The emotions of people invested in irrelationship are all over the map and are often poorly managed. As seen by an outsider, those affected often display a jumbled up mélange of potentially destructive impulsivity mixed willy-nilly with overly tamped-down, or even dissociated emotions and ideas that seriously complicate trying to come to a healthy place of healthy give-and-take (what we call relationship sanity).

In impulsive and dissociated styles of relating, “subcortical” brain activity dominates higher cortical functions (“executive control”) which are unable to adequately inhibit deeper brain regions (Morien-Zamir & Robbins, 2015). This is common in people with addictions, but is also an aspect of brainlock associated with the automatic defenses of irrelationship even in situations which do not include substance use disorders. Typically those affected suffer from poor frustration tolerance as well as excessive denial of feelings, both of which mechanisms are implicated in managing disturbing feelings (Bion, 1962).  

“Getting things off your chest at others' expense doesn't usually pay off.”Daniel

Dysregulated relationships don’t survive the transition from the passion of the honeymoon period into a mature, profound, and sustainable commitment that includes mutual caregiving and effective communication necessary for jointly navigating life challenges.

Poor frustration tolerance can be especially damaging during an argument since it easily gives way vicious attacks that may be regarded as unforgivable later, even if made only once. But other, less vitriolic attacks can be just as devastating if they’re repeated over and over. On the other hand, keeping one’s feelings firmly bridled over a long period can bring about the slow death of a relationship.

Dominick was thrilled and hopeful that his newly born insight into his wife Subrina’s personality would be a turning point in their relationship. His excitement, however, didn’t take into consideration the possibility that Subrina not only might not buy into Dominick’s insight, but that she’d find it threatening and confrontational.

As it turned out, much of Dominick’s excitement was unconsciously inflamed by the prospect of retaliating against his wife for her day-after-day criticism of (it seemed to him) everything he did. He’d tried in the past to express to her how vulnerable and uneasy this made him feel, but her response was to tell him to “stop acting like a little girl.” Finally, during an ugly argument, Dominick flung his newfound “insight” at his wife: 

“People are constantly provoking each other in negative ways, acting without thinking, responding, and repeating the cycle. When we are spontaneous and thoughtful, rather than impulsive, we bring out the best in one another, getting to places together we could never reach alone.”Grant

“No wonder Josh (Subrina’s ex-) just walked out one day. You’re totally stuck on being ‘smarter’ than everybody else — and you don’t let anybody forget it for a minute! You know what you’re really doing? You’re making sure everybody keeps the hell away from you. Then when things go wrong, you can play innocent with your ‘nobody tells me anything’ routine. Of course nobody tells you anything! All you do is blame them — just like you do to me! How many times have you told me that when your father bothered to come home, it was just to beat up your mother? Well, that’s just how I feel: every time you open your mouth, it’s to put me down! And If I say a word about it, you tell me to just suck it up!”

As soon as he’d gotten his “insight” off his chest, Dominick could see from Subrina’s face that he had opened a door that might never close. Even as he was doing it (and as he could feel it snowballing out of his control), he knew he’d hit below the belt. But his accumulated frustration at being brushed aside won out, and he unloaded every ugly feeling he had against Subrina.

Though Dominick was able genuinely to express his sorrow afterwards, their old pattern continued: Subrina repeatedly brought up the incident until Dominick was provoked into blowing up again. Despite this, however, Dominick still believed he had stumbled onto something important about their life together. But whenever he tried to talk about it, Subrina reframed it as “just another example of how men always betray me,” thus ensuring that their old pattern was kept alive. Despite Dominick’s hope that somehow things could change, this recurrent conflict became the defining characteristic of their relationship.

It sounds bad, but Dominick and Subrina had a lot going for them. Even though a lot of times Subrina said they had nothing in common (sometimes walking out the door or running away down the street saying she wasn’t coming back) these kind of impulsive comments and behaviors (based on an all-or-nothing take on the relationship as being either all good or all bad, but not both) gave the impression there wasn’t anything there, anymore. But at the same time, this was clearly not the case. 

“This makes a strong case for the notion that mental health can be experienced as the pause between thought and action.”Mark

In fact, they liked each other quite a bit, they shared most if not all of their core values, and they had accomplished a tremendous amount together. Most of the time, Dominick felt like he was holding all the good in the relationship, remembering and reminding them of it, while Subrina’s job was to destroy and deny all goodness. This gave Dominick a chance to redeem himself. But it came at the cost of eruptions of aggression, until he was able to do the personal work required to deal with the broken up parts of himself and start to bridge them together with better internal communication. It was a lonely place to be, without much tenderness or affection.

Irrelationship theory tells us that when we look past the surface, there may be more there than meets the eye — people who want to be close cannot acknowledge their fear of closeness with each other, and to make matters worse, don’t know how to relate with one another to foster and deepen closeness once they’ve discovered what they’ve been doing together, and what they’ve been missing — together. Learning how to relate effectively, and managed difficult emotions, can be a challenge, and an opportunity.


Bion, W. R. (1962) Study of thinking. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 43 (1962), 306-310.

Morien-Zamir, S., &Robbins, T. W. (2015). Fronto-striatal circuits in response-inhibition: Relevance to addiction. Brain Research, 1628, 117-129.

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