The Healthy Relationship: 7. I’ll Take Care of You Because You Cannot Figure Things Out for Yourself

| Karen Scarth |

In the last post of this series, we reviewed the relationship rule: “You have to be completely open and honest, and tell me everything. I need to know what you are thinking and feeling at all times.” This rule may create a profound sense of intrusion and emotional control and those who are asked to abide by this rule may feel that they are not entitled to any privacy of thought or emotion.

The next relationship rule we will focus on is:

  • I’ll take care of you. You are fragile/incapable and can’t be expected to figure things out for yourself.

In healthy development, parents assess when their children are ready to take steps towards independence and autonomy. This decision ideally incorporates information about the child’s abilities and readiness as well as the level of risk within a specific situation. The decision can be influenced by the parent’s own fears, knowledge, and emotional needs. If the parent is too cautious and prevents autonomy when the child is ready and able to act with some independence, this can send the message that the parent lacks confidence in the child’s capacities. An unintended consequence is that a child may begin to avoid novel activities or enters them with fear.

For example, this may arise when a child wishes to choose their own clothes for school, ride a bike in their neighbourhood, do a grown up task like baking or yard work, or play with kids outside the family and a parent resists these pushes for independence for too long. A common and familiar pattern in many households occurs when a parent may manage a child’s homework or do projects for a child because that parent fears their child would fail or do poorly otherwise.

Parents who continue to fix, rescue, and solve their child’s problems beyond the time when this is developmentally appropriate may do so for a number of reasons.  It may serve a parent’s emotional desire to be needed and have a sense of purpose. It can provide some distraction from an unhappy marriage or other areas of personal dissatisfaction. In many instances parents do not want to see their children suffer and will do whatever it takes to prevent this.

Fixing problems may also protect a fearful parent from worry. By taking care of the problem a parent can regain their own sense of ease. Unfortunately however the child may then fail to develop the skills and confidence to fix their own problems and instead develop a sense of dependence on others.

This relationship dynamic may follow children into their adult, intimate relationships such that they come to expect to be taken care of or do not see themselves as responsible agents of change in their own lives. This can lead to some dysfunctional relationship patterns in which the now adult child remains passive and unable to make decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions. They may develop patterns in which they fail to be personally responsible and instead blame others for their various dissatisfactions.

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The Healthy Relationship: 4. Don’t Expect Anything From Me and I Won’t Expect Anything From You

| Karen Scarth |

We are discussing the “rules” that guide relationship dynamics. In the last post, we looked at relationships that operate based on the following rule: “Your needs don’t matter, mine do.” Relationships that operate this way require the giving partner to meet all of the other person’s needs to the exclusion of the giver’s needs.

Another common relationship dynamic involves avoidance of expressing any personal need coupled with failure to recognize the emotional needs of others. The rule that might describe these relationships would be as follows:

Don’t expect anything from me and I won’t expect anything from you.

Children who have experienced emotional absence or neglect learn this relationship rule, and often carry around the belief of “Don’t expect anything from anyone – you can only rely on yourself.” Individuals whose relationships have operated based on this rule often find themselves struggling to trust and communicate with others. They have learned to avoid rejection by ensuring that they do not make any demands on others, don’t ask for help, or say what they need. They may avoid relationships or ensure that those relationships they do have are not too intimate or cannot work (for example, an affair with a married person or person who lives far away). They make sure that they don’t express any emotional needs or wants.

This distant stance from all relationships is difficult to maintain since our need for attachment is a powerful one. Individuals who take a stance of being without need choose safety from rejection and loss over connection. These individuals may present as high functioning but lonely. They have often invested their energies into establishing high levels of economic security and self-sufficiency. Sometimes they can’t understand why life feels like it has no meaning for them when on the surface they seem to “have it all”. If you ask a person who lives by the un-needy rule: “Whom did you go to as a child when you had problems or worries?”, they often answer: “No one.”

In the next post, I will discuss the relationship rule: “You need to feel the same way I do. Otherwise you don’t care about me or understand me.”

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The Healthy Relationship: 3. Your Needs Don’t Matter, Only Mine Do

| Karen Scarth |

In the next few posts we will be looking at how some relationship rules develop and why someone may tolerate harmful boundary violations. These rules are not meant to be exhaustive but they do highlight some common patterns.

Your Needs Don’t Matter.  Only Mine Do.

With this relationship rule the message is: “Your needs don’t matter, mine do.  Your job is to look after my needs.  It is not okay to say no.”

Individuals who have been exposed to childhood abuse and family dysfunction often learn that their purpose and value (at least in the abusive relationship) is to be at the disposal of another’s needs. This can also occur if a parent is ill or disabled and the child is in the role of caregiver.

This type of relationship has many faces. It can be the parent who needs you to pretend you are happy or fine in front of neighbors and friends when they have just finished a physical and verbal blow out with you behind closed doors. It can be the sister who chronically calls in a crisis and expects you to drop everything and come sort out her life for her. It can be the father who sexually abuses his daughter. It can be the friend who relies on you to comfort and support him or her but is never there when you need something.

