Photo by Nicole De Khors / Burst
In our desire to understand, manage, or untangle our relationships, we are constantly trying to view them through different lenses, struggling to connect the dots: Is it about me or about him? Has the tension over the last couple of weeks been just a blip due to stress or the tip of the iceberg of some bigger problems? If I do x, will she do y, or if I stop x, will he stop y?
But in order to truly make sense of the state of the union, it’s often helpful to step back in order to see the broader landscape. Here are five of the most common types of relationships: four bad, one good.
There’s a jockeying for power about whose way is better, who wins the argument, whose expectations and standards do we follow, whose career is more important. There are a lot of arguments that quickly turn into power struggles, battles over getting the last word.
Emotional climate: Tense
Underlying dynamics: Two strong personalities battling for control; self-esteem based on winning, being in charge; often there are rigid ideas regarding how best to do things, about criteria for success, for what makes a good life.
Long term: These couples get tired of battling and divorce, or one finally concedes, or they both finally define their own turfs that they are in charge of.
One partner is essentially in charge and does most of the heavy lifting in the relationship while the other goes along. While some of these start out as competitive relationships with one conceding, more often this imbalance has been there from the start. There are few arguments, though occasionally the active person will become resentful for carrying the load or not getting enough appreciation. They explode or act out, but then feel bad and go back to the same role.
Dynamics: These relationships often start with the active partner taking on a helper role. Their personalities are guided by being nice, making others happy, being over-responsible, conflict-avoidant. As children, they were the good child. The more passive partner may be easily overwhelmed with anxiety, feels entitled or overwhelmed as an adult, and leans on others.
But sometimes these dynamics are less the result of personalities and more that of undetected or unrealized problems, such as mental health issues, where the active partner is always feeling the need to compensate for the other. Or when physical problems suddenly arise, such as a partner developing a chronic illness or physical trauma, forcing the other partner to step up and be a caretaker.
Long term: The risk for the active partner is that she will get burned out or resentful and leave. The partner left behind either needs to become more independent or find someone else to take over.
Here the power difference is not based on caretaking, but on raw power. One partner is clearly in charge, and the other accommodates less out of passivity and more out of fear. While the intimidating partner will easily blow up, there is little real conflict. There is emotional abuse and sometimes physical abuse.
Climate: High tension; the accommodating partner is always walking on eggshells
Dynamics: The intimidating partner is clearly a bully who has anger-management issues. He or she may have grown up in a home with an abusive parent and learned to identify with that parent. Underneath may be high anxiety that translates into extreme control, or simply a character disorder that translates into narcissism, power, and little empathy for others.
The accommodating partner may have grown up being abused and have a higher tolerance for such behavior. Intermittent behavior—the other person sporadically being nice—keeps the partner off-balance and fuels magical thinking: If I just figure out the right steps in the dance, I can keep the other from exploding. Unfortunately, they can never figure out the steps.
Long term: Either the relationship continues, or the accommodating partner finally gets the courage to leave. The aggressive partner will do what is necessary to try to pull the other back into the relationship. If that doesn’t work, the abusive partner will likely find someone else to replace the other.
4. Disconnected/Parallel Lives
There is little arguing, but also little connection. They go on autopilot, with both having their own routines. The relationship seems stale, they have little in common; they are more roommates than lovers.
Climate: Boring, stale, little tension, courteous coldness
Dynamics: Some couples fall into this type of relationship within several years. It may be that they married for the wrong reasons, what chemistry was there quickly faded, or they swept problems under the rug from the start and learned to use distance to avoid igniting any conflict. Others may move into this type of relationship with the mellowing that often comes with aging, and still others become child-centered, and once the children have left home, have little to hold them together. The weather, jobs, and updates on children become their default topics of conversation.
Long term: Midlife or older-age crises may cause one or both to feel that time is running out. This may precipitate arguing and efforts to either finally revitalize the relationship or leave. Or, they continue saying to themselves that this is good enough, or that they’re too old to change.
The couple is able to work together as a team, complementing each other. They each recognize and actively accept the other’s strengths. They’ve got each other’s back, both are interested in helping the other be who he or she wants to be. They are able to revitalize the relationship when it begins to grow stale; they are able to solve problems rather than sweeping them under the rug.
Climate: Caring, relaxed, though there may be some tense periods of transition
Dynamics: They may start out this way, or they may have started with any of the other forms, but through therapy or insight and resolve have worked to make things better.
Long term: Midlife and older-age crises may arise, but they are able to work through them.
Obviously, we are painting a bleak picture of the first four, but usually it’s not 24/7 grimness. There are either just enough positive experiences to keep the relationship from completely going under, or the responsibilities for children provide enough of a common focus or distraction to maintain the relationship for long periods of time.
Also obvious is that the last type—accepting/balanced—is our gold standard, the ideal to reach.
Turning Things Around
If you find yourself in any variations of the four less-functional relationships, the starting point for change is realizing and honestly acknowledging the current state of the union. The next steps are taking active measures to change the dynamics. This generally means doing the opposite of what you are already doing: If you are a controlling or aggressive person, you have to learn to be more accommodating; if accommodating or passive, you need to step up and be more assertive. If feeling disconnected, you need to stop using distance to avoid conflict, to stop running on autopilot and instead talk about problems, to make an effort to connect and find common interests; and if in an abusive situation, to stop the magical thinking, define your line in the sand, and take steps to get out.
Because relationships are built on patterns, on each person bouncing off the other, if you change you, you change the pattern, which may change your partner and the relationship. If you need help, get it—therapy with support from friends and family—so you can take concrete steps.
You don’t need to take what you are getting. Change is possible. And if not now, when?