Today’s guests on The Coaching Through Chaos Podcast are Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, M.D., and Daniel Berry, RN, MHA. They are the co-authors of the new book, “Irrelationship: How We Use Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide from Intimacy (Central Recovery Press, 2015). The term “dysfunctional relationship” is part of our vernacular these days. I don’t think I’ve met a person that didn’t relate to having had experienced at least one, whether that be in their family of origin, their intimate relationships, or in their friendships at some time in life. Borg, Brenner and Berry, otherwise know as The Irrelationship Group, have defined a dynamic in relationships that demonstrates how certain dysfunctions are permitted to perpetuate themselves and they provide an in-depth path to getting into a healthier dynamic with your partner to allow deeper intimacy and real, reciprocal love. They call this relationship dynamic irrelationship.
Borg, Brenner and Berry define irrelationship as, “a shared, co-created, psychological defense system; it is a defense against the fear and anxiety that come along with allowing another person to matter. Irrelationship is a way of protecting those within it from the messy business of really relating, because while intimate connections promise caring, compassion, and empathy, they also require emotional investment and risk. Irrelationship is not a syndrome, an illness, or a pathology. It is a way of being in relationship, a dynamic—something partners do together.”
In this interview, The Irrelationship Group explains to us:
- How the relationship of The Irrelationship Group got started, not through professional connections, but through other, more serendipitous happenings
- How a book that started off focusing on compulsive caregiving developed into a book about intimate relationships
- Who the Performer and the Audience are in the irrelationship and how they dance through time
- How irrelationship protects you from many things, but not necessarily things you want to be protected from
- How Irrelationship is a “self-other help” book, rather than a self-help book
- How irrelationship short-circuits the possibility of experiencing real intimate love
and last but certainly most important
- Once you recognize yourself in irrelationship, what you can do to develop a more healthy emotional experience with your partner (or to learn how to make sure you do not enter into the same dance in the future)
To better acquaint you with the concept, here's a couple of excerpts from the book......
Anatomy of Irrelationship
Consider the following descriptors. Do any of them resonate with you?
- Do you think you can save, fix, or rescue the person you are drawn to?
- Do you hope they can fix, save or rescue you?
- Is your idea of love mostly about taking care of your partner?
- Is your idea of love mostly about your partner taking care of you?
- Do you feel a lack of empathy or reciprocity when you are busy doing things for the person you love?
- When you show you really care, do you feel drained, used, or depleted instead of invigorated?
- Does your relationship often feel like more work than play and more unspoken discomfort than joy?
- Do you feel your relationship is ultimately not enriching your life?
If you answer yes to any of the above question, it suggests that you may build relationships for all the wrong reasons. But stay with us: you are building awareness, and that is an important first step. Also, don’t blame yourself for this kind of behavior; this is a pattern you’ve come by honestly.
The fact is, our culture supports one-directional caregiving. It is considered virtuous and makes us so-called good family members, good neighbors, and good citizens. But chronic one-directional caretaking is actually a dysfunctional pattern learned as infants or small children in the earliest months and years of our relationship with our primary caregiver, usually a parent. In this pattern, we sought to elicit behaviors we needed in order for us to feel safe. Those formative transactions were the beginning of a life-long pattern of interactions whose purpose was, and continues into adulthood to be, to manage relationships so that they sustain feelings of safety above all else. Irrelationship is a prison, a straightjacket built for two that does not allow a flow of spontaneous loving, but it does protect, at least superficially, against feelings of anxiety. Irrelationship is the ultimate defense. And the attempt to feel safe and anxiety free can trump any kind of authentic loving, but no matter how much we want to love, over time, the underlying hidden anxiety pushes us to repeat the pattern chronically, so that we never learn how to form real relationships of genuine intimacy and reciprocity. Instead we live in isolation, even though our lives appear to be actively engaged with others whom we regard as our closest associates, friends, partners , or spouses.”
Another Implication of Trust for Irrelationship
One of the apparent contradictions seen in individuals caught in irrelationship is their high tolerance for certain types of emotions pain, particularly loneliness. This may be related to the blunting of awareness of feelings referred to earlier. In fact, irrelationship is a defense against true connection that drives the individual to fill his or her consciousness and time with taking care of others. The paradox is that this "busy-ness" with others ensures that no profound experience of others - no trust or intimacy- can develop.
The following conversation illustrates a couple stuck in an irrelationship trance. On the surface, the conversation revolves around simple disappointment.
He: You're really not very nice to me.
She: What? Yes, I am. What are you talking about
He: No, you're not. You just aren't.
She: I am so. You just don't appreciate me.
He: Appreciate you? When you're so hard on me all the time?
She: Hard on you? With all the things I do for you, you think I'm hard on you?
Obviously, each person is dissatisfied with something in the dynamic of the relationship, nut neither person is willing to step back and to try to find out what's actually happening. Instead, each is lobbing accusations at the others unexamined viewpoint without challenging their commitment to irrelationship. Instead they dig in their heels and argue about some undefined idea of "nice". They even forget - dissociate from - happier memories of their shared past, choosing to recall only bad memories and mean things the other has said and done. This allows each person to believe that he or she has proven how "bad" the other person is.
People caught in irrelationship often use this self-protective "I'm right, you're wrong" tactic with spouses, partners, children, friends, and colleagues. By not calling time-out to find out what's actually going on, they recommit to brainlock and remain dissociated. Since it's easier to remember bad things when we're in the same emotional state we were in when they first happened (state dependent memory), it's also easier to remember bad things when we are in a fight or feeling bad. After a while, all our interactions become fighting and bad memories. And eventually, all relationships in general seem bad, prompting us to swear off dating or cultivating other social contacts.
Did you Relate?
Whew! A little self-disclosure here....I totally related to this from at least one relationship in my past and truth-be-told, I probably struggle to avoid falling into this in my current relationship. If you're relating to this dance between partners too, don't worry, Borg, Brenner and Berry totally give you the detailed pathway out of irrelationship. And if you, as I did, worried when you saw yourself in their words, you'll find lots and lots of examples of real-life couples the authors worked with to identify and breakthrough their brainlock to allow them ways to find deeper connection and more intimacy in their relationships. It helps to know others have been there too.
How to End the Dance of Irrelationship
As you read through Irrelationship, you'll find sections at the end of each chapter called "Toward Positive Change". These sections are full of self-reflective questions and thought exercises to help you examine your process more clearly. Then, the authors give you the actual formula to end the dance of irrelationship altogether. They call that the DREAM sequence - it's their recipe for a successful relationship.
The Authors' Call to Connect and Contribute
At the end of the book, the authors invite you to join in the Irrelationship blog-based community online. They even invite you to share your story with the community, ask for help if you need it, or reflect with others on their experiences during and post irrelationship. How cool is that !?!