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Is Your Relationship Making You Crazy? Here's How to Stop the Madness

Well-intentioned and devoted partners of crazy-making people become obsessive in trying to find the magic potion that will make their partners happy and appreciative of their efforts. But, every time they think they've got it right, they find themselves, as if in a bad dream, back at ground zero.
10/22/2014 01:27pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Intimate partners count on each other to maintain a "sane" interaction between them. In short, that means they have a common reality they both share, a way that each believes the other will see things in approximately the same way. Though they might not always like what they hear or see, they are not typically faced with unexpected surprises or unpredictable outcomes.

Such is not the case if you're on the end of a crazy-making partner. This breed of intimate relationship dweller does the opposite of maintaining a sane interpersonal environment. Instead, you never know how they are going to react in any given situation. When you think you know what to expect or how to deal with them, they change the rules, seemingly arbitrarily. When you try to get them to acknowledge what they are doing by weaving the past into the present, they don't agree with your account of what happened.

If you are involved with a crazy-making partner, don't think you're alone. You probably had no idea you were getting into this no-win relationship when it began. If the emotional and sexual connections were rewarding, you may have been intrigued by the Houdini-like escape pattern. Though unsettling, your partner was not boring. You couldn't easily figure out what was going on, and you probably liked the challenge, so you became an eager relationship sleuth, avidly putting together clues that seem to make the next move more predictable. When you did actually accurately zero in once in a while, you may have thrived enough on the intermittent reinforcement to hang in for subsequent disappointing rounds. When the symbolic slot machine pays off, you were likely to have been off and running through the interpersonal "Alice-in-Wonderland" maze again.

Over time, you may have begun to feel a little desperate, wondering if there wasn't some sort of underlying torture game going on. You sometimes got what you needed but not what you expected in unpredictable moments that made no sense. Other times, you may have felt you were doing everything right to get a predictable outcome, but your efforts were unproductive or even erased. Your confidence in yourself as a reasonable and intelligent human being was rapidly diminishing.

As time went by, your belief that you had any influence at all was fading. Your well-intended desires to connect in rational and predictable ways gave way to superstitious behaviors: "If I just pay close enough attention to all the previous interactions, I can control the outcome by doing everything just right." Like making sure the sun comes up by accurately participating in the correct rituals.

If you started out as a control freak, you would have been pulling your hair out after a while. But if you're just a normal person, innocently trying to maintain a sane environment, you might realize that you've morphed into one. As your confusion increased, you probably felt an ever stronger need to make things happen the way they should have, as your crazy-making partner was accusing you of obsessively tracking his or her every move. You began mumbling to yourself, "Is this person taunting me on purpose? It can't be. They wouldn't do that, would they? Not while professing such love for me and genuinely remorseful when I'm upset. I'm doing everything I can to make things work between us. I must just not be seeing things clearly. I have to just try harder." The variables didn't add up, but you were determined to hang in there and solve the situation by wits and endurance.

You are surely not alone. Here are just a couple of typical statements from partners who are in a relationship with crazy-making partners:

Miriam:

"I'm really confused. Last Friday night, he worked late and came home exhausted. I had his favorite dinner prepared and all possible distractions blocked. He's let me know so many times that when he's had a hard day, he loves a home-cooked meal, watching his favorite show, going to sleep, and then making love in the morning. I planned everything exactly the way he liked and it went down just like I thought it would. He even told me the next day that he was the luckiest guy in the world.

So last night, I did everything exactly the same way, but it was a disaster. He came home and threw his briefcase on the ground. He said he wasn't hungry and why would I think he'd want to eat after a rotten day? Then he said he was going out to watch the game at a bar because he needed 'time alone,' and that he'd be home in a couple of hours. He came home four hours later. I was in bed, asleep. He'd had a lot to drink and wanted sex right then. I reminded him that he likes sex better in the morning and he called me a frigid bitch and slept on the couch. I cried myself to sleep. And then, the next morning, he was an angel and brought me coffee in bed. I feel like I'm in a relationship with two people, one who really loves me and his evil twin who emerges without warning or reason."

Jeff:

"She tells me what her favorite cologne is, so I buy it for her for her birthday. Then she tells me she doesn't wear that anymore and how come I didn't notice? She asks me to tell her how much I love her regularly, so I do. Now I'm just boring because I'm too repetitive. I'm supposed to make sure she's taking care of herself and she's so grateful that someone cares that much and the next day I'm trying to control her. Last weekend she wanted to spend time just the two of us so I found a great B and B and set up a romantic weekend. When I surprised her with it, she told me that we don't have any friends and why would I think that she'd want to waste a whole weekend in some hotel when we could be painting the bedroom and actually accomplishing something.

Damn it, I can't win for losing. Every time I try to get ahead of the game, I feel like the rug is pulled out. I love this woman, but there's no pleasing her. She's driving me crazy and I don't know how long I can take it."

Well-intentioned and devoted partners of crazy-making people become obsessive in trying to find the magic potion that will make their partners happy and appreciative of their efforts. But, every time they think they've got it right, they find themselves, as if in a bad dream, back at ground zero. They are frustrated, undermined, and terribly confused.

What makes a person so hard to please or so unwilling to be predictable? Are they driven by some internal fear, or do they just get off on the game? Are they harboring some passive/aggressive need to prove that love won't last and unconsciously sabotaging every chance that it could? Or are they just not able to love without losing themselves? Do they really want intimacy but fear that their need will end up in entrapment?

In the four decades of observing these crazy-making partners in therapy, I have seen many underlying reasons why these people will simply not let their partners add up any "pleasing" points. But the most consistent and deep internal driver is the terror of being controlled. Crazy-makers often give up the love they most desperately need when they feel any sense of an obligatory payback. They'll sacrifice a perfect moment of tenderness if they feel there is the possibility of a reciprocal expectation lurking behind the scenes. It is as if some hidden combination of childhood trauma and life experiences that made them terrified to "owe" their partners anything. Their only way out of that terror of entrapment is to keep their partners "owing" them.

Here's the good news.

When crazy-making partners are not driven by malevolent motives, they are very open to changing their behavior if it is pointed out in a non-judgmental environment. When they are able to see the effect it has on the ones they love without being seen as intending to harm, they are surprisingly willing to change. Once they believe that true love need not be obligatory and that intimacy is not automatically correlated with entrapment, they are often eager to learn new ways to make their needs and fears know and to let love in.

They do need the help of their partners to learn to love in this new way. Their partners also need to understand that most of the sabotaging behavior is not only unintended but carries significant grief and guilt with it. Those twin feelings are what create the strong urge to come back with intense commitment after each "escape."

Overly forgiving and intensely devoted partners do not help their partners by taking their patterns personally and destroying their own confidence when they cannot control the outcome. They have their own part to play in the healing of the relationship. Often, in their own backgrounds, they have seen a "too-good-to-be-true" martyred parent in a devoted relationship with a partner who would not acknowledge their caring. They clearly saw that parent as the "good guy," and are unconsciously playing out the same part, unable to stop giving even when it cannot be reciprocated.

The Golden Rule for all intimate relationships is just as relevant here: No matter how good your intention or how deeply you care for your partner, don't keep participating in interactions that create frustration and emotional distance. However you come about discovering a new way to be together, it is better to take a chance of doing something different than to let layers of disappointment bury the love you once held sacred.

Dr. Randi's free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you'll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded "honeymoon is over" phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com