Irrelationship is a jointly created psychological defense system that two or more people maintain in order to avoid awareness of the anxiety that’s a natural part of becoming close to others — especially anxiety about letting people see and know us for who we really are (i.e., intimacy). Irrelationship happens outside of awareness, working well to protect us from anxiety, intimacy, and emotional investment while blocking mutually satisfying relationships from developing.

Zone of Irrelationship infographicThose in irrelationship generally tend to fall into the role of either Performer or Audience. The Performer desperately tries to take care of the Audience, and the Audience hangs back and lets the Performer try to rescue and fix him or her. By doing so, the Audience is also taking care of the Performer by giving her or him the opportunity to avoid anxiety by getting caught up in those same futile activities. While it fends off anxiety, it only leads to repetitive cycles of distancing and withdrawal.

Irrelationship is often seen in people drawn to one another in romance; but can just as easily affect friendships, work-life, family, and even society and culture.

While the basic idea of irrelationship is straightforward, getting a deeper understanding of how it works, what sustains it, the many ways it can manifest, and how to start finding ways out of irrelationship into real relationship is complex. These facets in particular are helpful starting points:


Brainlock refers to a pattern of brain functioning that both causes and is caused by irrelationship. Beginning in early childhood, self-protective mechanisms driving irrelationship become ingrained in our functioning such that our brains develop new pathways to accommodate them, changing brain networks ultimately. These “hardwired” changes affect relationships leading to inability connecting with others without using the mechanisms of irrelationship. Deviations from rigid interpersonal patterns thus cause overwhelming anxiety, pushing us back toward irrelationship and thereby maintaining the status quo.

Compassionate Empathy

We often not only struggle to empathize when we don’t get along, we also fall short in being compassionate with oneself and others. While empathy is the ability to really see things from the other’s perspective, compassion is a state in which one is obligated to act to relieve the other’s suffering.  Compassionate empathy is a powerful tool, therefore both for understanding and taking steps to work together to relieve the pain we experience in irrelationship. Compassionate empathy is an individual and shared imperative, necessary to work out of irrelationship together.

Childhood Origins

How we are raised has a big effect on who we are. In irrelationship, the child becomes the parents’ caregiver, to try to keep the parents happy, and to meet one’s own needs. Frantic efforts to take care of the parents work temporarily. Each time the effect wears off, the child repeats the performance, and find new ways too when the old ones stop working. GRAFTS is a simple rubric to help us understand our behaviors. It stands for: Good-Right-Absent-Funny-Tense-Smart. These are all ways of acting which get burned into us in childhood, and end up shaping how we pattern relationships in adulthood.


Early patterns laid out with GRAFTS are baked into us as Song-And-Dance-Routines. We play these out repetitively, finding partners who match the dysfunctional patterns-it takes two to tango. We repeat the destructive sequence of fighting and withdrawal, never becoming intimate or developing mutuality, playing out the futile efforts to take care of one another that won’t work. Gravitating toward set roles, the Performer vainly tries to care for the Audience, and the Audience sits back unaffected, perversely taking care of the Performer by giving a reason to keep trying harder and harder.


How to emerge from irrelationship? DREAM. Discovery-Repair-Empowerment-Alternatives-Mutuality. Mutuality begins with 40-20-40, deepening over the DREAM Sequence. Discovery is the key realization; Repair allows us to heal together; Empowerment is realistic optimistic that we change together with the needed tools; Alternatives are the options we have that we couldn’t see before; Mutuality blossoms as we build experiences of really being together, listening, and sharing intimacy, pleasure, vulnerability and communication.