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."


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 role.
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 physical
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 facade,
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 ensues.
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 thumbs
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 two.
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.


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 attitudes.
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 again.
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."


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 relational context.
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 that works.
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:
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 arises.
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 Resources

Victor's Home Page

Psychology Department Main Page

Sonoma State University Main Page