Compassionate, loving relationships seem to be the crucible of our lives. We desperately want to feel loved, needed, and close to another, and yet at the same time, quite often the experience terrifies us.
Moreover, coming from challenged or even dysfunctional patterns of intimacy, we are often not equipped to create what we want in relationships — or what we think we want.
In their new book, Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships, Mark B. Borg, Grant H. Brenner, and Daniel Berry provide the experience, knowledge, and tools to help us understand and navigate what is often the most complicated and confusing part of our lives and, in the process, develop the compassion, empowerment and mutuality that define resilient relationships.
“We have found in our work that there is a common but seldom-articulated reality for many people: frightened as we may be of rejection and loneliness, many of us are even more frightened of what may happen if we’ve discovered and accepted ourselves as we really are,” Borg, Brenner, and Berry write.
“An invitation to accept care is also an invitation to empathize with our own history of love and loss,” the authors write.
While giving reveals our potency and aliveness, accepting care exposes our vulnerability and the anxiety that comes with it. And yet as much as we may be consciously aware of the energy expenditure of our actions in the relationship, we rarely consider the ways in which declining the caretaking and giving efforts of our partner deprive them of a feeling of value.
The authors write, “When we do not accept, when we reject what others offer, we do not acknowledge or affirm the value of what it is they have to give.”
In what is known as an irrelationship — also the title of the authors’ first book — people develop dysfunctional patterns based on their primary relationships and then carry these patterns into their adult relationships.
“Children who grow up in households that discourage spontaneity and reciprocity are likely to grow into adults who demand carefully scripted romantic relationships,” write the authors.
The investment that partners in irrelationships make is essentially to avoid having a relationship that includes spontaneity, passion, and authentic vulnerability.
What often emerges are caretaking patterns characterized by implicit agreements: I diligently provide for you but feel resentful about it; I accept your caretaking but feel unheard and unable to express what I really need.
However, emotions, regardless of how systematically we attempt to extinguish them, do not vanish.
“Sooner or later,” the authors write, “some experience apparently unrelated to our denied feelings will trigger an overwhelming emotional response that seems to come out of nowhere.”
Yet these experiences can also open the door for change. By allowing compassionate empathy to disable our avoidance of vulnerability — and the patterns that define it — and exploring our old ideas, feelings, and needs about relationships, we can develop what is known as an “earned secure attachment.”
Here, the authors offer several techniques, such as GRAFTS, which uses the descriptors good, right, absent, funny, tense, and smart to help reveal characteristic roles and rules that we may have inherited from childhood.
“It is the process of giving and receiving care that forms the foundation of relationship sanity, which is the best way to work through irrelationship and the key to building and maintaining healthy relationships in our life,” write the authors.
While irrelationship may be an attempt to protect us from vulnerability with those close to us, we can learn to practice compassionate empathy.
“Compassionate empathy,” write the authors, “opens us up to intimacy — genuinely knowing, experiencing, and caring for other human beings to whom we are drawn and vice versa. It’s a reciprocal process that makes the co-ownership of a relationship possible.”
This co-ownership is also understood as what the authors call self-other help. In self-other help, we learn healthy interdependence and the shared awareness of how individual tendencies join to create either an irrelationship pattern or relationship sanity.
Also known as the 40-20-40 rule, where 20 percent represents what partners create together and 40 percent represents what they individually contribute, we learn to accept our partner as they are without undermining their individuality or failing to take responsibility for our own.
Nurturing this middle ground in relationships is not just the foundation of healthy interdependence and relationship sanity, but also how we together discover unhealthy patterns, repair what is broken, empower ourselves and our partners, find alternative patterns that bring us more connection, joy, and growth, and cultivate mutuality and togetherness.
Drawing on their extensive experience, Borg, Brenner, and Berry offer a roadmap — complete with exercises, techniques, and assessment charts — to help us better understand how to define, create, and cultivate a deep and authentic connection with our partners, and in the process overcome our own barriers to intimacy.
Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships
Central Recovery Press, October 2018
Paperback, 264 pages