Rediscovering Love

How to identify behaviors that undermine love—and how to avoid drifting apart

What is Your Relationship-Approach Style?

How you present yourself can define the outcome of a relationship.

A relationship-approach style is the typical way you approach a new relationship. Your partner will experience it by watching your body language, listening to the phrases you use, responding to the sound of your voice, and watching your behaviors. With each sequential relationship, you have likely woven those characteristics into a relatively predictable pattern.

If most of your relationships have turned out the way you wanted, you are a desirable partner who has been able to attract who you wanted. If, however, you’re like most relationship seekers, you have not been aware that you were repeating patterns that have not worked as well as you’d wished. If that is so, you are far from alone in the world of relationship pursuits.

In my forty years as a relationship therapist, most of my patients had not consciously evaluated their approach styles, nor realized that they had consistently repeated them in their past relationships. Believing that their patterns were just natural expressions of their basic personalities, they had not realized that their genetics, upbringing, cultural teachings, social exposures, and prior relationship successes or failures had played major parts in how they developed them.

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Have many of your relationship interactions seemed a little too familiar, as if you are just plugging yourself and your new partner into a script already written? Have you noticed that your patterns and those of your partners often seemed strangely repetitive? Have you ever considered that challenging those behavioral responses could result in new, more successful patterns?

Approach styles are not always pure. They can combine in multiple ways. It is important to recognize those you will recognize most often, while also identifying your personal self-presentation. The nine common relationship approach styles below will give you a sampling and help you to define your own. None of them is necessarily correct or more successful, but each style has a goal, a typical partner who will be attracted to it, and a likely outcome.  

Once identifying your particular approach style, you may wonder how you created it. If you examine its possible origins, you will most likely find them in patterns you observed as a child, have watched in the media, or read about in meaningful books. Many people develop their style by copying someone else’s successful mate-attracting style rather than searching for the best in you.

Once you have non-critically observed your relationship-approach style, you can transform it. In doing so, you’ll go from unconsciously repeating a style that you thought was natural, to one that not only better represents the totality of who you are, but is also open to continuous exploration and transformation. From that foundation, you will know who you are likely to attract and what to expect in that specific relationship.

Nine Common Relationship Approach Styles

Missionaries

“I have come into your life to show you a better way to live. I only want the best for you and I know you will be happier if you’ll just learn to see things as I do. I’ve searched for all of my life for the right way to be, so I understand deepest and most profound truths about people, love, and relationships is. If you’ll just follow what I say, I promise you will be happier than you’ve ever been.”

Goal: To gain control and take responsibility for partners who want to be led by someone more confident and knowledgeable than they feel they are.

Partners most likely to be attracted to them:  People who have never, or currently, have lost faith in their own direction and are looking to be inspired and redirected.

Likely Outcome: Being in a parent/child relationship where you are going to exchange a peer team for power and control over someone else’s life. Most likely, you will either spend your life watching over someone who leans on you, or you’ll be a successful pseudo-parent and your symbolic-child will grow up and leave you.

Missionaries approach relationships with an interesting mixture of compassion and patronization. They often feel they have the answers from the most reliable sources and want to “save” their partners. They also truly believe that their partners will not find the right way to a happy partnership unless they adopt the missionary’s conversion formula and accept wholeheartedly that the parent-partner knows what is best for them.

The missionary often does have good ideas and be wonderfully seductive, unconditionally-loving types, but their underlying message becomes clear over time. Their partners will only gain their approval if they model after them and appreciate the role they play.

Missionaries tend to attract people who feel broken and unfocused at that time in their lives, or perhaps most often in their relationships. If they continue to rely on the doting control, they will be welcomed and nurtured. If the partners attracted to missionaries begin to develop their own styles and want to live and believe differently than they’ve been taught, they often leave the nest for a more peer-oriented relationship.

Performers

“I love being the center of attention because I’m usually the most interesting person around. I’ll do anything for you if you are an adoring audience, appreciating everything I have to offer. If you try to get the spotlight away from me, you’ll have to offer a better performance. Otherwise, your job is to keep me in love with my own performance and deeply appreciated by you for what I bring to the table.”

