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

Relationship Sanity

When Love Gets in the Way of Relationship Dysfunction

When positive change comes, make sure you see it.

Posted Jan 07, 2020

"Every experience is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative; in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself." —T. S. Eliot

"Why do I keep winding up in this situation? What is that?" Anne asked her therapist, Sarah. 

"You mean, why do you keep picking up on what’s wrong with other people’s lives and stepping in to fix it? A better question is: Why does it rattle you that Bob is not only willing to let you care for him, but he wants to do the same for you? It’s a real change of pace from the guys you’ve dated since I’ve known you,” Sarah replied.

Filtering out the key part: “Why does it rattle you?” Anne rejoined, “What’s wrong with wanting to take care of people I love?”

Through the Wringer

In the few years prior to her starting to work with Sarah, Anne had been through a failed marriage and a series of quick in-and-out almost connections. But the tipping point was a second marriage with a man who actually insisted on giving to her and contributing to their shared life in a way she’d never experienced—or, to be more candid, in a way she’d never allowed. 

While his generosity frightened her, she couldn’t quite convince herself that this was someone she’d burn through in her usual way, and then blame for whatever seemed to go wrong at the time. In other words, this could actually be a lifetime partner, rather than her project du jour. Fortunately, over time she’d gleaned enough perspective on her repetitive relationship ruins that she looked for professional help instead of summarily giving husband number two the old heave-ho.

Also, fortunately, Sarah quickly got wise to Anne’s routine and didn’t hesitate to call it as she saw it. “Anne to the rescue! Find someone broken and sacrifice herself to fix him; and when it doesn’t work out, blame him when he fails to respond properly to her expertly crafted repair regimen. She walks away still the good guy, while the ex remains stubborn and incorrigible.” Sarah had seen it time and again—not just with Anne but without countless clients caught on the irrelationship treadmill—and it was almost always at first a hard sell.

Rupture and Repair

"You don't understand!” Anne initially responded. “You aren’t listening to me. I’m one of those ‘women who care too much,’ and men just take advantage!”

"Hmm,” Sarah replied. “Maybe I’m not getting it. Maybe I either don’t appreciate how wonderful you are, or am just trying to make money on you by rescuing you!” After a beat, both laughed—Sarah a chuckle and Anne outright.

“Let me try again," Sarah said, staying with her therapeutic curiosity. "I am not sure you are 100 percent in tune with why you do what you do. I know you care, but on top of the real caring, it seems to me that maybe there is a kind of pressure to prove you care—and that is more about your inner needs from yourself rather than the other person—I think. Does that make sense?”

“With Bob, thanks to your hard work, things are starting to shift. You are going from over-giving to giving-and-taking, and the chance of real closeness with him feels scary and unfamiliar. That’s too simplistic, but is that in the right ballpark?”

As Sarah is suggesting, something went terribly wrong in Anne's routine, her song-and-dance routine, when she met Bob. Rather than merely repeating her fixer-upper-lover role only to have her “manbabies” grow up and leave home, she found a partner with a chance at a real relationship.

Behind the Scenes

There are times when we unwittingly work through our irrelationship song-and-dance routines. We begin to recover, and don’t even realize it. Then we meet someone more suitable in this new state of relating, and it can freak us out without us knowing why. It’s the Groundhog Day of Love—we are faced with a situation in which we see our shadow and retreat. 

Or, we can stay the course, and sort out what is happening before we trash something potentially valuable. Learning while we were are going through it with someone else is highly effective, challenging, requiring collaboration and often outside assistance to correct for the emotional and psychological blinders we call “brainlock”.

Bob loved Anne. She loved him too—in fact, she always felt like she “loved” the men that she tried to fix—but did not have a clue how to respond when he open-heartedly accepted her care, even drank it up. She was expecting the usual chase-and-fight. Stunned by his offer of mutuality, she did not know what to do, but her therapist was able to point her in the right direction.

Anne was able to pause, and noticing and naming what she was feeling, and where it was coming from. When did she start doing this rescue dance, and why? She could see her old choices and that there were a lot more alternatives than she had been able to imagine. Her relationship-mind expanded, she was able to approach Bob with less fear, receiving his gift with gratitude rather than resentment. She wasn’t even aware she’d been in competition with him for greatest caregiver ever, but letting go felt right.

Foresight Is 2020

When we stumble into a new situation when we have slowed down enough, and thought through it enough, to notice when better alternatives are actually possible, a window of opportunity opens.

Beyond that window is an unfamiliar world—a world of uncertainty and unpredictability—but paradoxically a better one. Losing predictability means losing the assurance that our care is one-directional. It doesn’t feel safe, but it’s usually worth the risk. 

The myth of self-sufficiency is a powerful protective story, but it leaves us alone and isolated. It makes it hard to know when we need help, hard to know how to ask for help when we know we need it, and hard to accept that help when it is offered. Even when it is staring us right in the face.

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