Every time Sam gets that sinking feeling that his partner Claire isn’t quite as grateful as she should be, he tosses out this harsh criticism. And Claire is getting pretty tired of hearing his endless tirade.
The truth is, Sam does do a lot for Claire. He takes care of her practical and financial needs, and he believes he can and does meet all her emotional needs, as well.
Claire can’t quite say why, but recently she feels uneasy and almost queasy over the way Sam “fusses” over her. Claire has begun to wonder if the driving force behind Sam’s “I take such good care of you” rant is really not about her at all, but instead, that it meets some kind of unspoken need or compulsion inside of him.
How We Hide From Relationship — In Relationship
Irrelationship is a two-person psychological defense system that the participants co-create and inhabit together. It protects each player from the insecurity and vulnerability that would happen in a genuinely loving Real Relationship. By compulsive giving til it hurts and compulsively accepting care-taking, couples enact what we call dissociated states that create a “safe” “Not-Me” distance from having to feel any shattering anxiety. This kind of agreement keeps people separate, operating in their own spheres, often reacting tochildhood situations that happened long ago. They never grow up and leave their old song-and-dance routine behind and instead re-create it over and over again. It provides a wall of so-called protection and sadly excludes mutuality and reciprocity
Of course there is a kind of twisted attraction that happens between people that have strong behavioral imperatives that defend them against the anxiety of intimacy. Each individual encounters in the other a person a feeling of excitement and a regard so profound that he fears he will be unable to control that person’s impact on her or his life. Old, unrecognized fears of abandonment dating from ineffective parenting received as a small children drive them either to negotiate a “safe” relational agreement (i.e., an irrelationship) with each other or to flee.
If the couple finds each other suitable candidates for negotiation, they proceed wordlessly to set the rules by which their irrelationship will ‘function.’ In the case of Sam and Claire, the main rules are that Sam is to take care of Claire and Claire is to show explicit appreciation and gratitude for Sam’s ministrations. Now that Claire is wise to this dysfunction and fed up as well, she wants to change the rules. On some level, she “knows” that their roles and rules don’t add up to genuine love or partnership. Or if it were love, she knows that exposing her vulnerabilities and needs would upset their silent agreement, and then what would happen?
Sam, meanwhile, silences his real caring for Claire by refusing anything, any kind of genuine care, that she has to offer. The message in this is: you don’t have anything valuable to offer; and, at a deeper level, you have no value. He was so frightened by the uncontrollable magnitude of his initial feelings for her — and the powerful insecurity that he felt by having his heart genuinely at risk.
Finally, in therapy Sam admits his Performer role is leaving him empty, and recognizes that through deliberate but unconscious choices, i.e., their relational rules, he had walled off the very qualities in Claire that thrilled him. The game changed when Sam again accused Claire of not appreciating all that he did for her. Claire suddenly countered, for the very first time, “Sam, you actually don’t do anything ‘for’ me! You do it for you — so that you get to look like the one with all the good stuff to give.” Suddenly their unspoken agreement shattered. Without quite realizing it, both had abandoned their typical roles and transactions that kept this irrelationship going. (Going nowhere…) They finally had to make a decision. Were they interested enough in one another and courageous enough to break pattern and explore the possibility of a real life together or not?
The Beginnings of Real Relationship
Claire didn’t run: she dug in her heels and said to Sam, “You do ‘all the giving’ without taking — without accepting anything — anything — from me except my thanking your for your ‘generosity.’ Do you know where that leaves me? It leaves me feeling that I have nothing worthwhile, nothing of any value to give you. My whole importance in your life is telling you how ‘wonderful’ you are. And I just can’t do it anymore. I want to feel like I really matter.”
Sam was aghast, angry and — terrified. Like Claire, however, rather than turning tail, he turned a corner. After several moments of silence, tears filled his eyes. Finally he was able to say, “Oh, my God, Claire — you don’t know, you just don’t know, how much you mean to me. The one thing I’m most afraid of is that you’ll discover I’m nothing to you and then you’ll leave.”
That was the beginning of Sam and Claire finally breaking out of their irrelationship. But it took some time. They needed to tease out feelings and explore their childhoods in depth before they could put the pieces together and see how they’d constructed a life that undermined what they most wanted with one another — a true partnership. With the help of their therapist, they began to build a whole new way of being together, and, for the first time, discovered intimacy at last.