If you’ve ever been in love, you know how great it can feel. When a romantic relationship is going well, you never want it to end. But that bliss doesn’t always last. And when relationships turn sour or end, they have a way of leaving you wondering what went wrong.
What makes a relationship go from great to over? Basically, there are three levels of care that people show for each other in a romantic relationship, and in my view, these levels of care have almost everything to do with whether a relationship succeeds or fails in the long term.
At the first level, individuals meet some of each other’s intimate emotional needs, such as affection, intimate conversation, sexual fulfillment and admiration. At the second level, there is a tentative willingness to provide mutual care, but only as long as the relationship is seen by the individual as being in his or her best interest. The final and highest level of care occurs at the third level, when two people in love decide to commit their care to each other exclusively and permanently – for maximum mutual benefit. When couples reach this level, they have established a romantic relationship that has the potential to last a lifetime.
I categorize those who operate under these three levels as “Freeloaders,” “Renters” and “Buyers.” Each type distinguishes itself from the other in several important ways, but the main point of difference is the quality of care each person is willing to provide to make a relationship mutually fulfilling. Finding out which level you and your significant other are at can help you determine where your relationship is right now, and, more important, where it can go.
Which One Are You?
Evaluating your status requires you to look honestly at your level of investment in your current relationship (and perhaps at your behavior in past relationships) to see whether you are generally more inclined toward one category or another.
Let’s begin with Freeloaders. In the context of this evaluation, a Freeloader isn’t necessarily a bad person. He or she is simply unwilling to put much effort into the care of his or her partner in a romantic relationship. He or she does only what comes naturally and expects only what comes naturally. It’s like a person who lives in a house without paying rent or doing anything to improve the situation (unless he or she is in the mood to do so). If two Freeloaders wind up together, they may have a good time – at least for a while. The same goes for two Renters. But when a Freeloader hooks up with a Renter (or worse, a Buyer), the results can be disastrous.
A Renter is willing to provide limited care as long as it’s in his or her immediate best interest. The romantic relationship is considered tentative, so the care is viewed as limited-term and flexible. It’s like a person who rents a house and is willing to stay as long as the conditions seem fair, or until he or she finds something better. The person is willing to pay reasonable rent and keep the house clean, but is not willing to make repairs or improvements. It’s the “landlord’s” job (and if you’re a Buyer in a relationship with a Renter, that would be you) to keep the place attractive enough for the renter to stay and continue paying rent. Two Renters can spend years together, as long as the boundaries are clear and both individuals are comfortable with the idea of a self-renewing, limited-term lease. But people are unlikely to reach the deepest levels of intimacy or personal growth in a Renter relationship.
Buyers, by contrast, are willing to demonstrate an extraordinary sense of care by making permanent changes in their own behavior and lifestyle in order to make the romantic relationship – presumably with another Buyer – mutually fulfilling. As problems emerge, Buyers seek out long-term solutions, which, by definition, must work well for both partners. It’s like a person who buys a house for life, willing to make repairs that accommodate changing needs – painting the walls, installing new carpet and even doing some remodeling – so that it can be comfortable and useful for the long haul.
Maybe you know from these descriptions which categories you and your partner fall into. In case you’re not sure, I’ve designed a questionnaire to make it easier for you to evaluate your relationship (see page 80). If both you and your partner answer these questions honestly, the results will give you much insight into the way you both approach your relationship. In fact, the answer to each question should spark some discussion, because each will reflect how you’re likely to go about solving (or avoiding) the inevitable challenges you’ll face as your relationship evolves.
So what happens, you may wonder, if you discover that you and your romantic partner are different types? What happens when a Freeloader and a Renter hook up, or a Renter and a Buyer? Here’s a look at a few common scenarios:
Freeloader and Renter
When Brenda (a Freeloader) and Frank (a Renter) began their relationship, Frank did what Renters usually do in the beginning: He sacrificed his own interests to make his partner happy. He told Brenda that he loved her and wished only the best for her. He would expect nothing more than the opportunity to meet her needs. He even expressed his unconditional acceptance of her tendency to do whatever it was she wanted. Brenda, on the other hand, let him know immediately that there was to be no pressure in the relationship. If she did not give him what he wanted, he should find someone else.
How long can this relationship last? Sooner or later this one-sidedness will make Frank unhappy, and he’ll probably begin to demand that Brenda make some sacrifices to even things out a little. When that happens, Brenda will not be pleased: As a Freeloader, she believes that neither partner should owe the other anything.
What happens next? Frank the Renter may try to reverse course and take it all back, but it will be too late, because Brenda will now perceive that Frank expects her to change her ways. Even if Frank relents and decides to play a Freeloader himself for a while, it’s unlikely their romantic relationship will survive long.
Freeloaders rarely remain lovers for extended periods. They always have a bag packed and ready to go, and they typically keep company only until one or the other finds another relationship. If their separation doesn’t cause hard feelings, two Freeloaders may keep in touch and remain “friends.” But in this situation, unless Brenda spontaneously decides to get more invested, she and Frank will never be “balanced.” The resulting conflict will eventually cause one (or both) partners to move on.
Freeloader and Buyer
Freeloaders and Buyers rarely get together in new relationships, but when they do, the Buyer is likely to get seriously burned. The Buyer is exclusively and permanently committed, and the Freeloader is not. He or she may be cheating on the Buyer, or may even be openly pursuing other relationships. (Think of rock stars and their groupies.)
Most often, Freeloader-Buyer combinations are actually remnants of relationships that once connected two Buyers. If a Buyer becomes a Freeloader, it’s usually because he or she had an affair.
