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Couple in therapy session with a therapist. Learn about the 3 most common relationship dynamics and how to navigate them for a healthier relationship.

Relationship Dynamics: Which One Are You In & How Do You Fix It?

couple dating therapy Sep 01, 2023

Is there anything more complex than relationship dynamics?

Very little! Relationships aren't perfect - I think we can all attest to that! Sometimes things can get messy, we change, and we grow. The best case scenario is that we understand the relationship dynamic we have and work together to build towards a healthy one. It's a constant give and take full of highs, lows, and everything in between.

An oversimplification, I know - that's just the gist of it.

A couple that works together to set appropriate boundaries and dynamics are the happiest. Another thing to keep in mind is that dynamics between two people in a relationship can change. One minute you're the pursuer in a 'Pursuer Distancer' dynamic - the next, you're the distancer! I'll touch on all of this below.

One thing is for certain - there is so much information online, and not all of it is reliable or even coming from a reputable source. Be careful of taking in the wrong information and too much information. Don't overwhelm yourself. I'm here to provide you with easily digestible information you can use in your journey to a healthy relationship dynamic.

As a leading Sex & Relationship Coach, I've been working with couples since 2010. I received my Master's Degree in Counseling Psychology from John F. Kennedy University with a strong focus on marriage and family therapy. Read more about my credentials here. 

One of the most common misconceptions I come across when working with couples is that men can't be abused.

Not true.

We're all human, and abuse can take many forms - emotional, physical, financial, mental..

No one is immune and everyone is capable of being abused. Abusive or unhealthy relationship dynamics can be difficult to break through.
My hope is that the below breakdown of the 3 most common relationship dynamics will walk you through how to navigate and work with empathy to breed a more healthy dynamic for you and your partner.

 

Why It's Important to Understand Which Relationship Dynamic You're In

Understanding your relationship dynamic helps grow your self-awareness, too. By knowing how and why you behave with one of the most intimate people in your life, you can reassess your dynamic in a healthy way that brings on results.

It's easy to point fingers at your partner and call them out - calling ourselves out, not as easy. By becoming insightful into your actions, you can help sway the relationship in a positive direction.

And that's a win-win situation!

Below, I'm going to dive into the most common couple dynamics.

AND!

Remember that we are much more complex, and no one individual will fit into the exact definition or mold of one specific couple dynamic. Take it all with a grain of salt, pick and choose what applies to your romantic dynamic, and what doesn't. For example, you may witness some characteristics of a 'giver taker' dynamic and other characteristics of being in an overfunctioning underfunctioning relationship. It's hardly ever an all encompassing label.

The key thing here is to be as radically honest with yourself as possible. If you have someone you can confide in, ask them what they think rings true. Or - get in touch with me, I'd be happy to help you navigate your way through this.

What is the True Relationship Dynamic Meaning?

So, what are relationship dynamics exactly? How do you define it?

Relationship Dynamics is the pattern of interaction and emotional connection between people in a relationship.
This is very much influenced by behavior, attitude, and reactions to each other.

That's the textbook relationship dynamic meaning.

Let's break that down:

Basically, a couple dynamic is a repetition of certain patterns of behavior towards each other. For example, you might attempt to communicate with your partner and they regularly dismiss your feelings.
This back and forth has to happen almost consistently every time you try to communicate with your partner about how you feel to be considered part of your couple dynamic.

A one time awful memory of a conversation you wish to forget simply won't make the cut.
So what are the 3 most common types of relationship dynamics?

 

 

 

Pursuer Distancer

The Distancer Pursuer relationship dynamic often feels one-sided. One person is perceived to be making the most effort.

Now, that's not to say that the person #2 is uninterested or not as committed - because that's hardly ever the case.
This couple dynamic simply means that person #2, the distancer, enjoys their space a little more than person #1, the pursuer.

