The Four Types of Relationships cover image

The Four Types of Relationships

Dorian Minors • February 13, 2014

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

All relationships are characterised by at least one major function. Knowing the different types of relationship and the major functions that characterise them is very important in identifying what roles people have in your life and how to manage them. Once you can do that, you can start to figure out which people are taking a toll on you and which areas you are lacking in.

With this knowledge, you can make the changes in your social life you need to live the kind of life you want. There are relationships based on need, exchange, worth, and power. Understanding what this means and which types of relationships you have in your life will help you become the master of your social network's growth and the satisfaction it brings you.

Communal Sharing - Relationships Based on Need

These are the most valuable and arguably the most valued relationships. People in this sort of a relationship will help each other with no real expectation of reward and often without any feeling of obligation. You tend to have these relationships with your family, your close friends and your romantic partners. You wouldn't necessarily expect your parents to ask for petrol money when they give you a lift to the train station. You probably wouldn't expect your best friend to make up for the fact that you stayed up all night chatting to them because they were upset.

No, these relationships rely on an element of reciprocity. You will give and give and give when you are needed, but it's done with the knowledge that they would give and give and give when you needed.

Equality Matching - Relationships Based on Exchange

These relationships are built around a trade. Basically it's the idea that I'll do this for you, if you do this for me. You have these relationships with shopkeepers, business partners or acquaintances from school or work. Maybe you give a Uni friend a lift home every Wednesday because she sends you her assignments when she's done. Maybe you and a workmate cover each other's shifts.

These relationships can become quite complicated and lines can easily be blurred, so it's quite common to see these develop into more communal relationships (see above), or degenerate into ones based on worth (see below). The key is that these relationships would probably end if the trade was stopped by one or both people.

Market Pricing - Relationships Based on Worth

Put simply, these relationships are about what one party can get out of the other. What value does that person have and how can I use it? This kind of a relationship is not equal, there is no clear 'win-win'. Often one party believes that it's a communal or an exchange relationship, while the other party is exploiting them. Sometimes, it can be more functional, for example in a mentor-student style partnership.

However, when partners in this sort of relationship are unaware of the value being given away or traded in an unequal way, it can be very distressing for them once they find out.

Authority Ranking - Relationships Based on Power

These are the relationships you have with your boss at work, the police or your university lecturer. The two of you interact regularly, but only because one person has some kind of authority, or power over the other. You may be friendly, but these people are rarely your friends. Simply, someone who you are in charge of or is in charge of you.

We often mix these relationships with other kinds. Our parent for example, or our siblings. Our bosses and colleagues might mix in elements of exchange relationships. But the key here is to follow the power. Power in relationships can determine how we feel about the things they do to us


The implications of these relationship types are pretty large. Obviously the best and most satisfying relationships are those that are communal. But there is value (or necessity) in all relationship types. In fact, many of your closer relationships draw from these different models at different times.

The key is to knowing which relationships fall distinctly into these categories. We can then determine which ones have become negative and cut them out. Someone draining your value in a relationship based on worth? Or maybe someone doesn't seem to give you anything, but they're always taking from you? Get rid of them, or limit their ability to drain you.

Focus instead on building quality communal relationships and valuable exchange relationships so that your social circle is benefiting you more, everyday.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.