Building a new paradigm for understanding irrelationship
Will you never drown?
Will you learn to use
Some forgotten part?
Some forgotten part?—Frank Black And The Catholics, “The Swimmer”(link is external)
“Self/Other-Help” represents a fundamental shift into a new paradigm for life change distinct from the well-known paradigm known as “self-help.”
Does this mean that the authors believe something is “wrong” with or “missing” from self-help? Not necessarily. However, when addressing irrelationship, to focus only on oneself risks reinforcing the very defenses that actually seal us off from one another and from the possibility of intimacy. Addressing relationship issues grounded in irrelationship is likely to be more successful if the work is done with one’s partner. This avoids the added tension likely to come about if one partner makes progress while the other partner remains committed to patterns that made the relationship unsatisfactory. They will tend to grow apart. Meanwhile, the social psychology literature indicates that when couples (or groups)work jointly(link is external) on making positive changes in their lives, they’re more likely to be successful.
As the authors developed irrelationship theory and the model and techniques for change, we’ve increasingly realized that inviting readers, clients and colleagues to share their experiences is a vital part of the development process. Close attention to the input we receive from readers and other clinicians keeps the process on track as a reciprocal and resonant model for healing and becoming able to develop genuine, caring relationships.
The following is a blog-based correspondence with an anonymous reader who responded to our blog entry, “Hiding From Relationship—In Relationship(link is external)“). The exchange is an example of how this collaborative model works for both authors and readers.
Thanks for your blog but I have some questions. If irrelationship is an emotional defense system created by two people (and I believe that to be true), so too wouldn’t it necessitate the active participation of the two “creators” to resolve this block to intimacy? You’ve cogently described the reasons for, and behaviors of, participating in irrelationship. And you’ve also alluded to the fear (maybe even terror for some people) that is involved in the possibility of being and revealing one’s true self. I get all that. I’m not sure I fully understand the steps toward achieving what one wants (as in “wanting out”) not necessarily wanting out of the partnership/marriage but wanting out of the song-and-dance. It’s fortunate when both parties desire change. But, in some cases, it may be unrealistic to assume both partners want change at the same time. And therein lies the rub. I appreciated your comment about courage needed to forge ahead with one’s intention of reframe a painfully unhealthy partnership. How challenging it is though, to be alone in the irrelationship, and, also, to be alone in the desire to change the relationship into something more real and intimate! It’s not just “breaking up is hard to do.” When a person chooses to confront an emotional defense structure so deeply embedded in two lives, it becomes an excruciating confrontation with a life orientation built to protect oneself from that original pain that set the whole thing in motion. And if you really think about it, this terror is not about a marriage break-up, it’s about allowing oneself to feel that early experience that created an emotional lifestyle. It’s about tolerating what one most fears—the “I don’t want you as you really are” blow to the heart.—Anonymous
Dear Anonymous—Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response to our recent blog entry, “Hiding from Relationship—in Relationship.” Your response strikes us as being prescient. Evidently you’ve already seen beyond the horizon of what’s presented in the blog post into some of the challenges we face as we continue exploring the further reaches and implications of irrelationship as a jointly created psychological defense system.
We’ve been—and are—finding that recovery from the irrelationship routine, just like starting it up and keeping it up, is, as you suggest, a process that requires the proverbial “two to tango.” And so we see that the development of irrelationship theory and working through its straightjacket-for-two (two at least!) suggests a new category: instead of a traditional “self-help” perspective, irrelationship requires work better described as “Self/Other-Help.”
Working through the “enactments”—a term from interpersonal psychoanalytic theory describing the acting out of anxiety underlying irrelationship routines—requires participation and cooperation of all parties involved. One of the tools we’re developing for couples (it’s included in the exercises in our forthcoming book) is called, variously, the “40-20-40,” “Meeting in the Middle, ” or “Self/Other Assessment.” It’s a technique for creating a space for addressing each partner’s anxiety-driven contribution to the routine. For example, each party articulates what she or he contributes both to the problem and to the solution; and both parties take the opportunity to examine how their individual histories interlock to create a defense system. This process of self-inventory and naming aloud what each partner finds begins the process of creating a new shared safety within which members can build genuine, reciprocal collaboration and ownership of a real relationship.
Unfortunately, as you suggested, many people invested in irrelationship trip on taking the first “shot” at what seems like a Russian-roulette gamble to find out if, underneath their defense routines, they’ll find a partner who will accept them as they really are. But this is only the first dilemma. Another haunting fear of people who have depended on irrelationship is that we’ll find out how invested we are in shared life with our partner, all the while realizing that, no matter how invested we may feel, we have no guarantee of success. In fact, our history is probably a salient indicator of how easy it would be for us to blow it.
The lives and clinical experience of the authors tells us, however, that if the task is jointly undertaken, people who have relied on irrelationship for safety can become able to listen to the signals—sometimes longstanding signals—that something isn’t right, and to agree to take on the work of recovery. Some people will, of course, flee at the prospect of disclosing their fears to one another. Others will opt to return to the denial and isolation of their song-and-dance routines, silently resigned to the gnawing apprehension that’s part of their everyday lives.
Our primary task in irrelationship work, which your response to the blog brings us back to, is to expand awareness of the myriad ways irrelationship affects us and point the way toward recovery. The “Self/Other” tools maintain our focus on the deficits inherent in irrelationship while keeping the door open for building genuine relationships. If we stay with the process, we’ve a good chance of finding our way to true intimacy.
Learning to use some forgotten part…
Again, thanks for your response to our blog. Please keep reading and responding.
Mark, Grant & Danny—“The Irrelationship Group”
Visit our website: http://www.irrelationship.com(link is external)
Follow us on twitter: @irrelation