When irrelationship and abuse cross into each other’s territory.

You say your pain is better than any kind of love—”Sex and Dying in High Society,” X (http://tinyurl.com/k348qru(link is external))

Maybe sometimes a human doormat is just a human doormat.

But it also might not be quite that simple.

Lori’s anxiety mounted as the day of her surgery came closer. But her anxiety had little to do with the procedure itself: she was apprehensive about whether or not her boyfriend would show up for her as she feels she has done for him when he needed support. She told herself that in a way it wasn’t really that big a deal—except that  his emotional detachment made her increasingly apprehensive when she considered the “hands-on” help she would need after her operation.

The emotionally unavailable partner who crosses the line into abusiveness (physical or not) may be acting out the song-and-dance routine role of audience with his heels dug in as he demands the ministrations of the compulsive performer. To the therapist, the degree of investment in their respective roles might make them ripe for intervention—even perhaps bordering on emergency if one party’s physical safety is implicated. But even at that, suggesting a deviation from their commitment to irrelationship may raise a different kind of alarm in both of them, irrespective of any real or potential overlay of abuse, physical or otherwise.

Whenever Lori even obliquely mentioned her pending surgery, Mitch responded as if she were pestering him like an annoying child demanding something she ought to know better than to bring up. Sometimes he even shamed her by throwing the word, “needy” in her face.

People for whom irrelationship is starting to wear thin—especially in their romantic attachments—are getting signals that the caregiving/caretaking patterns in their relationship are driven by something more complicated than concern for their mate. However, since both partners are committed to avoiding discussion of why things “don’t feel right,” the unspoken un-ease can continue unacknowledged for years.

Research indicates that people living in abusive relationships are likely to have grown up in abusive households (Nicolson, 2010). Abuse victims often have distorted perceptions of themselves and others. They may see predators as trustworthy, while people who have given them no apparent cause for anxiety will make them feel uneasy or suspicious. Some research indicates that people with these distortions become paradoxically mistrustful when given oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding, trust and loyalty (it’s sometimes called the “cuddle hormone”). This suggests that people who choose irrelationship may be “programmed” to follow “non-normal” patterns when seeking interpersonal safety and trust.

While Mitch’s shabby treatment of Lori had never included threats of physical abuse, he still let Lori know that he expected meek acceptance of his expectations and desires. Even slight “infractions” on Lori’s part could bring about threats on Mitch’s part to end their relationship and put Lori’s belongings on the street. Though Lori was disgusted by these table-pounding tirades, she gave them no real credit; rather, she was more inclined to worry that Mitch might be suffering from an undiagnosed emotional or mental illness. Oddly enough, she was also aware that, paradoxically, Mitch’s explosions affected her erotically, as if she were already anticipating the “make-up sex” that usually came about after she would seem to “cave” to Mitch’s demands.

What underlay Lori’s equivocation at resenting Mitch’s menacing treatment, opting instead to hold on to her desire to be “useful” to him?  What does Mitch gain by demanding more and more of Lori even as he while simultaneously complaining that nothing she does is good enough?  What unexplored feelings about herself and about Mitch does Lori harbor in response to never being validated, no matter what she does?

In the context of irrelationship with Mitch, Lori was able to sidestep the normal human desire for an open, caring relationship. When their life together ran in its accustomed course, she could discount Mitch’s demeaning treatment of herself in much the same way that he discounted the energy she spent “looking after” him. However, Lori’s surgery was a crisis for both of them. She knew that her need for post-op emotional and physical support was going to be real and would likely have to be leveraged against Mitch’s dismissive determination not to be “caught” in Lori’s “neediness.” Ironically, his escalating rebuffs when she raised the issue actually betrayed his anxiety concerning both the operation itself and his fear that he would be unable to do what she needed him to do for her in its aftermath.

Ultimately, this experience proved to be the tipping point both in Lori’s starting to give proper weight to her own needs as well as exploring her history of reflexively choosing irrelationship instead of intimacy. The outstanding question was: would Mitch be willing to explore their irrelationship with her?

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In the particular case of Lori and Mitch as well as that of many, many other couples, how does one begin the process of reappraising all of their relationship choices to date and learn how to make better decisions in one’s own behalf?

Probably the best first step is to identify and confide in a person whose judgment you trust, and, perhaps, whose romantic partnership you admire. The feedback you receive may reveal a dissonance between how and your partner view healthy relationships in general and your relationship in particular. Opening up to a trusted ally is the set-up for acquiring the insight needed for sorting through how you got where you are. Staying with this process increases likelihood that you’ll find the willingness to walk through the work involved in change.

The authors have developed a technique for recovery from irrelationship called the DREAM Sequence:

  1. DISCOVERY of the nature of your irrelationship song-and-dance routine.  This means putting into words your contribution to the relational pattern that protects you from the fears connected with intimacy. Becoming willing to do this usually means that the anxiety that you’re defended against has begun to break into your consciousness and affect your functioning to the point where you can’t ignore it anymore.
  2. REPAIR (Interactive) means that you first recognize how protecting yourself from anxiety has required that you isolate from your own needs and those of others; and that repairing it will require participation of another person.
  3. EMPOWERMENT comes when we both begin to make an honest assessment of our own contributions to what has and has not worked in relationships, and work together to put unhelpful traits and tactics aside.
  4. ALTERNATIVES—i.e., learning new ways of thinking about and relating to each other and their needs. This comes about  by accepting the reality that drove our behaviors, thus creating our own relationship history; and understanding how that melded with our partner’s history. Finally, we jointly commit to learning honest but safe techniques for relating to one another.
  5. MUTUALITY—that is, sharing the process of building intimacy through learning how to give and to receive with no strings attached.

This technique for retrieving the lost sense of connection with self-and-other has enabled disappointed individuals and couples to rediscover their true feelings and desires, and to find authentic connectedness with those around them. Even more good news, you don’t have to go through multiple relationship failures or become desperately alienated from those around you to begin to build a sense of emotional wholeness into your life.


Nicolson, P. (2010). Domestic violence and psychology: A critical perspective. Taylor and Francis. Abingdon, UK.

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© Copyright 2015 Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D, Grant H. Brenner, MD, and Daniel Berry, RN, MHA, All rights Reserved.
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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.