Relationship Types

I think I often go through life as if other people know stuff that I learned, then I realize that a lot of the arts and humanities were eliminated from American schools in the 1980s and 90s. I hate the idea of ’splaining to other people, but it seems there’s a whole lot about relationships that’s been lost or twisted around in strange ways. So this is a summary of things I learned some time ago.

In anthropology, human relationships are divided into three types: power play, reciprocal, and communal. Each type functions in a different way and bears upon the roles that people play within them. Typically younger people engage in more power play relationships while mature people have more reciprocal and communal relationships. If you believe the people who study such things, all human relating falls under these three relationship types.

Power play relationships involve a power dynamic where one person is ‘dominant’ or the boss and the other person is ‘submissive’ or the subordinate. In theory, the one with the power makes the rules and the one without it follows the rules. This used to be called a “dominance” relationship (and sometimes still is), but closer observations showed that dominance is often a matter of perception. ‘Submissives’ have rules that ‘dominants’ must follow to maintain the relationship, and they also get feelings of power by keeping secrets from the dominant. Each person is actually trying to feel more powerful than the other.

Power play relationships aren’t good for long-term personal relationships because both people are subconsciously battling to control the other and that can lead to outbursts of violence. There’s a lot of drama because of secret keeping, emotional dishonesty, and the idea that dominance and submission are natural traits rather than roles. Young people with raging hormones often like the playful feelings of power that can be had in such relationships, but then those feelings spiral out of control. The person must then reprogram their serotonin to respond to more stable kinds of relationships.

Reciprocal relationships are fairly straight forward. They involve reciprocity: the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. In the 1980s in America, many workplaces moved toward a teamwork model that involved more reciprocity in getting things done. The employees had more freedom and were treated like adults, which allowed bosses to spend less time setting rules and exacting punishments. While still paid lip-service, teamwork has kind of changed and most workplaces in America these days engage in retrogressive boss-subordinate relating. People hate their jobs again.

Reciprocal relationships are good for getting things done, but they often lack deeper passion. People who marry for comfort or money, and make sure everything is equal, often end up shagging the pool boy or maid because the animal magnetism has been negotiated out of their main relationship. Another problem with a reciprocal marriage relationship, is that once the woman has a child, there’s nothing a man can ever do to even it up (except maybe slave the rest of his life away for them).

Communal relationships are built around a mutual desire to build and maintain a sense of community. The best friendships are usually this kind of relationship because there isn’t much judgement about how much or how little someone brings to the community as long as they offer something and make an effort. This is the most stable form of relationship that has the most room for growth and creating an honest friendship. After a communal connection is established, the widest range of roles to get things done is possible with the understanding that the role is a choice, not a personality type.

Communal relationships function the best for romantic relationships and marriage because the people are consciously coupling (yes, I hate that term too but it’s accurate). They can choose all matter of roles to play with each other, and they can even agree to engage in the other two relationship types to get things done. There can be date nights or vacations to spice things up where he’s the pirate and she’s the damsel, or she’s the scientist and he’s the janitor, before getting back to being real with each other. So you don’t get stuck in one boring trope because someone said you are a ‘natural’.

I’ve heard it said that most relationship angst comes from not knowing what kind of relating you are engaging in or mixing one type with the other type. I don’t know about that, but this is good knowledge to have if you are creating characters and dialogues in your writing.

Here’s a 10 minute white board talk that elaborates on some of these ideas:


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