How to Tell if You're the Pursuer:

  • Seek your partners reassurance more often than not
  • You tend to be the one to start the conversation about the status of your relationship
  • Fear of abandonment anxiety is common for you
  • You're a little too aware of any change in their behavior, mood..
  • Eagerness to solve a problem between you and your partner
  • Silence between you two makes you ick
  • You routinely ask your partner for feedback (ex: Are you mad at me?)


How to Tell if You're the Distancer:

  • You avoid conflict with your partner, even if that means not resolving a big issue
  • Feeling smothered by your partners need for closeness
  • You think your partners pursuit of closeness to you is a sign of their clinginess
  • You often feel trapped by your partners requests for more commitment
  • Fear of losing your individuality within a relationship with your partner
  • Diving into feelings and vulnerability is a challenge for you
  • You pull back anytime your partner requests deep engagement

These are just some of the ways you can identify if you fit into pursuer distancer relationship dynamics.

Again - don't worry if only some of these points apply to you, that's typically the case. If you recognize traits of the pursuer distancer dynamic in your relationship, try some of the strategies below to help you overcome it.

Let's throw this all into perspective with a scenario:

 

Pursuer Distancer Scenario

Ashleigh and Jacob

Relationship Length: 7 months
Pursuer: Ashleigh
Distancer: Jacob
Scene: Ashleigh believes they should spend more time together, Jacob enjoys the balance he currently has. Friday evening, Jacob is out with his friends when Ashleigh texts Jacob.

Ashleigh: Hey Jacob, I've been missing you more than usual lately, want to have dinner tonight?

Jacob (replies 3 hours later): I'm actually out with the guys rn.

Ashleigh: Are we ok?
Jacob doesn't reply until the next day.

In the Mind of the Pursuer:
Ashleigh's mind is racing and her anxiety about their relationship is increasing. She might be thinking Jacob doesn't want to spend time with her or that Jacob's lack of response is a sign he's pulling away. She doesn't like feeling uncertain and her way of gaining that certainty is by spending time with her partner.

In the Mind of the Distancer:
Jacob may feel a bit overwhelmed and thinks that if he doesn't reply, things will cool down. He loves Ashleigh and doesn't see an issue with him spending time with his friends. He also feels like Ashleigh is pushing too hard and that he needs a break from her clinginess.

 

Finding Common Ground

This is one of the most common unhealthy relationship dynamics - and not necessarily part of the toxic relationship dynamics group.

A pursuer distancer relationship can mend with a few boundaries, empathy, and open communication.

If pursuer distancer partners can follow through on the above, they can achieve a couple dynamic that suits them both!

Here are a few ways to achieve this:

Pursuer Strategies

  1. Communicate your need for reassurance and work on finding out where that need comes from.
  2. Ask your partner how they express their love to you and look for those signs as reassurance instead
  3. Talk to someone - seeking individual therapy for help with self-soothing techniques can help you learn to look inwards instead of relying on others for reassurance
  4. When you partner is out with friends, try not to contact them
  5. Don't blame your partner for wanting space, their needs are just different

 

Distancer Strategies

  1. Communicate your need for space with empathy.
  2. Ask your partner how they interpret the health of your relationship and provide them with assurance that your space is not a sign that your relationship is suffering.
  3. Talk to someone - a relationship coach or counseling can help you better understand your partner and how you can help fill their needs without 'losing yourself' in the relationship.
  4. When you're out with friends, try to send a sweet message to your partner to let them know they're on your mind
  5. Avoid blaming your partner, their needs stem from past experiences and/or trauma, come from a place of understanding and empathy instead. 

 

If Left Unchecked...

One of the very real ways pursuer distancer dynamics can change, is a complete flip. At some point, the pursuer stops pursuing. They start to feel as though the relationship is one-sided and ultimately, well, they give up.

Red Flag for the distancer!

At that point, the distancer starts to pursue, only to rekindle the efforts from the original pursuer - which then backfires into the original distancer to become the distancer once again.

Try saying that 5 times!

It's a hurtful circle of events that only ends with broken hearts and misunderstood partners.

