He was a compulsive caregiver who liked to take care of the women he formed relationships with

What we don’t see we’ll never be

“The I’m OK/You Need Help” Routine

We are all so accustomed to disguising ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Kenny was highly adept at choosing women to date who were unable to reciprocate his compulsive caregiving. So he was shocked when, early in their relationship, his newest girlfriend Lisa began questioning not how he “took care” of her but the ways that he didn’t take care of himself. The “I’m OK/You Need Help” routine he’d always played out with women wasn’t flying with Lisa.

This caught Kenny up sharp—not just because his routine was being questioned, but also because he hadn’t realized how thoroughly he was invested in his persona of Kenny-the-caretaker. The Kenny who not only needed nothing from anyone, but also waved away whatever others tried to offer. Lisa saw through all of it and was almost as surprised as Kenny that his radar had allowed someone as perceptive as Lisa into his life.

Irrelationship can be described in several ways: a jointly created and shared defense system; a compulsive caregiving duet, with the second person playing a very quiet second fiddle; Performing and playing Audience; feeling trapped and helpless, to name a few. Irrelationship works for people by enabling them to hide out in a song-and-dance routine that like a mask or persona, protects them and their real feelings from being observed—a “persona-in-action” or enacted disguise.

Since  we started this blog, we’ve gotten more and more readers telling us about examples of irrelationship they see in people they know. This isn’t surprising because recognizing uncomfortable traits and behaviors in others is usually easier than recognizing the same traits and behaviors in oneself.


As a hiding place built by more than one person, irrelationship makes it easier to dodge the parts of ourselves and our histories we don’t want to deal with. Kenny found it jarring to be confronted by the idea that his caretaking of his girlfriends might not be purely selfless. Nevertheless, he was able to admit that for some time he’d been becoming subtly aware that his relationships with women kept leaving him feeling empty, lonely, and strangely resentful. People often need repeated variations on the same theme in order to start to get the message. This also means that we often have to go through painful experiences over and over again until we even want to change, and again until we start to see what the real issues are and make progress.  Better to do this with other folks than try to go it alone.

Kenny had never had a problem seeing (and pointing out) others’ personal issues and problems (“my sister needs this” or “my buddy needs that”). This in itself was symptomatic of his commitment to irrelationship because such deflection allowed him to hide out from any awareness of himself and his own feelings. Awareness could come only if he were to allow it to be seen and reflected to him by someone whom he valued and was important to him. He was pretty astute psychologically, but only about other people—and because he was inside of his own blind spots, he sometimes was way off in his assessment of other people without knowing why. At key moments, and often during fights with people close to him, this also meant that he would insist he was right about how he viewed the other person, and they were wrong. He had too much faith in his own ability to see others clearly, which distorted his ability to see the ways that he treated people pushed them into being what he needed them to be—in need of his expert assistance.

Irrelationship conditions how we perceive one another, filters our self-perception and distorts how we perceive what is happening between and among others—even in settings as broad as our workplace or international politics. We can get caught up in a hall of mirrors, leading to vicious cycles of mis-perception and poor decisions ultimately leading to irresolvable differences.

When we’re acting as either Performer or Audience, and someone who cares about us manages to get a glimpse of the person we’re trying to hide, maintaining the persona becomes increasingly difficult from that point on. Especially if we trust and respect the other person, and feel connected with them and want to stay with them, it can be disruptive—though often useful—information which can be hard to take in at first.

The Eye — I — Sees Itself

Imagine you’re wearing contact lenses, and you don’t realize it. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, interpersonal psychoanalyst Donnel Stern asks, “How can the eye see itself?” How does a person catch a glimpse of themselves, when she or he has blind spots which function to prevent such self-awareness from blossoming?

As with one person, even more rigidly, the “Us” of irrelationship cannot see itself anymore than the “I” can: Irrelationship operates “under the radar.” But when another eye (or “I”) senses the price of our (psychological) protection and isolation and let’s us know they’re aware of it (even obliquely), it can be the beginning of our becoming aware of what we’re missing, and even realizing that it’s not worth it. Expanded self-experience can be excavated when we feel safe enough to reveal ourselves, slowly letting down the persona that has protected us from the anxiety that’s part of the risk of becoming close to someone. A lot of the time, a broader sense of oneself feels both new, and at the same time uncannily old and familiar.  As if it were there the whole time, but just out of sight—like the forgotten memory of a favorite childhood book which when we encounter the book again as adults, we realize the memory was always there…perhaps even too close to see.

How can the eye learn to see clearly though its distorting lenses? Becoming familiar with the distortion is the first step to resolving it. At first, working on this may result in irritation or anxiety. We’re not used to how we’re seeing or what we’re seeing, questioning at first if it’s a mistake to try. Wondering whether we can, or want to, trust our changing perspective. On the other hand, reality is coming into focus, and it’s compelling, long-overdue, and welcome.

This is where Kenny found himself. And, naturally, it freaked him out at first. But Lisa stayed with him, patiently and lovingly encouraging him not to retreat behind the care taking persona. She felt encouraged by how it challenged her to be steady in his presence and allow her unmasked self to remain in the game. The real game with Kenny, as she quietly loosed her grip on the Audience role.

It was important work, and Kenny and Lisa worked through irrelationship together, letting go of their personae. They finally had become able to allow themselves and each other to take center stage. 

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The Irrelationship Group, LLC; all rights reserved

Source: The Irrelationship Group, LLC; all rights reserved
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Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention. He is in private practice in New York City. Grant H. Brenner, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice, specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders and the complex problems which may arise in adulthood from developmental childhood trauma. He works from a humanistic and integrative perspective, recognizing that each person requires an comprehensive assessment and individualized treatment plan, and that often different types of treatment are sometimes necessary to explore before finding an approach which works. At the same time, he values evidence-based approaches and stays current with new developments. He uses various approaches including talk therapy, medications, and interventional psychiatric approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neurofeedback. He is a volunteer and Board member of the not-for-profit organization Disaster Psychiatry Outreach. He teaches and supervises, and is a faculty member of the Mount Sinai Hospital and Director of the Trauma Service of the William Alanson White Institute. He is an editor of and author in the book Creating Spiritual and Psychological Resilience: Integrating Care in Disaster Relief Work, and the author of several papers and book chapters. Daniel Berry, RN, MHA has practiced as a Registered Nurse in New York City since 1987. Working in in-patient, home care and community settings, his work has taken him into some of the city's most privileged households as well as some of its most underprivileged housing projects. He is currently the Assistant Director of Nursing for Risk Management at a public hospital serving homeless and undocumented victims of street violence, drug addiction and severe traumatic injuries.