Irrelationship

How to Stop Using Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide From Satisfying Ones

Is Your Relationship a Straightjacket Built For Two?

Compulsive Caregiving Case Study: Margaret and Matt (Part 1)

One day, during her therapy session, Margaret asked wistfully, “Now that it is over, do you think I’ll be alone for the rest of my life?”

 Margaret was an attractive, sophisticated, middle-aged woman who had been dating a man much younger than she.

 “I doubt it,” her therapist answered. “Too many wounded guys out there want just the kind of ‘help’ you offer—and with no strings, no demand for intimacy, in fact, no demands at all.”

 “Is that really true?” Margaret asked, her voice trembling.

 “True? It’s the truest thing about your so-called relationships. By doing all the ‘giving,’ you get to control everything that happens. It’s how you keep these guys from giving to you, from being important to you; really, from having any real value in your life.”

 Despite Margaret’s intelligence, she was way out-of-touch with her own feelings. Although each unraveling of a relationship smarted a little, she was not aware of how relieved she actually felt when it was over. Instead, each time it happened—and it happened repeatedly—she would come to therapy session complaining she got into another “bad relationship” again.

So-Called Relationship

The twisted truth was that, for Margaret, her so-called relationships were her first line of defense against intimacy. She unconsciously but repeatedly connected only with men who were looking for a caretaker rather than a partner. To add even more to the twist, she attracted men who played, and then got sick of playing, the role of captive audience in her performances.

As to her repeatedly getting involved in “bad” relationships, they were no more and no less than what she looked for to protect her from anxiety based on routines that she had learned in early childhood. As a small child Margaret took on the role of making her mother “feel better” when her mother was depressed covering up the fact that she had failed at making her daughter feel secure. That was the birth of what we call a song-and-dance routine. Margaret made her mother laugh and she was a clever child, with all the answers. Her humor and smarts seemed to lift her mother’s spirits, if only for a little while, and Margaret felt her caregiving behavior genuinely relieved her own anxiety and vulnerability as well... if only for a little while. But she had to keep it up, constantly straining to keep everything OK enough—but not really good enough.

Margaret took on this pattern of relating, but when she was an adult this now in-grained pattern, her song-and-dance routine, turned into a kind of shroud of protection—that turned out to be a straightjacket that she and her partners put their relationships into—from the feelings that come naturally with getting close to another person.

Brainlock

Now, two people are needed for a song-and-dance routine to really ignite into a full-blown irrelationship. One of the key principles required in creating an irrelationship is that both parties must be invested in using that seeming connection with another person to maintain a safe distance from intimacy—in short, to hide. Once they’ve agreed to the set-up, it’s locked in—what we call “brainlock.” Brainlock is an unspoken agreement not to step outside the original limited parameters required to keep things predictable, and to avoid at all costs the dreadful specter of spontaneity, closeness or real love. It also means that “being yourself” is out of place, give-and-take is out of the question and mutual, healthy love is outside the realm of possibility. It's based on the brain science of love, bonding, attraction and social behavior—and it's as powerful as millions of years of evolution.

The Key Players

Irrelationship is something that we do together—it takes two. The roles that make an irrelationship happen require what we call a Performer and their Audience.

• The Performer: In the present case, Margaret caretakes overtly. The more apparently active member, she seems to call all the shots. She decides how the Audience needs to be helped and implements a caretaking program for him (this looks like the more traditionally “codependent” personality). 

• The Audience: Margaret’s past boyfriends, though apparently passive receivers of Margaret’s ministrations, were actually caretaking Margaret in their own way, through passivity; i.e., they allowed Margaret to believe that her controlling and caretaking made them feel happier and their lives better.

• The Irrelationship: These two combine in an apparently protective routine—an irrelationship. However, they are, in fact, trapped in—straightjacketed into—their song-and-dance, that, over time, leaves both players with vague but increasing feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration, ultimately, loneliness and isolation. They know something is “wrong,” but usually can’t figure out what it is.

Margaret has always been the Performer par excellence. In fact, she was so controlling and administered her caretaking with such ferocity that her boyfriends sometimes had trouble playing their assigned role of attentive—should we say “captive”?—audience.

The Jig's Up

Then Matt showed up.

Margaret’s next therapy session took quite a turn: “I’ve never been with a man who wasn’t, well, mostly absent. And I don’t know what to do. At first I thought I could do this. But Matt wants to know me! He asks me about myself as if he’s interested in, well, the real me—what I think, what I care about, what I am afraid of—things I’m not used to exposing to anyone. It’s so alien I don’t know if I can do it. I feel so uncomfortable, so out of control. But he keeps showing up.”

• What is at the bottom of Margaret’s dilemma—of wanting and not wanting to be with Matt at the same time?

• What will she and her therapist discover about what caused her ambivalence?

• How did Margaret find a way through her fear and out of the irrelationship pattern to find Real Relationship?

With Matt, the jig is up. At last!

More to come. 

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Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D.

Grant H. Brenner, MD

Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

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