If this becomes the accepted rule within in a relationship, then one person may find him or herself tolerating mistreatment. This kind of harmful imbalance in a relationship may be viewed as normal and the only way to secure much needed connection. In the trade off between a painful relationship and no relationship,  individuals in these relationships often choose the painful relationship.

Indeed, individuals who have endured these kinds of relationships believe relationships and emotional pain are synonymous. In these circumstances, people do not view relationships as sources of support and fulfillment. Instead, for them, relationships are a necessary chore or obligation they must endure.

For some individuals, their only emotional connections are within dysfunctional relationships. It becomes very risky for them to insist on more appropriate boundaries with loved ones because they fear the loss of very important attachements or they fear a crisis for the other person if they do so, such as suicide or other self-destructive behaviour. This is why many adult individuals will tolerate unreasonable and sometimes overwhelming demands from others.

Alternatively, sometimes a relationship can occur in which one partner assumes their needs don’t matter (based on their own past experiences with relationships) while the other partner does not operate this way. If the person who feels their needs never count  is fearful and has a distorted sense that the relationship is fragile, they may not attempt to place a boundary on their giving within the relationship. The person whose needs are being met may not be aware that the giving person is spending all of his or her energy attempting to please the receiving person  at the expense of the giver’s needs.  This can go on for years until the giving person feels fed up, used, and angry and leaves the relationship much to the shock of the other.

In the next post, I will discuss the relationship rule: “Don’t expect anything from me. You need to look after yourself.”

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The Healthy Relationship: 2. Why Do We Create And Need Relationship Rules?

| Karen Scarth |

Why do we seem to create and need relationship rules? The ultimate purpose of relationship rules and boundaries is to create security in our relationships.

A key psychological and developmental challenge is how to best balance between our needs for independence, autonomy, and personal control and our needs for attachment, connection, and belonging.  Healthy relationship boundaries allow us to balance these sometimes competing needs.  They allow us to establish a secure attachment or connection to someone but preserve our need for some degree of control over our choices and decisions. Having a set of mutually understood rules that define a relationship tells us that as long as we operate within those rules, the relationship will be secure.

In other words, if we follow the rules then we do not expect a high level of conflict that might lead to an end of the relationship.  A good example of a common relationship rule is that when you are married or in a long term committed relationship, you are sexually monogamous.  If one person breaks this rule, they understand that this might lead to severe conflict and a possible breakdown in the marriage or relationship.

However, if these rules are not healthy, fair, or reasonable then one member of the relationship may feel violated, misused, trapped, or unwanted.  When boundaries are dysfunctional we experience a range of things directly associated with the nature of the boundary dysfunction.  For example, if the boundary is too rigid and distant, we may achieve high levels of autonomy and personal control but we lose intimacy.  Individuals with these kinds of relationships often feel unloved, lonely, and empty, and life can feel meaningless.  These types of relationships may lead to the feeling “Is this all there is?” If this pattern of relationship is pervasive for an individual they can suffer from symptoms of depression.

On the other hand, if the boundary is too permeable and enmeshed, we begin to feel trapped and experience a loss of our identity and sense of control. This pattern can set us up to be at the service of the other’s needs while our own needs go unmet. We may feel used, unappreciated, and angry in these circumstances. We may wonder why others are not there for us when we go out of our way to support friends and family. This pattern can be associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger. This pattern can also lead to a loss of self since confusion can develop over whose feelings and needs belong to whom. The message in these relationships is sometimes: “If you feel the same as I do, then this is a reflection of your attachment to me. If you don’t feel the same, you don’t care about me.”

Our approach to the dilemma of autonomy versus connection is shaped by our lived experiences and our own relationship models. These include key relationships in our life such as the relationship between our parents and our own relationship with each parent or caregiver as well as our siblings and other family members.

In the next post, I will discuss how relationship rules develop.

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The Healthy Relationship: 1. What Are Boundaries?

| Karen Scarth |

Our relationships can be our greatest source of fulfillment, meaning, love, and belonging. However, when the boundary between two people is dysfunctional in some way, relationships can become torturous and leave us feeling trapped, miserable, rejected, and heartbroken.

When I reflect on what I do as a clinical psychologist I realize that the vast majority of discussion in therapy is devoted to sorting out relationship boundaries.

A boundary can be viewed as an understanding that exists between two people — or the rules of a particular relationship. Each relationship is defined by its own set of rules. These rules help us to determine what we can expect from a particular relationship. For example, is this relationship sexual? Is this person someone I can count on for anything? Is this someone I only have casual conversation with at work but would never contact outside of work? Is this someone I could borrow money from?

These boundaries and rules are not necessarily static. A relationship can evolve and its boundaries and rules can change over time.

In the next post, I will discuss why we create and need rules in a relationship.

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