Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Continuum

My last post about Joe and Gina shows a classic example of opposites attracting. Joe was an outgoing guy who needed to be the center of attention, and Gina played the role of Joe’s sidekick. She was content to be behind the scenes and did everything in her power to avoid having the spotlight on her. They came to counseling when their respective roles had become too extreme—Joe had become too self-centered and Gina had become, in a sense, invisible—but when they finished counseling, they were living “happily ever after” with their respective roles intact. Their personalities didn’t change. Joe was still outgoing and extroverted while Gina remained quiet and reserved, but Joe had “stretched” his personality in such a way that he gave more consideration to Gina’s feelings and Gina became more assertive permitting her personality to come out.

In this post I want to begin to look at some of the forces that bring people together and the bonds that keep them together—for good or ill. This topic is so huge that this post will barely scratch the surface, but I believe that a good starting point is looking at the way in which people get their needs met in relationships.

You old folks like me may remember that in the 1970s and 1980s assertiveness training workshops were extremely popular.  They had a great way of conceptualizing the manner in which men and women get their needs met. The most common participants in assertiveness training workshops were women like Gina who wanted to become more forceful and get their voices heard more effectively, but the concepts are relevant not only to meek women, but to overbearing men too, and everyone in between.

This model shows that the manner in which people get their needs met can be thought of as being on a continuum with the two ends being unhealthy or dysfunctional and the middle representing a healthy range:

The people on the right get their needs met by respecting their own wants, wishes needs and desires while disrespecting the needs of others. This is a working definition of self-centered behavior:


Although there are exceptions to the rule, men, more than women, tend to fall into the self-centered category. There is a range of personalities and behaviors that comprise this group. At first glance it may sound odd, but a lot of the people who fit this definition of self-centered are quite popular and a lot of fun to hang around with. Joe is an example of this. He was a great guy with many friends and, as Gina described, he was the life of the party. The negative aspects of his personality only showed up in his marriage, his most intimate of relationships.

Of course, the self-centered category also includes people whom everyone would agree have personality problems. This would include the selfish—“C’mon, I’m only on three softball teams and you can come watch”—the alcoholic—“what difference does it make when I get home? You’re asleep anyway”—the narcissist—“it pisses me off that you’re having your period when I want to have sex”—the abuser—“I wouldn’t have gotten so mad if you had listened to what I said”—and a myriad of other people who need to have power and control in relationships.

The people on the left side of the continuum are the opposite of self-centered. They are selfless to an unhealthy degree. They get their needs met by showing respect to the wants, wishes, needs, and desires of others while showing disrespect to their own needs:


The majority of people who fit the description of selfless are women. This does not mean that men are immune from giving to others at their own expense but, in general, selflessness—giving more than you get—is an issue that women struggle with. Everyone tends to like these women and the bonds they form with one another create strong, BFF-type relationships. However, when they connect with Alpha males (and females!) they, sooner or later, feel “used and abused.” At first glance, it may seem that putting the needs of others before one’s own needs is a positive trait. However, when it crosses a line and the person finds herself being taken advantage of or treated like a doormat it is no longer a virtue.

Although the label that is most frequently given to selfless people is co-dependent, I think that we can come up with several subtypes. There is the people-pleaser—“don’t worry about me. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy”—the self-sacrificer—“no, no you take the chair. I’m fine right here on the floor”—the mother hen—“stay right where you are. I’ll get your plate ready”—the I-need-a-boyfriend-or-I’m lost—“the reason that I’ve come to therapy is that I don’t have a boyfriend”—and the victim—“I shouldn’t have disturbed him. He’s been under a lot of stress lately.”

I saw something apropos to the people who fall on the selfless side of the continuum on the Discovery Channel. I learned that every animal that has eyes on the side of its head—squirrels, mice, and rabbits, to name a few—are always, in nature, somebody else’s lunch. These are nature’s victims. If we stopped and talked to one of them, “Mrs. Rabbit, how are you today?” She would answer, “Well there is a fox over there and he’s smacking his lips and there’s a hawk flying overhead and there is a hunter in the distance with a rifle.” In other words, nature’s victims base their sense of wellness on what others are doing. Similarly, if you ask a co-dependent woman how she is doing, she’ll answer in terms of how the people in her life are doing—“I’m great. Tom was in a good mood all weekend and Danny got to school on time without me waking him up and Kristin found the most wonderful dress for the prom.”

Returning to the continuum and the question of what attracts people to one another, we always marry someone the same distance from the middle as ourselves. This isn’t always opposites attracting. Two people who reside on the right side of the continuum can become a couple. Their relationship will tend to be passionate and their conflicts will tend to be heated. While two people who reside on the left side can also become a couple. Their relationship will tend to lack passion and they’ll describe themselves as “never arguing” but not really happy. But, as often as not, opposites do attract. Joe and Gina are a good example of that.
When a relationship falls within the healthy range:
The relationship is well functioning and stays in balance. It has the potential for a “‘'til death do us part” life expectancy. The person on the left does not get taken advantage of and the person on the right is respectful of his (or her) partner. Incidentally, in this arrangement, the person on the left is the quintessential mother. She would be described as loving, compassionate, and nurturing.  While the person on the right has the personality that is made for rising through the corporate ranks, he is an ambitious go-getter.

When a relationship falls outside the healthy range problems are inevitable:


The people who come to therapy most frequently are women who are feeling unhappy, overwhelmed, and unfulfilled as the result of living life on the left side of the continuum. They give and give and give and don’t get much in return. Often they report that they know that they are getting the short end of the stick in their marriage or relationship but feel powerless about doing anything about it. Other times, even though it is clear that they give far more than they get, they report that they are happy in their marriages—“Bill is a great guy, he is just very busy with work and under a lot of stress”—but they report they are suffering from depression. Many people in our post-Prozac era find it too threatening to acknowledge marital dissatisfaction but are comfortable with attributing their unhappiness to genetics and a chemical imbalance.

With regards to the people on the right side of the continuum, they tend not to come to counseling on their own volition. Rather, they seek help when their partner has had enough and forces couples counseling. Or these types come when their self-centeredness has gotten them in hot water. All of the “boys will be boys” types of problems like extramarital affairs and alcoholism fall into this category.

Once in therapy, the goal is to get the self-centered to be more mindful of their partners’ wants, wishes, needs, and desires and to get the selfless to show respect for their own wants, wishes, needs, and desires. Joe and Gina sought help when their marriage was in a state of crisis. The trick was to help Gina gain—and, importantly, maintain—a sense of empowerment and to help Joe find a way to be comfortable when sharing the limelight.
In therapy Gina was able to identify the fears and anxieties that made her comfortable staying in the background, and with Joe’s help and support, she addressed these fears and developed behaviors that allowed her to get her fair share of attention. Similarly, Joe became aware of the insecurities that drove him to be the center of attention, and with Gina’s help and support, he developed the confidence to share the stage with her and he learned to place value on being sensitive to Gina’s feelings. To their credit, they pulled it off beautifully. At last report, their marriage was on track and their relationship was thriving.