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.

Dysfunctional Relationships Dynamics 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.
Codependent Relationships Dynamics part 2 - Dysfunctional Definition of Love

"As long as we believe that someone else has the power to make us happy then we are setting ourselves up to be victims"

Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls

One of the biggest problems with relationships in this society is that the context we approach them from is too small. We were taught that getting the relationship is the goal.

It starts in early childhood with Fairy Tales where the Prince and the Princess live happily-ever-after. It continues in movies and books where "boy meets girl" "boy loses girl" "boy gets girl back" - the music swells and the happy couple ride off into the sunset. The songs that say "I can't smile without you" "I can't live without you" "You are my everything" describe the type of love we learned about growing up - toxic love - an addiction with the other person as our drug of choice, as our Higher Power.

Any time we set another human being up to be our Higher Power we are going to experience failure in whatever we are trying to accomplish. We will end up feeling victimized by the other person or by our self - and even when we feel victimized by the other person we blame our self for the choices we made. We are set up to fail to get our needs met in Romantic Relationships because of the belief system we were taught in childhood and the messages we got from our society growing up.

There is no goal to reach that will bring us to happily-ever after. We are not incomplete until we find our soul mate. We are not halves that cannot be whole without a relationship.

True Love is not a painful obsession. It is not taking a hostage or being a hostage. It is not all-consuming, isolating, or constricting. Believing we can't be whole or happy without a relationship is unhealthy and leads us to accept deprivation and abuse, and to engage in manipulation, dishonesty, and power struggles. The type of love we learned about growing up is an addiction, a form of toxic love.

Here is a short list of the characteristics of Love vs. toxic love (compiled with the help of the work of Melody Beattie & Terence Gorski.)

1. Love - Development of self first priority. Toxic love - Obsession with relationship.

2. Love - Room to grow, expand; desire for other to grow. Toxic love - Security, comfort in sameness; intensity of need seen as proof of love (may really be fear, insecurity, loneliness)

3. Love - Separate interests; other friends; maintain other meaningful relationships. Toxic love - Total involvement; limited social life; neglect old friends, interests.

4. Love - Encouragement of each other's expanding; secure in own worth. Toxic love - Preoccupation with other's behavior; fear of other changing.

5. Love - Appropriate Trust (i.e. trusting partner to behave according to fundamental nature.) Toxic love - Jealousy; possessiveness; fear of competition; protects "supply."

6. Love - Compromise, negotiation or taking turns at leading. Problem solving together. Toxic love - Power plays for control; blaming; passive or aggressive manipulation.

7. Love - Embracing of each other's individuality. Toxic love - Trying to change other to own image.

8. Love - Relationship deals with all aspects of reality. Toxic love - Relationship is based on delusion and avoidance of the unpleasant.

9. Love - Self-care by both partners; emotional state not dependent on other's mood. Toxic love - Expectation that one partner will fix and rescue the other.

10. Love - Loving detachment (healthy concern about partner, while letting go.) Toxic love - Fusion (being obsessed with each other's problems and feelings.)

11. Love - Sex is free choice growing out of caring & friendship. Toxic love - Pressure around sex due to insecurity, fear & need for immediate gratification.

12. Love - Ability to enjoy being alone. Toxic love - Unable to endure separation; clinging.

13. Love - Cycle of comfort and contentment. Toxic love - Cycle of pain and despair.

Love is not supposed to be painful. There is pain involved in any relationship but if it is painful most of the time then something is not working.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a relationship - it is natural and healthy. There is nothing wrong with wanting a relationship that will last forever - expecting it to last forever is what is dysfunctional. Expectations set us up to be a victim - and cause to abandon ourselves in search of our goal.

If we can start seeing relationships not as the goal but as opportunities for growth then we can start having more functional relationships. A relationship that ends is not a failure or a punishment - it is a lesson.

