Guest Blog By Cheryl Kenn, LCSW
(Note from Jonette: In a channeled reading several years ago, White Eagle gave some breakthrough insights to help a client in his marriage. Like many of us sometimes do, the client had taken the role of ‘saint’ in his relationship. This set up a destructive dynamic where his wife … at least in his eyes, was given the role of ‘sinner.’ You can imagine how limiting both roles could become. It shows up in relationships outside of marriage too. Cheryl Kenn, LCSW took the idea of this ‘Saint and Sinner dance’ and expanded on it for us. Cheryl is a psychotherapist with more than 20 years of experience specializing in spiritual consciousness, relationships and healing from traumatic events. She is available for phone consultations. http://www.cherylkenn.com)
In understanding how to help couples cope with their greatest obstacles, I have found that one most difficult dynamics to change in relationships is when the partners fall into the dichotomy of what can be called the “saint or sinner” dynamic. The scenario is widespread. If you or someone you know has lived in this dynamic, you’re probably aware of the sheer agony that it brings.
The saint and sinner dynamic can begin as a good intention or a harmless declaration for the betterment of the individuals and the relationship. It usually starts out with one partner, wanting the best at heart and holding high values, expends great effort striving for positivity in actions, intentions, practices, words, thoughts, meditations, diet, etc. Their partner fails to meet the higher-by-comparison standards. The “saint” may think or even say, “If only you could change and meet my higher spiritual goals and practices our lives be better, etc.”
Motivation to better oneself is a valued quality of spiritually minded people. Wanting to rid oneself of imperfections is a core value of successful people. It is the focused drive to improve. It is a trait of a civilized society. However, its effect on the individuals in the dynamic can also carry a dark side that can eventually have damaging and tragic effects. The psychological forces and effects of this “saint/sinner” dynamic in relationships, when understood, can be healed in order for individuals to live more genuinely and love more completely, both others and themselves. Changing these patterns might also benefit the larger community, modeling more equanimity and creating harmony for others such as friends, acquaintances and children.
Why would wanting to improve oneself by improving the behaviors of one’s partner be so potentially destructive? The development of polarities of saint and sinner can go undetected. It is unconscious and difficult to pinpoint as it mimics positive intent. To start, the “saint” starts with high standards in nearly every aspect of life: mind, body, spirit, intention, thought and action. Over time, the high standard-bearer delivers messages to the “sinner” to get the sinner to improve. This message may come in the form of well-intentioned constructive criticism, persuasion or commentary about their views on areas of behavioral improvement. The sinner, yielding to this message, may start developing seeds of self-doubt over time, allowing the constant messages of inadequacy to multiply then thicken into insecurity and lack. The sinner may learn, due to a loss of self-confidence, to over-value the opinion of the saint. In the process, they lose trust in their own abilities, automatically giving in because they know they will inevitably fall short. It is like Pavlov’s operant conditioning.
Eventually, the dynamic builds and may take a slow but sharp turn when feelings of failure in the sinner’smay take two different paths. The first path: accept the blame oneself, believe that the saint is right, and that they are to blame for what is wrong, i.e. feel guilt. The guilt may become shame: believing that they are wrong for who they are or worse, that they ARE bad. Tragically, the outcome of this scenario is rarely liberation or insight. There can be years or decades of anguish endured before the destructive reality of this suffocating pattern is identified and hopefully stopped. If not, as time goes on, the inequity deepens. It is not only the sinnerwho suffers. The saintalso withers via their narrow-sighted view of life and of the self. Both partners become stuck and an eventual crack appears, perhaps a slow, creeping one, but a rupture nonetheless.
A second common path: the sinner transmutes self-loathing into feelings of resentment, anger, and envy, even revenge. The sinner’s heart, out of self-protection, can begin to harden or worse – begin to close. How else would the sinner, who can never feel “right”, find a way to salvage their self worth? Dramatically, the sinner, first guilty then angry, is confronted by a choice. Either to live out of inadequacy/guilt in the sinner role, or forcefully escape from the entrapment. Ultimately, in a desperate stab at re-establishing self-respect, the sinner may find liberation by “becoming really good at being really bad otherwise known as the “I’m really going to be a sinner!” attitude. They can smell the sweet taste of revenge from doing so!
