Home » Topics » Couples Counseling

The Four Styles of Marital Relationships - Balance the Styles and Improve Your Relationship

Not too long ago I was talking to a friend about a young couple we know. I was saying how cute they are, being young and in love. Although they are in their twenties, they are like two teenagers, she hangs on to his every word, and he follows her around like a puppy dog. My friend was much more cynical. She said that they are in trouble. You can't have a marriage like that. She is too dependent on him. She goes out of her way to be home when he comes home. He gets anxious when she comes home late. My friend said that they are on the road to self destruction.

My friend has a point. My friend has been married for quite a few years, and has two children. If she were to run her life in the same way as the young couple she might be in big trouble. So who is right? Am I correct in saying that they have a healthy relationship, or is my friend right in saying that they have an unbalanced relationship? Or maybe we are both right? Or maybe even both wrong?

Obviously not a simple question. To really understand what makes up a healthy marital relationship, we need to get a good idea of the types of relationships.

The young couple was showing signs of being "in love." We all know what that means, though many do not know what that does not mean. Being in love does not necessarily mean that you have the full repertoire of love or loving behaviors. It really means being infatuated (hugging) and it is only one of four basic styles of relationships.

The 4 Styles of Romantic Relationships:

The four styles are called...

  1. Hugging
  2. Supporting
  3. Leaning
  4. Standing


The names are taken from exercises illustrating the styles. You can try it yourself. Take a partner and hug each other. This is illustrative of that infatuation relationship. "I love you. I need you. Hold me and tell me that you'll never let me go!"

It is stuff of teenage music. It is certainly not a bad thing. In fact, as we get older we often long for those days, early in our relationship when the fire was burning and the feeling of always wanting our partner powered each waking moment. It is the feeling of holding each other tight.

But what happens when we are always holding each other tight? How will it feel when one side wants to go in one direction and the other partner in a different direction? There is a great danger of feeling abandoned and lonely. If the hugging is so successful that you feel like one entity, there is a danger of losing a real part of your "self."


But you might say, "infatuation doesn't even last for a long time. It fades away after a few months or a year." That's true. Most people change their relationship style. Some faster, and some slower, but it does happen. So we need to understand the other styles.

The second is called supporting. This is when one side of the couple supports the other. I worked with a couple like this. He is good at his job and likes it, but is not interested in much else, and she is really good at running the finances, the house, the social life, etc.

While it was a great arrangement at the beginning of the marriage, this type of relationship became the only way that they related to each other. She supported him in all of the tasks that he didn't really want to do, just because she was actually better at most things. She would call all the shots, in every area of life that they shared.

She actually liked to be in charge, so they could not see anything wrong with this style of life. But it became a burden. She complained that he had it easy and all of the work of running their life, except for bringing in the dough, was on her. When she said that he felt like a heavy load on her back I asked them to play out the roles in reverse. I suggested that he get on his hands and knees and for her to take off her shoes and stand on his back and asked her if that would illustrate the way she feels. Would it give him a feeling of what it felt like to be in her position?

She agreed and was eager to show him what it is like. They did it and I asked them what it felt like. On the bottom, he said that she was a bit heavy, and he certainly could not do it for long. Did he feel safe? He said yes. He wasn't going to do anything wild, but since he was in control, nothing much would happen to him besides getting very tired.

What about her? I did not have to ask her how she felt. She wanted off right away. She was scared. He could move too fast and she would fall. She was afraid that he would get up and she could fall and break her neck. I asked her, "If you had to stay there what would you need him to do?" She answered, "I would do everything I could to keep him in that position so I wouldn't wind up on the floor."

Is this the way he felt in the relationship? Well, yeah. In fact, the one who is being supported is in a much more precarious position. The side that is doing the supporting gets tired, but the side that is being supported lives with more anxiety.


Now you will tell me, "Nobody wants to be supported. We are supported by our parents when we are children, but we don't want our partners to be our parents. But we all need someone we can lean on."

I'll tell you, "Let's try it!"

Take your partner and stand facing each other. Put your hands on your partner's hands, palm on palm. Lean on your partner and take a few steps backwards. It is not as bad as hugging; after all you can look around, learn new things, and talk to other people.

It is not as bad as supporting since you are both equal, nobody is being taken advantage of.

But do you feel safe?

What will happen if one partner decides to walk away? The other will fall flat on his or her face. Not a good scene.


So we come to the last metaphor: standing.

Each partner is standing on his or her own two feet and they are holding hands. This is the ideal for a good relationship. Or is it? Each partner can decide to go and do what he or she wants and the other is not going to fall or be damaged. They can share both good and bad experiences. The trick is to be standing on your own two feet. So it sounds ideal, right

This is what my friend was talking about in regards to the young couple. They cannot be hugging all the time; they need to stand on their own two feet.

Finding a Balance Between the 4 Styles

But here's the problem: Life is not like that. Life is full of trouble and problems. There are times when we need to be supported. And, yes, we all need someone we can lean on. But not all the time. The trick is not to always lean, but to say, "if you want to, you can lean on me." And life without hugging can get pretty dry and boring. We need some regular dosing of infatuation, adolescent type excitement, even after decades of marriage.

Here’s the solution. We need to use all the styles. There are times when every one of us needs support. Never get stuck in one pattern. Try the exercises and learn to recognize the feelings, and if leaning, supporting or even hugging gets to be too much, take care to alter your patterns.

There are times when you both need to be supported. Make sure you switch off and have times when each of you feels supported.

  • There are times when you need to lean on your partner.
  • When it gets too much and in danger of becoming a regular pattern, add some hugging to the mix.
  • If one of you are feeling smothered from too much hugging, maybe some support is called for.

But the default position, the home base, the goal to get back to is the standing style. Just don’t be afraid to use the others when ever needed.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
I am a professional helper since 1976 and an LCSW since 1991. I have specialized in survivors of trauma. Presently I also have an on-line therapy and coaching practice where I also specialize in helping families and loved ones of ex-abused people. I also am a professor at TCI College in NYC.

Copyright Notice

We welcome republishing of our content on condition that you credit Choose Help and the respective authors. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Creative Commons License

Helpful Reading: