PATTERNS OF RELATIONSHIPS
- The Relational Gestalt: Which Movie Are We In?
This typology was devised by Carmen Lynch,
M.F.C.C., a couples and family therapist in
private practice on the Peninsula south of San Francisco.
Victor Daniels, Professor of Psychology at Sonoma State
University took notes on a talk in which she described it,
added two categories and a few additional ideas, and wrote
it down in the form in which it is presented here.
- Most of us have some kind of idea in our minds about how a
"good" or "correct" relationship is supposed to be. We can cause
ourselves needless distress by comparing our own relationships
with such an idea of what a relationship "should be like" and then
concluding that our own is defective by comparison. Psychologists
may imply something of that sort when they formulate criteria for
a "healthy relationship" which few real couples ever meet.
- There are many kinds of relationships,and a given kind may fit
a given person or couple at one stage of development but not at
another. Driven by our personal history, we choose partners who
help us meet our present needs, fulfill our expectations, and if
we're lucky, work throughour issues and grow in the directions in
which we need to grow. For a person or couple, recognizing this
can open doors to a broader spectrum of ways of being with
ourselves and each other.
- We all know some couples who seem so mismatched that we wonder
how they ever got together, yet who have learned to enjoy each
other and live together happily. Other couples seem so devoted to
mutual punishment that we wonder how they stay together. Still
others, by contrast, appear to be the perfect pair until we hear
they're splitting up or getting a divorce.
- Sharpening and deepening our awareness of we're doing, and how
we're doing it, can help us change our behavior in ways that make
a relationship more nourishing and supportive, and less toxic and
painful. Or it can help us see what we're not going to find in
this one. In either case, a clearer perception our present
existential reality can help us move toward doing a better job of
meeting our own (and often the other person's) needs.
- Ten kinds of relationships are described here, grouped into
"dominant" and "collateral" patterns. This
- treatment is analytical in attempting to sketch the outlines
of the principal patterns of relationships people enter into, and
existential in attempting to describe what they are like from the
inside. Upon hearing these descriptions, many of our clients,
students, and workshop participants breathed sighs of relief,
because this categorization helped them understand what they were
experiencing. They said such things as, "Yes, that's what's going
on with us!" and "It's reassuring to know that what we're normal!"
- The typology attempts to capture essential elements of each
kind of relationship with a minimum of judgment. It says, "This is
how it is for these people at this point in time. The relationship
fills real needs. It may become something else in the future, but
this is what exists right now." As Shirley Luthman and Martin
Kirshenbaum (1974) pointed out in their "theory of positive
intent," often there is some kind of motive to grow toward the
realization of one's potential (frequently in the form of
rebellion against elements in the relationship that impede such
growth) even in what appear on the surface to be distressingly
pathological relationships. Using this insight as a starting point
is quite different from the common approach of saying, "Here's
what's wrong with each of these relationships and here's what
should be done to fix it."
THE FIVE DOMINANT PATTERNS
- 1. SURVIVAL RELATIONSHIPS. These exist when partners
feel like they can't make it on their own. Thechoice of a partner
tends to be undiscriminating, made out of emotional
starvation&emdash;almost anyone available will do.This involves
relating at its most basic: "Without you I am nothing; with you I
am something." The survival involved may be physical as well as
emotional, including the basics of finding shelter, eating,
working, and paying bills. For example, a drug addict may be
connected with a rigid, regimented partner who holds things
together. In such a connection, the desperate quality of my choice
is based more on my needs than on what you actually can offer me.
- Since we are likely to have few shared interests or
complementary qualities, there's little positive "glue" to hold us
together when our relationship comes under stress. With each of us
trying to get the other to provide what we're missing, our union
is likely to be a symbiotic, desperately clinging one. Often the
relationship is subtly or openly hostile and abusive. One partner
or both may be actually afraid he or she could get killed for
talking about the partner's drinking or drug addictions or other
problems, or for behaving in a way that appears to threaten the
relationship. Such fears may have a basis in reality.
Relationships where one partner physically abuses the other are
often of this kind. Partners may be desperate for caring, or they
may be overwhelmed by any sign of caring and not know how to
receive it. In the latter case, the desperation may be just to
have another person around to provide some kind of contact, order,
routine, or even an opponent for fights and arguments.
