Understanding Relationship Dynamics: Common Patterns and How to Fix Them

3 common power dynamics in relationships and how to change them
by Paired
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare
relationship dynamics

Your relationship dynamics can impact everyday interactions and how you resolve conflict with your partner. Couple dynamics can be strong and healthy, while other dynamics can be harmful to one or both of you. 

Understanding your relationship dynamics can help you repair issues or determine if your relationship is worth saving. Here’s a guide to relationship dynamics and what they may mean for you and your partner.

What is the meaning of relational dynamics?

Relationship dynamics are the patterns of behavior between two people that impact how they interact, communicate, and relate. A healthy relationship dynamic fosters trust, communication, compassion, and equality. An unhealthy dynamic can lead to anger, resentment, and emotional distance. Relationship dynamics can be present between any two people, such as partners, family members, friends, and even co-workers.

The dynamics of a relationship can be most easily noticed through repeating patterns or predictable outcomes, such as getting into the same type of argument over and over again, because a similar primary or deeper emotion is being touched repeatedly. 

“Often individuals will have consistent self-protective behaviors when deeper emotions are touched, and these behaviors often drive a cycle of disconnection forward for couples, families, or even friends,” explains Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Relationship Expert at Paired. 

“These protective patterns of behaviors often bring in this dance of who has the power, because when we sense danger, we reach for safety, and for many, this means trying to feel in control again,” Seeger DeGeare continues. 

“If something is feeling out of control — such as your partner's behavior — your brain perceives this as ‘scary’ and you might do whatever within reason to you at that moment to make things calm and connected again. The problem is many of us didn’t have healthy communication modeled for us, so as we grasp for stability, we often shift the dynamics of our relationships into a dance of power, or who is right and who is wrong.”

What are some relationship dynamics?

The three most common relationship dynamics are demand and withdrawal, distancer and pursuer, and fear and shame. Each of these dynamics can cause one or both partners to feel like their needs and well-being are not cared for.

If not improved, these relationship dynamics can cause hurt and discord between partners. Your relationship dynamic often relates to how you and your partner attached to primary caregivers growing up. 

What are unhealthy dynamics in a relationship?

Unhealthy dynamics in a relationship are when anger, resentment, control, and emotional distance are present in your relationship. You or your partner might notice unhealthy couple dynamics most often through repeating patterns, such as having the same argument again and again or feeling constantly criticized. To get back into attunement with each other, repair after a conflict is essential. 

Why it’s important to know your relationship dynamics

Being aware of your couple dynamics can help you gain clarity and empowerment about what’s working well and what isn’t in your relationship. Knowing your dynamic can give you clues about how to foster healthy communication and conflict resolution. 

Much of the way we interact and relate to others is linked to how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to our primary caregivers growing up. The more love and harmony we have with ourselves, the more likely we are to reflect these same tendencies in our relationships. 

Relationship dynamic types

While each relationship is unique, there are common dynamic types that can be seen across relationships. Many times, these dynamics come to the forefront during challenges, uncertainties, and stressors. You might sense difficult dynamics more often when dealing with topics such as the amount of sex in your relationshiparguments about money, or differences in your parenting approach. 

Here are the three main relationship power dynamics and how to improve each. 

Demand and withdrawal

A demand/withdrawal dynamic occurs when one person feels that their needs are not being met and their partner is ignoring their requests. The demander can feel as if they’re always asking for something, while the withdrawer is avoiding the requests, consciously or subconsciously. 

They may even be avoiding it as an act of rebellion, such as not doing the laundry or taking out the trash. When a demand/withdrawal pattern occurs, emotional discord and frustration often happen. There is a lack of clear communication, expressed needs, and boundaries. 

How to improve the dynamic: Make sure that each partner’s needs are clearly stated and agreed upon. Both people should feel that it’s a safe, trusted place to share their needs without judgment. Ideally, each partner should commit to working on ensuring that the other’s needs are being met. 

Distancer and pursuer

A distancer/pursuer dynamic can emerge when the relationship is one-sided. This dynamic is often rooted in your or your partner’s attachment style and how you bonded with a primary caregiver in your childhood. If a primary caregiver was not emotionally supportive and validating, it can result in fears of rejection, abandonment, and isolation. 

