You’re in a place that makes no sense, and you can’t find your way out. It’s called … crazy.
For thinking that my love could hold you
I’m crazy for trying
And crazy for crying
And I’m crazy for loving you
—Patsy Cline, Crazy
Some of us have traveled to—or through—the torturous twilight zone of living with a person who perceives the world differently (a polite euphemism for a disordered personality), and others have watched friends or family members disappear into the darkness—an alternate universe from which there is no evident means of escape. The entrance is through the wormhole (more on how we get sucked in to come in another article), and the exit is made invisible by a confluence of factors and an abundance of fog. Below are five reasons we fail to find our way out of dysfunction and back to the land of the healthy relationship.
1. We love the person we want our partner to be—and believe he or she is capable of being. This is the fantastical wish-desire that keeps us trapped in dysfunctional relationships, often for long stretches of our life. We formed an image of our partner, usually in the early stages of courtship, only to discover later that the person we saw then has vanished or never actually existed. In some cases, dysfunctional partners assume appealing disguises to lure us, then later shed them once we’re hooked. In others, we blindly project our own vision of perfection onto a partner (who, surprise, turns out to be human) and opt to live in delusion to avoid the disappointment of facing the truth. Either way, we remain eternally hopeful, latching on to the tiniest signs of change or improvement to indulge the fantasy that happiness is right around the bend. It’s one thing to encourage a partner to grow and develop and to hold someone we love dearly to a high standard of behavior. It’s entirely another to make it our life’s mission—and sacrifice our own happiness—to “help” someone become a person he or she wasn’t and will never be.
2. Our partner makes us think we’re the crazy one. Call it what you want: mirroring, transference, turnabout, or psychological manipulation. In virtually every dysfunctional relationship, the primary (or the one I call controlling) dysfunctional partner tries to convince the other partner that he or she is the root cause of conflict and must get help to restore harmony. The truth is that both partners have roles in the dysfunctional drama. But the reason this tactic is so devastatingly effective is that the partner accused of being crazy actually believes the accuser and begins to dismantle his or her own psyche—not in the healthy way that opens the path to growth, but in the destructive way that leads to intense self-criticism. “If only I could give more. If only I could love better. If only I could be more supportive.” This narrative of inadequacy eventually gets internalized, to the point where the partner doing the criticizing doesn’t have to say a word. We do all their work for them.
3. Our partner accuses us of the things they’re guilty of doing. What’s the best way to prevent an enemy from finding your weaknesses? Distraction. In dysfunctional relationships, where truth becomes the ultimate enemy, this means shifting your partner’s focus to his or own issues (real or imaginary) and away from yours. This tactic takes two forms. First, there is the flip, in which, for example, a partner who withholds attention and affection accuses you of doing the same, and blames his or her distance and unavailability on something you said or didn’t say, or did or didn’t do. “How can I be affectionate to someone who doesn’t love me?” “What do you mean, I don’t love you?” “Well, if you loved me, you wouldn’t have spent an hour talking to your girlfriend on the phone.” “But I hadn’t spoken to her in two years, and you were busy playing your video game like you always do.” Sound familiar? The other tactic is the pre-emptive strike. Your partner makes a mistake or does something hurtful, and before you can address it, accuses you of something awful. You become so busy defending yourself that your partner’s action gets set aside or ignored.
4. We think we can cure our partner. Are you a psychiatrist? A psychologist? A social worker? A nurse? What qualifications do you have to treat mental illness? It’s likely your partner is using you as medicine instead of seeking appropriate professional help, draining your well and depleting your energy, relying on pushing you under water day after day to be able to stay afloat. Choose whichever metaphor you like; the unfortunate truth is you’re being used, drained, or sunk. You’ve deluded yourself into believing that you—and only you—have the power to help your partner, and you’ve coupled this with the fear that if you stop helping, he or she will collapse or worse, die or take his or her own life. You don’t dare remove your finger from the dyke. You may indeed have healing powers, but you can’t heal someone who refuses healing. After a while it becomes clear—to everyone but you—that your strongest power is the one that weakens you the most, the power of self-sacrifice, the power to shrink yourself to nothing and pretend you are nobody to keep your partner’s ego on life support.
5. We get off on feeling superior and sane. If you’re stuck in a dysfunctional relationship, any good therapist you see will ask you two questions—two questions you don’t want to answer. The first is, “What is your contribution?” and the second is, “What are you getting out of staying?” Your contribution is likely to be complex, and it may take you some to admit your own flaws, triggers, predispositions, and unhealthy behaviors. They may not be on the same scale as your partner’s, but you are still participating in the dysfunctional dance. What you are getting out of staying will also differ from person to person, but one common payoff for people who stay with “crazy” partners is what I call the relativity benefit. You use your partner’s dysfunctional behavior to reassure yourself that you’re healthy and sane. This tends to occur in the latter part of the relationship cycle, in which you’ve gone from hoping your partner will become someone else to demonizing your partner for who he or she is. “I’m the sane one” gives you a free pass that enables you to justify a wide range of unhealthy behaviors and covers a multitude of sins. You become your own judge and jury, and because you’ve now discounted your partner’s opinions, you no longer have to listen to them. I’m a believer in the grain of truth theory, which means there’s a nugget somewhere in the dysfunctional partner’s ravings. But once you indulge in the self-righteous self-justification that you hate so much in your partner, you begin to lose your moral authority.
So how do we leave? If only we could call Mr. Scott on our transponders and ask him to please beam us back up to normal. Ironically, we do often have to atomize our own personas before we can reassemble them into a healthy whole. The way out of a dysfunctional relationship is slow and painful. First, you have to step back. Detach yourself from the roles you and your partner play and look rationally at behavior between two people. Are you with a miserable, disrespectful person who happens to be your husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, or wife? If the answer is yes, start to recognize the patterns. Identify your role in them and separate it from your partner’s. Determine to break the patterns by changing your behavior. This won’t be easy, and you’ll need to prepare yourself for unpleasant consequences—not just your partner’s anger but the end of the relationship. Hold your ground and maintain your boundaries. Make the issue your partner’s behavior, not his or her personality. Don’t label, and don’t judge or condemn. Keep the focus on yourself and your own emotional health. If you do the work on that exclusively, you’ll eventually find yourself back home.
This article and others by Thomas G. Fiffer are featured in his book, Why It Can’t Work: Detaching From Dysfunctional Relationships to Make Room for True Love.