 

 

Giver Taker Dynamic

The giver taker relationship dynamic is pretty self explanatory.

The giver gives and the taker, well, takes.

Support, resources, care, effort - the giver provides all sorts of positive contributions to the relationship and the taker benefits without reciprocating - at least not equally.
Here's how to identify which of these roles in the giver taker dynamic of a relationship you play.

How to Tell if You're the Giver:

  • You prioritize others above your own needs (not necessarily a good thing!)
  • Overextending in your couple dynamic leads you to feeling overwhelmed, maybe even resentful
  • 'No' is not a common word in your vocabulary
  • When you tend to yourself, a feeling of guilt comes over you
  • Conflict avoidance in your relationship dynamic leads to suppressing your own feelings


How to Tell if You're the Taker:

  • You prioritize yourself over others without considering their needs or feelings
  • Support expectations for your needs are often not reciprocated
  • You may or may not be aware of the imbalance in your relationship dynamic
  • Receiving care, attention, and support from your partner validates your self-worth
  • Situations where you have the most to benefit from are ideal for you


These may seem a little exaggerated, and that's exactly the point. Giver taker relationship dynamics are exaggerated to the benefit of the taker. Now, although the taker seems to be in the wrong here, the giver lacks boundaries that are important for building healthy relationship dynamics.

Let's take a closer look at how giver taker relationship dynamics can play out:

 

Giver Taker Scenario

Adam and Kyle

Relationship Length: 2 months
Giver: Adam
Taker: Kyle
Scene: Adam and Kyle are at their local coffee shop discussing their Saturday night plans. Adam has told Kyle that he's looking to switch careers, which would set him back financially for a few months prior to this interaction.

Adam: Oppenheimer just came out last week! Want to go see it this weekend I could really use a break.

Kyle: I'd love to go to the movies! I know you're not a fan, but I really want to see Barbie instead.

Adam: It's fine, we can see Barbie.

Kyle: Also, I would just be coming off of work, maybe we can grab a bite to eat before we head to the movie?

Adam: I'd prefer to eat at home, want to come over, I'll make spaghetti!

Kyle: Nah, I'm thinking sushi!

Adam: Ok, let's do it.

Kyle: Thing is, I'm a bit tight on cash, can you cover me? I'll pay you back next week.

Adam: Um, sure, Kyle - I think I can manage that - don't worry about paying me back.

Kyle: Thanks, gotta go, see you Saturday!

In the Mind of the Giver:
Adam has a deep desire to connect and spend time with Jacob - even if that means watching a movie he doesn't care for. In this giver taker relationship dynamic, Adam has already expressed his financial struggles, and doesn't want to make things awkward by declining to pay for the night or accepting Kyle pay him back right off the bat. He also tried to reiterate that concern by offering to cook dinner before the movie, and only agreed to a sushi dinner to avoid conflict.

In the Mind of the Taker:
Since Adam proposed the Saturday night movie, Jacob thought he must be better off financially then he let on, and assumed generosity from his end. Since Adam said he doesn't have to pay him back, Jacob accepts this and doesn't push back. He did offer, after all.

Adam and Kyle are the perfect example of a giver taker relationship dynamic. Adam has an accommodating mindset, while Jacob is more self-serving.

 

Finding Common Ground

In order for this couple dynamic to not spiral into the realm of toxic relationship dynamics, these 4 principles should be considered:

  • Self-Awareness:
    Givers need to recognize that their overextending is actually causing more harm than good for the relationship.
    Takers, on the other hand, should consider catching themselves when they're pattern of behavior is leading to over-reliance on others.
  • Boundaries:
    As a giver, once self-awareness is in place, proper boundaries should be set to protect their own interests
    Takers should set their own boundaries that stop them from assuming generosity from their partner.
  • Reciprocation:
    Givers should allow themselves to receive - and point out when reciprocation is required.
    A taker should make a conscious effort to give back, even if their partner initially rejects the offer.
  • Counseling:
    A relationship coach can help this couple dynamic to flourish. By helping each partner to communicate their needs effectively, a balance of giving and taking can be achieved.