How to improve the dynamic: Focus on feeling secure within yourself and telling your younger self that you are worthy of love. As you embrace yourself more, you may start to focus more on your own happiness, than seeking it out from a partner. If a partner is used to being distant, encourage them to try opening themselves up to more intimate moments, such as sharing about a turning point in their lives or what makes them feel the most loved. Learn about each other’s love languages and try to show love in the way they want, not how you want. 

Fear and shame

When one partner is fearful or anxious about receiving love or sharing their emotions, a power imbalance often happens where one partner feels hurt or shamed. In turn, this can lead to emotional outbursts and anger. Most of the time these dynamics link back to unresolved childhood trauma and how a person was attached to a primary caregiver during their formative years.

How to improve the dynamic: Identify the triggers of fear and shame, such as needing space during an argument, or having a place to share your emotions without judgment. Embrace what the other person needs and realize it has to do with their past, not about you and how they feel about you. Fostering a relationship of trust and safety is essential to calming fears and anxieties. 

How to change relationship dynamics

No matter the dynamic in your relationship, it can be helpful to improve your couple dynamics so you both feel seen, heard, and understood. You want your needs to be met and to meet the needs of your partner. 

Turn toward your partner with kindness

One of the most common and damaging dynamics in a long-term relationship is when partners stop being kind to each other, according to Adam Smithey, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Certified Gottman Therapist. 

Smithey says lack of kindness can come in different forms, such as ignoring a partner’s needs or turning away from opportunities to connect. Instead of listening to your partner or taking the time to ask about their day, you might scroll on social media or watch a TV show. While sometimes we all need a break or to tackle an important work email, we must make a habit of turning toward our partner. 

“In more ingrained and damaging patterns, lack of kindness may present as criticism and contempt,” says Smithey. It can send the message that being together isn't good enough. He says that the best way to curb this is to act like you’re friends.

“Next time your partner gets on your nerves, or can’t seem to get their dirty clothes in the laundry basket — treat them as a friend by being kind, gentle, and giving them grace. No one can get it right all the time.”

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Communicate your needs and feelings

Unfortunately, neither person in your relationship is a mind reader, making it necessary to state your feelings and needs. One approach Smithey recommends is to use a communication formula: I feel (insert emotion word) … when you (fill in what they did that bothered you), and I need (fill in your need).

Using “I feel” statements allows you to share how you are feeling and what you need from your partner in the situation. 

You might say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed about the laundry piling up. It would mean a lot if you could put your clothes away.” Or “I feel hurt when I come home from work and don’t acknowledge me with a hug or kiss. I need a moment of connection after we’ve been away from each other.” 

When our needs are met, we feel safer and more connected to one another.

See things from your partner’s point of view

Take time regularly to understand where your partner is coming from, and why they feel the way they do. Oftentimes, it has more to do with them and their past, than you. Try to acknowledge their views and emotions. By doing so, you show empathy and foster emotional connection. 

Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to take a moment to see things from your perspective, too. Explain why you feel the way you do, perhaps based on how a parent did things to you, or why something is challenging. When a partner understands and can be compassionate, they expand their ability to care for you. 

Set and respect boundaries

Perhaps your partner never had space to process their emotions growing up or lived in an unstable emotional environment. Maybe as an adult, they must have days or evenings where they spend time alone, reading or painting. Maybe you need time to be with your friends without your partner tagging along. 

When you both are in a calm headspace, talk about what limits or needs you have, and try to understand where your partner is coming from too. This is a chance to learn more about your partner and what they need to feel secure and happy in a relationship. 

Have fair fighting rules

While disagreements come up in every relationship, how you go about those discussions is important. Consider setting ground rules for arguments, such as no name-calling or sticking with “I feel” statements instead of “you” statements. If you or your partner seem overheated or emotional, consider taking breaks and discussing the situation later once you’ve had a chance to calm down. 

Why change your relationship dynamics?

Negative cycles in a relationship can cause hurt, harm, and discord with your partner. It can lead to an emotional and physical disconnect. A partner might seek connection and affirmation somewhere else, leading to further disconnect, maybe even a dissolution of the relationship.

Understanding your dynamic and working to communicate your needs and wants helps ensure that you’re giving your relationship the power and focus it needs to thrive. 

When to seek help

Most romantic relationships can benefit from concentrated effort or even professional help from a therapist. If you notice deep feelings of hurt, disconnection, anger, or frustration, consider talking with a couples therapist.

Other signs that you might benefit from outside help are if you experience a diminished sex life, infidelity, or lack of emotional intimacy

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