Basic Relationship Styles

Marriage experts identify three primary relationship styles that are common in our culture. Although sometimes different terms are employed, these three types of relationships are typically known as complimentary, symmetrical, and parallel. For existing marriages the style has already been established and it generally remains static throughout the relationship. However, awareness of the various styles will aid in understanding some of the dynamics in your relationship and focus on the positives to strengthen your marriage.

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Complimentary Relationships

The conventional wisdom that “opposites attract” basically describes the idea behind complimentary relationships. This style is based on the maximization of differences between spouses. Personality traits, backgrounds, life experiences, or other qualities that are mostly opposite from each other characterize this relationship type. Such relationships generally form because it is perceived that the opposing characteristics or experiences of the two individuals complement, supplement, or provide balance to one another.

One positive aspect of a complimentary style of relationship is that it provides the opportunity for some of the needs of each person to be met. However, the same opposing qualities that initially attract two people to one another have potential later in the relationship to be the source of contention or discord. While it’s true for many that “opposites attract”, it’s also an eventual reality for some that “differences divide”.

It is not uncommon for two people with different traits, qualities, and experiences to become attracted to and marry one another. This can be a good thing when it brings a sense of completeness to the relationship. The important thing is to focus on the strengths. Understanding and insight into this dynamic will help you to avoid the potential negative perceptions that can threaten the complimentary relationship style.

Symmetrical Relationships

By contrast, symmetrical relationships are based on the minimization of differences between spouses. This idea is sometimes expressed by the phrase “birds of a feather flock together”. Couples who are attracted to one another primarily due to perceived similarities regarding personality traits, backgrounds, life experiences, and other qualities likely have a symmetrical relationship. These relationships generally develop because it is felt – either consciously or unconsciously – that such similarities are important in the process of developing relatedness, mutuality, bondedness, stability and so forth.

There are certainly beneficial elements of symmetrical relationships. Some important areas of similarity or agreement typically translate to better marital adjustment and satisfaction. Such areas are often related to having similar backgrounds and life experiences. They include moral values, religious beliefs and affiliation, political ideology, views on family and home life, and others. This does not mean that marriages which are not in perfect agreement in all of these areas are necessarily doomed for failure. But, those who enjoy harmony in most or all of these areas often have a significant advantage.

The symmetrical style of relationship is not without potential problems, however. When commonality is viewed as extremely important to one or both spouses and the relationship is based – to a significant degree – on this understanding then certain expectations naturally develop. When differences come to the surface – which is inevitable since no two people are identical in every way – it can be a disappointing and frustrating experience. In some cases, it is may even be viewed as a threat to the stability of the relationship. It can be particularly distressing when symmetrical couples discover that they don’t agree on some matters that are perceived to be extremely important to them.

As with the complimentary style – which also has both pros and cons – the important thing is to focus on the positive aspects. Use the natural similarities between one another to strengthen the marriage. But, also be aware of the potential for disappointment when differences arise and be prepared to work through these situations in a positive manner.

Parallel Relationships

Parallel relationships are based upon a synthesis of both complimentary and symmetrical styles. In other words, it is a blend of the best of both worlds. Parallel relationships incorporate symmetrical aspects in that they rely upon important similarities such as sharing common set of principles emotionally, morally, spiritually, and in other ways. This forms a solid basis of comfort and security upon which the relationship can grow. However, parallel relationships also include components of complimentary relationships such as differences in personality, interests, abilities and strengths. This provides for balance in the relationship and the potential fulfillment of previously unmet needs.

For the above reasons, parallel relationships are considered interdependent in nature. Each spouse emphasizes the merits of identity as a couple. However, they also recognize the need to maintain their own identity separate from the marriage. Each mate values and celebrates not only the common characteristics that form cohesion in the relationship, but also the distinctive, unique qualities that bring a sense of completeness to the union. They value the partnership without losing a healthy sense of self.

These paradoxical dynamics also allow for the development of practical boundaries, mutual accountability, and shared responsibility for the maintenance of the relationship. There is a strong emphasis on both participants being equal partners. In this way parallel relationships enjoy a high degree of mutuality or mutual dependence.

Kirk VanOoteghem serves as Executive Pastor of River of Life in Muncie, Indiana.  He has many years of experience as a marriage counselor and educator and is the founder of MarriageMoment.org – an online ministry dedicated to protecting and strengthening marriages.

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