On damaging relationship styles

Whether we are extraverts or introverts, we all know when it comes to others that there are times to connect, times to part and even times to be conflictual. Healthy relating, like the rest of our adaptive behaviour, is flexible, and in this case, it is based on the principle that getting on best with others requires a judicious balance of dependence and independence, self-assertion and self-sacrifice.

Things are not always as simple as this, as practically all of us know. We can indeed find it challenging to get the balance right. The psychoanalyst Karen Horney was one of the first to describe the fundamental self-defeating relationship styles, based on the idea that we can be unbalanced in the way we relate when we are either too aloof (‘moving away’ style) or too aggressive (‘moving against’) or too agreeable and submissive (‘moving towards’ style). The fundamental problem with these different styles is that all of them are compulsive: the person tends to act these ways irrespective of what a particular situation demands.

The particular problems with each style

Moving against: for this kind of person life is seen as being like a boxing ring, where protecting oneself involves initiating attacks and counterattacks. Being agreeable is seen as weak and getting you nowhere, as there is the cynical view that getting on well with others is a façade, that everyone deep down pursues their own ruthless self-interest, and therefore to like someone too much is to be open to being taken advantage of.

The obvious problem with this style is that it turns relationships into battles. There is no possibility of intimacy when your characteristic way of reacting is with hostility.

Moving away: the ivory tower professor stereotype reflects this style. Of course we all need our solitude, but to prize it too keenly might reflect a too-detached and aloof way of living. This ‘moving away’ style is based on the idea that happiness consists in a ‘freedom from’ relationships with their obligations and responsibilities.

The most obvious difficulty with this approach is that we can never feel close to anybody if we are trying almost continuously to be on our own; indeed, it is very likely that our solitude will take on the character of a desert, as detachment from others to this extent is apt to make us feel empty and alone inside. Less obviously, but just as insidiously, ‘moving away’ is living a life according more to what you do not want to do, rather than moving towards a more positive future (which would, after all, often require more engagement with others).

Moving towards: this is the classic co-dependent way of relating, where the person is clingy and agreeable to such an extent that they feel that their identity is inextricably connected to significant others to the point that they sometimes do not know where they begin and others end.

The obvious problems with this is that being too agreeable means you are apt to be taken advantage of; indeed, to be always saying ‘yes’ to what others want gives them too much power and it is possible that they will exploit it. Furthermore, being too agreeable often leads to you wondering what your own needs and values are because you have never had to give it much thought, as others essentially told you what to think and how to behave. Finally, as strange as it may sound, bonding too closely with someone actually makes intimacy more difficult, because intimacy is based on two people coming together and sharing themselves; if one bonds too closely, then this is self-effacement rather than deeper connection.

How to change these patterns    

The above descriptions are, to some extent, caricatures; while some people embody these respective styles, it is likely that most people will not illustrate them as starkly or as exclusively. For example, the above styles might be contextual, say with one person being ‘moving against’ at home, and ‘moving towards’ at work, while another might be quite a flexible person at home, but at work ‘moves away’ from engaging with his colleagues.

Here are some steps to help change these patterns:

  • First of all, these patterns will continue to occur as long as we are unaware of them. This is what Freud meant when he said (in words to the effect) that we are doomed to repeat if we do not become conscious of the problem. So, watch yourself in your daily life and see if you are habitually acting out any of these patterns.
  • The next thing to do is to reflect on why you might have adopted a particular style or styles. One key area to reflect upon are your childhood years, particularly your relationship with your parents, as interacting with them was the start of building a mental map of how to relate to others. The reason why this exploration can be helpful is that, by understanding the basis of how you came to relate the way that you do, you can then attribute it to specific factors rather than (unconsciously) believe that this style is the best way to relate to everyone. For example, say that you tend to be too agreeable with others; after introspecting and discovering that your dad was, in fact, quite domineering, you can start to see that your style was a way of coping with that particular person, but it does not need to be applied to everyone.

This kind of work can be upsetting and taxing so please always undertake some self-care as well. You might also find it useful to discuss these deeper and more volatile issues with a counsellor.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16
Written by Dr Alexander Fox, (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))
Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.

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