Superheroes & Battling Monsters in Relationships

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

Many times couples get stuck in cycles or systems of behaviors.  It is often hard for the couple to recognize when the cycles started or how they are kept going.  One thing that is common in couples is what I call the Superhero vs. the Monster. On a side note: I have written this piece romantic couple cycles in mind, however this can be a relationship cycle for other important relationships including siblings, parent/child, and friendships.  

In this cycle there is a Partner in Distress.  The Partner might be “in distress” for many reasons.  It might be they are afraid that their loved one will leave them.  Possibly the Partner might feel disconnected or neglected from their other half.  Maybe there is stress going on at work. There might be a feeling of jealousy that occurs.  There could even be many issues that surround the Partner, but whatever it or they are it is the Monster of this story.  It is important to emphasize that the Partner is not the Monster, but whatever feelings or situations arise is the Monster.  The Partner feels overwhelmed when the Monster appears and feels helpless to do anything. When the Monster makes its appearance the Partner in Distress cries out for help.  

Enters the Superhero.  This is the loved one that sees that their Partner is anxious or distraught over something.  Their reaction is how can I fix this? Does their Partner need more time? What can they do to soothe their anxiety?  What actions can be done to fight back the Monster? The Superhero will gladly do this for their partner so they don’t have to see them in distress anymore.  Once the Monster is fought back, the Partner in Distress feels relieved and the Superhero feels good that they saved their Partner.

But the Monster comes back.  And when the Monster returns it can become bigger and need more to quell the beast.  Soon the Superhero is doing more and more in saving the Partner in Distress. The Partner keeps calling for help.  Soon the Superhero is no longer strong enough to fight back the Monster. Once the Superhero fails to save the day it becomes a huge betrayal to the Partner in Distress who trusted the Superhero to save the day.  The Superhero meanwhile feels exhausted from saving the day and feels taken advantage of and angry at the Partner for being angry.

Recognizing that you and your partner are in the cycle if the first step in breaking out of the cycle.  Therapist will often write out the cycle by writing how the different behaviors that each of the couple do in a fight.  It is also helpful to write out the emotions that were going on during each of the behaviors (possibly in a different color ink).  Writing this out helps couples see their patterns and try to find alternative strategies or exit strategies from their cycle.

This cycle starts off with many well meaning intentions.  The Partner in Distress wants to feel supported and needs help.  It would be okay to ask your partner for support. The issue arises when the Monster is something on the emotional level.  The Monster is often negative feelings like anxiety, anger, jealousy, or grief. The Partner is asking for help not to feel that way.  But the Superhero can not help contain or control our feelings. When the Superhero does defeat the Monster, it creates the expectation that it is the Superhero’s responsibility to manage it, and not the Partner to manage their own needs.  We often need to be able to learn how to manage them on our own. The Superhero can not defeat the Monster because it was never his arch-nemesis to begin with, it was the Partner in Distress’ villain.

An alternative strategy for this cycle might be for the Partner in Distress not to rely on the Superhero partner, but become the Superhero themselves.  Often if we rely on others to do things it is because we don’t feel that we can or that we won’t be able to do it “good enough.” If the Superhero keeps saving the day we don’t get to learn our limits or learn that we can accomplish more than we thought.  

Taking a Pause

For the Partner in Distress it is often helpful to find a way to pause when the Monster appears.  Mindfulness is a helpful skill to notice when your emotions might flare up or when the Monster appears.  Taking a deep breath or counting to 10 are other strategies in taking a pause. Taking a pause helps evaluate a situation.  The more you know about your Monster, the more you know how to quell it.

Becoming the Sidekick and not the Hero

For the Superhero, they need to learn to step back from the spotlight.  By learning to step back and support their partner in different ways they can help become their Sidekick instead of their rescuer.  This allows their Partner to become their own Hero. Once this can happen the couple can start working as a team.

Listening Instead of Saving

The couple should still be able to be there for eachother.  Often in couples there are two strategies in helping your partner: Fix things or Listen.  The Superhero focuses only on the fixing strategy to save the day. But instead of trying to save the day, the Superhero should focus on how they can support their partner as their Sidekick.  Listening to the Partner in Distress talk about their concerns, fears and stresses can help them better understand their own Monster. Validating their experiences and acknowledging that situations and/or emotions helps with this as well.

Setting Boundaries

The Superhero in the relationship often feels frustrated because if the cycle of the relationship has been only focused on one partner’s needs (i.e., the Monster) than the Superhero’s needs are put to the side, downplayed or ignored.  We expect Superman and Wonder Woman to save us but we don’t pay attention to their needs. Relationships thrive when both partners are taken care of. All relationships take nurturing and the Superhero needs it as well. The Superhero’s need are just as important.  The Superhero may need help in voicing their needs and what they want in the relationship.

Setting boundaries can help create better balance for both partner’s needs.  Most of these strategies such as setting boundaries and regulating your own emotions can be tricky work and people often need to learn how to do this.  Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right away. Therapy, both individual and couples counseling, can help work on building these skills as well.

The most important thing to remember is that we don’t need a rescuer but a partnership.  Also remember that all relationships take nurturing and both partners need to feel taken care of to build a strong relationship.