"I feel like I'm always walking on eggshells with Rosalyn," my client Sean admitted during our recent Skype session. "I hate that we can't talk about problems in our relationship. As soon as something comes up that isn't going her way, she attacks me and blames me. I don't know what to do."
Sean is not alone. I hear this over and over from my clients. One of the most common reasons for this issue is that people in relationships often fall into a toxic, caretaker-taker dynamic. What does this mean? One of the partners — "the taker" — is needy and demanding, using anger and blame to get what they believe they need from the other person. The other partner — "the caretaker" — is also controlling, but in a much more covert way.
The caretaking partner often sacrifices his/her needs to try to please the taker in the hopes of gaining approval or simply avoiding conflict. Not only does this system not work, but the toxicity of the dynamic worsens with time. The more the caretaker gives up his/her needs for the sake of the taker, the more the taker demands (and ultimately loses respect for the caretaker).
But back to Sean: what happened next? First, I explained this dynamic to him, as it had become immediately apparent to us both that he and Rosalyn were operating from the taker-caretaker system. Sean is a "nice guy" who often focuses solely on pleasing Rosalyn, and walks on eggshells with regard to his own needs.
People often fall into unhealthy cycles in their relationships as a result of certain childhood dynamics. In Sean's case, he learned to be a caretaker from his narcissistic mother who used anger and guilt to control him in his childhood. Instead of becoming like his mother, he became more like his pacifying father, always trying to avoid conflict. Rosalyn, by contrast, grew up with an angry, controlling father and a people-pleasing mother. She become more like her father, demanding that Sean meet her needs and using anger and blame when she feels empty inside. In their system, Sean is like Rosalyn's mother and Rosalyn is like Sean's mother. Of course, their dynamic is mutually reinforcing: they keep triggering each other into the patterns they learned as children.
As intricate as this dynamic sounds, healing from it is indeed possible. Either person can begin by recognizing their role in this dysfunctional system. Since Sean was the one seeking help from me, he felt motivated to initiate changes. I helped Sean see that anytime he engaged with Rosalyn when she was angry and demanding, he was "feeding" their negative dynamic.
Because Rosalyn's feelings were coming from a fundamental feeling of self-abandonment, Sean's actions were never right and/or never enough. If he hugged her, she blamed him for not hugging her enough. If he communicated his feelings of anger to her, they spiraled into a huge fight. If he walked away to give her space, she followed him, screaming and trying to re-engage him in a fight. In short, any engagement, any attention — even fighting — "fed" Rosalyn's insecurities.
When they would fight like this, Sean found the only positive thing that he could do was to leave the house for a brief time, sometimes taking the children with him. He told Rosalyn that he would be back later and that he hoped she was calm by then. Luckily, Rosalyn learned over time that going after Sean when she was feeling badly wasn't going to work any longer. His decision to change his own behavior interrupted their pattern, and prompted her to realize her own need to shift her behavior. She finally started to get help to learn how to manage her own feelings with love and compassion, to take responsibility for her own feelings, rather than continue to depend heavily on Sean as her single caretaker.
It took time, but Sean and Rosalyn successfully healed their relationship. Sean became willing to let Rosalyn get angry at him rather than avoiding communication for the sake of keeping her calm; he became willing to "lose" her to her anger, rather than continue to lose himself by sublimating his needs. This change in communication proved to be a turning point in their relationship. Sean had to work hard to reach a point where he valued himself enough to no longer allow himself to be treated badly, and no longer take responsibility for Rosalyn's feelings. When he reached this point, he stopped caretaking.
When one person heals their end of a taking-caretaking system, the relationship is literally forced to change. Sometimes it gets better and the relationships heals, and sometimes it gets worse and the relationship ends. This explains why Sean had to become willing to lose Rosalyn rather than continue to lose himself. Fortunately, their relationship got better, and Rosalyn was able to examine her own contributions to the negative dynamic upon being forced to realize her effect on Sean.
In all cases, however, walking on eggshells in a relationship is more precarious in the long run than we might think. It might mean you're sacrificing self-love for the sake of avoiding conflict. It's important to remember that healing takes work, even conflict sometimes.
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