“…the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
— David Foster Wallace, What Is Water?
“Just when I really needed her,” Will said, “she disappeared. It didn’t go up in flames or explode. It was just a dull thud. Maybe that was the worst part.”
Irrelationship is a chronic two-person defensive enactment of a delicate oscillation between enmeshment and distance. It keeps anxiety at bay, but at the cost of intimacy. It may be seen as a demonstration of how attachment trauma may make itself felt over the lifespan. Most relationships contain areas of irrelationship, but some relationships are built on scripted reenactment to a point that disallows freer or more rewarding styles of relating.
Relationships can be used as a defense in many ways. What distinguishes irrelationship from most of these is that in irrelationship, the defense is constructed and enforced by both parties. This means that irrelationship scripts, unlike individual defensive styles, can evade detection and challenge for a long time because both partners are highly invested in the denial underlying their status quo. Visible or not, however, irrelationship systematically suppresses emotional awareness and the emotional vitality we call passion. This is both the benefit and the cost of irrelationship.
Will’s union with his wife Kimberly had never been lit by the spark of vitality and spontaneity that their excited courtship had once seemed to promise. After four years of marriage, they were both feeling indifferent and devalued. Passion between two people — sexual, intellectual, artistic or any other kind — feels alive. Absence of passion may not be remarked upon, but it is certainly felt.
Some partnerships are clearly alive with love, laughter, curiosity, and even grief and rage. So why did passion, despite its early promise, never find its way through Kimberly and Will’s door?
The received wisdom says that early idealizations and excitements fade with the growth of familiarity. But relational analyst Stephen Mitchell (2002) challenges this view with his observation that
(T)he fading of romance over time may have less to do with the inevitable undercutting of idealization by reality and familiarity than with the increasing danger of allowing oneself episodic, passionate idealization in a relationship that one depends on for security and predictability. Intense excitement about another is a dangerous business (pp. 91–92).
And truly enough, people whose relational styles are ruled by security needs do not easily tolerate the spontaneity, the exposure — the passion — that characterizes passionate encounters.
Since we learn to define love in our earliest relationships, children who grow up in households or relationships lacking spontaneous reciprocity learn to believe that rigid mutual dependency is what love “looks like.” The scripted quid-pro-quo encoded as the child’s way of relating to others increasingly destroys the possibility of passion, sexual or otherwise: passion is famously — notoriously — unscripted.
This is why lack of passion is a key characteristic of irrelationship. It is an overt (although generally unremarked) indicator that co-created defenses are at work not only against anxiety, but also against caring for and being cared for. Irrelational romances may appear lopsided: one person’s needs appear to determine the other’s behavior; one party takes what the other decides to give; one performs and the other is expected to applaud. But in fact the both parties are equally trapped by the need to feel that the world is safe — safe especially from the wild-card of emotions.
The rigidity and dissociated mindlessness of irrelationship confounds efforts at truer connections. The partners in irrelationship, in their union as in their care-taking childhoods, entrap themselves in narrow roles concealed even from those ostensibly closest to them. Worse, because attention to the other by definition takes precedence over attention of any other kind, irrelationship routines prevent self-knowledge. Fear and anxiety are relieved at the cost of self-awareness. With self-knowledge and emotions locked down, the risks of spontaneity, openness and intimacy haven’t got a chance. As Mitchell (2002) says,
Sustaining desire for something important from someone important is the central danger of emotional life… Desire for someone unknown and unobtainable operates as a defense against desire for someone known and obtainable, therefore capable of being lost.
Even without feelings of passion, however, Kimberly and Will were highly invested in “taking care” of each other. But each ended up feeling disappointed and abandoned because each felt that she or he was doing all the giving. Insisting on giving to or taking from a romantic partner what they, as children, had believed a caregiver needed or expected from them many years before, blinded them to their partners’ true wants and needs — and to their own. And all such needs remained unmet. Predictably, both parties were left feeling isolated, exploited, devalued, angry, and, finally, wanting out.
As Kimberly and Will learned, such a closed system of caretaking can’t create or maintain true connection, much less passion. But Will may have been starting to get it when he remarked on his surprise that he and Kimberly fell apart with a thud rather than an explosion.
Mitchell, S. (2002). Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time. New York: Norton.