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Irrelationship: Deflecting Their Anxiety



Irrelationship: Deflecting Their Anxiety

Comprehensive Irrelationship Case Study: Vicky & Glen (Part 2)

You had a dream about loss

Within the fruit there are worms

Yet still a vow to dare goodnight

You had a dream about love

—Xiu Xiu, “I Do What I Want When I Want” ( is external))

“I began to notice that something wasn’t right when we went to visit my family at the holidays. In a kind of oblique way I started mentioning that I felt that a distance was developing in our relationship. I didn’t know what it was; I just had this sense that a piece was missing. I first started to feel it in our kisses. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but somehow, I was getting the feeling that Vicky just ‘wasn’t there.’

“It was jarring—almost alarming. I was invested heavily in the idea that Vicky was ‘the love of my life,’ but I was starting to feel—well, looking back, I realize that there had always been a ‘vagueness’ about her presence, but now she seemed to be disappearing altogether.

“Though I tried not to think about it then, I know now that it was the beginning of the end. At first I thought I was losing trust in Vicky herself. But l came to realize that it wasn’t Vicky: it was the relationship that couldn’t be trusted—in fact, that there was nothing there! Hard to explain, but somehow I realized that neither of us required the other’s actual personal presence in our marriage!”

When Glen and Vicky met in grad school, they were inseparable. Without hesitation, they tumbled into the roles that were “so right” for, in which they could “be themselves” with each other. Vicky came from a highly dysfunctional family that left her with unresolved, sometimes debilitating depression. Glen’s mother and father’s marriage had been shattered by the effects of the Vietnam war, resulting in Glen’s being cast in the role of caregiver for his depressed mother soon after his father left.

These oddly complimentary histories prepped Glen and Vicky for the roles they acted out for one another. In Glen’s case, the role was that of almost ceaselessly performing “routines” designed to make Vicky feel better. But Vicky’s apparently passive role was just as much a performance: her part was to make Glen believe that his “feel better” routines worked, whether they did or not.

Glen’s expectations of romantic relationships had been co-created by Hollywood, by messages he received from family and peers, and by his own fantasies about finding the perfect mate. In Vicky, he believed he’d found the person who fit those expectations. Paradoxically, he unconsciously harbored the feeling that making her feel better would make him better—that having someone to fix would fix him.

Vicky’s mother and father were so absorbed by their own needs that they were not capable of providing anything resembling nurturing care for their children. While still a small child, Vicky learned that, to manage this vacuum and ensure that her and her brother’s basic needs were met, she had to provide validation to her mother and father, becoming, in effect, their caregiver. In this way she succeeded in manipulating their mother and father to provide minimally for their children.

As can easily be seen, Glen’s need to fix his partner fit neatly in Vicky’s routine of validating her caregivers. And at first their “connection” took off stupendously. Glen described their first summer together as a “blaze of passion,” of blind, intense attraction, sexual excitement, and bonding. Their time together was filled with laughter, romance and building dreams of a home together. And since they shared the same profession, they also shared a whirlwind of travel to professional conferences and symposia all over the world. It was a life that many might envy. What could possibly go wrong?

The reality was that nothing had to go wrong. The set-up was doomed from the start.

Though their stories are strikingly dissimilar, Vicky and Glen both undertook roles strikingly similar in purpose: each was highly invested in putting on a performance that would reassure the other, would make the other “feel better.” In both cases, the need to perform grew out of childhood experiences in which inadequate caregiving left them with a deep fear that their caregiver would not—or would not be able—to care for them. For a small child, this experience is primary and disorienting, amounting to a fear that, without intervention, the world itself will become unmanageably chaotic. Since the child herself is the only force she knows of besides her caregiver, she undertakes to address the incipient chaos herself.

Both Glen and Vicky brought forward into adulthood not only their experience of anxiety, but also the adaptations they developed to deflect that anxiety. In both cases, they walled off their fear. Glen did this by contriving performances intended to defuse, first, his mother’s depression, and later, negative emotions in those around him, particularly the women in whom he was romantically interested. Vicky treated her fear by performances designed, first, to deny the impact of her parents’ neglect, and later, to deny the pain and isolation caused by others, including romantic interests, who were oblivious to her real emotional needs.

The next blog-installment will describe what happened that precipitated the crisis in Glen and Vicky’s irrelationship, finally exposing the underlying fatal flaw in 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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