by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LCPC
The most frequently held belief by clients that I work with, particularly in Couple’s Therapy, is the belief that our partners should know what we need without us having to ask. If I could label one belief in Couple’s Therapy as the most problematic it would be this. My response is always the same: if our partners were us that might be true. If our partner has the same personality type, the same love languages, the same schemas, the same attachment style, and the same overall preferences, desires, and needs, then they might know what we need without us asking. However, the odds of that being the case are slim to none. Our partners are wildly different than we are based on those factors. The problem with having this belief boils down to expectations. If we expect certain things then we are inevitably disappointed and angry when our expectations aren’t met. Having this expectation of our partners is unfair. The most empathetic and attuned partner is still bound to fail to meet our needs, despite their best intentions, if we aren’t willing to communicate what we want and need because they simply aren’t us.
The most empathetic and attuned partner is still bound to fail to meet our needs, despite their best intentions, if we aren’t willing to communicate what we want and need because they simply aren’t us.
Regularly working with individuals and couples in therapy allows me a front-row seat to witnessing repetitive patterns that get in the way of people getting what they want out of their relationships. When it comes to problematic relationship styles that I see in therapy, there are three ways that people tend to show up in their relationships. Conceptually speaking, people that I work with tend to always fall into one of these three styles. It might be helpful to picture a continuum with one end being extremely self-sacrificing people with a lot of empathy and the other end being self-absorbed people with little to no empathy. In the middle of the spectrum are healthy individuals, not self-sacrificing and not self-absorbed. Individuals raised in families where there was not a lot of emotional attunement from parents, due to emotional immaturity on the parent’s part, often end up further to one side or the other. Many times the marriage in these families wasn’t healthy and both parents, bringing their own schemas into the relationship, were overly focused on the drama occurring in the marriage. Frequently one parent was very empathetic and enabling and the other was more self-absorbed and not easily held accountable. This resulted in one parent continually monitoring and managing and reacting to the other parent and often being distressed themselves.
As a child in a home like this, normal healthy development through emotional attunement by parents and from emotional education from parents is lacking and one is left to figure things out on their own. A sensitive child might learn to be highly attuned to what is occurring in the home and between the parents and might put their effort into stabilizing the relationship to make things feel more safe. This child might develop a heightened sense of accountability for noticing and managing their parent’s emotions or become triangulated into the relationship by attempting to be the mediator or counselor in the home. Alternatively, another child in the same home might check out of the family drama and become hyper-fixated on their own life, desires, and reputation, and put their energy into themselves. It isn’t hard to see, in this scenario, how one child might easily become hyper-empathetic and overly focused on meeting the needs of others, rather than their own, or self-sacrificing, while the other child might easily lack any development of empathy and become self-absorbed, or narcissistic. This is the exact pattern I tend to see in individuals that I work with. To a lesser extent, some children who grow up in similar situations develop the capacity for empathy and at times are overly self-sacrificing, while at other times become angry that they are chronically not getting what they need from others. They then periodically lash out and become demanding, appearing much more self-absorbed than is typical for them. These individuals tend to relate to characteristics of what the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, would classify as Borderline Personality Disorder.
Looking at individuals conceptually this way helps me to pinpoint the exact work that will be most effective for the client, as well as helps me to understand the primary emotion that might be driving some of their problematic relationship behavior. Individuals who were given the message that in order to be liked or connected they must be hyper-attuned to the needs of others tend to be very guilt-driven in life. They struggle to make boundaries, say “no” to others, or focus on their own desires and needs, as they feel that they are being selfish or aren’t going to make others happy if they do. They become increasingly disconnected from themselves and overly-focused on others, which often drives up their anxiety. Others become so self-focused and performance driven that their whole identity and personality becomes overtaken with the need to perform and appear perfect to others. This results in excessive shame avoidance and the false belief that in order to be liked or connected they have to essentially be perfect or look perfect to the people they want to impress. Although individuals with characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder tend to get a bad reputation due to problematic relationship behaviors, the fact that they bounce back and forth between being overly self-sacrificing and self-absorbed indicates that they have the capacity for both other-directedness and empathy, as well as the capacity to focus on themselves and their needs rather than attempting to appear perfect to others. This is actually a good sign. For these individuals, counseling work focused on emotional regulation and healthy communication might very well get them into a healthy relational space where they thrive.
Thinking of yourself and those in your life, can you start to see these patterns emerging? If so, perhaps you can start to see clearly the type of work that you need to do to be more effective in your relationships. Understanding the origin of your guilt and shame and understanding the needs that you have to experience healthy connection that isn’t based in your performance or perfection and also isn’t based on you being overly responsible for managing the feelings and needs of others will help you to stop self-absorbed or self-sacrificing behaviors.
Understanding the origin of your guilt and shame and understanding the needs that you have to experience healthy connection that isn’t based in your performance or perfection and also isn’t based on you being overly responsible for managing the feelings and needs of others will help you to stop self-absorbed or self-sacrificing behaviors.
Learning that you can notice and talk about feelings of guilt and shame, rather than doing things to avoid them, will allow you to focus on what you actually want and need from others. Once you have this self-awareness you are equipped to stop mind-reading and expecting others to mind-read and can start communicating in vulnerable and healthy ways what you actually want and need from others. Only then will you start experiencing healthy and authentic intimacy in your life.
To read more about Narcissism and Self-Sacrificing and learning to face feelings of guilt and shame, read Narcissism, Care-Giving, and Trauma: Facing Uncomfortable Feelings Results in Healing.
If you find yourself in relationships with Narcissistic partners and don’t know how to change the pattern, see Narcsissism and Caregiving: Dancing around the Truth.