Relationship Styles

Relationship Styles

Before we learn specific strategies on how to improve our relationship skills, it will be helpful to first learn about the different relationship styles that people have in the first place.

Moving Toward, Moving Away, or Moving Against

Karen Horney(1966) was one of the first psychologists to categorize the different ways people tend to relate to other people. Horney noticed that people tend to relate to others in three distinct ways: Moving towards people, moving away from people, and moving against people. All three ways of relating to other people can be appropriate, depending on the situation. If you need help with something, it makes sense to “move towards” someone (in other words, reach out for assistance). However, if someone is mistreating you, it makes sense to “move away” from that person; in other words, terminate the relationship. In addition, if someone is mistreating someone else, it makes sense to “move against” that person; in other words, initiate conflict with that person to challenge, confront, or correct inappropriate behavior.

Not surprisingly, Horney found that socially effective people not only use a balance of all three approaches, but they also know when use to each approach. For example, they know when it’s appropriate to move towards someone, when it’s appropriate to move away from someone, and when it’s appropriate to move against someone.

However, Horney also noticed that some people have the tendency of over-using one of these three approaches. For example, some people only know how to “move towards” others, even when they should learn to handle some things on their own. In other words, they become too needy, too clingy, and too dependent. In addition, some people only know how to “move away” from others. In other words, they avoid both commitment and conflict at all costs. Finally, some people only know how to “move against” others. In other words, they constantly pick fights that serve no purpose. In short, some people are too dependent, some people are too avoidant, and some people are too oppositional. Instead of using an appropriate balance of all three approaches, people who have been traumatized tend to adopt just one of these tendencies as their default. Instead of having three ways of dealing with people, they now only have one!

Passive, Aggressive, and Passive-Aggressive

There’s another way to distinguish relational styles that also involves three categories: passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive. To be passive means that you do not speak up when other people take advantage of you. Passive means you are operating from a lose / win perspective: You let some else get their way, while your wants and needs get sacrificed. The opposite of passive is aggressive. To be aggressive means that you take advantage of someone else. Sometimes aggression can even include physical or verbal belligerence. Aggressive means you are operating from a win / lose perspective: You get your way, even at the expense of someone else’s wants or needs.

As the term suggest, passive-aggressive is a compromise of sorts between these two extremes. To be passive-aggressive means that you get back at someone (which leans towards aggression), but you do it in a way that is indirect (which leans towards passivity). An example of passive-aggressive behavior might be spreading rumors about someone. On one hand, you are not acting completely passively, which would mean doing nothing at all. On the other hand, you are also not cussing them out or stabbing them with pencils, which would be aggression. Rather, you are somewhere in the middle on the spectrum ranging from passive to aggressive.

Sometimes it might be appropriate to be passive. For example, not all battles are worth fighting. If someone cuts you off in traffic, it might not do much good to retaliate with road rage. In addition, sometimes it might be appropriate to be aggressive. For example, I one for one would become quite aggressive if I ever witnessed a child getting abused. And sometimes it might even be appropriate to be a little passive-aggressive. For example, if you are really frustrated with someone else’s incompetence, it might be better to just mutter under your breath than to shout at full volume exactly what’s on your mind!

However, some people adopt one of these three tendencies as their default. They tend to be too passive, too aggressive, or too passive-aggressive. And even though all three approaches are different, they have one thing in common: They are also ineffective when over-used! How so? The answer is easier than you might think.

Remember that passivity operates from a lose / win perspective? And remember that aggressiveness operates from a win / lose perspective? And remember that passive-aggressiveness is a compromise between those two extremes? Well, unfortunately, not all compromises are good ones. The reality is that passive-aggressive is the worst of both worlds, since passive-aggressive operates from a lose / lose paradigm: No one gets their needs met. In short, all three approaches require at least one loser! And no relational strategy will be effective in the long run if the relationship requires up front that at least one of the parties will not get their needs met.


So now what? What’s the missing link here? Is there any effective relational strategy? Is there any way to have a positive balance between moving towards, moving away from, and moving against? Is there any way to have a positive compromise between acting too passive versus acting too aggressive? Indeed there is. It’s called being assertive! Assertiveness is a positive compromise between passive and aggressive for this simple reason: Assertiveness operates from a win / win perspective. Assertiveness means that my wants and needs are important…AND so are yours!

Remember that DBT is all about balance? Well assertiveness is a concept which represents balance in relationships. To be assertive means that sometimes you move towards people, sometimes you move away from people, and sometimes you move against people—but you do it with the right balance. And what is that balance? The only way to maintain that balance is to constantly factor in both your perspective as well as the perspective of others.

So now that we have learned this fancy new concept, how do we actually implement it? So glad you asked! In the coming blog posts, you will learn specific strategies for implementing assertiveness. The main tool you will be learning is DEAR Adult. This tool will teach you how to assert your perspective, how to appreciate someone else’s perspective, and how to apologize when you cause hurt or harm.