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There Are 12 Relationship Patterns. Which Applies to You?

Cactus/fern, mountains/molehills, and many in between.

Key points

  • Consistent patterns of interaction between you and your relationship partner are called "relationship patterns."
  • New research shows that there's value to going through the process of "relationship pattern labeling."
  • Learning which of the 12 basic relationship patterns applies to you can help foster greater intimacy with your partner.
Wayhome Shutterstock
Source: Wayhome Shutterstock

All relationships have trouble spots, which, when triggered, create conflict. In your own relationship, you may be aware of these areas although you haven’t formally tried to categorize them. Perhaps one of you wants to know where the other partner is at all times while the other prefers being off all grids, including yours. Smartphone apps that make this possible have now become an area of contention.

Maybe you and your partner differ in another key area, such as the way that you express criticism. One of you is very direct, but the other one takes pride in being the ultimate diplomat. Not only do you, therefore, get into arguments when one utters an openly critical comment to the other, but this also creates tension in your larger circle of family and friends.

The idea that partners have typical ways of interacting that repeat is behind new research by Clark University’s Jenna Rice and colleagues (2022). By going through the process of “relationship pattern labeling" (RPL), it should be possible, the authors maintain, to improve the health of your relationship as well as even the physical health of both you and your partner.

Relationship Pattern Labeling

RPL requires that couples take an honest and hard look at their typical ways of interacting with each other to look for repeated themes. As a method of couples therapy, Rice et al. propose that RPL could assist counselors in working with couples to pull out these themes in their daily lives and help to change the dynamics that are serving to erode the quality of their intimacy.

This might sound like an intimidating process, and, indeed, the Clark U. researchers acknowledge that it can be difficult to plunge into such a potentially painful diagnosis of yourself and your partner. To mitigate the negativity that such finger-pointing could lead to, Rice and her coauthors suggest the value of using “relational frames.” Using language to “frame” your relationship can aid in “transforming previously aversive experiences into more tolerable or acceptable experiences” (p. 3).

The logic behind this approach is simple. Let’s say that you’re the one who insists on being able to track your partner (not to stalk them, but to feel comforted that they’re safe). In RPL, you would give this behavior a name that would evoke a “metaphor” or “image.” This image, in turn, could help your partner understand where the behavior is coming from. Most importantly, this should be nonjudgmental, providing a shorthand for couples to use when they try to change their RPLs. It could even be humorous. As you’ll see in the 12 RPLs that follow, the name, in this case, would be “cactus,” and the more standoffish partner would be the “fern.”

The Value of Identifying Your Relationship Pattern Label

The Clark U. authors tested the value of an RPL intervention on several relationship quality indicators in committed romantic partners. The 124 student (graduate and undergraduate) participants in their study identified their own RPLs by reading descriptions of each pattern. Then they completed a scripted discussion that emphasized drawing out each partner’s "understandable reasons" for behaving as they did to stimulate empathic understanding. The intervention also included information about the “blameless inevitability of ‘friction’ in close relationships” (p. 7).

Across the three test points, the second of which involved the experimental intervention, the authors demonstrated favorable effects, compared to controls, on measures of intimacy, partner acceptance, and overall satisfaction. The effects were statistically significant but objectively small. Additionally, those who completed the three phases of the study were higher in intimacy and relationship satisfaction prior to the intervention. The authors acknowledged these limitations, suggesting that their work could provide the springboard for future and better-controlled studies. Even so, the concept of RPL is intriguing and, as Rice et al. suggest, shows the value of addressing language as a “frame” for relationship therapy compared to only addressing the emotional components of a couple’s relationship.

Finding Your Own Relationship Pattern Label

With this background in mind, it’s time to turn to the 12 RPLs, extracted from the paper's supplemental materials. Which pattern best describes yours?

  1. Cactus/fern: One partner seeks regular closeness (e.g., the smartphone tracker), and the other prefers their privacy.
  2. Introvert/extrovert: One partner needs time alone to recharge, and the other needs to be with people to recharge. Perhaps you’d rather spend your vacation time going for quiet walks, but your partner only feels alive while being able to socialize with new people.
  3. Approach/withdraw: Unlike the cactus/fern, this pattern refers more directly to one partner’s seeking connection and interaction with the partner who, in turn, feels overwhelmed.
  4. Emotional/logical: One partner lets their heart rule, while the other takes a more rational problem-solving approach to situations.
  5. Criticize/defend: One partner goes after the other on a regular basis, leading the other to resort to self-defense.
  6. Mutual avoidance: Unlike the push-pull of other RPLs, in this pattern, neither partner wants to talk about problems in their relationship.
  7. Mutual blame: Both partners point the finger at each other.
  8. Mountains/molehills: One partner is constantly exaggerating the extent of their relationship problems, while the other minimizes them.
  9. Spender/saver: Partners differ with respect to financial affairs.
  10. Teacher/student: One partner feels that they should/must instruct the other, which could create problems when the “student” doesn’t want to be taught.
  11. Dreamer/realist: One partner is involved in fantasizing about the romantic life the couple shares, but the other takes a more down-to-earth approach.
  12. Conventional/unconventional: One partner enjoys day-to-day continuity, but the other enjoys “unconventional escapades.”

It's possible you found more than one that seems to characterize your relationship. However, remember that in the Clark U. study, both partners completed this exercise together. Checking out your own assessment with your partner could provide the first step not just in figuring out which RPL best fits your relationship, but also to proceed to gain insight into those “understandable reasons” that lead each of you to behave as you do.

To sum up, relationships may be hard to pigeonhole. By using the RPL as a guide, you and your partner may not come up with the “one” that fits you, but the process can help promote greater empathy and ultimately fulfillment as you build toward the future.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Rice, J., McTernan, M., & Cordova, J. (2022). The influence of relationship pattern labeling on intimacy, acceptance, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12623

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