In couples work, people tend to come to us after things have really gone off the rails. The story is almost always the same. One person is fearing that the relationship is failing and the other is avoiding facing this fact. Basically, one partner feels like they’re chasing after love and the other seems to have lost it all together. Usually, the Avoider is caught up with work or family and is feeling overwhelmed and the Anxious person is feeling very alone. Sound familiar?
It’s rare that both people are willing to step up to the plate, at the same time and with the same level of commitment. And, if they are in that place, it’s usually because they’ve already done some work to lay the foundation for what’s next.
So, if each partner is in a different place, this is where things get tricky. This polarization gives each person ample evidence that the other is the problem. The Avoider gets to say that they are feeling overwhelmed because there is so much being asked of them. They may be the one who works long hours or piles on innumerable responsibilities to avoid being without something to do. When their partner asks them for more time, connection, or affection, they point to their schedule and say, “Don’t you see how busy I am?”
The Anxious person may also be busy, but their life consistently revolves around what their partner or they're family is doing. They carry the emotional weight, they try to make the plans, and they are the ones who appear to be the most disappointed when things don’t work out. These are the folks that are most concerned about the survival of the relationship and these are the people that we get the calls from. They get to point at their partner and say, “I’m trying so hard to make this work and they don’t seem to care like I do.”
Left alone, this partnership could still last a lifetime. The Pursuer-Avoider dynamic could evolve into an Employee-Boss, Boss-Boss, or Employee-Employee relationship. This automated type of partnership would require that each person fall into a designated role and stay there. Even though both people may not like how it feels, they will choose to stay in the relationship because it is less scary than questioning it and possibly ending up alone. This doesn’t tend to feel good when it is brought into the awareness. However, no awareness, no problem.
An Employee-Boss relationship will require the employee to give up more control to the boss, in exchange for the connection. As this happens the boss will relax some and they will begin to organize things in the way they want them. They are afraid to lose their autonomy so they agree to take on the burden of the work or decisions in exchange for connection. Both people do get some of what they want, but they are also required to take on or give up something in return.
Odds are that they come from families where both the boss and employee roles were treated as necessary and noble. This tends to run across gender lines with the older population, men being the boss and women being the employees. They can be one of the easier types to deal with, if they operate out of respect, because they can use each other’s strengths and triggers to come deeper into alignment.
The Boss-Boss relationship will be noticeable from a mile away because this is the type of couple that is often at war. This battle requires that both sides keep score and do their best to never get down too many points. Both parties live with a lot of fear and they get barely enough crumbs of connection, notoriety, or self-fulfillment to keep the partnership afloat.
They are both the independent type and they may come from homes where there was a fight for attention, autonomy, or general survival. They can be a very difficult couple to work with because both may have hair-triggers around letting their guard down. Trust is of the utmost importance in dealing with these types and it can take a while to build assurance within the Coach-Client relationship and, especially within the partnership itself. Although difficult, this type is also more likely than the employee-employee to reach out for help because controlling and fixing are correlated with getting support and that’s what is most on both people’s minds.
The Employee-Employee relationship is often the most difficult to spot because it can look so much like a conscious partnership. Both parties somehow find a way to subordinate to each other and it’s almost like it’s a race to not score any points. Neither one wants to win for fear of upsetting the other so they constantly tip toe the line between getting “just enough” while also making sure their partner is happy.
Employee-Employee relationships are usually looking for a boss so they are more likely to subordinate to an authority like a church or an organized group where they are told how to be. They could also just fall into a role of how they believe their family or community believes they should be, without explicit direction. These couples are probably the least likely to reach out for help and they can be the most difficult to work with. They may never reach the point where they are open to questioning because they develop such complex strategies to keep the real stuff hidden.
Usually, it takes a big wave, in the form of a major life disturbance, for either one of them to reach of for help. In working with them, the first order of business is usually to poke around until someone can begin to access their anger or sadness. This is tedious work when someone has spent a lifetime sweeping those feelings under the rug.
They often come from families where there was a similar dynamic or, more often than not, a huge loss of connection through divorce or trauma. To compensate and to keep things safe, they will seek out a partner who agrees to said conditions. This requires them to trade in their authenticity for connection. Again, these couples can go on to raise beautiful families and have laid back households.
Bottom line, there is nothing wrong with these dynamics and they tend to stop feeling good. The work of the conscious person or couple is to begin to question where they are and where they want to go. When this is clear, the actions tend to arise organically and you are on your way towards showing up more authentically.