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Relationship Intensity Syndrome

One of the great tragedies of alcoholism is the effect it has on so many others, particularly children.  Children growing up in an alcoholic family are apt to suffer from an alcohol induced relationship intensity syndrome.  Growing up in alcoholism, the child often develops an exaggerated need for emotional support in a primary relationship. The alcoholic father or mother is unavailable emotionally and the child compensates by having this more exaggerated need to be connected. This response can also come from underlying childhood trauma like divorce.  Many children are exposed to this pattern from alcoholic parents and/or from the fact that over 50% of children suffer the impact of their parent’s divorce.  What happens then to the child who grows up in this situation with this exaggerated emotional need that never gets filled?  When the child gets older he or she has this emotional hole (some people feel this emotional emptiness, but my experience is that most lawyer’s feelings natures are sufficiently repressed that they don’t feel anything).  Like almost everyone in the culture he becomes exposed to alcohol in a social way and then his pattern of drinking, quite unobserved overtime, allows him to avoid feeling his emotional feelings of emptiness or uneasiness.  For lawyers who can’t feel emotionally this happens completely below the level of their awareness.  There is just an urge to mood change through alcohol, or some other addictive process, without being aware of where this urge comes from.  Whether or not the lawyer is aware or unaware of medicating his feelings, the pattern of family alcoholism is apt to be repeated.  This new alcoholic may just drink, but more likely he will drink and engage in the intensity model of relationships.  Often the child of an alcoholic, in order to avoid being like his alcoholic parent, will not drink, but he will engage in the intensity model of relationship.

The underlying premise of the relationship intensity syndrome model is that when a child comes to adulthood with an exaggerated emotional need, the way for that child to feel his need is met is for his/her primary relationship to be obsessively intense. Of course all relations when they start in the romantic phase are intense. But, it is impossible for the romantic intensity of a relation to continue forever; and, for the person with the hole to fill, there is a special kind of intensity.  Eventually there develops what is known as the Intensity Triangle.  (This model originally was developed by Stephen B. Karpman, and first known as The Karpman Drama Triangle.)  Imagine a triangle: at one corner is the hero/rescuer; at another the person needing help/victim; and at the third the avoider/judge/persecutor.  At any given time each person in the couple is at one corner of the triangle and the other person is at one of the other corners.  While each person really wants a normal loving relation, because of their learned need for an exaggerated emotional input to feel okay, they look for intensity rather than normal love.  Intensity feels more like love than real love, which is normally more serene.

Avoider/judge/persecutor
Hero/rescuer
Person to be saved/victim

Here is how it goes. One person comes in as the rescuer and the other is the person to be saved.  There is great intensity to this because the rescuer gets all the emotion of feeling like he is the hero saving the other person, and the other person gets all the emotion of feeling saved.  But after awhile the intensity wears off and of course the relation doesn’t work because for real intimacy to develop the couple must be on the same level, one person can’t be the savior.  So the rescued person becomes the victim.   There is drama to this, but after awhile the victim feels trapped and put upon and to avoid these negative feelings moves to the avoider/judge/persecutor corner.  Here he avoids the other person but thinks about her all the time, or he is constantly berating the other person about how the other person is not acting properly in the relationship either way it is a position of great intensity.

The person in the hero/rescuer spot may then move to being the victim.  They can feel righteous self-pity for not being fully appreciated in their heroic role.  Again being a victim is a place of great intensity. Or, the hero may realize that the person he sought to save continues to look to him as hero, that he can’t just be himself (in essence he is objectified) and this becomes a very uncomfortable position, so he moves to the avoider/judge/persecutor.  There he can tell the victim everything she should be doing to straighten her life out.  There is much intensity in this role of judge and persecutor. And of course we as lawyers come pre-designed to fit it.

Often the way the cycle gets broken is for the person in the avoider/judge/persecutor corner to leave, and she feels righteous and emotionally fulfilled for doing what she needed to do (at least for awhile until the next relation comes along).  Over and over again this pattern gets played out among the children of alcoholics; it is a classic alcoholic family pattern, whether anyone is drinking or not.

The adult, in compensating for an emotional wound in childhood by seeking emotional intensity in a primary relationship, is participating in a form of behavior that seeks to address the question we all face:  Can we feel at home in the world?  Almost all addictive behavior results as a maladaptive method of coming to terms with this question.  Addictive behavior does this by avoiding facing this question.

The need for intensity in relationships is like alcoholic drinking or addictive gambling, a way to avoid coming to terms with the existential challenge of what Einstein once said was the most important question facing mankind: “the world friendly?”  Traditionally, religious institutions reassured us that our sense of incompleteness or emptiness would be filled through adopting a certain set of beliefs and practices.  More tightly knitted traditional communities provided a social structure and secure roles to make us feel more comfortable.

Today in our more individualistic culture, there is a greater challenge to find a fulfilling sense of personal identity and meaning.  We have discovered, in our modern world, that the more freedom there is to pursue sex, money, fame, and power, the more likely a person seeking a secure sense of identity in one of these ways will become enslaved to what he wanted the freedom to pursue.  The competition in our culture for fame, power and money, is often about satisfying the underlying need to know who we are in an individualistic culture that makes us all less secure.  Otto Rank expressed this idea in a slightly different way.  According to Rank, contemporary man is neurotic because he suffers from a consciousness of his human inadequacy (sin) just as much as pre-modern man did, but without believing in a religious framework by which he is able to expiate his sense of guilt and inadequacy.