The relationship between a Buyer and Freeloader is a disaster for the Buyer. While infidelity is the most obvious problem, simple neglect can also make the relationship impossible for the Buyer: A Freeloader tends to live his or her life as if the Buyer didn’t even exist.
A Buyer can set an example for a Freeloader of how romantic partners should treat each other. But in the end, if a Freeloader is not converted, the Buyer should terminate the relationship to avoid a painful life of neglect and codependence.
Renter and Buyer
This is a classic “I’m talking but you can’t hear me” situation. The problem is that while the Renter’s and Buyer’s perspectives on the relationship are probably quite different, they may think they are headed in the same direction. The Renter has one or more solid reasons why he or she is not interested in becoming a Buyer, but the Buyer believes these reasons are just minor obstacles to be overcome – or waited out.
In a Buyer-Renter relationship, the Buyer can sometimes overcome the less committed approach of the Renter. A good example set by a Buyer can occasionally convert the Renter to the Buyer’s perspective. If that’s not accomplished, though, the relationship will always be hampered by a lack of communication and, most likely, a gradually increasing sense of frustration and strife.
On Becoming A Buyer
Keep in mind that no one is born to be a Freeloader or a Renter for life. And Buyers aren’t born to be Buyers either. It’s primarily the choices a person makes that effectively characterize him or her as Buyer, Renter or Freeloader at any given time. The more mutually invested and caring the choices made by two people, the more Buyer-like the relationship becomes.
The willingness to progress from one level of care to another comes in part, of course, from the power of the connection (chemistry, compatibility) that two people share. But another important component hinges on personal maturity, emotional strength and relationship skills.
If you have been a Renter all your life, trying to survive abusive or dead-end romantic relationships with other Renters, or even if you’ve been a Freeloader shopping around for just the right partner, take heart: Your future can be very different from your past – if you are willing to make some different choices.
Romantic-Relationship Attitudes Questionnaire
Answer True or False to the following 30 questions:
1. If I am getting less than I need from _______ (name of spouse/significant other), it’s reasonable for me to expect him or her to sacrifice his or her happiness for my fulfillment.
2. Romantic relationships require a certain amount of give and take, but what I give to _______ should be worth what I take. In other words, I should be able to get out of this relationship what I put into it.
3. If we are right for each other, _______ will not want me to change.
4. I will be in an exclusive romantic relationship with _______ for life.
5. I am willing to sacrifice my happiness once in a while to satisfy _______ if he or she is willing to sacrifice his or her happiness once in a while to satisfy me.
6. I should do for _______ only whatever comes naturally to me.
7. Our romantic relationship is fatally flawed if _______ does not accept me as I am.
8. The goal of my romantic relationship with _______ is for us both to be happy and fulfilled with each other. For that reason, we must both learn to do everything with each other’s interests and feelings in mind.
9. If _______ expects me to do something in return for his or her care of me, we are probably not right for each other.
10. If what I get in my romantic relationship with _______ isn’t worth what I give, he or she should either give me more, or I should end the relationship to find someone who can give me more.
11. Solutions to the problems that _______ and I face should be long-term solutions that satisfy both of us.
12. _______ should not expect me to have a permanent romantic relationship with him or her.
13. Criticism from _______ should not cause me to try to change my behavior. It should cause me to consider ending our romantic relationship.
14. If _______ has a problem with some aspect of our romantic relationship, we should both work together to find a solution that we can permanently adopt.
15. Even though I am presently in an exclusive romantic relationship with _______, it’s reasonable for me to compare him or her to others who may meet my needs more effectively.
16. _______ and I should learn how to make each other happy without sacrificing our own happiness to do it.
17. It’s reasonable for _______ to expect me to do something in return for what he or she does for me.
18. The decisions that _______ and I make should make both of us happy and fulfilled.
19. If _______ criticizes me, it means that he or she is probably not right for me.
20. A short-term sacrifice may be necessary for me to learn a new habit or create a lifestyle change that accommodates _______ . But if I am not eventually happy with the habit or lifestyle change, I should not continue to make the sacrifice.
21. If _______ criticizes me, he or she simply wants me to give more to compensate for what I am taking from him or her. So it’s reasonable for me to give more to him or her if I feel that he or she is giving enough to compensate me for my effort.
22. If _______ wants me to do things for him or her that I don’t feel like doing, he or she is probably wrong for me.
23. The mutual enjoyment and fulfillment that _______ and I share is more important than what either of us regards as fairness.
24. _______ may be right for me now but may be wrong for me later if he or she meets my needs now but fails to meet them at a later stage of my life.
25. When my needs or those of _______ change, both of us should make adjustments in our habits and lifestyle to accommodate the new needs so that our romantic relationship can be fulfilling to both of us throughout life.
26. _______ should not expect me to have an exclusive romantic relationship with him or her.
27. My romantic relationship with _______ should last as long as I feel it is fair.
28. I should be in an exclusive romantic relationship with _______ only as long as he or she is meeting my emotional needs.
29. If _______ were critical of me, it would indicate that an adjustment of my habits and lifestyle are required until the change would satisfy him or her.
30. If _______ is right for me, he or she will make me happy without my having to put much effort into making him or her happy.
Add up the number of true answers to the following questions: 4, 8, 11, 14, 16, 18, 20, 23, 25 and 29. Then add up the number of true answers for 1, 2, 5, 10, 15, 17, 21, 24, 27 and 28. Finally, add up the number of true answers for 3, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 19, 22, 26 and 30. If the first group has the largest number, you are probably a Buyer. If it’s the second group, then you are a Renter, and if it’s the third, then you are probably a Freeloader. To find out more about the categories and about the keys to a strong marriage, visit www.marriagebuilders.com.