The Emotional Dynamics of Dysfunctional Romantic Relationships

I heard someone at a CoDA meeting (codependents anonymous) talk about a truly revolutionary concept that their codependence counselor introduced into a session with her and her husband one day. She and her husband were in a hot and heavy argument when the counselor interrupted to ask, "Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?" She said that it was a question that they had to consider for a while because being right was awful important to them both.

It is normal for relationships in this society to deteriorate into power struggles over who is right and who is wrong. That is because we grew up in a dysfunctional society that taught that it was shameful to be wrong. We got the message that our self-worth depends on not making mistakes, on being perfect, because it caused our parents great emotional pain (or they caused us great emotional or physical pain) when we made a mistake, when we were "wrong."

Codependence is an emotional defense system that is set up to protect the wounded inner child within us from the shame of being exposed as unlovable and unworthy, as stupid and weak, as a loser and failure, as whatever it was that we got the message was the worst thing to be. We were taught to evaluate whether we had worth in comparison to others. Smarter than, prettier than, faster than, richer than, more successful than, thinner than, stronger than, etc., etc. In a codependent society the only way to feel good about self is to look down on someone else. So we learned to judge (just like our role models did) others in order to feel good about ourselves. Being right was one of the most important ways to know that we had worth.

When a codependent feels attacked - which is any time it seems as if someone is judging us - it can be with a look or a tone of voice or just that someone doesn't say something, let alone when someone actually says something to us that could be interpreted as meaning that we weren't doing something right - the choices we are faced with are to blame them or blame ourselves. Either they are right - in which case it proves that we are the stupid loser that the critical parent voice in our head tells us we are - or they are wrong in which case it is time to attack them and prove to them the error of their ways.

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In most relationships where the people have been together for a few years they have already established entrenched battle lines around painful emotional scars where they push each others buttons. All one person has to do is use a certain tone of voice or have a certain look on their face and the other person pulls out and loads the big guns. One person is readying their answer in their head to what they know the other is going to say before the other even has a chance to say it. The battle begins and neither one of them actually listens to what the other is saying. They start pulling out their lists of past hurts to prove their point of how each other is doing horrible things to them. The battle is on to see who is right and who is wrong.

And that is not even the right question.

A relationship is a partnership, an alliance, not some game with winners and losers. When the interaction in a relationship becomes a power struggle about who is right and who is wrong then there are no winners.

"You each have emotional buttons that trigger old defensive reactions, fears and insecurities - and you are sitting next to the person who was specifically prepared and trained to be a specialist in pushing your buttons. The gifts you will give each other by pushing those buttons will help each of you uncover the wounds that need to be healed.

You have come together to teach each other, to help each other heal, to support and encourage each other in your quest to find your True Self.

If you keep healing, working through your stuff - then you do not have to do the dysfunctional cultural dance of toxic romance here. This does not have to be "the 'I can't live without you, can't smile without you' addictive, make the other person your Higher Power, be the victim, lose yourself, power struggle, right and wrong, trapped, taken hostage, poor abused me, Two Step.'

Wedding Prayer/Meditation on Romantic Commitment By Robert Burney

In our disease defense system we build up huge walls to protect ourselves and then - as soon as we meet someone who will help us to repeat our patterns of abuse, abandonment, betrayal, and/or deprivation - we lower the drawbridge and invite them in. We, in our Codependence, have radar systems which cause us to be attracted to, and attract to us, the people, who for us personally, are exactly the most untrustworthy (or unavailable or smothering or abusive or whatever we need to repeat our patterns) individuals - exactly the ones who will push our buttons.

This happens because those people feel familiar. Unfortunately in childhood the people whom we trusted the most were the most familiar - hurt us the most. So the effect is that we keep repeating our patterns and being given the reminder that it is not safe to trust ourselves or other people

Once we begin healing we can see that the Truth is that it is not safe to trust as long as we are reacting out of the emotional wounds and attitudes of our childhoods. Once we start Recovering, then we can begin to see that on a Spiritual level these repeating behavior patterns are opportunities to heal the childhood wounds.

Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls

The people that come into our lives are teachers. They enter our lives to help us grow. Unfortunately in childhood we did not get taught that life was full of lessons to be learned - instead we were taught that if something bad happens it is because we are bad, we have done something wrong.

We got taught that life is a test that we can fail if we don't do it "right." So, we live life in fear.

We attract into our lives those people who will perfectly push our buttons for us. Who fit our particular issues exactly. If we are looking at life as a growth process then we can learn from these lessons. If we are reacting out of our shame core then we will see these lessons as horrible mistakes and tragically bad choices on our part - so we that we will carry resentments towards ourselves, not trust our self, and shut down to the possibility of love.

We are never going to meet someone who doesn't have red flags, who isn't wounded - the healthy behavior is to pay attention and take responsibility for our choices. To take calculated risks that will not be mistakes or wrong but lessons. The more conscious we get of our choices, the more we release the grief energy/take power away from the childhood wounds - the more we can trust our self to listen to our intuition instead of the disease yammering in our head.

And we are never going to completely change our basic patterns - we get healthier within those patterns. If you are attracted to alcoholics - then progress is getting involved with a recovering alcoholic. We are attracted to certain energies for reasons in alignment with The Divine Plan - our choices in the past felt like mistakes because we weren't aware that we were at boarding school learning lessons.

