When Pain Masquerades as ‘Crazy’ In Relationships


Even those closest to us can act in confusing and painful ways. Lisa Brookes Kift offers some insight on what might really be going on.


“Crazy” relationship behavior might not be what you think.  If you really care about your partner but are being put off by his/her behavior, consider the possibility there’s more there than meets the eye.

I don’t like using the word “crazy” when it comes to labeling people’s behavior but many use the term to describe when they are with someone who is acting in ways they don’t understand.  It can be easy to leap to a negative conclusion when you experience boundary violations, desperation or intense need.  Sometimes pain can masquerade as crazy and if you care about your partner and have the inclination to dig deeper, consider what this might really be about.

If you have experienced a partner who acts “crazy” in relationship with you, it is highly possible that he or she carries wounds that have never been worked through and tend to get activated in the same setting in which they developed – intimate relationships.

From the time we are born, we begin to develop belief systems about who we are, how others relate to us and whether the world is generally a safe place.  These learnings usually begin in the quality of relationship with our parents or primary caregivers. Generally speaking, if you felt secure in the nest in which you came from, you’ll likely feel fairly secure in your sense of self, feel people can be relied upon and that there are many options for you in life.  If you did not feel secure in your family of origin you might feel uncertainty about your inherent value, find it difficult to trust that people won’t eventually leave you or let you down and the world is a scary place.

If you have experienced a partner who acts “crazy” in relationship with you, it is highly possible that he or she carries wounds that have never been worked through and tend to get activated in the same setting in which they developed – intimate relationships. Their attachment style was likely anxious which can be reflected in behaviors labeled as “crazy” by the layman.  There are other attachment styles that show up differently but we will stay with the more anxious style here.


Basically, secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.  – Amir Levine, MD

When a child doesn’t receive adequate attunement and messages that things are okay from their primary attachment relationships, their nervous systems can be wired for relationship fear, encoded in the neural circuitry of the brain becoming attachment patterns.  This child can become an adult that struggles with affect regulation, a tendency for hypervigilance and emotional reactivity in relationships.

Consider the following situations that might be mistaken for “crazy” but are actually understandable responses to relationship trauma of the past:

  • He or she is demanding, possessive or clingy with you.
  • He or she behaves as if they are constantly emotionally hungry like a bottomless pit that can’t be filled.
  • He or she is highly suspicious and struggles to trust you.
  • He or she excessively reaches out for contact when apart, particularly if there is no response by you.
  • He or she sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy to support his/her story that you will “eventually leave” by pushing you away.


If any of the above resonates, perhaps you will begin to be able to reframe your “crazy” story to one of compassion for a wounded other.  And perhaps not.  It can be challenging to help your partner work through the issues at hand but if you have the desire and inclination to stick it out, change can occur.  Secure attachment can be attained and the original wounds can be healed through your relationship. Talk to your partner and let them know you are concerned there are deeper issues at hand and you’d like to help him/her though it to have the best relationship possible.  It will require patience and likely, support.  If they have some ability to be self-reflective and are ready and willing to dig deep, there are many possible rewards to be reaped together.


Photo: Sodanie Chea/Flickr
Originally Published: Life and Love Toolbox


About Lisa Brookes Kift

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is a therapist in private practice working with individuals and couples in Marin County, CA.  She is a frequent consultant for the media including CNN, HuffingtonPost, Shape, MensHealth and others.  Lisa is the creator of LoveAndLifeToolbox.com with tools to nurture your emotional and relationship health.  She is passionate about helping people find security and well-being within themselves - and with others.  Lisa is the author of The Marriage Refresher Course Workbook for Couples and The Premarital Counseling Workbook for Couples.   She is also a mom, a wife, and a 1st grade boy’s baseball coach.  You can find Lisa’s emotional and relationship health nuggets on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. This is a very interesting article … thanks for writing it, Lisa!

    Deep emotional wounds are very difficult to weigh and measure. It’s nearly impossible to understand the full gravity of a person’s “craziness” until it’s too late to make changes. I agree the person with the “crazy” must be willing to get intervention and to do the hard work of healing but often they are so busy surviving there is no room for anything else. Therapy would seem irrational to them because often they don’t recognize they have any problem at all. They view their partner as the one who causes all of the strife in the relationship and therefore is the one who needs the intervention.

    I really appreciate Skippy’s comment: “Compassion for the other must be balanced against wisdom for the self.”

