Relationships are a big part of life — and no more so than now.
Whether it’s family or friends, acquaintances or lovers, online, in real life, or anything and everything in between, our relationships bring us joy, as well as a wide spectrum of other emotions; some good, some less so.
'Relationships are created between individuals, therefore there are a couple of things to consider when working out what sort of person you are in any given union and what your relationship together is really like – who am I as an individual? Who am I in a relationship?' psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member, Beverley Blackman explains.
'Most people think they will be the same person, but it’s surprising how many people have different personality traits coming to the fore when they are in a relationship compared to the person that they are when they are single – and it will depend on each person’s psychopathology (ie the way that their mind is built, based on their past and childhood experiences of relationships).'
'For example, a very independent person may become very submissive or co-dependent when they are in a relationship, because life has taught them that they need to please the other person in order to receive love or remain in a relationship. Equally, someone who can be quite submissive to their boss, may become very over-dominant in a relationship as a way of tempering their need to be submissive at work.'
However, the type of relationship you're in isn't always obvious but discerning which style can be really useful. So, below, Beverley talks us through the five different relationship types and how to work out which one you're in.
A healthy relationship
A healthy couple relationship is one that is built and negotiated between two individual people. This means that each individual genuinely cares about – and respects – the other at a deep level, and is interested in, and able, to empathise with the other’s experiences. It is a balance between two people and requires authenticity, honest communication, and compromise. It’s not something that comes out of the blue, and it isn’t about love at first sight – it is a deep connection built on mutuality. It requires two people who are honest about themselves, both in their own mind and with their partner, and is able to communicate and negotiate within that balance. It requires both to hold the other in mind.
An independent relationship
An independent relationship is where there are two people who are connected, but are more independent. This relationship often lacks communication and empathy. If you are too independent for your partner and you don’t include them enough in your life, then the partnership is out of balance.
Often independent relationships begin as healthy relationships, but then people lose sight of the value of the relationship and begin to take it for granted, and sometimes forget to work on it.
You need a certain amount of independence to keep your individuality, but total independence can drive a couple apart. An example of an independent relationship would be a pair of empty-nesters – they have played the roles required to raise their children and have perhaps put the relationship on the back burner to concentrate on that. Once the children have left, the relationship can feel quite sparse. There is connection between the couple, but empathy, consideration and the ability to hold the other in mind to function as a couple, may not be there any more. Being overly independent can come across as being uninterested or insensitive to the other, and the trust between you can be tested or in some cases, broken.
A co-dependent or reliant relationship
A co-dependent or reliant relationship is one whereby you are almost totally reliant on the other and use the relationship to define you both. This sounds extreme, but it is a common relationship scenario.
It feels almost impossible to imagine life without your partner, and you can often lose sight of your own individuality. Your sense of self will be bound up in the other and you will generally speak of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. You gain validity and identity from the relationship, and being in that relationship defines you, rather than allowing yourself to be an individual who is part of a relationship.
You will do things for the good of the relationship, but to your own detriment: you avoid conflict or disagreement in case it rocks the boat. There is a difference between co-dependent and compromise; everyone needs some space to be an individual person in their own right, and to have their own thoughts, feelings, friends, interests while also having a balanced relationship. A co-dependent relationship can feel constricting and oppressive as it allows no room for individuality.
A dominant/submissive relationship
This relationships displays no balance – and is usually found when one person dominates the other, and the other has learned to give in and go along with what they perceive to be the stronger partner.
If a co-dependent relationship is about clinging together, this is about one person standing on the other’s back. The dominant partner usually has little empathy and uses the notion of being in a relationship to project an image of being a caring and balanced individual.
The submissive partner often has little self-confidence or self-esteem, and will often tell themselves that they are better off staying in the relationship because at least they have a relationship – otherwise they would be alone. Each person in this partnership is in it for a reason – usually to complete themselves. There is a lack of balance, lack of trust, lack of understanding, lack of compromise, lack of empathy. It can create a hostile environment if either of the couple tries to step out of their defined roles.
A toxic relationship
'Toxic relationship' is a catch-all term. These partnerships are usually the kind where you wonder how or why you got into it, but they are almost impossible to leave. There are many different versions of toxic; the following are examples and are by no means an exhaustive list:
- They can involve physical, emotional or verbal abuse.
- They can involve one partner being very controlling of the other in terms of how the other lives their life. For example, censoring who they spend time with, who they chat to, where they are going, what they are doing and how they behave. They monitor the other partner to the degree that they have no privacy or individuality.
- There is a lack of respect and empathy. This is to the degree that one partner has almost given up on addressing difficulties within the relationship because they know that the other will shout them down, belittle them, bring up issues from long ago whereby the other partner felt aggrieved or shown up. They will also aim to drown the other out in an argument.
- There is a lack of responsibility for consequences of actions. One partner consistently blames or gaslights the other, and puts ownership of the faults within the relationship on the other. There is no balance, no compromise, no empathy or effort to understand.
How to build a healthy relationship
What seems most important about achieving a healthy relationship is that you know yourself authentically, and you are prepared to put in the work to achieve a healthy and balanced relationship. If you know your demons and are aware of them, then you are in a better place to manage them and not let them impact on your relationship.
Similarly, if you have a good balance of self-confidence and self-esteem, you will be able to verbalise to your partner when things need to be focused on, or altered, so that the relationship remains comfortable for you both.
Relationships are not easy and they don't just happen – a relationship requires a lot of self-awareness, mindfulness, the ability to communicate effectively and the ability to give as well as take. A healthy relationship does involve conflict and rows, but the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one is that the rows lead to change and forward movement, rather than stagnation and blame.