Giver Strategies

  1. Use self-care as a strategy to seek self-awareness. Meditation, journaling are a few tricks that help you figure out which pain points in your relationship dynamic you want to address.
  2. Write down 1 new boundary a week that you want to work on. For example, if money is currently an issue, anytime your partner requests financial support you can empathize and let them know you're in a very similar situation.
  3. Your worth is not - I repeat - is NOT determined by what you give others. If so, it's time to move into point 4 below.
  4. Sometimes we need to re-evaluate our relationships. If you're constantly feeling drained and overwhelmed, a decision, or at the very least a serious conversation is in order.

Taker Strategies

  1. Work on your self-awareness. Sometimes we don't mean any ill - and behind the scenes our partner is struggling to cope with our demands. Try to pinpoint those moments and switch gears.
  2. Appreciation goes a long way. Simply showing that you appreciate what your partner is doing in their contribution to your couple dynamic can turn the tides in your favor. However, this needs to be coupled with the other strategies listed here. Alone, it may fizzle out faster than you think.
  3. Try to seek more independence. One way we can do this is by simply not buying something we can't afford instead of asking others to cover our tab.
  4. Develop empathy - imagine yourself in your givers shoes. How would you react? Their silence doesn't mean they're accepting, sometimes it's just to avoid an awkward situation. 

 

If Left Unchecked...

This is another one of those couple dynamics that can be easily mended with the right communication and simple strategies.

Not to say it's a good couple dynamic, just not part of the list of very toxic relationship dynamics - especially when both partners are eager to make it work.

Left unchecked, this usually plays out with the giver becoming overwhelmed and starting to distance themselves, or even saying their last goodbye.
Takers can become increasingly dependent on the giver and have a hard time bouncing back from a giver taker relationship...unless another giver makes their way into their hearts.

The giver may become resentful and emotionally exhausted - they may even start to isolate themselves. The taker can become increasingly dependent or even start to take on a more manipulative role once they realize how the relationship dynamic leans to their advantage.

 

 

Overfunctioning Underfunctioning Relationship Dynamic

This couple dynamic can get particularly exhausting for one person.

An overfunctioning underfunctioning relationship dynamic is when one person is carrying the responsibility load. Not only do they do all the planning, cleaning, and other tasks - they also have ultimate control over all things related to what should be shared responsibility.

The underfunctioning partner does way, way, less and tends to relieve their control to the overfunctioning partner. Everything from decision making to minute tasks are expected to be completed by their partner - leaving the underfunctioning less stressed and the overfunctioning burnt out.

How to Tell if You're Overfunctioning:

  • You take charge of any situation, whether it's your responsibility or not
  • Even if not directly involved, you will feel responsible for any given situation
  • You can come across as controlling or someone who micromanages
  • Feeling overwhelmed or experiencing burnout is common for you


How to Tell if You're the Underfunctioning:

  • You have a tendency to rely on others, not just your partner
  • Deferring to others when something should be your responsibility is common
  • In the midst of a situation or discussion, you passively wait to be told what to do
  • You often feel patronized or undermined by your partner's control of a situation


Let's dive into a scenario of an overfunctioning underfunctioning relationship dynamic:

 

Overfunctioning Underfunctioning Scenario

Isaac and Monira

Relationship Length: 18 years
Overfunctioning: Isaac
Underfunctioning: Monira
Scene: In the midst of planning a family vacation with their twins aged 9.

Isaac: I'm really excited for our trip, but we need to finish planning.

Monira: Me too! What do you have in mind?

Isaac: Well, I've put together a spreadsheet with 3 options. #1 a beach resort at the Bahamas, #2 a cultural dive in Spain, and #3 a mountain stay in Denver. I've got flight prices, hotel stays, and potential activities for each.