- As a result of the desperation for contact and fear of losing
it, partners tend to have a very fuzzy sense of their personal
boundaries. Their contact is characterized by "confluence," in
Fritz Perls' terms, in which it is unclear where one leaves off
and the other begins, with considerable projection of the needs of
each onto the other and introjection of the other's definitions of
oneself. Often partners think in terms of what the other person
wants them to want, and are out of touch with what they themselves
want. They may have little tolerance for independence and
aloneness, and "go everywhere together and do everything
together." Instead of taking care of their own needs, they resent
the partner for not taking care of their needs. The tiniest
flicker of independence can be perceived as a threat. Even going
into an ice cream parlor and asking for strawberry ice cream can
be perceived as threatening if both of them have always ordered
chocolate. Strong feelings of insecurity tend to play a central
- Despite all this, they are getting something out of it. The
connection feels better than being alone or institutionalized.
Since the partners are so afraid to be alone, when they leave one
relationship for another, they tend to make sure there's someone
else to jump to before they let go of the person they've been
with, or make a quick impulsive choice of a new partner. Since the
partners tend to be very dependent personalitis, or "relationship
junkies," co-dependency is often a dominant feature of such
connections. (Co-dependent relationships can also exist at more
sophisticated levels. A person may not feel his or her emotional
survival intensely threatened, but the partner can be perceived as
an anchor in one's life without whom one is rudderless and lost.
This is very common and is often an element in a number of the
other relationship types described below.)
- Therapy with a survival relationship is likely tobegin with
looking at how the other person is "right" for you. What needs are
they fulfilling? How was your existence at the point where the
other person came into it? How can you develop more self-support
in areas where you're
- depending on the relationship for support? How would your life
be without this person? How well were you functioning when you met
him or her? Sometimes the ending of such relationships is a sign
of growth by one person or by both. Even when that's the case, the
relationship may end in a hostile way that is at least emotionally
destructive and at most physically violent.
- 2. VALIDATION RELATIONSHIPS. A person may seek
another's validation of his or her physical attractiveness,
intellect, social status, sexuality, wealth, or some other
attribute. Sex and money are especially common validators. In
response to a sexually unsatisfying relationship, a person may
choose a new partner with whom sexuality iscentral: "I was afraid
it was me, that I was frigid or something, but my new lover and I
have wonderful sex." Many teen-agers and young adults who are
looking for a sense of identity form relationships based on
- or sexual validation. The packaging tends to be very
important: physical beauty, sharp clothes, a cool car&emdash;the
package of romantic images which fit the reference group the
person wants to be a part of.
- These relationships are always a little insecure: "Does she
like me, or not?" There are theatrics and acting-out designed to
get the other person to pursue you. Since the partners are
immature, there is enormous tension and constant testing: "Do you
really love me?" One small act can be everything, a source of
tears and anguish, despite everything else the partner has done
all week. (This element can also occur in other types of
relationships.) Each partner can be looking for a different kind
of validation. An older professor who takes up with an attractive
young student may want physical and sexual validation, while the
student wants intellectual validation.
- As the relationship continues, one person may continue to
require validation while the other starts
- wanting something deeper. When this happens, both partners are
apt to feel betrayed, empty, and angry. For example, the man may
discover that the beautiful woman doesn't give him
- what he thinks she's going to. He grows hungry for real
contact, while she still wants to be the queen and have endless
large parties. One of the sources of validation they originally
had in common has broken. Or the woman who wants security marries
money and discovers that even though she's rich, she still feels
anxious and threatened. The money doesn't do what she
- thought it would.
- A validation relationship can further the valuable goal of
shoring up a person's self-esteem in areas where he or she has
felt inadequate or doubtful. When that has been done, and the
partners begin to be able to give themselves some of the
validation they relied on the other person for,
- the question which begins to emerge is, "How much do we have
in common besides the validating item? Where else can we go in the
relationship? Can we find other sources of connection besides the
surface personality traits and social roles that originally
brought us together?" When an older man marries a beautiful
trinket, if that's all she is, the relationship may not have a
promising future. But if she's a thinking person beneath the
- the relationship may develop. If, for example, she was raised
in a family with "the beauty" as her role, but is intelligent as
well, there are possibilities. She may begin to play an important
role in his business, or develop her own abilities in a way which
makes her a more broadly
- interesting or useful partner.
