Staff therapist Dr. Michael D’Antonio, PhD treats a range of complaints from anxiety, depression, or chronic anger to troubled relationships. Drawing on more than 30 years experience as a therapist, Dr. D’ Antonio integrates a variety of solution-focused treatment approaches, including EDMR to promote real and positive change in how clients experience themselves and relate to others. In this blog post, Dr. D’Antonio discusses how relationship responsibility runs across many aspects of a person’s life.
Relationship Responsibility Runs Across Generations
As a condition of childhood, each of us feels some level of responsibility for our parents. This felt responsibility is intense in families where parents could not or did not seem to take responsibility for themselves (if, for example, one or both parents were not fully functional due to illness, emotional condition, interpersonal conflict, chronic stress, financial hardship, natural disaster, or other circumstance). It is also very strong with parents who could not or did not seem to take responsibility for their children or for their relationship with their children (if, for example, parents were grossly inattentive, emotionally unavailable, neglectful, or abusive or failed to protect the children).
When parents cannot take adequate responsibility for themselves, their children or the relationship with their children, the children come to believe that this is either their fault or their duty to change. They feel responsible for their parents and the relationship with their parents. With this generational reversal of responsibility, the children become anxious (for their parents and themselves) and develop deep feelings of shame or guilt, inadequacy, failure, and poor self-worth. These feelings may manifest as an extreme need to please, unhealthy striving for success, hyper-sensitivity to criticism, and defensiveness. Even as emotional shutdown, escape into substance abuse, or compulsive behavior.
As a residue of childhood, each of us tends to feel as responsible for others as we did for our parents. This felt sense of responsibility is most intense in our most intimate relationships. We can, for example, marry only someone for whom we feel as responsible as we did for our parents.
Unbalanced Relationship Responsibility
When our sense of responsibility for others is very intense, our relationship responsibility is unbalanced. We feel over-responsible for others and equally under-responsible for ourselves.
Over-responsibility for others includes feeling another’s feeling for him or her; taking over for, talking for, mediating for, or making excuses for someone else; monitoring another person by word or gesture; bailing someone out; interpreting, second guessing, or anticipating what someone is saying; feeling or acting responsible for someone else’s feelings (like anger, depression, or happiness) or someone else’s behavior (like their drinking, success or failure, or acting foolish).
Under-responsibility for self includes not speaking up about what is important to you, not being able to ask for what you want or need, not being able to say “no” to others; not wanting to burden or bother others with what you want, think or feel; being controlled by what you expect someone’s reaction to be; letting someone else take over for you, speak for you, or interpret what you mean.
Balanced Relationship Responsibility
Each adult is 100% responsible for him/herself.
(failure to take 100% responsibility for oneself is under-responsibility for oneself).
Each adult is 0% responsible for another adult.
(acting or feeling responsible for another adult is over-responsibility for others).
Each adult is 50% responsible for his or her relationship with another adult and for what they have in common.
In AA language, unbalanced relationship responsibility is called codependence or enabling; in mental health language, it is reactivity, parentification, poor (rigid or weak) boundaries and concepts related to relationship balance are differentiation or individuation.
Under- and Over-Responsibility Are Matched and Paired in All Our Relationships
- To the extent that I am over-responsible for others, I am under-responsible for myself.
- To the extent that I am under-responsible for myself, I pull the over-responsible part of someone else to step in and take care of me.
Over- and under-responsibility are paired: across generations (our parents, to each of us, to our children), across relationships (between me and any other person in my life but strongest in my closest relationships), and within ourselves (between the over- and under-responsible parts of yourself).
Relationship Responsibility is Linked to Our Most Basic Feelings about Ourselves
To the extent that we are over-responsible for others, we maintain our self-worth by trying to please, excel for, mediate for and, even, control or change others. We typically do this even when they want none of our efforts or they are not working to gain approval or avoid displeasure. Any hint of a move away from our over-responsible orientation toward others provokes anxiety and guilt. We feel mean, selfish or worthless.
Women and Men Often Experience Relationship Responsibility Differently
Over-responsibility in men often takes the form of control. Since men have a lower tolerance for strong emotion, strong feelings of responsibility can lead to emotional paralysis; emotional, physical, or chemical withdrawal; or angry outbursts. Men can feel like relationship failures and become highly defensive around being “good enough.”
Under-responsibility in men leads to intense (often negative) focus on the other person (especially the partner); inattentiveness to their own emotional and relationship needs; excessive search for validation in non-relationship activities, especially work.
Over-responsibility in women leads to deferring to men; over-functioning for men in the emotional, relationship, and family spheres.
Under-responsibility in women leads to submission; not taking themselves seriously in their various relationships; devaluing of other women in favor of men; loss of self; and anxiety around abandonment.
Signs of Unbalanced Relationship Responsibility
- Inability or extreme difficulty saying “no” to what others want from you.
- Inability or extreme difficulty being clear with someone else about what you want.
- Inability or extreme difficulty accepting someone else’s “no” to your request.
- Boredom, burnout, resentment, withdrawal or cut-off in a relationship.
- Confusion about what you think, feel, or want in a particular exchange with someone.
- Divided attention or inattentiveness to yourself or the other person in a particular interaction.
- Defensiveness or hypersensitivity to criticism.
- Interaction characterized by rapid escalation in negative feelings leading to explosive or violent behavior or shut-down.
- Believing that it is your job to “make him/her happy”.
- Feeling helpless or powerless in a relationship.
- Overstepping your bounds by making inappropriate or unwanted physical contact, getting into someone’s head, intimidating and/or threatening emotionally or physically.
Acid Test of Relationship Balance
To be with someone you care about or love, who is having a hard time emotionally, and stay focused on the other person without having to do something to feel better yourself.