Dating Relationships

A Field Guide to Bad Relationships

I’m not a statistics whiz, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve had at least one bad relationship.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. For most people, bad relationships are part of the growing-up process: we have to know what doesn’t work for us in order to figure out what does. Unfortunately, a lot of us do a pretty bad job of parsing out our bad relationships – that is, figuring out what didn’t work – and end up relying on simplistic stereotypes that obscure our needs rather than clarify them.

For example: the ever-popular “it’s not you, it’s me” framework (and its converse, “It’s not me, it’s you“) often ends up reducing people in failed relationships to unchangeable, static figures that are simply “wrong” for each other. In reality, relationships are… well, relational. They’re about patterns of interaction – how your partner reacts when you touch him, how you react when he burps, how both of you react when the other is cranky from not eating enough food.

In other words, breakups generally have less to do with the individuals involved than with the way those individuals react to each other. A more accurate assessment of the situation would be, “It’s not you, it’s me when I’m around you when you’re doing something that doesn’t work for me.” But that’s not simple to say or easy to figure out, because it requires metacognition: the ability to recognize and understand your own thought processes and patterns of interaction. Metacognition is a skill, and it takes time to develop – hence the lengthy line of bad relationships that most of us subject ourselves to.

Today, I want to give you a tool that will help you build metacognition, recognize bad relationships, and build good relationships. I like to call this tool relationship taxonomy. In biology, scientists use taxonomy to classify and categorize organisms. This allows them recognize how different plants and animals are related to each other as well as how they function and interact. In love, we can use taxonomy to identify different types of relationships and figure out whether or not they’re good for us.

To help us identify the many types of bad relationships, I’ve decided to build a Field Guide to Bad Relationships. The categories contained in this guide are artificial and vastly incomplete (just like the categories that biologists use to classify organisms), but I hope that these five categories will help you start to think more about your own relationship patterns. Once you’re able to recognize unhealthy relationships, you’ll be well on your way to building healthier ones.

Lastly, I want to point our that all relationships are different. Despite the name of this field guide, finding yourself in any of the following relationship types doesn’t necessarily condemn you to a bad relationship – rather, it means you and your partner(s) might have more work to do than relationships that don’t fall into these categories. But the work can be done. If you feel like you’re in one of these relationships and don’t know how to proceed, you might want to contact me for some personalized advice.

So, without further ado:

A Field Guide to Bad Relationships

Type 1: The Tortoise and the Hare (or: The Anxious-Avoidant Relationship)

Remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare? They’re in a race – the hare moves more quickly but gets tired out and has to take a rest. The tortoise moves slowly but eventually passes the hare, uttering the famous line, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Except that in this case, relationships aren’t races, and nobody wins.

This is maybe the most common type of bad relationship. In the Tortoise/Hare Relationship, one partner is a commitment-phobe and another is ready to move in after a few months. In other words, one partner is “needy” and another is “afraid of commitment.” Those are pretty simple, rigid ways of thinking about it, however. Often, the rotten core of this relationship is that both partners are deeply afraid of being abandoned. The Tortoise reacts by trusting slowly, figuring that if the relationship fails, at least they won’t have invested too much. The Hare reacts by trusting quickly, figuring that if they can “lock down” a partner with obligations such as housing, children, marriage, or joint purchases, they won’t have to worry about losing their partner.

The Tortoise and the Hare relationship tends to go south when the Hare realizes that every time they suggest leveling up the relationship, the Tortoise seems to move even slower. This sort of behavior can fester for quite a while before one of the partners (usually the Hare) finally gets up the gumption to point out that the relationship is more of a game of hide-and-seek than a real partnership.

There’s nothing wrong with being a Tortoise or a Hare – it’s arguable that everyone is either one or the other at some point in every relationship, and these things can change with time. What makes this a Bad Relationship is that Tortoises and Hares pull out opposite and opposing behaviors from each other. The faster the Hare runs, the slower the Tortoise waddles. The slower the Tortoise waddles, the faster the Hare wants to go. The longer this goes on, the more internal pain each partner feels.