- If no deeper basis for connecting materializes and the
partners drift apart, there is a strong chance that the needs for
validation have been met and the partners have begun seeking
something different. At that point, the relationship has done its
work. The partners have learned to validate in themselves the
qualities they were insecure about and they are ready to connect
along other dimensions.
- 3. SCRIPTED RELATIONSHIPS. This common pattern often
begins begins when the partners both are just out of high school
or college. They seem to be "the perfect pair," fitting almost all
the external criteria of what an appropriate mate should be like.
The marriage involves living out their expectations for the roles
they learned they were supposed to play. He has the "right" kind
of job and she is the "right" kind of wife and they have the
"right" kind of house or apartment or condo in the "right" place.
Their families think it's the perfect match. These relationships
are intended to be for the long haul. They are often very
child-focused. Everyone is getting raised at the same time: The
parents are growing up while they're raising the children.
- A variation of this theme is the career-oriented couple, where
the career takes the place of the child. They may have a child
too, but the career is the primary focus. Often there is also
still heavy involvement with the family of origin, calling mom or
dad at least once a day. Big
- holidays are stressful because they can't even please
themselves, much less everyone else on both sides of the family.
They become days of obligation rather than holidays.
- In these relationships differences often take the form of
power struggles. Endless arguments develop about everything: how
to maintain the illusion of perfection to family and friends as
well as how to handle their own feelings and inclinations. This
often turns into a pattern
- in which the issue isn't really the matter at hand but rather
who "wins." A mistake one person made ten years ago is still
brought up today. Sexual attraction and involvement may suffer as
a by-product of the power struggles and the difficulty in talking
to each other in intimate ways.
- Don and Carol were seen by all as "right" for each other. Like
both their families, they became upwardly mobile. Cheered on by
all their friends, they were classic "Yuppies" during the 1980s.
After Don successfully moved into politics, his jeans became
expensive suits, and Carol's
- business success gave her options for exploring the material
world with a vengeance. They argue over everything. While both are
monogamous, they are almost celibate. To those observing from
outside the family, they are almost an inspiration.
- In this kind of relationship, everyone can end up "invisible."
The wife may be invisible to the husband, with his focus on career
and kids. (In a two-career family the reverse can also be true).
The husband may be invisible to the wife, with her focus on the
children and her community
- interests. The children are invisible because their primary
role is to serve as projections of the parents' needs and
expectations, and anything that doesn't fit those expectations is
squelched. As long as the roles fit both partners' expectations,
the relationship works. When someone
- takes a step toward breaking out of an expected role, often
the partner views it as a major threat and a power struggle
- In these relationships, partners tend to get stuck in old
patterns. They don't try new things, don't find a way to discuss
where to go on vacation. They may divorce in their forties after
twenty-five years of marriage, often because when the kids are
gone, so is most of what held them
- together. Endings in these relationships tend to be
heart-wrenchingly painful and destructive: "There's twenty-six
years of my life going down the drain!"
- Whether these people split up or shift to more effective ways
of relating is likely to depend on how many points of contact they
have. If they split up, it's likely to involve an extramarital
affair, because the system provides no opportunity for talking
about the relationship. When partners start letting go of their
tight hold on their scripts and expectations (especially the
- expectation that "my way is the right way and I wish you'd
just recognize it," a scripted relationship may move toward
becoming an acceptance relationship or an individuation/assertion
relationship, as described below. As these couples start learning
to listen, to disclose their
- deeper feelings, to negotiate, and to compromise, they can
provide room for each other to develop and value individual
identities. This includes learning to pursue their individual
interests, such as fishing for him and tennis for her, and then
coming together to share common concerns and pleasures, such as
going out together tonight and taking the
- kids to the park tomorrow. Partners often find solutions to
their conflicts when they begin letting go of stereotyped ideas
about who has to do what. Perhaps he likes cooking but is all
- around the house, while she's handy with tools and tired of
being locked into the woman's role.