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"What is so infuriating about this disease of codependence is that it is so insidious and powerful and it folds back in on us. When we discover we have a pattern then we want to avoid that pattern at all costs - but in effect we are letting the disease rule us because we are reacting to our reaction. As long as we are reacting - and trying to figure out what is right and wrong - we are in the disease. What is frustrating with my friend is that when she was trusting her gut she opened her heart to me - when she got into her head is when she started giving all the power to the fear, and started reacting out of fear of her reactions to old wounds. She is terrified of making a mistake, doing it wrong, etc. - which is the disease at work. There are no mistakes only lessons - which are painful but not that painful if we are not judging and shaming ourselves.

What makes lessons so painful is the shame the disease lays on us - in other words - the disease creates all of this fear about getting hurt until we are terrified of being hurt - but what is so painful about being hurt is the shame that the disease beats us up with after we get hurt.

The hurt itself passes - the shame and judgment the disease abuses us with is what is so painful.

Our intuition/gut/heart tells us the Truth - it's our head that screws things up. I understand perfectly why my friend is in reaction the way she is - I am just very sad that it means she can't be in my life. She and I both come from a place of having so much terror of intimacy that we were relationship phobic - sometimes what is necessary for someone with a relationship phobia is to jump right in, that may be the only way past the fear.

I am happy to say that I don't have a relationship phobia anymore - I welcome another chance to explore a relationship now that I know that my worst fear can come true and it can make me stronger and better and happier. The reason for that is that I did not give power to the shame - what a miracle! What a gift! I am so grateful."

And in order to walk a Spiritual path, it is necessary to reprogram the mental perspectives of life that we learned growing up in a Spiritually hostile, shame-based society.

Perhaps the first, and certainly the most nurturing, thing we do when starting to walk a Spiritual path is to start seeing life in a growth context - that is to start realizing that life events are lessons, opportunities for growth, not punishment because we screwed up or are unworthy.

We are Spiritual beings having a human experience not weak, shameful creatures who are here being punished or tested for worthiness. We are part of/an extension of an ALL-Powerful, Unconditionally Loving God-Force/Goddess Energy/Great Spirit, and we are here on Earth going to boarding school not condemned to prison. The sooner that we can start awakening to that Truth, the sooner we can start treating ourselves in more nurturing, Loving ways.

Life is constantly changing. There are always going to be endings and new beginnings. There is always going to be grief and pain and anger about what we have to let go of, and fear of what is to come. It is not because we are bad or wrong or shameful. It is just the way the game works.

So there is good news and bad news. The good news is that a New Age has dawned in human consciousness and that we now have tools, knowledge, and access to healing energy and Spiritual guidance that has never before been available. We are discovering the rules of the game that we have been playing for thousands of years by rules that don't work.

The bad news is that it's a stupid game - or at least it feels like it some of the time. The more we understand that it is a game, that this is just boarding school, the easier it becomes to nurture ourselves by not shaming and judging ourselves. We are going to get to go home. We don't have to earn it that's what Unconditional Love means.

Column Spring & Nurturing by Robert Burney

"Unconditional Love does not mean being a doormat - Unconditional Love starts with Loving yourself enough to protect yourself from people you love if that is necessary. The relationship you describe is codependent - what that means is that you are both reacting to the emotional wounds and intellectual programming that you experienced in childhood. You were attracted to each other because your wounds fit together - you felt familiar to each other on an emotionally energetic level. The very feelings that brought you together are the same ones that keep separating you. The problem isn't in what is happening now - the way the relationship has gone is a symptom of what happened to you both in childhood. This relationship is a sign to you that you have some emotional wounds from childhood that need to be healed - they are a sign to her also but you can't make her want to do the work - you can only do the work for yourself."

"I am not sure what your male significant other's background is but he is reacting out of his childhood wounds also. Sometimes, when a person comes from a home that was very emotionally volatile they think that you don't love them unless you will engage with them - that is respond to their goading; or sometimes when a person doesn't have permission to own their own anger they will pick someone who expresses anger as a way of getting a release, through the other persons raging; or he may be reacting out of his self-hatred, the wounded little boy in him that does not feel lovable, and may need to sabotage things when there is no turmoil or he feels you are giving him love he doesn't deserve; or it could be his excuse to keep practicing an addiction, to drink or smoke dope or whatever.

Whatever is causing him to act that way it is not personal - it is not about who you really are, because you are just starting on the journey to finding our your True Self and your codependent defense system has been a mask you have been wearing to defend yourself - and he was attracted, in part at least, to the mask. You two have come together because your perfectly push each other's buttons - it provides an opportunity to get in touch with and start healing your childhood wounds."

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"The way the dynamic in a dysfunctional relationship works is on a come here - go away cycle. When one person is available the other tends to pull away. If the first person becomes unavailable the other comes back and pleads to be let back in. When the first becomes available again then the other eventually starts pulling away again.

next: Romantic Relationships and Toxic Love - The Dysfunctional Norm

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 12). The Emotional Dynamics of Dysfunctional Romantic Relationships, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Last Updated: August 7, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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