Other variations on this relationship that are also bad include: the Tortoise-Tortoise relationship, in which nothing ever happens, and the Hare-Hare relationship, in which everything happens before the partners figure out if they actually like each other.

[Animation: A tortoise and a hare nuzzling]

So cute, so dysfunctional.

Type 2: The Lion and the Mouse (or: The Ego Imbalance Relationship)

Once, I was in a relationship with somebody who was nine years older than me. He seemed to know so much more about the world than I did: he could tell me about the grapes that wines were made from, how to identify different types of mushrooms, how to fix my car, how to make my bed properly. I felt like a baby in comparison to him, and eventually it started to get me down. In retrospect, I realize that I’d fallen into a Lion/Mouse relationship.

In the Lion/Mouse Relationship, one partner’s self-esteem is more vulnerable than the other’s. The partner with lower self-esteem (the Mouse) inevitably begins viewing themself in comparison to their partner. In response, the partner with higher self-esteem (the Lion) begins to feel as though they can’t ever show competence or intelligence without hurting their partner. This leads to  a “walking on eggshells” feeling that stifles intimacy and cloisters passion. The Lion is afraid of overshadowing the Mouse, and the Mouse is sad that they won’t ever be a Lion.

Lion/Mouse Relationships are more likely to occur when dating across large gaps in age, socioeconomic status, or education level. This is because the more money or time someone puts into something, the better at it they’ll be. Younger people and people with less economic and educational opportunity will have had less opportunity to build self-esteem and competence in as many areas as their partners who are older, wealthier, and more educated. That’s not to say that these pairings are always bad – they just at a higher risk of falling into this pattern.

Paradoxically, this kind of relationship can occur even when both partners are just as intelligent, competent, and talented as each other. If one partner is simply more confident, that might throw the other into feelings of worthlessness. And since it’s the partnership itself that is making the Mouse feel worthless, there’s nothing concrete the Lion can do to fix the situation when it gets out of hand.

[Animation: Scar from "The Lion King" about to eat a mouse.]

You’ve got bigger problems if you’re dating Scar, though.

Type 3: The Donkey and the Elephant (or: The Value-Discordant Relationship)

For those of you who don’t live in America, our two (dysfunctional) political parties are represented by a donkey and an elephant. And these days, donkeys and elephants never get along.

The Donkey/Elephant Relationship isn’t actually about Democrats dating Republicans, though; it’s about people whose basic value systems don’t align in one or more critical ways. The first time I realized I was in a value-discordant relationship was when my ex-boyfriend showed me his favorite movie: Cruel Intentions. “I just love how they get revenge,” he said. As we watched the movie, I could see him relish the sly, seductive, cruelty of it all. When the movie ended, I realized that my partner had shown me something about himself that I deeply disagreed with – I don’t believe in revenge as a healthy tactic, and it makes me uncomfortable when people valorize it.

Donkey/Elephant Relationships often reveal themselves at the worst possible moments: when you’re making parenting decisions, right after you’ve moved in with each other, or in conversation with a group of friends. And they’re difficult to deal with, too, because relationships are supposed to be about love, and love isn’t supposed to be political. What’s important to realize, however, is that our values are everything. They are the core principals that tell us how we should speak, behave, and think. When a Donkey realizes that they’re dating an Elephant, what they’re actually realizing is that their partner speaks, behaves, and thinks in ways that feel wrong to the Donkey.

This raises lots of difficult questions internally, such as: If I keep on dating the Elephant, am I betraying my Donkey values? Is it ethical to try and turn an Elephant into a Donkey? Is it even possible? And the Elephant might not even know that the Donkey is thinking these things until they all come out during a gigantic fight. This is why vegetarians like to date other vegetarians. Interestingly, donkeys and elephants are both vegetarian.

[Animation: Zoom in on a drawing of a donkey and an elephant embracing. Text: "By the republican and democratic parties."]

If only…?

Type 4: The Cat and the Dog (or: The Fun-Sucking Relationship) 

Plenty of people like to evaluate partners on the basis of whether they are “cat people” or “dog people,” but a better litmus test is whether they are Cats or Dogs.

