Many people seem to get themselves into unhappy romantic situations in life because they try to force-fit their relationships into ready-made templates they’re carrying around in their heads — often stored away at an unconscious level.
These romantic templates — or relationship models, if you prefer — are scripted scenarios that define the ways they and their partners are supposed to interact, and they include rules of conduct that they seek to impose.
Some relationships crash out because the two participants are carrying around highly disparate models of how the “ideal relationship” should work. They may become so preoccupied with enforcing their own preferred models that conflict, tension, and ego-competition push aside romantic attraction and healthy mutuality.
An individual who’s emotionally or socially immature might be so hooked on a particular romantic scenario — or model — as to misperceive, minimize, or disregard the needs and interests of the partner. Such a person might crash one potential relationship after another because they haven’t learned to deal with their own neediness, jealousy, and self-centeredness. “Serial marriers,” for example, very typically tend to repeat history.
Over and over, in working with people who are in a state of relational distress, I see seven main versions of these romantic templates coming into play. By understanding which, if any, of these primary templates an individual might be trying to impose, we can sometimes help them look for more mature and creative alternatives.
The Gravity model. This construct seems to involve a sudden and unexpected loss of self-control, and descent into an emotional pit: “She fell madly in love with him.” The song lyrics say, “When I fall in love, it will be forever — or I’ll never fall in love.” In a restaurant, I overheard a young woman telling her friends why she couldn’t end an increasingly toxic relationship. “You can’t help who you love,” she proclaimed. Success in romance, it seems, depends on whether you “fall” for the right person or the wrong person.
The Destiny model. “We’re soul mates. We were made for each other.” This construct seems to hold that there’s a cosmic matching service, and that each of us has already been assigned the perfect mate. All we have to do is be in the right bar on the right evening — or in the supermarket, or the fitness center — and the cosmic matchmaker will get us together. Occasionally a bit of doubt might creep in: “How do I know if he’s really the right one?” An ugly divorce can shake one’s belief in this particular model.
The Camelot model. Also known as the “love conquers all” model. The organizing principle of this construct seems to be, “If we really love each other, everything will be great.” Images of princesses, knights in shining armor, castles, and dragons float through the background of the conversation. The somewhat cynical German philosopher Wolfgang Goethe mused, “Love is an ideal thing. Marriage is real. Confusing the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”
The Merger model. Also known as the “two people become one” model. This construct seems to dictate that the two lovers must become figurative Siamese twins — emotionally, socially, logistically, financially, spiritually — et cetera. Presumably neither party has the right, or the inclination, to engage in any significant life activity that doesn’t include the other. Just as with corporate mergers, it often happens that one participant becomes the acquirer and the other the acquired. And, “de-merging” can often be a difficult and stressful experience.
The Real Estate model. The centerpiece of this construct seems to be The Relationship — with a capital “R.” The abstract idea of a relationship takes on a psychological identity as a co-owned asset. “You have to work at it.” “You only get out of it what you put into it.” “Our relationship is falling apart.” The metaphors suggest that it’s like maintaining or remodeling your house — there’s always something more to be done.
The Doormat model. This romantic construct has inspired countless novels, movies, popular songs, and country-western laments. The protagonist seems to be afflicted with a passive-dependent attachment to a heartless tormenter, who seems to take perverse pleasure in his or her misery. A needy psychological state of low self-worth compels the victim to sacrifice his or her dignity for the promise of an occasional romantic fix. In the song “My Man,” expressed plaintively by Billie Holliday, the lament is, “Two or three girls has he that he likes as well as me — but he’s my man. He isn’t true; he beats me, too. But, when he takes me in his arms . . .” Frank Sinatra made famous the lyrics, “You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you — so find yourself somebody to love.”
The Hostage model. Sort of the inverse of the doormat model, the hostage model asserts an exaggerated sense of emotional entitlement. The hallmark of this construct seems to be an aggressive form of possessiveness, jealousy, and control-seeking. “I just want someone who will be totally honest with me,” decodes to “I don’t want her or him to find satisfaction with anyone other than me.” The old song lyrics go, “See the pyramids along the Nile ... Just remember, darling, all the while — you belong to me.” At the extreme, this construct can become the template for an abusive relationship.
I’m not suggesting that any or all of these models are necessarily pathological — only that they do often give form to pathological patterns in troubled relationships. Indeed, each one has possibilities for thinking creatively about the choices that arise in forming romantic relationships.
But maybe we don’t have to choose one particular template and reject the others. Our self-esteem; our capacity for intimacy; our mature care and concern for others; and our willingness to co-venture are ultimately the most important keys to a successful romantic relationship.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He studies cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education. The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence. Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.