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: 6. You Have to be Completely Open and Honest, and Tell Me Everything

| Karen Scarth |

In the last post of this series, we reviewed the relationship rule: “You need to feel the same way I do. Otherwise you don’t care about me or understand me.” In this relationship dynamic there is an intense need by one partner to be constantly reassured that their emotions are not just validated but shared without reservation. This may lead to the other partner feeling a loss of sense of self and maintaining the demands of this form of relationship may be emotionally exhausting.

The next relationship rule we will focus on is:

  • 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 relationship rule can create a profound sense of intrusion and emotional control. You receive the message that you need to open up and be honest yet, invariably, what you have to say can often lead to conflict. Individuals often feel like they are secretive and dishonest if they keep anything to themselves and start to feel they no longer know what is the right thing to do. Their judgment regarding what needs to be shared and what they are entitled to keep private gets eroded. They do not feel that they are entitled to any privacy of thought.

Individuals who have learned to operate within a relationship this way can become highly vulnerable to manipulation. They learn that if they are not completely forthcoming they may be later punished. At the same time, they also learn that if they are truly candid about their feelings, they may face conflict in the present. A common coping strategy is to present only thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are acceptable to the other person and, therefore, bypass conflict.

However, in the process of trying to avoid conflict, one’s sense of self becomes lost. A person who feels compelled to say and do whatever it takes to please the other starts to lose clarity about what they really think and what is real. Their gut tells them something is wrong with this scenario but they cannot figure it out intellectually.

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The Healthy Relationship: 5. You Need to Feel the Same Way I Do. Otherwise You Don’t Care About Me or Understand Me

| Karen Scarth |

In the last post of this series, we reviewed the relationship rule: “Don’t expect anything from me and I won’t expect anything from you.”  That relationship dynamic involved avoidance of expressing any personal need coupled with failure to recognize the emotional needs of others.

Now we turn to the next relationship rule:

You need to feel the same way I do. Otherwise you don’t care about me or understand me.

This is a common dynamic in a relationship in which one person has borderline personality disorder. There is a very intense need on the part of this individual to be emotionally validated in this way. Seeking emotional connection this person needs others to be with them both physically and emotionally. They require not just empathy but a full engagement by the other person in the same emotional state. Anything short of this is seen as emotional distance and even abandonment.

For the other person, this relationship is emotionally exhausting and confusing. There are often high levels of emotional intensity and lability. Sharing these intense emotions is the basis for intimacy and connection in these relationships. There is also a significant emotional punishment when the individual fails to feel the right way or enough. This often leads to conflict and emotional withdrawal.

Loss of identity and self becomes an issue for the person navigating this type of relationship. They may become depressed or anxious since there is no room in the relationship to experience their own emotions and be themselves. All their energy is required to monitor the emotional state of the other and be in a state of perpetual readiness to respond as required. They may learn that they can only get their needs attended to if they are in more emotional distress than their parent/partner.

This relationship can be especially destructive since in an effort to avoid punitive emotional “events” a person can find themselves engaging in behaviours that go against their core beliefs, values and morals.

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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: 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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