What Is “Relationship Sanity”?
When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.
― Franklin D. Roosevelt
That millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.
― Erich Fromm, The Sane Society
In the irrelationship lexicon, relationship sanity is seen as a balance in giving and receiving — a mutuality in which both parties experience themselves as loving and loveable. On the other hand, investing in relationships in which we feel neither loving nor loveable is regarded as insanity, and, by definition, precludes the possibility of genuine intimacy. Again, in the irrelationship lexicon, intimacy includes not just the joy of being together, but, as importantly, is open to feelings of empathy for and even vulnerability to one another.
Jim’s professional life had kept him on the road most days of most weeks of his life since his marriage to Emma*. He managed the guilt he felt about this by chronically congratulating himself for how hard and how selflessly he worked to take care of his family. When a promotion led to his no longer having to be on the road most of the time, he made a conscious decision to make up for his years of absence by becoming a super-all-around-good-guy to his family. Ironically, the overwhelming performance he gave as he acted out his new role was even more disruptive to his connection with Emma and his kids than his years on the road had been. He forced his do-gooding on them so insistently that it actually had the opposite effect that he’d intended.
“I was so into the idea of myself as a ‘great guy’ that I ended up walling myself off from my family; and as a result, I started to lose out on everything about my family that excited me, that was important to me,” he reflected.
Emma agreed. “He was playing the part of the perfect dad so hard that nobody could get a word in edgewise. For a little while — a very little while, it was kind of nice, I guess. But one day I realized that the man I loved had disappeared behind the performance. And it almost broke my heart. I’d totally lost contact with the man I’d fallen in love with. I remember one day I was doing something in the house and he was out doing something with the kids. Out of nowhere my eyes started filling with tears. I stopped what I was doing and said to out loud, ‘Jim, where have you gone?’”
Jim’s so-called generosity had actually become destructive.
This imbalance of giving and receiving leaves little room for relationship sanity: instead it confirms us in the path of irrelationship — the state of carefully managed relationship roles that leave no room for spontaneity, or even for honesty about one’s feelings.
In irrelationship, we unconsciously but deliberately create an orbit for ourselves at a comfortable distance from the heart of another. Partnership is displaced by rigidly constructed caretaking roles that guard against taking in what others offer to us, warding off a healthy interdependence that accommodates both giving and giving over; that hides our vulnerability from our partner, lest they try to enter into our own hearts with generosity and empathy.
We began devising this self-protective pattern as small children when we became aware of negative emotions affecting our caregiver. Their negative emotional state made us anxious, prompting us to “do something” to make them feel better so that we’d feel better. If it “worked, “that is, if the caregiver responded positively to our caretaking, we then began to believe that we could ensure our own safety by controlling the feelings of others. As we matured, we carried this unconscious idea forward through life, applying it to virtually any kind of relationship, but especially to potentially intimate connections. The problem is that, by insisting on this type of control of others, we prevent both ourselves and others from ever touching one another’s true feelings and needs. This, in turn, leaves us nowhere to stand so that we can feel compassion for ourselves of others.
The practice of relationship sanity undermines the disconnect of irrelationship by enabling us, little by little, to expose our needs, fears and genuine feelings to one another. When couples practice relationship sanity together, they become able to believe, trust, and rely on one another in ways that they’d never felt comfortable doing with someone who was, or who might become, important in their lives.
“It seems strange to me now,” Jim said, “but I always thought being loveable was only about believing that others could love me. Well, that ended up driving me into driving my family crazy with anything and everything I could do ‘for them.’ Of course, the catch was that they had to accept it. Well, I’ve been forced to accept that loveable isn’t just about what I do; it includes being open to what they offer to me. I never put it together that not letting Emma and the kids give to me felt to them like rejection — my rejecting them!”
A bi-directional flow of loving and being loveable is vital to healthy relationships. Irrelationship is a suspension of that flow and leaves couples feeling strangely isolated from each other. While this allows them to feel safe from the cost of true emotional investment and the vulnerability that comes with it, it also leaves them feeling frustrated, lonely, and even ripped off.
Jim continued, “Finally biting the bullet and letting Emma know that I needed her to be with me, to be my mate and my partner, was the beginning of accepting that it’s okay for me to be the person I really am — without all the bells and whistles of being a ‘great guy.’ The flip side of all my so-called giving was that it put me in solitary confinement and left Emma and the kids feeling that I didn’t really care all that much about what they wanted or needed. When I thought about it, I realized it wasn’t all that different from mistreating or abusing somebody. It just goes to show you how insane the way I’ve treated them has been!”
- How Jim and Emma worked through irrelationship and into relationship sanity is our first case presentations in our forthcoming book, Relationship Sanity. This was a follow-up interview.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com with Mark Borg and Daniel Berry