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Relationship Metaphors

Metaphors Used By Relationship Parties, Metaphors Used By Relationship Scholars, Metaphors And Family Therapy, Conclusion


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.


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships