Buyers, Renters and Freeloaders

When it comes to relationships, are you and your partner looking to stay put -or still shopping around?

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.

Mixed-Type Trouble

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.

Buyers, Renters and Freeloaders (Fleming H. Revell, 2002). Dr. Harley is a nationally acclaimed clinical psychologist and marriage counselor. His Web site,, offers practical solutions to almost any marital problem. He lives in White Bear Lake, Minn.

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