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Relationship Metaphors

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.


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