The split-level relationship

There are two questions with which you must struggle if you want a healthy relationship:

How can I have you without losing me?

How can I have me without losing you?

You can’t really answer these questions, just struggle with them.

But it’s the struggling that matters.

Why?

Because they represent two essential needs each of us brings to any relationship:

Connection and freedom.

Acceptance by another person, and self-acceptance.

A real partner, and at the same time, a real self.

Most people I know are convinced you can’t have both at the same time.

Most came from families — alcoholic, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional — unable to teach them to balance connection with freedom.

What they learned instead was that having one meant losing the other.  That winning love and approval from parents, for example, meant sacrificing important parts of themselves, like the freedom to express feelings or take care of their own needs.

The family that raised us is where each of us learned our own personal answer to the two questions. And the answer we learned grew into a crucial (though mostly unconscious) part of our basic view of life and relationships, what I call our Plan A.  

Some of us decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have me, and to hell with you.”  Shrinks call this the narcissistic answer.

Others decide, “Since I 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 stunning regularity.  (Remember Archie and Edith Bunker?)

Watching such couples interact, one is struck by their predictability.  In every situation the narcissist finds some way to say “Me first,” and the codependent to reply “Yes, dear.”  It’s as if long ago they sat down and signed a contract.

Which 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 couples counseling 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 partners realize they’re not getting what they need.

Codependents usually notice first.  When that partner is female this can lead to the syndrome called the Walk-Away Wife.

But narcissists tend to be unhappy too. They often complain of loneliness, lack of connection to their codependent partner, or an absence of respect or affection.  They may feel impatient, frustrated, irritated, resentful. Sometimes they drink, drug, overeat, rage or cheat, and then feel bad about that.

All this happens because split-level relationship is inherently unhealthy.

Familiar, sure.  Comfortable, even, in the way the predictable may come to feel.

But not healthy.  The unbalanced answers on which a 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 develop courage and practice standing up, asserting themselves.  Narcissistic partners must develop empathy and practice stepping down, giving instead of grabbing.

Easy?  No.  Not easy for either of them.

Just necessary to life on the same level.

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