Too Close for Comfort

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The goal of this article is to help you recognize unhealthy relationships by:

  • Exposing the problem of Relational Dependency.
  • Examining the unhealthy attachment style of a controlling person.
  • The Obsessive Love Wheel as part of Obsessive Relational Progression.
  • Summary: Working towards change.

Recognizing an Unhealthy Attachment to the Relationship

Dan has a problem. “I just got dumped again”, he admits with a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “She accused me of smothering her to death and claimed that I had become too controlling. I’m not sure what happened to be honest with you, because I treated her so well. It seems like all of my relationships end up this way and frankly, I’m getting sick of it.”

Gayle reports a slightly different problem. “I’ve been dating this guy for about three months and I am about ready to pull the plug on the relationship. I hate doing it, but what else can I do? He makes me account for every moment of my time and I’m starting to feel trapped,” he explains. “The phone rings half a dozen times each day and it’s always him, calling to harass me about my daily activities and then laying on a guilt trip for not showing her enough attention. I feel like I don’t have a life anymore because she monopolizes all of my time.”

Can you relate? If so, you are not alone. Dan and Gayle’s problem points to the hidden frustration of countless people who have discovered that being in a relationship means living in hell. At some point, all of us experience a certain amount of anxiety with the person we are romantically involved with and it’s only natural to expect accountability.

But if she’s telling you that “you are a control freak” or if you have been made to feel as if though a chain has been placed around your neck, then there might be a more serious problem at hand called Relational Dependency (RD). Simply put, relational dependency is part of an overall process by which an individual develops an unhealthy attachment to his or her relationship. This means that for some people, there is a misguided need to be romantically involved with another in order to experience self-validation. What’s more, RD people subconsciously believe that by using controlling, manipulative behaviors, they can somehow trap love.

Affecting both men and women equally, RD is a problem that is progressive in nature, meaning that as the relationship continues, the controlling behaviors worsen. At the core of this quandary is a fear of abandonment, with the clues to this phenomenon that can be traced to a person’s attachment style. If left unchecked, the controlling behaviors can escalate, eventually spiraling out of control and causing great misery for both parties involved.

So how do you know if you or your partner is suffering from this affliction? By examining a process called Obsessive Relational Progression (ORP), which is a specific style of attachment for relationally dependent people, it may be possible to recognize the symptoms.

Take a look at the Obsessive Love Wheel, representing the four phases of ORP. It is called a wheel because it is always turning, round and round as the relationship continues. Sometimes the wheel turns quickly, other times slowly, but it is always turning and always painful. While examining the wheel, look for any patterns of behavior over the course your relationship(s) and ask yourself: “Do either I or the person I am involved with behave this way?”

The Obsessive Love Wheel

Phase One: The Attraction Phase

The initial phase of ORP is characterized by an instantaneous and overwhelming attraction to another person. It is at this point the relationally dependent person becomes “hooked” on a romantic interest, usually resulting from the slightest bit of attention from the person they are attracted to. Phase One ORP behaviors can include:

  • An instant attraction to romantic interest, usually occurring within the first few minutes of meeting.
  • An immediate urge to rush into a relationship – regardless of compatibility.
  • Becoming “hooked on the look” of another, focusing on the person’s physical characteristics while ignoring personality differences.
  • Unrealistic fantasies about a relationship with a love interest, assigning “magical” qualities to an object of affection.
  • The beginnings of obsessive, controlling behaviors begin to manifest.

Phase Two: The Anxious Phase

This phase in considered a relational turning point, which usually occurs after a commitment has been made between both parties. Sometimes however, the relationally dependent person will enter into this phase without the presence of a commitment. This happens when the afflicted person creates the illusion of intimacy, regardless of the other person’s true feelings. The second phase of ORP behaviors can include:

  • Unfounded thoughts of infidelity on the part of a partner and demanding accountability for normal daily activities.
  • An overwhelming fear of abandonment, including baseless thoughts of a partner walking out on the relationship in favor of another person.
  • The need to constantly be in contact with a love interest via phone, email or in person.
  • Strong feelings of mistrust begin to emerge, causing depression, resentment and relational tension.
  • The continuation and escalation of obsessive, controlling behaviors.

Phase Three: The Obsessive Phase

This particular phase represents the rapid escalation of this unhealthy attachment style. It is at this point that obsessive, controlling behaviors reach critical mass, ultimately overwhelming the RD person’s life. It is also at this point that the person being controlled begins to pull back and ultimately, severs the relationship. In short, Phase Three is characterized by a total loss of control on the part of the RD person, resulting from extreme anxiety. Usually, the following characteristics are apparent during the third phase of ORP:

  • The onset of “tunnel vision,” meaning that the relationally dependent person cannot stop thinking about a love interest and required his or her constant attention.
  • Neurotic, compulsive behaviors, including rapid telephone calls to love interest’s place of residence or workplace.
  • Unfounded accusations of “cheating” due to extreme anxiety.
  • “Drive-bys” around a love interest’s home or place of employment, with the goal of assuring that the person is at where “he or she is supposed to be.”
  • Physical or electronic monitoring activities, following a love interest’s whereabouts throughout the course of a day to discover daily activities.
  • Extreme control tactics, including questioning a love interest’s commitment to the relationship (guilt trips) with the goal of manipulating a love interest into providing more attention.

Phase Four: The Destructive Phase

This is the final phase of Obsessive Relational Progression. It represents the destruction of the relationship, due to phase three behaviors, which have caused a love interest to understandably flee. For a variety of reasons, this is considered the most dangerous of the four phases, because the RD person suddenly plummets into a deep depression due to the collapse of the relationship. Here are some of the more common behaviors that are exhibited during phase four of ORP:

  • Overwhelming feelings of depression (feeling “empty” inside).
  • A sudden loss of self-esteem, due to the collapse of the relationship.
  • Extreme feelings of self-blame and at times, self-hatred.
  • Anger, rage and a desire to seek revenge against a love interest for breaking off the relationship.
  • Denial that the relationship has ended and attempting to “win a loved one back” by making promises to “change”.
  • The use of drugs, alcohol, food or sex to “medicate” the emotional pain.

Summary

Sadly for most people who suffer from RD, the only way they can get off their chaotic wheel is by jumping onto a new one, causing the cycle of control to repeat itself in a new relationship. If what you have read speaks to your situation or the person you are involved with, then it may be time for help. There are specific reasons behind the affliction of RD, which can generally be traced to a person’s past. Consider speaking with a helping professional trained in the field of relationships, such as a mental health counselor or family and marriage therapist. If you are engaged in stalking behaviors or you are being stalked, it is important to get help quickly.

Relational Dependency is treatable but only when there is an acknowledgement that a problem exists. Bear in mind that changing controlling behaviors takes time and progress should not be expected to occur over night. By reaching out for support, the relationally dependent person is really reaching in.

Copyright © By: John D. Moore, PhD
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Down to earth and folksy, Dr. John Moore infuses current eventsand pop-culture into his posts as a way of communicating larger points on issues related to wellness and goal attainment. His work has been featured in nationally syndicated media, including Cosmo, Men's Fitness and CBS Market Watch. He is a consultant to a number of Fortune 500 companies and institutions of Higher Learning. Dr. Moore is author of Confusing Love with Obsession and founder of Chicago based 2nd Story Counseling.

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