- Partners in these relationships need to look at all the things
they've wanted to do in life but haven't, because it didn't fit
their stereotypes about themselves and their expectations about
- their partners. They need to learn to communicate at an
emotional level, to disclose their feelings and listen to those of
their partner. They may need to learn to work less and play more.
- 4. ACCEPTANCE RELATIONSHIPS. This is what many of
- us thought we were getting into when we entered a
relationship, including many people in the three categories above.
In an acceptance relationship we trust, support and enjoy each
other. And within broad limits, we are ourselves. But each of us
has a good sense of which aspects of our
- personal selves lie outside those limits. I find ways to
restrain myself from pushing those limits that erode your trust,
strain your enjoyment, and weaken your support for me.
- When our expectations are not overwhelming, when the
differences between our interests and inclinations are not too
dissonant, and when our combative instincts are not too strong, a
scripted relationship can evolve into an acceptance relationship.
When there's enough growth to keep us together and our
insecurities allow for honest reassurances, a validation
relationship can also evolve into an acceptance relationship.
Valerie says, "Eventually Dave and I both realized we didn't have
to be phony as our major priority. We found much in common, and
now we give and receive a lot with each other."
- 5. INDIVIDUATION-ASSERTION RELATIONSHIPS. These
relationships are based on the assertion of each person's wants
and needs, and on respect for the other person's
- process of personal growth. Often they are focused on
partners' struggles with what is missing or lacking in terms of
self-discovery, becoming whole, and developing their
potentialities. They require each person's acknowledgment and
appreciation of their differences.
- For many couples, in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties this
pattern took the place of the acceptance relationship as an ideal.
It includes elements of an acceptance relationship, but the roles
are more flexible and the boundaries more permeable. Partners
actively encourage each others' creativity and growth in new
directions, and encourage the partner to
- pursue personal interests with which they themselves have
little connection. On vacation, if they have three weeks, they may
do separate things for a week, then get together for the final
- Partners in these relationships tend to appreciate
differentness, thereby opening up the range of people that they
can connect with. Although the partners often look very different
on the outside, on the inside their processes for handling
conflicts and problems may be similar.
- The "working through" process in these relationships demands
an ability to tolerate ambiguities. As partners develop goals and
resolve problems, they need to have enough flexibility to deal
with issues without getting locked into their "positions." They
need to be open to finding new solutions rather than holding onto
some fixed, and often unstated, concept of how things should be.
It's not a major issue when one person doesn't want to follow an
old program, such as what to do on Easter. They're willing to wait
and discover how their feelings evolve rather than program most
goals in advance.
- For some couples in other forms of relationships, it's easier
to move into an acceptance relationship, while for others it's
easier to move into an individuation/assertion relationship. In a
scripted relationship where partners have very different interests
but genuinely care for each other, loosening the role expectations
and creating space for each person to follow his or her own
pursuits is one way to step out of chronic power struggles.
THE FIVE COLLATERAL PATTERNS
- These patterns tend by their nature to be more transient than
those described above, lasting from a few
- weeks (or with pastime relationships, sometime as little as
one night) to a few years. When one lasts longer, it is likely to
evolve into one of the forms described above.
- 6. HEALING RELATIONSHIPS. These liasons follow periods
of loss, struggle, deprivation, stress, or mourning. Participants
typically feel wounded and fearful. They need
- Tender Loving Care badly, and at the same time need to
undertake some reassessment of themselves and their ways of
relating. They don't have to be at the same place at the same time
in their own growth and development, and frequently they aren't.
By external criteria the partners may appear to be misfits,
sometimes greatly so. The lack of fit may involve age, with twenty
or thirty years difference between them. It may involve I.Q., like
the brilliant woman lawyer with a ski instructor who's not too
intellectual. It may involve sexual attitudes and experience,
based on recent or ancient traumas, or on a questioning of old
- Physical distance is common in healing relationships. One
woman who divorced after ten years of marriage got together with
an out-of-state ex-professor whose wife had died. Her friends
disapproved, insisting that "it'll never go anywhere," but at the
time it was exactly what they both needed. They were together for
about two years, sharing that stage of their lives.
