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Irrelationship: The Rescuer



Irrelationship: The Rescuer

Comprehensive Irrelationship Case Study: Vicky & Glen (Part 4)

I’m dancing for your pleasure

I’m falling for your pain

I fight for your attention

Each night until your sane

—“Torero,” San Fermin ( is external))

“I guess I was a human antidepressant for Vicky the same way I was for my mom.”

Glen was reflecting on the falling apart of his parents’ marriage when he was a small child. He described them as “children of the Sixties.” And when they were married, they practically were children: both were eighteen years old when Glen was born.

His mother came from a family of established wealth and community standing, while his father decidedly did not: he was literally a boy from the wrong side of the tracks by whom his mother, thoroughly smitten, became pregnant. Their decision to marry was no less provocative and insulting to her family than was the pregnancy.

Soon after their marriage, Glen’s father enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam to serve as a helicopter pilot. Like many of his peers, he coped with the war with alcohol, heroin and prostitutes. Also like many of his peers, the war left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. During the same period, Glen’s mother became deeply depressed, which she unsuccessfully treated with Born-Again Christianity. It was at this point that Glen took up the slack, treating his mother’s depression with what became his song-and-dance routine—a schtick of slapstick, jokes and prankish tricks designed to relieve the tension in the household by making his mother feel “happy.”

When Glen’s father returned from Vietnam, the marriage fell apart quickly. At first his mother fantasized that she would be able to relieve the devastating effects of the shock of war on her young husband. But he left instead. This seeming failure on his mother’s part pushed Glen into redoubled efforts to make her feel better. Perpetually “on,” he maniacally performed for her, regardless of occasion or circumstances. And it often seemed to work.

As he moved through school, Glen took his song-and-dance with him into every situation, becoming known as the class clown. And he was undeniably popular: people seemed to like him and want his company. But he never really felt connected to anyone around him, no matter how much they seemed to enjoy his performances. He had a genius for knowing how to make others “feel better,” but he was equally careful about not letting anyone get too close. In fact, the closer anyone got or tried to get—especially girlfriends—the more easily he would seem to become resentful of them.

Before long, the resentment would be returned in kind. It was most poignant in relationships with his girlfriends, who, after a time, almost always had the same complaint: Glen didn’t really seem to care about them or even to respect them as people.

This recurring theme mystified Glen completely. He would go through many years, relationships, and therapy before he would begin realize that the “feel better” routines he was dispensing to others had the paradoxical effect of devaluing them—of leaving them feeling that he felt they brought nothing of value to offer to their relationship.

The baseline compact underlying Glen’s relationship with Vicky was her willingness to be an audience for Glen’s performances. For Vicky, this meant that Glen had to agree not to deviate from the role of performer (her “anti-depressant”) or the deal was off. While at first this looks deceptively as if Glen the compulsive performer had the greater power of the two, Vicky’s demands on Glen were equally rigorous and inflexible. Their tacit agreement was, in fact, a straitjacket built for two.

The roles both had taken were designed to prevent pain in him- or herself. Numbed against his own discomfort, then, when the terms of the agreement began to wear thin, Glen was unable to recognize even in himself the need for change—still less, to communicate that need in an open way. And so it happened, then, that when Glen found himself in an emotional crisis of his own, not only was he unable to articulate his need for support to his wife: the charter agreement underlying their relationship disallowed his exposing his vulnerability. As noted in the previous blog entry about Glen and Vicky, when Glen ineffectively tried to share honestly with Vicky about what he was feeling, Vicky promptly cut and ran.

For Glen, this was jarring and disorienting. He was highly invested in his long-standing belief in his personal power to solve others’ problems—in fact, ever since he first used that “power” on his mother. This belief became increasingly heady as he grew older and used his mood-fixing technique on others. Ultimately, however, his “successes” reinforced behaviors that proved to be less-than-desirable in the longer run: intrusively taking care of others, cheering them up or “fixing” their problems, rather than learning to listen for their real needs; not observing appropriate boundaries; and even lashing out when his own desires were not immediately gratified. It need hardly be said that the individual who functions this way doesn’t readily learn from his mistakes.

The song-and-dance routine of the Performer is driven above all by the need to distance himself from his own anxiety and pain. He will often develop into the do-gooder, caretaker, rescuer or hero, but those are roles cultivated from childhood, usually emerging from one (or more) of the following patterns:

  • The Performer attempted to change the caregiver’s mood and behavior toward him.
  • The Performer altered his own behavior to please his caregiver.
  • The Performer avoided contact with his caregiver to prevent confrontation with her poor caregiving skills. (This may include implicit self-blame for the caregiver’s negative emotional state.)
  • The Performer ignores his own needs to prevent confrontation with his anxiety. Again, the caregiver is spared from looking at her caregiving skills. It also allows the child to believe himself a “hero” by not making his needs a “burden” to others.

As a child, the Performer doesn’t understand his transactions with his mother beyond his need to change her emotional state to reduce his own anxiety. But even when acting out the same need as an adult, he’s likely to remain walled off from the reality behind his caretaking and what it’s costing him. He has long since lost touch with the need to feel safe that drives his song-and-dance routine. Instead he clings unconsciously to the notion developed in childhood that, having made mommy feel better, he can keep the world safe and comfortable for himself by making everyone around him feel better.

We’ll look at the array of implications this will have for himself and for his audience in the blog entries to follow.

[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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