How does a relationship go about “self-improvement?”
Every relationship has its own personality, that is, a “quality” or “character” distinct from the traits each individual brings to the table. Though this idea may seem strange, it’s a straightforward concept from the field known as complexity science, specifically the model of “self-organizing systems”. The upshot is that living systems require balance between change and stability to maintain their core identity, while simultaneously developing and expanding, and that this process cannot be directed beforehand but must happen with the important element of the spontaneous emergence of new experiences.
Besides the consciously shared work of connection-building, relationships require their members to surrender (to an extent) to the new thing their partnership is becoming—by which we mean, accepting that their joint dynamic is going to pull them in directions that neither party would have planned or predicted. As with raising a child, a point is reached at which couples must allow their relationship autonomy, novelty, and space for risk-taking, all the while maintaining open communication. Problems develop, however, if they’re unable to tolerate the anxiety that comes with uncertainty—what might happen—putting their connection at risk for fading away. For some, this also makes them try control the shape the relationship takes, causing major problems.
An example of this is Judith and Ryan, whose relationship was almost ruined by anxiety. Judith reflected on how she underestimated what can happen when passions meet, or perhaps, collide: “I was sure that Ryan’s little ‘peculiarities’ were what had always caused the trouble between us. Nobody’d ever warned me that the way two people ‘meet’ in relationship becomes this unpredictable ‘third thing’—kind of a wild-card that nobody’s really to blame for. But that ‘thing’ caused some real trouble for us.”
Irrelationship is a defensive construct that forms as the scary wild-card of increasing intimacy develops in a relationship. Psychological defenses are survival mechanisms we create to help us navigate the anxiety of everyday life—usually by ignoring or dissociating from awareness of the anxiety.
“What was really weird was when I realized that my habit of scapegoating Ryan was part of undermining that ‘wild-card-thing’ which helps relationships really come alive. Oddly, I wasn’t doing it on my own: Ryan cooperated by actually accepting the scapegoat role.”
“Although,” Ryan jumped in, “it took awhile for me to see that I was going along with Judith’s tirades so she’d feel better. It didn’t really hurt me: I love Judith and felt sorry for her. I had this idea that letting her unload on me was helping her. I realize looking back that I somehow didn’t really believe that she believed what she was saying about me.”
“Yeah,” responded Judith. “And anytime you argued with me, I’d get so angry. I thought you were just being stubborn by not letting me ‘help you,’ and that if you’d just listen to me, everything would be better for you. I kind of knew you weren’t agreeing with what I was saying, but I thought I could force you to take it in.”
“Yeah, I know. And I thought I was helping you by letting you believe that. Funny, what we were really doing was stonewalling so that we couldn’t get closer to each other.”
The authors’ tool for identifying and treating this type of defense against intimacy is called the 40-20-40. It’s a technique that helps couples and others to name the thought patterns and behaviors that prevent closeness from developing, moving them toward relationship sanity. Using couples-specific conflicts and issues, the 40-20-40 sorts out the anxiety and unspoken needs that act as a barrier to intimacy by teaching the couple to articulate their fears both to themselves and each other.
“It wasn’t easy to see how my ‘helping’ Ryan was just a way of keeping my distance. But my insistence that I knew best was ruining everything,” said Judith. I kept telling myself he was ‘the bad guy,’ and even belittled him him in front of our friends. It was gross.”
“Yeah,” agreed Ryan. “And I was making nice by going along with it, which just made the whole thing worse.”
The irrelationship dynamic originates in families where expression of feelings and vulnerability are discouraged. Over time this develops into barriers that protect us from the anxiety and pain brought about by being close to each other. The unintended consequence is that family members are left in seemingly inexplicable isolation from one another.
“I don’t know how it happened, but one day I realized how far away you’d become. And for some reason, Duh! The no-brainer dawned: I’d created this by picking on you all the time—so much so that our friends noticed it and sometimes pointed out what I was doing. But I always brushed it off, telling myself you ‘needed it.’”
“Yeah,” Ryan answered. “And I just let it happen, though it sure made you look pretty bad to our friends.”
Working through irrelationship often starts when the pain of clinging to a defect is greater than the fear and discomfort of letting it go—a relationship character defense like emotional distance is similar to what psychologists call a “character defect” or “flaw” which can be addressed with psychotherapy. Through this process we can accept our past—and the ways in which it materializes defensively and defectively in our relationship—with compassion and step into our present with each other with a new image and experience of our relationship and ourselves. Relationship sanity—a process of giving and receiving, loving and accepting love—opens the door to new possibilities for healing, love, intimacy and growth.
“One day I woke up with a bad stomach ache,” Judith remembered. “You seemed so far away. I thought my life was ending. I’d hit a wall and could see no way around it. I can’t believe I was able to tell you that. But you listened, even though it had been a long time since I deserved to have you listen to me. Somehow, though, it was enough to begin changing everything.”