Runners vs. clingers

I got the concept recently from one of my advisors, and I have both run with it and clung to it, you might say.

In the realm of sexual relationships (I am thinking of heterosexual relationships, which is what I know, but I suppose a similar distinction would apply to homosexual relationships), people are either runners or clingers. As the names imply, runners run away from relationships quite easily, even ones that most people would consider pretty normal and good, whereas clingers stick to them, sometimes even to ones most people would consider pretty abnormal and bad.

Doing a bit of off-the-cuff sociobiology, I deduce that we humans have evolved to be clingers in the majority; were it not so, males and females would not stick to each other long enough to have babies and raise families. Runners are therefore somewhat rare, and their behavior can therefore be difficult to understand and anticipate.

As you know from a previous post, I am currently helping a friend skip the devestation of his breakup. Both of our relationships started at almost the same time, and both of them ended at about the same time (albeit mine ended after a brief relapse of unofficial something-or-otherness that came after a seven-month hiatus, whereas his ended after solid stretch of many months). Both of our SOs were runners.

The end of my friend’s relationship came when his request for relationship clarification was pounced on and blown out of proportion in the way one does when one is intentionally looking for the Big Fight. Her method of breaking up was to leave an incoherent note in his apartment with her engagement ring atop it.

My SO used a somewhat similar method. Although just days before she had called her mother without any prompting from me to tell her we were getting married, one night she picked a fight, demanded to be taken to her car that was parked in a different location, and expressed her desire to commit suicide. In other words, she consciously or unconsciously behaved so poorly as to ruin the relationship and have an excuse to leave. She was gone a few days later (admittedly, with considerable help from me, as she seemed truly psychotic and dangerous at that point).

This was not my first experience dating a runner. I had dated a Chinese woman while I was in graduate school. She literally ran from me on several occasions for reasons I think most people would consider insubstantial (one time she bolted from the car because I had, in her view, insulted Chinese people. Merrillville, Indiana, however, is a good distance from West Lafayette, Indiana, and I was able to coax her back). Her method of breaking up with me was to tell me of a trip she was taking to North Carolina to visit another man.

In my mind, however, I simply identified this person as “nuts,” failed to acquire for future use the concept of the runner, and therefore failed to avoid involvement in a similar situation. Runners can indeed seem crazy inasmuch as their behavior seems abnormal and self-destructive to us clingers, but it’s important to identify their particular characteristics and avoid getting in relationships with them. Why? Because there is almost no way to make a relationship with a runner work. Thus:

How to identify and understand a “runner.”

1. They’ve run before. They’ve been in big-R relationships and not stuck around to try to make them work. Look especially for literal running away: I “saved” my SO from her bad boyfriend by moving her out of their apartment when he was working the night shift. My friend’s SO had been living with another man mere weeks before she met my friend and got engaged to him.

2. They see themselves as victims. Runners externalize the causes of their behavior. They don’t know that they are runners, and to them their running is just a normal response to situations in which they are the victims. Although my SO did not think of herself as a runner (like me and most of us, she didn’t have that concept in the first place), as a highly intelligent woman she nevertheless perceived that she was not always acting in a normal and productive way within the relationship.

3. They make and break big promises without hesitation. My friend and his SO were engaged within a month of getting married. My SO and I also decided to get married, have a family, etc., within weeks, perhaps just days of her moving in.

As Paul Simon tells us, there are fifty ways to leave your lover, and some of them can be pretty base and mean. It is not, however, the crudeness with which runners leave that makes them runners. A person who gets sick of a relationship after several months and “slip[s] out the back, Jack,” is a coward, maybe, but not necessarily a runner. What distinguishes runners is that they go “all in” and then quit the game without following what most of us would consider proper rules of play.

In my case, I felt (and she agreed) that we had a pretty incredible thing going on; we had identified each other as soul mates and partners for life, admitted our fears of abandonment, and explicitly promised that we would never leave each other because of our deep love and concern for each other. In fact, she told me that I would have to do a series of incredibly awful things to her just to make her consider it. We had had our issues, there were aspects of the relationship that caused me considerable pain and concern (see below), but there was absolutely nothing that I didn’t think we could work through.

4. They’re disloyal, dishonest, and not open about their thoughts and feelings. I had “saved” my SO from her awful druggie boyfriend, but she nevertheless kept calling him to console him, etc. His number remained on her speed dial. After we broke up, she eventually got back together with him. Never before had I been in a relationship in which I worried about what my SO was doing (the relationship with the Chinese woman was so short that I learned of her disloyalty as it was ending), but on this relationship there was always a negative electric charge of uncertainty and fear. There were times when she seemed extremely unhappy but could never talk about it honestly.

My friend’s SO denied to various of her friends that they were engaged. She canceled their wedding plans suddenly, and the topic of marriage became taboo. She made vacation plans for herself without consulting him, and so on.

Runners do not necessarily plot against their SOs in a conscious fashion. They often seem out of touch with their own motives and goals.

5. They keep you hungry. Almost by definition, a runner needs you less than you need him or her. They are often chary of verbal and physical affection and use withholding it as a weapon against you.

6. They fool you with their good qualities. Both my friend and I had felt we had met the most beautiful and brilliant woman we had ever met. My SO is probably the most intelligent, perceptive, and deep woman I have ever met. It was simply beyond my capacity for belief that such a person could behave as she did. This is why it is so important to understand the concept of the runner, lest you be fooled and crushed.

If you’re with a runner, run. Or prepare to be run from.

I think it would take a big, long-term psychological study of the runner type to see if they can eventually overcome what makes them runners and find stable relationships, but my guess is that the prognosis is poor. Runners have big psychological problems that make them act as they do. I will omit the details, but my friend’s SO and mine both had some pretty scary patterns of behavior that implied bipolar or some similar issue. The trouble is that, as stated above, runners weave their problems into a narrative of victimization and often cope well enough that they do not hit rock bottom in such a way that would warrant forcible treatment (i.e., institutionalization). Further, because they run once fairly minor problems ensue, they are not with loved ones long enough so as to be influenced to get help.

How long can a relationship last with a runner? Mine lasted about two months at first with continued communication after that and a three-week relapse recently (albeit mostly as a long-distance relationship). My friend’s relationship lasted nine months; however, she canceled the wedding plans after just six months, and the relationship deteriorated pretty quickly after that. My feeling is that a relationship with a runner will last at most about a year; my own SO was technically married for five years (although how long she was sincerely engaged in that relationship, if she ever was, is open to speculation).

In short, runners manifest such serious character flaws and behavior patterns specifically prone to destroying relationships that by definition they cannot have healthy relationships over the long term. Understanding the concept can help prevent great pain and suffering. I know that I am determined not to make the same mistake again.

(And I will say that I still love this person and find it deeply unfortunate that we could not work things out. She truly is a woman of great brilliance and talent, and my prayer is that she finds true happiness in life.)

UPDATE (9.3.08)

My friend mentioned in the article pointed me in the direction of the Cass Elliot-sung, Laura Nyro-written song from the early 1970s, “He’s a Runner,” which has the following chorus:

He’s a runner. Woman ain’t been born that can make him stay. Woman, get away!

So, the concept certainly isn’t new, but I do think it needs to be more widely known.

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