Relationship Metaphors

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Relationship Metaphors

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily applies to one kind of experience or phenomenon is applied to another, thereby suggesting a similarity or likeness between them. Metaphors have the general form A is B, in which A serves as the metaphor's tenor and B serves as the metaphor's vehicle. Tenors and vehicles can be related explicitly through a declarative sentence, but they often are related implicitly in discourse. For example, a person could say "Dating is a game," in which the tenor, dating, and the vehicle, game, are explicitly related. Alternatively, someone could talk about dating experiences and refer to "winning some and losing some," "the fun of the chase," and "scoring points"—all references that evoke implicitly the vehicle of a game. A relationship metaphor is an expression in which a personal relationship, or some associated experience or emotion, serves as the tenor. Scholarly attention has focused on the various vehicles of relationship metaphors.

Metaphors, including relationship metaphors, function as important mechanisms for the expression of experience and emotion. Andrew Ortony (1975) described three communicative functions of metaphors. First, metaphors allow us to express experiences that are difficult or impossible to describe literally. Second, metaphors are succinct and efficient, affording us an economical means of communication. Third, metaphors communicate the vividness and richness of experience in a manner less easily captured in the literal use of language.

In addition, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), among others, have argued that metaphors are central to the human thought process. Metaphors are not only poetic devices that enable us to communicate about social reality; in addition, they serve as organizing frameworks through which our thoughts about social reality are shaped.

Relationship scholars and practitioners have approached relationship metaphors in three ways. First, they have examined the metaphors used by relationship parties to describe their relationship experiences. Second, they have examined the metaphors of relating employed by researchers and theorists studying relationships. Third, they have employed relationship metaphors as interventions in family therapy contexts to facilitate behavioral change.

Metaphors Used by Relationship Parties

Some scholars have focused on one of the most frequently experienced emotions in the content of personal relationships: love. In one of the most comprehensive studies, Zoltan Kovecses (1988) examined conventional English expressions about love and identified about three dozen metaphors of love, including, among others: love as a journey ("We're at the crossroads."); love as a physical force ("There were sparks."); love as a nutrient ("I can't live without him."); love as unity ("We were made for each other."); love as heat ("She set my heart on fire."); love as sport ("He fell for her hook, line, and sinker."); and love as disease ("He's lovesick.").

Other scholars have examined the metaphors used by relationship parties in capturing specific kinds of relational experiences. Thus, for example, one can describe people's metaphors of interpersonal conflict (McCorkle and Mills 1992), battered women's metaphors for domestic violence (Eisikovitz and Buchbinder 1999), romantic partners' metaphors for relationship development (Baxter 1992), and former partners' metaphors for relationship break-up (Owen 1993).

Metaphors of relationships and relating in general have also been the focus of scholars. Across romantic relationships, marriages, and families, several metaphors frequently appear (Katriel and Philipsen 1981; Owen 1990; Quinn 1991). Relationship as a thing is a common metaphorical image. A thing is a bounded entity, separate from other entities. It is an object whose characteristics supercede the individuals who belong to it. In the context of two-person relationships, this metaphor encourages us to appreciate that there are three parts: "you," "me," and "it." The "it" is the relationship as entity. Relationship entities take on a life of their own, often making the parties feel as if they are responding to a force beyond their control.

Relationship as machine is another common metaphor. Like a machine, relationships have parts that need to be assembled or coordinated through the expenditure of time and energy. Like machines, relationships are oriented toward the output of some manufactured product—typically a stable, satisfactory relational outcome. Relationships, like machines, can break down and need ongoing maintenance and repair work.

Relationship as investment is a third common metaphor. Entailed in this image is the notion that parties invest in the "bank account" of their relationship in order to reap mutual benefits. Parties can stockpile "assets" of affection, they can "make withdrawals" that see them through difficult times, and so forth. Individuals may abandon relationships when the "return on their investment" is deemed unsatisfactory.

Relationship as journey is another typical metaphor used by relationship parties in capturing their relating process. The focus of this metaphor is not outcomes but process—the journey or relational trip itself. Like any journey, relationships are a process of ongoing change and discovery along the way. Detours are taken. Crossroads are encountered where one path is selected instead of alternative paths. The parties may lose sight of their destination, or it may change as a result of where the journey takes them.

Relationship as container is a common metaphorical image. Like containers, relationships have a distinct inside and outside. Containers also imply a stability or permanence of form. Things are kept in containers, and we can similarly refer to the parties who are "in" a relationship. For example, we can refer to being "in" a family. Social services agencies talk of pumping resources "into" the family unit. Containers can function both to protect their "contents" from outside forces and to limit or "box in" those contents.

Finally, parties often invoke the metaphorical image of relationship as living organism. Relationships are perceived to develop in a natural progression from infancy to maturity. They are born, they grow, they mature, they require nurturing, and they can wither and die. Relationships can be vibrant and healthy, or they can be sick.

This list of relationship metaphors is far from exhaustive, but it provides a sense of some of the principle ways in which relationships are figuratively described by the parties involved. Each metaphorical image highlights unique features about the relating process.

Metaphors Used by Relationship Scholars

Metaphors guide thinking, both for relationship parties and for the scholars who study relationships. Thus, some theorists have made a reflexive turn to focus on the metaphors that organize scholars' sense-making of the relating process. Paul Rosenblatt (1994) provides a detailed examination of the various metaphorical images used by family system theorists, identifying five dominant metaphors: family as entity, family as container, family as living entity, family as primary group, and family as machine. Steve Duck (1987) similarly examined the implicit assumptions of personal-relationship scholars through their metaphorical images, identifying three primary metaphors: relationship as film, in which early scenes in a relationship are thought to permit prediction of later outcomes; relationship as horticulture, a view close to the living-organism metaphor discussed above; and relationship as mechanical model, a view similar to the machine metaphor discussed above. Both Rosenblatt (1994) and Duck (1987) note that the metaphors used by scholars function as both lenses and blinders. Metaphors encourage researchers to look in certain ways at relationships, leading to new insights, understandings, and discoveries. At the same time, however, metaphors blind researchers to alternative ways of seeing.

Metaphors and Family Therapy

Family therapists have a long tradition of recognizing the importance of understanding client metaphors of their relationship experiences (Sims and Whynot 1998). The metaphors used by family clients may limit their ability to explore alternative ways of relating more constructively. Family therapists strive to locate new metaphors for families, thereby giving them alternative language with which to construct different ways of being. Sometimes, these metaphors are idiosyncratic to the particular client family. At other times, therapists identify metaphors that can function as useful interventions for a number of families. Linda Wark and Shilpa Jobalia (1998), for example, discuss an intervention with stepfamilies based on the metaphor of building a bridge. Stepfamily development can be plagued with adjustment problems. By framing this process as the construction of a bridge, stepfamily members can temper their desire to rush to instant closeness and understand the slow, step-by-step process required to build a strong family structure.


Are relationship metaphors helpful or harmful to relationship parties? They are neither intrinsically good nor bad but simply inherent in the human experience (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Are some metaphors more accurate than others? This question presumes that a single relationship reality exists as a benchmark against which to assess a given metaphor's adequacy. Relationships are different for different people, and different for the same people from one time to the next. Further, relationships are multifaceted, with many layers of meaning and function. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) suggest a different question to pose about any metaphor: "What does this metaphor illuminate and what does it obscure about relationships?"

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Family and Relational Rules; Family Stories and Myths; Relationship Maintenance; Therapy: Family Relationships


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leslie a. baxter