Wait, what did you say irrelationship protects us from?

“…the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”—David Foster Wallace, What Is Water?

Just when I really needed her,” Will said, “she disappeared. It didn’t go up in flames or explode. It was just a dull thud. Maybe that was the worst part.”

Irrelationship is a chronic two-person defensive enactment of a delicate oscillation between enmeshment and distance; it keeps anxiety at bay, but at the cost of intimacy. It is a type of insecure attachment style, and one vivid demonstration of how attachment trauma may make itself felt over the lifespan. Most relationships contain areas of irrelationship, but some relationships are colonized by scripted reenactment to the point where there is little opportunity for freer or more rewarding styles of relating.

Relationships can be enlisted in the service of defense in many ways. What distinguishes irrelationship from most of these is that in irrelationship, the enlistment is constructed by two people, and enforced by both. This means that irrelationship scripts, unlike individual defensive styles, may evade challenge for a very long time, partly because they are invisible to both partners, and partly because they are invariable as long as the pair is mutually invested in maintaining the status quo. Whether the actual routines are visible or not, irrelationship is two people co-creating and co-maintaining protection from the risks of emotional investment by systematically suppressing emotional awareness. The suppression of the emotional vitality that we call passion is both the benefit and the cost of irrelationship, and a side effect of the process that creates it.

Will’s union with his wife Kimberly had never been lit by the spark of vitality and spontaneity that their joyous courtship had once seemed to promise. After four years ofmarriage, they were both feeling indifferent, devalued, blah. When there is passion between two people—sexual passion, intellectual passion, artistic passion, or any other kind—their relationship feels alive. When passion is missing, its absence is felt.

So why, when some partnerships burn with flames of love, rage, grief, laughter, and curiosity, did passion never knock on Kimberly and Will’s door? The received wisdom says that early idealizations and excitements fade in the inexorable glare of familiarity. But relational analyst Stephen Mitchell (2002) challenges this view with his observation that

…the fading of romance over time may have less to do with the inevitable undercutting of idealization by reality and familiarity than with the increasing danger of allowing oneself episodic, passionate idealization in a relationship that one depends on for security and predictability. Intense excitement about another is a dangerous business (pp. 91–92).

And indeed, people whose relational styles are ruled by security needs do not find it easy to tolerate the spontaneity, the exposure—the passion—that characterizes passionate encounters.

Since we learn to define love in our earliest relationships, children who grow up in relationships lacking spontaneous reciprocity learn to accept a rigid mutual dependency as the real thing. The scripted quid-pro-quo that is encoded as the child’s way of relating to others increasingly destroys the possibility of passion, sexual or otherwise. Passion is famousy—notoriously—unscripted.

This is why lack of passion is a key characteristic of irrelationship. It is an overt (although frequently unremarked) indicator that co-created defenses are at work not only against anxiety, but also against caring for and being cared for by others. In irrelational romances, there may appear to be a lopsided balance in which one person’s needs determine the other’s behavior: one party takes what the other decides to give; one performs and the other must applaud. But in fact the two parties are equally enslaved, bound by their need to see the world as safe and by their fear of the insubordinate emotions that aren’t.

The rigidity and dissociated mindlessness of irrelationship confound efforts at better connections. The partners in irrelationship, in their union as in their caregiving childhoods, entrap themselves in narrow roles that conceal them even from those ostensibly most near and dear. Worse, because attention to the other by definition takes precedence over attention of any other kind, irrelationship routines keep people from knowing themselves. Fear and anxiety are relieved, but at the cost of self-awareness. When our way of being with our partners, or their way of being with us, is governed by rules that must maintain security at the expense of everything else, there is no chance for the spontaneity and openness in which genuine intimacy, reciprocity, and passion can thrive. They are not risk-free. As Mitchell (2002) says,

Sustaining desire for something important from someone important is the central danger of emotional life…. Desire for someone unknown and unobtainable operates as a defense against desire for someone known and obtainable, therefore capable of being lost (pp. 91–92).

Without passon, Kimberly and Will had both tried hard to take care of each other, but they both ended up feeling disappointed and abandoned. The problem was that in irrelationship, each partner sees him- or herself as the caretaker of the other person, and each feels that he or she is doing all the giving. This illusion creates smoldering resentments that are both the cause and the result of irrelationship’s ultimate error. The panicky insistence on giving (or taking from) a partner what a caregiver had wanted long ago is a (mutual) self-deception that blinds both parties to their partners’ true wants and needs and to their own, all of which remain unarticulated and therefore unmet. Honest communication is blocked, leaving both parties feeling isolated, exploited, misunderstood, devalued, angry, and, finally (if they’re very brave) wanting out.

Scripts and routines appear to sidestep the risk and pain of loss by discouraging emotional investment and encouraging dissociation. But in so doing they enforceloneliness and fear, and subvert approaches to more flexible and satisfying ways of relating. They stifle dreams of intimacy and passion, which turn into desperation even as the dreamers remain safe and secure in the isolation of mutual defense. We purchase the protection of irrelationship at a very high price.

As Kimberly and Will learned in their distress and confusion, all the caretaking in the world can’t keep alive a union crusted over with the habits of sick and failing relationships. Will was right—an occasional conflagration or explosion—something passionate and alive—would have helped.


Mitchell, S. (2002). Can love last? The fate of romance over time. New York: Norton.

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© Copyright 2015 Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D, Grant H. Brenner, MD, and Daniel Berry, RN, MHA, 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.