    This is a very good point; one which deserves a tremendous amount of consideration. Yet, it is difficult to clearly define. In a relationship the one who has no “crazy” in the beginning is often just as “crazy” at the end due to the emotional wounds he/she endures throughout the course of the relationship. The line of severity is very obscure and difficult to evaluate. Often it has been crossed long before it’s recognized. Once it is crossed it is very difficult to find resolution especially when so much is at stake. Self-assessment is not often an option when the person without the “crazy” isn’t even sure how the “crazy” is affecting the one who is afflicted with it.

    It’s easier to say, “Walk away. Enough is enough!” than it is to actually follow through and commit to end the relationship. And I wonder if that is just contributing to the never-ending cycle of the wounds. At what point does one decide to call it quits? What is the emotional cost of quitting? Would there ever be a point when the person is thankful they got out or would they always wonder if they could have done more? I’m just not sure. How does one discover wisdom for the self and know full well it is the true course of action to pursue?

    • How does one discover wisdom for the self and know full well it is the true course of action to pursue?

      If you are stuck in White Knight land – being addicted to being the helper for someone else who is perennially crazy – you need to have an epiphany about your own addiction.

      I’m using the term “addiction” deliberately, because that’s the term you’ll hear if you go to an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meeting, for the families of alcoholics and narcotics addicts respectively.

      The other term you’ll hear a lot is “co-dependent”. In fact, my guess is that you’ve heard this term already.

      But in the midst of your own experience of co-dependence, you’re ability to perceive clearly and evaluate your options wisely is severely compromised. That’s why you need someone who gets it to walk you through some sort of process of your own healing and recovery of sanity – a bunch of peers, a good therapist, or maybe both.

      I’m not a bible thumper myself, but there’s a good line in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: “In a multitude of counselors there is wisdom”.

      Good luck!

  2. Pain doesn’t “masquerade” as crazy. Pain – deep, unhealed, open psychic wound pain – shows up as crazy.

    Let’s talk about a very specific and common example: Borderline personality disorder, often known by its acronym BPD.

    People with BPD have deep, unhealed, open psychic wounds. That’s why they act crazy. If your partner acts crazy on a regular basis, you need to read up on BPD – stat.

    And while compassion from the non-BPD partner is important, it’s more important that the BPD partner takes responsibility for fixing themselves, with the help of a very qualified professional.

    Personality disorders, generally, are EXTREMELY difficult to heal. Most people with personality disorders simply will not do the long, hard work necessary to get the healing they need. Many therapists won’t even treat people with BPD, or other personality disorders, for that very reason.

    So the non-BPD person needs to do a serious relational and moral calculation here: To borrow from Kenny Rogers, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.

    Compassion for the other must be balanced against wisdom for the self.

    Since this is ostensibly a site for men: Men, in particular, are not on this earth to be any BPD woman’s white knight. Any man who thinks he is needs to go to White Knights Anonymous.

    • Been There says:

      Thank you for this answer! You cannot “help” your partner. The only thing you can do is provide “support” while they do their own inner work. It’s a dealbreaker for me if the “crazy” person just keeps on with the ego-clinging to victim hood, drama, etc. rather than seeing a therapist, reading a book on learned optimism or doing the hard work of meditation. You want me in your life, then make an effort to heal your wounds. I’m not going to do all of the emotional heavy lifting while you continue your spiral.

      • Been There…well said. There must be a line between supporting and attempting to “fix.” There must be an effort by the individual to help themselves. They have to initially even be able to see they have a role in the relationship struggles and if they don’t, it’s kind of done.

    • I agree. A person suffering from borderline personality disorder has pain and trauma that runs incredibly deep…a seemingly bottomless pit. The term “masquerade” was intended to demonstrate that what appears one way (“crazy”) might benefit from a deeper look if the relationship means something to them. This does not mean staying in an abusive, chaotic relationship with the hope that love will eventually heal is a good choice. I am primarily speaking to the many out there who might be in relationship with partners with attachment wounds who have the potential to heal if given the love, opportunity, education and likely, support.

  3. When you know something is wrong in your heart, but choose to believe it is really okay, it makes you crazy. It may not always be intentional; in fact, most often it is done out of fear.

    I just started re-reading “How Men Make Women Crazy (and Vice Versa): Ending the Madness”. It’s CRAZY how that word defines pain in our culture. Wow. Thanks so much, Lisa! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your perspective on this.

    • Thanks Ariel. Yes it can be a “crazymaking” experience when your heart and mind are in conflict. And in some cases the behavior of the one in pain (appearing “crazy”) is just too much for the person in relationship with them to tolerate when considering personal boundaries and self-care. There are people whose pain runs so deep they really need professional support to be able to address their deep wounds…until they are in a better place to give and receive love from a calm, regulated place.

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