Goal: Keeping their audience/partners appreciative and attentive.

Partners most likely to be attracted to them: Those who may be shy and nervous and glad to have someone take over center stage, usually a little insecure about their own ability to attract admirers. On the other hand, they may be people who truly like to stay in the observer/critic role because of its inherent comfort in staying invisible.

Likely Outcome: Depends on how often you can change your act. Otherwise your partner will grow tired of your repertoire, want eventually to write the script with you, or look for someone more interesting. The potential exception depends on how lucky the audience/partner feels. Insecure partners may stick around even if they are bored.

Though they can be, performers are not necessarily ego-maniacs or narcissistic personalities. They just naturally love the limelight and take center stage early in the game. They don’t seek or expect much contribution from their partner/audience except for a genuine enjoyment of what they offer.

Goal: The goal of a performer personality is to gain acceptance through creating interesting stories and sharing entertaining experiences. They might even allow their partners to offer new material, but they maintain overall control over the play.

Unfortunately, many performers have only one act. That requires changing audiences on a regular basis. They also attract people who are more comfortable being passive. If, over time, those partners decide that they want a more equal share in the spotlight, they may not have that option.

Conquerors

“I love convincing new partners to let me take the lead. I’m not a control freak, more like I’m most comfortable handling things from the driver’s seat. I’m open to other ways of looking at things, but I make the final decisions. That’s just the way it is. I’m the boss, or else the relationship won’t work for me. I love a good fight, but I’m really competitive and pretty hard to beat.”

Goal: Domination and staying in charge.

Partners most likely to be attracted to them: Those who feel comfortable submitting to your control and power. They may just like that role or don’t have the strength to say “no” to their partner’s decisions. Unfortunately, they can self-sabotage by martyring themselves rather than speak up. They may actually look up to their partners as better, smarter, more competent, but that means accepting inferiority as their starting point. These relationships are often parent/child interaction that often ends up with a loss of sexual intimacy.

Likely Outcome: If you succeed playing the hopefully benevolent dictator, you may find yourself overwhelmed at being the consistently responsible member of the team. Or, you may eventually grow weary of being with someone who has a diminished view of self, and write them off as impotent. Your partners may also fulfill their needs to be unchallenging followers, and eventually want to move on to something more equal to their new maturity.

There are many ways to lead, but conquerors can only do it from a top-down position. They insist that their partners do their bidding, and believe that the relationship will only stay on a stable course if they quickly suppress any rebellions or counter positions. They may control with compassion or with anger, but the outcome is the same; their partners do not have a majority vote in any important decisions.

Conquerors have often been heavily controlled or intensely indulged as children. They often have charismatic personalities or come with significant talents or material value that jack up their worth. Sometimes their intense need to maintain order is based in deep feelings that they become ultimately responsible for the outcome. They may also fear that if they don’t control, they will be controlled.

Conquerors can be bullies, but are not always so. They do have a large arsenal of behaviors that let their partners know very quickly when they are “out of line,” and need to be corrected.

Rescuers

“I just can’t seem to pass up an attractive partner whose life isn’t working. It’s like I know that if I can just solve their problems, I can make a positive difference in their lives. I’m sort of blessed with being okay in my own way, and I have a lot to offer. I usually don’t require anything in return. If they can just say that I really helped, I feel like everything I put in will be worth it. I guess you could call me a natural caretaker.”

Goal: Nurturing and effective problem-solving.

Partners most likely to be attracted to them: People who are frequently in some kind of difficult situation. Often their lives are just not working and they may just needs a “leg up.” They are drawn to a rescuer who doesn’t seem to need anything in return. The rescuer’s typical partners seek havens where they can heal until they can face life again.

Likely Outcome: There are two most common outcomes to these kinds of relationships. If the partner rescued has come upon hard times and is usually a good survivor, he or she will deeply appreciate the energy and resources extended, and eventually want to reciprocate. Rescuers do like to be the “good parent,” and sometimes, even when these good outcomes happen, they cannot let go of that parental role.

