Unsafe relationships are set up when each person’s intent is to protect themselves through some form of control – anger and blame, resistance and withdrawal, or compliance and caretaking. This article explores the various unsafe relationship systems and how they undermine emotional and sexual intimacy.
Safe relationship systems are created by telling the truth and moving into an intent to learn. However, it is always harder to take the risk of telling your truth, setting your limits, and moving into an intent to learn when you have something to lose. Taking this risk is particularly difficult with mates, children, parents, and very close friends. It is also very difficult with employers, who may fire you, or employees, who may quit without giving you notice. It takes ongoing Inner Bonding work to reach the place within where we are willing to lose the other rather than lose ourselves. I have found that when a person actually comes to this place, they find that whatever the outcome, they are happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than if they had kept withholding their truth and giving themselves up. If they get fired, a more fulfilling job appears. If they lose a relationship, they either find that they are happier alone or they find a more loving relationship. Whatever the outcome, they are far happier than they were as victims of and participants in an unsafe relationship system.
At my Inner Bonding Couples Intensives, the couples–both heterosexual and gay–are always amazed at the similarities among their systems. These similarities are easier to see when couples watch other couples work than when they are dealing with their own system.
The most common system is some variation of this: Franchesca and Hanley have been married for sixteen years. Franchesca’s major complaint is that Hanley is often angry or resistant and withdrawn. In either case, he is not emotionally available to her. She feels resentful and lonely, and pulls on Hanley with her anger, criticism, blame, and complaints. Franchesca blames Hanley for her unhappiness, believing that if he changed, she would be happy. Additionally, she feels pulled on sexually. If she gives in to his demands for sex, she feels used, and if she doesn’t, she feels rejected emotionally.
Hanley’s major complaint is that Franchesca is often unhappy and upset no matter how much he does for her, and she is rarely sexually responsive. He feels burdened by her pull on him to make her happy, angry at her criticism of him, and deprived of a good sexual relationship. He is lonely and unfulfilled in the marriage and blames his feelings on Franchesca’s bitchiness and lack of sexual response. He feels victimized by her behavior. He believes that if she would change, he would be happy.
In variations on this kind of system, one partner–usually the wife–is upset about, feels shut out by, or feels burdened by the other’s drinking, watching TV, overworking, underworking, and so on. One or the other partner may be angry at carrying most or all of the financial burden, especially if the other partner tends to spend too much money. Sometimes this scenario is reversed–the man feels shut out emotionally and the woman feels rejected sexually. Sometimes one partner feels shut out both emotionally and sexually, while the other feels angry, and withdrawn at feeling pulled at and controlled. Often one partner is the caretaker and feels overwhelmed and burdened by the other’s resistance to taking responsibility around the house or to granting any request that partner makes. Often the wife is the caretaker and the husband is resistant to her requests–to take out the garbage, spend time together, or explore conflict. She feels resentful and rejected while he feels resentful and controlled. Again, this scenario can be reversed, with the man as the caretaker and the woman as the resister. Perhaps he earns all the money, then comes home and takes care of everything, including the children, while she spends her time playing tennis, spending money, taking classes, and resisting responsibility for the house and children.
While relationship systems differ in their details, they all have one thing in common: Neither partner is taking responsibility for their own feelings and needs. Both are, in one way or another, making the other person responsible for their happiness, safety, and sense of lovability and worth. Both are controlling, though in different ways. In all of these systems, controlling is more important to the partners than learning about loving.
Regina and Ken
Regina, thirty-two, is a stay-at-home mother with children from her previous marriage. She and Ken, thirty-nine, had been together less than a year, when their old patterns–which had not been healed in previous relationships–emerged. Ken often came home from his job as the head of a large manufacturing company feeling anxious, depressed, and exhausted. He often complained to Regina about how sick he felt and how difficult things were at work, yet he did nothing to change things.
Regina felt annoyed when Ken complained but continued to avoid responsibility for his health and work issues. When she offered advice, he would get furious and resistant, telling her to back off and stop acting like a parent. Regina often felt frightened by Ken’s anger and collapsed into angry tears, blaming Ken for her upset feelings. Ken then felt angry at being blamed and guilty that he had upset Regina, and he retreated by going to sleep early or going out drinking with his friends. Regina was left with her children and her misery, unable to sleep.
In this system, Ken was not taking responsibility for his health, his anxiety, his depression, and his work problems. Instead, he was being a victim. He used alcohol to avoid his feelings or he complained to Regina, dumping his negative energy onto her and handing her responsibility for his wounded feelings. Ken pulled on Regina for sympathy rather than moving into compassion for himself and taking loving action on his own behalf. When he received advice or criticism from Regina instead of sympathy, he got enraged. He then blamed her for his rage instead of moving into an intent to learn about what was happening between them.
Regina was not taking responsibility for feelings and needs either. She was not speaking her truth to Ken–that it felt invasive when he dumped his anxiety and depression on her; that she lost respect for him when he used alcohol to escape his feelings; that his complaints felt like a pull on her, and that she didn’t enjoy being with him when he was being a victim. Instead of speaking her truth, she gave herself up and listened to his complaints, or became needy, angry, parental, and critical. Regina kept hoping that if she were angry enough, she could get Ken to take responsibility for himself. Then she would not have to take care of herself in the face of his behavior. She felt victimized by his anger, rather than moving into compassion for herself and exploring why she tried to fix him instead of taking care of herself.
Both Regina and Ken were locked into the intent to control . The love and passion that had been so fulfilling at the beginning of their relationship was gone. Did they both pick the wrong person once again? Probably not. Regina and Ken could be perfect for each other–if they opened to learning about their respective sides of the unsafe relationship system they had created. Each was triggering the other’s deepest fears of rejection and engulfment. But this painful situation had a silver lining. It gave them the opportunity to heal their deepest fears, if they chose to do so. When both partners move into an intent to learn, relationships that trigger our deepest fears can become the most powerful arena for healing those fears.
Regina and Ken did decide to hang in and deal with their problems. They came to an Intensive together and began to face their fears of being rejected and controlled by each other. They learned to turn to the Six Steps of Inner Bonding and take care of their own feelings instead of blaming each other for them. They learned to tell their truth to each other without judgment or blame. Regina was finally able to say to Ken, “I feel so lonely when you drink, and I lose respect for you when I see you using alcohol to avoid your feelings. I know you have good reasons for drinking, and I would really like to understand what they are. What is it you are afraid of feeling?”
They also learned to set loving limits around violating, invasive behavior. When Regina was angry or critical, Ken learned to say, “I don’t like being blamed and criticized. If you are unhappy about something, let’s talk about it, but I don’t want to be treated badly.” And when Ken complained, Regina learned to say, “Honey, this doesn’t feel good. I’m feeling dumped on. I’m happy to help you if you want help, but if you are just going to complain, I’m going to go read.” They learned to help each other explore their controlling behavior instead of blaming it on each other. Through doing their inner work, they gradually became strong enough to love. Within a few months, love and passion returned full force to their relationship.
The wonderful thing about all this is that it is never too late to create a safe, loving relationship system rather than an unsafe, controlling one. No matter how awful things have been in the past, when two people decide to do their own inner work and create safe inner spaces for themselves, they will always succeed in creating a safe relationship space.
[Margaret Paul Relationship Toolbox]