Monira: Oooooh - all of those sound like fun! Let me know what you decide.

Isaac: I was kind of hoping we could work it out together, I don't want to have final say about what should be a family trip. Don't you care where we go?

Monira: Not really - you're better at figuring these things out, I trust your decision. Just let me know what to pack!

Isaac: Monira, let's do this together - it's half the fun of going on a trip! Maybe you'd rather chill at a beach somewhere instead of hike - I don't want to choose your preferences.

Monira: Don't be silly, you always make good choices. Every time we've gone on a trip you've planned, I had an amazing time.

Isaac: Fine, but next time, I'd appreciate a little more input.

Monira: Sure, you're just so good at planning, why get in your way? Thank you for taking it on.

In the Mind of the Overfunctioning:
The overfunctioning is stressed about the trip and wants to ensure it's planned so everyone can enjoy themselves. They might feel like if they don't plan it, it's never going to get done. They're also feeling overwhelmed at having to make decisions for their partner and wish they'd be more involved.

In the Mind of the Underfunctioning:
Although the underfunctioning partner seems grateful in this particular scenario, there's potential insecurity lurking. They feel like their partner can handle the planning better and fear getting in the way, disturbing the flow, or going against their wants for the vacation. The underfunctioning in this couple dynamic is also relying on the overfunctioning and trying to avoid taking responsibility for decisions they would potentially make.

 

Finding Common Ground

In an overfunctioning underfunctioning couple dynamic, partners can look to find common ground by practicing shared responsibilities and setting strict boundaries.

It's a process, and the outcome is worth the work!

By the overfunctioning setting boundaries and the underfunctioning respecting these boundaries, they can work together to level out the priorities they both benefit from.

Here are a few strategies for each partner to consider:

 

Overfunctioning Strategies

  1. Express your need to share responsibilities with your partner. If they do make a mistake, be sure not to overreact so as not to discourage them from helping.
  2. Don't jump in to 'rescue' every time a situation goes wrong. Encourage your partner to find a solution and express your gratitude when they do.
  3. Set boundaries when tasks are up for grabs, let your partner know you can't handle the load without feeling overwhelmed.

 

Underfunctioning Strategies

  1. Step up to the plate even when the task may seem overwhelming - remember your partner will also be overwhelmed taking this on themselves with their current load.
  2. Practice being more assertive with your wants and needs.
  3. Take initiative by listing out responsibilities you can take on, communicate with your partner about your efforts in helping out more.

 

If Left Unchecked...

Resentment can rear its ugly head.

One of the worst outcomes in any relationship dynamic is allowing resentment to set in. The overfunctioning in these relationship dynamics can start to feel unappreciated and taken for granted.
Meanwhile, the underfunctioning can become over dependent to the point of losing their self-confidence, self-efficacy, and sideline personal growth.

This imbalanced couple dynamic can lead to the end of the relationship if it gets too severe. The overfunctioning left feeling taken advantage of and the underfunctioning looking for a new relationship with a similar relationship dynamic.

 

 

Other Types of Relationship Dynamics

I've gone into quite a bit of detail on the 3 most common types of relationship dynamics.

I know the deep dive into your couple dynamic can be scary, and with some empathy, communication, and sometimes a little intervention...

...you'll both come out the other side much more satisfied with your romantic dynamic!

Here are different types of relationship dynamics to look out for:

  1. Listener Talker: One partner tends to share their thoughts, feelings, and stories, while partner #2 offers a receptive audience.
  2. Emotional Rational: A relationship dynamic with one partner approaching decisions with emotion and the other with rational thought. An extreme on both ends.
  3. Dominant Submissive: Mostly referred to as a sexual dynamic which can go horribly wrong without the correct approach. Constant check-ins are of huge importance here!
  4. Angry Withdrawn: With one partner expressing anger, sometimes passive aggressively - and the other using avoidance and withdrawing.
  5. Attacker Defender: Criticism and frustration from one partner is met with justification and defensiveness.
  6. Optimist Pessimist: The dynamic of a relationship like this is partner #1 holding high hopes in most situations while the other homes in on potential negative outcomes.
  7. Impulsive Conservative: A planner and more reserved partner while the other partner takes on decisions with less thought in a more spontaneous manner.

