What Are Dysfunctional Relationships
Almost every couple develops relationship dances.
Dances are interactions based on traits and behaviors that are repeated in a loop through the years.
There advantages to relationship dances, such as familiarity and building a shared meaning.
Relationship dances can be healthy and helpful. For example if every time that one partner is down one cheers the other up, that’s a positive dance.
The disadvantage is that they can become inflexible, and potentially even constrict our personalities at times that we are growing or want to change -or that we should change-. And that’s when some partners have affairs: to try on new roles.
And of course, some of these dances are unhealthy and bring unhappiness in the relationship.
The Ugly Side of Dances
Harville Hendrix in Getting The Love You Want explains that we naturally seek partners who are different than we are.
The opposite traits are attractive in the beginning. But in a deteriorating relationship they start to annoy us, they grow more extreme and they exacerbate the relationship problems.
Dysfunctional Relationship Dances
In the dysfunctional relationship dances the partner in the relationship have their personality defined and validated by the other partner’s role.
This is a list of the some of the most common and dysfunctional relationship dances:
1. Child and Parent
In a child/parent relationship the parent is the partner who has the highest authority. But not only in the relationship, but also in the outside world.
The parent may have a good career, or an authoritative position or hold major responsibilities, and he is hold in high self esteem by society and by the couple’s social circle.
The child admires his partner, but also resents him.
The parent in exchange envies the freedom and freewheeling spirit of the child.
Albeit these roles were attractive to each other in the beginning, the couple might grow uncomfortable being in a child/parent relationship. It might feel incestuous, or we might feel our partner is not up to our level and/or too different.
It can be the case that the parent is older. But it’s not always the case. And sometimes it can also happen the older partner is the baby.
Vasco Rossi, a famous Italian rocker (yes, famous only in Italy :D), sings:
(…) and maybe you’re right, when you say that I’m a child… And you’re 20 years younger
The movie Mrs Doubtfire is such an example. But Miranda / Steve relationship is even more obvious:
2. Saint and Sinner
In the saint and sinner dysfunctional relationship dance there’s a “good” partner and “bad” and wild one. And the bad one is busy reforming, taming and trying to teach the wild one about the “normal” life they would like to share.
She might be the party girl and he might be the guy bringing her headache tablets the day after. Or he might be the philanderer and she the one trying to make him monogamous.
But it’s more codependence in the Saint and Sinner, and it replicates the parent/child relationship of teenager years.
The sinner rebels, the saint is watchful.
3. Authority and Rebel
In the authority and rebel dance one partner is strong, judgmental and intimidating. And the other tries to carve his own space by resorting to subterfuge and small acts of rebellion.
The rebel sometimes learned to act behind their parent’s back as a child. When they grow up, instead of facing their partner openly and voicing their opinion, they might say yes and pretend to go along with it. Only to then to what they want to do when the partner is not watching.
This is a very bad dynamic that stifles the development of a solid emotional bond. They are also very prone to affairs and cheating because they rebel is used to hide and to do small act of sabotaging.
My father and my mother often tell the story of my mother’s smoking. My father was in the navy and used to gather all the free cigarettes he didn’t smoke. One day he picked the stack to give ti some friend. And there and then he realized…. They were all empty.
Instead of coming clean of her smoking habits and risking to face a judgemental husband, she smoked behind his back.
4. Demand-Procrastinator Dance
This is very common and possibly one of the least destructive of this list.
One partner asks to do a task and the other puts it off. Often the delay tactic results in argument where the request becomes a command and the put off becomes a full blown resistance.
Often the one demands and the man withdrawals.
The Break Up (2006), is a movie featuring a deamnder and a procrastinator. In the beginning of this video you can see an example
5. Chaser and Runner
One of the most common dysfunctional relationship dances is that of pursuer and runner.
The pursues, often the woman, seeks an emotional connection or a discussion about relationship issues. And the man withdraws emotionally or runs away physically.
Watch out: this cycle doesn’t usually go on for ever. It usually sets off a vicious cycle that makes the relationship worse and worse.
As long as the wife keeps chasing, she’s still invested in the relationship. But eventually she will stop chasing after him, that means she mentally checked out.
And a break up soon follows suit.
6. Boxer and Avoider
Gottman talks about this situation when he describes the “fighting styles” of different couples.
The boxer is the partner who is a conflict engager. He raises his voice, uses barbed words and overall tries to get a raise out of the avoider.
The avoider is a conflict avoider though, and shies away from any confrontation or tension. The boxer feels there’s no intimacy in the relationship.
From a cultural perspective, the stereotype is that boxers tend to be from Latin or southern European cultures while the conflict avoiders tend to be from more withdrawn cultures.
7. Reminder and Forgetful
In the reminder-forgetful dance, one partner is responsible and detail oriented, while the other appears a lazy slacker.
It’s similar to the demander and procrastinator, but the demander is not necessarily precise, while the responsible is all about “doing it proper”.
The demander feels the forgetful is untrustworthy and a slob. The forgetful feels the reminder is an annoying square.
Fixing Dysfunctional Relationships
You are not stuck in any position or situation in life but it’s up to you where you will move and where you will end up.
The same is true for dysfunctional relationships: it’s wholly up to you to stay stuck in them or to transform them into healthy and invigorating relationships.
The simplest step is to start meeting halfway. There’s a strong element in dysfunctional relationship dances where the partners expect the other to be extreme and they automatically go on the other extreme end just to start with an advantage. Or sometimes just to annoy their partners.
Instead of falling for these hollow power games, start meeting half way.
- The partner who push, backs off a bit
- The partner who retreats, meets halfway and show more proactiveness
When you moderate yourself, you also make it easier for your partner to moderate themselves.
Dysfunctional relationship dances entail each partner occupying a different extreme. And bickering to each other to make the other partner more like they are.
- Cliff Notarius and Howard Markman ( 1993), We can work it out: Making sense of marital conflict, New York: Putnam
- Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail , The Seven Principles to Make Marriage Work, Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage
- Annette Lawson ( 1988), Adultery: An analysis of love and betrayal, New York: Basic Books