“It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know.” 

― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest


“Look, Tony,” said Lou, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all that you’ve done for me. And I still do, but I feel more and more like I’m paying a pretty steep price for all of your generosity.”

Tony and Lou had become good friends when Lou went through a painful and tumultuous divorce.

“I’m only trying to help,” said Tony. “But sometimes I feel like you want to get rid of me just because I remind you of that difficult time we shared.”

“It’s true, you helped immensely when things were falling apart between Marissa and me. But now it feels like I am supposed to gush with gratitude all of the time. It’s funny, that very issue had a lot to do with the break-up of my marriage. You know, how I never expressed quite the right attitude or emotion to please my ex-wife. Now it’s you who I seem to be having a hard time pleasing.”

Irrelationship is the gift that keeps on giving. It is pretty clear what this co-created psychological defense looks like in romantic relationships. But it can raise its head in the context of any potential threat of intimacy, including friendship. During Lou’s time of crisis, both men shared a lot.

It was no surprise that they jointly created an ongoing routine that repeated the increasingly uncomfortable helper/helpee dynamic between one another.

“As I keep saying, I only want to help,” said Tony.

“But what will our friendship be like if I don’t need or want any more help?”

Lou, devastated by the loss of his marriage, now recognized this dynamic as way too familiar. It was both stifling and destructive. Irrelationship allowed both Tony and Lou (as it had done with Lou and Marissa) to discount what the other was offering. But because of how severe it could become—with Lou feeling steamrolled by Tony’s incessant offerings of some kind of very generalized help — it felt, to Lou, like what he had been given as genuine and effective help had also retroactively been devalued.

“What, you don’t need me anymore?” asked Tony, dejected.

“Dude,” gasped Lou, “what’s with need? You were helpful, yes, but now you’re the gift that keeps on giving. Enough already.”

are you friend-breaking-up with me?

When threatened by ongoing intimacy (often what happens when we help someone, or someone helps us through a traumatic experience), irrelationship can spur us on to devalue the person or people who helped us through. The very fact that we relied on them during a crisis makes them a sometimes embarrassing reminder of both the pain that spiked through our defenses and the anxiety and the empathy that was shared during that time. Irrelationship can also work to erase the most painful parts of memory — dissociation scrubs the emotion out of lived history — so that the helper’s ongoing efforts to parlay the intimacy of the crisis into a more quotidian relationship can be thwarted.

“You really don’t want my help anymore?” asked Tony.

“Help?” barked Lou. “Well it was help back then, when I was going through the divorce. But why is it still help, and only help, that you are offering now?”

And while a superficial look might make it seem as if poor Tony is another case of the old “no good deed goes unpunished” (which is often how Performers in irrelationship feel) the truth is, he often seems to have a knack for showing up in people’s lives just when tragedy occurs. Then he lambastes them with care — like a spigot — and mopes, hurt and broken when he his services are no longer required. Why is Tony so often available for that kind of BFF-like new relationship? If it really worked, wouldn’t he be unavailable to devote that kind of time and attention, engaged in already established ongoing relationships? Truth be told, prior to the Lou’s crisis, Tony was someone he’d known rather superficially.

“I just can’t believe you don’t need me anymore.”

“Would it be any good if I did?” asked Lou. “Would it be a good thing if that was the sole basis of our friendship? No, I don’t need you, and I think that if we’re going to go forward we’re going to have to find other reasons to be friends. But you don’t seem to be interested in that.”

The irrelationship pieces start to fall into place. This song-and-dance routine is becoming obvious. Now, Lou wasn’t exactly looking to make new and enduring friends either. If anything, he was ready and willing to provide a seemingly pliable Audience to Tony’s magnanimous Performer efforts, only to attempt to slip out the back door before the show was over. But when it’s an irrelationship performance, the show will go on.

One of the things that we find infinitely amazing about these irrelationship routines — for both performer and audience — is how incredibly adept we seem to be at finding just the right partners with whom we can enact highly functioning psychological defense systems. It is as if we know each other — even at first blush, in love, in work, and in friendship — far, far better that we know we know.

Sometimes, in a crisis — or working through one — we might have a moment when we can actually see ourselves playing out these dynamics in a number of different relationships in our lives. Perhaps we can grasp a real opportunity to actually do something about it. Change it up.

“I care about you, Tony. And I’m very grateful that you were with me during those difficult times. But I am not stuck there anymore and I need for us to have a different, more equal, kind of friendship.”

Lou had spent years feeling steamrolled by Marissa, only to have her leave him because she felt resentful about how much she did for him. They had a routine that allowed him to do very little for her. Part of it showed up in his genuine under-appreciation of her, that might more honestly be called resentment. Now that Lou could recognize this playing out in his friendship with Tony, he actually got a real glimpse and was able to do something about it.

“You’re breaking up with me?” cried Tony.

“That’s part of the problem,” Lou responded. “That kind of dramatic reaction, it is over the top. We’re still in an early stage of friendship. We are not lovers. Come on, you make it very hard to imagine that this is a relationship that could change. And grow. And I need it to.”

“So, you are breaking up with me?”

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