The sinner thus swiftly flips the picture on its head and, in a defensive strike, takes back the control that was all but lost. If the sinner cannot be good enough, then they can become bad enough. The saint can no longer have the same impact as the sinner has internally nullified the former’s weapon of judgment. What used to affect the sinner: comparison, criticism, pressure to change etc. no longer works. It is a tumultuous gesture of defiance that is reminiscent of the rebellious teenager boldly individuating from oppressive parents.
This good at being really bad or “super-sinner” dynamic can further damage the relationship and stunt the personal growth for both partners. Remember, the saint loses because of rigid defenses of perfectionism and blame — defined as the externalization of wrongdoing. The saint cannot admit they may embody any “sinfulness” as they have a phobia to being flawed. Sin diminishes a person and justifies punishment in the saint’s eyes. The saint loathes such imperfections and expels it — but keeps it near, via the sinner.
On the other hand, the sinner, now vengeful, may lose perspective, because by taking on a walled, defensive stance, they now act more emotionally and perhaps even callously— not in service to the self, but out of rebellion and reactivity. They choose to be contrary and feel new purpose in sending a loud message to the saint that liberates them from a prior role of imposition. Being hardened can quickly turn to being numb, even uncaring. Like scar tissue, the sinner’s defense, created to protect wounds, can overgrow and feel restrictive or painful. Over time, this dynamic can erode a relationship until there is scarcely any mutuality or joy to salvage. Both hearts can start to distance and shut off until there is little love left remaining between the saint and the sinner.
Can the pattern be stopped?
The saint and sinner first need to gain awareness that the dynamic is a dance that can only continue if both parties are willing to participate. A difficult re-evaluation is necessary at this point, and this is when many couples enter therapy. Sometimes, couples may end the relationship if it has grown too destructive for one or both partners. The potential negative consequences of furthering a destructive dynamic must be carefully measured for the sake of each partner’s emotional well-being.
What can each partner try to change if repair is the choice? A good first step is for the saint to realize what they are doing: marginalizing and externalizing the bad, jettisoning the intolerable parts of the self and projecting it onto the other. Second, the saint must learn to realize that a) a major self-transformation must take place if the relationship is to be saved, even more importantly, b) that the saint cannot truly thrive in a one-sided, imbalanced existence. They are also suffocating themselves in the process while risking losing their beloved. The idea of sin representing a tragic personal flaw must be re-evaluated and re-defined and hopefully replaced.
It can be excruciatingly difficult for the saint to even admit that what they are doing may be negatively affecting the other, for “Isn’t their intention”, as the sinner hears the saint say, “high and good? For the best?”. (Spiritual people are nodding forcefully in unison.)
Ultimately, it is the acceptance of sin that, like a neutralizer, releases the sinner’s need to rebel or escape. It can be an enormous step for the saint to begin to move out of the straightjacket of perfectionism and begin to hold compassion towards the self, appreciating character flaws, imperfect events, human-ness and the beauty of the ordinary. It may be liberating for the saint to let go of the shields of perfection and embrace aspects of the self that were once intolerable. The saint needs to admit that what they were doing was ego driven and manipulative. Accepting the human/imperfect nature of the self translates into allowing vulnerability. This serendipitously frees the saint to accept/allow imperfection in the other. The sinner then can cease manipulating in return by “being really good at being really bad” and begin to act in ways that no longer stem from anger or self-defense.
It is in this powerful step of release that the first seeds of hope can begin to sprout — hope for more acceptance, balance, opportunities to live more richly, with more breadth and depth in a multi-faceted emotional relationship, accented by a spectrum of all emotions and finally free of fear and blame.
The truth about relationships is that there really is no such thing as a definitive good or bad. Those are judgments. The rightness or wrongness of a given person, behavior or quality is subjective. Another truth about relationships is that judgment and blame are ego driven entities. Judgment and blame morph into weapons that backfire. Although well-intentioned, a judging and blaming saint fails to see the underlying control and manipulation in their behavior because the blaming feels so good. By better understanding how the saint or sinner dichotomy creates destabilizing prisons of inequity and inhibits the ability of each partner to love him or herself fully, an essential element to being able to sustain a loving relationship, we can actively dismantle the construct as we notice it forming and embrace a more whole, productive and mutually fulfilling way of loving.