More often, unfortunately, their rescued partners frequently continue having succeeding crises. They may have an investment in seeking temporary rescuing, but rarely give the rescuer a sense of actually making a permanent difference. Frustrated rescuers can become disappointed and angry partners when they run out of tricks and their partners are still in trouble.

Rescuers are the “do-gooders” of the planet. They usually are basically kind people who have emotional and energetic capacity to give to others. They are generous to a fault and well-intentioned. They both seek and attract partners who are temporarily needy and can benefit from their resources.

Rescuers can also be controlling partners in disguise. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is the adage here. Rescuers need approbation, appreciation, and sometimes obligatory support for their “sacrifices.” They often require that their “saved” partners improve sufficiently to justify the time and caring they’ve put out. During their moments of caretaking and compassion, they may seem to be giving from the bottom of their hearts without need of reciprocation, and often truly feel that way.

Buyer beware. If, at some time, rescuer’s partners have needs that are more than the rescuer can meet, the once very willing rescuers may respond by challenging the legitimacy of those needs. Their partners may be overwhelmed with their emotional debt and may feel the necessity to lower the value of the gifts in order to feel less obligated.

Anthropologists

“I believe that you should never try to change anyone. My mission is to realize that person was who they were before I came into his or her life and I must leave them intact unless they wish to do things differently. It’s my sincere intent and responsibility to get to know my partner deeply and intimately without judgment of any kind and to offer myself up with the same intent and honesty. If we accept who we are, we will get along fine. If we don’t, then it just wasn’t meant to be. Not every relationship works out, and you have to be able to deal with that. I made the deal, and I don’t let myself complain about it.”

Goal: The positive goal is to accept a people exactly how they are. The escape clause is the anthropologist is not beholden to change his or her self to accommodate the other.

Partners most likely to be attracted to them: People who are set in their ways and very attached to their behaviors and opinions. At the beginning of the relationship, they may believe that they are in control and find out later that the anthropologist does not have any intent of changing either.

Likely outcome: These are the made-in-heaven relationships that will either like clockwork or pretzel up very early. If there are enough good overlaps and the partners have a wide range of behaviors they can accept, the places that don’t work may not matter. The problem is that the potential gaps can be disastrous if they cannot be resolved.

Anthropologists have two very different sides to their relationship goals. On the one hand, they sincerely intend and behave in a way that acknowledges and respects their partner’s way of living, thoughts, feelings, and goals, as well as their own. To that end, their initial responses are typically supportive, interested, and non-judgmental. They not only act that way, but take pride in their ability to learn without having to correct or replace their partner’s life styles with their own.

On the other side, anthropologists do not require that their partners should want to know who they are, or require their partners to go out of their way to accommodate them. They are content to be in real-time intimacy without the need to change the relationship if their connection doesn’t gel. That comfort with “whatever happens is meant to happen,” makes them both ultra-accommodating but also easily ready to disconnect if things don’t work out.

Though they certainly appear open to whatever comes, they are not as likely to be equally open to challenges to their own opinions and biases. Their laissez-faire attitude may be a cover for their desire to also live their own lives as they choose. They are sincerely interested in their partner’s reasons for being who they are, but don’t take those behaviors on unless they intertwine nicely with what they are looking to become.

Pessimists

“I know that there are wonderful people and good experiences in the world. I just don’t think I was meant to have them. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to find the right relationship. I either love people more than they will ever love me, or someone wants more of me than I have to give. I’ll keep trying, though, because I’m not a quitter. But I don’t have much hope I’ll ever get what I want. I’ve worn out of lot of well-wishers and I feel pretty guilty about that, but I never asked them to make me happier.”

Goal: Wanting to be with someone who is not turned off by their cynical attitude and hardened negativity. They feel that they are always trying to feel better but turn away anything that threatens their comfort in their negativity.