As long as our definition of a successful relationship is one that lasts forever - we are set up to fail. As long as we believe that we have to have the other in our life to be happy, we are really just an addict trying to protect our supply - using another person as our drug of choice. That is not True Love - nor is it Loving. {Play}

Codependent Relationships Dynamics part 4 - Come Here, Go Away

"We are all carrying around repressed pain, terror, shame, and rage energy from our childhoods, whether it was twenty years ago or fifty years ago. We have this grief energy within us even if we came from a relatively healthy family, because this society is emotionally dishonest and dysfunctional.

When someone "pushes your buttons," he/she is activating that stored, pressurized grief energy. She/he is gouging the old wounds, and all of the newer wounds that are piled on top of those original wounds by our repeating behavior patterns."

"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.'"

Quote from Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls

As long as we have not healed our childhood wounds then there are a lot more than two people involved in our relationships. There may only be two people in the room - but the room is also full of the ghosts of all of our past emotional wounds. Until we start clearing our emotional process of the buttons/triggers that throw us into the past, we are not capable of being honest in the now. When we react in the now out of old wounds and old tapes we are being emotionally dishonest with ourselves and our partners.

The way the dynamic in a dysfunctional relationship works is in a "come here" - "go away" cycle. When one person is available the other tends to pull away. If the first person becomes unavailable the other comes back and pleads to be let back in. When the first becomes available again then the other eventually starts pulling away again. It happens because our relationship with self is not healed. As long as I do not love myself then there must be something wrong with someone who loves me - and if someone doesn't love me than I have to prove I am worthy by winning that person back. On some level we are trying to earn the love of our unavailable parent(s) to prove to ourselves that we are worthy and lovable.

What is normal and natural in romantic relationships in this society is for a person whose primary fear is abandonment to get involved with someone whose primary fear is being smothered/losing self. The person with abandonment fears reacts to shows of independence on the part of the other as if the other were abandoning them. That causes them to become more needy and clinging - which causes the other person to pull away - which causes the first person to cling more - which causes the other to pull away more. Eventually the person with abandonment fears gets angry and disgusted and pulls back into themselves - which to the other makes it safe to come back and plead to be let back in. And after a short honeymoon period the dance can start all over again.

"Wait a minute!" you are probably saying if you read my last article in this series (codependent & counterdependent behaviors), "you said at the end of your last article, that both the codependent and counterdependent types of behavior were reactions to fear of abandonment."

That is true. The codependent type of behavior is an attempt to overcome the core belief that we are unworthy and unlovable by working real hard to earn love from another. The more a classic codependent feels they are being abandoned the harder they work.

The counterdependent is someone who is so convinced of their core unworthiness that their defense is to not open themselves up enough to admit they need another because they are sure they will be abandoned if anyone else sees who they really are (I used to feel if I ever truly opened up to someone, they would run away screaming in horror at my shameful being.) So, they abandon before they can be abandoned (this includes abandoning themselves by being attracted to people who are unavailable - saves them from taking the risk.)

Both types of behavior are dysfunctional and self defeating. Codependents are drawn to people who will abandon them (this abandonment does not have to be physical - it can be emotional so that the relationship continues but the codependent person has to settle for crumbs instead of truly getting their needs met.) Counterdependents let down their guard once every 5 years or so and let in someone who will perfectly betray and abandon them in order to prove that they were right in the first place to not open up to people.

It is very boring and incredibly painful to keep repeating dysfunctional relationship patterns. The way to stop repeating those patterns is to start healing the wounds that we suffered in childhood. A big part of this process is awakening to the reality that it is not our fault that our relationships haven't worked out. We were set up to fail to get our needs met in relationships by the unhealthy environments we grew up in, by the dysfunctional and dishonest definitions and role modeling that we experienced. We were powerless to do things any differently than we did them until we started to examine our patterns and discover the ways in which our childhood experiences have been running our lives.

One of the most important steps in learning what Love really is - in starting to Love ourselves in healthy ways - is to start working on forgiving ourselves for being little kids who were wounded by being raised by people who were wounded when they were little kids. {Play}

This 4 part series on Dysfunctional Relationship Dynamics is followed by a nine part series of articles on Healthy Relationships Behavior.

