Relationship Deficits and Schema

Relationship Deficits arise from issues or schemas. Here are a list of the schemas and their corresponding relationship deficits:

Abandonment/Instability: A high score here may indicate an affect dysregulation disorder such as the hideously named Borderline Personality Disorder. They have a hard time accepting that finding a way to manage a perpetual problem may require patience and a timetable. These spouses don’t do well if the idea of Generative Conversation is introduced too early. Some of the SCB’s used by these partners are heavy criticism, blaming and using guilt as a defense.

Mistrust/Abuse: Deep, abiding suspicion is the hallmark of a spouse in the throes of a Mistrust/Abuse Schema. They have a tough time expressing vulnerable feelings, and they are unable to ask for what they need in an open and adaptive way. I think that Gottman’s Pit Bull Husbands would be at home here.

Emotional Deprivation: This spouse is characterized by an almost complete incapacity to express their needs and make simple requests. They may present as wholly self-contained and reluctant to make requests, or they may make excessive and urgent demands. This is but one of several schemas where the impact of Developmental Trauma can be discerned.

Defectiveness/Shame: A constrained sense of self is the plight of spouses with this schema. Somewhere in their family of origin, they got the message that they were inherently defective. Developmental Trauma manifests in this schema as well. These spouses are secretive and try to sooth their shame, often in maladaptive ways, such as addictions and compulsive behavior.  They are the witholding “Potemkin Partner,” perfect on the outside, with secrets lurking behind.

Social Isolation/Alienation: These are the partners with cognitive challenges and their sometimes long-suffering partners. One of Dr. K’s specialties is working with “neuro-Typical/neuro-Atypical marriages. This spouse behaves as if the playbook that we were all bestowed on how to acquire social skills was missing from their crib. Dr. K has written a popular, and somewhat controversial post (see the plethora of comments) on the upsides (and challenges) with having a partner with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Having a cognitive challenge which you interpret as making you “different” is a hindrance to being able to reliably resist the lure of feeling alienated, even from your partner. And we know from Malkin’s work on Narcissism that even if you’re not neuro-atypical, spouses who struggle with intractable health issues can be a little self-involved at times.

I might wonder about including Depression (and living for years with a depressed spouse), Alexithymia (and living for years with a spouse with Alexithymia), Adult-Onset PTSD, Bi-Polar Disorder, Developmental Trauma, Adult get the picture. Living with a mental health challenge is inherently alienating and isolating. There is often an atmosphere of ambivalence around these relationships, particularly with the neuro-typical partner.

relationship deficits

Dependence: Spouses may feel dependent on their partner. They can be very demanding and have a difficult time self-regulating. This makes taking time-outs difficult for these spouses.  Relationship deficits are apparent when these partners have difficulty making decisions without reassurance from their partner, are extremely passive, avoid taking responsibility, and assume a stance of devastation or helplessness.

Failure: Spouses with this schema interpret any request by their partner as a comment on their inadequacy. These spouses are incredibly defensive and are resigned to their own relational inferiority. Spouses with Developmental Trauma sometimes display this high level of interpersonal sensitivity.

Entitlement/Grandiosity: The relationship deficits from this schema can be daunting. These spouses see marriage as a zero-sum game. Somebody wins, and somebody loses. Their deficits can be epic. Toxic narcissists are found here. Unable to negotiate fairly, and unwilling even to validate their partner’s point of view. These are the Emotional Abusers and Gaslighters. Marital satisfaction is often low for their partners because their capacity for empathy is also correspondingly low. There is a lot of work that needs to be done with this schema, which is why as I have mentioned previously, I am a fan of Terry Real’s groundbreaking work with this schema. Terry is particularly spot on when he discusses the needs of the spouses of these grandiose clients. They need to be shorn-up and encouraged to be more assertive with their “bottom-lines.”

Self-Sacrifice/Subjugation: This schema suggests relationship deficits which inhibits a partner’s ability to clearly express wants needs and desires. They tend to be passive and struggle to maintain boundaries. They feel a reflexive responsibility to attend to their partner’s needs and feel guilty when they are unable to. They can sometimes show a display of habitually indirect communication which can lead to Conflict-Avoidant or Passive-Aggressive communication.

Unrelenting Standards: These partners have relationship deficits which block their ability to validate, hold Generative Conversations, or remain flexible with their deeply held aspirations. Partners of these spouses are often lonely, starved for empathy, and on high alert to the displeasure of their demanding partner.

Relationship deficits are useful to see through the lens of a Schema Typology. Science-based couples therapy will probably be mulling over the use of schemas, and I would not be surprised to see both rank and file therapists, and thought leaders in couples therapy have a lively discussion about the schema approach.

Essentially these relational deficits detract from the ability for partners to engage in Generative Conversations, maintain emotional regulation through the appropriate use of time-outs, listening to, and validating their partner, asserting preferences, and articulating their “bottom lines,” particularly to grandiose partners.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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