You can learn a lot from some parents about how NOT to have healthy relationships
Occasionally we run into a client or receive a comment from a reader who grew up in an irrelational system—parents, say, who were, or are, hard-core irrelation shippers—but somehow have been able to avoid becoming compulsive caretakers themselves.
What to say? It is possible that we can see and feel each other’s hurt and take care of each other in healthy life-affirming ways. We just have to do it together.
Among the first examples was a woman, we’ll call her Evelyn, who has avoided irrelationship all together. Evelyn’s parents were—are—in an irrelationship for coming on 40 years. Theirs is a marriage of frigid emotional distance, fierce antipathy, and even deceit. A marriage where each partner has incessantly threatened (and promised) to leave, but stayed “for the children” (even still, with children well into adulthood, that is the favored excuse for sustaining irrelationship).
When Evelyn read our first few blog entries she was struck with how well irrelationship described her family. Evelyn is a woman who, now her 30’s, has been able to sustain a long-term intimate and loving relationship with her partner, Marie, for many years. A relationship that Evelyn and Marie agreed was founded on reciprocity—a seemingly natural state of give-and-take that was a departure for both of them from their childhood environments.
“Early on, I stopped to question my blueprint,” says Evelyn. “There had to be another way.”
There are such examples. And though we believe that much of is unresolved in our childhood is repeated in our adult relationships, we also believe that we can work through the fears and anxieties that keep us trapped in the sad and lonely isolation of irrelationship.
But it is an atmospheric change, a paradigmatic one, often not possible without a high degree of insight and effort. A jail-break from irrelationship is likely to feel like thwarting the proverbial fait accompli.
We keep discussing this experience, as we read vignettes and talk to people who have had, and are having, irrelationship experiences where it seems that each person who sees him or herself and/or their history through this lens seems like the par excellence example of what this is—what irrelationship is, what it does and doesn’t do. A story of sadness and loneliness, of unmet needs and stultified desires.
“What’s striking to me,” one of us wrote to Evelyn, “as I read the description of your history, your life in an irrelational family system, is that I felt it again—that feeling like you, the system that you grew up in, was (is?) irrelationship par excellence. And yet, like something right out of Hegel, I also felt the exact opposite: that each irrelationship story/experience is as unique, singular and individual as the people—often the two at its central core, sometimes all the impacted others (say, in a family system)—who make use of them to protect themselves from the terror, the oft times crushing anxiety, of being vulnerable and at risk.”
Still, Evelyn and Marie’s is a story of hope in what sounds like a sea of despair—including Evelyn’s description of her mother’s later life “missed chance” (to divorce her father when she found our he was having an affair) and her brother’s repetition of more of the same (her brother is married miserably in irrelationship), with children who, as he’d seen all through his upbringing, are the perfect reason for staying stuck in irrelationship.
What is it? What might it be that allows some to recover, and maybe more surprisingly, avoid repeating our parent’s routine? Could it be “monkey see, monkey don’t?” The differences—sexual orientation, family dynamics? Children? No children? Income level? Advance degrees? Fulfilling careers? Political involvment? etc—between us, between, say, Marie, Evelyn and their role models? Surely, as Evelyn stated, “not that simple.” And though we tend not to seek smoking guns, something’s up.
Yet, Evelyn states that she’s intimately familiar with what irrelationship looks and feels like (her parents in their late 60s are still in one), and has been able to avoid being in one throughout the whole of her love life.
She talks about a daily commitment. She discusses the need to be actively involved in sustaining and maintaining her relationship with Marie. She talks about talking, and listening, and keeping a sex life alive. In words, all this “maintaining” and “sustaining” and “functioning effectively” might not sound too sexy. Believe us, it most certainly can be. In fact, we find that sex itself is often a terrain that opens up to a brand new world—a brand new experience of self, and self-and-other—when we work to get to the place that Evelyn and Marie have, perhaps more naturally, arrived at/in.
How is it, Evelyn, that you were able to escape? She says of irrelationship, “I was a product of one, grew up trapped in one, and am now witnessing the heartbreaking aftermath of one (parents and brother) and a life squandered through fear. That’s a lot of information about what not to do.”
In closing, here’s what we had (and have) to say to Evelyn:
“Dodged bullet? It seems you’ve been able to both bring your resources and assets to the table, and share, as well as to receive, and partake of, what others who are threateningly near and dear, Marie, for example, have to offer.”
“And it seems important to continue to explore not just the sticky dynamic that you (and we) have seen so many many of us get stuck—all entangled—in, but also what are the resiliency factors? What allows one person (you) versus another (your brother) to work your way through this (often repeating) dynamic?”
Very grateful, Evelyn, for joining us in the Land of Ir-, we hope that we’ll hear more from you.
Thank you for pointing us in a more hopeful direction, and encouraging us to keep our eyes open for exemplars!
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