Note to readers: This is the first of a series on this topic. Your questions and comments can help frame the direction and focus of the coming weeks discussion as we explore this issue more in depth. Please contribute your thoughts and ideas. As always, your comments will be anonymous.

Whether it is a spouse, sibling, a parent or boss, many of us have experienced someone in our life with whom we simply cannot get along-no matter how hard we try.

Don’t get me wrong here…Disagreements in relationships are normal. It is how we learn and grow – conflict challenges us to compromise which then morphs into cooperation. No, the folks I am talking about are those who have no skills, interest or desire in solving any difference of opinion. They deal with conflict by:

  1. Getting very angry, defensive and deflecting.
  2. Attacking -either with words or through behavior.
  3. Reacting with a stony silence.

If you are in a relationship with someone who exhibits the above behaviors, than you know how impossible it can feel, even to have a simple conversation!  Dealing with this person, you often feel insecure and anxious and lonely. Your experience has taught you that whenever you bring up a difficult topic, try to set boundaries or ask for something for yourself, they will employ one of the above techniques.   You walk away feeling frustrated, shaken to your core and out of control. Finally, in an attempt to avoid fallout, you begin to “walk on eggshells.” By trying to “keep the peace” you start to ignore your own needs, you acquiesce, and swallow your own truth.

You are dealing with “The Impossible Partner”( IP).  It is impossible to have a stable relationship with someone who consistently employs any of the above behaviors. Furthermore, the Impossible Partner:

  1. Avoids self reflection and has no interest in exploring their inner life.
  2. Doesn’t really care how their behavior affects others.
  3. Is often grandiose and sees him/herself as “better” than others.
  4. Feels the rules don’t relate to them.
  5. Feels no need to comply with any agreements or commitments they make.
  6. Like to be admired by others.
  7. Is egocentric (it is all “about me”).
  8. Lacks compassion.
  9. Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt.
  10. Gets angry when not agreed with.
  11. Holds grudges– sometimes for years.
  12. Likes to win, not resolve.

 Some of these traits may be more pronounced and intense than others.  One doesn’t need to embody all of the above to be difficult. Consider the above list on a continuum-the more severe the characteristics and the more of them exhibited- the more tumultuous the relationship.

At this point you may be wondering-is she describing the narcissist, the borderline or perhaps, the sociopath? I am deliberately staying away from labeling or “diagnosing” because as soon as we do that, it is inevitable that our thinking will move on to how to fix or control or “cure” the IP. That isn’t a helpful perspective because it takes the focus off of ourselves and moves it to the other. By focusing on the other person’s behavior, we lose sight of where the possibilities for real change exist.

 “Impossible” refers to YOUR experience of being in the relationship. When you are focused on your experience and your feelings, it will be easier to segue to thinking about what YOU need to do-not to fix the IP but to fix yourself.

Now you might be thinking-“I don’t need fixing”. Well, if you are miserable in a relationship, then you are responsible for figuring out how to bring peace and calm into your own life. This will require you to make changes and you may see this as unfair. “Wait a minute, I am not the problem, why do I have to make changes!!??”

Here’s the crux of this issue; you may not be the problem but you have a problem because you are unhappy. Sure, it is easy to focus on the other-If he stopped drinking, if she stopped yelling, is she would only keep her word, if he would only talk instead of shutting down- but you can’t MAKE the IP do it your way. So, you are left with the very difficult but real decision that if you want to be happy then you might have to be the one to change. You may have tried begging, yelling, sobbing, cajoling, manipulating, and even lying. All these behaviors are focused on changing the IP, not on making your own changes. When you truly understand that you can’t change him/her, you can begin to focus your energy in a more productive way.

When I say YOU need to make changes-this doesn’t refer to stuffing your feelings for the sake of the relationship. That is unhealthy and dangerous. Chances are you have already done that.  I am talking about really considering if it is possible to maintain your own authenticity and value system while in this relationship.

 Remember that you have options- often they are not options you like-they may involve leaving the relationship, getting legal counsel or even calling the police. But if you stay focused on what you can’t change (the other person), you will stay stuck and unhappy. When you focus steadfastly on what choices you do have, then your situation can change.

 A good relationship is like a good meal-it is only as good as its ingredients. You can follow the recipe with loving care, but one rotten ingredient will still wreck the entire dish.

 Next week: The Impossible Partner: How do I know that I am not asking for too much?

© 2013 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback.


  1. Patti on the 21. Apr, 2013 remarked #

    This so describes my ex husband!! As a marriage counsellor told me ‘you can’t always be right and be in a relationship. You have to choose’.

    My ex has carried a grudge against his first ex-wife for over 25 years……. did we ever really have a chance? I was meant to be married to him for a while but not forever. I learned what I needed to learn and grow from this relationship and will never stand for that level of emotional abuse ever again.

    It was hard leaving my old life behind but it’s the best thing I ever did for myself. I’m happier now than I”ve been in a long time and no more walking on eggshells!!! There is a great life after the IP!!! Do not settle for less than you deserve and you only deserve the best! Get support wherever you can and get out and find true happiness. LIfe is too short to live without it!

  2. Nancy on the 21. Apr, 2013 remarked #

    Donna, this was an excellent article. I follow your blog and often recommend my patients get on your site and/or read your book. Thank you. Another one to share.

  3. cj golden on the 22. Apr, 2013 remarked #

    There is always so much that you share with us in your blogs – some apply to the reader personally, some not – but all the insights are going to help us become stronger, healthier and more compassionate people.
    This topic today does personally point to me and my life; both in the lessons I had to learn living with, and then leaving, my ex-husband and in watching my own children in their marriages.
    As always, I look forward to next week’s blog, and the next, and the next…
    Thank you for your insight and sharing.

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