Initiator – Dependent Syndrome

This syndrome is fairly common and is often associated with the pursuer-evader pattern described elsewhere in this kit. There are really two ways in which the pattern develops. The first way is where a partner has never been able to initiate ideas for the relationship and has always been passively dependent throughout their life. If such is the case, it may reflect a personality development issue that is best addressed in individual psychotherapy. There is no easy way to generate the capacity for creativity in a person who has never previously shown initiative. However, there is more potential for a person who has previously shown capacity but has temporarily lost touch with it. This constitutes the second way in which the initiator-dependent pattern develops. To many, it is puzzling how a partner can metamorphose from a dynamic inventive companion in the early stages of a relationship to a lump of passivity later on. How could this occur?

How it occurs has to do with a phenomenon known as an “ego-state”. Most people are unaware that a person’s personality does not really resemble an onion but, humorously enough, is more like a potato. Like some legumes, it is not completely uniform and symmetrical. Instead, it has different nodes with some separateness between the nodes. While this model may seem silly, it is actually fairly descriptive of what happens in terms of memory, emotions, and thinking style. At one time and in one ego-state, a person may have full recall of an incident. At another time and in another ego-state, the person may have no recall. At one time and state, a person may think as an adult. An another time and state, the person thinks more like a child. The most extreme example of this is a Dissociative Identity Disorder where “multiple personalities” seem to act out different thoughts and feelings. While the existence of actual multiple personalities is debatable, the fact is widely accepted that all people experience varying degrees of separate emotional states. Those states affect memory, cognitive style, emotional expression, and of course the ability to take initiative. If you doubt this, ask yourself how quickly you can feel amorous towards your partner after you have just spent two hours working over your income taxes. On a small time-scale you are familiar with different “moods”. Some of these are actually different ego-states. On a larger time-scale, we can talk about different roles as actually involving different ego-states. When a person is single, their major role is to look after themselves. They usually can’t rely on others to make all their decisions. Consequently, they are forced to exercise a certain kind of authority in their life. Think about authority not in terms of social hierarchy or prestige but rather as having to do with authorship. When we author something, we create it. We generate our own product or idea. Exercising authority over our own lives really involves generating our own priorities and sense of what we view as important. We invent options and make our choices. When a person is single, they are more or less forced into an ego-state or role of self-direction. This excepts the dependent personality problems noted earlier in this discussion. In other words, a single person will usually find their situation conducive to exercising more personal authority. When a new relationship starts, a single person is usually still operating from their role of personal authorship. As the relationship progresses during the stage of early romance, they may adopt a new role where they are expected to generate ideas for mutual fun. However, they will still spend a lot of time in the old role of personal authority. The main point is that these particular states are not stifling of creativity.

As a relationship develops over a number of years, the emotional dynamics will change. What frequently happens is that more and more of each individual’s time and energy will be allocated to roles of external responsibility. More and more obligations to others will become the structure for the person’s life. “Free” personal time becomes more and more scarce. This is especially true with the onset of parenthood when many relationships reach an emotional crisis. A person can become fairly exhausted with just routine responsibilities in which they must make decisions using an external framework. What does the company expect of me? What does my spouse expect of me? What does my role of parenthood demand of me? The framework for such decisions, especially when the person is under stress, can all too easily become the expectations of others. This is when a person has more risk of losing touch with their own personal authority. This is when romantic initiative can become jeopardized. As the person “coasts” to conserve energy and to avoid feeling overwhelmed with responsibility, they may become more and more dependent upon both the decisions and expectations of a more energetic spouse. It almost seems as if the dependent spouse calcifies in their responsibility roles and that their romantic creativity atrophies through disuse. Actually, it’s that their personal authority that has become more remote and inaccessible.

Not everyone eventually becomes passive dependent in a relationship so there must be some predisposing factors for some people and not others. Perhaps the most predisposing factor is vulnerability to criticism. For example, if an old motif of childhood involved usually feeling inadequate for securing parental attention and approval, then this can lead the person to greatly fear inadequacy as an adult. When these old fears lurk in the subconscious, they can be easily triggered again. A spouse who is angry that their partner shows no initiative for the relationship can unknowingly trigger these primal fears. While the dissatisfied spouse may believe that their partner feels somewhat hurt, they may naively believe that their partner does not feel bad enough. After all, the passive behavior is not changing. Unfortunately, the truth is all too often the opposite: The passive partner is feeling too hurt. Their primal shame may be keeping them too regressed and externally oriented to think creatively. There is a parallel in the animal kingdom. When a dog is whipped frequently and repeatedly, a phenomenon of learned helplessness occurs. The dog will likely freeze their muscles and crouch with the intense pain. Instead of running away, they cannot think of any other solution other than their crouching, tail-curling response. Humans also lose their ability to think creatively when flooded with emotion. Old feelings of childhood inadequacy, when stimulated anew in an adult relationship, can freeze up a spouse. Their thinking becomes regressed and childlike: What can I do to make it up to him/her? What do they expect of me? How can I avoid criticism in the future? This is hardly a state in which creativity occurs. When this style of anxious thinking is practiced repeatedly, it can become infused into a person’s ordinary adult roles. It may become their habitual adult ego-state in a relationship. Trying to get the person to become more proactive by criticizing them is like trying to resolve a case of impotence through more criticism. The situation only gets worse. In fact, this isn’t just a metaphor. The initiator-dependent syndrome is often a case of psychological impotence without the sexual dimension coming into play. However, if the anxiety becomes extensive enough, sexual relations do often become affected as well.