Codependent Relationships Dynamics part 3 - Codependent & Counterdependent Behavior

"I spent most of my life doing the Serenity prayer backwards, that is, trying to change the external things over which I had no control - other people and life events mostly - and taking no responsibility (except shaming and blaming myself) for my own internal process - over which I can have some degree of control. Having some control is not a bad thing; trying to control something or somebody over which I have no control is what is dysfunctional."

Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls by Robert Burney

Attempts to control are a reaction to fear. It is what we do to try to protect ourselves emotionally. Some of us (classic codependent behavior) tried to control through people pleasing, being a chameleon, wearing a mask, dancing to other people's tunes. Some of us (classic counterdependent behavior) protected ourselves/tried to be in control by pretending that we didn't need other people. Either way we were living life in reaction to our childhood wounds - we were not making clear, conscious choices. (If our choice is to be in an abusive relationship or not to be in a relationship at all, that is not a choice - that is reacting between two extremes that are symptoms of our childhood wounds.)

Both classic codependent and classic counterdependent behaviors are part of the condition/disease of codependency in my definition. They are just two different extremes in the spectrum of behavioral defense systems that the ego adapts in early childhood. The ways in which we got hurt the most in childhood felt to our egos like a threat to survival, and it built up defenses to protect us.

While the classic codependent had their sense of self crushed (it is 'self' destroying to feel that love is conditional on pleasing others, living up to the expectations of others - even if our parents never raised their voices to us) in childhood to the extent that confrontation (owning anger, setting boundaries, taking the chance of hurting someone, etc.) feels life threatening, so the classic counterdependent feels like vulnerability (intimacy, getting close to/being dependent on other people) is life threatening.

Both the classic counterdependent and codependent patterns are reactive codependent traits that are out of balance and dysfunctional. We do need other people - but to allow our self worth to be determined in reaction to other people is giving power away and setting ourselves up to be victims. It is very important to own that we have worth as the unique, special being that each of us is - not dependent on how other people react to us.

This is a very difficult process for those of us who have classic 'codependent' patterns of trying very hard to get other people to like us, of feeling that we are defined by how others think of us and treat us, of being people pleasers and martyrs. Classic codependent behavior involves focusing completely on the other (when a codependent dies someone else's life passes in review.) Having no self except as defined in relationship to the other. This is dishonest and dysfunctional. It sets us up to be victims - and causes one to not only be unable to get one's needs met, but to not even be aware that it is right to have needs.

A classically codependent person, when asked about themselves, will reply by talking about the other. Obviously, before someone with this type of behavioral defense can experience any self-growth, they have to first start opening up to the idea that they have a self. The process of owning self is frustrating and confusing. The concept of having boundaries is foreign and bewildering. It is an ongoing process that takes years. It unfolds in stages. There is always another level of the onion to peel. So, for someone whose primary pattern is classically codependent, the next level of growth will always involve owning self on some deeper level. A very important part of this process is owning the right to be angry about the way other's behavior has impacted our lives - starting in childhood.

Classic counterdependent behavior focuses completely on the self and builds huge walls to keep others out. It is hard for those of us who exhibit classically 'counterdependent' behavior patterns to even consider that we may be codependent. We have lived our lives trying to prove that we don't need others, that we are independent and strong. The counterdependent is the other extreme of the spectrum. If our behavior patterns have been primarily counterdependent it means that we were wounded so badly in childhood that in order to survive we had to convince ourselves that we don't need other people, that it is never safe to get close to other people.

Each of us has our own spectrum of behavioral defenses to protect us from being hurt emotionally. We can be codependent in one relationship and counterdependent in another - or we can swing from co to counter - within the same relationship. Often, someone who is primarily counterdependent will get involved with someone who is even more counterdependent and then will act out the codependent role in that particular relationship - the same can happen with two people with primarily codependent patterns.

Both the classic codependent patterns and the classic counterdependent patterns are behavioral defenses, strategies, designed to protect us from being abandoned. One tries to protect against abandonment by avoiding confrontation and pleasing the other - while the second tries to avoid abandonment by pretending we don't need anyone else. Both are dysfunctional and dishonest. {Play}