Dysfunctional Relationships Dynamics

This is the first in a series of articles by codependency therapist, Spiritual teacher Robert Burney about the ways in which romantic relationships in our society are set up to be dysfunctional. These articles will explore the dynamics that are a normal consequence of relationships between people who have been raised in an emotionally dishonest and repressive, shame based culture. It does not matter how much two people love each other if they are reacting to their childhood programming in their interaction. The basic dynamics - without the romantic aspect - also apply to any relationship we care about / have some emotional investment in - including family.

Part 1: Power Struggle

"In our disease defense system we build up huge walls to protect ourselves and then - as soon as we meet someone who will help us to repeat our patterns of abuse, abandonment, betrayal, and/or deprivation - we lower the drawbridge and invite them in. We, in our Codependence, have radar systems which cause us to be attracted to, and attract to us, the people, who for us personally, are exactly the most untrustworthy (or unavailable or smothering or abusive or whatever we need to repeat our patterns) individuals - exactly the ones who will 'push our buttons.'

This happens because those people feel familiar. Unfortunately in childhood the people whom we trusted the most - were the most familiar - hurt us the most. So the effect is that we keep repeating our patterns and being given the reminder that it is not safe to trust ourselves or other people.

Once we begin healing we can see that the Truth is that it is not safe to trust as long as we are reacting out of the emotional wounds and attitudes of our childhoods. Once we start Recovering, then we can begin to see that on a Spiritual level these repeating behavior patterns are opportunities to heal the childhood wounds."

Quote from Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls

I heard someone at a CoDA meeting this week talk about a truly revolutionary concept that their codependence counselor introduced into a session with her and her husband one day. She and her husband were in a hot and heavy argument when the counselor interrupted to ask, "Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right." She said that it was a question that they had to consider for a while because being right was awful important to them both.

It is normal for relationships in this society to deteriorate into power struggles over who is right and who is wrong. That is because we grew up in a dysfunctional society that taught that it was shameful to be wrong. We got the message that our self-worth depends on not making mistakes, on being perfect - that it caused our parents great emotional pain (or they caused us great emotional or physical pain) when we made a mistake, when we were wrong.

Codependence is an emotional defense system that is set up to protect the wounded inner child within us from the shame of being exposed as unlovable and unworthy, as stupid and weak, as a loser and failure, as whatever it was that we got the message was the worst thing to be. We were taught to evaluate whether we had worth in comparison to others. Smarter than, prettier than, faster than, richer than, more successful than, thinner than, stronger than, etc., etc. In a codependent society the only way to feel good about self is to look down on someone else. So we learned to judge (just like our role models did) others in order to feel good about ourselves. Being "right" was one of the most important ways to know that we had worth.

When a codependent feels attacked - which is any time it seems as if someone is judging us - it can be with a look or a tone of voice or just that someone doesn't say something, let alone when someone actually says something to us that could be interpreted as meaning that we weren't doing something right - the choices we are faced with are to blame them or blame ourselves. Either they are right - in which case it proves that we are the stupid loser that the critical parent voice in our head tells us we are - or they are wrong in which case it is time to attack them and prove to them the error of their ways.

In most relationships where the people have been together for a few years they have already established entrenched battle lines around painful emotional scars where they push each others buttons. All one person has to do is use a certain tone of voice or have a certain look on their face and the other person pulls out and loads the big guns. One person is readying their answer in their head to what they "know" the other is going to say before the other even has a chance to say it. The battle begins and neither one of them actually listens to what the other is saying. They start pulling out their lists of past hurts to prove their point of how each other is "doing" horrible things to them. The battle is on to see who is right and who is wrong.

And that is not even the right question.

The type of questions we need to be asking are: "What button just got pushed?" "Why am I reacting so strongly to this?" "How old do I feel right now?" "In what way does what is happening feel like something that happened in my childhood?" "How does this remind me of the way my parents acted or treated me?"

We attract into our lives those people who will perfectly push our buttons for us. Who fit our particular issues exactly. When we are looking at life as a growth process then we can learn from these lessons. If both people in a relationship are willing to look at what is underneath the dynamics that are happening - then some magical, wonderful intimacy can result. As long as we are reacting unconsciously to the past, then we will blame and argue about who is right and who is wrong.

A relationship is a partnership, an alliance, not some game with winners and losers. When the interaction in a relationship becomes a power struggle about who is right and who is wrong then there are no winners.