An additional factor may come into play that further reduces the dependent partner’s creativity. They may become “passive-aggressive”. The dependent spouse may become resentful of being perceived as being inadequate and may subsequently resist complying with the other spouse’s expectations. This is usually not a conscious resistance. Instead of risking an outright argument with their spouse, the more dependent spouse may procrastinate, forget, or distract themselves with other responsibilities. Even though this may seem “sneaky”, it is still a very defensive orientation. The dependent spouse is unconsciously trying to defend their injured sense of being an autonomous and separate human being. Unfortunately, in such a defensive ego-state, proactive creativity is very unlikely.

Reversing the anxiety dynamics in the initiator-dependent syndrome is not easy. Individual psychotherapy can be helpful for reducing a person’s hypersensitivity to criticism. However, this is a lengthy process. It is more efficient to help the dependent partner to find ways to restore a more secure and creative ego-state like they had at the beginning of the relationship. The following suggestions for intervention are based on this type of logic.


INTERVENTION #1: Discuss the problem with your partner

It is very helpful to reframe the problem. Instead of emphasizing how a partner should squeeze out ideas for fun, another focus is best. Instead of direct control, influence is much more productive. How can the more dependent partner plan their environment so that they sometimes reach a more creative ego-state? The problem is redefined from being results-oriented to being process-oriented. Like successful treatment for psychologically induced impotence, a couple can agree to focus on feelings instead of results. The more initiating partner can stop angry demands and instead adopt an encouraging posture. The more dependent partner can become less defensive. Both partners can discuss the validity of the following points for agreement:

1) The more dependent partner has a responsibility to focus more private contemplation about their life and life’s possibilities. They need safety from criticism in order to do this in a creative manner. Privacy helps provide that safety. 2) The more initiating partner needs to encourage their partner’s private contemplation. Demanding compliance or production from their partner only compounds the current problem by raising anxiety. 3) Both parties are responsible to each other about how consistently they are managing their privacy. They are not obligated to report their private thoughts and feelings.


INTERVENTION #2: Plan for routine meditation

This intervention is designed to help the person to dig themselves out of always depending upon an external frame of reference. Ideally, the person can set up at least 2 to 3 periods of meditation per week, each period lasting at least 30 minutes. During the meditation “private time”, the person practices letting go of outside worries and responsibilities. Instead, they focus on breathing, relaxation, and other sensations. Eventually, they may let their attention drift to more existential or philosophical thoughts. However, job or family responsibilities should be left for another time. In order to encourage this type of ego-state, the following tips are suggested.

1) It is best to set up a weekly schedule. Write the times in your schedule book. This is very important. It will help overcome resistance. Resistance and fearfulness of losing external structure may manifest themselves as a fear of “wasting time”. Actually, this is really a fear of resuming authority over yours life. 2) Morning is probably the best time to start a meditation routine. This is because you haven’t yet spent your waking hours in more frantic ego-states (job or parent). At the end of the day, there is usually some carry-over from the day’s activity. It can be harder to transition. However, if you’re just not a “morning person” you can schedule in accordance with your emotional rhythm. 3) Pick a private environment that is outside of your usual routine. You probably have already associated most of the rooms in your house with various responsibilities. A back deck or porch would probably be better. Do you have a secluded spot near a garden? 4) Towards the end of each meditation period, begin to think about your future. What would be fun to experience beyond mere accomplishments? Let yourself fantasize, not only about the distant future but about next month and next week. Out of such free fantasy comes creative ideas for fun in your relationship.


INTERVENTION #3: Externalize the family schedule

You can hang a large calendar in a conspicuous place such as the kitchen. On the calendar, everyone can write in various planned family events. The advantage to this is that it encourages everyone to think more long-term and to avoid being totally captured by daily routine. You can even develop a system of recording future “fun” events in glaring neon color to as to distinguish them from responsibilities. This externalizing helps legitimize and give permission for thinking about fun.


INTERVENTION #4: Read some suggestions for romantic gestures

If you have difficulty thinking up sentimental gestures for your partner, consider reading 101 Nights of Great Romance by Laura Corn. This book contains many good ideas for ways in which you can give your spouse romantic symbols. It may also help you to loosen up your thinking for coming up with other ideas of your own.


INTERVENTION #5: Group therapy

Group therapy can be helpful in reducing a person’s hypersensitivity. If you are frozen in their sense of dependent helplessness, you can benefit by transferring some of their dependence into a therapy group. With some of your dependence invested elsewhere, you are less vulnerable to spousal criticism. The therapy group can also help you to spot passive-aggressive expression of your resentment and to choose more pro-active thinking instead.