There is the story of the man who was driven all his life to climb the ladder of fame and fortune.  Finally, just before his death, he gets to the top of the ladder and realizes he has had his ladder against the wrong wall.  As this little story suggests, the issue, at least initially, is always a problem of awareness.  When we do not understand the nature of our humaneness, then we can never be satisfied by such things as wealth and status. In fact, the less aware we are, the more we end up compulsively grasping at what cannot fulfill us.  But ascetism no more fills the void of selfhood then rampant materialism.  Both are ego driven paths to try to find a place of psychological comfort in the world.  Both lack awareness of the underlying spiritual drive to be “home” and serene in our human condition.

The world religions have outlined several paths to do this.  A path in Hinduism is bakti, the path of devotion.  By following devotional practices to various gods and goddesses, one gives up the anxious ego self.  Judaism’s emphasis is on venerating God and following rules of conduct laid down by Him.  In contrast to the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism does not consider our sense of inadequacy as sin.  Buddhism sees the problem as our perception of the ego self as real.  The challenge is to overcome our lack of awareness that our perception of self is itself a mirage.  For the Buddhist, the ego cannot absolve its own lack, because the ego is the flipside of that lack.  The idea in Buddhism is to let go of mental devices that sustain self esteem.  “Forgetting” oneself is how one loses a sense of separation from self and the world.

Christianity sees the problem in terms of the Garden of Eden “we have become separated from our essential God” connected self.  To be restored comes from surrendering the ego and being guided by God’s will.  The restoration process comes about by, on the one hand, the individual’s surrender and, on the other, God’s grace.  The older religions are more Newtonian “cause and effect” you do certain things, and get restored to a sense of right relation.  Christianity is more quantum physics, Grace occurs in a fashion that seems random in the specific but whole from a systems level.

I apologize if I have misstated the approach of any religion or left out your favorite.  The point I wish to make is that they all teach that the recipe the ego comes up with to find equanimity doesn’t work.  The approaches of the great religions call for a surrender of the ego or its dissolution.

Are the approaches of the world religions important in this discussion of intensity relationship syndrome?  Yes, because by telling us what the entry point to healing is to the normal existential anxiety of being human, world religions point the way to how to heal an addictive process like intensity relationship syndrome.  In other words, the entry point for healing for thousands of years in coping with the fundamental uneasiness of being human remains the same, and we may address addictive disorders in the same way.

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous latched on to this entry point.  They discovered that the key to the healing process was surrender to the grip of the disease.  Surrender not only to the disease, but surrender of the ego’s battle to control the disease.  Once this occurs there is space in the psyche for something new to come to take the place of the false meaning supplied by the repeated attempts to address the craving.  AA realized this new thing must be spiritual in nature.  If it were emotional, a new craving would be set up.  Fitting our individualistic society, AA also understood that the contours of what this new spiritual source of connection would be must be different for each individual.

Once this new connection occurs, once there is a grounded sense of self, that is not pulled at by the whim of cravings so it can feel okay, then a person is in a position to have interpersonal relations from a position of inner stability.  This is why so much of what recovery is about in AA or Al-anon is learning to live in a healthy emotional way of interrelating with other people and the opposite gender.  It first requires that the intensity that is felt to be needed in relations because of the childhood wound, be put in the only place it can be useful, into one’s own relation with self and one’s own sense of what that something else is that gives meaning to being human. This something else can be described in many ways, but it is a relation with your own inner self and the meaning you create in your life outside of you, your reason for living, your place in this world, and for many people this relation is a spiritual relationship, one’s relation with a Higher Power.  Once that transition is made the ego is right-sized so to speak,  then it becomes fairly straightforward to learn a healthy way of being in a relation that is not going to require an intensity that is going to undermine the relation.  The irony is that over time such a healthy relationship develops a sublime depth to it, but without heaviness.   There will be a lightness that is noticeable, because one person is not trying to carry the other, or rescue the other, or be doing any of the other things the alcoholic family pattern promotes to create intensity, or chaos, to fulfill emotional emptiness.

Intensity at first blush seems so right, because we all want this sense of aliveness; but if it comes from a place of emotional need it will always be illusory, unsatisfying and the relationships based on it will not work. At least they won’t work without alcohol or something else addictive to medicate the dissatisfaction and frustration.  It is hard for lawyers, who may be completely out of touch with their emotions, to come to terms with the realization that they are driven by a need for emotional intensity in relations.  But the pattern will drive the person around the triangle whether or not they are aware of their need for intensity.

The good news is that for most lawyers participation in AA or Al-anon can turn this around.  Some people may need therapy to deal with some of the abusive trauma, sexual and otherwise, that often occurs in the alcoholic family.   But most people can learn new healthy patterns of relating that ultimately offer them the chance to live with the sense of being loved that they want.  The bad news, which I see almost every day, is that people think they can solve this relationship disorder themselves, that the next relationship will be different.  They believe they can think themselves into a new way of handling relations. (No emotional pattern was ever changed by thinking.) Sometimes they just cut themselves off from significant relationships in order to avoid the felt pain of trying to make a broken pattern work.  I don’t really see anyone solve the alcoholic intensity relationship syndrome by themselves. But those who become willing to reach out and get help almost always do.

– by Don Carroll

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