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Irrelationship May Look Like A Real Connection



Irrelationship May Look Like A Real Connection

Comprehensive Irrelationship Case Study: Vicky & Glen (Part 1)

All your dreams are over now—TV On The Radio, “Dreams” ( is external))

“At the end of our marriage, all I ever thought about was how much I had always done for Vicky. It didn’t occur to me—had never occurred to me—that she was doing anything for me, or even could do anything for me.”

People love for all kinds of reasons and some of those reasons work better than others. Everybody has ideas—conscious and unconscious—about what love and loving are; but where do those ideas come from, and what role—conscious and unconscious—do they play in looking for and choosing a partner?

If we ask ourselves what we’re looking for, we probably answer that we want passion,empathy, security and, perhaps, novelty. It sounds sensible and mature and might even be true.

But over time and under our radar many of us have internalized concepts about love learned in early childhood that actually work against finding and cultivating satisfying relationships. Like termites infesting a beautiful old home, these ideas infiltrate our ways of loving so thoroughly that without our realizing it, they undermine our ability to embrace true intimacy. This results in relationships that repeatedly leave us unaccountably frustrated and strangely alienated even from those we believe—or believed—ourselves closest to. Time after time, despite our conscious determination that “this time it’s going to be different,” we end up, once again drawn to the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

Glen’s description of the first time he met Vicky when they were in grad school is pretty dramatic:

“I felt as if something had knocked me on my head and dragged me off into a fantasy kind of love that I had stopped believing was possible. It just felt ‘so right.’”

The images and ideas from the popular culture about what love looks like—or is supposed to look like—set Glen up to think that he had found the perfect mate, the person with whom his life would be “complete.” The effect was so profound that he often asked himself what it was about Vikki that felt so familiar and why it was “so easy to be with her.” Though he spent a lot of time examining his feelings, it never occurred to him that his response to Vicky was programmed into him when he was a small child—that it was his own history and head that were kicking him in the head!

The anxiety-provoking relationship Glen had with his mother as a small child taught him to mistrust intimacy. His response even in those very early years was to begin to form the habit of protecting himself from the vulnerability that is a natural part of genuine caring relationships. Irrelationships are the perfect mechanism for simulating a relationship with another person, while, in fact, keeping at bay the unpredictability of spontaneity, the give-and-take that is necessarily part of attachment to another autonomous person. In some ways an irrelationship looks like a real connection between two people; but in fact it’s more like two one-way streets with no turn-offs, and strict rules that severely limit where one can go. These restrictions eliminate the risk attached to feelings and crises that have to be worked through and negotiated in genuinely intimate relationships.


Psychoanalyst Harold Searle famously believed that a child’s first job in life is to be a therapist for her primary caregiver (usually her mother); that, in fact, the child perceives that her survival depends on how well she fulfills that role. In the irrelationship model, the techniques the child employs to “satisfy” her mother are known as her song-and-dance routine. As implied above, once the routine is established and found to be successful, the child will more forward in life continuing to use the song-and-dance to manage situations she perceives to be crucial at least to her feeling safe, if not to her actual survival.

Parents’ needs and expectations of their children vary, of course. Anxiety or depression in one parent may cause her to want her child to distract her by actively performing for her by joking, clowning or in other ways. Another parent undergoing stress may want to be catered to by a child who denies her own needs and quietly disappears into her own room or other solitary venue.

When two persons with backgrounds of caretaking for their parents meet and are attracted to one another, they immediately begin assessing whether their needs are complimentary.  If the correct unconscious signals—affective, verbal, behavioral—are given and received, they will jointly begin to create a song-and-dance in which each acts out the role—Performer or Audience—that the other is looking for in a partner.  The irrelationship has begun.

Later, Glen was able to look back and assess what had led him into and out of his disappointing relationship with his wife:

“For a brief time we thought we were in love. But at the same time, we were doing everything we could to protect ourselves from the very things we thought we wanted from each other. The reality was that, ultimately, our ongoing denial of our needs and feelings caught up with us when we entered the final crisis of our marriage.”

That anatomy of the collapse of Glen and Vicky’s marriage is laid out in our next posting.

[Mark Borg]

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.

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