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Caretakers Both—Anatomy of an Irrelationship



Caretakers Both—Anatomy of an Irrelationship

Comprehensive Irrelationship Case Study: Vicky & Glen (Part 3)

What’s he building in there?

I’ll tell you one thing

He’s not building a playhouse for the children

What’s he building in there?

—Tom Waits, “What’s He Building In There?” ( is external))

Glen sought psychoanalysis because he was considering psychoanalytical training as the next step in his career development. He also hoped that the training and the analytical process required of candidates would help him to break through his growing sense that he was stagnating as a clinician as well as “stuck” in his own personal development.

He was aware of a growing resentment toward patients who seemed not to be improving at a pace that suited his professional pride. Some of these were becoming increasingly dependent on him while, at the same time speaking increasingly disparagingly of him as a clinician and as a person. Glen interpreted this as a kind of passive-aggressivepunishment for trying to help them get well.

While reflecting on this during own analytical session one day, he recalled similar feelings of resentment toward his wife Vicky a few months into their marriage. Vicky, who had been severely neglected as a child, had been in therapy herself for several years. In time, Glen became able to articulate that, for most of their married life, both of them had felt a profound unease and trepidation about their relationship. Despite this, they were strangely locked into an unspoken commitment to maintain their status quo without ever broaching the subject of how brittle the mood in their marriage felt.

*  *  *  *  *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

In an irrelationship, each partner believes that she or he is doing all the heavy lifting, either by giving, accepting or accommodating.  Sooner than later, this can hardly fail to create smoldering resentment and distress on both sides.  This disconnect is the result of each partner’s continuing as adults to play roles that they took on toward their caregivers when they were small children, specifically, undertaking to meet their caregiver’s emotional needs.

This pattern of caretaking persists into adulthood and is ultimately used as a smokescreen to prevent their encountering and having to address the true needs and desires of romantic partners. Instead, they treat their partners with the behaviors they devised inchildhood to use on their caretakers. When two such persons become enmeshed in a would-be romantic involvement, these behaviors allow them to avoid acknowledging each other’s true needs, thus escaping the vulnerability that comes with investment in one another. Thus insulated from one another, intimacy and empathy isn’t even a remote possibility.

Take a moment to reflect on the following irrelationship descriptors, listening for anything that sounds like something you may have observed or experienced:

  • When beginning a new relationship, are you focused on listening for ways you might be needed to help or fix the person you’ve becoming involved with?
  • Do you start new relationships with the hope that a new girlfriend or boyfriend will be able to help you with your needs?
  • Is your idea of being with someone mostly about taking care of a partner or being taken care of by her or him?
  • In your relationships, do you sometimes feel vaguely disconnected from your partner even while you’re “doing things” for her or him?
  • Does “showing that you really care” sometimes make you feel exhausted or unsatisfied—that the caring always goes only one way?

If any of the above descriptors ring true for you, that could indicate that you unconsciously seek out irrelationships, i.e. a relationship that, demands attention and effort, but is safe from the threat of turning into intimacy.

Becoming aware of this tendency in oneself is no small task because it represents a pattern we learned in early childhood. And it’s a pattern we learned for good reasons: as children we needed to feel safe, but our caregivers didn’t deliver on that need because of their own negative emotional states. So we took the matter in hand and did whatever we thought we had to do to make our caregiver “feel better” so that we could feel better.

When we became adults, however, this strategy actually got in the way of building genuinely caring, reciprocal relationships. In fact, it devolved into a strategy for avoidingintimate connections. And when two people seeking irrelationship come together, its effects are even darker. Motivated by fear of the “costliness” of intimacy, such couples lock themselves into silently agreed upon roles of care-taker and care-receiver—also known as “performer” and “audience”. This arrangement not only keeps the scary parts of intimacy at a safe distance, but disallows spontaneity or any alteration in the roles they’ve agreed to assume with one another. The net result of this carefully structured way of relating is that it prevents development of genuine love, both in its costliness and in its joys.

Now, what does this have to do with Glen and Vicky?

As Glen explored his history of playing the performer for his wife and others in his past, he began to see that their marriage—in fact, their entire history—was based on the irrelationship dynamic with himself in the role of caretaker/performer while Vicky “consumed” his caretaking as his audience.

Glen had begun is career as a performer when his mother became depressed after Glen’s father left the marriage when Glen was a small child. Glen brought his performer role forward not only in his relationships with girls and women (including Vicky), but also in his professional life. As in all irrelationships, the payoff for Glen was that the arrangement allowed him to maintain a safe, invulnerable distance from the risks that are part of being intimate with another person.

Now, with all this “distance-keeping,” something has to fill the space between the two actors that allow each to think that they’re “involved” with one another. That “something” is called their “song-and-dance routine.” The song-and-dance routine is a set of behaviors—active, passive and interactive—that the couple acts out together to deflect the possibility of genuine sharing of feelings and needs, although in many respects and song-and-dance may look very much like caring behaviors. But the song-and-dance actually sidelines authentic interaction. It also prevents exploration of one another’s personalities and needs, making it easy for each partner to devalue the other by preventing any encounter with positive qualities in each other.

From the time Glen met Vicky, her value for him lay entirely in her response to his “performances.” When they met in graduate school she was enamored of his performance routines, which seemed to make her “feel better.” Her passivity in this role-play wasn’t accidental, however: it was the same technique she devised with her mother and father as a child.  Having suffered severe neglect by her parents, Vicky determined that her safety depended on maintaining a distance from them. She did this by becoming an audience whose role was to make her mother and father believe that they were good parents. This created a zone of safety from her mother’s bizarre, narcissistic behavior and her father’s incompetence, thus allowing them to believe that they were such good parents that she needed little attention from them. Bringing this same mechanism into their marriage, the value that Vicky realized from Glen was derived from his believing in his effectiveness as a performer.

When Glen began to realize the aridity of his connection with Vicky, he made the “error” of stepping outside the agreed upon parameters, the song-and-dance routine of their relationship. Realizing that their marriage was in crisis, Glen confided to Vicky how vulnerable he felt, asking her for her presence and support. When he thus broke their “pre-nuptial agreement” by admitting his emotional need for more than Vicky was giving, Vicky lost little time fleeing their marriage.

[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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