Partners Most Likely to be attracted to them: Sunny, high-energy, “cheerleaders” who believe in their hearts that anyone can find happiness, especially if they are just in the company of someone who is naturally contented. They feel that the cup is truly half-full and that there is a way around every barrier if people only try hard enough. They tend to minimize problems and exaggerate solutions, never daunted in their quests to make things better.

Likely Outcome: If the seasoned pessimist is determined to find sorrow and disappointment in every interaction, their previously unstoppable partner may eventually get tired of failing and look for less cynical partner. Sadly, when that happens, pessimists once again feel they’ve failed at another relationship, not realizing they are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pessimists who have little to offer tend to discourage their “sunny” counterparts early in the relationships. But those who have wonderful compensatory attributes like looks, charm, or money, can be simultaneously desirable and emotional traps. They have been written about in romantic literature from the beginning of time. Though often brooders, depressives, and loners, they deeply attract people who admire and love their struggles, and want desperately to be the ones who get them to invest in life again.

“Give us a smile, sweetie.” “Hey, it’s not so bad. Look at all we’ve got.” “We’ll make this work together.” “You’ve just never had the right partner.” These are the phrases spoken by well-wishing enthusiasts. Offered with care and support, they will eventually fall prey to the pessimist’s innate capability to undermine even the best of arguments.

The well-wishers who are continuously attracted to determined cynics often have issues of their own. They may have been raised by a parent who inconsistently allowed his children to please him or her, or arbitrarily turned away from them. Children who are taunted by that kind of parent can keep trying to make a pessimist happy forever.

Hit and Run Partners

“I love the excitement of a new relationship when I’m at my best. I know how to make my partner feel treasured in a way they have never have known before, and I’m sincere about it. It makes me feel great when I’m on target and watching someone fall hard for me. I never lie about my intent. But then the same thing happens to me every time. My partners want more commitment, more time, just more of me, and I’m tapped out. Then I know it’s time to go. A lot of my ex’s say I’m probably afraid of being trapped but I don’t see it that way. I just like to have a good time and nothing stops that like being able to predict my partner’s next move.”

Goal: Having fun while preserving freedom from commitment.

Partner Most Likely to be attracted to them: The people most attracted to hit-and-run partners are often intrigued by their past rejections of others. Even if they realize they are the newest target, the unbridled freedom with which these partners embrace and chase fun is often too hard to give up. Hit-and-run people do occasionally go after naïve partners, but usually are much more intrigued by confident people who believe they will be the ones who can get them domesticated. That process is, in fact, more fun, and fun is what drives them.

Likely Outcome: Sequential relationships that are sexy, intense, fascinating, and baffling. It is a wonder that partners still stand in line to participate. Of course, that depends on the societal value of the hit-and-run man or woman. Still, if the show is a hit, some people will probably go back until it closes.

The ancient process of pursuit and escape is the fodder for many passionate and anguished romantic tales. A tall dark stranger sweeps in to take the here-to-for unwinnable princess, but then leaves without a trace. She has never known love like that and, though seemingly destroyed, she would never have missed the experience. A man leaves everything he has worked for to pursue the mysterious woman who captures his heart, only to find that she has no further use for him, and is now left yearning for a love that might never happen in the same way again.

These hit-and-run romancers are often given bad raps, as if they are all cold and heartless lovers who seek out their prey, take what they want, and then disappear.  The “Peter Pan Syndrome” and the “Fatal Attraction” woman are often quoted as examples. There may be underlying pathology for some, but that diagnosis usually comes with some very unattractive cohorts like lying, betraying, and sadistic intent. Partners who are consistently use others that way often have an unsavory reputation and are easy to spot. In reality, many of these partners are very up front about their long-term availability. Perhaps their ability to love deeply and passionately without needing to promise “foreverness” may add to their charm.

Serious love takes a lot of practice and sometimes requires an unsettling determination to stay the course even when things are hard. Many people welcome the recess of being temporarily involved with a light-hearted, very giving, temporary partner who doesn’t require anything but a play buddy.

