Daniel Berry, Mark Borg, and Grant Brenner, used with permission of the authors
Source: Daniel Berry, Mark Borg, and Grant Brenner, used with permission of the authors

Intimacy challenges us to reveal ourselves, and sometimes we are just too afraid, however much we want the closeness. That’s why we can stay stuck in a relationship for years, even a lifetime, wanting more from it but unable to understand the source of our discontent.

What is an irrelationship?

Irrelationship is a psychological defense system that two or more people create together and maintain to avoid awareness of the anxiety that’s part of becoming intimate with others, especially feelings about letting people see and know us for who we really are.

People in irrelationship can generally be described as falling into the category of either Performer or Audience. The Performer is driven to caretaking of the Audience while the Audience hangs back, allowing the Performer to continue and even escalate efforts to “rescue” or “fix" him or her. Paradoxically, by hanging back, the Audience is covertly taking care of the Performer, allowing him to act out his need to be a rescuer. For both parties, this process fends off anxiety, but in so doing, they jointly eliminate the possibility—or risk—of developing a genuine, meaningful relationship.

How common is irrelationship, and why does it develop?

It’s very common. Our investigations and observations demonstrate that irrelationship is ubiquitous, found in settings as varied as romance, family, and the workplace. Irrelationship can develop in any setting where compulsive caretaking can be substituted for mutual, reciprocal connection with others.

It begins in early childhood when the child becomes anxious when she or he observes the caregiver in a negative emotional state. The child then deploys behaviors to make the caregiver feel better, and the caregiver comes to rely on the child for emotional regulation. This reversing of roles is the beginning of irrelationship.

What is so threatening about intimacy that people avoid it; isn’t intimacy what everyone wants?

Intimacy is not so much about my telling you all about myself—how good, bad, and ugly I am—as it is about letting me show you who I am, warts and all, through the everyday process of living in close proximity to you. In the long run, it’s a process culminating in acceptance of one another as we really are.

For most people, this process is likely to be both desired and feared. This conflict is at the heart of irrelationship, which develops as a result of a break in the development of a secure attachment as children. In later life, it’s played out in relationships that trigger the unresolved feelings—the hope and the dread—related to unfulfilled need for security. Nothing is more likely to unearth this conflict than the approach of the possibility of intimacy.

Just how does a relationship turn into irrelationship? Is there a certain point or crux in a relationship when partners are most susceptible to creating irrelationship?

While relationship and irrelationship resemble each other superficially—they both provide some degree of care, security, and esteem—they serve different purposes. The goal of a relationship is to establish closeness and intimacy, while irrelationship is created to minimize vulnerability through interpersonal distance and control. A relationship is likely to become irrelationship when the anxiety connected with the possibility of intimacy overwhelms the capacity to be present. Susceptibility to irrelationship increases as the idealizations of the early connection begin to fade and are replaced by the experience (or prospect) of living our everyday lives together.

Do some people intentionally create irrelationship?

Irrelationship always serves the same function: to sustain unawareness of anxiety about intimacy, but the degree of intentionality depends on the person’s level of awareness about what they are up to. Because it starts in childhood, irrelationship is an adaptation to circumstances that happens without full adult intention; but it is by design (conscious or not), in the sense of being directed at self-protection. Later on, depending on the person’s level of maturity and development, irrelationship may become conscious and intentional—the person may know he or she is doing it, and want to keep doing it rather than the alternatives.

On the other hand, as with an addiction, people may know what they are doing and even why, but are unable to stop themselves. We have to be careful about jumping to the conclusion that everything people do is consciously deliberate, leading to inappropriate expectations of accountability.

How do you know if you’re affected by irrelationship?

People wondering if they’re affected by irrelationship are encouraged 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?

Does it take two people to create irrelationship—and thus two people to get out of it? Can one partner hit the reset button?

Irrelationship is jointly created by two (or more) people, and either party may end their stint in irrelationship by simply hitting the eject button. However, if those within irrelationship wish to recover, full, active participation by all parties is required.

Are there any signs in the early stages of a relationship that the relationship might become an irrelationship?

Dramatically unbalanced caretaking routines in early stages of relationship are a red flag. Such a dynamic (the authors call it a “song-and-dance routine”) is a highly reliable predictor that irrelationship is afoot. A sense of familiarity—“that sinking feeling”—that a repetitive bad relationship is starting up, along with the impulse to ignore the feeling, is also a common sign. Another warning sign is a strong, unrealistic-upon-reflection conviction that the person you’ve just met four minutes ago is going to be the solution to your life.

Are partners miserable in an irrelationship?

Partners who feel miserable in irrelationship are on the verge of discovering that something serious is missing in their connection with one another. The irrelationship song-and-dance routine is how people in irrelationship act out their uncomfortable emotions—fear and pain—related to the prospect of intimacy. What is acted out is the dissociated anxiety related to intimacy, empathy emotional risk, and emotional investment.

Often they don't fully feel miserable. And that, ironically, is a big problem. Irrelationship is characterized by a kind of emotional numbness accompanied by intellectual unconsciousness, which keeps going. The emotional pain, the warning sign as with physical pain that something is wrong and needs to be addressed, is dulled.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered in your work in irrelationship?

Perhaps the most surprising discovery is that many people who have expressed interest in our work suddenly change their minds when we tell them what it’s really about.

About THE AUTHOR SPEAKS: Selected authors, in their own words, reveal the story behind the story. Authors are featured thanks to promotional placement by their publishing houses.

To purchase this book, visit:

Irrelationship: How We Use Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide from Intimacy

used with permission
Source: used with permission

You are reading

The Author Speaks

Overcoming Sex Addiction: A Self-help Guide

The Book Brigade talks to cognitive psychologist Thaddeus Birchard.

Not Always Happy

The Book Brigade talks to developmental consultant and writer Kari Wagner-Peck.

Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age

The Book Brigade talks to psychologist and transitions expert Nancy Schlossberg.