- A white woman reports, "I had a healing relationship with a
black man. We provided each other with badly needed support and
had some very good times together. After a while the differences
became bigger than the things we had in common. He re-met a
childhood sweetheart, married
- her, and I sold them my bed."
- Couples in these relationships tend to talk about the past a
lot, about the struggle or loss that preceded their own
relationship. Often they go over and over it, reliving it on
different levels as they try to understand and come to terms with
it. Gentleness, support, and comfort rather than great passion
characterize such relationships. They are usually play-oriented
rather than work-oriented, with plenty of recreation, trips
together, and other ways of indulging each other. If the
relationship ends rather than moving into a different form, the
ending tends to be supportive rather than traumatic, perhaps as a
gradual growing away from each other.
- Sometimes a person may have two or three different healing
relationships at once. Also, although most healing relationships
are symmetrical, sometimes one person is healing and one is
experimenting or transitioning, as described below.
- 7. EXPERIMENTAL RELATIONSHIPS. These are "trying it
out" relationships. A man who has always chosen partners
emotionally similar to his mother, for example, may try
- being with someone very different. The intention is to find
out how to relate to someone like this person, and what a such a
relationship is like. That can open a door to finding new ways of
behaving with others, and perhaps to discovering little-known
sides of oneself and allowing them to grow. Dating relationships
often have this quality of exploration. When two people in an
experimental relationship make a connection that clicks, it may
evolve into one of the dominant forms. Or an experimental
relationship that almost clicks, but not quite, may influence what
a person looks for in the next partner.
- 8. TRANSITIONAL RELATIONSHIPS. In these, the
relationship is a cross between the old and the new, between
patterns that drove you crazy and others that you were changing.
This lets us handle the old issues and conflicts in new ways
without the gut-grinding of the old
- relationship. At the same time, we can try new ways of being
and relating. It's a good place to practice for a long-term
relationship that's healthier than the one that preceded it.
Occasionally it may evolve into one.
- For instance, a woman whose first husband lied to her
constantly, forcing her to rely on her intuitive sense of what was
really going on, became involved with a man who was basically
honest but whose love of drama led to exaggeration. In the past
such exaggeration would have
- enraged her, but she allowed herself to discover that in the
areas that counted, he was honest.
- If one person gets hooked heavily into the old patterns or
falls into the same old addictions as in the previous
relationship, this stops being a transitional relationship and
becomes the same kind as the one that came before it. It may
become a transference relationship, as described below.
- When both people in a transitional relationship have worked
through what they needed to, such a relationshipcan end in a
relatively caring and efficient way.
- 9. AVOIDANCE RELATIONSHIPS. This pattern may involve
people who protect themselves against any deep intimacy with
others or any full contact with their own
- deeper feelings. Or it may involve people just coming out of a
relationship who are afraid of still more of the painful feelings
of loss, mourning and failure that often accompany splitting up.
Or both. A history of past loss of a parent, other family member,
partner, or close friend by abandonment or death, and the fear
that "If I get too close to this person it will happen again" is a
common part of the pattern. The defining quality is that the
partners choose someone with whom they can avoid the feelings or
patterns of behavior that they want to stay away from.
- In some cases, the partner in such a relationship may be
someone who doesn't fit into the rest of a person's life. For
example, he doesn't introduce her to friends or business
associates. There may be a heavy emphasis on sex as a way of
suppressing the painful feelings. Self-disclosure
- is likely to be low and mistrust (of oneself, the other, or
both) high. Often the beginnings and endings are abrupt. After the
trauma of his "idyllic" marriage of ten years
- exploded in his face, Jim kept a continuing series of
avoidance relationships going for almost fifteen years, until he
finally allowed himself to trust enough to open up in a fuller way
- 10. PASTIME RELATIONSHIPS. A pastime relationship is
essentially recreational&emdash;for fun and games&emdash;and is
identified as such. Although some hopes may attach themselves,
expectations seldom do. A summer romance is likely to be a pastime
relationship. In most cases,
- circumstances make it unlikely that the relationship will be
an enduring one. Passionate, delightful, and tender while it
lasts, there's no expectation that it should be more than that.
