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Is Your Relationship Real?

What is “Irrelationship” and why is it important to recognize?

Written with co-authors Mark B. Borg, Jr., PhD & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

“Just when I really needed her,” Glen said, “Vicky disappeared. I tried so hard to take care of her, but she was gone. It didn’t go up in flames or explode; the ending was just a dull thud. Maybe that was the worst part.”

Vicky felt disappointed and abandoned, too. Both had hoped they had found love at last. And they tried hard to take care of each other, although Vicky’s way — letting him always be the caretaker he needed to be — was perhaps less obvious than his. But all the caretaking in the world couldn’t keep the relationship alive.

Maybe, as Glen hinted, an occasional conflagration or explosion would have helped.

Intimate, spontaneous, authentic relationships are risky — risky enough that many people hide from them in what we call irrelationships. Irrelationships are learned relational patterns that may haunt people whose childhood caregivers were unable to meet their emotional needs — and who may even have looked to the child to meet their own. When parents depend on a child for emotional sustenance — rather than spouses, friends, or other adults — caregiving and caretaking become confused with love.

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An irrelationship is a pseudo-partnership. It may look intimate, but it’s actually carefully constructed — usually without the participants’ awareness — precisely to avoid the openness, spontaneity, and reciprocity that characterize true intimacy, while enforcing the relational rules and roles of early childhood. Both Glen and Vicky had unhappy, inattentive parents. In a desperate bid for the care they needed, they reversed roles and became caregivers themselves, trying to rescue, fix, or placate their parents sufficiently that their parents would at last be able to take care of them.

Irrelationship is not a syndrome, illness, or pathology. It’s a dynamic — something that partners do together, a way of being with another person, although a severely limited way. It is controlled less by the caring that the partners have for each other than by their fears, and more by the constricting wish to avoid danger than by an expansive desire to connect and grow.

Irrelationship is a two-person psychological defense system, an active shield against the anxiety that comes with allowing someone — often a loved one — to be or become important in one’s life. It is a way for people to be alone in company, to conceal themselves when baring their souls feels too dangerous. In short, it is a way to hide out from love — and from all the threats that come with being intimate, vulnerable, and exposed.

Irrelationship protects those within it from the messy business of really relating, because while intimate connections promise caring, compassion, and empathy, they can make good on that promise only in a climate of emotional investment and risk-taking. Deep and meaningful engagement with a significant other is always unpredictable, so love isn’t always safe. Irrelationship protects us from its dangers, but at a high price.

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Irrelationship is a carefully scripted enactment of old relational rules meant to keep anxiety at bay. One party gives; the other takes. One performs; the other applauds. One saves; the other is rescued. One dictates; the other complies — although in truth both are equally slaves to the imperatives of their dynamic.

Love, which is never scripted, cannot grow under such conditions. Irrelationship doesn’t make much room for wild cards like passion and desire. Even mutuality and intimacy are subjugated to the rules of engagement.

Within this general framework, however, each irrelationship is as unique as the couple that inhabits it.

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Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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