheaply, as a cliché.

But I’ve had dozens of conversations with floundering stay-at-home moms over coffee—my own friends, neighbors, acquaintances. Real people struggling with real things. Fiction doesn’t handle their situations very often, or very well, and that’s a shame. There’s so much to dig into there.

The two books I read started in the same place: with two young mothers, married with a couple of kids. Both agreed to move long distances for their husbands’ careers, leaving their friends, families, and careers behind. Both felt isolated; both felt like they were losing important parts of themselves.

That’s where the similarities end. The first novel is The Expats, a spy thriller by Chris Pavone. The wife chooses to quit her high-powered job (and that’s all I’ll say; no spoilers here) in order to accompany her husband to Luxembourg for his. She experienced her fair share of mother guilt over the years, which was just one reason she was happy to hang up her hat, but once she found herself firmly entrenched in the expat school-mum routine, she was lost, lonely, and bored.

Because she has time to kill, she begins to analyze her current life, and the lives of the handful of people she knows in Luxembourg, through the lens of her old profession. She’s shocked by what she sees. She can’t decide if there’s actually something there, or if she’s deluding herself, yearning for her old professional life.

The Expats seems far-fetched for a lot of people. (It’s a spy thriller. Aren’t they all?)

The second novel, Everyone is Beautiful, puts a much more relatable spin on unfulfilled stay-at-home motherhood.

I’ve said before that if I didn’t know better, I would think that Katherine Center is Brené Brown’s chosen pen name for the fiction she writes on the side to flesh out her work. (If you’ve never read Daring Greatly or The Gifts of Imperfection, go get yourself a copy right now. It doesn’t matter where you start; just pick one.)

In Everyone is Beautiful, Center visits a theme I encounter far more in my day-to-day conversations than in fiction: woman has kids, woman pours herself into kids, woman feels like she’s lost herself because her life feels like it’s all about the kids.

This particular wife has three young sons whom she loves fiercely, more extra pounds than she’d care to admit, and not a moment to spare for herself. (Or, unhappily for both, her husband.) In words that sound like a horrible cliché but are wholeheartedly spoken across Starbucks tables every day, she aches to feel like herself again—just for an hour or two. She makes a new friend and makes a plan. Of course nothing goes according to plan.

I gave Everyone is Beautiful a solid three stars: I liked it. But I was rather surprised to see the plethora of enthusiastic 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I’m surprised so many readers rated it so highly: I’d thought it a bit too breezy, too formulaic, and the ending much too tidy for a 5-star rating.

Center’s strength is putting meat on the bones of the concepts that women wrestle with every day. She has some profound and eloquent insights into motherhood, which I very much appreciated. And she does it through the lens of fiction, which lets women look at their own lives with a little less attachment and a lot more objectivity than they’re accustomed to.

She makes the bored housewife relatable, and likable, and even a bit heroic.

So I wonder: does Everyone is Beautiful have such high reviews because readers desperately want to engage with this issue?

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments, as always. And if you can think of any novels that do a good job of engaging with this issue, please share those as well.