The 7 'Systems' For A Better Relationship, According To A Couples Therapist

Photo: Guille Faingold

Every relationship has a system. Sometimes the system emerges from love, but more often it can also come from fear. And when fear is motivating the behavior, the system becomes controlling rather than loving.

If you are not experiencing the relationship you want, it likely has to do with the fact that you and your partner are operating from fear and control rather than from love—which is why it's important to learn about the six different types of controlling relationship systems so you can enact change. Here's what you need to know about each one.

The dominating-compliant system.

This is one of the more common controlling relationship systems. In this system, one partner attempts to control getting what he or she wants with anger, blame, judgment, threats, name-calling, disapproval, mean looks, or any other behavior intent on intimidating the other partner. This partner is overtly controlling.

The other partner attempts to control getting approval or avoiding disapproval with compliance—i.e., giving themselves up—and with pacifying, explanations and defensiveness. This partner is covertly controlling. This system seems to work until the compliant partner becomes angry at the lack of reciprocity or the dominating partner becomes bored with the compliant partner.

The dominating-dominating system.

In this system, both partners are using overt forms of control. There tends to be a lot of fighting in this system, with each partner being very reactive and blaming the other person for the problems. There may be a lot of juice in this system, due to the intensity of the arguing, but eventually this is quite wearing on both partners.

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The dominating-withdrawal system.

In this system, one partner uses overt forms of control, while the other partner withdraws their love as a form of punishment—a covert form of control. Each partner blames the other: "If only she wasn’t so angry, I wouldn’t withdraw." "If only he didn’t always shut me out, I wouldn’t be so angry." Both are right and both are wrong. They are right in that each of them can change the system by learning to love themselves and share their love. They are wrong in that they each came into the relationship with their learned ways of controlling, and the other person doesn’t cause them to react the way they do.

The dominating-resistant system.

In this system, one is overtly controlling while the other goes into resistance to being controlled. Again, each generally blames the other for the problems in the relationship.

The compliant-compliant system.

In this system, both people try to gain approval by people-pleasing. This is generally a calm system and may look like a loving system, but when the giving has an agenda, it’s a covert form of control. This system generally lacks the juice necessary for true intimacy.

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The withdrawal-withdrawal system.

In this system, both people have cut their losses and shut down. They don’t want to leave and be alone, but the system is too unsafe to be open and honest with each other.

The loving system.

A loving system evolves in a relationship when each person takes responsibility for loving themselves and filling themselves with love to share with each other. In a loving system, each partner is focused on kindness toward themselves and each other. They want their own highest good and the highest good of their partner. In conflict, they are both open to learning about themselves and each other, utilizing conflict as a learning arena. Neither tries to dominate the other into caving in and giving themselves up. Both stay open to learning with whatever comes up between them. They feel safe in sharing their feelings and needs with each other.

In a loving system, because learning and growth are important to each person, the relationship stays alive. Their attraction for each other grows through the new learning that is always occurring within themselves and with each other. They have fun together, they are secure in knowing that the other person has their back, and intimacy flourishes.

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