In the Cat/Dog Relationship one person’s social activities simply aren’t fun for the other. The Cat mostly enjoys hanging out with a couple of people in a quiet space that isn’t overwhelming, while the Dog likes to go out on the town, dance the night away, and listen to blaring music. Cats and Dogs can overlap in their interests, of course, and sometimes this relationship is totally fine. Things start to go wrong when one partner never seems to enjoy the other partner’s social habits.

This type of bad relationship is hard to recognize if you don’t spend every weekend with your partner. It’s only when you have to negotiate every social interaction that you begin to realize how hard it is to please both of you on any given evening. And since nobody likes to feel as though they’re disappointing their partner or pressuring them into doing something that they won’t enjoy, Cat/Dog Relationships often end up with one partner giving in and enduring social interactions that tire them out, bore them, or make them uncomfortable. Long-term, Cat/Dog relationships end up becoming socially isolated, since there’s only so long someone can pretend to enjoy doing something that they don’t enjoy. Stagnating Cat/Dog relationships mostly end up on the couch with nobody else around.

The Cat/Dog relationship is particularly hard to see early on in the relationship, when you’re more inclined to spend time alone with your partner. It’s only once you try to integrate your new partner into your friend-group that you begin to realize that they’re actually a Cat or a Dog (or a Cat dressed up like a Dog, or vice versa).

In order to be healthy long-term, it’s important for you to have friends that you love and feel comfortable socializing with. If you’re a Cat who’s dating a Dog (or a Dog who’s dating a Cat!), it’s worth thinking long and hard about whether you can maintain your friendships and the relationship at the same time.

[Animation: Catdog from Nickelodeon's "Catdog" TV show, on a couch watching two TVs.]

What if you’re… both?

Type 5: The Songbird and the Snail (or: The Talker-Thinker Relationship)

Some of us talk to think. Others of us must think before we talk. Rarely the twain shall meet.

When something is on my mind, I want to talk about it. And then I want to talk some more about it. And then I want to discuss what I’ve just said – out loud, in conversation – for as many hours as it takes to figure it all out. I have a habit of dating partners who react to this by nodding silently.

The Songbird/Snail Relationship is particularly difficult because each partner has a genuine interest in maintaining a healthy relationship, but their tactics are poisonous to each other. Songbirds need conversation and denouement, while Snails need to sit with their feelings for a while before arriving at any conclusions. The longer a Snail waits to discuss something with a Songbird, the more distressed the Songbird is when the conversation finally starts. But if the Songbird tries to provoke the Snail into conversation, the Snail will feel unprepared and retreat into their shell, leaving a trail of unpleasant slime behind them.

The thing is, there’s no right way to deal with issues in a relationship. I’m a Songbird, so I’m inclined to converse, and it pisses me off when my Snail partner needs time to think. But intellectually, I know that there’s nothing better about my way of doing things than his way.

The Songbird/Snail Relationship tanks when one of the partners (usually the Songbird, if I’m being honest) refuses to compromise on methods of communication or, more likely, doesn’t recognize that there’s a difference in the first place. This sets off a pattern of conversation in which one partner never feels taken care of or respected, which of course makes it impossible to arrive at happy conclusions. Songbird/Snail Relationships are often volatile because the partner who feels disrespected is likely to act with reproach rather than compassion towards their partner. Instead of associating “serious conversations” with creative problem-solving and support, partners begin to associate them with futility and heartbreak.

[Animation: Spongebob and his pet snail]

“Okay fine, let’s talk!”

So, what if you’re in one of these relationships? Are you doomed? The short answer is no. The long answer is harder, but it starts with understanding this: neither type of partner in any of the Field Guide relationships is a “bad partner.” If we understand the dynamics of our relationships, we can work with our partners to improve those dynamics. The real question is whether or not it’s worth it to us. Are we willing to do the work? Are our partners? That second question is essential, because a relationship in which only one person is willing to do emotional work is the worst kind of Bad Relationship.

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