“Everyone has a right to have a future that is not dictated by the past.”
—Karen Saakvitne, PhD, renowned traumatologist
Couples get together for many different reasons: love at first sight, convenience, family and cultural forces, shared dysfunction, social and peer group reasons, checking the boxes, and a host of others. We try to enter into serious, long-term relationships with eyes wide open, but more often we have blinders on. The blinders are made up of our misconceived hopes for the future—as contrasted with realistic optimism—and our emotional baggage from the past. They make our blind spots even worse, a big problem when it comes to love and relationships. When our own history distorts how we interpret and make sense of current relationships, we miss important parts of ourselves and the other person, seeing only what our expectations and past experiences allow us to see. This, in turn, leads us to keep making the same mistakes over and over, apparently imagining the outcome will be different this time. And we all know that doing the same thing over again and expecting different results as the familiar definition of insanity.
Irrelationship: A straitjacket built for two
In our work on “irrelationship”—the term coined for a jointly created psychological defense system that two or more people maintain in order to avoid awareness of the anxiety that’s a natural part of becoming close to others—my co-authors and I think about this dynamic a lot. We have extensively discussed a critical and often overlooked set of forces which holds couples together, even when they are in unsatisfying relationships. Irrelationship is, at its core, a way for couples to avoid intimacy by acting as if they were really trying their best to find intimacy together.
Couples struggling with closeness use the appearance of building a relationship to actually defend against getting close. This is because they are unaware of how anxiety about intimacy combined with the need for intimacy creates a perfect storm that is a vicious and unending cycle of distancing, loneliness, and unconstructive conflict.
The roots of this dynamic go deep. We see it frequently when early caregiving relationships between parent and child get flipped, and the child becomes the caregiver to the parent. Children in situations like this become “parentified,” prematurely developing an exaggerated sense of self-sufficiency and responsibility at the expense of having the time and space to experience a full and nurturing upbringing. This leads to problems with sense of self, security, and attachment, which all play out in adult relationships.
The Performer and the Audience
Typically, in irrelationship, one person ends up as a rescuer and fixer type—who we call the Performer—and the other one ends up as the Audience in a seemingly passive role, appearing to need fixing or rescuing while simultaneously undermining the Performer’s efforts. The Audience and Performer create all-consuming tasks for each other based on maladaptive caregiving, which distracts from a lack of togetherness, stunts the growth of the relationship, and creates an unnoticed, yet convincing and distracting narrative: “We are both doing our best to make it work, and are therefore beyond reproach.”
Genuine mutual caring is replaced by compulsive caretaking. There is no interdependence, only enmeshment without boundaries, and isolating self-sufficiency. We can tell ourselves we are being good, are without guilt or blame, because we are trying, trying our best and hardest… but the words have a hollow ring to them.
Relationship sanity: Darkest before the dawn?
There is hope for couples caught in irrelationship. When unchecked, this situation can end in traumatic break-ups or chronically lonely relationships held together by habit and fears of loss. However, when couples recognize they need and want to work on their relationship, overcome their individual issues, and create and maintain a healthy relationship, they can approach the dysfunction in their relationship entirely differently and begin to work their way out of irrelationship into relationship sanity.
While getting to relationship sanity takes time and effort, there are several core concepts which provide a framework to begin to think about setting foot on the path to healthier, more fulfilling and loving relationships. These core concepts range from ways of approaching oneself and others, to tools which can help to foster communication, to an overarching framework to jointly nurture the relationship. Those core principles are:
- Recognition of the situation. Both partners have to see not only that there is a problem, but they also have to agree on what the problem is. Because often the relationship has been on the rocks for so long, couples have developed a sense of hopelessness and resignation, alongside desperation and loneliness. Because there is usually a track-record of repetitive, unresolved conflict, couples also share a sense of resentment and injury. These feeling are important to recognize and address, mutually, in order to start to develop the motivation to break long-standing dysfunctional patterns. Once this happens, if couples are compatible and loving and decide they want to stay together, they can develop a sense of growing hopefulness and efficacy to build a better relationship. Rather than being “defensive” all the time, they come to recognize one another anew.