Love Addicts

“Love is like a drug to me and my current partner is my welcome pusher. When I’m high on connection, sexy experiences, and emotional closeness, I’m a great person. I can’t do enough for the person I’m with. But if my “love hit” doesn’t arrive in time, I can be pushy, needy, and demanding. The people I’ve had the best relationships with get my duality and make sure I’m taken care of before I go into withdrawal. I’m not very patient or understanding when I need to “use.” I’d like to be able to control this better, but I’ve always been able to find partners who get me and are willing to take care of my habit, at least for a while.”

Goal: Making sure the current partner is readily willing and able to meet whatever needs these partners express. That partner must also enjoy the process and feel that the love addict is worth the sacrifice. 

Partners Most Likely to be attracted to them: People who are drawn to soothing the addict’s pain and are transformed themselves when they can get their partners “high” on the love they provide. Over time, they may eventually feel controlled and obligated, but are afraid to pull away when they’ve promised to be there. Socially desirable love addicts are often highly intriguing and exciting to people who have not felt appreciated in the past. But too much of anything can become more of a chore than satisfying.

Likely Outcome: The initial dance between addict and rescuer is often exciting and mutually satisfying. Unfortunately, no partner can always do that dance perfectly and in a consistently timely way. Eventually, if the demands begin to outweigh the availability of product, the gap between the provider and the addict may widen too much. The partner, who once sincerely promised consistent comfort, now feels like the personification of the symbolic drug they have always been, and wants out of the contract. They are then faced with the wrath of the person they’ve spoiled and the guilt of having participated in that outcome.

Addiction is any compulsive set of act that offers a short-term reward with a long-term loss in preference to a lesser immediate reward but longer term gain. Love addicts are no different. If they have desirability to their partners, they often can initially get what they need while concealing the their self-centered drives. It is only when the addiction overtakes the drug supply that their underlying frustration and demands begin.

Addictive relationships can also be mutual with both partners demanding that the other cater to their eventual demands. These relationships can be are highly volatile and prone to infidelity as one or both partners make certain their hungers are met in any way they can.

Compulsive Givers

“I refuse to stop believing in the goodness of people. Even though I have been hurt many times, I just know there is a great person out there for me. I start every relationship completely open and give everything I have up front. If I get taken advantage of, at least I know I have been the best person I can be. My friends tell me I’m too gullible, and act like an emotional virgin with each new person. But I like myself this way. I’m not going to stop being a nice person, just because there are so many people who take advantage. Someday someone is going to value me for who I am and love me the way I deserve to be loved, but asking for that is just not in my nature.”

Goal: To never give up searching for a wonderful person who will take my generosity and love, and return it with even more.

Partner most likely to be attracted to them: Unfortunately, these determined innocents often attract users, who are glad to take what is offered without challenge or reciprocal favors. Being on the other end of a continuously giving people who don’t put a high price on themselves can seduce selfishness in the partners who partake.

Likely Outcome: Disillusionment and martyrdom. If the ultra-giver, who offers bountiful and undying love doesn’t require reciprocal devotion, they are actually more likely to be dumped when their receiver has had enough. Even good people, seduced into latent obligatory emotional debt, will lessen the value of the gifts to avoid being too burdened by the compounding cost.  Or choose the option of leaving the relationship.

If you had to divide the world into givers and takers, you would rely on the givers and always be able to predict the behavior of the takers. Compulsive givers are not always motivated by goodness. Anxiety, fear of loss, and the need to be good often are the drivers behind giving too much without requiring compensation. On the other hand, you can generally trust the takers because you can rely on their self-preserving motives. That doesn’t mean you would like to be on the other end of them.

Partners who are always on the giving end of a relationship do keep score, even if subconsciously. They also expect that they can count on getting what they want when the time comes because their partners will certainly recognize the validity of their “rare” claims. Unfortunately, taking partners do not keep score or feel obligated to give back what they have not agreed to.

Relationship-approach styles are varied and multi-faceted. When they are successful, the partners who display them rarely feel the need to change them. Yet, there is always room for improvement and transforming people are often more intriguing, both to others and to themselves.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.

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