The dominant mood and theme is "going with it fully for all of
what it is."
TRANSFERENCE RELATIONSHIPS, MATURE RELATIONSHIPS, AND LIVING
- Two other very different characteristics of relating can shed
some useful light on how we sometimes
- experience our ways of being with each other. In addition, we
will briefly examine the experience of living alone is a
- TRANSFERENCE RELATIONSHIPS. To a greater or lesser
degree, a relationship which falls into any of several of the
categories above can be a transference relationship. In these, we
perceive the other or behave toward the other in the ways in which
we perceived or behaved toward another
- person earlier in our life, like a parent or ex-partner.
Projection and mistaken attributions are a large part of
thi&emdash;when you do a certain thing, I conclude that you mean
what my parent or ex-partner would have meant by it, even if
that's not the case at all.
- If a person is committed to these mistaken interpretations,
attributions, and expectations, then the prognosis for the
relationship is not good. If they are willing to hear the other's
statement that, "I meant something quite different by that than
you inferred," then confronting and letting go of mistaken or
- counterproductive patterns transferred from the old
relationship onto the new one can be an important source of
psychological growth, and may lead to an enduring relationship
- MATURE RELATIONSHIPS. In many people over 40 (the
figure is a rough one), the needs have shifted, and there is no
long such a need to use the relationship to make a statement about
oneself. As they grow, partners tend to move away from largely
predetermined scripts in which the response to anyone will be more
or less similar, toward relationships that are responsive to the
uniqueness of each
- other person.
- The mature relationship is almost an article in and of itself.
There is a relative lack of judgment and
- there are relatively few nonnegotiable rigid expectations.
There is a community of experience. The old fights have become
boring or tiresome. Evolution in these directions typically
includes movement out of the role of being either the "subject"
who manipulates the other into fulfilling his or her needs or
- the "object" who is manipulated into filling the other's need.
It includes movement toward a healthy mutuality in which we can
alternate between subject and object roles, supporting and
encouraging each other's interests without losing a sense of self
(Boszormenyi-Nagy, 1965; Mahler et.
- al., 1975).
- Companionship may be found with one's oldest child, or a
brother or sister, or friends, and there is not
- the demand that the partner fill all one's relational needs
that is frequently found in less mature relationships. Partners
may become primary supports to each other without great
dependency, and may be contented with things they would not have
been contented with in young adulthood. A
- mature relationship tends to have a quality of ease and
contentment, with an edge of unpredictability. There is a
potential for excitement, if only in small things. At the same
time, a mature relationship may still have characteristics of one
or more of the types of relationships described above.
- Of course human behavior and experience seldom fit neatly into
tidy categories in which we are
- only either this or that. Most real relationships are a little
of this and a little of that.
- LIVING ALONE. The experience of living alone deserves a
few words in the context of relationships. The reasons people live
alone include these:
- First, some processes are "loner" processes, such as grieving,
or exploring oneself in a variety of contexts with a variety of
- Second, people may keep their distance from others because of
fears and insecurities. Some kind of counseling or therapy is
often appropriate here.
- Third, they may keep their distance because of a desire to
learn to stand alone and be independent, or to work through issues
which caused trouble in a pastrelationship before moving in to a
- Fourth, a person may be available, but face a
supply-and-demand inequality of acceptable partners. In this case,
a network of supportive friends can be invaluable.
- Finally, someone may be fulfilled enough on his or her own and
feel no strong need for a partner. Some highly creative artists
fall into this category.
- Here too, a network of supportive friends can be valuable. The
development of a self-supportive,
- self-nurturing relationship with oneself is an important
category of relationship, one which is all the more important when
a person is in fact living alone. At the same time, it is
important to have others available to call on when the need
- Difficulties in relationships are viewed here as "problems in
living," as Thomas Szasz (1974, 1991) puts it, rather than as
pathology. The focus is on how it is experienced, how it is
working and filling felt needs, and how each person has the
personal responsibility of learning o relate in constructive
rather than destructive ways.
© 2000 by Carmen Lynch and Victor Daniels
Humanistic and Existential Psychology
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