What happened with Matt?
Having a well-established habit of controlling most of what happened in her “romantic” life, Margaret had never reflected on what she actually wanted from a man. Instead, based on her own analysis, she defined what his needs were and treated him accordingly without any explicit input on his part.
But Matt was a curve-ball. Not about to be put off easily or pushed into a role that didn’t fit, he let Margaret know from the start that he was interested in her—not what she could “do for him” to solve his problems or to make him “feel better,” but who she is, what she was interested in. He took this untoward line of interest so far as actually to ask her questions about herself!
Margaret’s first reaction to this was near-panic. She knew that if she didn’t get rid of Matt, her customary way of life would be in jeopardy. The problem was that, thanks to the work she had been doing with her therapist she’d begun to see the reality behind her role-playing. Put another way, she now knew too much. She’d been forced to swallow the bitter pill that the way she had been living and treating men was not only pointless and absurd, but—and this was the kicker—it was keeping her isolated and lonely. And it was not really her deep down choice, it was a survival pattern left over from her childhood that went back decades.
As she continued therapy, Margaret began to appreciate how badly she was treating—herself! This was more confusing because she was unable to get a grip on how any of this made her feel about Matt, about the men she’d known in the past and even about herself. More time would pass before she was able to realize that keeping her own feelings off-stage prevented her from knowing the pleasure, excitement and, yes, the challenges of intimacy. In a nutshell, her way of life had been devoid of empathy for herself of anyone else.
What happened to Matt?
From a series of previous relationships Matt had learned about women who look for men who want a caregiver. He found out first-hand not only that they wanted him to be dependent on them, but expected him to act as if their caregiving “worked,” i.e., that it made him “feel better.”
Like Margaret, however, Matt had come to realize that being kept in the role of Audience, of needing to be “fixed” left him lonely and distant from others, with no sense of sharing life-experience with another person. After several such “busts” with women, Matt realized he didn’t need to be fixed. From the time he was able to let that sink in, Matt made a conscious determination never to be cornered in that kind of role again.
Role-play with Margaret and Matt
Before wrapping up this entry, a word to review the roles and expectations inside of an irrelationship. Margaret discovered that she unconsciously but deliberately chose men who needed fixing. As a helper, fixer, rescuer, Performer, Margaret looked for an Audience to dance with. In return, she expected the “problem men” she took on to adhere closely to the role of someone needing her to be the solution to their problems.
To go a little more deeply, the Performer creates and manages the “program” of making decisions and taking actions designed to “fix” the Audience. The role of the Audience is to allow the Performer to do all the work while he accepts her directing what is done and how it is done. In addition, the Audience is expected to let the Performer know that her treatment is “working—that her program for solving his problems is making him “feel better” about himself, about his life.
Both parties are highly invested in maintaining this role-play, which is called their song-and-dance-routine. Designing and stepping into the song-and-dance begins in the first encounter of Performer and Audience with one another. Each has learned over time to listen for certain “cues” when they meet someone new. If the right cues are given and received, the first conversation is taken as an opportunity for “scoping each other out” as “dance partner” potential. If this initial contact gives them sufficient reason to believe that each may find the other useful in meeting their needs, a silent contract is initiated based on the Performer-Audience paradigm. Ouch! An Irrelationship is born.
Though the Performer’s role appears to be active while the Audience appears passively to allow the Performer’s ministrations, they’re equally invested in designing a routine in which they can feel safe. The song-and-dance they begin to construct is, therefore, purposely choreographed from the start to disallow spontaneity or unpredictability. Deviation from assigned roles on either side will be seen as betrayal and grounds for termination.
Remember that both parties are using the Irrelationship to manage anxiety originating in the earliest years of their lives. This is anxiety literally connected to a child’s fear that she may not survive if she doesn’t control her environment. Without intervention, this anxiety will not diminish over time. As the child becomes an adult, managing this anxiety will be translated into finding someone with whom to create an Irrelationship.
Margaret Chooses To Work With Instead of On Her Partner
Insight into the Irrelationships in which she had been involved motivated Margaret to finally take a risk. A window of opportunity opened up for her and she felt she could breathe more freely if she actually made a conscious choice to try a different way with Matt. She had begun to hope that a relationship with a man didn’t have to be a dead-end. Margaret wanted love. Before long, this translated into a new willingness actually to share experience—to see her life as something done with, rather than to, someone else. Naturally, the novelty made it difficult at first: Margaret’s alarm system continued to warn her of the danger of letting Matt know anything about her. She felt scared and vulnerable, but she had learned enough in therapy to know that walking through anxiety is the way out of anxiety. She began to believe that if she could keep walking, sharing about it with Matt as she went, the alarms would probably die down, allowing space in her head and her life to learn that give and take not only did not jeopardize her survival, but was a necessary condition for love and intimacy to flower.
Learning to be open to what drives the need to control relationships opens the way to true intimacy. We don’t say the way is easy or even that it’s a straight shot from beginning to end—nothing in the human mind or behavior is! But we do say that the willingness to work with rather than on our partner is the first step on the hopeful way to empathy and intimacy.
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