 

Understanding Yourself & Your Partner

Now that you have a bit more insight into your own relationship power dynamics, let's get into what healthy relationship dynamics can look like.

However!

It's important to understand no relationship dynamic can always be at peak healthy performance - all.of.the.time.

However, again!

Some aspects we'll discuss, like mutual respect, should be more consistent than not.

Unhealthy relationship dynamics will include a power imbalance almost consistently, whenever similar situations come up. For example, every time you get into an argument your partner attacks your self as opposed to your argument.

That's a red flag with serious long term consequences for the relationship.

If your partner is usually respectful, and one time they made fun of your hair in an argument - later apologized sincerely - that's one argument that can be considered an outlier.

So! What do healthy relationship dynamics look like?

 

 

Traits of Healthy Relationship Dynamics

  1. Trust: Both you and your partner have earned each other's trust, allowing you to feel secure in the relationship with no snooping around or funny business.
  2. Communication: You can freely express your thoughts and feelings with and feel understood by each other.
  3. Responsibility Balance: More often than not, there's a mutual share of responsibility across the board.
  4. Respect: So important! Whether around each other or when one of you is absent, there's a level of respect for each other that can't be broken.
  5. Space: You provide each other with individual space to maintain independence and inner social circles.
  6. Boundaries: Triggers are communicated and respected by both partners.
  7. Support: You're there for each other without taking advantage of each other's willingness to support.
  8. Reciprocation: Not a 'you scratch my back, I scratch yours' scenario - rather, a thoughtful and considerate reciprocation when opportunities arise.
  9. Values: Having shared core values allows a couple dynamic to flourish in a way that meets the needs of both partners.
  10. Honesty: Transparency with respect. You can always tell your partner the truth, and hear it, without damaging their feelings or desires.
  11. Resolution: Everyone has arguments, how you handle them with the above ten principles is what sets you apart from other toxic relationship dynamics.

 

A Little Bit About Me

I hope you enjoyed my breakdown of what healthy and toxic relationship dynamics can look like.

It's what I do!

I'm a leading Sex and Relationship Coach based out of San Francisco- working with men, women, and couples to experience the best relationship and sex since 2010.
I received my Master's Degree in Counseling Psychology from John F. Kennedy University and have been blessed to see toxic relationship dynamics flourish into healthy relationship dynamics ever since.

I co-founded BetterSexEd.org and co-created several innovative group workshop series. There's so much more, read more about me here.

Here's how I can help you and your partner achieve the same success my couples have risen to for over a decade:

 

 

1:1 Sessions

My aim with our 1:1 sessions is to help you find your unique sexy...both in and outside of the bedroom for both men and women.

Let's navigate how you perceive yourself, how you think others perceive you, and how you can overcome inner obstacles to blossom your true self.

Couple Sessions

I can help you and your partner reconnect and rekindle, explore fantasies, increase your sexual desires, and communicate in a way that allows all those things to fall into place.

Courses

I've recently released my Premature Ejaculation Video Course with a groundbreaking 5-step system to help men reach their full potential.

Take a look at my upcoming courses covering topics like Sex as Meditation, Pornography & Healthy, Balanced Sexuality, Life Changing Sexual Confidence, and more.

 

The Power of Understanding Relationship Dynamics

As with anything in life - the more you know, the more you can do about it!

Understanding your relationship dynamic is key to building a long lasting and healthy relationship with your partner.

All about building a life together and never - I repeat, never - about assigning blame to one another.

I hope this piece helps you build a future together you love by understanding the different types of relationship dynamics.
For a more personalized experience, contact me - let me know what you want to achieve, and I'm happy to help you get there.

With Love,

Keeley

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