(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.
That’s Bert at left. No, we won’t say which.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on control and relationships.
Anyone who wants a healthy relationship must struggle with two questions:
How can I have you without losing me?
How can I have me without losing you?
They’re not questions anyone can answer, finally. No matter. We have to struggle with them anyway.
Why? Because they represent two essential needs each of us brings to any relationship worth the name:
Connection and freedom.
Security and integrity (a.k.a., personal wholeness).
Acceptance by another, and self-acceptance.
A real partner, and at the same time, a real self.
Most people I meet are convinced they can’t have both at the same time. Most came from families — alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional — unable teach them how to balance connection with freedom.
What they learned instead was that having one meant losing the other. That winning love and approval from their parents, for example, often meant sacrificing important pieces of themselves, like the freedom to disagree or express feelings.
The family is where each of us finds our own personal answer to the two questions. The answer we find grows into a crucial (though usually unconscious) part of our basic view of life and relationships, what I call our Plan A.
Some of us decide, “Well, since I obviously can’t have both, I’ll have me, and to hell with you.” Shrinks call this the narcissistic answer.
Others of us decide, “Well, since I obviously can’t have both, I’ll have you, and to hell with me.” This is the infamous codependent answer.
So the narcissistic partner says “Me first,” and the codependent replies, “Yes, dear.”
And the two personality types end up together with remarkable regularity. (Remember Archie and Edith Bunker?)
Watching such couples interact, one is struck by their weird predictability. In almost every situation the narcissist finds a way to say “Me first,” and the codependent finds a way to reply “Yes, dear.” It’s as if they sat down and signed a contract at the start of the relationship.
And in a way, they did. Their complementary answers to the two questions probably account, in large part, for why they felt attracted to each other.
In any case, the vast majority of couples I see for marital therapy follow this pattern — so many that I felt the need to give them their own name. I call them split-level relationships.
Split level relationships work for a while, but almost always break down. Eventually one or both of the partners realizes that they’re just not getting what they need.
But narcissists tend to be unhappy too. They often complain of loneliness, no sense of connection to their codependent partner, or admit guiltily to feeling a lack of respect or affection. They often feel impatient, frustrated, irritated or resentful. Sometimes they drink, drug, overeat, rage or cheat, and then feel bad about that.
All this happens because this pattern is essentially unhealthy. Familiar, sure. Comfortable, even, in the way the predictable may come to feel. But not healthy. The unbalanced answers on which split-level relationship is based simply cannot fill the emotional needs of two adults. So both partners end up feeling deprived, often without understanding why.
What does recovery for such a couple look like?
Put simply, a sort of role reversal. Codependent partners must practice standing up, asserting themselves. Narcissistic partners must practice stepping down, deferring.
Not easy for either of them.
Just necessary to life on the same level.
In a relationship, takers operate from the belief that “You are responsible for my feelings of pain and joy. It is your job to make sure that I am okay.”
Caretakers, on the other hand, operate from the belief that “I am responsible for your feelings. When I do it right, you will be happy and then I will receive the approval I need.”
Another take on the narcissist/codependent dynamic by Margaret Paul, PhD., who calls them Takers and caretakers.
And finally (just for fun*) two free self-tests:
*Note the disclaimer at the bottom of each.