Does the One Who Loves Least Control the Relationship?

How unhealthily loving the most can lessen your self-respect.

Posted Aug 16, 2020

Many years ago, in 1986 to be more specific, I impulsively followed a compelling urge and asked about 60 random women and guys (likely in their twenties and thirties) a very provocative question: Does the one who loves least actually control the relationship?

Hey, I was young and trying to be cool. So, at the time, I lightheartedly touted that I was doing "personal research" as a psychology graduate student from Albany while visiting NYC! By the way, they all could tell that I was not THAT serious, especially when I further told them that this was really about my own personal curiosity. But still, I could see that this question of loves most or loves least immediately resonated with my impromptu, random sample. For more context, my "data gathering" occurred in outer courtyards of mobbed restaurants on a Friday afternoon during happy hour at South Street Seaport. 

Assuming you're still curious, about 90 percent of the people answered with a resounding, emphatic yes. Well, 30 years later, after thousands of hours of counseling, I still ponder that "loves most, loves least" question, especially when I see clients struggling to hold on to distant—and sometimes unkind—intimate partners.

I define "loves most" as crossing into the codependency zone where you are not being true to yourself when frantically trying to meet the needs of an aloof, far less invested partner—the "loves leaster." To be quite open, I personally have been both in the "loves most" as well as in the "loves least" position—both can be maddening and draining as hell! I think most of you reading this post can relate.

Do I agree that the one who loves least actually controls the relationship? Yes, I do agree with my past random sample and what I've found through the years since—the one who loves least controls the relationship! But this is not the case for anyone seeking a healthy partnership where both people share in a balanced sense of give and take. 

To really have a healthy relationship—a true partnership—it’s important that we, ourselves, put the work in to give our best to our intimate partners. Yet, while all relationships take work, you need to consider if you're doing way too much of it compared to your partner. Ask yourself if you're doing work that begins with a "small w" or a "capital W." "Small w" work is about managing day-to-day ups and downs and communication lapses. By this, I mean relatively small misunderstandings, miscommunications, and mistakes. "Big W" work, however, while it may occur briefly in long-term, successful relationships are those ongoing, exhausting, and fruitless efforts in prolonged, unhealthy circumstances.

I'm talking about putting up with destructive, push-and-pull mind games, being subjected to infidelity without true remorse, feeling the fallout of active addictions while your partner is not willing to seek meaningful help, and putting up with emotional and physical abuse. 

Following are three common self-destructive thoughts that I have found to keep people locked into being "Love Monsters," based on my counseling practice observations:

  1. I am really afraid of being alone. This is a common thought in people who would rather be in a bad relationship than be alone. If you fall prey to this faulty belief, though, you are losing sight that having some alone time actually creates the groundwork to be in a healthy intimate relationship. The hard truth is that staying in a problematic relationship as a "loves most pursuer," because you are driven by the fear of being alone, just leaves you feeling lonelier than ever.
  2. I won't find anyone better. I encourage all of my clients to keep three simple words in mind: Know your value. You are always the one who is in charge of knowing your own value. People who don’t believe in themselves stay in bad relationships because they misguidedly think that having a partner tells the rest of the world that they are OK. But the problem is that they never look fully into what they believe is not so OK about themselves. Desperately clinging to the wrong person gets in the way of you seeing what is right—about you.
  3. Even though she/he is bad for me, at least I get some of my needs met. Many people may believe that clinging to a bad relationship will fill needs, but even if it does, it’s still a form of self-sabotage. Numerous people have admitted to me that they stay in unhealthy relationships because of things like a comfortable lifestyle, sexual attraction to their partner, fear of finding someone worse, or wanting to keep a family intact for the sake of children. Life is certainly about free will, but there is no free pass for feeling miserable in efforts to get needs met that you may otherwise be able to take care of yourself or with someone who is healthier for you.  

As I explain in my book, Why Can't You Read My Mind?, you do not get into a relationship to be treated poorly, ignored, or abandoned. Being abused or denigrated, subjected to reckless spending, deprived of a sex life, or forced to put up with problematic, immature behavior is not healthy for you. If your partner is not truly willing to commit to making things better or getting some counseling, you need to face the fact that he or she will probably never change. I am all for trying to save relationships, but in the face of repeated hurts and insensitivity, it may be best to move on.

For more, see "Three Steps to Getting Out of a Toxic Relationship."


Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind?, Perseus Books, New York, N.Y.

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY. 

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)