Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

A roundup of psychoanalytic points of view

Why We End Up in Bad Relationships

Experts define "irrelationships" and how to get out of them.

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Written by Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

“You don't appreciate how much I do for you,” Sam complains to Claire. He's always taken care of her—financially, practically, and emotionally. Suddenly Claire has rejected all of this “care” and he is hurt, angry, and scared.

Many people come into psychotherapy because they repeatedly find themselves in stale, unsatisfying relationships. Why? Do bad relationships actually have something to offer them? We began to investigate and found that relationships are sometimes the best place to hide from closeness and intimacy.

How Do We Hide From Relationships in a Relationship?

A truly intimate relationship is a deep, free, and responsive connection with another person who really matters to us. But when the other person matters a great deal to us, we also feel vulnerable to injury, rejection, and abandonment. Some people attempt to protect themselves from these experiences by forming what we call irrelationship.

Irrelationship is what happens when two people create and maintain a way of being that protects them both from love's dangers. The couple unconsciously “agrees" to maintain rigid rules that keep emotions predictable. Irrelationships feel safe, but limit freedom. They are about control, not intimacy and mutuality.

No wonder they are disappointing.

Sam and Claire have rules: Sam will take care of Claire, and Claire will be grateful. This makes them both feel safe—they each have well-defined roles to play, so their relationship is predictable. But safety alone is unsatisfying.

Consider: A child's greatest fear is abandonment. He or she will do whatever it takes to preserve the caregiver relationship. If her mother is depressed, the child knows to cheer her up. If she's anxious, the child might conceal his own fears. If father’s self-esteem is shaky, the child will accomplish great feats to make father feel more worthy. These ways of engaging become the adult individual’s definition of loving interaction.

Irrelationships often have their origins in childhood experience with caregivers unable to meet basic security needs. For example, a parent who instructs, “Don’t ask for anything,” teaches that wanting support and care will be met with disapproval, humiliation, and rejection. Someone with this history will likely be fearful that abandonment follows expressions of wanting and need.

Irrelationships seem to protect us from the risk of being left. Unfortunately, they actually limit our experience to that which we believe is expected and necessary to keep the other from rejecting us. We forfeit spontaneity, mutuality and reciprocity with our partner. We forfeit a full and fully satisfying relationship.

How Can We Change?

When we meet people who go from one irrelationship to another, we encourage them to ask themselves these questions:

  • Do I keep trying to fix or rescue the people I am drawn to?
  • Do I keep hoping that they will fix or rescue me?
  • Do I equate "loving" with "taking care of"?
  • Do I keep "doing for" my partner, even when I receive little in return?
  • Do my relationships feel more like work than play?
  • Do I feel enlivened or exhausted by my relationship?
  • Does my relationship enrich my life?

These questions highlight the fact that irrelationship is all about caretaking. And while relationship and irrelationship resemble each other superficially—they both provide some degree of care, security and esteem—they ultimately serve different purposes. The goal of a relationship is to establish closeness and intimacy, while irrelationships are constructed to minimize vulnerability through interpersonal distance and control.

Recovery from irrelationship means working with—not for—our partners. It requires that we relinquish fearful accommodation of the other. Only then can we develop into loving, intimate partners, compassionately empathic and reciprocally involved.

Some risks really are worth taking.

When Claire repudiates Sam's rigid caretaking routine and her complicity in it, she introduces a new passion and authenticity: "All your giving without accepting anything from me—you know what that means? That I have nothing valuable to offer! You don't let me matter, Sam. I’ve played my part, but feeling safe isn't the only important thing. I can't do this anymore.”

"You do matter to me, Claire," Sam says. "I'm terrified that if you don't need me, you'll leave me."

Now that Sam and Claire recognize that the rules of their irrelationship have been undermining the very thing they both want—an intimate relationship with a loved and loving partner—they can begin to aspire, together, toward that goal. 

To learn more about irrelationship, please visit http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/irrelationship and on the web @ www.irrelationship.com.

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a Supervisor of Psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention (see www.ccgny.org). He is in private practice in New York City.

Grant H. Brenner, MD, is the Director of the Trauma Service at the William Alanson White Institute. He is a psychiatrist in private practice, specializing in treating depression and the adult consequences of major childhood distress. He uses various approaches including talk therapy, medication approaches, and interventional psychiatric approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neurofeedback. He is a volunteer and Board Member of the not-for-profit organization Disaster Psychiatry Outreach. Learn more about Dr. Brenner at: www.GrantHBrennerMD.com

Daniel Berry, RN, MHA has practiced as a Registered Nurse in New York City since 1987.  Working in in-patient, home care and community settings, his work has taken him into some of the city's most privileged households as well as some of its most underprivileged housing projects. He is currently the Assistant Director of Nursing for Risk Management at a public hospital serving homeless and undocumented victims of street violence, drug addiction and severe traumatic injuries.

Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, edited by Susan Kolod, Ph.D., and Melissa Ritter, Ph.D, is under the auspices of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, the journal of the William Alanson White Institute.

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