- Compassionate empathy. In the face of of chronic negative feelings and damaging relationship experiences, couples often have become so defensive and hostile with one another that when they try to sit down and talk through things, it ends up going nowhere except to further injury and avoidance of the issues. The result of repeated unsuccessful attempts at fixing the relationship can be that partners drift even further apart, more and more convinced that they shouldn’t stay together. Partners are unable to empathize enough to take on one another’s perspective—a necessary step for getting along—and they lose interest in being kind and open-hearted with one another, further putting a damper on love. On the flip side, over-empathizing isn’t helpful either, as it can cause us to lose sight of our own needs and fall into the trap of trying to fix and rescue, ending with compulsive caretaking. By building compassion—for both oneself and for one’s partner—couples can shift the basic tone of the relationship in the direction of collaboration. Not only that, but compassion keeps empathy balanced between self and other, setting the stage for mutuality and reciprocity. Getting free from destructive cycling also allows couples to see the actual value of the relationship by reducing distortions caused by heightened negative emotions.
- Reciprocal communication. People in dysfunctional relationships are generally unable to communicate effectively and constructively. Rather than truly communicating, they go on the attack—often being critical under the guise of protecting their own needs or “just trying to help.” They talk past each other, talking about the other person or talking at the other person, without really engaging each other. And they stonewall one another by refusing to really listen. However, when couples agree together to follow simple ground rules for talking through challenging issues, it can be a game-changer. Basic rules for reciprocal communication include: a) taking turns speaking and listening, ideally using an actual timer to give each person 3-5 minute turns; b) agreeing to only speak about one’s own experiences and feelings, rather than talking about the other person’s contributions; and c) listening non-judgmentally, with an open mind, to what the other person has to say. We inevitably hear difficult things about how we have affected the other person, making self-compassion so essential. Inevitably people slip up. When they do, rather than taking that as proof it can’t work, it is important to view that slip-up as an opportunity to use compassionate empathy to gently stick with the plan. Yes, it is a challenge to follow these simple rules, but grit pays off big time here. We can free ourselves from destructive patterns and end up solving problems in ways we were unable to when we felt more threatened by one another. Over time, communication becomes safe enough to be effective.
- A commitment to work together. A relationship can only move forward on practical levels if both parties agree to do it. Committing to improved communication is key. With the right approach, solutions often arise for long-standing problems which seemed unsolvable, even impossible to imagine. For example, a couple fighting endlessly over whether to renovate the kitchen because of financial issues figures out a compromise which actually works for both. On another level, rather than continuing to re-traumatize each other with hurtful argumentation, each time they are able to listen attentively, speak from the heart—and really feel one another—is a loving experience which build on itself over time with a therapeutic effect on on the history of prior difficulties.
Resilience in building trust over time
The end result of all this is a shift in the dynamic of the relationship to one in which couples are aware of vulnerability with one another and come to value that vulnerability. They are able to take healthy emotional risks together with a sense of basic safety and security, allowing them to tolerate feeling uncertain when exploring beyond their comfort zone to keep the relationship fresh and rewarding.
Relationship sanity is not a destination, but rather an ongoing journey—a process of mutual respect, trust and emotional investment, balanced and genuine caring, and enjoyment together. Relationship sanity also involves seeing one another more clearly and knowing one another more fully and authentically, rather than being caught up in the distortions of the past.
True relationship sanity means that couples not only attend to their own needs and one another’s needs in healthy ways, but that they also devote resources to tend to the relationship itself, as a shared project they treasure together. Relationships based on living, working and loving together, day in and day out, are resilient relationships, built to weather hardships, revel in the good times, and last a lifetime. It isn’t always easy or quick, but the work pays off.
Sanity isn’t just for long-term, committed relationships
Not everyone wants or needs to be part of a long-term, committed relationship, and not every relationship works out. For people in a relationship who are concerned they are bogged down in dysfunction stemming from their own individual issues with caregiving, going about intimacy more methodically and intentionally within a useful framework can help them build better ways of relating. Even if they decide ultimately to go their separate ways, they can do so with greater awareness, compassion, and intentionality to make leaving one another more affirming than re-traumatizing.
And these principles work well in all of life’s relationships, as learning to communicate more effectively and compassionately, learning to work through conflicts constructively, and generally fostering relationship sanity in our dealings with others, and ourselves, can make stronger and more fulfilling friendships, shorter-term romances, family relationships, and professional relationships.
Co-Authored with Mark B. Borg, Jr, PhD and Daniel Berry, RN, MHA